Before I joined medical college I was as experimental as the best of them. I ate chaat at roadside stalls, drank banta-wala lemon, and didn’t notice if the mithai-wala had dirt under his nails. And I was none the worse for it. Never did a twinge trouble my non-medical mind or body.
Then I had my first encounter with the subject of microbiology. I learned that there were thirty thousand microbes just waiting to gain entry into my body; many of them through contaminated food. Suddenly I started looking at food vendors’ nails; I suspected the credentials of all chaat walas; I drew the line at kiosk food. In short I deprived myself of all things indigenous and delicious. Such was the state of my microbe-phobia that I even managed a colicky gripe or two when a morsel of forbidden food touched my palate.
Before I could blink, we were in the third year; they introduced us to more diseases than we knew existed. As we moved from ophthalmology to medicine to surgery to gynecology, my classmates and I suffered from conditions pertaining to every single subject. We had symptoms of hyper-thyroidism one month, hypo-thyroidism the next. Some of us developed angina, some glaucoma, and others retinal detachment. If diabetes was ruled out, we were threatened with imminent brain hemorrhage. The more uncommon a disease was, the more likely was one of us to notice that she had the symptoms.
Lucky for us, our teachers were brilliant diagnosticians and great counselors, convincing us in short order that we were as healthy as horses, though with measurably less stamina than our equine friends had.
Eventually I became a practicing doctor. Years passed, but I never quite rid myself of the specter of doom. One of the disadvantages of a medical education is that you have too much information. When I was due for a cesarean section, I recalled the dismal maternal mortality rate in our country. I kept myself awake at night totting up all the complications of surgery known to mankind. When my baby had his first cold, I imagined that pneumonia was the next stop. Eventually after the eightieth cold, I realized it wasn’t going to happen, but you know how it is. If I hadn’t had so much information, I wouldn’t have lived in trepidation all the time.
The ‘worst-case-scenario’ outlook is not all bad, however. Sometimes this instinct works quite well. The sense of disquiet has helped us in picking out serious conditions before they get out of hand; occasionally, we discover elusive causes of unusual symptoms; sometimes our patients bless the fact that their doctor is suspicious and cynical. The very compulsions that result in personal agony have helped us in providing comfort and prolonging the lives of patients.
So it is alright really; a bit of pessimism isn’t bad. The medical stories that end well, and many do, help us stay on top of things. Currently my only worry is the ache in my big toe. It has been there for a while, and while the toe hasn’t turned blue yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if it isn’t that rare disorder I was reading about the other day; the one that is rapidly fatal.
Note: An old post written for a magazine many years ago…can’t remember which. May never have been published.