By Yochanan Gordon
While collecting my thoughts for this column I recalled the following routine of the late Jackie Mason regarding good doctors.
First, he observed that anytime people have occasion to see a doctor they always refer to their doctor as the “top in his field.” With so many top doctors, he asked, where do all the horrible doctors come from?
He then observed an irony with regard to the prevailing characterization of a good doctor. Jackie was obsessed with Jews and Judaism, and so in this particular routine he was describing a typical conversation between a few Jews.
One said, “My doctor is so good that I need to make an appointment six months in advance.”
“That’s nothing,” said his friend. “My doctor is so popular, I never even saw him.”
This came to mind because a month or so after having contracted mononucleosis (which I believe I wrote about at the time back in June) and suffering every symptom of mono in the book—even the yesh omrim or the haga’aos in the medical books, in halachic parlance—I developed acute erythemic rashes up and down my arms and legs and partially on my back and torso.
As I have one of the better doctors from the opening anecdote of this column, it was challenging to secure an appointment in order to figure out the origin of these rashes. So I did what perhaps isn’t the brightest thing to do—I Googled any correlation between mono and rashes.
To my surprise, I did find that there was something termed “mono rash,” and although it was difficult identifying if the images on Google were in fact the type of rashes I had contracted, I took the correlation between mono and rashes at face value and figured that if would rectify itself in due time.
With time, the itching endured, the rash continued to intensify, and its surface area expanded.
I have previously revealed my natural proclivity towards hypochondria. It’s bad enough as it is, but it becomes exacerbated due to my obsession with Coca-Cola; the excessive caffeine causes anxiety and other wonderful side effects.
So towards the end of a beautiful first days of yom tov, which we spent all together at my sister’s house in Chestnut Ridge, I began to worry about these rashes that weren’t going away. I resolved right after yom tov to turn to Doctor Google to try to figure out the origin of these rashes.
Now, I know that every condition on Google or WebMD leads to yene machla, but for some reason it didn’t deter me from at least doing what I saw as my due diligence in the absence of being able to secure an appointment.
I had joint pain, specifically on my knee cap, which at times made it very difficult to walk. It would ease up as the day moved along and I started to increase my walking, but it was the joint pain and the rashes that were my main criteria in searching Google for some plausible answers.
What would you know—the first response to joint pain and rashes was none other than leukemia. So with the caffeine beating down on my nervous system and the Google search playing mind games with me, I decided that the next day, erev Shabbos, I would go to Refuah Health Center in the morning and hope to secure an appointment with a doctor on call then.
I did get to see a doctor, albeit over Zoom. Upon connecting, I mentioned to him that I had been diagnosed with mono earlier in the summer and that my research had led me to the existence of a mono rash. He looked at me askance and said that in his 18 years as an internist, he had never seen mono accompanied by a rash. Mono rash, referenced on Google, he explained, is an allergic reaction to antibiotics taken in order to fight the virus, resulting in a rash.
Hearing that, my concern that it was far more severe than what I was anticipating was unfortunately confirmed. Having never met the doctor previously, I mentioned my hypochondria to him, which he seemed to pick up on immediately. After he put me somewhat at ease, I admitted to him that based on my medical research in the pages of Google I was sure that I had a far more serious issue on my hands. He matter-of-factly replied that anything one researches on Google will somehow lead to cancer and that Google is the leading source in medical malpractice. I then asked him if that meant that joint pain and rashes on the arms, legs, and trunk are not indicators of leukemia, which, to my relief, he forthrightly confirmed.
After I visited my primary physician and the blood tests returned normal, and after a dermatologist insisted that I was having an allergic reaction, the bloodwork from Refuah Health Center came back showing a clear case of Lyme disease. Thankfully, I was prescribed antibiotics and, hopefully, I am on the road to full recovery.
I made the decision to veer from the stated objective of this column of revealing the inner reality in Torah and life to share this experience with you, because I’m sure that I’m not the only one who turns to Google with medical queries. It’s impossible to maintain a healthy demeanor, which is itself key in maintaining health, when we are convinced based on faulty research that our condition is far worse than it is.
But it goes further than this. Google isn’t only considered to be a medical expert but has also gained rabbinic status and is consulted when people have she’eilos. Aside from the fact that even a She’eilos and Teshuvos sefer is not supposed to be the determining factor in deciding one way or another in halachic matters, certainly a repository like Google, which just collects information without being able to take personal circumstances into account, should never be consulted.
We have doctors who have studied medicine and have years of experience, and we have rabbanim who have spent years of dedicated learning in the area of halachah and shimush, and it is them we should continue to approach with questions of medicine and halachah, respectively.
What emerges is that there is more to medicine and to psak halachah than the practitioners’ ability to solve the issues brought before them. In addition to being good diagnosticians, doctors are measured by their bedside manner and their level of empathy and understanding in relating to the patients who visit their offices. Similarly, rendering halachic decisions is a very individualistic practice whereby a number of criteria have to be brought into focus to render the proper decision.
The point is that we tend to consult Google in an attempt to cut through to the final answer, in Regis Philbin style, when doing so will often lead us to the wrong conclusion on a practical level and, in my case, one that causes unnecessary anxiety.
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at email@example.com. Read more of Yochanan’s articles at 5TJT.com.