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  • Karl Thunemann

My Co-Morbidity Waltz

Amazingly, I first encountered the word “comorbidity” in the spring of 2019, while reading an article about a Canadian study of comorbidity, sleep, and longevity. I puzzled over it mightily until I was summoned to see my sleep doctor—before I finished the article or had even begun to comprehend it.

I returned the next day, and the staff told me I could keep the journal. I pored over it for a few days, and this is what I came to understand: The more comorbidities you have, the shorter your life will be, and the greater the portion of it you will spend in hospitals. * And that’s not all: Sleep also plays an important part in this equation. You might think, the more sleep, the better, but you would be in error. For best results, we should sleep more than seven hours per night, but no more than nine. This certainly caught my attention, prone as I am to rise in the middle of the night to work on my blog, just as I am doing now. (I have set the alarm for 3:30 a.m. If I heed it, I will still have a good shot at seven hours for tonight.)

Reading on, I began to feel like a charlatan, because so much attention was focused on such grave conditions as obesity and diabetes…. Where are my hospital stays?

I thought of all the comorbid diagnoses I live with—is it eight, nine? Some are diagnoses I have made myself, but most are not. It’s so hard to enumerate them. And before I really knew what I was talking about, I knew I would have to write an epistle called “My Co-Morbidity Waltz.” Not literally a waltz. How do you write in three-four time? Being neither poet nor musician, I wouldn’t know. But I refuse to be deterred. As part of a dystopian universe, this waltz would rather mutilate form and rhythm than honor them.

Ideally, this epistle should be read as a call-and-response exercise. Go ahead, invite a friend over. Maybe she can tease out a tune. This introduction has been the call. What follows is the response.

I make that 13—no, it’s 14! –and I’m not positive the list is comprehensive. It’s so hard to count! (I did start with “only” 12, then remembered the final pair.) Perhaps still others will assert themselves, declaring, I will not be ignored! (Now we are back to the call.) Still, when I started fishing for deeper information on the internet, I had to ask whether I might be exaggerating. Reading on, I began to feel like a charlatan, because so much attention was focused on such grave conditions as obesity and diabetes. I do suffer with my comorbidities, but where are my hospital stays? I count only five—as in fünf oder cinq—and none in the last sixty years. On the verge of abandoning my obsession, I posed a very neutral question about comorbidities to my primary care doctor, an internist. She answered calmly that of course as we age we develop more infirmities and ailments, and must tend to them.

Halfway through this epistle, I made a little list for myself of other points I still intended to address. But now I don’t recall them.  Memory loss is Mild Cognitive Impairment at work, underscored by the growing presence of white matter as revealed in a brain MRI.  I will have to to address that MCI diagnosis in a forthcoming post, but it would swell this epistle to a breaking point. Maybe I should make some notes.

I don’t plan to take up each of these conditions separately. While meditating, I usually address them briefly, one by one (e.g., May the plasticity of my brain be maximized and the accumulation of white matter minimized.) But essays on each and every? Talk about tedium! So here’s the closing response to my verbal waltz (just so I won’t forget! ):

Cerebral palsy. Sleep apnea. Myopia. A history of falling. Macular degeneration. The dread Brothers S: sciatica, stenosis, scoliosis, and a sedentary life, all afflicting the spine.  Mild cognitive impairment. (Oh, mild indeed like the cheroots of a misspent youth!) Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Anxiety. And how could we overlook hypertension? Or persistent skin cancers?

I do intend to write about the late, great neurologist Oliver Sacks and the ideal he set forth in his book, A Leg to Stand On. Recovering from a grave accident that mutilated his left leg, in the hospital he realized he was thinking of that leg as wholly separate—not even part of himself. His recovery could proceed only after he set the goal of viewing himself as a unitary being. He could not be reduced to the set of symptoms surrounding his leg.

I have set a similar goal for myself. Enumerating these several sets of symptoms has the effect of locking them in. So here’s my resolution: Comorbidities may plague me, but they are not I. In loving-kindness terms, May I see myself as a unitary being, and find gratitude in every scintilla of success.


* According to the website simple terms, comorbidity refers to the presence of more than one disorder in the same person. For example, if a person is diagnosed with both social anxiety disorder (SAD) and major depressive disorder (MDD), they are said to have comorbid (meaning co-existing) anxiety and depressive disorders. Other conditions that are seen to overlap include physical ailments such as diabetes, cardiovascular illness, cancer, infectious diseases, and dementia. Mental disorders that tend to show comorbidity also include eating disorders, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse.”

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