Dear Doctor: A Response From A Patient

Dear Doctor:

Thank you for your letter. It is rare to hear a doctor acknowledge that our knowledge is valid and that we are not imagining how doctors treat us. Thank you for validating that experience. I appreciate your candor. But I still have a problem with your letter, and it’s this: it is still all about doctors and their ego.

I know my disease scares you, it scares me too. Actually it terrifies me.   Except at the end of the day, you get to stop thinking about it, usually shortly after I leave the office, whereas I am stuck living with the consequences of your fear.  Your fear, which has nothing to do with me. It’s not about being afraid of what I am going to have to deal with if you fail, it’s not about making me feel better. Your fear is about the fact that my disease makes you not feel infallible. It’s about your fear that I might not be as in awe of you as I would be if you could fix my problem quickly and easily. You are afraid that you will lose some of your power.

Yes, some of you might genuinely feel bad that you can’t help us, but for many of us, on this end of things, the truth feels closer to the idea that you don’t actually care about us at all.

One way or another, our disease scares you, but we are not our disease. We live with it, we fight it same as you. We are not supposed to be your opponent, we are supposed to be partners in this fight. You are supposed to be our support, and yet over and over again you let us down. I have multiple friends who have undiagnosed pain conditions. Some have received at least the comfort of doctors’ suspicions as to what might be wrong with them, while others have doctors categorically deny that anything is wrong. Some go years without any idea of what is wrong because doctors have neglected to tell them anything.  I have heard countless stories of patients who have been actively barred from getting answers all because of some doctor’s interference.

I myself have had doctors tell me that they were sending me home because they didn’t know what tests to run, on multiple occasions. I have had doctors disregard my pain as just something I should be used to by now. I have been denied treatment, all because doctors were afraid of my illness and couldn’t differentiate between it and me. Just because you cannot cure my illness, doesn’t mean you can’t help me. It means that the help you can give me is to try and make it easier for me to deal with this illness. It can mean taking away the excessive pain for at least a short time. It can mean shutting down symptoms by temporarily increasing treatment with steroids.

You say you fear my knowledge, when in fact my knowledge is your greatest asset. I know you can’t be an expert on everything. I can help educate you on my needs, if only you would listen. But you don’t fear my knowledge, you fear that my knowledge makes us equals. You fear that with my knowledge, it means I will know when you are wrong. Here is a secret: we can forgive you for not knowing or for making a mistake, but we cannot forgive you for choosing arrogance over help or for trying to pretend that you didn’t make a mistake. I will trust you and respect you more if you admit ignorance than if you pretend answers. Learn from my experience. Work with me! What would take you years to learn, months to research, I can tell you in a few minutes. But you have to trust me. You have to work with me, rather than putting yourself above me.

When I tell you my pain is different, that means something. After years of being in constant pain, I’m no shrinking violet that is too delicate to handle anything but the lightest of pressure. When I come in because of pain, when I come in because I don’t recognize the pain, that means something has changed. Yes, it might turn out to be just a new presentation of symptoms, but it can also mean something else. Don’t assume that just because I have this condition I am immune to everything else.

I had swine flu for a month before I was diagnosed, because a doctor refused to believe that I could tell when pain and nausea were different. How many people did I infect in that time, going to class? I have had pancreatitis multiple times, only to have had it dismissed as “just Crohn’s pain” until the tests came in with high lipase. I have had pain dismissed as “Just Crohn’s pain” as though Crohn’s pain on its own was not serious.

Doctors are so concerned with their own importance that they often seem to forget that their patients are human. Then they ask us to excuse them by claiming to be “only” human, when they fail to accord us the same decency. When they are reminded of their mortality rather than their godhood they elevate themselves by treating us as less than human so that they still maintain their upper hand.  And then when they are called out on it, they beg for forgiveness and blame the society that treats them as gods. Rather than taking responsibility for participating in this charade and allowing that to affect our quality of life, you ask us to participate by offering advice on deferring to your egos. Your very apology, your very secret, and your advice all spit in the face of our experiences by putting the burden on weak and exhausted bodies and minds rather than give up some measure of your privilege.

In short, I don’t have time to worry about whether or not I make you feel a little less like a god around me. I’m too busy trying to get through my day with my own body and mind kicking my ass the whole way.

Sincerely,

Patient Ania

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3 comments

  1. Great response; this is one of those situations where, after reading the doctor’s letter, I was really taken aback by how well intentioned he was, and yet how much his advice to the patient was essentially “make this easier for the doctor by protecting the doctor’s ego and privilege.” Despite having an acute understanding over sixteen years that doctors don’t take patients seriously and that they should, the advice wasn’t: “hey, let’s fix our healthcare system and the personalities we instill in doctors” it was “hey patients, minimize yourselves, be nicer, don’t hurt the doctor’s ego.”

    That tells me a lot about where the empathy in the doctor’s post was being directed… :\ even if the author of that post didn’t intend to do that.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My best friend in the world has endometriosis and chronic pain. I have seen firsthand how people treat her. Your post made me cry.

    This is why, when idiots jingoistically proclaim that this is the ‘greatest country on earth,’ I always just laugh.

    Like

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