Hypochondriacs are used to living their life worrying about their health only to be consistently told that “no you aren’t having a heart attack,” or “no you do not have [fill in the blank disease].” We get used to this pattern of worry and subconsciously expect that negative test result or unnecessary doctor’s visit. How does it shake our ways when we actually do have something to worry about?
My health scare sounds a lot worse than it is, but in the effort to keep my blog exciting post-adventures in Africa, the truth is that I have latent TB. Before any of my friends who read this blog (thanks to those of you out there) decide to disinfect anything I have ever come in contact with I would like to say that I am absolutely not contagious and not sick. I am scared to tell people because I can only imagine how I would react hearing this despite assurances that someone had the “inactive” form of TB. But from a fellow germaphobe hypochondriac I have thoroughly researched this.
At some point in my life I was exposed to TB (I am sending dirty stares to all people who have ever coughed on me) and my body fought it off. The TB bacteria is still present in my cells and in very rare cases especially if someone’s immune system is weakened the TB could become active. This is the reason I had to go through all these tests when everything seemed fine to me.
It all started when I went to my new fancy doctor in Boston. I am quite obsessed with my new doctor’s office because it is a medical practice that seems to be geared towards worriers. You can email the doctors with any questions you have, the doctors are so patient and attentive, and it has the nicest waiting room I have ever seen. In reviewing my medical history my doctor asked me if after my trip to Kenya I had been tested for TB and I suddenly remembered that I had conveniently ignored the advice to get this test when I got back.
I have had several instances in my life where I got a TB test, which seemed positive, but then was told by doctors that it was likely just a skin reaction or something else. I expected the same cycle to happen this time when my doctor told me my TB skin test seemed positive. She told me to get a blood test for TB which would probably come out negative, even telling me there had been a patient before me who had the same problem and had just got a negative result from the blood test.
I got the blood test and a week later (despite me calling everyday for the results). I got an email from my fancy doctor’s office confirming my appointment for the next day. As I hadn’t made an appointment I knew this was not good news. Five minutes later I received an email from fancy doctor’s office telling me my TB blood test was positive.
My hypochondriac pattern was shaken and I had no idea what to do with the fact that this time I had not exactly been worrying about nothing. I did what any anxious emotional girl would do and pulled over on the side of the road with my hazards on and called my mom hysterically crying. I also threw in a dramatic text to Shaun that said, “I have TB,” perhaps playing with the shock value of this statement.
Phase two of three of this process was for me to get a chest x-ray. By now I had calmed down and decided I could handle this like an adult and decided to just casually stop by the hospital to get a chest x-ray. As someone who over-worries about things I did not have enough foresight to consider how I would feel in this situation alone. I am still used to my mom taking me to scary doctor’s appointments (just last year I felt like a ten year old girl hysterically crying in the waiting room to my mom before getting my wisdom teeth removed). When I walked in I saw patients on hospital beds chatting about lunch and family members watching TV in the waiting area. I checked in and was handed a hospital ID bracelet and told to put on a robe. Dumbfounded I proceeded to freak out while changing in the bathroom only to get walked in on by an elderly man in the waiting room.
Even though I read The Interestings and know that the people doing your x-rays cannot tell you anything I still expected this man to again reconfirm that I was overly worried and say, “these look great.” Instead he had no expression and I was now convinced that my judgment was entirely off and this time something was actually wrong.
The next night I couldn’t sleep and convinced myself I was having a heart attack. This now seemed plausible due to the positive TB test. I googled “27 year old woman having heart attack,” and “right shoulder pain.” In the morning when I had a scheduled appointment to get the chest x-ray results I had a panic attack and lay in bed trying to do yoga breathing.
The chest x-rays were fine and all that was left between me finding out what latent TB meant for me was an appointment with an infectious disease doctor. Just by the title I had a feeling this appointment would not be easy. I decided to bring Shaun along. I couldn’t get an appointment for two weeks so I was uncomfortably powerless and lacking information for this period, not a good state for me.
After googling and talking to friends who had friends who had dealt with this I knew what would likely happen was that I would be put on antibiotics for months. The reason this seemed especially problematic was that you cannot drink at all on these antibiotics. I feel kind of like an alcoholic when I explain that this was part of my worry. I would not consider myself a big drinker, but most people I know enjoy a nice glass of wine at night or can understand that often people ask you to “meet for drinks.” This meant a serious lifestyle change. I had anticipated making this kind of change when I was pregnant, but it felt so disappointing to do it now when I was still supposed to be “young” and carefree.
I had been floating the idea of doing the yoga teacher training that is always advertised at the studio where I do yoga sometimes. I was even more intrigued when I did a two-week daily yoga class with all of the students in the training program. This felt like a kind of nutty idea for someone who is not that devoted to yoga and generally not that good at anything requiring coordination, but I felt that if I got the verdict that I would be on these antibiotics I would have to make other changes in my life to make up for the lifestyle change. Someone told me that this was another thing that was youthful that I could not do when I had kids and other responsibilities. I could take this time just to focus on me. The more I thought about this the more I started to accept the possibility of taking the antibiotics. I basically had made my decision to do the teacher training, but decided to wait until after my doctor’s appointment so in case I got bad news I would be able to direct my attention to something positive.
The morning of my appointment was a massive blizzard. All I wanted to do was get this appointment over with and I was determined to get there regardless of the snow. Shaun and I took the T in the blizzard and were literally covered in snow when we got to the appointment. I brought a lot the snow of into the waiting room and the faux fur-lined hood of my adorable coat smelled like a wet dog. The office wasn’t quite as creepy as I imagined although there was a huge poster in the bathroom about the life cycle of HIV. I took deep breaths and tried to find comfort by being overly chatty with the nurse checking me in.
As soon as Dr. G greeted me I knew I would like her, she gave off a warm and calming presence. Dr. G understood my anxiety and did not try to talk me out of how I was feeling. When she took my pulse she said, “I am expecting it is going to much higher than it normally is,” and of course it was.
Dr. G seemed to have a sense that she would have to sell me on the need for taking medicine when I felt fine and could maybe live without the TB every becoming active. She seemed to know her audience when she said she worries about this for people my age who might become pregnant which changes your immune system. Using this example seemed to hit a nerve with both Shaun and me. She patiently answered every single one of my questions and Shaun even added some thoughtful ones as well. My most ridiculous question was whether I could drink wine that night and start the antibiotics the next day. She smiled and said that yes I should enjoy some wine tonight. Dr. G sent me on my way telling me she would have to see me every month while I was on the medicine and I would have to get blood drawn to make sure my body was handling the antibiotics okay.
We left the hospital and I took some deep breaths, but was basically silent. I think my silence after an emotional event is usually what worries Shaun and the people closest to me the most. He suggested we go get bagels (despite our effort to cut out carbs) and I could sit there and call my parents. The shock prevented me from crying all day. I signed up for the yoga training and felt somewhat comforted, but still defeated. That night I felt like it was my last hoorah, last moments tend to not sit well with me, but I proceeded to drink a lot of wine and made an effort to be carefree and to not think too far ahead.
The night I was going to start my antibiotics was when I had my biggest freak out and also worried about more rational things. Why was I putting this strong antibiotic in my body for four months when I felt fine? Maybe there are strong side effects of this that no one knew about yet. Is this part of our antibiotic culture? Was this a mistake? Was it really happening?
I took the medicine hungry (because you have to take it on an empty stomach), which did not help my reaction as I tend to be miserable when I am overly hungry. My parents tried to reassure me that this was the right plan and people often get surgery when they feel fine. I tried to frame it to myself as similar to getting a vaccine, you are putting a substance in your body, which you may not ever need. I apologize in advance for over-sharing, but if you are reading this blog I think you might be okay with that. Another fun fact, the antibiotic makes your pee this strange neon bright orange hi-c like color so that is quite freaky. It also stains your contacts orange, which will make me feel even more like an alien. This might become my new party trick.
The bottom line is that I know this is actually not a big deal and I am so grateful to be healthy and be able to prevent myself from getting very sick. These little annoyances will become less of a big deal each day. Perhaps this happened at this time to force me to make a life change. I hope this yoga teacher training will be transformative and it is something I probably would not have done had I not been dealing with this TB situation. Maybe this positive test result will lead to positive life changes. It certainly helps provide more interesting blog material, conversational anecdotes, and will be something I will always remember and be able to laugh about. Although, stay tuned for my next entry titled, “I miss wine.
TB Phoebe (great new nickname)