Robert Shrimsley in The Financial Times August 3, 2018
As I lay on my side, retching on the 12mm tube that was being worked ever deeper down my throat, I had good reason to reconsider the diagnostic benefits of Dr Google. The subsequent elation that nothing grim had been discovered dissolved over the following hours into an irritation that I had nonetheless allowed the internet to goad me into doing this to myself.
You can imagine the process that led me to the endoscopy room and the powerful role that internet-enabled self-diagnosis played in the discomfort that followed. The path to the probe was a low-level but long-running sense that something was wrong with my throat, some occasional difficulties swallowing, long hours googling and an interview given by a now late journalist, in which he discussed early symptoms that seemed disquietingly similar to my own.
I’m not, I think, in the category of people always looking for health problems. My odd visits to the doctor have tended to be justified. Ordinarily, I would be only too happy to go away with assurances that there is nothing major wrong, and I was initially satisfied with the simple, non-scary explanation of acid reflux and the medication that seemed to solve the problem. But when it returned, with other more ambiguous symptoms and no better explanation, I began to think about all those stories that begin: “If only the doctors had taken this seriously when I first went to see them.
We are all aware of the dangers of googling symptoms. Everything eventually leads to something that will kill you, quite possibly before you finish reading. But my previous web-related efforts at self-diagnosis — admittedly on more specific symptoms — had gone quite well.
The doctor was not keen on the endoscopy. NHS budgets are tight and although he understood my worries, he was not convinced that 25 minutes on the internet trumped his umpteen years at medical school. But once you know of the darkest possibility, it is hard to forget, so I insisted on the reassurance only an internal exam could offer. Ultimately, he agreed.
Don’t misunderstand. Google is a good thing that empowers people to take more control of their treatment — but the downside is that sometimes you end up with a bloody great tube needlessly working its way down your gullet.
Everyone says an endoscopy is a nasty procedure. Let me tell you: they aren’t kidding. It may last only five minutes but they are a damn long five minutes. When I was not fighting to control my breathing, I was thinking that I really, really wouldn’t fare well under torture: “No waterboarding necessary here. Just show him the jug. He’ll crack.”
I had agreed to forgo a sedative — the nurse said that most people made do with an anaesthetic throat spray. There was a moment of doubt when the doctor offered the scornful observation that “only a few nervous ladies have a sedative”. This flagrant attempt to ensure I manned-up nearly backfired. For one thing, my experience is that women have higher pain thresholds than men and, even if they don’t in general, they certainly do with this man. If women wanted a sedative for this, that seemed like useful information. Besides, I have always thought that manning-up in the face of pain is deeply overrated. In the end, however, I went without, after it became clear I would be able to leave the hospital more quickly.
As I waited for the test, I tried to stay calm. I believed the odds were against the worst outcome, but realised the chance was not nil. There is something very binary about these moments. You know that even though you have walked into a room feeling essentially fine, you may walk out with a deathly diagnosis. If that did not unnerve me, there was the warning of potential if unlikely complications, which left me to reflect on the stupidity of insisting on a test that found nothing but then managed to kill me. This seemed akin to all those people who die taking selfies.
Happily, it ended well. Does this mean I am cured of googling? Obviously not. I went home and started looking for other diseases that matched my symptoms.
As for the next time, would I behave differently? Well, I might opt for that sedative.
With grateful acknowledgement to the Financial Times.