Paging Dr. Google

I could have gone to pieces when my wife told me she has Parkinson’s Disease. But I feel that with things like this, it’s best not to overreact. To stay calm, because it’s what she needs from me. It won’t do either of us any good if we’re both panicking. I could get emotional, I could start railing at the fates, but I’ve learned that it’s best to stay calm when talking one’s spouse out of her self-diagnosis.

Because she doesn’t have Parkinson’s Disease. She has a runny nose and a sore back and a headache. But thanks to the wonders of Google, she can search on those symptoms and get a whole array of possibilities. And wouldn’t you know, she tends to skip right over the ones like “common cold” and “24-hour flu” and spend the next 48 hours agonizing between it being Hepatitis or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

If, as the saying goes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, it seems in the Internet era that a lot of it is even worse. Certainly, for certain things, it’s great to be able to tap into the giant hive mind that is the Internet and apply its accrued wisdom. Computer problems are the best example I can think of. I can’t remember the last time I called tech support, or took my computer somewhere to fix it; I just Google whatever it’s doing (or not doing), and pretty soon I’ve solved my problem. I rewired my whole house armed only with a pair of pliers, a quart of screw-on wire couplers, and my computer. I’m sure if I was one to work on my own car, the Internet would be an invaluable resource.

But working on cars and computers, even your own, is not the same thing as trying to figure out what’s wrong with your own body. No matter how much you love your car, it’s still possible — difficult, maybe, but still possible — to take a step back and think rationally about it. But, in the absence of the ten-year medical education and real-world experience that doctors bring to bear in an exam, and burdened instead with the natural anxiety and fear and emotion that are such an unfortunate part of the human condition, the accumulated medical learning of the last thousand years is reduced to a demented Rorschach test, where our worst mortal worries can flower into awful purple-thorned tentacles choking off all our better logical impulses.

Thus, when my wife gets a little sweaty under the blankets at night from time to time, the likely and relatively benign diagnoses of hypoglycemia, or “idiopathic hyperhidrosis” (literally, sweating for no reason) — are immediately and automatically overlooked in favor of the much scarier early menopause. (The conception of our son put this particular worry to rest — for a while, anyway.)

When she has a short muscle spasm, it’s not just a cramp, or fatigue, or restless leg syndrome; not when Lou Gehrig’s Disease and Multiple Sclerosis are at the bottom of the page. When she gets a canker sore, it’s obviously Herpes, even though she’s been with me for 14 years and I don’t have Herpes.

There’s a wide array of these medical websites, chock-full of terrifying information for the so inclined, and they are of course full of warnings and disclaimers;  Each listing of possible causes of a given symptom is prefaced by the warning that before any diagnosis can be made, a full accounting of a person’s age, medical history, and family history must be analyzed by a doctor. But those warnings are like the “please drink responsibly” in tiny print at the bottom of a beer commercial depicting 400 people bouncing on a roof to terrible music and in no way drinking responsibly: that is to say, a pro forma indemnification, there only to be ignored. In the heat of a fevered (fever being the surest sign of bacterial meningitis, by the way) late-night Google session to determine the cause of one’s diarrhea, cooler heads that might point to any number of innocuous causes are hard to come by — likelier is the conclusion that acute cirrhosis of the liver has set in, and death is imminent.

I’m not exactly innocent here — I’ve certainly been known to self-diagnose via Google. But where my wife will take the opportunity to confirm her worst fears (or in many cases, welcome some brand-new ones), I tend to go the other way: I’ve been having a lot of head rushes when I get up lately — actually fainted a couple of times, in fact — and when I Googled that problem I passed by “Addison’s Disease” and “Multiple System Atrophy” and decided “Low Blood Pressure” must be the problem, because it’s benign and there’s no need to go to the doctor. Case closed!

I hope this doesn’t come off as an attack on my wife, because I don’t think this tendency of hers is at all unusual — my it’s-probably-nothing approach is probably the less common of the two. It’s more a measure of how supremely fucked the healthcare system is in this country: Rather than go to a doctor, who in all but a few legitimately awful cases would dispel their patients’ fears and send them on their way with an Advil and a few minutes’ free therapy, we’re all forced to try and figure this shit out ourselves. It seems better than the alternative, which is to try and navigate the primary care physician out of network referral deductible maze that is the modern HMO.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m having a hard time concentrating on writing this — I just Googled “loss of concentration” and in only two clicks I determined that I’m in the midst of a congestive heart failure, so I’m going to sign off and try and dash off a living will real quick.

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