09/18/2013 01:33 pm ET Updated Nov 18, 2013

Dogs, Cats, Garden Snakes and Zebras: A Physician's Journey Into Health Fear

One of my favorite classes in medical school was called "differential diagnosis." It usually involved a case, and we'd have to figure out what the diagnosis was. It was always really interesting and often the diagnosis was some obscure illness. Our instructors always told us that these were the "zebras" and that usually in medicine our patients would not have these diagnoses, they'd have more common mainstream issues.

However, the cases they gave us were always the "zebra" diagnoses! This led, for me, to a tendency always to include the less-common diagnosis on my list, so that I didn't miss anything.

So when I got sick two weeks ago, with a fever, joint aches, fatigue, a headache and a cough, I knew I didn't have a cold. You see, we had just returned from a mini-vacation in New Hampshire, and I had gotten four mosquito bites one evening.

I knew I had "triple E," or eastern equine encephalitis. It didn't really matter that it's rare. I knew I had it. But then two days passed and I didn't get any worse than a low-grade fever. EEE was supposed to make me have a high fever. So then... my brain kicked in.

What could cause joint aches, a headache and a low-grade fever? Yup, you guessed it.


I live in fear of Lyme disease. I'm so paranoid that I avoid the conservation land near our house, do nightly tick checks on the kids and scheme about ways to get our chickens to roam around our backyard, so that they can eat any migrant ticks who think our backyard is for roaming. Once, five years ago, in the middle of winter, we saw deer in the property behind ours.

My physician husband was thinking Lyme, too, which completely sent me over the edge. You see, at Visions HealthCare, we see a lot of Lyme patients, and it can often take them a long, long time to recover.

I was sick over Labor Day weekend, so couldn't get in for any blood work until Tuesday. Except that by Tuesday, my fever and joint aches were gone. My headache was lessening and my cough was getting worse.

Now, I finally knew what I had.

Medical student's disease! That's the disease in which the medical students "get" whatever disease they are studying about. Although I am 13 years out of medical school, I caught that disease, and man, oh man, did it catch me off guard.

Turns out I probably just had a bad cold. Two weeks later, I'm almost entirely cured. My cough is down to a minimum and all my other symptoms are gone. So while there are occasionally times in which the obscure diagnosis is the correct one, more often than not, it's the "common" ones that we get!

This experience underscored how scary it can be to get sick and that I may be a physician, but that I could turn into a patient at any time as I, like our patients at Visions, am human. But it also reminded me that, more often than not, everything is going to be just fine.

And those zebras can stay where they belong... in the wild!

For more by Dr. Wendie Trubow, click here.

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