For those of you who know me, you know my work takes me to some distant corners of this fair world – from East Timor to Ecuador to Ethiopia, Liberia to India. With this ‘glamour’ and ‘adventure’ come a few occupational hazards: illness.
I’ve had my fair share of tropical illnesses over the years: hospitalised in India after only 5 days in the country, digestive infections resistant to antibiotics, severe dehydration and more time in the loo that I’ll never get back (but I’ll spare you the details). I’ve missed the big ones: malaria, dengue, hemorrhagic fevers such as ebola or lassa fever, or big evil parasites.
So when I returned from Liberia only to find myself very ill within 24 hours I decided to wait it out. (Well I decided to immediately cart myself off to London’s hospital for Tropical Diseases, but as it as shut, I then decided I could wait until Monday morning). I’ve always had the feeling that I have some evil leftover buggies lingering in me, but never been able to get through the GP referral barrier to the tropical disease unit. They had an emergency service, and I knew I’d found my chance.
I passed the weekend feeling poorly, but not awful. But I didn’t really get better. I felt weak and tired, hungry and full and so, so thirsty. “Best to go.” said my flatmate, who had even offered to go with me when I pondered if I needed to hit a&e in the middle of the night. But I felt lingering doubts as I headed to the hospital – what if they didn’t think I was ill enough?
This is an unfortunate piece of childhood baggage. My mother was convinced I faked every illness since age 8 has now left me with a terrible legacy: I’m sure when I’m ill people won’t believe me and live in fear of being discovered for ‘faking’ it.
Of course that didn’t happen and if anything I was shocked by how seriously they took my symptoms. But this is just what happens! I wanted to tell them. Of course I don’t have MALARIA. Roundworm? Lassa fever? rashes? bites? Well I don’t know!
The ‘hospital’ is a small room in a medical building off Tottenham Court Road. I was seen within 15 minutes of arriving, a detailed history taken, 8 blood samples, 3 stool samples, urine, HIV test – all before the doctor ever saw me! She was also amazing – and interested in my history, promising to do things like call me to follow up on my results, and so reassuring that yes, I probably did have some latent infections, but we’d find them. I needed ‘the works’.
I told her about asking to be tested for tapeworm after exposure in Ethiopia and how I saw my GP mark the culture as bacteriology only – when it was my understanding tapeworm was a parasite. “They didn’t even send it here” she said, looking at her records “so they might as well have not done it”.
According to her, GPs don’t just resist referring you to specialists because of penny pinching, but because ‘they love to handle everything themselves’. All the interesting cases, she explained, they have to refer away. As a doctor, that’s highly frustrating and boring – so it can mean, perversely, that you aren’t referred to a specialist simply because your GP is bored of doling out antibiotics and contraceptives and wants to see whats going on with you.
I left with antibiotics (my normal criteria for a successful visit to the GP) in my sweaty little hands, the knowledge that I was HIV and malaria free with a follow up phone call scheduled for 2 days from now. It was like Christmas in August! But I got to see some experts in the field and put my mind at rest on a number of different issues. Most importantly, I should finally get a bit better.