Saturday, 25 May, 2024
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Hard lesson from self-diagnosis

Dismissing stomach cramps as a bug, Tony Leon learnt the hard way the risk of self-diagnosing.

He writes, in News24:

During the apogee of apartheid in the 1960s and early 1970s in South Africa, one of the few entertainments on offer that allowed childhood imaginations to roam widely was the commercial SABC station Springbok Radio.

Its epic series were the stuff of school playground conversations the day after broadcast.

I recently, with rather extreme consequences, paid the price for remembering the slogan attached to ads for a cough mixture called Stearns Pine Tar and Honey.

Hardwired into our childhood brains was its offer: “You can’t take every cough to a doctor, but you can take Stearns Pine Tar and Honey.”

I applied with adjustments the Stearns line, just before the recent Easter weekend. I felt feverish, fatigued, and gripped with stomach cramps. I put myself to bed, self-diagnosed a stomach bug and slept it off.

I also had an incentive to will myself well since I was about to depart for Mauritius and to join a cruise ship to deliver some lectures on a segment of its world cruise. Feeling somewhat better on Easter Sunday and knowing the doctor’s room closed for the weekend anyway, I thought the worst was over and I would recover in Mauritius for a few days before the cruise departed.

The first mistake was to self-diagnose. But the second aspect of the saga was that I had taken out travel insurance, which I had never needed before but on the “just in case” principle.

About the best investment ever made in my case, as events unfolded.

Two days in Mauritius saw me moving from discomfort to extreme pain and high temperature, at which point my wife called the hotel doctor, and I was taken to a clinic where appendicitis and abscess were diagnosed after various probes and scans.

Stringent antibiotics, anti-inflammatories and pain meds were then administered as I was now more than 3 000km from home, in a strange environment where, other than my wife, I knew no one.

Reading about people’s ill health can be tiresome, but some lessons and perspectives were offered by this event, which might be worth reflection.


First, after my insurance broker activated the travel insurer, the wheels started to turn with amazing efficiency, empathy and speed. The spiralling clinic costs were absorbed, the insurer's representative, himself a doctor, visited me in the clinic and started proceedings to repatriate me.

This required air tickets for the two of us, plus an accompanying doctor in case of airborne disaster at the insistence of the clinic. No hassle and no objection, and the insurer arranged it all, and I was, after five days in the clinic, transported to the airport for the long journey home.

Lesson then: never leave these shores absent travel insurance.

Despite a near disaster at OR Tambo International Airport – too few immigration officials, inadequate wheelchair assistance and scenes of tumult and overall chaos – we boarded the plane to Cape Town just in time.

Finally, hours later, an ambulance took me to Kingsbury Hospital in Cape Town, where extraordinary doctors and exemplary nurses continued the treatment for another few days until inflammation and infection levels went right down toward normal, and I could be discharged to continue the healing in the best and most therapeutic place of all – home.

I joked with one surgeon who treated me that I was advantaged by my treatment occurring before the government introduced National Health Insurance (NHI).

His response was so chimed with my own experience at the healing hands of his colleagues: “South Africa is blessed by its people and has, over the decades, been cursed by its governments.”

Exactly, and another lesson observed by practice.

Tony Leon is chairperson of a communications company and former leader of the official opposition.


News24 article – Tony Leon | Cough syrup slogan saga: Lessons beyond health (Open access)

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