They say that medical students go through a stage of thinking they have every disease in the textbook. Reading through lists of symptoms, they mentally tick them off and imagine they have all kinds of diseases and syndrome, however rare. They learn to discount them.
It’s a Saturday afternoon. Rain is sputtering outside my window. I’m curled up on the couch in front of the heater, reading The Good Weekend. In the article, a woman recounts having a dry mouth and unexplained fatigue, going to the doctor, and discovering that she has diabetes. I mentally freeze in my tracks. I’ve had a mysteriously dry mouth for a week or so, and had toyed with the idea of Googling the symptom. (It worked when I was trying to figure out why F had a sore bottom: worms. I even Googled handy hints on how to capture a sample for the doctor.) And I’ve been tired lately. Very tired. For no reason. I’d thought it must have been work, but now that I think about it, I haven’t been working that hard.
I put down the magazine, untangle myself from the blanket over my knees, and practically dive for my laptop. I key in ‘dry mouth symptoms’ to Google. Guess what comes up? Diabetes, and not much else. Tired? Check. Lost weight lately? Check. I’d thought it was because I was eating better, but maybe not. Loss of appetite? Well, maybe. After all, I am eating less, so I must have less of an appetite. Going to the toilet a lot? I’m not sure. But I probably am, because I always seem to be getting out of bed early in the morning to go to the toilet.
I try to settle myself back on the couch with the paper, but now I am convinced. The doctor’s office is closed on the weekend. The next two days stretch before me. My dry mouth situation escalates from an annoying feeling to a searing desert in my throat. I pour myself a tall glass of water and ring my mother on her mobile.
My sister answers. She and mum and my nana are all having a girl’s day out, lunching and shopping. We chat about her job for a while before she asks why I’m calling.
‘I had to ask mum a medical question.’
‘Mmm.’ Mum wanted to be a doctor when she was a teenager (and got the marks for medical school – she just lacked the self-esteem to apply). She had five kids, who all survived various ailments. Those two factors - and her innate practical nature - qualify her to be my doctor when there are no doctors around. In fact, I usually call her for medical advice before I go to the doctor. ‘I think I have diabetes.’
My sister laughs. When she has finished laughing, she asks me where I got the idea from. I tell her. She laughs some more. Mum takes the phone.
‘Do you have a dry mouth?’
‘Are you tired? Do you feel flu-y?’
‘Do you go to the toilet a lot?’
‘I think so.’
‘Hmmm. Gerta had all those symptoms.’ One of her best friends has adult onset diabetes.
I hear a voice in the background, faint but clearly audible.
‘GO TO THE DOCTOR!’
‘Nana says go to the doctor.’
‘I hear her.’
‘So, Gerta had those symptoms huh? I feel a bit faint.’
‘You could fall into a diabetic coma if you don’t get it checked out.’
‘That’s what happened to Gerta. She had a really dry mouth, she said she was climbing the stairs at work and practically foaming at the mouth ... and she fell into a coma and had to be taken to hospital. That’s how she found out.’
‘Oh my god.’
‘Guess who’s here now? Wait, I’m putting you on speaker phone.’
It’s my other sister. They’ve just stopped the car and picked her up. Now they’re on their way to the local shopping centre, for more shopping. They are dedicated shoppers, my Adelaide family. It’s practically a mandatory Saturday activity.
‘GO TO THE DOCTOR!’
‘Is F there? What’s he doing?’ It’s the sister who just climbed into the car.
‘He’s watching TV. And reading a Digimon comic.’
‘It’s like Pokemon. Only not.’
‘Oh. HI F!’
I turn away from the mouthpiece and repeat the message for him. He lifts his head from the comic, just the slightest movement, and nods.
‘He says hi!’ I report. There is a satisfied chorus of adoring sighs.
‘So, what’s up?’ says the newly arrived sister.
‘She thinks she has diabetes,’ says Sister 1, sounding faintly amused.
‘GO TO ...’
‘I’ll go to the doctor on Monday, Nana.’
‘Anyway, why are you calling me?’ asks Mum, the thought only just occurring to her. ‘What can I do? I’m not a doctor.’
‘Mum, I always call you for medical questions. You know that.’
‘She does,’ says Sister 1.
‘Because you always wanted to BE a doctor.’
‘But I’m not.’
‘Yeah, but you have the NATURAL INTEREST in medical matters.’
‘Mum,’ I say, ‘I have to go in a minute. This call is costing me a lot of money. But ... if anything happens to me, and they call you, can you tell them that I might have diabetes? You know, if I fall into a coma.’
‘GO TO THE DOCTOR!’ says Nana.
‘Ariel ...’ says Mum. I hear my sisters laughing.
We say our goodbyes.
I look over at F, sprawled, seemingly comfortably, across the hard wooden floor, his head bowed over his comic. My heart floods with affection for him. Then I wonder: what would he do if I fell into a diabetic coma and no one was here? What if it happened this afternoon?
‘F, darling,’ I say, trying to seem as casual as I can so as not to frighten him.
‘If anything ever happens to me ... and, you know, no one is here ... can you just call Nana and tell her? You know her number.’
‘Sure.’ He doesn’t look up. I feel pleased at having successfully not frightened him. I am satisfied that if he called mum, she could tell the hospital or whoever about my diabetes. I am covered. But what if she’s not home? What if she doesn’t pick up? What if the hospital just calls The Husband first?
I dial the bookshop where he works and chirp a friendly hello at the person who answers. The Husband's voice comes on the line.
‘Hi darling. I’ve got something I need to tell you. It’s going to sound a bit odd. I don’t want to scare you.’
I look at F and sidle out into the hallway, shutting the door behind me. I lower my voice and stage whisper into the phone.
‘I think I have diabetes.’
‘What? What are you talking about?’
He doesn’t sound scared. He sounds annoyed.
‘I read this article ... and it says that the symptoms of diabetes are a dry mouth and fatigue and I have both! Remember when I told you that I’ve had a dry mouth and I wonder what it is?’
‘Well ... I Googled ‘dry mouth’ and it confirmed it. Practically the ONLY THING that came up was diabetes.’
‘You don’t have diabetes.’
‘Don’t worry, I’m going to go the doctor on Monday and have it checked out.’
‘Maybe you’re drinking too much coffee. Maybe that’s why you have a dry mouth. The caffeine.’
‘I hardly drink any coffee. Maybe two cups a day. And I’ve been drinking water ALL DAY and it’s making NO DIFFERENCE.’
‘Right. Do you have headaches?’
‘Um ... no. But that’s not a symptom.’
‘It would be. You’d have headaches from the high blood sugar. And you don’t.’
I don’t know what to say to that.
‘I really have to go,’ he says.
‘Okay. But ... if anyone calls and anything happens to me ... can you tell them that I might have diabetes?
‘You don’t have diabetes.’
He’ll be sorry if I DO have diabetes! I think as I hang up and return to the lounge room. Maybe he just doesn’t want to think about bad news. Maybe he is trying to be positive. I look at F across the lounge room.
‘Do you want grilled cheese and cut-up apple for lunch?’
‘Do you know THe Husband’s phone numbers at work?’
‘No.’ He looks up and frowns a little. ‘No, I don’t.’
‘I’ll tell you what,’ I say. ‘Why don’t I write down The Husband’s phone numbers – work and mobile – and put them up on the pin-up board? Just in case you ever need them .. you know, if anything ever happens to me. Not that I think it will.’
‘Okay. Good idea, Mum.’ He goes back to his comic. Success! I now feel fully prepared in case I fall into a diabetic coma.
When The Husband comes home, I am still safely ensconced on the couch. No coma. But I have developed a massive headache. And, now I think about it, I have had headaches on and off for a while.
‘Sorry about calling you at work to tell you I think I have diabetes,’ I say. ‘I guess it must have seemed a bit weird?’
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘It was. Very. And you don’t have diabetes.’
‘But I have a headache! In fact, I’ve remembered that I HAVE been having headaches.’
‘Not drinking enough water.’
‘Remember? I’ve been drinking loads of water. At least, today I have. And I still have a headache.’
The Husband lets out a deep sigh and fixes me with a straight-talking gaze.
‘Ariel. Every time you have PMT you are fatigued and you have headaches or feel light-headed or whatever and you think you are pregnant. And you never are. Do you have PMT right now?’
‘Um ... yes.’
‘There you go.’
After dinner, F I sit side by side on the couch, sipping hot chocolates and prodding gooey marshmallows with our spoons. We are wearing flannelette pyjamas and reading books. We are warm and content. The Husband clears our dinner plates from the coffee table and takes them to the kitchen. He pauses at the doorway on his way back to the couch.
‘Why are my phone numbers up on the pin-up board? I’ve never noticed them before.’
‘Ask F,’ I tell him. He looks at F, his eyebrows doing the questioning.
‘Well ...’ F thinks hard, pausing before his face lights up with the answer. ‘It’s in case anything ever happens to Mum! So I can call you!’
‘Ah.’ The Husband looks at me, hard, his face teetering between amusement and annoyance. ‘Like a diabetic coma?’
‘But you don’t have diabetes.’