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Hypochondriac Heaven

July 9, 2009

Never heard the term Hypochondriac till early adult life.  Guess we have to thank the Greeks for yet another enrichment of the english language.  As I grew into early adulthood this word became familiar to me.  Often it was used to describe my behaviour in responding to illness.  In childhood there was always the family doctor, certainly never described as a ‘medico’ which has become a chic nomenclature for those who dont even possess a doctorate of any form, they are men and wimmin who have done a Bachelor of Medicine and a Bachelor of Surgery.  My father’s disdain for the Family doctor was expressed when he would say, ‘The Quack has called!”  In childhood it was John, a small man whose surgery was part of his residence, a short walk from our suburban home.  Of course he was never addressed in the 50’s by his first name, always Doctor Perry.  I dont recall any frequent visits, although etched in my memory is his visit with the local dentist to extract a tooth with an abscess.  Horrendous.  The doctor put a cloth filled with chloroform on my face while the dentist did his bit.. I was supine on the polished mahogony dining room table, a small, frightened young child.  That dental phobia was encrypted in my spinal column for the rest of my life.  Pain is not one of my easiest experiences.  There was no talk of ‘pain management’ in those days.

When I left home I had to find my own doctor.  He turned out to be the father of one of my students, Frank by name and nature, but his gruff exterior belied a gentle man, mid 50’s, intelligent and caring.  Not a bad mix to comfort the ‘hypochondriac that I was becoming.  My first serious illness was kidney stones.  The pain was excruciating and of course I had no idea of its cause.  I arrived to teach but within a short time had to flee the classroom and make my way across Melbourne to seek help from Frank.  I travelled by train, but within 10 minutes I had to get off and find a taxi to get to Frank’s surgery as soon as possible.  He asked ” Why have you come all this way?’  I told him, “Doctor it is only you whom I trust”  He smiled and rang a taxi to get me to a hospital.  My first visit as a patient.  Had done plenty of  visiting the sick in my time but now I was the one in the bed rather than sitting alongside it.  I rang my mother.  She came.  They explained it was kidney stones, often compared to the pain of childbirth for wimming.  I cant comment.  Pain relief was administered and finally fell asleep.  After some hours of observation and the pain subsiding I was given three large plastic bottles which I was to return, full, to the hospital some days later.  It is still a mystery, as most of medicine is, as I dont ever recall passing the kidney stones.  And that was the end of renal cholic!

There’s more to come.  That small incident fades with my future medical history.  If you are squeamish dont bother continuing reading.  After Frank came David.  The medical profession had not become multiculturalised in Melbourne at this point.  Mostly white, male from similar gene pool.  David was younger than myself.  Another gentle man.  I was grateful that my hypochondriasis was in good hands.  The next episode was a baffling one for the ‘medicos’.

I was holidaying in Sydney as I did each long term break from teaching.  Sydney was a kinda New York for a gay man living in Melbourne.  It was post Stonewall and poofs were out on the streets, especially Oxford Street, the Gay Mecca of its time.  Discos, dancin and drinkin.  Bright lights and lots of noise.  The Grand Dame, Melba, was staid and conservative.  Not the case with Tinsel Town.  But this holiday was cut short.  I had not experienced stomach pain of these proportions before.  I knew that all was not well.  So had to find, yes you’ve guessed it, a doctor!  That night I held a pillow to my abdomen trying to ease the pain.  By morning I was at the surgery run by a group of ‘gay doctor’s’, and recommended by my hosts in Sydney.  Within a few hours I was on a flight back to Melbourne and straight, well not me, to Hospital.  They were baffled and bewildered.  Tests and X Rays.  They treated me for indigestion.  Mylanta became my cocktail ‘de jour’.  The pain seemed to subside and after two weeks was discharged.  No, no, it aint over yet!

I dont want to give too much information.  Within a week, I had crippling pain again and sinister blood from the bowels.  This was definitely not indigestion.  A new hospital, and new doctors.  What was going on?  Nobody knew.  Finally after nearly three weeks in hospital I met a Gastroenterologist, Graham.  Love those WASP names.  He seemed a talented man in his field and told me that I was to have a nuclear scan of my intestines.  He was sure it was a Meckles Diverticulitis.  He could have been discussing Early Art in Abyssinia for all I knew.  He drew diagrams and gave a lengthy and comforting explanation.  You can google the Meckles and read for yourself rather than my banging on about it.  Notice how both of the episodes I have had were real, there were not anything to do with Hypochondriasis or my being a Hypochondriac.  The intuition of Graham was 100 per cent correct.  They opened me up, and removed the diverticulum which was infected and causing both the pain and the bleeding.  My thanks to Nuclear Medicine.  I had become a medical cause celebre in the hospital, students and professors would come and poke. prod and discuss.  My case affects such a small percentage of the poplulation that it was so important for the staff to examine and observe, someone like me does not come along every day in ones medical career.  I think my parts are now in a bottle in the University of Melbourne Medical School.  My 5 minutes of fame.  Not quite the genre I would have wished it to be.  I was only 36, but with my guts ripped open and then stitched up, a huge scar, I hobbled out after three weeks of medical madness.  All healed and I was back to ‘normal’.  What an experience!  But once again I had been in the hands of caring and gentle people.  And can assure you it was no Heaven!

It was here in Asia that the next event occured.  I was teaching at a Buddhist University in the North of Thailand.  I had gone into hospital at 56 years of age for a routine, day procedure, well so I thought and was led to believe.  It turned into another medical nightmare.  Away from family and close friends I woke up in ICU.  The aneasthetic was wearing off when I noticed I was in a bed with tubes from all orifices.  Oh My Buddha!  What had happened, what was going on?  Another google for you, Pneumo Thorax!  After 8 days in ICU I was sent to a ward.  My first experience of an Asian Hospital and the medical culture of Asia.  I was virtually alone.  But the most amazing event was, that my buddhist monk students used to come daily to the ICU and chant over my bed.  This time I thought I had gone to Heaven.  These young men, shaved heads and saffron robed, would come , sometimes in pairs, sometimes more than 10 at a time.  What loving kindness in the strictest Buddhist sense.  They were praying for Ajarn during his illness.  They were familiar with sickness, death and dying.  It is part of the Buddhist Canon.  Serenity and calmness pervaded the room each visit.  I think the nursing staff were taken aback.  Who is this foreigner who receives visits from so many monks so often?  Miracles, I dont know.  Loving kindness I do.  Heaven, I dont know.  But for me it was the most moving experience in my life.  Later I was to learn that I could have died on the operating table if it were not for the quick action of the Thai surgeons.  For this I am grateful.

So when many are quick to describe me as a Hypochondriac I would suggest they read this account of my medical history.  There is nothing false about what happened during those three hospital events.  It was all real.  And now I bear the scars of Australia and Asia on my ageing body.  But I also have been greatly loved by so many in both the West and the East.

Dont deny your illness but embrace it as part of the journey.

Satu Satu

Na Mo Ta Sa Pa Ka Wa Toh

A Ra Ha Toh

Sam Ma Sam Put Ta Sa

To the monks, the doctors and nurses of Thailand, I give you thanks…Ajarn.

One Comment leave one →
  1. susan permalink
    August 2, 2009 11:24 am

    Thank you for your talent and your heart. I will embrace my illness and learn from it.

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