Saturday, November 21, 2015

Doctor Google, the NHS and Me

This is a cautionary tale wrapped in a cautionary tale. It's a tad convoluted, so hang on.

I have stupid eyebrows. If the hair on my head was like my eyebrows, I would have a shock of thick, lush hair just above my forehead and none anywhere else. I have no idea when or why this happened; it seemed to sneak up on me. One day my eyebrows were fine, the next time I took notice, they were stupid.

Some time ago, I mentioned this in a blog post. As part of the research for that post, I put “Stupid Eyebrows” (or something like that) into Google and discovered it was a symptom of Hypothyroidism, a condition that, among its many side effects, included death.

I found this amusing, mentioned it in the post, resolved to never again look up any symptom on Google and thought nothing more about it.

Until I had a heart attack.

Well, it felt like a heart attack. My heart was racing, my chest was tight, I had trouble catching my breath, I was sweating and, yeah, it felt like a heart attack. Except that I was pretty sure it wasn't, so I resisted turning to Dr. Google (because I knew what the diagnosis would be) and simply waited for the symptoms to go away, which they eventually did. Then I forgot about it.

My wife was not as sanguine about the event as I was, however, and insisted I go to the doctor. The doctor was not very sanguine, either; he sent me to A&E. (That’s the emergency room, for you American readers, not the popular cable channel that shows WWII documentaries.)

There, I was subjected to blood tests, X-rays, ECGs, exams and probing questions in what I can only describe as organized chaos. I was, however, impressed with the NHS, its calm competence, thoroughness and willingness to bring me a cup of tea in a china mug. (We watch the ITV reality show “24 Hours in A&E” filmed at St. George’s in London, and when they bring patients tea, it is always in a Styrofoam cup; at the Surrey A&E, we get china mugs, so suck on that, St. George’s.)

Eventually, a charming doctor with a plummy accent pronounced me healthy and let me go.

Naturally, I thought it would make an excellent post.

I didn't want to write anything about it until the entire drama was played out, however, which turned out to be a lot longer than I anticipated. In the ensuing weeks, I was poked, prodded, x-rayed and spent days wired up to a device worn around my waist, which made me glad I wasn’t travelling anywhere at the time. Had I shown up at an airport wearing that, I’m sure I would have been shot as a suspected terrorist.

I was even treated to an ultrasound of my heart, and the opportunity of watching it pump away on a monitor. They didn’t tell me if it was a boy or a girl, but they did say it seemed fine.

What do you think, boy or girl?
The tests went on for so long that I thought the NHS was going to keep testing me until they, by God, found something wrong with me. In the end, they relented and satisfied themselves by diagnosing me with mild arrhythmia.

During the interim period, I did a bit of research for the post I was planning to write, the point of which was to demonstrate the dangers of relying on Dr. Google. I thought I’d use my eyebrows as an example, but instead of referring to my past post, I went back to Dr. Google.

This time, instead of a list of symptoms I clearly did not have, I saw myself, quite vividly, being described: leg cramps, yes, I had been having them (we call them Charlie Horses in the US; if you want to confuse a Brit, tell them you have a Charlie Horse, they will be utterly perplexed, but then so will you when they ask why it is called that and you have to admit you haven’t a clue), fatigue, biting your tongue (hadn’t I bitten my tongue just the day before?), restless leg syndrome, something I hadn’t even known I had (I just thought my leg was falling asleep), thinning hair, arrhythmia and, of course, stupid eyebrows.

Oddly, I was cheered by this news. Hypothyroidism is treatable. With some simple hormone therapy all these symptoms would disappear, my heart incident would be explained and my eyebrows would return.

Elated, I went to the doctor and told him of my symptoms and asked him to test me for Hypothyroidism. That’s when I got the bad news.

He had already tested me, and I did not have it.

“But what about my symptoms?” I asked. “My leg cramps, my fatigue, my thinning hair?” And that’s when he gave me even worse news. I was suffering from a fatal condition for which there was no cure: I was getting older.

I returned home crestfallen. Then a strange thing happened. The muscle cramps stopped, my leg settled down and I didn't bite my tongue again.

But I still have, and will likely continue to have, stupid eyebrows.


  1. I also suffer from stupid eyebrows but I attribute it to the fact that I have a stupid, crooked face. One side is wider and lower than the other side. If you flipped each of the sides over to make a full face, it'd look like two different people. Of course, I have the advantage of being able to use makeup to fill in the eyebrow gap. You gents would probably raise eyebrows doing that (pun intended)!

    1. Yes, I think I'll keep the look I have now. I don't want to risk making them look stupider.