Physician Heal Thyself

DR.I’m not sure exactly when the shift happened, but doctors, in the real world at least, are no longer considered infallible gods. This is great when it comes to getting second opinions and not being railroaded into unnecessary treatments. There is, however, a downside:  the perils of self-diagnosis. You see, without an authority figure (I tend to imagine Spock or Tuvok) to say “the chances of you being inflicted with such a disorder are infinitesimal” my fevered brain tends to see a deadly and rare disorder in the slightest cough or rash. Luckily, perhaps, the library has many tomes to guide me on my journey of disease self-discovery.

It is always best to start with the classics. The two heavy hitters are Current Medical Diagnosis & Treatment (CMDT) and The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy. Such scintillating titles no? Both are geared toward the medical professional and provide rational, current and highly technical information on almost every disease and its symptoms, that you could possibly think of. Just don’t expect much sugar coating. Also avoid looking at the diagnostic images at all cost.

If ice cold logic doesn’t put your mind at rest, perhaps it is time to admit that the problem lies in the fear of disease itself or as the professionals like to say, hypochondria. Luckily, you are not alone. There are many tomes dedicated to individuals who struggle with the fear of disease. Best of all, they tend to use liberal doses of humor to describe their plight. Here are a few examples:


Well Enough Alone: A Cultural History of My Hypochondria by Jennifer Traig
Convinced she was having a heart attack at 18 (the college nurse’s reply: It’s a gorgeous day and you’re not dying) the author realized that she just might have a problem. This book is a witty, and often hilarious, self-examination of all the foibles of a woman convinced she has every disease known to man. Each chapter not only highlights her own “issues” but also puts her hypochondria in a historical perspective with amusing anecdotes from the past.

Hyper-Chondriac: One Man’s Quest to Hurry Up and Calm Down by Brian Frazer
hyperchondriacFrazer definitely suffers from hypochondria, as a child he came down with a new disease every month, but this book is also a far ranging quest to find relaxation and, for lack of a better term, inner peace.  He tries reiki, yoga, Zoloft, Craniosacral therapy, Ayurveda, dog walking, and even, gasp, knitting. Sadly none of them seem to fully rid him of his demons, but the hilarious journey is well worth it. For the reader in any case.

The Hypochondriacs: Nice Tormented Lives by Brian Dillon
hypochondriacsnineAnother subtitle for this book could be: misery loves company. After reading about these nine famous suffers and their quirks, you probably won’t feel so bad about any fears of disease that you might have. While each sufferer’s oddities are definitely amusing, this work also highlights the interesting connection between each malady and the individual’s creativity. In several cases, such as Charlotte Bronte, the illnesses, both real and imagined, provided a means of escape as well as inspiration.


The Hypochondriacs Guide to Life and Death by Gene Weingarten
While there is a smattering of actual medical information throughout this work, this is pure satire and all the better for it. The author introduces you to his own neuroses, and then tries to convince you that you should have them as well. The chapter titles (such as ‘How Your Doctor Can Kill You’ and ‘Pregnant? That’s Wonderful! Don’t Read This!’) tell you all you need to know about the contents of this book. There are even helpful quizzes to confirm your paranoia.

So you now have all the tools you need to calm your irrational fear of disease. I’m sure you will be fine. Well, maybe not.

Wash Your Hands Thoroughly and Often

Call me paranoid, or perhaps just realistic, but I think it is pretty clear that the end is always near. It could be an earthquake, catastrophic climate change, an asteroid or, what the heck, even a zombie outbreak that does us all in. One of the most feared, yet oddly fascinating, paths to destruction is an epidemic disease “event.” I think withering away from disease is so dreaded not only because it would be a horrific way to go, but it seems so plausible. You only have to look at the past, both recent and ancient, to find possible candidates for a disease to do us in.

Let’s start with some symptoms:

Severe headache, weakness, general malaise and pains of varying severity in the muscles and joints, especially in the back. The patient feels as though he had been beaten all over with a club.

This is how you would feel, at first, if you were unfortunate enough to contract a deadly strain of influenza as described in American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic by Nancy Bristow.  Bristow focuses on the American experience of the worst pandemic in recorded history which claimed 50 million lives worldwide and over half a million in the United States.  The author uses individual accounts and primary sources to paint an intimate and disturbing picture of the outbreak as it unfolds. She also brings to light the curious way society, once a pandemic is over, tries to forget it ever happened.

Almost all of Plasmodium’s maneuvers inside the body occur in utter secrecy. When it slips into the body, while it hides in the liver, and even after it emerges into the bloodstream and attacks blood cells, there is no itch, no rash, no sweaty forehead that belies the infestation roiling within.

This chilling description is from The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 500,000 Years by Sonia Shah. Shah is an investigative reporter who skillfully describes Malaria’s parasitic relationship with humanity and our catastrophic inability to control, let alone eradicate it. Her dogged examination reveals that it is not only the disease itself but the attitudes of those who do not live in tropical climates that allow the scourge to thrive.

Once inside the animal, pestis travels through the bloodstream to the lymph nodes, where it starts to replicate. Eventually the lymph nodes swell and become the huge, boggy, exquisitely painful mass we know as bubo.

Yes, it is the dreaded Plague, or Black Death, as described in Wendy Orent’s Plague: The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World’s Most Dangerous Disease. A truly apocalyptic disease, wiping out 40% of the European population during the Middle Ages, the plague has shaped human history and still inspires terror. Despite the advent of antibiotics, Orent tells us, the plague is far from a thing of the past and not only survives but thrives in many parts of the world as it continues to evolve. Worse yet, the weaponization of the disease is far from fiction.

To read the history of epidemics is to follow a long story of the fears that go beyond the dread of death, the anxieties that make us who we are.

This intriguing nugget is from Dread: How Fear and Fantasy Have Fueled Epidemics from the Black Death to the Avian Flu by Philip Alcabes. Through health statistics and a study of historical epidemics, Alcabes makes a persuasive argument that our fear of catastrophic disease far outweighs the reality. This fear whether real or imagined, not only reveals the mores of the time but can lead to destructive and counterproductive actions. Most disturbing of all, the author illustrates how individuals and institutions use the fear of epidemics to push their own agendas.

So maybe I am just being paranoid. But then again, why does everyone seem to be coughing?