Like many of life's problems, this one began in my childhood, roughly between the ages of 6 and 8. I liked to listen in on the conversations of grown-ups. Since I was so young, most of the grown-ups I was exposed to were women. My mother and my aunts and the ladies of the neighborhood discussed parenting, recipes, movies and gossip, but their favorite topic was ill health.
"He was on the operating table for four hours . . ."
". . . they took out a tumor as big as a grapefruit . . ."
"And, you know, he never had a sick day in his life . . ."
"Her legs swelled up just like watermelons."
"Her husband remembers her saying that that fish didn't smell right."
". . . and they took just one look at him and sewed him back up."
The stories they told make the episodes on ER seem as pallid as a first-aid training film. Hardly any of them had happy endings.
Years later, I was in a supermarket, dithering over a wide variety of grapefruit. A clerk asked me what size I wanted. Without thinking, I answered: "Oh, about as big as a tumor."
Overhearing all those stories of sickness at such an impressionable age left me feeling very vulnerable to bacteria, viruses, parasites, malignant cells, invasive fungi and poisons. Naturally, I became a hypochondriac.
I attended a parochial school, and religion classes often referred to events in the Bible. That's where I learned about leprosy. It had everything. Back then it was incurable. It was also loathsome and drawn out. People were infected with leprosy as a result of contact with lepers. As a child, I used to examine my skin every night for the telltale spots that mark the onset of leprosy. I was particularly careful about sitting next to people on streetcars. In a place like Fort Wayne, Indiana, you couldn't be too careful about random encounters with lepers.
Later, browsing through National Geographic, I discovered elephantiasis. I began a nightly comparison of my legs to see if one of them was growing to elephantine proportions. I could see that roller-skating would be a problem with a leg as thick as a telephone pole. Elephantiasis comes from the bite of tropical mosquitoes. I stayed indoors most of that summer and bathed myself in citronella before I went outside.
When I was in high school, I had a stubborn case of athlete's foot. I was terrified. Naturally, I imagined it spreading over my entire body. How could I live with an obituary like that? "His death was attributed to terminal athlete's foot."
I was never one of those hypochondriacs who surround themselves with patent medicines, have a clinical thermometer in every room and take to their beds after the first sneeze. I did not gargle every night before I went to bed. I admit that for a few years I wiped my silver thoroughly with my napkin when I ate in a restaurant. I stopped that after a doctor told me I was just rearranging the bacteria.
I never worried about catching a cold or having a sinus infection. I went for the gold. If an illness wasn't serious, it couldn't get my attention. Among the many things I've thought I've had over the years have been tuberculosis, a brain tumor, poliomyelitis, lupus erythematosus, encephalitis, even emphysema, although I have never smoked. Just let me see an item in a magazine or newspaper that mentions the seven warning signs of anything deadly and incurable--say, Huntington's disease--and within 20 minutes I've discovered I have five of them.
A twinge in my left arm always implies a heart attack in the making. I rarely have a headache, so the slightest discomfort above the eyebrows could mean a brain tumor or a stroke.
It isn't easy being a hypochondriac. For instance, I ran into my ophthalmologist recently. "Doc, you're a sight for sore eyes," I said. "You know, I was reading in a magazine about river blindness, something that you get from being bitten by flies. There were some flies in the house last week. I was wondering . . ."
"Wait," he said, holding up his hand like a policeman directing traffic. "There are many different kinds of flies. The one that transmits river blindness is a blackfly that is native to the tropics, Simulium damnosum. The nearest one is thousands of miles away, and you have never been in the tropics. We have already established that you are not suffering from macular degeneration or retinitis pigmentosa or glaucoma. You don't even need glasses. Why don't you come to see me when you have something I can treat, like a sty or pinkeye?"
That's the way it's been recently. Whenever I try to see a doctor, the receptionist usually says he has a full appointment book for the next three months and is then going to a medical conference in Kathmandu. I could be the victim of some horrible disease but I get no sympathy.
I've been a hypochondriac for a while now, and looking back on my working life, I find that I've missed only two days due to illness and one of those days was for a life-threatening hangover. When it comes to your health, I always say, you can't be too careful. But on second thought, maybe you can.