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Guest Blog: Illness is Not Discrete. On Feeling Sick, and Not Knowing What's Next


A few days ago, the room around me started spinning.'  I wished I were Jack Kerouac, so it wouldn't matter if my thoughts were clear but that I tapped them out.'  Rat tat tat. Or Frank Sinatra with a cold. You'd want to know either of those guys, in detail. Up-close, loud, even breathing on you. You'd hire 'em. Because even when they're down, they're good. Handsome. Cool, slick, unforgettable. Illness doesn't capture or define them.

Last Tuesday, I was feeling great. I went to the National Press Club'  for the first time and was excited about some presentations I heard. I took careful notes and intended, eventually, to share those with commentary. It was a sunny day. I bought some groceries, planned a bunch of posts and to finish a freelance piece. In the evening I had dinner with my husband, and it seemed like my life was on track.

The rash was the first thing. Just some red, itchy bumps on the back of my neck. And then fatigue. Not just a little tired, but like I couldn't write a sentence. And since then I've been in the center of a kaleidoscope, everything moving clockwise around my head. It's not bright purple or hot pink and blue and stained glass-green kinds of colors circling, but the drab objects in the bedroom: the lamp, the shadow cast by the top of the door, the rows of light through the blinds, the brown and beige sheets, the back cover of last month's Atlantic and my reading glasses on the nightstand, the gray bowl I've placed at hand, just in case I barf again. Walking is tricky. I'm dehydrated and weak, and my vision's blurred.

This is not a pretty scene, if you could sf you could see it. And that's the thing. The point.

Because in my experience, which is not trivial, people on both sides of illness ' professionals and people you just know ' are drawn to healthy people. A broken arm, a low-stage breast cancer that's treated and done with, a bout of pneumonia ' these are things that a career can afford, an editor can handle, friends can be supportive. But when you have one thing, and then another, and then another, it gets scary, it weighs you down. Just when you start feeling OK, and confident, something happens and you're back, as a patient.

In the apartment on a spring day, with fever and fatigue, I've got no choice. I am not a consumer now. Not even close. That is my role, maybe, when I go to the dentist and decline having x-rays or my teeth whitened. No choice, except if I go to a hospital, to have a bunch of blood drawn and my husband would fill in the forms before the doctors who don't know me in this city inform me I've got a viral infection, and labrynthitis as I've had a dozen times before, all of a sudden, disabling. Nothing to do but rest and hydrate. And wish I'd gotten some other work done, but I couldn't.

I've got to go with it, my health or illness, be that as it is. No careful critiques of comparative effectiveness research today. No reading about the Choosing Wisely'  guidelines. No post on Dengue, as I'd planned for yesterday.'  Like many people with illnesses ' and many with far more serious conditions ' I'm disappointed. Maybe because I was sick as a child and missed half of tenth grade, I have trouble accepting these kinds of disruptions. Illness represents a loss of control, besides all the physical aspects.

I might try to watch TV, but more likely I'll just fall sleep again. That happened yesterday. And for those of youhealth IT'  or gadget guys'  reading, who talk about smart phones and how useful they are for patients seeking info, or maybe even checking vitals, I'll say this: I'm just glad I've got such a device, simply that I can call for help, that I can be in touch,'  call my doctor and family. That makes being sick less scary.

This is a drag of a post, but it's real. No point in blogging if I don't say it like it is, what I am. If nothing else, this proves I'm alive.'  So there!

Better tomorrow.

More Blog Posts by Elaine Schattner

author bio

Elaine Schattner, M.D., is a trained oncol­ogist, hema­tol­ogist, edu­cator and jour­nalist who writes about med­icine. Her views on health care are informed by her expe­ri­ences as a patient with sco­l­iosis since childhood and other con­di­tions including breast cancer. She is a Clinical Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of Med­icine at Weill Cornell Medical College, where she teaches part-time. She holds an active New York State medical license and is board-certified in the Internal Med­icine sub­spe­cialties of Hema­tology (blood dis­eases) and Oncology (cancer medicine). She writes regularly on her blog, Medical Lessons. You can follower her on Twitter @ElaineSchattner.

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