Trust Me, I’m a Health Care Practitioner

NOTE: The “you” I’m speaking to in this post is the author of the post at this link: http://disabledfeminists.com/2010/02/23/trust-me/. I’m linking to it twice because it’s so important. I’m also linking to the post she wrote before that detailing some of the backstory of her reproductive history that led to this event in the first place: http://randombabble.com/2009/06/09/necessary/

This is a TERRIFYING STORY. I can’t believe that this happened to you, ESPECIALLY not from another woman. I’ve experienced and come to expect this kind of treatment from male gynecologists (in most cases, never having had a period or a uterine cramp seriously diminishes the ability to empathize and assist someone who is suffering from them, although I’m glad to hear Dr. Kim is not like that), but to hear this from a female practitioner who presumably went into this profession to HELP women is unconscionable. I’m so glad to hear that you filed a complaint against her. I hope it’s taken seriously.

The frightening thing is that, although this seems to be a problem most frequently with OB/GYNs and issues relating to women’s health, it’s not limited to us. It’s terrifying to think that the vast majority of people know little to nothing about their own health care and simply trust to their doctors to give them “THE ANSWER.” People need to come in as well informed as possible, armed with every possible question to ask their doctors. They should never be made to feel bad for asking or being “worried about nothing;” it’s the health care provider’s JOB to find the best solution for EACH, INDIVIDUAL PATIENT, which includes keeping them calm, being polite to them, and TREATING THEM LIKE A PERSON in addition to simply keeping them alive. Shame on Nurse Practitioner V.

This is all very reminiscent of 19th Century novelist Frances Burney’s mastectomy in 1811, performed by “Seven Men in Black” without anaesthesia. A partial account can be found here: http://scribalterror.blogs.com/scribal_terror/2005/05/frances_burney_.html but is NOT for the faint of heart. When one of the seven men asked of his colleagues (while Burney was hidden under sheets, fully conscious and totally silent), “Who will hold this breast?” Burney sat up and replied, “I will!” and proceeded to explain in excruciating detail the exact extent of her pain and problems. Even then, the men didn’t listen to her wishes OR her needs. You’d think we’d have come a little further in 200 years.

Sorry for the long rant, but this is an issue that strikes painfully close to home for me. Thankfully, I have never been in a life-threatening gynecological situation like an ectopic pregnancy, but any threat to your reproductive health is scary, and to have that dismissed as something that doesn’t merit real attention from your doctor is HORRIFYING. When I was just fifteen, I was seeing a male general practitioner. I had always had heavy periods, but I went on birth control pills to even out my cycle and relieve the debilitating pain and two-week bleeding, and that sufficed for a couple years.

But then the problems started coming back again. And they got worse. It got to the point where the bleeding didn’t stop. Some days (the days I shouldn’t have been bleeding at all) were lighter than others, but it NEVER STOPPED. LITERALLY. After a month of this (I waited that long to see if it was just one fucked up cycle–that’s happened before), it hadn’t abated, so I went to the doctor to see what was wrong. After listening to me with one ear for a minute or two, he made me take a pregnancy test (despite my TRUE assurances that I was a virgin), then told me there was nothing wrong with me and that there was nothing he could do. I’d just have to live with it. LIVE WITH HAVING A PERIOD EVERY DAY FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE. CRAMPS. BLEEDING. SORE BREASTS. HEADACHES. WEEPINESS. INTENSE FATIGUE. FOREVER. WITH NO RELIEF. I left the office in tears, clinging to my mother’s hand. Remember, I was only 15.

As we walked toward the elevator, my mother looked at me and saw how miserable I was and said, “No. We’re not leaving it like this.” and dragged me back into the office, ignoring the medical assistant trotting after us, screeching, “YOU CAN’T GO BACK THERE, IT’S HIS PRIVATE OFFICE.” She pushed the book he was reading down on his desk and made him look at me and said, “This is unacceptable. Danya, tell him again what’s wrong.” I did, sobbing into a soaked tissue the whole time. He looked a bit miffed, then said, “I can’t help you if you don’t stop crying…” I stifled my sobs and he said, “Maybe we can try putting you on a stronger dose of birth control pills. But I had to make sure you were really serious about dealing with this problem before we took that step.”

I had to make sure you were serious.

My doctor. The man who was paid to take care of me. The person who SWORE AN OATH AND WENT THROUGH SEVEN EXTRA YEARS OF SCHOOL to make people feel better. He refused to take my word for it that I had a problem, even when confronted with the physical, blood-soaked evidence. To this day, I am certain that the only reason he did anything at all is because he was afraid of my mother, who just happened to work for the hospital who owned his building. If it had been just me, or some other poor parent with no influence and no knowledge of the world of health care, a sobbing, bleeding child would have left that office and spent the next several years, maybe her whole life, being miserable.

Fortunately, my mother is amazing, and so Dr. W put me on a higher dosage of birth control. I had morning sickness for three months, but the bleeding eventually slowed. I was happy.

Until three years later when it started happening again. By this time I was 18 and in college. I went to student health and related the story to the very nice, FEMALE nurse practitioner and requested a new, stronger pill. She looked at me for a minute or two, then looked at my chart detailing a family history of heart problems, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and a host of other problems. She had begun looking increasingly stern as I told her my story, and now she fixed me with a beady eye and said, “did your doctor tell you you have to take the pill within an hour of the same time every day?” “No,” I replied, shocked. “Does that matter?” “Yes it does. Each pill lasts only 24 hours and you need to overlap them so that you always have the same amount of hormone in your system. Otherwise, you can have exactly this kind of breakthrough bleeding, not to mention unplanned pregnancies! I CAN’T BELIEVE HE DIDN’T TELL YOU THIS!” I stared at her in disbelief for a few minutes, until my eyes began to sting. A few tears rolled down my cheeks, from sheer relief. The NP hugged me, handed me a tissue, and said, “We can figure this out. For the next month, I want to leave you on your old prescription, but I want you to set your alarm and take it at EXACTLY the same time every night. Then come back and tell me how it went. If that doesn’t solve the problem, we’ll figure something else out. But don’t worry,  YOU DO NOT HAVE TO LIVE WITH THIS.” I hugged her again, thanked her profusely, and went my way home. I did what she said, and lo and behold…

I WAS CURED. My “unsolvable problem,” according to Dr. W, was solved. Just by taking my pill at the same time every night. I didn’t need to go on a higher prescription when I was 15. This shouldn’t have happened at all. A good doctor would have been able to tell me, when I went on the pill at 13, that I HAD to take it at the same time every night or it wouldn’t work. I’d bleed through and maybe get pregnant if I became sexually active. I could have been spared years of pain and resentment and worry that my reproductive system wasn’t normal.

A good doctor would have listened when a patient came to him in pain and humiliation and tears. Not just a female patient. Not just a young patient. ANY PATIENT. A good doctor would have made it his first priority to listen and solve the problem. A good doctor would have treated me like a person and not an annoyance. At the very least, a mediocre doctor would have remembered that I was paying him and done the best he could to keep the customer satisfied.

Once I found out the truth of the situation, I wanted to file a complaint against Dr. W, but luckily for the young people of my hometown, he had retired. But from that moment on, I made it my business to be the best informed person about MY health, and I made it my business to make sure my doctors and health providers paid attention to ME. All of me. And now I make it my business to educate as many other people as I can to self-advocate and be their own primary care physician.

I’ve since met (and worked for) and been a patient of many excellent doctors and nurse practitioners, and I am thankfully mostly healthy. But I no longer believe that a diploma, a lab coat, or a Hippocratic Oath are a guarantee of medical expertise.

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