Acute Illness

What A Dismissive Doctor Taught Me About Listening To My Instincts

Sometimes, your inner voice is your best medical advocate. So pay attention to it: it could just save your life.

I was 19 years old, 700 miles from home, and it hurt to breathe. I first noticed the pain as I walked across campus one evening in early April. A rainbow stretched across the sky and a warm breeze caressed my cheeks. I was too enraptured by the Pennsylvania spring, full of flowers and void of the mud that Maine Aprils are known for, to pay attention to a little thing like chest pain.

After a few days though, the pain remained. I would attempt one of those deep, refreshing breaths that fills your lungs and clears your mind, but each time a sharp pain stopped me. It wasn’t constant, but it was persistent enough to make me, a typically stoic individual, mention it to a friend as we sat side-by-side in the computer lab one night.

“What does it mean when it hurts to breathe?” I asked, as though a fellow teenager would know the answer.

Surprisingly, he did. “You probably have gas,” he told me with the confidence of a medical doctor.

“You probably have gas,” he told me with the confidence of a medical doctor.

As the youngest of four girls, I was not used to discussing such embarrassing bodily functions with members of the opposite sex. If I’d known that 17 years later, with two boys of my own, gas and excrement would be regular topics of conversation, I may have felt comfortable enough to go into more detail with my friend. Since I was not yet privy to that information, though, I dropped the subject.

After a full week of off-and-on pain, I decided to visit the college clinic. A nurse checked my vitals, listened to my lungs, and informed me that she could not find anything wrong with me. Perhaps it was just gas. Maybe I’d been holding it in for so long that it had built up to an unhealthy level.

By late afternoon though, it was clear to me that something was truly wrong. I couldn’t climb a set of stairs without excruciating pain. Any movement that required me to turn my core left me doubled over. So I did what any teenager would do in that situation. I called my mom.

Of course, she knew just from the sound of my voice that I was not okay. I was a healthy kid, but even when I was sick, I wasn’t given to tears and drama. She talked to me, then to my roommate, and told us both to go to the Emergency Room. We recruited a friend to take us, and on our drive, he regaled us with the tale of the time he went to the ER for appendicitis and it turned out to be, you guessed it, gas.

So I did what any teenager would do in that situation. I called my mom.

It took four hours of sitting in the waiting room before I was ushered into an exam room that doubled as a supply closet. My roommate was allowed to join me and we nervously joked about how maybe I’d let out a big fart and we could go back to the dorms.

When the doctor arrived, he was terse. After an initial workup, he informed me that I probably had a minor muscle strain and he gave me a muscle relaxer to alleviate any spasms. I don’t know what persuaded him to order further tests. In my mind’s eye, he saw me as a silly college girl, wasting his time and taking him away from the more pressing medical needs of other patients. Even so, he ordered an EKG and a chest x-ray.

I’ll forever be thankful that despite thinking I was overreacting, my doctor was still thorough. As I was wheeled from the radiology department after my x-ray, the tech told me, “I can’t definitively tell you this, but the doctor will probably say that your lung has collapsed.”

Sure enough, as I laid on a gurney in the emergency department hallway, the doctor approached, suddenly kind, unhurried, fatherly. He perched himself on the edge of the mattress and placed a reassuring hand on my leg.

I took the news the way any teenage girl would: By silently thanking God that it wasn’t gas….

“Your right lung is about 80% collapsed,” he told me. “We’re going to get you into a room and you’ll have a chest tube inserted to re-inflate it.”

I took the news the way any teenage girl would: By silently thanking God that it wasn’t gas, then triumphantly thinking, “Ha! None of you believed me, but I knew something was wrong with me!”

The next three weeks passed in a flurry of hospital stays, doctor’s visits, surgery, and finally freedom. I made a quick and full recovery, and although the surgeon discovered scar tissue on my lungs, we never did learn how it got there or why it tore to cause the pneumothorax. Perhaps we’ll never know.

It’s been 17 years since that ordeal and it’s forever shaped the way I listen to my own instincts. I still don’t run to the doctor at the first sign of pain, but I pay attention to the signals my body sends me, and when they persist, I do something about them.

The experience has also shaped the way I pay attention to my children’s pain. Much like my own mother, or any mother for that matter, I know my kids well enough to differentiate between a cry for sympathy and a cry from real pain, but I try to listen to the subtler signs too; the quiet part of me that whispers when something isn’t quite right.

When I choose to listen, my inner voice is often right.

I don’t always hear it. Sometimes I miss the signs of an ear infection or make one of the kids go to school with a cold that later turns into a fever. When I choose to listen though, my inner voice is often right. Like when I insisted on near weekly pediatrician appointments until my six-month-old finally got diagnosed with multiple food allergies. Or when I knew not to write off intermittent vomiting as a stomach bug and we learned that my child had an impacted colon.

I have plenty of moments of self-doubt, and I’m sometimes convinced to write off symptoms as ‘no big deal.’ But I’ve also been gifted with an experience that reminds me that when I’m tempted to ignore my instincts, sometimes a bad case of gas is actually a collapsed lung.

Creative Commons image by Adrian Berg.