My Turn: A bumbling dance with Dr. Web

My doctor recently suggested that a diminishing number of my white blood cells might signal a serious condition. After eliminating all the usual suspects, he referred me to an oncologist. I wondered whether anyone is ever happy to see the doctor whose office resides in the Cancer Center?

Like any red-blooded American, no sooner had I hung up the telephone than I jumped on Google. I typed in every combination of “low white blood cells,” “causes,” “symptoms” and “treatments.”

I have a love-hate relationship with the Internet. On the one hand, I felt compelled to educate myself. Yet with every keystroke, I felt myself plunging deeper and deeper into unhappy diagnoses.

Like Alice going down the rabbit hole, my fall was endless. One twist led only to another turn. Just when I’d eliminated a fate like bone cancer due to the fact that none of the enumerated symptoms were mine — whew! — I discovered the caveat: “Some patients suffer no symptoms.” Click, click, click — I was on to another website in my ever-widening search.


Before long, I yielded to the suggestion that I might require a bone marrow aspiration. After two days of immersion, I had actually reached the point where I thought I would endure it just to rule out any slim chance of a malignancy. The test may be uncomfortable and invasive, but how much worse than natural childbirth could it be? This had become my squeamish standard.

I had to wait seven days for an appointment with the oncologist; for most of that time, I was lost in cyberspace. Each morning began with a cup of coffee and the sound of my Mac booting up, ready to assist me with my medical school lesson du jour. Each evening I emerged from my computer-screen coma just long enough to prepare and eat dinner — whatever I had read would increase my white blood cell count, be it cauliflower or pepita seeds. As much as I tried to break away — to take a walk, work on my knitting or write a story — I was putty in the hands of my laptop.

When my lab results came back, the oncologist told me that my white blood cell count was just fine. There was a common-sense explanation for the apparent decline, one I did not discover during my online independent study.

It seems that when I am relaxed, I run a low white blood cell count. “Some people do,” the oncologist said. On the day he drew blood samples, my stress level was so high that white blood cells came to the rescue and produced numbers well within the normal range. “This tells me they are there when you need them,” he explained. “I guess you’re more nervous to see me than your regular doctor.”


Lesson learned: When everyone tells you not to go to the Internet until you’ve seen the doctor for a diagnosis, take that advice to heart and step away from the computer.

My husband just got word he needs an ultrasound of his renal artery because, despite medication, his blood pressure remains high. A man of wisdom, he is patiently awaiting the results. But I am a woman of weakness: File. New Window. Google. “Renal artery blood pressure.” Search.

Alice, I’m falling …

Miller, who lives in Ninemile Valley, Mont., is the author of more than 350 essays and stories that have appeared in such publications as Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times and Missoula Living. Her column “High on the Wild” appears in the Pines Literary Journal, and her column “Peaks and Valleys” appears in Montana Woman Magazine. She has contributed to National Public Radio’s “On Point.”


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