Diagnosis: Marriage

When my husband gets ill, I'm the one who feels sick.

Published January 12, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

My husband, Bill, has this tendency toward mysterious maladies that befuddle doctors and eventually disappear. Meanwhile, he's calm and I'm a nervous wreck.

He's had stomach problems that no GI series could diagnose. Once his arm went numb in a way that didn't follow any nerve pattern; it just felt like he had plastic wrap on his skin. He underwent inconclusive tests followed by more tests that revealed nothing and eventually the feeling came back.

Another time he woke up covered in purple splotchy spots that caused me to exclaim: "What is that?" The next morning the spots were still there so we went to the doctor and he showed them the spots and described the accompanying joint aches and was told it was a virus and that it should go away. It did.

A few weeks ago Bill told me he was having trouble with his vision. His eyes didn't seem to be focusing correctly. I was not surprised. He told me this over the phone while I was at work. As soon as I hung up I fired up my Internet Explorer and did a search on vision problems and M.S., vision problems and ALS, vision problems and Lupus, vision problems and dropping dead suddenly. Everything I found was vague and terrifying. The next morning, a Saturday, I caught Bill on the computer searching on eye disorders.

"Why don't you just go to LensCrafters today, just for a check, just to see what they say," I said, "Even though your brother is visiting and we're supposed to be having fun, I think the eye doctor is fun."

From an optometrist's perspective, Bill's eyes were fine. She suggested having his blood sugar checked to rule out diabetes. I called to make him an appointment for Sunday. The on-call nurse asked me to check his pupils. I had done that already, first thing. She told me to ask him to smile and see if his face looked symmetrical. I've never really studied the symmetry of Bill's smile but it looked OK to me.

"He's not drooling at all is he?" she asked.

"I don't think so," I said. So it wasn't a stroke.

His blood sugar was fine. The doctor said he might have an inner-ear infection. He was experiencing a little bit of dizziness, like you would if your eyes kept going out of focus. The doctor said if he was still having the problem in six weeks to come back.

"Six weeks!" I said. "That's ridiculous. Why would we wait for six weeks if we can find out the problem now?"

"What am I supposed to do," Bill said, "make the doctor tell me it's something serious?"

Bill generally has great faith in medicine. He made me swear to see a doctor when I started having gall bladder attacks. Before we knew what it was, when he was following me as I paced the house while my gall bladder shot out one of its arsenal: a painful, cruel stone. He was waiting in my room when I was wheeled in from recovery after my laparoscopic cholecystectomy. "They said you'd be here an hour ago," he said. "I was worried."

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I called my mother on Sunday to tell her about the eye thing.

"But he had that arm thing," she said immediately.

"I know Mom, I remember the arm thing. But the arm thing was three years ago."

"But an arm thing and an eye thing?"

I called her back on Monday. She answered the phone with a frantic "What happened!" The joys of caller I.D.

"Mother, you're going to have to stay calm!"

"I'm sorry, honey, I just worry."

Tuesday, Bill went to the ophthalmologist.

"I have an end-point nystagmus," he told me afterward, "an eye flutter." Instead of a focus problem it was an inability to hold his eye steady when he looked to either side. Bill would probably find his strange afflictions fascinating if they didn't affect his own person. He likes the bizarre medical stories in Discover and the "Annals of Medicine" in the New Yorker. He seemed happy to have a diagnosis, even if we still didn't know the cause. I was not particularly relieved.

"And nystagmus is caused by what?" I asked.

"Various things. The most common is drug addiction."

"Too bad you're not a drug addict, then you could just quit."

"True. They are going to do an MRI tomorrow, just to be safe."

Just to be safe. In doctor speak, that could mean "call the New England Journal of Medicine, we've got a hot one."

"To look for what?" I continue.

"Brain abnormalities," he says

"What kind of brain abnormalities?" Bill tends not to volunteer information.

"Tumors I guess, or lesions."

Aha! I think. I knew it. Tumors.

"Well, what's the treatment?"

"It depends on the cause. It could be an inner-ear infection."

In class on Tuesday and I notice that my professor has gray hair, I imagine he's in his 50s. I think, why can't Bill turn gray and be in his 50s? I look around at all the people on the bus and the people outside the bus driving cars and the people just walking down the sidewalk and the people in stores and I think, look at all those people. They are all alive! Why can't Bill stay alive? Why does he have to have a potentially fatal potential brain tumor? I think of women I know with lousy husbands, and all those lousy husbands are healthy as horses. Damn them, those healthy husbands.

The MRI was scheduled for Wednesday at 1 p.m. I asked Bill if he wanted me to go with him. He said I didn't need to, I would just be sitting in the lobby. I said maybe they would let me talk to him on the little microphone. I could make up songs about the MRI, like I do about our dog, Toblerone, who chews her bone, and is really cute and fun to boot.

He declined. Bill knows all about MRIs; he worked on brain imaging when he was in graduate school in biomedical engineering.

"It's an amazing technology really," he tells me. "It gathers a huge amount of data. If later the doctor decides he needs to look at a lateral plane of the so and so they just manipulate the data and there you go."

Tuesday evening I had a really bad headache. I told Bill I was having sympathetic brain lesions. He said that if he developed double vision, the good part would be that he would see two of me. Being around Bill made me pretty calm because he seemed totally fine, taking it all in stride.

Bill apparently has the ability to control his emotions with his mind. I cannot relate. Sometimes it frustrates me, because I feel like Bill isn't reacting enough; he's not joining me in my particular trauma.

But then I think, man, what if he were just like me? My emotions are like the weather, unpredictable and unavoidable. As a result, we have vastly different worry thresholds. Basically, he deals with probability; I work from possibility. The probability that he has a huge tumor that will cause the MRI technicians to gasp with shock is very small, so he was not worried.

I, however, detected a possibility this could happen and was duly freaking out. I wondered what a person does when given six months to live. Is it really that important to see Europe? Would we try to get pregnant? I will wear my engagement ring on my right hand if I'm a widow. I decided that long ago.

I mentioned the nystagmus to people at work so I could hear them say, "I'm sure it's nothing," even though I knew they weren't really sure it was nothing. How can anyone be sure? We say this to will it into reality, to stave off tragedy.

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A few years ago I spent the morning at work trying to convince myself that the fact that Bill wasn't answering his phone was no cause for concern. Even though he rarely had meetings and always called me back. When I hadn't talked to him by lunch time, I decided to call his office mate and good friend, Kyle. I would pretend I dialed the wrong number (Kyle was one digit up from Bill) and casually ask, since he was on the phone, if he had seen Bill.

"Where is Bill?" Kyle said, the second he recognized my voice.

"He's not there?" I said, my hands beginning to shake.

I went home to check, and drove around a little, scouting Bill's usual parking places for work. Finally, I called the police. They told me that indeed a William Gunter had been involved in an auto accident at 9:30 that morning, and was transported via ambulance to UAB hospital, but they could give me no information on his status. The hospital confirmed Bill was in the E.R., but wouldn't give me any details on the phone.

"Bill's in the hospital and I don't know if he's alive or dead!" I'm on the cell phone to my dad in Houston.

I call my boss at work: "Bill's in the hospital and I don't know if he's alive or dead!"

"Do you need me to drive you?" he asks. He didn't even know I had left work. "No," I said, "I'm driving now!"

I wasn't sure where the UAB emergency room was. The University of Alabama at Birmingham hospital is downtown. I found a spot, put the 20 cents I had in the meter and asked the first person in a white coat I saw, as calmly as I could, did she happen to know the way to the emergency room? Kyle beat me there, and was in the lobby.

"He's fine, Sharon. He's fine." He had a torn ACL, but no visible scratches.

"I just left you a message at work," Bill said when he saw me.

"Oh honey, I already tracked you down. You can't have a wreck and think I won't find out about it," I said. And then I burst into tears.

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I had lunch with my friend Kim on Wednesday while Bill was having his MRI. Kim used to work for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. She had asked me on the phone that morning, after I casually mentioned the interesting occurrence of the arm thing, if I thought it might be M.S.

"Oh definitely," I told her, "definitely I do."

So at lunch she said, "I know we don't need to talk about this now, but just so you know, they have made amazing strides in M.S. medication in just the last year."

"I know," I said. But I kept thinking about brain lesions, what a horrible sounding thing that is, and that brain lesions are a cause of nystagmus and also an indication of M.S.

Bill e-mailed me from his pager later that afternoon: "MRI over -- on my way to test." He had a computer system administration certification exam scheduled for that afternoon. He passed and will get a bonus from work. This is good because we had to pay our deductible for the MRI: $500. The ophthalmologist was going to review the results and consult with a neural ophthalmologist and let us know.

That night I had to stay up after Bill went to bed. I was supposed to be writing a paper, but instead I lay on the sofa in our office praying for a clean MRI. Bill had said he would be a little disappointed if the MRI revealed nothing, because that left us in the unknown. In this instance, I was rooting for the unknown.

As I lay there I thought about how much I hated the idea of being separated from Bill. He was just 20 feet away in the next room, maybe 10 steps. I could bound in there in seconds and leap into bed with him. But I stayed, trying not to think of that lonely feeling stretching into eternity, but thinking of it all the same, tears welling in my eyes. It was somewhat masochistic, like pressing your thumb against a blade.

But as I lay there, my heart beating so hard it made the room pulse before me and my stomach curling up tighter and tighter, I was struck by how visceral love is, all emotion and sensation, pleasure and pain, fear and comfort. For all its intellectual intricacies, love is an ache.

Love is also an overwhelming potential for loss. I realized that even if the MRI was fine (which it was) and the nystagmus went the way of the purple spots (which it did), we'd just be on hiatus, waiting for the next illness. I try not to live in fear of the possibilities of my morbid imagination. The majority of the time I'm sure Bill will be just fine. I don't think about things like choking, anaphylactic shock, slippery stairs and Hodgkin's disease.

When I related the happy MRI results to my mom, she told me she had been wondering if Bill had a brain tumor, would we try to have a baby? I asked Bill what he thought; he said we didn't need to worry about it.

By Sharon Gunter

Sharon Gunter is working toward a master's in creative writing at the University of Texas at Austin.

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