Unbalanced: Doctor, doctor

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Author: Carol Schaal '91M.A.

Carol Schaal

After surviving a morning of teeth-rattling chills, I checked WebMD to see what illness my symptoms might indicate.

I was expecting a list of flu, strep throat, bronchitis. Normal stuff. Instead, the first thing I saw was: Plague.

Plague? For real? I don’t know about you, but this struck me as a bit outlandish. Mostly because my knowledge of the plague is limited to two imprecise things: it existed in some olden time, say the 14th century. And death by plague is painfully awful.

If I were a hypochondriac, it would seem a good time to rush to the ER, waving a copy of the WebMD list and demanding I be treated RIGHT NOW before I suffered the excruciating end of this ancient illness.

My cooler side prevailed, however. Because I figured that instead of being treated RIGHT NOW for plague, the ER staff would rush me to that psych-ward floor and put me in a straitjacket.

I also figured that thinking about this strange diagnosis had sent me into some One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest world.

To its credit, WebMD did list allergies as one possible cause of my malaise. My shaking like a leaf probably was the result of unruly allergies occasioned by green things growing outside that nature-loving people think are beautiful, and they are until they make you sneeze constantly and then, like zucchini, they take over the world.

But by the time I got to that more credible option, I was captivated by the plague idea. So I left WebMD and did the Google thing. And I found something almost as shocking as my errant diagnosis. The plague does exist today. In fact, I learned that bubonic plague recently took down a prairie dog in Saskatchewan.

A prairie dog in Saskatchewan? You just can’t make this stuff up. And now, apparently, I’d entered Wild Kingdom.

Even worse, as the Canadian newspaper article informed me, “The plague is extremely rare in humans and is usually treatable if diagnosed in time. The last case of a human contracting the plague in Canada was in 1939, but there are 10 to 15 cases every year in the southwestern United States. Two deaths were attributed to plague in the United States in 1996.”

I love that “if diagnosed in time” bit. Would that be after the ER folks stopped shaking their heads in disbelief?

While my assumption that the plague was a disease left in the dust of ancient times obviously was wrong, Wikipedia informed me that my recall of death by plague being painful was correct: “Other symptoms include . . . extreme pain. The pain is usually caused by the decaying or decomposing of the skin while the person is still alive.”

Wonderful. Now it’s time for Dawn of the Dead.

But I am okay now. The chills are gone. The allergies have dissipated. And I’m a little smarter. I know that plague still exists. I know that if I had been aware of this fact on the day I had chills, I actually might have rushed to the ER, demanding they test me for plague.

And I also know that I’d still be there, answering questions like: “Do you hear voices?”

So thanks to WebMD, I’ve learned some even more valuable lessons. Diagnosis-by-computer can scare the ever-loving bejesus out of you. And the next time I see a cute little prairie dog, I should just shoot the damn thing.


Carol Schaal is managing editor of Notre Dame Magazine. Email her at schaal.2@nd.edu.


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