It’s 9pm on a Thursday, I’m scrolling through Pinterest, and a slight pain flits across my upper abdomen. I hop up to the search bar and start typing, “heart attack symptoms in wom —” then stop, shake my head, and continue pinning ideas that I know full well I’m not going to do.
I’ve saved myself an hour of reading about unexpected heart attacks tonight but largely because I’d already fallen down that particular rabbit hole before.
This is not the first time I’ve jumped from “mild stomach pain” to “heart attack.”
Blame the abundance of medical horror stories online or numerous episodes of medical dramas – lookin’ at you, Grey’s Anatomy and House – but when my body starts glitching, I jump to the worst conclusions.
I’ve got a medical degree from the University of Neurotic Googling, so I feel confident in my opinion that every bump, bruise, and unexpected stomachache means I’m going to die in the next week or so. The headache I can’t shake? Clearly a brain tumor. Weird pain or swelling in my legs? Deep-vein thrombosis. Type any run-of-the-mill symptom into your favorite medical info site (everyone has one, right?) and you’ll be presented with options ranging from a basic virus to a rare form of incurable cancer.
And now that I’ve got a tiny human’s health to worry about, I think it’s getting worse.
It’s one thing to assume the worst for my own health problems, but now that I’m a mom, I’m more worried that I’ll pass this condition along to Arthur. This is especially troubling since kids are sponges. They hear and absorb everything – words, moods, general attitudes about life. Mine does, anyway.
If my husband or I have a headache, kiddo has one, too. He’s sensitive to our concerns, making it hard to identify if he really has something going on or is claiming symptoms that aren’t his out of solidarity. This feeds right into my fears.
A few weeks ago, I took my son to the doctor for a red finger.
Let that sink in.
A red finger.
Hear me out. Arthur starts complaining about his hurt finger. I look at it, and sure enough, it’s bright reddish purple with a little raised bump at the end. I assume
a life-altering tick bite splinter and think, “How does one remove a splinter from a toddler’s finger?”
To Google I go, where I’m bombarded with advice on how to handle splinters, the logistics of removing splinters from tiny fingers, and how, if left untreated, splinters can cause a host of problems and blah blah blah – I’m now imagining finger amputations and gangrene and the end of our comfortable existence as we know it.
So I whisk Arthur off to the doctor’s walk-in hours and, virtual hat in hand, bring up my fears about embedded splinters. The logical voice in my head is beside herself with shame over coming to the doctor for no reason. But the nice nurse practitioner takes a look at Arthur’s finger, trying his absolute best to help me out and find a reason for my being there, and declares that he doesn’t see anything to worry about.
Pediatric medical people are the nicest people. I’m sure I was this guy’s “laugh of the day” in the breakroom. Get this. Some new mom brought her kid in because his finger was red.
But how do I balance my hypochondria with the very real possibility – however remote – that something unusual is wrong?
Medical students are told to think horses instead of zebras when they hear the sound of hooves. It’s a common expression that helps doctors think logically about a set of symptoms. A headache, chills, and general feeling of malaise are more likely symptoms of the flu and not red flags for a blood disorder. But what if it is the blood disorder?
When I went to see a nurse practitioner in the spring of 2016 with vague symptoms (tiredness, just feeling generally “blah”), she might have assumed the horse – I was a new mom who slept poorly and ate even worse. Case closed. Instead, she ran some blood work (super low on vitamin D) and felt my neck (there was a lump). Long story short, I ended up with a thyroid cancer diagnosis. A treatable cancer, sure, but a diagnosis I wouldn’t have expected based on could-be-anything symptoms.
We can’t know that the hooves we hear are horses, but they probably are. And if they are zebras, then we can cross that paddock when we come to it. (Horses live in paddocks, right? Maybe I need to drop the equine metaphor.)