Hey Pediatrician, Stop Terrifying Me!


So, here we are in your office. My son has been throwing up and I was hoping you could just take a look at him and reassure me that he’s okay. I’ve let you know that he threw up in the middle of the night last night and also a few other times during the day. You’ve checked him out and said he looks fine, that it’s probably just a stomach bug and that it’ll get better on its own. All that sounds good, thanks Doctor. It’s just that you also said something else. Something I can’t quite get out of my mind. It was just now as I was collecting our things to leave. You said, “When a kid throws up in the middle of the night we do sometimes worry about pressure in the head from a brain tumor, but I’m sure it’s not that in this case.”

Thanks a lot, Dr. Terrifying. If I’d wanted that kind of diagnosis I could have just typed “toddler vomiting” into any search engine on earth and come up with the same grab bag of frightening options. I came to you so that you could look at my actual son and listen to his actual symptoms and tell me whether or not I should be concerned.

Yes, I understand that you’re saying I don’t need to be concerned. But I also heard the words “brain tumor” come out of your mouth about thirty seconds ago and since then you’ve sounded a lot like the teacher from “Peanuts.” I’m catching about every third word over the screeching crazy person who has taken over my internal monologue and the pounding of my heart which has somehow migrated into my mouth. My son is beginning to whine because I am clutching him to my chest and planting kiss after kiss onto the top of his head which may, or may not (probably not … almost certainly not … but may…), contain a brain tumor.

So, there’s a lot going on for me right now, but I did just hear you say that actually you’re certain it’s just a stomach bug. It’s just that when people mention a kid throwing up in the night out of nowhere you do worry about brain tumors. But my son has other symptoms so it’s really nothing to worry about at all. Now you’re saying you probably shouldn’t have mentioned it at all. You think??

So, basically, my son has a regular, old stomach bug. He’ll be better in a week, at most. Couldn’t we have just left it at that? Wouldn’t there be time later to discuss terrible and frightening alternatives if, say, the bug didn’t go away? Why must we go down the road of worst-case scenarios?

No, “Because you asked” is not a good reason. I know that, technically, I did say, “So, is there anything else it could be?” and I may have followed that up with, “I mean, what’s the worst-case scenario here?” But surely you’ve dealt with enough nervous mothers by now to know I don’t actually want you to answer that question! Surely you know that my anxiety compels me to ask this, and re-ask it and maybe even ask it again as I’m halfway out the door with a granola bar unwrapped and spilling crumbs onto my son’s head. I mean, you’ve got to be aware that, unless you actually think there’s a serious possibility of something else being wrong here that you should smile at me while firmly closing my son’s file and tell me that he’s absolutely fine and there’s nothing at all to worry about.

I mean, look, I get it. You have a vast amount of medical knowledge at your fingertips. You hear a combination of symptoms and you are immediately running through lists of possible diagnoses to come to the most likely one. And I understand that, when I ask you what the worst possible diagnosis could be, you’ve already thought of it a moment ago and dismissed it so it’s fresh in your mind. So it seems easy to just tell me the answer to my question. Except that I can never (ever, ever) un-hear what you said. Because you are talking about your patient, but I am talking about my son.

My fear and worry prompt me to ask this question that I wish I hadn’t asked. So, as the one whose emotions are still under control, I’m just asking you to use a little restraint. And, if you’re worried that I might sue you later if my son does, in fact, have some horrible illness, well I kind of think that’s a risk you have to take.

So, thanks for your time. I’m going to take my son home now. Maybe when we get there we can play climb-all-over-Mommy-while-she-lies-prostrate-and-weeping-on-the-floor. We haven’t played that since the last time we were here and he had a cold that could have possibly been pneumonia. I guess we’ll see you for his next check-up. Unless he gets another stomach bug before then. Or a brain tumor.

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