Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Dr. Feelbad and the raging hypochondriac

I was preparing myself for the worst…again.

Two nights before, an air bubble had taken up residence near the top of my throat for several hours, refusing to pop. I convinced myself I was in the throes of what would be a fatal heart attack. Who would find my corpse? I live alone.

I got dressed and walked around the block several times. If I collapsed in public, at least my decomposing remains wouldn't have to wait until the next day to be found, after I failed to show up for work.

I survived to see the next morning, when a sudden migraine jab on the left side of my head at the beginning of my 5am shift had me preparing for the worst for the second time in less than 12 hours. A stroke? I braced myself for one side of my body to go numb. An hour or two later, it hadn't, so I went about my day, cranial discomfort and slight nausea be damned.

The following morning at 5.30am, I tried to ignore the sharp pain below my right armpit extending to about halfway under my rib cage. It had started creeping up on me the night before. I was being productive at work, but in the corner of my mind, I was once again preparing for the worst…which brings me back to the beginning of this post.

Three days, three death watches. It was time to stop preparing for the worst (again) and take action.

I tried to make an appointment with Dr. Rawlings, the first doctor I've had since leaving Buenos Aires four and a half years ago who makes me feel like I'm in the hands of someone who cares. It might be an act, but that's pretty much all you need when you're a hypochondriac like me. Go through the motions. Touch me with your stethoscope. Look down my throat. Then tell me I'm perfectly healthy and I'll die another day.

Unfortunately, Dr. Rawlings wasn't in, so I was given an appointment with Dr. Way. I was assured by Susannah the receptionist that I'd like him. She knew about my previous unpleasant experience with a doctor there who was not Dr. Rawlings. I can't even recall now why I'd seen him. The only thing I remember is that he called me the Aussie slang word for hypochondriac. I laughed it off at the time, but on the inside I was seething.

Dr. Way didn't call me any names, but he made me feel a lot worse before I started to feel better. When I walked into his office and he asked me what was wrong, I explained my symptoms and added that I thought I might be having a heart attack. I knew how ridiculous I was being. A heart attack is faster on its feet - it would never wait overnight and through half of the morning to catch up to you. But the bottom line was fear. What the hell was wrong with me?

Dr. Way looked dubious. He stood up and pressed my upper right torso in a few places. Then he laughed.

"You're fine," he announced. "But since you're already here, if you want me to find something wrong, I can keep looking."

I was shocked. It wasn't that I was actually expecting a dire diagnosis, but I had anticipated at least some semblance of an examination, followed by a good reason why I felt like shit on my right side, from the neck down and abs up.

When I pressed, he at least gave me a name. I had something called costochondritis, which is an inflammation of cartilage in the chest area. He printed out a few sheets of paper and handed them to me. I wasn't having a heart attack but the assumption he had ridiculed me for hadn't been so off.

According to the costochondritis literature he gave me: "It might feel like you're having a heart attack. If you are in doubt, see your doctor as soon as possible…"

So there.

"But if you were having a heart attack, I hope you'd go to the ER before coming to me," he said.

Then the lecture began. On my previous visit to Dr. Rawlings two weeks earlier for an assortment of ailments (some real, some possibly imagined, none serious), we had talked about the panic disorder I was diagnosed with before I left New York City nine years ago. She recommended treatments that didn't involve taking potentially addictive sleeping pills.

Having looked at my chart, Dr. Way had apparently done the math. He deduced that I was a raging hypochondriac before I even entered to room. Dr. Rawlings' notes in my file about those panic attacks aroused his suspicions, and one minute with me confirmed them.

Yes, my name is Jeremy Helligar, and I'm a hypochondriac. So what?

I may not have been dying, but I had something. I wanted answers.

Instead of giving me any further details about the diagnosis he had handed to me - what brought it on, how to ease the pain, how long it would last - he started to lecture me about being a hypochondriac. He told me a story about a lifelong hypochondriac who, on his deathbed, said, "See, I told you I was sick." The implication was that I would go out in a similar fashion.

Maybe I would, but what about the pain I was actually feeling and the diagnosis he had given me? I wasn't there for a therapy session. I was there for physical relief from discomfort that I definitely was not imagining.

I may not have been having a heart attack, but I was suffering from something. I wasn't crazy. Should I have gone about my business wracked with pain, not sure what was going on, when there was clearly something - albeit something non-threatening - ailing me?

He agreed, but I could tell I had lost him. He wasn't going to take me seriously. I felt like Dorothy Zbornak in the "Sick and Tired" double episode of The Golden Girls. She was feeling ill and doctors kept dismissing her until one finally diagnosed her with chronic fatigue syndrome.

As with my costochondritis, there was no specific cause of her ailment and no cure, but just knowing that what was wrong with her had a name made Dorothy feel better.

I felt better, too. And I felt worse. The diagnosis was worth the trip to the doctor, but I felt my $85 would have been better spent had it come with compassion and maybe the motions of a routine check-up…you know, just in case something else was wrong.

The irony: Dr. Way's lecturing and hectoring will probably result in more anxiety during future bouts of hypochondria. Now every time I feel any strange physical sensation, I won't only be preparing for the worst…again. I'll also be terrified about what the doctor might say if the doctor isn't Dr. Rawlings.

I hadn't had a female doctor before, and at first I was a bit wary of having one. But when I returned to work and explained what had happened to my colleagues, one of them warned me about male Aussie doctors. They had a habit of being breezy and dismissive, she said.

That's not the treatment any hypochondriac needs. We need reassurance without ridicule. I've always embraced a certain gallows humor, but when it comes to my health, I laugh alone.

The last thing I need in my life is more fear. That was the highest cost of my latest doctor visit. Sadly, my insurance (which pays less than 50 percent) can't reimburse me for that.
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