Virus Scan

My Sunday morning began as it usually does: I woke up with a splitting headache, a strange rash, and not the faintest idea of how I might have gotten to be that way. I failed to improve even after several cups of coffee and a cold shower, and a lack of incriminating Facebook photos suggested that the previous evening was not responsible for my condition. For once, I was sick in more than just the vague, existential sense.

Rather than make the long walk to University Health Services (there was little chance I was pregnant), I sought help from WebMD’s on-line Symptom Checker. The idea is simple: select your symptoms from a checklist, and WebMD will identify the matching ailments that could have produced them. With several days’ worth of reading on all sorts of exotic diseases, the website is a valuable tool for isolating hypochondriacs from the general population. It’s also an important part of Mitt Romney’s health plan.

In my case, the news was bad: my symptoms were consistent with West Nile virus. It was also possible I was suffering from “exercise or physical activity,” but I guard against that risk fairly zealously.

My looming battle with West Nile was already taking its emotional toll, and I began to feel depressed. Fearing that UHS might consign me to the psychiatric ward, I decided to see if WebMD could help me here, too. The Symptom Checker associates eleven medical conditions with a “depressed mood.” I’m well- _acquainted with the first ten: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and so on. The eleventh, unfortunately for me, is mad cow disease. One imagines this makes for some awkward conversations at the doctor’s office: “Well, Ms. Amos, we could try giving you a prescription for Zoloft…or we might have to kill you to protect the rest of the herd.”

Struggling to cope with the prospect of dying for British beef, I tried to find a cure for mad cow disease in the bottom of a glass. Here, finally, WebMD had some good news. According to the Symptom Checker, “craving alcohol” is a symptom of just one medical condition: cocaine abuse. At long last, I had a disease I could get excited about.

A short time later (after looking up the medical conditions associated with nosebleeds), I realized that-for whatever reason-I was starting to feel much better. In fact, I felt so good that I decided to get an early start on my night on the town to make up for my disappointing Saturday. And so my Monday morning began as it usually does…