For the past several years, I have been troubled occasionally by searing pains and inflammation in my big toe which I attributed to gout. I never sought medical attention, preferring to let my body heal itself. I had another such episode recently, and I resolved to tough it out again as usual, but this time I was dragged to the hospital by an irresistible force called The Wife.
The pains began in 2003 when I was in Ghana. I went to the University Hospital, and the doctor told me I had an infection in my foot. That sounded reasonable to me. The day before, I had gone to Butri to photograph an abandoned Dutch fort. My driver and I had ascended the hill on which the fort was located, clambering up for part of the way on our hands and knees, and we walked around the fort as I photographed it from every angle, thrashing our way through a thicket of thornbushes. One of us was dressed sensibly for the task, but not I. I was wearing a bathing suit, tank top, and flip-flops (that’s all I would ever wear in Ghana, were decorum not an issue) and by the time we were finished, my legs were covered with lacerations. Anyway, the doctor prescribed a course of antibiotics, and I recovered in a few days.
When I returned to the United States, I was staying for a short time with my mother, and the pain and swelling returned. My mother took one look at my foot and said, “You have gout.” I went to Google and looked up the disorder, and my symptoms matched those of gout perfectly. I figured the doctor in Ghana hadn’t known what he was talking about. I staggered around with a cane for a few days until I got better.
I had two more flare-ups over the next few years, one of which lasted for a few days, and the other which hung on for several weeks. I never sought medical attention. When you have no health insurance, you are reluctant to plunk down two or three hundred dollars just to be told to stay off it and take some aspirin – advice I could get from a bartender. (Gosh darn it, Charlie, my foot is killing me!” “Well Geez, Pat, ya better stay off it, and take some aspirin!”)
I had another flareup just recently. The pain began on a Thursday afternoon, and my wife urged my to go to the doctor, but I refused. By Monday morning, my foot hurt so badly I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t put any weight on it at all, and I was reduced to hopping around on one foot.
I asked my wife to go into town to get a pair of crutches so I could use them to get to work. She went but instead of returning with a pair of crutches she returned with my boss, who took one look at my swollen, discolored foot (which by then was turning several interesting shades of purple) and rushed me to the hospital.
The Ethiopian doctor examined my foot and shook his head. “Doesn’t look like gout to me,” he said. He ordered a blood test, and my uric acid levels turned out to be normal. “You have cellulitis,” he pronounced.
I slapped my forehead. So the doctor in Ghana had been right all along. He ordered a shot of painkiller (I didn’t ask for it, but at that point I wasn’t about to argue), prescribed a course of antibiotics, and sent me home.
By the time I got home the painkillers had kicked in. I couldn’t believe how good it felt, just not to be in pain. I had my first night of really sound sleep since the pains began. The next morning the swelling had diminished. The angry purple hues had faded to a uniform rosy glow, and my foot was shaped like a foot once more. My employer-based health insurance will pick up the entire tab.
What are the lessons that we can learn from all this? Two, I believe, to wit:
1) Sometimes, doctors are nice to have around, and
2) They’re even nicer to have around when you don’t have to worry about them driving you into bankruptcy.
Needle photo via Wikimedia Commons
Mary Hahn photo by author