Saturday, May 20, 2006


Medical school is harmful to your health -- or, at least, it's harmful to my health. Thankful as I am to be in med school, this same education that is teaching me about the body and how to treat sick patients is, unknowingly, also teaching me the many ways in which my body can go wrong.

I can no longer experience even a simple ache or pain without thinking about the worst-case scenarios. I can't help but analyze my occasional random symptoms, and I usually misinterpret them as signs of an unlikely, horrible disease process. As an example, my hand occasionally shakes slightly. The moment I am aware of it my mind instantly shoots to Parkinson's disease, the neurodegenerative disorder characterized by a tremor, which actor Michael J. Fox has.

I know it's almost unheard of in someone as young as I am, but once the thought is in my head, obsessive behaviors begin. I once pulled a neurologist professor aside to ask her what she thought of my tremor; I had her attention initially, but then she thought was joking when I asked her if it was Parkinson's. This was years ago, and so I've forgotten about it for the time being. However, I ran across a brief mention of the disease online a few days ago, and I immediately reverted to my obsessive ways. Sneak up behind me and you'll find me staring at my hand in midair, trying to look for any microscopic movement.

That was by no means an isolated incident. Last year, early one morning about an hour before I was to wake up, I had to get up to pee. Seeing how that was not normal for me, I concluded that I must have new-onset diabetes. The next few days I was convinced that my vision was blurring and my feet tingling (which, by the way, are only long-term complications of diabetes), and so I sought advice from a diabetes expert (we were "coincidentally" learning about diabetes in the classroom). He said I had nothing to worry about, but was I calmed? Not really. Luckily in a few weeks, I had forgotten about it.

It's the classic medical student syndrome, I've been told, whereby we learn about diseases, and our vivid imaginations convince us we have them. Being a medical student, with our unrefined diagnosing skills, also predisposes us to conclude the worst, most rare diagnoses when evaluating a symptom ... as opposed to thinking of more common explanations first. As I sat in class one day my neck started to ache. Uh oh, is this nuchal rigidity? I must have meningitis, so I inched my way to the aisle in case I needed treatement quickly. Meningitis could have been the culprit, but so could those hard and uncomfortable lecture seats. Brushing my teeth one morning before school, I spit into the sink and noticed little reddish-browning clumps of stuff -- which I assumed to be blood. Coughed-up blood only happens with lung cancer, and so as I drove to school that morning, I tried sorting out what I wanted to do in the remaining 5 years of my life, before the lung cancer killed me ... me, a 20-something-year-old non-smoker. It turns out the Oreos I ate the night before caused the discolored sputum. Finally, I was sure I had an abdominal aortic aneurysm (aka, AAA, where the aorta, the largest artery in your body, balloons out and pulsates throughout your abdomen) because I felt abdominal pulsations the night before ... after I had finished a strenous workout at the gym.

As if all these incorrect interpretations of normal bodily functions weren't causing enough misery and distress, I've been known to start worrying even if I feel too "fine". Many diseases start out completely asymptomatic, I argued in my head, so why couldn't I have one of those diseases? Aortic regurgitation, where one of the heart valves doesn't shut tightly, is one of these diseases, and thus feeling fine doesn't rule out me having AR. Again, it was a "coincidence" I was in the company of a heart specialist, who examined my heart with genuine efforts and told me I was fine.

The only thing that comforts me is the fact that some of the diseases I'm convinced I have usually coincide with the topics of our classroom lectures. I had Parkinson's disease during our Neuroscience unit, diabetes during our Endocrine unit, and my aortic regurgitation surfaced during a rotation in cardiac surgery where I saw AR patients on a daily basis. Everyday a trip to the classroom revealed some new ailment I could have. At the end of lecture, most students lined up for the professor to clarify a confusing point; I got in line to ask if I had the disease they just taught us.

I don't know when this will stop, but I hope it's soon. So do many others, including friends, family, and roommates. It's one thing when I obsess in my head; it's another when I harass people I know and ask what they think. They always reply, "How do I know, you're the one in med school." Medical school, right. What can I say? Med school --- it's my gift and my curse.


patch615 said...

If it makes you feel any better it is said that those Obsesive Compulsive tendencies (I know I sure have em) are part of what make a good doctor (they're also part of why doctors tend to have depression problems, but that suggestion will proboboly just add to your hypocondria eh?)

Anonymous said...

I'm not a medical student myself, but i have been quite a hypochondriac for a few years (i'm 24). Recently, I realised that this was taking up far too much of my time and just decided that it had to stop. Every time I start to ponder about an ache/pain/"feeling funny", I say "NO" to myself - and I don't take any steps to find out what "it" could be. Self-discipline takes an effort, but it has worked and a month on, I feel a lot better and my boyfriend is happy I've stopped whinging.

Axis said...

patch -- if that's the case, then I'm going to be a great doctor! That's an interesting point, though.

anonymous -- glad to hear that this problem knows no geographic boundaries (I'm assuming you're from England)!

Rox said...

I realize this post is months old, but I'm just perusing blogs searching for the word "hypochondria" because I'm pretty sure I have it myself. These last few days I've been torturing myse (and my wife) convinced I could have cancer. I've had panic attacks that ended in 4 a.m. trips to emergency room because I thought I was having heart problems. I could go on with other stuff, but this has all happened within the last three years and it's really starting to be a pain in the @ss. Nice to find I'm not alone at least. I know one thing for sure, reading the internet is BAD news when it comes to "symptoms" so I can't imagine being subjected to explanations on a daily basis as you are.

As for the anonymous comment, well. I wish I could just tell myself "NO." Even if I do end up having something, I'd rather be able to just live my life without the silly worry. Perhaps I can.

Anonymous said...

wow it's been like 2 years since this post but i thought i should comment anyway - this post is such a great example of med student hypochondria - right now I'm trawling through the internet on abdominal pulsations and it's nice to know that another med student out there thought that they had a AAA too ;)

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