It may be useless but it's not harmless - Diane Wagner

My mother-in-law died of appendicitis.

Actually, I think it was peritonitis that stemmed from the rupture, but the end result was the same. Over the past year, three people I care about have been hospitalized for ruptured appendixes. Two recovered, but it took them a week or more.

And, as things happen, after my mother-in-law's death we heard that the father of a friend's friend also died of appendicitis. In his case, it was a misdiagnosis because, after all, who really expects so much trouble from an obsolete organ only 3 – inches long?

Life-expectancy has risen phenomenally over the years for people with complicated physical malfunctions such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease. Smallpox has been virtually eliminated, polio is no longer a threat and tuberculosis is something that gets more print in history books than in medical journals.

We tend to lump appendicitis in the same antique category as rickets or scarlet fever – rare, and usually a snap to cure. Who really pays attention to such an insignificant thing? Who distributes fliers or prints posters warning people of the seven warning signs of appendicitis?

Well, here's a batch culled from the WebMD and Merck.com Web sites:

* A dull pain near the belly button that turns sharper as it moves to the lower right abdomen.

* Loss of appetite, nausea or vomiting.

* Constipation, diarrhea or inability to pass gas.

* Tender or swollen abdomen.

* Low-grade fever.

It's easy to see how acute appendicitis can turn dangerous: People ignore the symptoms, assuming they're caused by something more benign like the flu or bad food. Some, like my hard-working and self-sufficient mother-in-law, keep right on mowing the grass, weeding the tomatoes and scrubbing the kitchen floor.

By the time the pain becomes unbearable, the situation is serious.

About one in every 500 people will get appendicitis this year and, caught early, it's a simple matter for a doctor to remove the offending organ and flush the troubles away. The idea is to have immediate surgery. That's the cure.

The odds of survival dip a bit, however, when sufferers wait until the appendix ruptures and leaks infection into the abdominal cavity. And it hurts a lot more.

These days the recovery rate for appendicitis is 97 percent, so I don't mean to scare anyone. I just want to sound an alert about a potential danger that is not threatening enough to spark any heavy publicity.

The good news is that appendicitis is very rarely fatal. The bad news is that some people still die.

Diane Wagner covers county government for the Daily Herald. She can be reached at (770) 957-9161 or dwagner@henryherald.com.