Stories Of When Small Symptoms Pointed To Life-Changing Diagnoses

"I went into surgery and woke up a few hours later. The first thing I remember is seeing my parents and my fiance crying. Turns out I was never pregnant."

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According to a survey by Bankrate, one in four Americans avoid going to the doctor due to the high cost of medical care. Sometimes, though, money isn’t the issue; we simply don’t believe that we’re that sick. Why spend a few hundred bucks at the doctor’s office when you’ve only got a slight sniffle? Unfortunately, we don’t have the necessary training to diagnose our own illnesses, and while some symptoms might seem relatively minor, they can be indicative of fairly serious issues. In a recent Reddit thread, users shared their stories of small problems that had big implications. We collected the best of these stories, edited them slightly for readability, and share them here as cautionary tales.  If you’re thinking about putting off that next routine checkup, these stories might change your mind.

1. Even when one doctor gives you a clean bill of health, you might need a second opinion.

“When I was deployed to Afghanistan as a medic, a medevac pilot came in because he had a small abnormality on his flight physical electrocardiogram (EKG),” Reddit user Absolute906 wrote. “Apparently, this was something he had been getting waivers for years for.” In other words, the pilot was familiar with the problem, but as far as he knew, it wasn’t really a problem—or at least, it wasn’t anything that would stop him from working. “I had just finished an [anatomy and physiology] class and had learned about something called Brugada syndrome, which is basically an arrhythmia that causes sudden cardiac death in the patient. I jokingly mentioned how his EKG reminded me of the abnormality I saw in my textbook, thinking there was no way he actually had it. It had to be [an] artifact from the EKG.” “The doctor’s eyes widened and he sprinted out of the office,” they continued. “The pilot had it. He was immediately relieved of flight duty, sent home, and had a defibrillator put into his heart before being medically retired.” “I accidentally diagnosed a man with certain death.” That’s the pessimistic perspective; looking at it another way, Absolute906 had almost certainly saved the pilot from certain death. Brugada syndrome typically causes sudden death around age 40, and because it’s so rare—it’s thought to affect 5 out of every 10,000 people—it’s often missed or ignored until it’s too late.  

2. Bad headaches can indicate a serious issue.

We’ve covered this beforeheadaches can be a serious symptom when they’re frequent or excessively painful. When you can describe a headache as “the worst I’ve ever had,” it’s certainly time to head to your family physician’s office. “When I was 12, I had a crazy bad headache that wouldn’t go away,” wrote user muffinlova. “My dad brought me to the doctor, and I didn’t even make it to the exam room before they turned me back and sent us to the hospital.” “It turns out my headache was from a burst sinus cavity…as in, all the bones around my eye broke, and the liquid leaked back onto my brain, giving me brain meningitis. My eye was bulging out to the point where I looked like an alien, and they told my parents I was not going to make it.” “Obviously, I pulled through, but I was hospitalized for two weeks and missed two months of school. I was, at the time, only the third known case of this happening, and they had flown in doctors from all over the US and from the UK. Crazy stuff.”

3. Even if you feel perfectly healthy, trust your physician.

Reddit user ThePicklests father used to be a power lifter. The key word there is “used to.” One day, he felt some unusual pain, so he went to the doctor’s office. “A nurse comes in to the room, looks down at her chart, looks back up and says, ‘Mr. Pickle, you are having a heart attack.’ He got up on the bed and flexed, saying, ‘Does this look like a man that’s having a heart attack to you?'” “She looked back down at her chart, up again, and says ‘Yes.’” Cardiac arrest can have a variety of symptoms, including fatigue, sweating, nausea, and cold or clammy skin (we’ve got a more detailed list of symptoms here). Mr. Pickle—and yes, we love saying that—made a classic mistake by assuming that heart attacks can only affect people who appear obviously unhealthy. Heart attacks don’t always look like they do in the movies; more often than not, they’re surprisingly subtle. Fortunately, he lived through the episode, although he’s since passed away due to unrelated issues. ThePicklest notes that his father quit powerlifting a short time later and became “way more laid back.” “He started running more than lifting, and learned to appreciate food a lot more. This was his favorite story to tell.”

4. Any sudden numbness deserves medical attention.

“My mother woke up one day and her arm was numb,” user Stylophonics wrote. “After about 45 minutes, it will still pretty numb. She thought she had pinched a nerve in it sleeping, but went to the ER just in case.” “She had had a stroke, which actually was caused by a blood clot, which moved up from her heart and exited a hole in her heart—a congenital defect she was unaware she had.”She ended up fine and the feeling in her arm came back,” Stylophonics continued, “but she was incredibly lucky that it did.” Strokes are the leading preventable cause of disability, and by one estimate, 33 percent of Americans have had “mini-strokes” without realizing it. Each year, about 800,000 Americans have strokes. We’re really not trying to scare you—we’re just hoping that some cold, hard numbers help to show the reality. The good news: Early diagnosis and treatment can greatly reduce the risk of long-term effects. The bad news: You’ve got to actually head to the doctor in order to receive said treatment.

5. Occasionally, physicians miss key symptoms for years…or decades.

“I was in a fender bender car accident—I was at fault—and my lower back would not stop aching,” wrote one Reddit user. “I went into the ER, figuring I had sprained the muscles in my back and that I would be prescribed muscle relaxers and maybe some pain pills.” Of course, that wasn’t the case. The doctors seemed keenly interested in the patient’s bizarre results. “Six hours, several x-rays, a CT scan, and four doctors later, I found out my spine was broken and—get this—healed. The best theory any of them could come up with was that my spine had broken during birth, and since we never knew, it just healed itself, filling in with cartilage.” “One of the doctors told me that, had we known my spine broke at birth, I would have likely never walked. I would have been treated as handicapped my whole life. I didn’t find out until I was 20, and I already had a child. My mom cried because she always thought I was just a really colicky baby, when in fact I was probably in a lot of pain.”

6. When your doctor’s exam procedures seem extreme, go along with them.

“I have male pattern baldness and needed a prescription for some hair growth medication from a dermatologist,” wrote Redditor mattigus. “The doctor said he would give me a prescription, but first wanted to do a full skin check-up, which he does for every new patient. I got annoyed by the fact that I had to strip … in front of this guy just for my hair medicine.” Hey, there’s a reason that the most effective medicines require a prescription—the physician has to check to make sure that you don’t have any other underlying health conditions that will affect the medication. In this case, that underlying condition was extremely serious. “A few weeks later, I get a call,” he explained. “There was melanoma cancer on my back. They caught it early enough that it hadn’t spread. That checkup saved my life.”

7. Remember, serious symptoms aren’t always painful.

Reddit user so_illogical said that he might have bit the big one (pun intended) if he hadn’t checked up on some weird symptoms after a routine dental procedure. “I was taking antibiotics for dental work and noticed these weird blisters showing up everywhere,” they wrote. “Weird, but whatever. 48 hours later, they started opening up, leaving holes in my skin—no blood, I just lost most of the skin in that area. Again, weird, but I was working, so whatever.” “Then they started appearing in my throat so I got to the hospital ASAP and was diagnosed immediately with Steven-Johnson syndrome. Any longer, and the layers of my skin would have literally peeled away from each other and I would have died. That was a sobering day.” And people wonder why we hate the dentist.

8. When your physician recommends a CT scan, go for it.

“I had gallstones for three years or so before I finally got my gallbladder ripped out last year,” Redditor dude_icus wrote, using some unnecessarily violent verbiage. “At its worst, I was getting an attack maybe once a month or so, so I figured it couldn’t be that bad.” “I went to the surgeon for my post-op check-up,” he explained. “He told me that my gallbladder was filled with hundreds of stones of varying sizes, and that it was precancerous. Apparently, people don’t typically get gallbladder cancer until they are in their 80s or 90s. It is often very serious because people don’t catch it right away. I’m in my 20s, and like I said, I had been sitting on this problem for three years for I finally toughened up enough to get it checked out.” The moral of the story: If you notice a new medical problem, don’t wait to head to the doctor—even if you’re fairly confident that you know what’s happening. You’ve got nothing to lose but your health. Of course, you might also receive good health advice from a non-physician. “I owe my life to my barber,” wrote AngryCotton. “When I was 17, he noticed a mole on the top of my head and said I should get that looked at. Two things could’ve happened here: One, I could’ve brushed it off. Two, he didn’t have to say anything.” “Anyway, I went to get it checked out and ended up having it cut out with a scalpel. Turns out that it was cancerous, but at the very early stages. They did a little more cutting and were able to get everything out. [That was] almost 20 years ago, and life is good.” Barbers aren’t dermatologists, but they do look at a lot of strange moles—hey, it’s part of the job. If someone tells you that a skin growth is unusual, don’t ignore them (but don’t worry too much until you’ve seen your doctor, as the vast majority of unusual-looking moles are non-cancerous).

9. Some of these stories are pretty heartbreaking.

“My girlfriend is in her final rotations for radiology,” wrote Facerless. “A while back, a young girl came in after winning a basketball championship. She had some shooting shin pain, but wasn’t in a [tremendous amount] of pain, still glowing from the win and talking excitedly about a scholarship offer.” “When her scan came back, about 60 percent of the marrow in her tibia was one big sarcoma (meaning cancer). Surgery and therapy essentially ended her shot at a full ride.” Still, it saved her life. While losing a scholarship certainly hurts, we’re guessing that she gladly made the trade.

10. Some rare conditions can prompt a “mock pregnancy.”

“A few years ago, I took a positive pregnancy test,” Doctor_Dalek wrote (she’s not an actual doctor, despite her Whovian username). “I went to the doctor to confirm, just thinking I would be getting some blood work done and maybe an ultrasound. They did the ultrasound, but couldn’t find a baby in my uterus, so they told me it was ectopic—implanted in a Fallopian tube—and I needed to have surgery to remove the baby.” “I went into surgery and woke up a few hours later. The first thing I remember is seeing my parents and my fiancé crying. Turns out I was never pregnant; I actually had a tumor the size of my fist on my ovary, and my body was reacting to it like a baby. I had an HCG hormone and everything. I’m 4.5 years in remission.” Unfortunately, that’s not the only deeply disturbing pregnancy story on this list. Reddit user rockabillynurse is a nurse (hence the username) who was working in postpartum care when a patient came into the hospital in labor with her first child. “She ended up requiring a C-section. In the operating room, they opened her up and found her belly full of cancerous growths. They immediately paged an oncologist at a neighboring hospital—we were just a women’s and children’s hospital—to come immediately while she was still open. It wound up being terminal. She wouldn’t even have known if she hadn’t needed that C-section.” “Can you imagine going to the hospital to have your first baby and leaving with a diagnosis of terminal cancer? I think about her all the time.”

11. Any unusual long-term symptom deserves medical attention.

“About four months after I had my son, I started to notice the vision in one of my eyes was really off,” wrote user tranquileyesme. “Blurry, spotty, etc. I didn’t really think about it much, because my eye didn’t hurt and wasn’t itchy, and I had a new baby to take care of.” “Anyway, it lasted for months. Finally, my mom and sister convinced me I had to go to the eye doctor for it to see what was going on. I took my baby with, because I thought, ‘Hey, quick appointment. Maybe 20-30 minutes, and I’ll probably leave with some eye drops or something.'” “Honestly, one of the worst days of my life. They put me through test after test. I was there for hours. I ended up calling my mom to come get the baby. They weren’t telling me anything. They scheduled an MRI for the next morning, because by this time, my 11 a.m. appointment had dragged out until 5:30 p.m., and the clinic was closed. We were the only people there. Still no answers. I am freaking out.” “[I] go back the next day and get the MRI done,” she continued. “They send me to the neurologist this time—no eye doctors today. When I walk in, he has all the results from my tests the day before and the MRI I had just taken a while before. I was told I had multiple sclerosis. It was very scary.” She says she’s doing well, thanks to a supportive family and a firm commitment to her therapy. “The first years were the hardest, with [having] a toddler and learning to adjust. Now he’s 10 and more self-sufficient. We decided not to have more children, which was really hard, but overall the best decision for our family.” Tranquileyesme’s doctors responded to her symptoms quickly and effectively, but not everyone is so lucky. If you feel that your physician isn’t taking your symptoms seriously—or if you think that you could benefit from a second opinion—don’t be afraid to say so. “[I had] increasingly painful periods and nasty PMS symptoms in general,” wrote my_random_thots. “My family doctor attributed the change to age and just wouldn’t take it seriously. After a year of complaints, the doctor prescribed birth control pills, which did nothing.” “After two years, I finally lost it and cried in her office. The cramps had gone from, ‘Hmm, this is a bit more than usual,’ to full-on WTF, 8/10, white-knuckle-puking-level pain. I asked to please, please be referred to an OBGYN.” Fortunately, her doctor relented and provided an appropriate reference. “When the gynecologist examined me, he also did an ultrasound in the office. He took one look at the screen [and] told me I could dress and that he’d be right back. When he returned, he was carrying his surgery bookings schedule. A few weeks later, I had a total hysterectomy and bilateral salpingectomy (tubes out). It would usually take up to a year to book that surgery, but he said he absolutely had to find me a spot.” “He was horrified I hadn’t been seen much sooner and described my uterus as ‘more tumor than healthy tissue; it looks more like a raspberry than a pear.’ Fortunately, it was just benign fibroid [tumors], but it taught me a lesson: If something hurts, get help! Yell if you have to.” While healthcare providers rarely act maliciously, many have biases against women. Medical schools are starting to address the problem, but unfortunately, some physicians don’t take women’s pain seriously. Patient advocates recommend being direct and asking about the basis of a physician’s recommendations. Don’t assume that you’re overreacting by asking for another opinion; it’s very possible that your physician is under-reacting.

12. When in doubt, see a specialist.

General practitioners are your first line of defense against serious diseases, but if you’ve got unusual symptoms, ask for a recommendation for a specialist. “I don’t think you’d classify this as an illness, but I would clean my ears regularly, yet whenever I went to the doctors, they always said there was too much wax and [that they] couldn’t see anything,” wrote werekitty93. “My ears tended to hurt frequently, and I had a hard time hearing for years.” “In high school, I went to a doctor who, as usual, checked my ears. Instead of just brushing it off and saying I need to clean more, she decided to do a total flush. Took two or three hours total to get both ears cleared, and when we were done, she discovered I had an ear infection that was most likely a year old. As a result, I can’t hear well out of either ear, but that ear in particular has more hearing loss than the other.” “We also discovered why I had such an abundance of earwax. We figured out I had hyper hydrosis (an overactive sweat gland) that also caused my ears to make more wax. I have been instructed never to use Q-tips again—it just cakes the wax to the sides of my ears—and I go see a doctor once a month to have them flushed. So, had we just had a doctor flush my ears probably five years sooner, I wouldn’t have such hearing loss.” That’s a tragic story, and unfortunately, it’s not the only example we found of physicians ignoring important information. “[This wasn’t] me, but my 9-year-old son,” wrote Prima13. “Last summer, he complained about leg tiredness and slept a lot. Our pediatrician couldn’t find anything wrong with him. Fast forward to January 2017, and suddenly he’s constipated and his bladder is retaining enormous amounts of urine. We took him to the local children’s hospital, and they felt that his constipation was keeping him from releasing urine, so they hit him with gallons of Miralax mixture to get him moving.” The treatment cured his constipation, but he still had his other symptoms. “After a week of this at the hospital, my wife lost her mind on the hospital staff and demanded that they think outside the box. The neurology department came in and did an MRI, and they found that he had a fatty filum at the base of his spine which presented as a tethered cord.” “They operated immediately. Unfortunately, now the damage is done. My son no longer has bowel or bladder function because of the nerve damage caused by the tethered cord, so we have to use a straight catheter on him six times a day and keep after his bowels with stimulant laxatives and enemas.” “We will be entering a clinic in May where they will run a series of daily X-rays and enemas to arrive at the mixture we will need to use going forward. Poor kid will have to live with this the rest of his life. My wife and I are sick over it. If the issue had been caught sooner, he might not have to deal with this. If we had waited longer, it’s possible he could have lost the use of his legs.” Keep in mind that doctors are only human, and they’re prone to delivering inaccurate diagnoses. One survey of nationwide autopsies found a 40 percent misdiagnosis rate. About 10 to 12 percent of those missed diagnoses were classified as “significant.” Granted, those numbers only look at patients who succumbed to fatal conditions—not patients who ultimately recovered—but the takeaway is that physicians make mistakes, and second opinions are often essential tools in crafting an appropriate treatment plan.

13. Strange symptoms deserve attention, even if you’ve always lived with them.

We hope that we’re not driving this point into the ground, but it’s important: If something seems unusual, get it checked out. “I was much taller than [the rest of] my family,” wrote CrustyHamSandwich. “My family are all around 5’5″, but I was 6’5″ by high school. We always joked that I was a freak or won the genetic lottery.” “I went to my father’s doctor for a physical, who noticed the swelling in my hands and ran a blood test. Turns out, my growth hormone levels were about three times the normal amount. I was diagnosed with Acromegaly. Got an MRI which showed I had a tumor on my pituitary gland. I got it removed and was feeling better after a few years.” Another Reddit user developed an unusual taste for lettuce, which eventually convinced them to seek medical help. “I started craving iceberg lettuce like you wouldn’t believe,” wrote lovetheblazer. “Like, I’d wake up in the middle of the night and go to the fridge just to eat handfuls of lettuce. At my worst, I was eating an entire bag of iceberg lettuce a day, no dressing or toppings, just munching on it like it was popcorn at the movie theater.” “I finally decided I should drag myself to the doctor for a few blood tests, assuming I was a bit dehydrated or vitamin deficient or something. My hemoglobin level was 5 when it should be 13-16, ideally. My ferritin (iron stores) level was 1, which is literally as low as the test goes. I went straight from the doctor’s office to the hospital to be admitted for two blood transfusions and an intravenous iron infusion.” “The hospital staff couldn’t believe I’d been walking around and even working overtime with a level that low for months. Within 24 hours of my blood and iron transfusions, my lettuce craving went away.” Iron deficiencies are an especially significant problem for women, as we’ve covered in other pieces. You should know the symptoms—but remember, you can still have a condition without having the classic symptoms. “[My wife] had a rare liver disease that sprung out of nowhere when she was 23,” wrote CountShaftula. She missed the symptoms because she didn’t have visible jaundice—the yellowing the eyes and skin most commonly associated with liver disease. Instead, she felt extremely itchy. “She figured it was just really dry skin,” the Reddit user continued. “Turned out to be PSC (Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis). But she’s two years post-transplant and doing great!”

So, how do you know whether you really need to see your physician?

When in doubt, go ahead and set up an appointment. No one’s going to accuse you of being a hypochondriac just because you checked out some unusual symptoms, and as these stories demonstrate, you’re better safe than sorry. “As a physician: listen to your bodies,” user Doctorpayne wrote. “You guys know yourselves much better than we will even after talking to you in an emergency room for 5-10 minutes. If something is going on that is far outside the usual, please come in to the ER. I would much rather see you and tell you you’re fine [rather than] than sick beyond the point of repair.” With that said, don’t overreact if you’ve experienced any of the symptoms in this article. These stories are notable because they’re the exception; chances are good that you’ll be perfectly fine. Still, it never hurts to stay on top of your health.

HealthyWay Staff Writer
HealthyWay’s Staff Writers work to provide well-researched, thought-provoking content.