Six years ago I was stuck down with a mystery illness. My weight dropped by 30 pounds in three months. I experienced searing stomach pain, felt utterly exhausted and no matter how much I ate, I couldn't gain an ounce.
I went from slim to thin to emaciated. The pain got worse, white heat in my belly that made me double up unexpectedly in public and in private. Delivering on my academic and professional commitments became increasingly challenging.
It was terrifying. I did not know whether I had an illness that would kill me or stay with me for the rest of my life or whether what was wrong with me was something that could be cured if I could just find out what on earth it was.
Trying to find the answer, I saw doctors in London, New York, Minnesota and Chicago.
I was offered a vast range of potential diagnoses. Cancer was quickly and thankfully ruled out. But many other possibilities remained on the table, from autoimmune diseases to rare viruses to spinal conditions to debilitating neural illnesses.
Treatments suggested ranged from a five-hour, high-risk surgery to remove a portion of my stomach, to lumbar spine injections to numb nerve paths, to a prescription of antidepressants.
Faced with all these confusing and conflicting opinions, I had to work out which expert to trust, whom to believe and whose advice to follow. As an economist specializing in the global economy, international trade and debt, I have spent most of my career helping others make big decisions — prime ministers, presidents and chief executives — and so I’m all too aware of the risks and dangers of poor choices in the public as well as the private sphere. But up until then I hadn’t thought much about the process of decision making. So in between M.R.I.’s, CT scans and spinal taps, I dove into the academic literature on decision making. Not just in my field but also in neuroscience, psychology, sociology, information science, political science and history.
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