Sunday, November 29, 2009
This Won't Hurt a BIT
I don’t trust doctors. Not even a teensy bit. No, no, not in some hermit-like, never seek medical care, chant in the moonlight, die-of-a-simple-pimple-gone-wrong sort of way. I still seek medical care, usually in a pretty timely fashion, but I don’t trust the men and women in the crisp white coats. I don’t trust them to actually pay attention, I don’t trust them to care about me, and I don’t assume that they’re particularly competent or any more intelligent than I am.
This mistrust has actually saved my life a time or two. We’ll get to that.
Where does this utter lack of faith come from? This discomfort verging on terror?
Well, it probably started in childhood. I was born with a congenital heart disaster which left me on a doctor’s exam table daily, getting injections. No, I don’t remember this at all, but the fear of needles held on for decades. The fear of white coats, too. No kidding, my mother had to change at work (she was a nurse) before coming home because I had come to associate people in white with pain. It wasn’t until my mid-teens that I was able to allow an IV or injection, and that was because the only alternative was allowing my gall bladder to continue wreaking stony havoc until I eventually died from it.
My feelings about doctors began to coalesce young. They were solidified by our move to Utah, which landed me with the meanest, rudest, drunkest old man there ever was for a GP. His name wasn’t Gus Spurland, but it might as well have been.
Doc Spurland was short, fat, thick-fingered, bespectacled, with one of those noses that proclaims a lifelong affair with drunkenness. Think W.C. Fields or Gimli from Fellowship of the Rings (the movie). He had a perpetual sneer and a way of making a child feel awfully stupid. I never liked him, I dreaded visiting him, and my pleas for a new doctor were met with round rebuke. My Mom has a bad case of “Omnipotent Physician Syndrome,” you see. It comes from being a nursing student in the 50s. All doctors are right and good and should always be respected and obeyed. End of lesson.
I stuck with Doc Spurland into young adulthood because—well, because he was the only game in town. No one else took payments, and I didn’t have health insurance. So I suffered through the “Cadillac of birth control pills” (made me gain enough weight I looked like a luxury car), the ridicule about the subsequent weight gain (“have you considered buying new pants if you’re going to be the fat pig again?”), and the perpetual drunken confusion about who I actually WAS (“You have any new social diseases?”). I used the campus doc whenever I could, but sometimes there was no avoiding the drunken old man.
1990 was a bad year for me, medically speaking. No insurance, precious little money. I went to Planned Parenthood for my annual pelvic, and got some slightly wonky results back. They tossed me on some drug or another and told me to come back in six months. Six months later, even wonkier results come back. They handed me another scrip and told me to come back in six WEEKS. Just before coming back, I started suffering sublingual pain. Lo and behold, I had a large LUMP under my tongue! As a long-time smoker, I was rather concerned. As I was prepping to have that looked at (by another rude, self-impressed, ugly, mean-spirited ex-Army doc who fancied himself an oral surgeon and also took payments), I found a lump in my breast.
Two, in fact. Found them on the day that my Mother’s gynecologist shredded ten chunks from my cervix in hopes of figuring out why my paps were coming back bad. No anesthesia because, and this is a direct quote, “Women don’t have any nerve endings there, so they can’t feel anything.” The pain was pretty astounding. Almost as intense as my deep and undying dislike for that man.
What do you do when you find lumps in your breast? Well, you call your doctor, right? That’s what I did. I called Doc Spurland and asked him to schedule a mammogram for me at the local hospital. He was quite reluctant, but I persisted. See, I DON’T suffer from Omnipotent Physician Syndrome. He finally agreed, but then insisted I come into his office immediately afterwards. I agreed.
I got to the hospital and, right off, the rad techs and nurses could feel those lumps. Just as Marquis de Gynecologist had been able to. Just as my then-husband could. After an inconclusive mammogram, the radiologist came in—he could feel the lumps, too. He performed an ultrasound. Still inconclusive. So he did a fine needle biopsy and sent me on my way. To Doc Spurland’s office.
Spurland barked me into an exam room (sans attending nurse—he didn’t do things that way), told me to lay back, hiked up my shirt and did the most cursory of breast exams. He then glared at me with unmistakable disdain and muttered “There's nothing there--pull down your shirt and get in my office.”
Oh. Okay. I went into his office (think big, mahogany desk, red leather furniture, smoldering ashtrays--Great White Hunter-type stuff) and sat down. My mother was already there. And then he started.
I’m worthless. I’m a piece of dung. I’m a manipulative, cruel, hateful pile of garbage. I’m just clever enough to take advantage of everyone around me. I’m incapable of love and deserve no love from others. I’m a whore, I’m nothing better than a Petri dish for venereal diseases. I don’t have any lumps in my breast (I just made them up to scare my mom and torture my family), but he wishes I did have lumps, because the world would be a better place if I died. Look at my poor mother, look what I do to her. I’m tearing her heart out, the poor woman, and I should be ashamed. I’m scum.
I struggled to defend myself, but was so floored that just walking out didn’t even occur to me. My mother was sitting on the big leather loveseat with an insipid grin on her face, squirming like a child needing to pee. No, she made no effort to defend me. It was me versus the Omnipotent Physician--of course she wasn’t going to step up. I finally (to my shame) began to cry. I might have breast cancer, I might cervical cancer, I have a big lump under my tongue, and this guy’s shouting that everyone hates me and wishes I would just get on with the dying? Yeah, I cried.
And then it stopped. Spurland looked at me, looked at my squirming, useless mother, then back at me. And he said, “Oh, Christ, I’ve got the wrong one, don’t I?” My mother nodded stupidly.
That’s right. He thought I was my older sister.
He then cleared his throat, stood up from behind his gigantic rainforest-nuking desk, and walked over to me. He said, “Let’s go take a look at those lumps.”
Oh, yes. Please, take a moment to digest that. When I was my sister, there were no lumps. But now that I was myself again, there were lumps, and they were something to be concerned about. You see it, don’t you? If I were my sister, he was prepared to pretend nothing was wrong in hopes that I might DIE.
I hope you’re as horrified as I was.
He placed a hand on my shoulder and I went from sobbing helplessly to shouting berserkly . I swore. A lot. The gist? “Touch me again and I’ll plow you under in the parking lot like a stray shopping bag.”
I dashed from his office, grabbing my poor-then husband and pulling him along with me. I left my mother there to find her own way home. I didn’t want her in my car.
I’d been home for perhaps twenty minutes when the phone rang. It was Doc Spurland himself, calling to tell me that I’d forgotten my coat in his waiting room. Would I like him to bring it over personally? I told him that my husband would pick it up. He then asked what he could do about what had happened that day.
And I told him.
I told him that I was calling an attorney the next morning, but that I would hold off on taking any action against him for three months. During that three months, I expected to hear news that he was pulling down his shingle and retiring. If he didn’t, I was going to own his sorry ass. Yes, I could have sued. Yes, I probably would have made a little—enough to clear my student aid debts, anyway. But it wasn’t about that. It was about keeping him away from any other potential victim that might stagger into his den of torture.
The letters transferring his patients to new doctors arrived two weeks later.
Doc Spurland died a few years later. I wish I could say I felt awful, or that I deeply regretted blah, blah. Blah. But I didn’t. I felt no sorrow at his passing. I still don’t. One less mean, incompetent ass in the world. Bummer.
Now Doc Spurland wasn’t the only doctor to inspire mistrust or bad feelings, but he certainly takes that blue ribbon. But props must be given to the “hospitalist” who insisted that my ekg read-out indicated “unmistakable evidence of a heart attack” (the CARDIOLOGISTS disagreed rather angrily); the other “hospitalist” who attempted to threaten me (“I’ll tell your insurance company you refused recommended treatment!”) into taking a beta blocker for an irregular heartbeat even though my variety of irregular heartbeat can go bad—fatal, even—with the introduction of a beta blocker (good thing ONE of us knew that, huh?); the oral surgeon who ignored every call I made about the obviously infected wisdom-tooth socket (and then tore me up one side and down the other for not letting him know I “really” meant infected); the clinic doc who steadfastly insisted I didn’t have an eye infection (even though there were long, stringy GLOBS of pus coming out of my eyes); and the on-call OB who told me that my c-section incision had “lost a couple of staples” and would “be fine until next week” when my regular doc got back (in fact, my incision had ruptured all the way down to uterus due to a gigantic hematoma—it took 7 ½ weeks to get that closed) all leap to mind as close runners-up.
I don’t trust doctors. I’m sorry, I am. Obviously, I still GO to doctors when I’m ill, but I don’t walk in full of confidence that I’m going to receive the correct treatment from someone who respects and gives two spits about me. No. I walk in expecting to be dismissed and rushed through if I allow it to happen. I feel fearful, uncomfortable, and embarrassed to be there. I hope someday I find myself a doctor in shining stethoscope on his prancing white exam table to restore my faith in the medical community.
I can hardly wait. I mean that most sincerely.