When Trusting Authority Almost Killed Me

When I was 19 I had appendicitis. Only nobody believed me.

It was my first semester in college, my first time living away from home. My solution to homesickness was to keep myself crazy busy with classwork, activities and volunteering. I was busy but it felt good. It was on my way back to school from Thanksgiving break that I started to feel… not great. Specifically I felt like I had the worst food poisoning of my life, complete with cramping and being doubled over in the community bathroom.

After a couple of days of misery I started to realize that maybe this was something more than food poisoning. Specifically, thanks to some WebMD sleuthing, it might be appendicitis (well, that or the ebola, WebMD is very comprehensive).

So off I trucked to the hospital, which luckily was right across the street from my dorm. After a couple hours of waiting (and retching into a KFC bucket- classy), I finally got to see a doctor who swiftly examined me, announced that it was not appendicitis but a stomach flu, shot me up with some vicodine and sent my, now quite high and dazed, self home.

Only he was wrong. I knew it. I couldn’t articulate it while pumped full of painkillers but I knew this wasn’t like any stomach flu I’d ever experienced. When I woke up the next morning, my stomach radiating with pain, I was certain it must be appendicitis. It was 6 AM and I jostled my roommate awake, “hey- I think there’s something really wrong with me. I think it’s my appendix.”

“You’re fine, go back to sleep,” she mumbled before rolling over. The 911 operator was equally unhelpful, “what do you want me to do about it?” she actually asked (great job Atlanta emergency services by the way).

Emergency Room
photo credit: robnguyen01

Guess it was up to me then. Even though I’d been there not even 12 hours before, I hobbled back to the ER. It was still dark and I had to stop and rest a couple of times from the pain. I think the same nurse was still working the front desk. After about 6 hours of waiting, the doctors admitted that yes, I probably did have appendicitis. I went into surgery that evening and instead of taking my finals spent the next week or so hopped up on morphine.

What does this have to do with travel?

I get a lot of emails from readers, which I LOVE. Sometimes they are telling me stories and sometimes they are looking for advice. A common theme that comes up a lot is people who really want to go travel but someone is holding them back: it might be a parent, advisor, friend or a boyfriend. It might even be society in general which tends to discourage anyone who decides to do things a little differently.

We like to believe that our closest advisors: our parents, teachers and friends, know what’s best for us. But that’s not always true. Of course it’s good to seek other people’s input on your decisions, but ultimately what you are doing with your life, your happiness, is your responsibility and your decision.

Other people judge your choices through their own experiences and framework. That doctor sent me home because my symptoms didn’t match his experiences with appendicitis. Similarly your parents might not get your desire to travel because it doesn’t match up with their traditional ideas about career and life. That doesn’t make it wrong (doesn’t make it right either), it just makes it different.

I had no reason to doubt that this doctor was an expert at what was wrong with me. I mean, I’m not a doctor, I was freaking English major. Still, on some level I knew what was up with my body- I knew better than anyone else. And you know what’s best for you too, deep down, if you think about it.

This doctor later wrote me an email apologizing for his mistake. I wasn’t upset though. It had all worked out, and it was an important lesson to learn at 19: that I have to be my biggest advocate. In the end, the only one who gets to dictate my choices, and the only one who has to answer for them, is me.

In the end being a grown up is about finding your own inner voice and compass. About making the decisions that are smart for you.

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19 thoughts on “When Trusting Authority Almost Killed Me”

  1. This exact same thing happened to my friend when she was 19, pretty much word for word actually, including the ambulance person.
    Similarly, another friend had a stomach ulcer that gave her internal bleeding in her first year of university and the doctors kept sending her away saying it was indigestion. It’s a long story but she ended up going into shock, had to have a blood transfusion and spent the majority of her first semester in hospital.
    I think when you’re young people think you can’t possibly know things for yourself and easily dismiss you. Like you said, both my friends knew there was something seriously wrong but people wouldn’t listen. If you know that travelling will be a good experience for you, don’t let other people tell you otherwise.

  2. I’m going through something similar with my career. I feel like I’m too young for a serious job, but I don’t wanna quit my office job because of the generous pay (even though it’s boring, and I’m unhappy). But I don’t like any advice people give me. It’s hard to find your inner voice sometimes, but I definitely know that traveling makes me happy, and it’s a big part of why I like my life right now. I just hope people make the decision to travel no matter what anyone says. Besides, all they have to do is go once, and they’ll be addicted! =D jk!

  3. I like this parallel you draw. I always hear we need to be advocates for our own healthcare, but you’re totally right about this applying in “real life” too. Just as we know our own bodies best when it comes to illness, we know our hopes and dreams best. And, we are the only ones who have to live with the consequences of the decisions.

  4. Oh Emory healthcare… And classic Atlanta emergency services…

    Well written! I’m in a major limbo right now, and advocating for myself is about all I can do when so many conflicting words of advice come my way. Like I should stop traveling and start having kids (thanks, Grandma).

  5. Steph- I loved this post. I think when we make big decisions we’re so nervous that we fall back on external validation and not our own gut. Or sometimes we want someone else to blame or take credit for our decisions – but that isn’t the point, is it? The point is: in order to live your own lives you have to make your own calls. And stand by them and enforce them/defend them. Great anecdote and message. Thanks for writing it. Well said.

  6. I definitely agree with this – especially ‘being your own advocate.’ Authority too often creates the illusion of competence, so sometimes we have to trust ourselves over the ‘experts.’ That’s really cool that that doctor sent you an apology e-mail, though 🙂

  7. Spot on Steph. People mean well, but they can’t help questioning other people’s choices and if you dig deeper and ask them why they don’t want you to go it’s usually for the wrong reasons or about concerns THEY would have. Strength of mind to make your own judgements is the best travel companion you can have, before you leave and on the road.

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