By Trudie Mitschang
A few years ago, I had a severe asthma attack that landed me in the emergency room (ER). Having grown up with asthma, I was used to reaching for an inhaler whenever wheezing became an issue, so when the symptoms first appeared, I was unconcerned. Hours later, I realized I was actually getting worse, but still I didn't panic — my asthma episodes typically resolved themselves, and I really didn't want to alarm anyone. We were entertaining friends and it would have been a real party spoiler to suddenly announce "I can't breathe!"
When our friends left and we were cleaning up, I found myself gasping for air. My husband was the one who suggested we go to the ER, and I still dragged my feet. It was late, the ER would be crowded and who would watch the kids? Thankfully, he insisted, and by the time we got there, they had to rush me into the treatment room, give me an epinephrine shot to open my severely constricted air passages and administer oxygen. When the attending doctor asked why I waited so long to seek treatment, I could only shrug, feeling foolish.
Recently, a colleague of mine suffered a concussion during a ski vacation. Not wanting to make a fuss, she also waited to seek medical treatment, thinking the injury was "not that serious." Months later, she was still suffering from dizziness and fatigue and is now on a doctor-prescribed medical leave for a head injury that was much more serious than it originally appeared.
This got me wondering why people ignore the red flags that indicate they may need medical attention. Experts say it's a problem especially common to women; we're so used to being caregivers that we often make caring for ourselves a low priority.
"More often than not, it's the smart, educated women who put off going to the doctor, even when it should be a top priority," says Judy Kinzy, MD, an internal medicine specialist in Knoxville, Tenn., who notes that it's not unusual for a woman to seek help long after a symptom has persisted. "They read about it and try to figure it out on their own. They don't think about possible consequences. Bottom line: They don't really want to have to deal with it."
Here's another frightening fact: The American Heart Association recently reported that 47 percent of women say they would not call 911 when suffering the symptoms of a heart attack. The reason? Most simply "don't have time to go to the hospital." As silly as that sounds, I can relate. When I was having my dinner party, I believed I didn't have time to go to the ER, preferring to suffer in silence and hope for the best. Now I realize how risky that was. That experience coupled with my colleague's is causing me to rethink where I land on my own "to-do" list, especially when it comes to my health.
As a patient with chronic illness, you are constantly dealing with symptoms that may or may not be serious enough to warrant immediate medical attention. How do you decide if and when to seek help? Have you ever waited too long and later regretted it?
Daniel, S. 10 Health Symptoms Women Shouldn't Ignore. Lifescript, Dec. 31, 2011.
Andersen, HS. For Heart Month: What Every Woman Should Know About Heart Attacks. Women's Voices for Change, Feb. 17, 2011.