The end of February marks Rare Disease Day. Most of the time, having a rare disease is difficult, because it can be quite lonely and isolating. I wrote about some of the challenges in this post a couple of years ago. However, it does have its quirks and funny moments.
1. When other people try to offer you advice to ‘cure’ your rare illness.
I used to get really irritated when people would tell me about how if I eat 5 leaves of kale picked at the height of a full moon and brewed (ok, slight exaggeration) then I’d be cured. I’d think ‘seriously, my own doctor keeps getting my illness wrong, how can you possibly know how to make me feel better?!’. Now I tend to find it amusing and nod and smile. If it helps them to think that they’ve cracked the code that has experts in the field stumped in the 30 second conversation we had about it, then fine. Maybe the kale cure didn’t work because I stirred the potion anti-clockwise rather than clockwise…my mistake.
2. You become an expert in your condition.
Mostly out of necessity more than anything, because you can’t just rock up to hospital and expect people to know how to treat you. And if you don’t feel like dying that day, it becomes a priority to make sure you educate yourself as much as you can about the ins and the outs. It does work out to be a positive thing a lot of the time though because it forces you to take responsibility for your health and be proactive about staying healthy. It does mean you spend a lot of time reading medical articles and trying to piece things together- I dread to think what my google search history looks like!
3. You’re used as a teaching tool a lot when you’re in hospital.
Once word gets out that there’s a rare disease patient, a lot of med students get sent your way. It’s not because you’re getting more or better treatment than the other patients, it’s so that they can all ask you the same questions and try to ‘diagnose’ you for practice. It depends on what mood you’re in or how nice they are- you can either make them do all the hard work and give very brief answers, or you can volunteer information that you know will lead them in the right direction. One student finished his consultation by saying ‘did the others ask you any different questions? Am I on the right track?’ which I found amusing!
4. You get used to telling Doctors they’ve got it wrong.
Rare disease is complicated enough. Being an anomaly of a rare disease makes it more challenging. Generally, because of the teaching tool thing, you get a lot of people stood around your bed at senior review with the consultant. But that doesn’t mean the consultant is a specialist in the field of your rare illness, it could mean he or she is the closest specialist on duty that day. So if they get basic facts about my illness wrong, I correct them. Which usually leads to a few gasps and shifty glances from the med students if a) I’ve dared to interrupt the consultant and b) I’ve told them they’re wrong. Whichever way you look at it, teaching tool or not, I’m still there for treatment, and if the understanding of my illness is wrong, my treatment is going to be wrong too. A good consultant would listen to the patient and discuss it. A poor consultant would say something like ‘fine, if that’s what you think’ and then try to bombard the students with a whole load of words they don’t understand and hope that I don’t understand either (which usually I do, you know, because of all my reading from point 2). It takes guts to challenge doctors and I only do it if I know I’m definitely right, but if I hadn’t in the past, I probably would be dead right now.
5. Your illness is used as a plot line in medical dramas a lot.
TV needs to have drama and sometimes normal stuff like flu and alzheimer’s just seems a bit bland. So rare diseases get used a lot because it makes the character look good when there’s a dramatic ‘save’ when they diagnose them and because writers can over-dramatise it as much as they want because 99.9% of viewers won’t have heard of it so can’t shout ‘you’re wrong!’ at the tv. Grey’s Anatomy once had a halloween storyline where Dr Karev had to run around tracking down a kid with the same illness as me who’d gone trick or treating on the wards because if she got scared by someone jumping out at her she would die (so he said). Not entirely true, but vaguely close. It’s quite fun to be able to diagnose the patient in the first 10 minutes of the programme though, and then feel super smug knowing you’re ‘better’ than Dr House when he eventually gets it (after he’s ruled out Lupus and Cancer, obviously).