10 Questions That Could Save Your Life | Reader's Digest

10 Questions That Could Save Your Life

What you need to ask the doctor when every moment counts.

By Pamela F. Gallin | MD from Reader's Digest | February 2007

Walter Johnson, 54, felt abdominal discomfort one evening at his weekend retreat in upstate New York. The next morning, even though he didn’t have a temperature, he couldn’t stop shaking. His wife drove him 40 miles to see his doctor, who couldn’t determine a definitive diagnosis and sent Walter to the local ER.

But when he arrived, Walter wasn’t experiencing any symptoms other than fatigue and acute uneasiness: His temperature was normal, and he’d stopped shaking. The triage team in the ER turned their attention to other patients with more severe issues. A little while later, though, Walter was feeling worse. His temperature spiked to a scary 104, and his case was moved to high alert.

An ER doctor examined him and pressed on his abdomen, but Walter didn’t feel any pain. The doctor was concerned because of the fever and began to think of the most likely diagnoses. He ordered an abdominal CT scan with contrast, a type of x-ray that shows not only bones but also all the organs and other structures inside the body. Walter drank a dye that highlighted his GI tract. It showed that he was suffering from appendicitis and that his appendix was not in the classic location. You can learn from his experience and remember to ask:

“Should I have an abdominal CT scan or other tests before going to the OR?”

The doctor was surprised it was appendicitis, because Walter wasn’t suffering from the usual severe abdominal pain on the lower right side. But if the test had not been ordered with contrast, his appendix would likely have ruptured and his condition could have been life threatening. Walter was quickly wheeled into surgery for an emergency appendectomy.

Every year, more than 250,000 Americans get appendicitis. Yet many of them are misdiagnosed. Other serious medical conditions can mimic appendicitis, including an ovarian cyst, tubal pregnancy, certain forms of diverticulitis (a type of inflammation in the intestines) and sexually transmitted pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).

Other culprits: inflammatory diseases stemming from an ulcer, gallbladder disease, or a liver abscess–and even kidney disease and colon cancer. So before any surgical procedure, make sure your doctor has utilized every available test to determine the right diagnosis before you are wheeled into the operating room.