The Guilt of Illness

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Some of the most profound experiences come in unusual places. Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend the PGA tournament in Wisconsin. Can’t say I am a huge fan of golf but I was excited to be out on the course and watch the pros. Michael and I traveled with my parents on this weekend road trip.

Unfortunately, it was extremely hot (I later heard it was 94°F with a “feels like” temperature over 100°) in the mid-afternoon. It seemed the golf course and planners were unprepared for the demands of thousands of people in such extreme heat. There were not many concession stands; those available had long lines with long waits, and some actually ran out of water.

I was one of what must have been well over 50 people that day who experienced heat exhaustion. I know I am not very tolerant of heat. Some of the medications for my heart and blood pressure make me very heat sensitive. I was also unprepared for the golf course, the amount of walking, and unexpected lack of indoor facilities.

It is the fault of no one and, thankfully, I did not pass out or worse. But I ended up in the medical tent for over an hour. My blood pressure remained stubbornly high. I was nauseous. The volunteer physician treating me was kind and compassionate, and seemed very concerned. With my history of heart attack and artery disease, he felt I needed to be checked out at the hospital emergency department. I needed IV fluids, and they could not do that in the medical tent.

In the ambulance, a young, friendly paramedic started an IV to put fluids into me. I told her I felt really bad for my husband and parents; I had ruined their chances of fun for the day, and was causing a lot of worry—again.

The paramedic responded, “One thing healthy people don’t understand is the guilt that comes along with being ill.”

I could only nod as I let this profundity settle in. I had never thought of this as something common to many (most?) people with an illness.

I thought about all my trips to the emergency department over the past six years. Each time, I have apologized to my husband, family members or friends that are with me. I feel terrible for their worry. I don’t like to be the center of attention or to inconvenience others. I don’t like to be the cause for a change in plans. I don’t like the expense that comes with having a medical dust-up.

Each time I am being treated in an emergent situation, I worry about my family worrying about me. I know I am okay. I am with the medical people and know exactly how I feel. But those waiting in another room don’t know, except for the occasional update which I usually ask a medical person to provide.

I feel guilty for the ongoing accommodations my husband makes: lifting anything remotely heavy, being sure I am not too cold or too hot or over-stressed. Being willing to change plans when I don’t feel well. He does all of it very willingly and I feel fortunate to have him. I try not to take him, or his willingness to accommodate my medical peculiarities, for granted.

If you have been ill, chronically or short-term, have you felt guilty? How did you handle these feelings?

I imagine the guilt of illness is common because none of us wants to be the cause of distress for our loved ones. We feel bad for causing them to worry. I wonder if it is just natural.

Last weekend, after two bags of IV fluids and some potassium, I was good. No problems since then. Chalk it up to being unprepared for the conditions of the day, and the gift of understanding a new layer of living with a chronic medical condition.

Make it a good week!