Shannon is a busy mother whose household consists of three children in elementary school, a husband who travels on business, and a family dog. After having mysterious symptoms for six months, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in January a few years ago. She was sent to a neurologist who specializes in MS. This doctor immediately started her on drugs to treat the disease.

In early April, three months into her treatment, she felt worse than ever. Each day she sank deeper into exhaustion. She had trouble dragging herself out of bed in the morning. It took a major effort just to put one foot in front of the other to walk across the room. In a routine checkup, the neurologist ran blood tests to rule out any unknown problems.

As she weakened daily, Shannon assumed that her grueling exhaustion was because of her disease. She was overwhelmed and depressed, thinking that this was what her life was going to be like from now on.

At the end of May, discouraged and imagining that she would soon be unable to care for her children, Shannon returned to the doctor for another regularly scheduled checkup. The doctor's staff drew blood again.

The next day the doctor's office called and told Shannon that she had to come back in right away. Shannon was frightened by the call. It always took four weeks to get an appointment - and she had just been there the previous day.

When she arrived, she didn't have to wait in the waiting room. She was taken right back. The doctor explained that her blood test results from six weeks earlier showed dangerously low levels of all three crucial parts of her blood - red blood cells, white blood cells and platelets. Her blood count was so low that it had been a medical emergency.

No one had told Shannon, though. No one had tried to figure out the reason for her problem. No one had started her on any treatment. Because of a mix-up, her test results were simply filed away.

That was very bad news. Even worse, the results from the previous day's tests indicated an even further drop in her blood count. Her doctor wanted to put Shannon in the hospital right away. Her life was in danger.

Situations like Shannon's play out across the country every day. First of all, doctors may not even ever receive the results of tests they have ordered, and they may never notice that the results are missing. In one study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, up to a third of doctors said that they didn't have any good way to make sure that they actually received the results of medical tests they had ordered.

Second, according to a study described in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, between 29 percent and 45 percent of doctors report that they do not always tell patients about abnormal test results. About 7 percent of the time, according to a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine, doctors fail to tell patients about critical abnormal results that indicate that they have a serious problem that requires prompt attention. That is what happened to Shannon.

When you were in school, did you eagerly - or anxiously - await your report card, wondering how your teachers would say you were doing? Do you give the same attention to your medical test results? To save your life, you might want to do so. Five steps you can take are:

  • Write down the names of medical tests your doctor orders.      
  • Ask when you will hear the results, how (phone call, mail, e-mail, etc.), and from whom. Write this information down.     
  • Ask that your doctor send you a copy of your results. (It is best to get a copy of the actual test results themselves, not simply a postcard that says, "Your test results were fine.")    
  • Note on your calendar when you should expect the results. (Or record two notes: whether you will get a phone call first and then a paper copy of the results later.)   
  • If the date(s) pass without your hearing anything, call the doctor's office promptly, and keep following up until you get the results.

Shannon survived her ordeal. It turns out that her symptoms were entirely because of a side effect of one of her medicines. You can help avoid potentially life-threatening traumas like hers simply by tracking your medical test results.