Learning to embrace hypochondria after my latest hospital escapade
The hardest part of being a hypochondriac is obsessing over imagined symptoms while ignoring the real ailments that wreck your body.
During the time that my wife, Holli, was completing her medical residency at a major Southern university hospital, our days were filled with her long hours at the hospital and my endless hypochondria. Every evening when she returned home exhausted after being on duty at the hospital for twelve hours, I would greet her with some ridiculous imaginary ailment that I was convinced I had acquired. One time, I even asked her to feel my forehead and confirm that it was still there, since I was certeim I was experiencing symptoms of walking corpse syndrome (a disease that makes people believe they are dead or missing their soul, organs, blood, or body parts). I can't say that I was even half joking when I presented her with these absurdities. Confronted by my insatiable need for medical reassurance, she would calmly humor me and confirm that I was not dying. Then she would beg me to let her get some rest.
There is a lot that a hypochondriac can learn from a family member who is a doctor. This is especially true when that family member is studying to be a specialist in infectious diseases. One of Holli’s favorite reads (and mine) was the MMWR – the morbidity and mortality weekly report put out by the Centers for Disease Control. In its early days, the MMWR was known as the Mortality Report --- that should tell you everything you need to know about this publication. It details public health statistics and trends in the leading causes of diseases and death. The report is a treasure trove for a valetudinarian. Holli left her weekly copy of her MMWR on the breakfast table every morning, and I would thumb through it every night, salivating at the number of diseases or misfortunes that may fall upon me should I fail to use my most vigilant efforts at avoiding the plague. It was in the MMWR that I learned about the West Nile Virus, and not a single mosquito was allowed to enter my house after that. I armed myself with every insecticide and mosquito trap known to man, lest I succumb to the mosquito-borne virus. For weeks, I walked around with a fly swatter in hand swatting away at every insect. I’m sure this is what saved me from getting the West Nile Virus (even if Holli thinks otherwise). For clarity, there were zero cases of West Nile Virus reported where we lived, but since when are statistics relevant to the health-obsessed?
I remember spending hours reading and regurgitating a story in the MMWR dealing with the case of a boy who died from eating too much wasabi. As per the MMWR report, “Wasabi contains allyl isothiocyanates, which has an LD50 toxicity of 151 mg/kg, so if you’re a 60 kg adult, 9 grams of allyl isothiocyanate has a 50% chance of killing you.” On a dare, a boy in Japan consumed 20 grams of wasabi. It resulted in a heart attack and death. "Remind me never to eat wasabi with my sushi,” I told Holli.
I was especially enamored and terrified at the same time by an MMWR article concerning a hospital in Nigeria. The hospital noticed a sharp increase in the number of deaths among its patients hooked up to ventilating machines. The hospital administrators investigated everything from improper handling by nurses to improper use of medications. What they failed to investigate was a recently hired cleaning lady. Rather than using an extension cord for her vacuum cleaner, the cleaning lady would unplug the ventilators in each room to plug in her equipment. When she was finished vacuuming, she would replug the ventilators. The number of unexpected deaths dropped significantly once they fired the lazy employee.
“Remind me to keep an eye on the cleaning lady if I’m ever hospitalized,” I said to Holli.
Holli nodded. "And you better be sure to watch out if you are sharing a room with another person,” she added with her gallows humor. “You don't want some cranky patient unplugging you just because your life support system is making a bit of noise."
Other illnesses I read about in the MMWR that I once thought I might have contracted included gut fermentation syndrome (a medical condition where you become intoxicated from your own gut fermenting), water allergy (you guessed it, people who are allergic to water), and pica (a compulsive eating disorder in which people eat nonfood items). Of course, my chances of having any of these strange diseases are zero to none. However, depending on my mood or the weather, I imagined having the symptoms of all of these at any given time. I swear that as a child I had pica, since I used to put everything in my mouth that looked like candy, including mothballs.
“Don’t give me any tea today,” I once said to Holli, while lying with aplomb on a sofa bed. “I think I’m allergic to water lately."
She threw a glass of water on my face.
Despite my vivid imagination, I happen to be the most dangerous type of hypochondriac that exists: a hypochondriac with actual medical conditions. I've had more than my fair share of real medical issues. I’ve suffered a severely broken ankle, a giant cell tumor, papillary thyroid cancer, melanoma, diverticulitis that hospitalized me for weeks, sigmoid colon removal, and gallbladder removal, among other major surgeries. As Holli used to say, “you sure know how to get sick.”
The broken ankle occurred when Holli was working overseas in Africa. She was always interested in public health and jumped at the opportunity to help AIDS patients in Malawi. She was abroad for three months. I was an avid runner at the time, and while she was absent, I used every opportunity in my schedule to get in a jog. On a fateful Friday, lunchtime, things were slow at work, and my friend Rob asked if I wanted to take a jog with him. We changed in the office locker room and ran into the cool but pleasant weather in Raleigh on a fall day. I was so thrilled by the fresh air and getting away from the office for an hour that I didn't notice where my feet were landing. The right foot plopped into a pothole and twisted. I heard a "snap." The pain was excruciating. Rob helped me back to the office, and eventually, at home, I put ice on it. During the course of a few days, the ankle turned various shades of red, purple, and blue. However, after about a week I thought the ankle was good enough to run, and I resumed my habit of jogging eight miles every morning.
After three months of my wife being away in Africa, she finally returned home. I told her all about my foot injury, but she wasn't too concerned since I seemed to be walking and otherwise healthy and running every day. However, one day when we were out walking the dogs, I suddenly fell to the ground and was unable to move my right leg. My wife rushed me to the hospital, where an x-ray revealed that I had a fairly serious fracture and significant bone damage in my right ankle.
Holli asked, "When you hurt your ankle, did it change colors?"
I replied excitedly, "Oh yes! It was super cool! It turned red, orange, green, blue, yellow, purple, and even brown. Green was my favorite!"
Holli raised an eyebrow and asked, "Didn't you think that was strange? Why didn't you visit a doctor?"
I shrugged and replied, "Well, it stopped hurting and I didn't think anything about it."
Holli sighed and said, "You need to pay attention to your body's signals, Ernesto. When it turns colors, it's trying to tell you something. I would prefer you listen to the real symptoms rather than the imaginary signs of exotic illnesses that you don’t have and will never get.”
The thyroid cancer diagnosis came at a time when Holli and I were no longer married. I was living with someone else in a small house in Washington D.C. I was in my thirties and still running regularly, feeling like I was invincible. During a routine physical, a doctor noticed a lump in my throat and ordered a biopsy, which involved a large, drill-like machine rolling down my neck. After the biopsy, I expected the results to come back negative and for the doctor to stop worrying. Instead, he called me that same night to tell me that it was cancer. I was walking down the stairs with my cell phone when he delivered the news, and my knees buckled beneath me. I called out to my partner and told him what the doctor had said. Despite the shock of the diagnosis, I approached the situation in a businesslike manner. I had my thyroid removed, underwent radiation treatment, changed my diet, and started taking medication. Eventually, I healed and was able to move on. When my friends asked if I was afraid, I told them that, in comparison to all the other wild and imaginary diseases I had convinced myself I had in the past, this cancer seemed fairly standard and normal.
My most recent incident happened a few weeks ago. I had my gallbladder removed in day surgery, and everything was supposed to work well. For a couple of months prior to surgery, I had been feeling nauseous, bloated, vomiting, and having severe stomach cramps. Sometimes the pain lasted for hours. An ultrasound determined the culprit was gallstones, and a doctor concluded that by removing the gallbladder all my problems would be resolved. Of course, I spent endless hours on the internet researching the long-term effects of having your gallbladder removed, the risks of living without a gallbladder, and the options for treating gallstones with medicine rather than removal. My hypochondriac skills were at their zenith. After endless investigations and chats with anyone who knew anyone who had their gallbladder taken out, I decided to move ahead with the operation. Unfortunately, I didn’t do enough research about the risks of the operation itself. I read in passing that there could be internal bleeding, but I ignored that warning. “Won’t happen to me,” I said to myself (against all my hypochondriac odds). Unfortunately, it did happen to me.
When I got home after surgery, I stayed in bed and felt horribly tired. After five hours of rest, when I tried to stand up to go to the bathroom, I fainted and collapsed. I tried to get up from the floor, but I fainted again. For the first time in my life, I uttered the words that every hypochondriac dreams of and dreads: “Call 911.”
When the ambulance arrived with a crew of six people, they found me on the bedroom floor with Renato holding me in his arms. Justin, who seemed to be the crew manager, took off my shirt because I was sweating profusely. This revealed an enormous black and blue bruise on my stomach that was bulging on the right side.
Justin asked sheepishly, "Do you always have this on your stomach?" It was a bit like when someone is afraid to ask a pregnant woman if they are expecting, or if they are just overweight.
I replied, "You mean that enormous multi-colored bulge that looks like an extra body part attached to my stomach? No, that's not always there."
As if in a Laurel and Hardy movie, it took all six members of the ambulance crew to clumsily lift me onto a blanket and then hoist my body onto the gurney. As they wheeled me out my front door and into the cold and wet winter weather, the scene changed from comedy to drama. I felt like I was now part of an overly dramatic made-for-TV movie, being carried away in a storm of bad luck. I wanted to yell out to the director orchestrating this movie, "Cut! I'm done with this scene."
Despite the large hematoma on my stomach and fainting spells, I was strangely excited about the prospect of now riding in an ambulance. In my not-quite-clear thinking, I thought, "This is a first for me, riding in an ambulance!" However, the excitement was short-lived as I realized that there are no windows in the back of an ambulance. Justin, the ambulance crew member, kept trying to get a needle into my arms to give me fluids, but he was having a hard time finding a vein. I became his personal pin cushion as he repeatedly poked me. As the siren wailed, Justin kept jabbing me and the ambulance kept rolling and bumping up and down the hills and over the dales of the Brandywine Valley. We were happily on our way to hospital. Justin never did get a needle into me, and finally gave up in frustration saying, "Well, we're about five minutes away from the hospital. They'll get a needle into you, I promise." And boy, was he right.
The hospital staff jabbed me with several needles and bombarded me with blood transfusions, EKGs, MRIs, CT scans, and all sorts of other medical procedures. Through all this, to my surprise, the hypochondriac in me remained eerily calm and collected, keeping a stiff upper lip. Instead of worrying about my health, I observed myself from a distance as if I were a character in a story. "I wonder what will happen to Ernesto next," I kept thinking, with no trace of concern. I suspect I was heavily sedated.
I slept most of the time I was in the hospital, except I remembered to keep my eyes wide open whenever a member of the cleaning crew came into my room. "Mind the outlets," I told them.
The stay at the hospital wiped me out. At home, it is taking longer than I thought to recover, and sometimes I drift into a dark place. Fortunately, it is just then, when I’m at my lowest point, that friends and family call or text me, cheering me on. I’m happy to say that I’m not afraid of my recovery. I’m also happy to say that I have not given up on my old companion, Lady Hypochondria.
Last night, Holli called to check on me.
“So, what’s the latest?" she asked. “How is the recovery coming along?"
I replied nonchalantly. "Well, the hematoma is clearing up quite nicely, but I’ve been worried about this tingling in my feet lately, and I read somewhere that it could be a symptom of dysesthesia (a condition in which a sense, especially touch, is distorted). What do you think?”
Holli sighed. “I think you are a hypochondriac.”
“You are totally right,” I replied. “But I think I can deal with it.”
December 26, 2022
© Ernesto Beckford 2022
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