Mrs. McD Discovers Hulawalu Syndrome


“Never go to a doctor whose office plants have died.”  ~Erma Bombeck

By Riley McDavid Riley McDavid

“This just doesn’t feel right,” Mrs. McD said.  She was rubbing her tummy lightly at the time.  It was a Friday evening, and she’d been having some noticeable discomfort for several days.

“Let’s go in,” I said, expecting her to say no, that’s okay.  Maybe in the morning.

But women are more sensible than your average macho male when it comes to symptoms of illness, and Mrs. McD surprised me.  “Yes,” she said.  “Let’s go in.”

So we did, and after hours of examination, by humans and machines, Mrs. McD found herself spending the night in a private room at the hospital.  In fact, she ended up spending nine nights there.

In the interest of protecting at least a bit of Mrs. McD’s privacy, I won’t describe her symptoms.  But they did cause her medical team to consider an operation, a move they ruled out after several days of intravenous feeding during which time ice chips became a gastronomical treat for her.

During her very first days there, a relative sent us an article from the Sunday Times Magazine about a lady patient in the University of Chicago Medical Center who had remarkably similar symptoms.  Her doctors were mystified at first, but eventually concluded the woman was having a reaction to a blood pressure medication.  Could this be Mrs. McD’s problem as well? the relative asked.

Now I would never consider approaching an auto mechanic or a plumber or an electrician with a suggestion about how that person should do his work. That’s because I know nothing about auto engines or plumbing or electrical wiring.  I also know next to nothing about medicine except what I have learned as a patient, but that didn’t prevent me from approaching one of Mrs. McD’s doctors with a copy of the article.

“Oh, boy,” he seemed to be thinking. “I spend over a decade in med school, but this guy thinks he can diagnose his wife’s illness by reading a Sunday supplement.”  He took the proffered article, but was polite yet firm that the team had already ruled out a drug reaction as the cause.

I am grateful to the relative who pointed out that article because at the time the doctors were still playing the roles of medical detectives, and the article made a lot of sense.  However I subsequently got advice from others that was, to put it most kindly, suspect.

“I know what’s wrong,” a well-meaning neighbor said.  “You two didn’t get your flu shots.”

“Actually we did,” I replied.

“Well see!  There’s your problem.  Her sickness was caused by the flu shot.”

Another friend asked if Mrs. McD had eaten out without me the previous week.  Yes, I acknowledged. She went to a ladies’ club luncheon on Tuesday.  “There’s the cause,” the friend said.  “Food poisoning.” The fact that none of the other hundred or so women at the luncheon came down with the illness didn’t faze my friend.

Another had a one-word diagnosis: “Gluten,” she said quite adamantly.  “Gluten.” Yet another said, “Chicken. Bad chicken has been in the news a lot lately.”

By now I was beginning to appreciate how the doctor must have felt when I gave him that article.

After several days the gastroenterologists zeroed in on the diagnosis — Ogilvie Syndrome.  Olgivie is an extremely rare disorder that is named after Sir William Heneage Ogilvie, the British surgeon who first reported it in 1948 — not that long ago as medical chronology goes. The doctors prescribed an appropriate course of treatment for Mrs. McD, which, much to our relief, involved no surgery.  She spent several more days in the hospital, improving each day, until the doctors judged her ready to return to the outside world and the care of her non-physician spouse.

Mrs McD has been home over a week now, and is recovering nicely with no recurrence of any of her symptoms.  She also learned a valuable lesson.  “If you’re ill, never tell your friends that the doctors don’t know what ails you,” she said.

“Next time, what will you tell them?” I asked.

She thought about that for a minute or so, then said, “I’ll tell them I’ve got Hulawalu syndrome. It’s a rare disorder found mainly among Pacific islanders.”


“Really. I probably acquired it during our cruise to the Hawaii three years ago.  It killed Kamehameha the Great, you know.”

“No, I didn’t know that.  And neither do you.”

“But you’ll never rat on me, right?”

“Never in a million years,” I said.

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