Learning from Illness (2)

Guessing the Diagnosis

There is no illness until the symptoms of the illness begin to impact on your life. Until that time, there is a golden period. That’s life. A golden period. We are all dying slowly, so why think about it? If there are no symptoms, there is no disease. It’s a simple as that.

But when the symptoms begin to become so obvious or debilitating that they can no longer be ignored, two other factors appear. The first is that you begin to debate with yourself whether anything needs to be done about those symptoms; the second is that your friends and family chip in with their own diagnoses.

The most amusing example I can think of in relation to this phenomenon happened about a decade ago. It was in another life, at a time when I was working as the editor of a retail magazine. Every year the magazine did an extensive survey of trends in the grocery market – usually around Christmas time.

Christmas being usually a relatively slow time for news, I would often be invited on television (TV3) to discuss the results. This went on for a few years, and for whatever reason, my mother never got the chance to see me, as we would say, ‘on the box’.

I’m not sure if it was ego or the Christmas spirit, but one Christmas, I decided to get a video tape (it was ten years ago) of my annual appearances on TV3 talking about the surveys.

We sat down to watch the tape, and as soon as I appeared on the screen, my mother mentioned that I had a ‘sty’ in my eye. I admitted that, yes, I did have a sty ( a reddish swelling on the eyelid) but that it was just one year, and that there was more to come.

As we moved into the next clip, I was embarrassed to note that I also had a sty in that clip too. My Mum jumped on that one too. Very few people (myself included) care as much about my appearance as my Mum, and not alone did she note that I had a sty, but that it had moved from my right eye to my left eye!

I pointed out to her that this clip was, after all, a year later, and that this was just another sty I had acquired – something that with the evidence now before me I realised tended to happen in the winter months, when typically, I was working long days, exhausted and stressed.

I don’t suppose I really need to tell you what appeared on the next clip – I presume you can guess that the sty had moved miraculously back to the the right eye. This doesn’t seem like such a magic trick, I know, but it did look impressive when you put the clips together.

Well, my Mum takes an interest in me and my health, as family members tend to do, so we chatted about the mysterious moving sty. I noted that, as the end of the year approached, my job got very busy and I often worked late until 8, 9 or 10 o’clock. We had annual publications to get out, a conference to organise for January, and many other details which couldn’t wait.

We agreed that the stress and exhaustion was the cause of the swelling in my eyelids, but agreed I should see someone (ie a doctor) about it.

Of course, because I am a man, (and therefore only interested in getting help when it’s absolutely necessary) I put it off until another sty appeared a few months later. At that point, I went to see an optometrist who examined the sty and brusquely explained that I had a disease known as ‘blepharitis’. He had seen it a million times.

Blepharitis is an non-contagious inflammation of the eyelids causing them to swell and redden. It is brought on by stress,dryness, tiredness and cross-contamination between the eyes. Or at least, that’s the case in my case. It doesn’t cause any damage to your sight and can be treated quite effectively, topically. So, that’s all good news then, I thought.

As the years have gone by, other than the production of excessive tears for no reason, it’s been relatively easy to deal with. I once broke up with a girlfriend and had an attack – she thought I was heartbroken, mistakenly – but other than that, no major problems.

I also found out why it tended to flare up in the winter – not just because I was that bit more tired and stressed, but because of the dry air caused by the central heating being on more often. I have been able to ameliorate that cause too over time.

But back to the initial diagnosis. I came out of the optometrist’s office feeling pretty good. I called my Mum on the mobile phone (I admit I was driving and distracted) and told her the nature of the disease, and that it wasn’t serious or threatening to my general health, and, of course, the name of said disease.

Now, my Mum had spent many years married to a country GP. She had seen every disease known to man or child come and go. She grew up in an era when TB and Polio were real dangers. And without being actively involved in the medicine or science, she had seen it all first hand, and played her part in the care. She has, because of that, confidence in her own ability to understand the human body and its afflictions.

So when I told her the disease that was afflicting me (over a very dodgy mobile phone line), and she remembered the clips of video tape, and the sty moving from the left eye to the right eye, she relied quite confidently “Ah yes… Left-to-Right-is”.

The point I’m trying to make here is that everybody has their opinion on what’s wrong with you, some will even prescribe solutions, but ultimately, many of them are wrong. It won’t stop or discourage them. When I first began to feel ill, those closest to me were the first to offer diagnoses, but it gradually spread until everyone had an opinion.

It’s a human thing to want to help. We all want to stop the pain or discomfort of those we love. And few enough of us have a medical degree – or indeed any useful knowledge of the human body.

And, of course, some of us have a little knowledge. Which, as well know, is a dangerous thing.

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