White coat syndrome is back. In fact, it has never left us. As many as 20 percent of the American population, including this health writer, experiences a crippling fear of doctors that can impede life-saving preventive care.
Health is a discipline, and prized possession, to me. The body is my temple. So, it may surprise you to know that I have a terrible fear of sickness. It’s especially bizarre because I have been covering health topics (from those condition-based, relating to diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, you name it, to preventive nutrition and fitness, to healthy relationships) for nearly a decade now. I was even honored this year to be selected as a fellow for the Association of Health Care Journalists.
If you looked in my medicine cabinet, you would not see one medication. Not even Advil (if a case of unbearable menstrual cramps attacks, I typically borrow a little brown pill or two from whomever I’m with instead of buying a bottle to stash in my cabinet). I like to run or do yoga most days of the week, sometimes both in one day. I also like to bike ride and play tennis and take brisk walks. I like to eat healthy. My signature health goals are to have at least one green salad and three cups of potent green tea a day. I aim to eat fish at least three times a week. I practice stress reduction daily. I try to nurture my relationships. I am one of those types who actually gets the recommended five servings of fresh fruits and vegetables a day. I wear sunblock. I take calcium supplements. I make a serious attempt to drink eight-plus glasses of filtered water a day and get seven hours minimum of sleep. I connect with, and try to visit, my family often. When I worked in offices, I was the type that would go years without ever having a sick day. It was as if a certificate of honor from human resources awaited me, like the ones you got in grade school for good attendance (one never surfaced, by the way). Maintaining my health is a top priority I take seriously.
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It is for these reasons that when something is out of whack with my body, I sense it immediately. I get the eerie sensation that something is wrong. I just don’t “feel right.” I am off. My health suddenly seems in jeopardy.
And that’s when the near paralysis sets in.
It happened to me this week. I noticed that I just didn’t “feel right.” This is so rare an occurrence that it nearly triggers palpitations. My immediate reaction, as is the case for many like me, was to go to yoga to sweat whatever it was out. Yet, when I happened to call my good friend on my way to the studio, she convinced me that instead of working out I needed to march right to the neighborhood clinic and get checked out.
Thank God for friends. You see, she and I had been on a sojourn to a yoga ashram in upstate New York just over a month ago. And in our earnest attempt to boost well-being, she actually ended up developing a case of Lyme disease as a result of a tick bite she got during a hike there. (Yes, one may indeed call that ironic.)
Now, she had told me about this weeks ago, and urged me to see the doctor to have my blood tested. But I did not. My White Coat Syndrome kicked in and overrode any desire I had to heed her advice.
At the time, when she first mentioned the tick bite, I had felt fine. Then Wednesday, I did not feel fine. I was out to lunch and realized I felt fuzzy. I could not focus. My body felt limp. Walking to and from the restaurant my feet felt heavy, like numb bricks I could barely lift. I felt as if I could pass out at any second. Eye contact with my lunch companion was impossible.
Noticing at the restaurant that I felt off, I escaped to the bathroom to take a moment, then returned to my place unable to eat one nibble more of my grilled salmon salad. Instead, I hurriedly requested and paid the check. Activity, mobility, walking briskly was the answer, I sincerely hoped.
When this turned out not to be the answer, I grabbed my yoga clothes and sneakers and headed toward my studio. My gut told me to call my friend. And if there is one thing I have learned to never ignore, it is my intuition. I needed to be told to go to the doctor. Not by my mother, who would be in hysterics, but from a calm, concerned friend. “Are you feeling achy?” she asked, “Wiped-out exhausted, and heavy-footed?” When the answers were yes, yes and yes, my anxiety level grew.
With her on the phone line I changed plans and rapidly headed for the walk-in clinic on 86th St. “Go there right now,” she urged, “Get your blood tested and call me after.” I did what I was told. This was my friend. She cared about me. And when a person who cares about you tells you that, somehow, despite your paralyzing fears, you listen and obey. Within 10 minutes, I was filling out paperwork and sitting in a waiting room, tapping my foot maniacally while waiting for my name to be called. After my vitals were recorded and my symptoms jotted down, the doctor saw me.
I braced for bad news from the doc (who was indeed wearing a white coat), cringing but ready to hear what was wrong with me. I imagined the worst.
When he said, “You have vertigo, most likely from a viral infection. We’ll take blood and urine samples, but rest, increase fluids, take Allegra24 and this prescription nasal spray and you should be fine in a few days,” I was shocked.
I stared at him in disbelief. “That’s it?” I asked sheepishly. . . . “And you’re sure?”
I couldn’t believe he was not telling me that I had terminal cancer, or something. It was as if I was sure he was going to tell me I had three months, or less, to live. I was already wondering what I would say to my mother, my best friend, my boyfriend, on the phone. I was already disappointed in myself for not having finished that book project sooner, for never having taken that month in Nice, for waiting to get married, and to pop out a few kids.
Hasheesh am I dramatic at times, with an inextinguishable compulsion to create stories.
It is then that I came face to face with my real challenge: White Coat Syndrome.
This refers to fear from even the thought of visiting a doctor, a clinic, or a hospital.
Also referred to as White Coat Hypertension, the condition can lead to blood pressure hikes triggered by clinical settings.
White Coat Syndrome is propelled by stress, and often occurs in people who had a traumatic medical experience (such as a scary diagnosis or treatment) at some point in the past.
But here’s the interesting thing — it can also occur in people fearful about even the possibility of getting sick.
Bingo. It made sense to me suddenly. I believe in, and aim to lead, a healthy lifestyle. What I discovered is that it is actually the fear of getting sick that motivates me to read all I can and interview as many renowned experts as possible to learn all that I can about preventive health — what superfoods to eat, what exercises to do, and what steps to take to ward off the big nasties like cancer and heart attacks in a passionate attempt to keep them from stealing life, the one thing I treasure most, from me.
I am ridiculously happy in my day-to-day, and the thought that, in one fell swoop, a sickness could rob me of life as I know it, sends tremors through my body. Anxiety is a main symptom of White Coat Syndrome. This may lead people like me to put off getting checked out if and when fear of sickness strikes.
Like any other fear, though, that of doctors is one it would behoove a person, including myself, to overcome. That’s because what they say is true: early detection is key. And knowing of a problem is half the battle. That’s why my new health challenge, beyond guzzling water and squeezing in my zzz’s, is to, for the first time since I moved to New York nearly 10 years ago, find a regular doctor in the city. It’s the one health challenge that never occurred to me before. Yet it’s one that I now see as imperative to maintaining that word I cherish most: health.
Columnist Julie is a writer and editor living in New York City. She is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.