Living in the Age of WebMD

Living in the Age of WebMDI must confess that I’m a bit of a hypochondriac. No doubt, I get this from my father, who was convinced one summer during our stay in Michigan that he had contracted a case of Ebola. As it was to turn out, it was only a little case of necrotizing fasciitis (which you might recognize as flesh eating bacteria) that required some hefty antibiotics, but not, thankfully, the amputation of his left calf. So you can see how I as an impressionable young child might be prone to imagine the worst from perfectly harmless symptoms.

Now lately I’ve been plagued by a slight, almost inaudible ringing in my ear that, according to the extensive research I immediately did on WebMD, seemed clearly the sign of an inoperable brain tumor. Not one to delay the inevitable reckoning with my own mortality, I made an appointment with my local physician at the clinic.

Dr. Ernsthaft is a no-nonsense type of doctor who came in and immediately asked me what the trouble was. I patiently explained to him the inaudible ringing in my right ear.

“If it’s inaudible, how do you know it’s there?” he asked, rather coldly I thought.

“I can sense that it might be there,” I replied. “It’s sort of a mental ringing.”

“Have you had any dizziness?”

“Well,” I told him, “I’m not likely to make a roster spot on the men’s Olympic gymnastic team, but I can still pick up the soap in a shower.”

“How about your hearing?”

“What? Ha. Ha.”

“How about your hearing?” he asked more loudly.

“Oh fine, just a little ‘brain tumor’ humor there,” and I chuckled guiltily. He didn’t seem amused.

“Well let’s look at that ear.”

He then proceeded to examine my right ear which he pronounced “completely plugged with wax.” After a good five minute of flushing, he managed to remove a huge plug of the stuff.

“There you are, Mr. Houseman. That should do the trick.”

For a moment I felt relieved until he then explained that he was going to do some “routine” blood work.

“What kind of blood work,” I asked nervously.

“Oh you know, some screening tests. Make sure there’s nothing abnormal going on.”

“Like for cancer?” Gulp.

“Well, yes certain cancers are one of the things that might show up.”

“Are we talking about the ‘Lance Armstrong/Live Strong/win the Tour de France kind of cancer or the ‘Terms of Endearment’ kind of cancer?”

He seemed to get a bit exasperated at this question.

“Mr. Houseman, this is just a simple diagnostic test. Please go to the lab and call me in the morning for the results.”

“Dr. Ernsthaft, I have to admit that, well, I’m a bit of a hypochondriac…”

“Really? I could hardly tell.”

“…yes, and well, is there anything I could take to, you know, relieve my anxiety?”

He took a long look at me. “How about 30 tabs of alprazolam, a strong fast-acting valium.”

“Oh, that would do just fine.”

“Great. Now if you don’t mind, Mr. Houseman, I have actual patients waiting…”

After the blood test, I headed straight away to Walgreens to get the alprazolam prescription filled. Clearly, by tomorrow, I’d be faced with the possibility of 1) a brain tumor, 2) rare blood disease, or 3) leukemia, and I needed some pharmaceutical relief to help me draft my Last Will & Testament that evening.

Unfortunately, my fear of my impending terminal disease had filled me with such anxiety that I immediately opened the bottle of alprazolam in the store, grabbed a RC Cola off the shelf and chugged down at least three of the harmless looking little green pills to help steady me for the car ride home, figuring that if the recommended dosage called for one tablet, three would be three times the relief needed to allow me to call all my friends and relatives to start making my final good byes.

This may, looking back on it, have been a slight error in judgment.

Who knew that alprazolam would take effect so quickly? I was just going to check out the homeopathic health product aisle for a second and pick up my monthly supply of flax seed, when I noticed feeling slightly funny. Not only was I no longer concerned about the nuclear capabilities of Iran or the prospect of a far-right governing coalition in Austria, I could no longer remember my name. In addition, an overwhelming desire to purchase large plush toilet seat covers inexplicably came over me, and before I knew it, I was headed down the housewares isle drooling (literally) over plug-in electrical outlet air fresheners and solar-power nose hair trimmers (which upon reflection, probably should not have been in housewares).

Strangely thirsty, I further compounded my mistake by wandering into the food and beverages isle and snatching a 2 liter bottle of Jolt off the shelves and then discarded the empty at the “Toys for Tots” collection bin near the registers. It was at that point a very nice man who must have worked for Walgreens (or else had a predilection for red vests) came by and said something to me, but by that point I was having trouble understanding English. I asked him if he happened to speak Old Norse or Aramaic (I majored in linguistics), and after a somewhat rude reply, I promptly challenged him to a duel with the weapon of his choice: orange foam swim noodle or giant twizzler stick. After getting no reply, I’m afraid I took matters into my own hands, and in a alprazolam/Jolt induced rage chased him around the store with a EZ Wipe ceiling duster until I collapsed somewhere in Feminine Hygiene Products.

A Short List of Some of the Diseases I’ve Believed I Was Dying From

1. Lou Gehrig’s Disease (aka ALS). I was in an brutal computational lingusitics seminar my first year of graduate school and as I sat taking notes, my thumb on my writing hand began to twitch uncontrollably. That evening I looked up “muscle twitches” on some physician’s website and read that Lou Gehrig’s Disease also has muscle twitches as a symptom. Massive weakness and paralysis as well of course, but the muscle twitches were enough for me. The next two weeks were an agony of despair, convinced that I was Stephen Hawking-wheel chair/drinking through straws bound. The first doctor I saw about this informed me that “if you had Lou Gehrig’s disease, you’d know it” and threw me out of her office. The second, after another 2 weeks of black sleepless terror, was much kinder. He explained that he got muscle twitches all the time and confessed that in Med School, he too had thought he had it. Also, he told me, “Lou Gehrig’s disease doesn’t present until at least the fourth decade of life.” Given that I am now in my fourth decade of life, I worry about Lou Gehrig’s disease all the time.

2. Parkinson’s Disease. Actually, I’ve never feared having Parkinson’s Disease. I have no idea even what Parkinson’s Disease is, except that it is genetic and strikes later in life. In order for me to truly fear a disease it must have three characteristics: 1) It’s terminal; 2) It’s drawn out and painful; 3) It has to have vague symptoms. I can’t get worked up about a heart attack for example (tends to be sudden, you know for sure when you’re having one) and I won’t worry about Ebola until I start bleeding out the eyes. Critics may object that a brain tumor (#3 below) is not always terminal, to which I reply that I only worry about the terminal brain tumors.

3. Brain Cancer (aka: ‘a Tumor’). This is a great disease to think you have because just about any neurological tic can be attributed to it: headaches, tingling, ringing of the ears (my favorite as we’ve seen!), dizziness, nausea, etc. There is not a vague, ill-defined bodily symptom I can’t in my fevered imaginings link back to a big, and inoperable, tumor slowly devouring my cerebral cortex.

4. AIDS. I had unprotected sex with Margo Neumann at her parent’s house the summer after my sophomore year of college and became convinced after reading my sister’s first year Nursing textbook that the night sweats I was then regularly having were a sign that I was HIV+. It turned out I was actually suffering from a nasty case of bronchitis. I’ve since had night sweats fairly regularly after that, each time wondering if that latest sexual tryst has now marked me for death, but they are in fact mainly caused by the anti-anxiety medication I take. Oh the supreme irony!

5. Colon Cancer. I only really worried about this once, in my freshman year of college, when I started seeing blood in my stool (aka ‘shit’). I called my mother in tears convinced I had some cancer of the bowels. She calmly suggested I see a doctor and that it was most likely something else. The nice doctor at the University Health Service inserted a gelled finger in my rectum and informed me that I had hemorrhoids. “Have you ever had anal sex?” she asked. I was shocked. I told her that I had never had anal sex, but strategically left out the “experiment” with the girl I met at that one party.

Ok, multiple experiments.

[Image taken from x-ray delta one's Flickr.]

Paul Houseman suffers from the knowledge that he is probably going to die at any moment. Despite this, he continues to write from his home in Madison, Wisconsin. His work has been published in McSween more


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