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The Imaginary Invalid

By Mary Ellen Collins

I became a hypochondriac when I was a kid sneaking peeks at my mother’s reading material.

Her 1940s nursing textbooks contained gruesome photographs of patients suffering from scurvy and water on the brain. Her women’s magazines featured accounts of people who fell victim to medical catastrophes that masqueraded as something mild and recognizable. Headaches that turned out to be brain tumors! A cold that resulted in paralysis! A born worrier, I assumed that any horrific thing that happened to anyone else could certainly happen to me.

So when we prepared for a vacation in Africa, I zeroed in on the tour company’s boldfaced and capitalized directive to DISCUSS HEALTH PRECAUTIONS FOR YOUR EXACT ITINERARY WITH A QUALIFIED HEALTH PROFESSIONAL. Uh-oh.

My spouse, who believes he can cure anything by drinking, gargling with or swimming in salt water, watched me clear the drugstore shelves in order to assemble the first aid portion of our 32-pounds-per-person luggage allotment.

“Honey,” he ventured, as tubes and boxes flew into my basket, “we’ve never needed that for anything before. . .”

“But what if we do? There’s always a first time. It can’t hurt to have it. . . just in case.”

I cruised the CDC website, memorizing tropical disease symptoms in order to have an extra layer of security. And visiting the doctor to collect malaria meds, antibiotics, re-hydration powder and seven inoculations for each of us validated my belief that we shouldn’t confuse a drive through the bush with a walk in the park.

When we reached our destination, hourly body scans for alarming symptoms revealed … nothing. I walked in the wild, wolfed down unfamiliar delicacies and slept deeply. John and I remained impressively healthy for the entire 15 days, but my preparedness didn’t go to waste. When two fellow travelers came to breakfast sounding croaky and congested, they made a beeline to the only person they knew who could dispense throat lozenges and multiple doses of multi-symptom cold relievers. When another got a bug in her eye, she knew whose bag contained a bottle of eye drops. Being called “Dr. Collins” became my badge of honor.

We returned home suffering nothing more than jet lag, but I knew that malaria symptoms could masquerade as the flu years after you’ve crossed paths with a toxic mosquito. Yes, my sweats are more likely related to hormones or the fact that we live in Florida, but I still monitor them in the event that they might, eventually become something that requires ‘round-the-clock care.

I admit that the majority of my tablets, creams, capsules, sprays and drops took an 18,000-mile joy ride to Africa only to end up back in my own bathroom, and most of them expired before they could be put to use. But for me, medicine in the cabinet is like money in the bank. More is better.

— Mary Ellen Collins

Mary Ellen Collins is a freelance writer and essayist who has been a humor columnist for Angie's List Magazine and a community columnist for The Arizona Republic. Her topics range from preschool to pie crust, and her essays have also been published in Notre Dame Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, The Tampa Bay Times, Writer's Digest, SASEE and Outdoor Life.

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