Visiting a distant corner of the world can be amazing. Unless you’re a hypochondriac like Xanthe Hunt, in which case you’ll start thinking (and googling) yourself sick.
Xanthe Hunt writes about the trials and tribulations of being a travel hypochondriac.
When I was 16, I went to Kenya, Tanzania and Zanzibar. I was on a school trip and I revelled in the crisp mornings and big game of the Serengeti, and later in the heat and sweat of the coast. However, on the plane back home, the heat and sweat of the coast grew stronger. I developed a fever. I coughed up a bit of blood and passed out. I woke up 10 days later, in ICU, with a machine doing my breathing for me. To add insult to injury, I had missed Easter. I had pneumonia. It had been bad. It got better. I went back to school and got a lot of belated chocolate bunnies. Years later, when I was 23, I went to live in the Himalayas. I got overexcited by the idea of being a gainfully employed adult, googled “go to India”, and ended up not in the land of saris and spices I had
imagined, but in a beautiful but icy corner on the border with Nepal. After three months I started to swell. Every night I went to bed with ankles and calves bloated with spongy fluid, my skin aching with the stretch of it all. I woke up every day back to normal. Then, come 10 am, I would start to puff up all over again. This continued, unabated, for three months. No doctor could tell me what was happening. Fast forward a few flights and a pair of compression socks and I was back home in South Africa, swollen and tired. I saw a specialist who told me I had a simple protein deficiency. Eat eggs and thrive, he said.
As a result of these experiences, and my naturally anxious disposition, I tend to overreact when I suspect myself ill abroad. I am a travel hypochondriac. My fear of overseas illness is problematic for another reason: I travel for a living as part of my work in public health. Another complication is how dismissive my family has become when my ailments (inevitably) arise. True, there have been some ridiculous overreactions in the past, but to deny that a person is actually ill – as any fellow Sickly Sam will tell you – is borderline abusive when you’re terrified, far away and certain of your imminent demise. I’ve had a cough in Kenya (early onset emphysema, surely), I’ve been nauseous in Nepal (precursor to a migraine, definitely), I’ve had suspected salmonella in Joburg, a mysterious fever in Mozambique and I’ve stressed about sore muscles in Cape Town. I’ve had more tetanus shots than a metalworker and more malaria tests than any human should have to endure. I recently saw a poster warning about symptoms of the plague at a local airport and thought to myself: “Hey, at least I know the theme of the next two weeks’ worrying!” I’ve spent innumerable hours waiting in clinic queues, sheepish and redcheeked, among the legitimately ill in Siliguri and Darjeeling in India, and in Kisumu and Nairobi in Kenya. And because my fears are not always foreign, in OR Tambo (yes, airports have doctors), Cape Town, Heidelberg and Bloem. I have an intuitive knowledge of a hospital layout the way a mom of four knows her local grocery store. I can tell you that I’m feeling unwell in five languages and I can perform in pantomime the specifics of various conditions, including but not limited to, diarrhoea, backache, tummy pain, joint stiffness, fever and – because this usually underlies each – anxiety. Incidentally, the pantomime action for constipation is remarkably similar to the one for diarrhoea. If you’re ever offered liquorice root, know that it’s a (very) effective cure for the former, which is all well and good unless you’re in fact afflicted by the latter, and not within sprinting distance of a loo.
As a result of my fears, I turn into a preventative medicine fundi, germophobe, and frequenter of an Internet resource called WebMD. This phase lasts from the moment I arrive in a foreign country until the window period for all endemic illnesses has finally, mercifully, passed. I take malaria prophylaxes (and fear constantly that I’ll be part of the 1 % of people who die from the pill, as stipulated in the medication leaflet). I hand sanitize like a surgeon. I read prevention posters. I drink my drinks with no ice in them and I google like a woman possessed when the slightest symptom appears. I know – as if by magic – which side of the leaflet contains the side effects. Perversely, I read them in reverse order, from “extremely rare” to “common”. After all, I’m way more interested in the likelihood of RU (code for “relentless urination”) than I am in a lousy headache or fatigue. When I’m in a foreign country, my online search history reads like an unlikely series of horrific mystery stories. Which insect bit me? What do different insect bites look like? How many antihistamines before you die? How long can germs live? Can hand sanitizer be poisonous? I’m in Pafuri, in the far north-east of South Africa, near the borders with Zimbabwe and Mozambique. I have a reddish lump in my eye. Yes, travel hypochondria strikes again! I asked Google. It’s either pink-eye, a sun spot (surfer’s eye, or pterygium – a type of non-cancerous tissue growth on the eye’s mucous membrane common among those who spend a lot of time squinting in bright light), a cataract (I’m 26. Please!) or something worse. Or it could be nothing.
Deciding what’s wrong with you using the Internet is a two-stage process. First you type in your symptoms. Then, if you’re brave, worried or stupid enough, you choose which illness you think you have from the many, often apocalyptically dire options that appear. You read testimonials from unsuspecting victims – “I thought it was just a hot flush!” – and from the vindicated – “My family said it was nothing to worry about…” If you’re lucky, you’ll see articles that begin with “Usually, condition X is harmless…” You’ll feel briefly reassured, but you’ll still scroll to the bottom of the page where the “In a small number of cases, however…” section begins. This latter part of the process is upsetting, but the beginning bit – asking the anonymous Internet to analyse your most intimate bodily problem – is oddly reassuring. Every time I search my symptoms, Google’s autocomplete tries to finish my sentence. I type “lump in eye” and immediately it suggests “right side”, “yellow” and “itchy”. Type “pain in my…” and Google suggests “heart”, “chest”, “stomach”. Type an open-ended “why is my…” and Google spits out “stomach sore” and “mouth dry”. Type, “sore…” and it suggests, “throat”, “gums”, “neck”. Ask for “symptoms of…” and you’ll get “malaria”, “TB” and “kidney problems”. As global as my illnesses have been, so is the international community of like-minded hypochondriacs. That’s the beauty of autocomplete: It’s the result of thousands, if not millions, of other worrywarts agonising over their symptoms and turning to their phones or laptops. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one. If a million people have googled an eye lump, surely not all of them had a cataract. I’ll just keep telling myself that.
Deciding what’s wrong with you using the Internet is a two-stage process. First you type in your symptoms. Then, if you’re brave, worried or stupid enough, you choose which illness you think you have from the many, often apocalyptically dire options that appear.