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Hypochondriacs are always right – in the end

Blog | By Matthew Norman | Mar 12, 2024

The Imaginary Invalid, (c. 1860–62), oil on panel, 26.7 x 35.2 cm. Philadelphia Museum of Art

This time, it struck me at 4.30am – the halfway mark of a refreshing five-hour sojourn in A&E – I truly mean it.

Admittedly, I’d been equally convinced that I meant it on three vaguely similar occasions in the last couple of years. The ultrasound on the testicular lump (epididymal cyst). The ECG to investigate cardiac arrhythmia (nothing lethal). The gastroscope after years of acid reflux (tiny duodenal polyp).

Each time, I believed I meant it when, while striking the cowardly atheist’s classic deal with God, I swore to the deity in whom I unbelieve that, if I could dodge the bullet, a radical metamorphosis would ensue.

This time, however, I really, really meant it.

The development that took me to the Royal Free, in the smug liberal leftie Shangri-La of Hampstead, was of a type that appeals to the professional hypochondriac more in the abstract, as described on a newspaper’s health page, than in the personal and particular.

Much as I’d like to euphemise, for the squeamish and those struggling to plough through this nonsense over their breakfast egg, I will simply repeat what I told a delightful Portuguese triage nurse in that miraculously empty department.

When I was asked what had enticed me to pay a visit on that picturesque, snowy early morn, the unwonted succinctness was dictated by the intensity of the pain radiating across the entire region between navel and upper thigh.

‘Can’t pee,’ I muttered, so sotto voce he wasn’t sure what he’d heard.

‘Sorry, are you saying you cannot go to the toilet?’ he followed up.

‘I’m saying no such thing,’ I said, relocating the gift for irksome loquacity. ‘I most certainly can go to the toilet. I have been to the toilet 30 or 40 times since midnight. What I cannot do, on reaching the toilet, is pee.’

‘Nothing?’

‘Not a f****** droplet.’

Sudden-onset urinary retention is not one of those symptoms that permit you to live in denial for long. A dodgy-looking mole you can ignore for months. Blood on the Andrex can for a good while be ascribed, with fingers crossed, to piles.

But the total inability to urinate, apart from the indescribable mental anguish, is a bona fide medical emergency. It can lead, if not promptly treated, to renal failure, sepsis and death.

‘Are you in pain?’ asked an equally delightful staff nurse from Rome, as he attached a saline drip to the cannula. Plainly, this was neither the time nor the place for sledgehammer irony.

‘Never felt better,’ I responded. ‘If the roads weren’t so icy, I’d be off for a run.’

He smiled wearily, took some blood and went off to order an analgesic suppository.

A quiet A&E department in the middle of the night, with its weirdly seductive, harsh lighting and eerily serene atmosphere, lends itself beautifully to reflection on one’s own depthless inadequacies.

Obviously, in any such circs, the hypochondriac assumes it to be metastatic cancer, the primary tumour grown large enough to obstruct the urethra.

But, if not, should the cause be benign and treatable, it would be utterly shameful not to use the reprieve as the catalyst for reform.

In the CT scanner, the pledge was duly made. Let me off, Lord of whose non-existence I’m unshakably convinced, and to thee I vouchsafe to cut out the lashings of whisky and mounds of junk food; to redirect the untold hours in front of the telly to reading books; even to writing the sort of barely mediocre novel of which I might at best be capable.

‘Do you have the results?’ I asked the Portuguese when he ambled over to check the saline drip. He nodded. ‘It’s cancer, then? Kidney, bladder, prostate? All of them?’

‘It’s a kidney stone.’

‘Cancer and a kidney stone?’

‘Just a kidney stone.’

‘No cancer then?’

‘No.’

‘Can I kiss you?’

‘I’d rather not.’

I offered a fist bump. He graciously accepted.

A doctor confirmed this, and by 7.30 I was back at my mother’s house, where I’ve lately been in residence. I took her coffee and a buttered half-bagel, almost relishing the revived agony for the reminder of what it wasn’t.

Never one to centre-stage, she took the news stoically. ‘This is terrible,’ she said, adroitly side-stepping the triviality of the diagnosis. ‘I will never get over the shock.’

‘Of course you will,’ I reassured her. ‘All things pass. Even, eventually, this sodding stone.’

‘They say the pain’s every bit as bad as childbirth,’ she helpfully advised. ‘If not worse.’

I informed her of the epiphany; of how, from that moment on, I would cease squandering time in front of the telly, and begin looking after both body and mind.

‘Oh yes,’ she said, pursing lips. ‘Of course you will.’

The morning passed as pleasantly as the scrotal and abdominal excruciations would allow, in front of ITV, until I fetched us both quadruple Scotches and opened negotiations about lunch.

Several plant-based options were proposed, and jointly rejected. ‘McDonald’s?’ she proffered.

‘McDonald’s it is.’