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Deadly Medical Symptoms not to ignore - even though your Doctor probably will

Updated on December 5, 2012
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Tony Lawrence was born in 1948 and spent most of his career as a self-employed computer troubleshooter for Unix systems.

I just read an article in Readers Digest about "Seven Deadly Symptoms to Treat Now".

That was quite the headline, though the actual article was a bit more mundane: a twisted ankle is not a "deadly symptom". I'll have more to say about that very shortly.

I do admire the premise of the article in spite of its misleading headline. Basically, it warned against taking certain symptoms too lightly, and that's good advice, especially for men. We males do tend to minimize things we should not, and that can be dangerous. I imagine women do the same at times, especially when stressed by the demands of work or family.

I will also note that our current medical system contributes to this by making it difficult and time consuming to see a doctor. The simple phone consultations of years ago are discouraged, so just finding out if you need to be concerned might mean giving up a lot of time - there are many factors that discourage people from seeking medical help.

I feel no guilt in saying that blame also belongs to doctors themselves.

A Sprained Ankle

Yes, ankle sprains are number four on the list of "deadly" symptoms. Yes, that's funny by itself, but apparently this can be serious. The article explains that, if not properly treated, an ankle sprain can set you up for what they call "chronic instability", which can lead to more injuries. I suppose that since that could mean falls, "deadly" is at least possible too.

I'm sure most of us have sprained our ankles. In most cases, you and your ankle will be fine a few hours later even if you do nothing. This article doesn't say you should call an ambulance for a simple sprain; what they are concerned about is a sprain so bad that you simply cannot walk.

I have had such a sprain. Not "it hurts to walk", but "it is impossible to put even the slightest bit of load on this foot".

I don't even remember how I did it. I think I tripped at the bottom of some stairs and did it as I tried to catch my fall. Whatever, it was immediately very, very bad.

Of course I did what any man would do: I hopped to the couch and laid down. It's just an ankle sprain!

Comes the Dawn

The next morning had no good news for me. It was visibly swollen and no less painful. I needed help. We had no crutches, so I hopped to the car and drove to the Emergency Room.

Note: a pair of adjustable crutches are a very good thing to have on hand. Now older and wiser, we have two pair in a closet. You never know when you might need these.

When I got there, there were no open parking spaces available except handicapped. Well, I certainly was handicapped, but the laws regarding handicapped parking don't take that into account. I pulled up to a guard and asked him for help.

He wasn't interested. He pointed to a lot across the street. I could see that there were a few open spaces way in the back, but I knew I couldn't hop that far on one leg. I explained that to him. He didn't care.

I asked if he could possibly call and get someone to bring me crutches to use. No, he couldn't. Was there a place nearby where I might BUY crutches? He didn't know of any and, tiring of me, pointed wordlessly at the lot across the street.


So I drove and parked. Hopping that distance on one leg was extremely difficult, but somehow I got there and entered the Emergency Room.

Of course I expected to be ignored for hours. A sprained ankle is not life threatening. I checked in, hopped to a chair and settled in for a long wait. I had no gripes about that.

Eventually I had X-rays and saw a doctor who brusquely informed me that it was not broken and I could be on my way. Apparently he was unaware of "chronic instability".

Apparently he was also an idiot. I patiently explained that I could not walk. He shook his head in agreement: yes, things were pretty well munged up there, he was not surprised. Of course I couldn't walk.

So, oh, brilliant Doctor, since we are in agreement on that, how am I supposed to be "on my way"? You'd think I had asked him how I could learn to play the piano by his reaction. That wasn't his problem!

Of course not. He's a doctor. Why would my leaving the Emergency Room be any of his concern?

I have had that on another visit, by the way. I had slipped and fallen hard while shoveling snow and could not get up. An ambulance took me that time and I was carried around on a board and eventually put in a bed where another disinterested doctor told me that nothing was broken and I could go home now. How? How can I go home when I can't stand up???

Both of those visits are in my mind any time I am thinking about whether I need a doctor.

I don't remember how I got back to my car from that sprained ankle bit. For the snow shoveling incident, the doctor finally realized that I'd have to wait until the pain medicine took effect and I was able, with some help, to get to the car my wife was waiting in.

I do remember that they gave me an "air brace" for my ankle. Once it started to heal a bit, this really did help and is another thing I really recommend having on hand.

My Doctor doesn't like Universal Health Care
My Doctor doesn't like Universal Health Care

So anyway, Doc

Those are not the only times where I have ended up wondering why I bothered to go to a doctor. I have severe astigmatism and have been warned not to ignore big arcs in my eyes because, if not treated promptly, I could go blind.

However, it turns out that you can get these from what they call a "retinal migraine" too, and if that's what you have, you are just wasting time and money. From what I have been told, the only way for me to distinguish these is to wait patiently. If the bright arc goes away, it was a migraine. If it does not, supposedly I should have already been on my way to my doctor!

Great - that's helpful. This was another thing that article mentioned, of course. Twice, so there really were not 7 things, and that's not "deadly" either.

So you see, Doc, why I really would rather ignore the symptoms. The few times where I really did need help, the medical profession has let me down and really made me feel like I had wasted their precious time. Maybe so, but it felt pretty serious to me, and if you expect me to react to even lesser symptoms, well, you just aren't thinking clearly.

Seriously: if I can't see protuding bone or gushing blood - and I do mean GUSHING - I'm not going. That article says a bad headache can be dangerous too. Oh yeah: I've had headaches where it felt like someone just whacked me with a tomahawk. Headaches that left me dizzy and nauseous. I didn't bother with a doctor because of what I have experienced before: a waste of my time and my money.

OK, if I get that "crushing chest" symptom, I'll go. Abdominal pain? It's going to have to be something pretty fierce. Depression? Are you kidding me? Does a dangerously depressed person know they are in danger? I doubt it.

In all seriousness, the medical profession doesn't make it easy for anyone to want to seek assistance with minor symptoms and you charge us outrageous fees to glance at us and tell us we're fine. This is why people don't go, and this is why people die who should have gone.

It's not our fault. It's your fault, Doc. You and the insurance companies and the hospitals. Your fault, not ours.

It's also another reason why we should have universal, free, health coverage. My current doctor doesn't agree, of course: she might make a little less money and it would be awful if she had to give up one of her Caribbean vacations, right?

OK, I'm done ranting. That article just set me off. I like my doctor and I have had good medical care at other times. Just not enough times.

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