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iOn the Contrary-i Thinking the Worst

September 1, 2000
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Idon’t know what it is about human nature that causes us to think the worst in timesof uncertainty, but I’ve recently been reminded what a bad, bad trait this is.

Inearly June, I returned from a visit to China with the lingering effects of an upperrespiratory infection: dry cough, fatigue, and the expectation that I should be excusedfrom all housework.

Whenthe cough lingered for several weeks, I decided to visit a doctor. This in itself was anaccomplishment considering that I live with a medical malpractice lawyer who was convincedthat instead of reviewing my cough the doctor would amputate my left foot, probably beforethe parking meter had expired. I think her exact words were: “You’d be saferdriving on a crowded freeway at 100 miles an hour than you would be in a doctor’soffice.” Believing that a quick trip down Interstate 25 was not what my cough needed,I kept the appointment.

Waitingfor the doctor, I casually leafed through about seven People magazines. I wasn’tworried -- at this point -- about my diagnosis. I merely needed some strong antibiotics totrample the Asian bug I’d acquired. Or so I assumed.

Thedoctor took me into his office and asked me questions about my health, family history,travels, and lifestyle. He seemed impressed that I wrote for a living. “You know allthose big words,” he said. I wasn’t sure which big words he was referring to,but I was fairly certain that none of the big words I knew compared to his lexicon ofmedical terms.

Aftera preliminary exam, he sent me down the hall for a chest X-ray. Twenty minutes later, I’mback in his office, standing in front of a lightboard, reviewing the silvery,black-and-white films of my lungs. He points to a ghostly, irregular circle about the sizeof a nickel and says in his best casual-doctor voice: “Everything on your X-ray looksnormal except for this... lesion.”

Withjust a few clicks, innocent people with harmless health questions are turned intohyperventilating lunatics.

Ididn’t hear what he said immediately after that because the word lesion was bouncingaround my brain: “lesion... sion.... sion.” If you’ve never heard this wordwhile standing with a doctor in front of your chest X-ray, trust me: you don’t wantto.

BeforeI knew what was happening, the doctor’s assistants were drawing tubes of blood frommy left arm, administering tuberculosis tests to my right arm, scheduling CT scans, andarranging for me to visit a pulmonary specialist. My official diagnosis was “cavitarynodule,” which are two big words that I personally have never used.

Arrivingback home, I immediately logged onto the Internet to see what this cavitary nodule mightindicate. Tuberculosis was a definite possibility. But as I scanned Web pages managed bysuch esteemed groups as the World Health Organization and the Mayo Clinic, it became clear-- or at least as clear as it could be in my state of fear-fueled ignorance -- that mysymptoms could be caused by a host of other deadly diseases. At best, I surmised, mynodule would require a protracted period of chemotherapy. At worst, I’d be in an ironlung by Christmas.

Thisis the true power of the Internet. With just a few clicks, innocent people with harmlesshealth questions are turned into hyperventilating lunatics who can’t sleep, stopmaking plans, and vow to start giving away their possessions to ease the burden onrelatives when they’re gone.

Somehow,I made it through my medical appointments and the test results came in. Bloodwork? Normal.TB test? Negative. CT scan? Clear. I didn’t know whether to be elated over the goodresults or worried that I’d contracted a new more elusive and deadly disease. Afterall, there was that lesion-sion-sion to contend with.

Aweek later, I was standing with a short, serious, bow-tied pulmonologist in front of myX-ray, and he said to me: “Hmmmm. You seem healthy in all other respects. I’dlike you to take another X-ray, and this time I’d like you to wear a couple ofmarkers.”

Puzzled,I marched back down the hall to X-ray and told the technician what the doctor had said.Soon, I found myself taping two tiny metal ball bearings to the very same places of myanatomy that Darva, “The Millionaire Bride,” Conger had recently bared for thecamera in Playboy.

Thefilms were taken again, and the ball-bearing images told us what we needed to know: I didn’thave a lesion after all. Instead, and this is a word I’ve never used in a columnbefore, I have an unusually photogenic nipple. What can I say? It was cold in the X-rayroom.

Mycough was not caused by TB or cancer. Instead, as suspected, it was the stubborn result ofa respiratory infection and thanks to medication is now almost gone. My lesion, as itwere, had simply misled my medical team.

Whathas all this got to do with the workplace? Nothing in the direct sense. But the experiencedoes provide a shocking reminder how easy it is for us mortals to fill information gapswith the most horrific explanations possible. It’s true where our health isconcerned, and it’s definitely true in our places of employment.

Ifthe pay system is being restructured and employees aren’t told why, they’ll fretthat deep pay cuts are in order.

Ifthe company is being reorganized and employees aren’t told why, they’ll worrythat job losses are imminent. If budgets are reduced and employees aren’t told why,they’ll convince themselves it’s because the company is teetering on the edge ofbankruptcy.

Thus,the next time you’re communicating with employees, don’t withhold informationuntil all the facts are in order. Believe me, no news is not good news. Sometimes thetruth -- however insubstantial it may seem -- is so much perkier.

Workforce,September 2000, Vol. 79, No. 9, pp. 18-20 -- Subscribe now!

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