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Stop Ignoring the Voices in Your Head

By Erick Tombre, RN

I hope we never meet, at least on a professional level.   I am an Intensive Care Unit nurse at Community Medical Center. So if we do meet, it is likely because you or somebody you love requires the specialized and intensive care that I and my colleagues provide 24 hours per day, every day of the year. 

Some patients come to the ICU because they failed to listen to that little voice in their heads that said something isn’t working right in their bodies.  Ultimately only we know our bodies well enough to know when things aren’t working as they should.  It’s that little voice in the back of your head telling you, “you should go see somebody about that.”

People ignore signs of illness for a variety of reasons: pride, shame, embarrassment and increasingly, the cost of care.  All of these reasons keep people out of their healthcare provider’s office.  Plain old denial is also strong reason.  That chest pain is just indigestion.  The blood in the toilet after going to the bathroom really isn’t there.  That persistent cough is just a cold that won’t go away.

Too many patients could have avoided being a patient if they had simply seen a healthcare provider earlier.  A $45 office visit and a $20 course of antibiotics often could have stopped that urinary tract infection before it entered the blood stream and turned to sepsis, a life-threatening infection that takes days and costs thousands of dollars per day to treat, if the patient survives at all.

Here are the top three symptoms that patients routinely ignore until the symptoms, and the disease that causes the symptoms, rage out of control.

  • Chest pain/shortness of breath:  Never ignore chest pain or new shortness of breath.  Some people describe chest pain as more of a pressure.  Men and women experience chest pain differently.  If the chest pain stops with rest, it is not a sign to ignore it.  Sometimes the only symptoms of a heart attack are sweating, nausea or simply an impending sense of doom.  Too many people have died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital or in the Emergency Department after ignoring their chest pain for hours.  If you begin to have chest pain, go to the Emergency Department immediately or call an ambulance.
  • Bleeding:  If you notice blood in your urine or stool, this is never normal.  It will not improve or go away without intervention.  Blood in the stool isn’t always the classic red.  It can appear tarry or like coffee grounds.  Blood in what you cough up or what you throw up is also never normal.  If your bowel movements have not been normal for a while, go see somebody about it.
  • Infection:  The classic sign of infection is an increase in temperature.  A persistent, low-grade fever over 100.4 is a sign of infection.  Your body is trying to cook the brittle infection bugs to death.  As they die, they release endotoxins that make you feel terrible.  If you’re having night sweats, go see your provider.  The infection may be localized or atypical.  A body part, like a joint, that is hot is suspicious.  If you simply haven’t felt like yourself for a while, it might be an infection.

As the unemployment rate climbs and people lose their health insurance, more people will wait to see somebody about their illness until it’s too late, hoping it will get better.   Prevention of disease is ultimately a personal responsibility.  Go see somebody about what that little voice in your head has been telling you to take care of for a while.  If you don’t take care of it, I may be taking care of you.