Thursday, September 2, 2021

I’m not a doctor

I’m not a doctor. I think most kids go through a phase where they think they want to be one, but I’m pretty sure I never did. The thought of only seeing people when they’re sick held no appeal for me, and I’m squeamish about blood and a lot of other body stuff doctors need to be able to take in their stride.

When it came to choosing a career, my only real criterion was what would get me a well paying job. My careers guidance teacher looked at my results and noted I was very good at maths and science, so he suggested accountant, actuary or engineer. Accountant sounded like a very boring thing to 18 year old me, so that got ruled out. There’s a saying the actuaries are people who can’t handle the excitement of chartered accountancy, so I ruled that out too. I wasn’t entirely sure what an engineer did, but it sounded vaguely exciting and futuristic, so off I went to university to become an engineer. At the end of first year we had to commit to a specific type of engineering. The options were (in reverse order of my preference)

(1) Agricultural. I ruled that out straight away as it sounded like it involved tractors and being on farms, two things I hated. Also it was widely known that almost nobody chose this one, so it became the preserve of the unfortunate bottom ten per cent in the first year exams

(2) Civil. This wasn’t a popular choice either, it was seen as old school. To me it sounded like it involved being on construction sites in a hard hat, a situation I never had any desire to find myself in, so I put that down as my second least preferred, and hoped my exam results wouldn’t consign me to a career on building sites 

(3) Chemical. This was a little sexier, but also summoned up images of chemical spills and fume filled factories. When my lab partner almost blew one of her hands off in the lab, that sealed it for me as third choice 

(4) Mechanical. This was initially third choice because it sounded like it might involve designing tractors, or at least other machinery, which held zero appeal. On the other hand, you seemed more likely to remain two handed than chemical engineers, so it went down as the reluctant second preference

(5) Electrical/electronic. I wasn’t thrilled about the electrical option, it sounded like it might involve getting electrocuted a lot, or having to work for the ESB, and I wasn’t sure which sounded worse. Electronic on the other hand sounded sexy and futuristic as fuck, so that was the first choice (at the time, you didn’t need to decide which exact type of elec engineering you wanted to be until the end of second year)

My first choice was most people’s first choice too, so to make the grade I had to get into the top 20%, no mean feat because engineering at the time seemed to attract the smart kids from every school in Ireland, or at least the ones who didn’t want to be doctors or accountants or actuaries. I think I just about scraped it, and when the time came scraped into the better side of the electrical electronic fork.

Ironically, by the time I got through the course and knew what electronic engineering actually was (designing circuit boards mostly), I hated it, and didn’t want to be one any more. Instead I blagged my way into computers when I got out of college, starting as a programmer (that’s what we called coders back then) and eventually ending up as a freelance consultant. This paid insanely well by the standards of the time, so well that I basically couldn’t say no to anything I was offered. 

The late 90s were a boom time for people like me as corporations started to panic about the millennium bug, and saw me effectively triple jobbing on three different projects. One of them was for an American bank in the city of London and I had to commute three days a week (from Dublin!). The other four days were spent at home, every waking hour going to working on the other two projects. Needless to say, this was a pretty stressful schedule, and I quickly got run down. A permanent cold became a permanent cough, and then I started coughing up blood. This was an alarming development, but who had time to go see a doctor who would presumably just tell you to take some time off? Not me, that’s who not. So I struggled on. Now not only was blood coming up, but also weird sticky gunk that lodged in my airways cutting off my breath. On one occasion this caused me to pass out at 3 am in the bathroom of the flat my brother shared with his girlfriend in London. But for her quick thinking and knowledge of first aid it could have been a very ignominious end. Suitably chastened, I went straight to the doctor.......section of the nearest book store where there were “self diagnose what might be wrong with you” type books with flowcharts where you followed your symptoms down the chart to some horrible disease like lung cancer or brucellosis you could potentially have. 

One of my work colleagues helpfully told me the bank hired a top UK doctor one afternoon a week for their non NHS covered American employees, and got me an appointment. The doctor told me to go to his private practise in Harley Street where he did an X-ray and decided that while coughing up blood and gunk wasn’t good there didn’t seem to be anything seriously wrong with my lungs apart from my asthma. He was at a loss to explain what was causing the symptoms, so he referred me to a hospital. After months of further tests and other specialists, several more doctors were at a loss and nobody was able to shed light on what my problem was beyond working too hard. My symptoms gradually subsided, but I started getting others like heart palpitations and fasciculations. I still had the self diagnosing book, and had started scouring the early medical web sites like WebMD, trying to figure out which horrible neurological disorder I was now developing. In the absence of prescribed medication, I started gobbling all sorts of herbal medicines various web sites recommended, and upped my dosage of ones I’d been using for years like garlic and echinacea. The latter in particular was touted as a near miraculous panacea on all the herbal medicine sites so I was taking the maximum recommended dose. 

My wife eventually suggested I return to our old doctor in the place we used to live, as he always seemed to have a good handle on me. So I took the train and paid him a visit. He spent almost an hour listening to my tale of woe and many theories as to what I might have, and after a quick physical inspection he said

“I think the problem is you’ve seen too many doctors in the last year and read too many medical websites. I don’t think there’s actually anything wrong with you at this point”.

A cloud lifted, and I immediately felt better. It was all I really needed, to hear that it was all in my head at this point. To this day, I’m not sure what caused the initial problems with the coughed up blood and gunk, but I did find one article that suggested that all the symptoms I experienced could be an allergic reaction to echinacea, something that apparently is reasonably common in asthmatics. So it’s possible that all the time I was gobbling down echinacea to “treat” my problem I was actually exacerbating it.

Over time that part of my life faded in my memory. It returned recently when I saw the debates raging on social media between the vaccers and anti vaccers. I see a lot of my earlier self in those who did a “deep dive” into the topic with the help of a search engine and came out of the experience thinking they now know more than people who, unlike me, didn’t mind the idea of only seeing sick people and weren’t squeamish about blood and went off to college and got a real medical education.

A few of these have tried to draw me into a debate. I always politely demur on the basis that I’m not a doctor. When it comes to medical stuff, I’m the guy who kinda knows the hand rankings, and nothing else, and not even. I’m not a doctor, and neither are the people who want to debate it out with me, because actual experts don’t try to engage noobs like me in medical debates, in the same way that high rollers don’t go looking for people who barely know the hand rankings to debate poker strategy. 

Did I mention that I’m not a doctor?



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