Dr. Feelbad and the Raging Hypochondriac
An old diagnosis that still makes me sick to my stomach today.
I’ve been in doctor’s offices, hospital lobbies, and emergency rooms on six continents and in 15 countries — from the United States to Argentina to Thailand to South Africa to Australia to the Balkans. But one check-up in Sydney several years ago stands out because it still makes me sick to my stomach today.
My then-latest medical emergency had started two nights earlier with an uncomfortable physical sensation just under my chin and a sinking feeling directly above it. I was prepared for the worst… again.
An air bubble had blown into a tight spot near the top of my throat. It camped out there for several hours, refusing to budge — or just pop already. I convinced myself I was in the throes of what would be a fatal heart attack. I lived alone, so my secondary concern was how long my corpse might lay rotting before somebody found it.
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 or later 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 5 a.m. 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 happened, so I went about my day, cranial discomfort and slight nausea be damned.
The following morning at 5.30 a.m., 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.
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, my official physician. She was the first doctor I’d had since leaving Buenos Aires four and a half years earlier who made me feel like I was in the hands of someone who cared. It may have been an act, but that was pretty much all a hopeless hypochondriac like me needed. 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 Susannah the receptionist gave me an appointment with Dr. Way. She assured me 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 something he said was Aussie slang 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 latest 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 hypochondria usually precludes reason. I’d convinced myself my heart was failing 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 gave me a name. I probably 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 for which he had ridiculed me 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 wait, my suspicion wasn’t completely off track, and I did the right thing by coming here,” I said, looking for a hint of humility — or humanity — on his sunburnt face, which, now that I thought about it, looked a lot less healthy than I felt.
“But if you were having a heart attack, I hope you’d go to the ER before coming to me,” Dr. Way replied.
My dangerous mind
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 earlier. She recommended treatments that didn’t involve taking potentially addictive benzodiazepines.
Having looked at my chart, Dr. Way had apparently done the math. He had 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,” and even had it inscribed on his headstone. 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 hadn’t gone 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 Dorothy’s ailment and no cure, but just knowing that whatever 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: I knew Dr. Way’s lecturing and hectoring would probably compound my anxiety during upcoming bouts of hypochondria. In the future, strange physical sensations would continue to leave me preparing for the worst… again. I’d also be terrified about what my next stand-in doctor would say. If only being Dr. Rawlings’s patient came with a guarantee that she’d always be on call to see me when my hypochondria kicked in.
I’d never had a female doctor before Dr. Rawlings, and initially, I was a bit wary of having one. But when I returned to work and explained to my colleagues what had happened, 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 needed in my life was more fear. That was the highest cost of my consultation with Dr. Way. Sadly, Bupa, my Aussie health insurance (which paid less than 50 percent), couldn’t reimburse me for that.