Sophie Smith shares health lessons learned from watching House, and how the show both helped and hindered her struggle with hypochondria.
I have always been excessively anxious about my health. For as long as I can remember, any prolonged or acute headache has been followed by the declaration that I must have a brain tumour. Pain in my neck? Viral meningitis. The slightest abnormal test result? Tearful phone calls to both my mother and my aunt, and more frantic emails to my doctor (bless her for her patience with me). It took me a while, but I have come to terms with the fact that I am something of a hypochondriac.
I had always thought that people shared a similar level of anxiety about their health, but were just less vocal about it – to be honest, there is still an irrational part of me that thinks this is actually the case. According to WebMD (the top website on my favourites bar), “what hypochondriacs have trouble accepting is that normal, healthy people have symptoms. Hypochondriacs tend to be very aware of bodily sensations that most people live with and ignore. To a hypochondriac, an upset stomach becomes a sign of cancer and a headache can only mean a brain tumour.”
For a long time I didn’t think it were possible for me to be a true hypochondriac, as those people (parodied on many a medical drama) are constantly ringing ambulances, always turning up in the emergency departments of hospitals, and repeatedly asking for test upon test to reassure themselves that they are healthy. But when I looked back at my track record from the last 12 months (11 unnecessary GP visits, and seven blood tests that showed nothing abnormal, apart from a slight vitamin B12 deficiency), there does seem to be something of a pattern.
I can joke about and make light of my hypochondria when I have been reassured that I’m healthy. But when I’m in a downward spiral of anxiety – thinking something is seriously wrong with me – it can be a very unpleasant mental trip indeed.
With all that in mind, you might think that I would shy away from medical dramas, especially shows that focus so heavily on the actual illnesses, like House. However, since House began in 2004, I have had a sick fascination with the show. House terrifies me, sure, but it has gripped me like very few other shows in my life.
I always preferred it to the likes of Grey’s Anatomy, which convey very little medical amongst the drama. When it comes down to it, I like House because of the wealth of medical trivia it comprises, though I am aware that there is still a lot of drama amongst the medical. House would have you believe that everyone bleeds out their eyes and passes out in a seizure before they are even admitted to hospital.
Although House hasn’t really helped me improve the level of anxiety that I feel about my health, it has helped me work through and come to terms with my hypochondria. I can tell you that my sense of humour about the whole issue has been vastly ameliorated after eight seasons of House. For example, I can now laugh about this droll definition, rather than working myself into a tailspin as it prompts me to remember the disease or condition on the episode of House that I most recently re-watched (toxoplasmosis):
Much like the popularity of the horror film genre, I am drawn to House because it frightens me. On the one hand, House does make me worry about conditions and diseases that I’m very unlikely to have (rationally I know that it would be very unusual for the average person in New Zealand to contract African Sleeping Sickness, but at the time I was entirely convinced). But on the other hand, exposure and normalisation to the idea of disease helps me to work through my anxiety.
I don’t rely on House for all my medical information of course (I know the writers take a few artistic liberties), but it has become something of a springboard from which I investigate the things that interest me. The more informed I am, the less scary illness is to me in general.
Top lessons I have learned from House (that continue to haunt me everyday):
Don’t eat too many Brazil nuts. One gripping case involved a secret agent who had traveled to South America, and had been struck down with a series of dramatic symptoms. He ended up looking like this:
Moral of this story, if you don’t want to look like this and then die, don’t eat too many Brazil nuts. Brazil nuts contain a high concentration of selenium, and too many of them can give you selenium poisoning. I have always remembered this episode and parroted this fact, because I find it so interesting, and I really like Brazil nuts.
Selenium in small amounts is an essential nutrient for humans, but it isn’t present in NZ soil, so supplementing a small amount by eating Brazil nuts is very beneficial. Though no more than two or three Brazil nuts a day! I couldn’t exceed this dosage anyway (so expensive amirite?), but for the high rollers out there buying nuts left and right, don’t go crazy on the Brazil variety, lest you end up like Secret Agent 03 from House.
If you are diving and come across sunken treasure, especially an unopened jar, do not retrieve it and bring it to the surface. It will be from a sunken slave ship, and it will contain pox spores. This was another fascinating case in which a teenage girl broke a jar that she found in a shipwreck dive (the most obvious lesson here is be careful with glass, it can be brittle after hundreds of years underwater), cut her hand, and exposed her open wound to some weird spore-ridden paper.
She immediately contracts Rickettsialpox, which presents similarly to smallpox. What a nightmare! But it’ll never happen to me, because I now know better than to pick up old jars in shipwrecks. I’d say you could extrapolate this lesson and generally avoid opening jars with weird stuff inside them. You never know, someone could be trying to assassinate you with anthrax as well.
There was a diving storyline in another episode, in which someone did a decompression dive and then immediately boarded a plane. I’m sure everyone who dives knows this, but WAIT the recommended time before you get on a plane! The bends is no joke, as I learned from House. I employed this knowledge a few years ago in Thailand, though perhaps to an excessive extent (the recommended waiting times are most likely accurate, and upon reflection we probably didn’t need to flag that Air Asia flight).
Avoid pork, any undercooked or raw meats, and raw fish. You will contract tapeworms. Many of my close friends know that tapeworms disgust me to no end, and I think House may have been the initial trigger for my revulsion. In the first episode of season one, they dive right in with a tapeworm case. The patient contracted them by eating ham. To this day I don’t have much of a fondness for ham.
I also learned a valuable tip from this episode, if you think you have a tapeworm infestation (blergh), then X-ray your thigh. Apparently tapeworms show up on normal X-rays, and they love them some thigh meat.
A good rule of thumb is that if any part of you turns yellow, your liver is probably not working. Often this first occurs in the whites of your eyes before your skin. The technical term for this is jaundice, and can occur for a bunch of different reasons, most often to do with some kind of liver problem. This came in real world useful when I was able to diagnose my father’s liver failure and get him to the hospital stat. True story.
So basically, if you suddenly think you have developed schizophrenia – check your eyeballs for orange rings. This means your liver is not processing copper properly, and you do not have schizophrenia, thank goodness for that!
Pharmacists make mistakes. Always check that your medication looks like what it’s supposed to look like, because it’s estimated that pharmacist error accounts for up to 7,000 deaths in the United States per year. House had a case where this guy’s cough medicine looked very similar to gout medication, and too high a dose of the gout medication gave him colchicine poisoning – which mimics arsenic poisoning.
You wouldn’t believe the number of embarrassing incidents this has caused for me at my local Amcal, between opening up the packets for closer inspection, and asking the pharmacist to double check it’s the right pill.
Don’t look up your symptoms online and then tell the doctors what you think is wrong with you. House has taught me that when people self-diagnose, the doctors probably just give them a placebo anyway. That’ll teach all us self-diagnosers a lesson!
Probably the most important thing I have learned from watching House that has a direct real world consequence, is that doctors hate it when people self-diagnose. This, of course, goes against all my natural instincts as a hypochondriac. But the number of times my own doctor has told me not to look up my symptoms online seems to corroborate this running theme in House.
Although a bit of self-diagnosis can help me to alleviate my anxiety, the phrase, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” seems to apply. More often than not, I’ll end up at the conclusion that I have three types of cancer and an infectious disease because I have a sore stomach and a bit of a headache.
House has really drilled it into me that doctors know what they are doing (I hear they do a fair few years of training), and mostly the obvious answer is probably the right one. I am by no means a reformed hypochondriac. I’m definitely still affected by anxiety about my health. But my House obsession has allowed me to confront the beast head on, and have a bit of a laugh about it on the way.
Gotta go, I’m running a slight fever that needs consulting on WebMD.