“Major,” I suppose, is subjective. I have had some conditions that, at one time in history (and in many places today), would have been laughably fatal, if fatality weren’t so unfunny. But, all were easily cured, usually for the cost of an office co-pay. When you consider humanity’s long relationship with disease, you realize what a bizarre situation this is. For most of human history, disease has been ubiquitous, which meant surviving to adulthood was a feat in itself. I should take consolation in the fact that it is no longer thus, that penicillin has (maybe) saved my life once or twice. Still (perhaps because the stark reality that our ancient ancestors faced means our genes predispose us to expect misery), my general life satisfaction level has never been very high. I’m at peace with this. I’m miserable, but at least I’m not diseased or dead.
So let’s run through them:
Birth, age 0
I know, I know: giving birth and being born are not illnesses (hence the “Medical Conditions” modifier in the title). But they can be life-threatening conditions, and you only have to compare a chimpanzee’s skull to a human’s to understand why this might be so.
This, I expect, will be a controversial statement. Pro-“natural”-birth mamas, the kind who hire doulas and have written birth plans barring all medication/metal instruments/noise from their precious wubby’s arrival into the world, are fond of repeating platitudes like “trust your body” and “birth is a normal and natural process and should not be medicalized.” Well, sure, giving birth is “normal” and “natural,” but normal and natural means a healthy chance of having your vaginal passage torn in two by a giant skull and subsequently hemorrhaging to death.
Modern medicine has a variety of methods to mitigate this natural reality, including c-sections, which is how I came into the world, a healthy infant with a respectable, if unimpressive, Apgar score of 9.
Pneumonia/Bronchitis, age 3
This necessitated my first hospitalization, about which I remember little other than that it seemed exciting. They gave me oxygen and some antibiotics, the thick pink kind that I whined about but secretly liked.
Asthma/Allergies, age 3-present
The nurse told me I was allergic to the following: cats, feathers, dust mites, tobacco, and ragweed. My asthma has always been mild. I start wheezing if I run any distance, which, when I was a kid, meant I sucked at gym, which meant I could never be cool. “Never smoke,” they told me. “With both asthma and a tobacco allergy, it’d be bad.” I took up smoking anyway at age 14, though I could never put away two packs a day like some of my more prolific friends. I think the nurse just made up the part about being allergic to tobacco.
Chicken Pox, age 7
My younger brother got it first, and I can’t articulate how envious I was that this distinction befell him. A week after his first symptoms, an itchy pink dot appeared on my arm, and soon, I, too, was covered in unsightly pus-filled boils. I spent Thanksgiving of that year trying not to scratch them. My own children, having received the varicella vaccine, will never know this medieval joy.
Clinical Depression, sporadically from age 14-21; infrequent flare-ups thereafter
Depression is a condition that, like obstetric fistulae, make the afflicted unpleasant to be around, resulting in ostracism (though it is possible, under certain circumstances, to hide depression from the world to some extent, giving it a clear advantage over obstetric fistulae). Cultural misconceptions about both of these disorders mean the sufferer is blamed for their condition. Folk medical wisdom has it that depression is a flawed or weak state of mind rather than a disease. People tell the sufferer things like, “Look at all you have going for you! Your life is full of positive things! You have no reason to be sad!” Which may be true, and inevitably makes the depressed person much more sad than they were before that fact was pointed out to them. My own depression was treated, with varying success, with Prozac, talk therapy, alcohol, marijuana, and nitrous oxide inhaled from Redi-Whip cans.
Scarlet fever, age 19
I was kind of proud of this one, and thought I might end up blind like Mary Ingalls, which would be both tragic and kind of cool. But I learned it’s pretty much just strep throat located outside the throat (in this case, in the form of a rash on my chest and abdomen). Amoxicillin cleared up the rash in a matter of hours.
Malaria, age 24
I was supposed to take daily antibiotics while spending a semester studying in Accra, Ghana. The aforementioned history of depression precluded me from taking the standard prophylactic, Lariam, which has been known to induce psychosis in susceptible individuals. But the regimen of doxycycline prescribed to me sapped my energy so I stopped taking it. (Upon which I realized it was probably the tropical environment sapping my energy, not the doxycycline.) A couple weeks later, on Ghanaian Independence Day, after a day of dancing at Labadi Beach, I got a headache and my brain felt like it was rattling in my head. As I climbed the steps to my dorm room, nauseated, I became convinced my cerebral cortex was detaching itself from the rest of my brain. 15 minutes later, I was awash in sweat in my bed, rendered useless to society by aches and fever. A $10 dose of Fansidar killed the parasite in a few days.
Suspected shigella, age 24
This appeared soon after I recovered from malaria, and I will say only that it was more unpleasant than malaria. Although sometimes these things simply run their course, after 10 days of illness I saw a doctor, who treated me with ampicillin.
Pregnancy/C-section, age 25 and 29
Yes, I know, we’ve already been over this, pregnancy isn’t a disease. Well no, although it made me feel shittier than any disease I’ve had, and for a more protracted period of time. In fact, when I developed my first pregnancy symptoms, I assumed I was coming down with malaria again (which can appear up to a month after exposure). I had the same rattling-brain effect, the same exhaustion and the same nausea at the thought of eating a plate of scrambled eggs. But I really knew something was wrong when I went to the bar and found I had no desire at all to drink a beer.
Let it be said that I saw a midwife instead of a doctor for my prenatal care, I took evening primrose oil, I drank three cups of raspberry leaf tea a day, I did yoga, I labored while rocking on a birth ball, I did everything the natural-birth fetishists told me would help me avoid a c-section or any medical intervention. Nonetheless, my baby was ten days late, labor lasted over 36 hours, and even after 36 hours I was only dilated 2 centimeters. “Cut me,” I told the doctor. “I don’t give a fuck what I said. Cut that shit out. Get it out of my fucking body.” (I’m paraphrasing.) Despite being born by c-section, the baby was just as acceptable as any baby born in a tub or a sweat lodge or whatever the kids are doing this year. And better-looking, because his face hadn’t been squished by the birth canal.
The second pregnancy was the same as the first, except I had twins.