Validate thy neighbor: we can't expect doctors to be everything we need

This post is brought to you by the Social Butterfly Mom’s weekly series “Validate Thy Neighbor” in which two bloggers choose a topic and write in support of the OPPOSITE of what they practice. Today, Ups and Downs of a Yoga Mom and Cancer is Not a Gift, explore how much we deserve from our doctors. Please contact the Social Butterfly Mom if you are a blogger and would like to participate: thesocialbutterflymom@gmail.com.

True confessions: Some of the worst, most traumatic experiences of my life have involved doctors. Well, they didn’t just involve doctors, they were caused by doctors.

I love the “Validate Thy Neighbor” series because it invites us to see the world from someone else’s eyes and then to describe the world we see. I tried that out a few weeks ago when I wrote about eating out and and Kathy Mathews wrote about cooking at home. I love to cook and I’m pretty committed to eating good and healthy food, which is much easier to do when you’re eating at home. Still, I love to eat out. I guess I cheated a little bit with that one.

Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde? This public domain image is of actor Richard Mansfield, who, according to wikipedia “was best known for the dual role depicted in this double exposure: he starred in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in both New York and London. The stage adaptation opened in London in 1887, a year after the publication of the novella by Robert Louis Stevenson.”

Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde? This public domain image is of actor Richard Mansfield, who, according to wikipedia “was best known for the dual role depicted in this double exposure: he starred in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in both New York and London. The stage adaptation opened in London in 1887, a year after the publication of the novella by Robert Louis Stevenson.”

This time, though, I’m writing from a perspective that’s hard for me. I don’t really want to see things from a doctor’s eyes. I’ve been hurt deeply by some doctors, and I don’t think anyone really wants to see the world from the perspective of someone who has hurt them.

But here I am, trying hard to do the right thing. I know—even if I don’t always feel—that the bad behavior of a few docs doesn’t mean that all docs are bad. But even the good ones usually piss me off. They’re so damned powerful and patients are so damned powerless. They’re arrogant and dismissive and controlling.

Here I am trying to validate my neighbor, and I’m having trouble getting started. Moments of humiliation flash in my mind. I remember the harm so much more clearly than I remember the good and the healing and the warmth.

So, I’m going to get this started by telling you about a good doctor, two in fact, that served to inspire hope in me: Dr. Steven Menaker and his anesthesiologist, whose name I don’t remember.

Dr Menaker removed my gall bladder laparascopically in 2002. I had been suffering from gall stones for more than a decade. My first gall bladder attack happened a year after my mother died. She died because of a doctor’s error when her gall bladder was removed laparoscopically.

The doctor was doing her first solo “lap.” She severed the bile duct, failed to recognize that fact and sent my mom home. Within a few days my mother was in severe pain because bile was leaking into her abdomen. She was readmitted to the hospital but this doc, let’s call her Dr. Smith, refused to admit the bile duct was severed.

As my mother declined, my brother and I insisted that Dr. Smith be fired and we hired a new surgeon. He looked at her tests and immediately took her into surgery to repair the duct. My mother died several days later from sepsis. Despite being a fiercely committed organ donor, none of her organs could be donated because of the infection.

It took me a decade to finally agree to have my gall bladder removed, after having tried every other alternative, including participating in a clinical trial using lithotripsy to break up stones (the same way kidney stones are broken up).

When Dr. Menaker told me I needed the surgery, I told him about my mom. I didn’t want to because I was terrified and angry and confused. Doctors, in my experience, refuse to engage with complaints about other doctors.

This doctor didn’t, however. Instead, a look of rage crossed his face. He looked me in the eyes and said, “I’m so sorry. I’m furious that my profession treated you and your family so badly. This is a personal and professional travesty.”

He explained in detail how he would avoid the same error, how he would test to make sure he didn’t miss such an error, and what he would do if he did make the error. I scheduled the surgery.

As I was being prepped on the day of the surgery, the anesthesiologist came in to say hello and all the regular stuff that they do. Except he didn’t. Instead he introduced himself and said, “Dr. Menaker told me about your mom. It must be so hard for you to have this surgery. I’m so sorry. We are all so angry about this.”

I’ll be honest with you. I still don’t trust doctors. And, I’ve met some real bastards since that time.  My relationship with physicians is brittle and tenuous. I’ve come a long way, but I know that I can’t really see the world from their eyes or from the eyes of someone who has innate trust and confidence in docs.

But, I also know that there are some kind and brilliant physicians out there. I know that the idiot who told me I had cancer in the most brutal way I can imagine also removed my tumor expertly. And, I know that there are some very sweet docs out there who couldn’t competently put a bandaid on my knee.

This is my best attempt at validating my neighbor: doctors are human beings. We can’t expect them to be everything we need. We can’t let them take responsibility for our health because only we can be responsible. We need to learn to consult with them, to do our research and to be our own advocates.

We need to be patient and expect that they will make mistakes along the way. We need to ask them good questions and be good listeners. We need to understand that the skill set that makes good surgeons doesn’t always overlap the skill set that makes good communicators.

We need to understand the emotional risks they take as surgeons and oncologists. These men and women treat people, adults and children, who die, who can’t be saved, no matter what expertise they have. Such losses must feel like failure to these overachievers. Who can maintain vulnerability and warmth and empathy in the face of suffering and death? Not many people.

We need to know that it’s hard, maybe even impossible, to explain some procedures or treatment options to a patient. It may truly be impossible for a patient to understand enough to make a good decision.

We need to know that doctors deal with people who are often at their worst. That’s stressful and it must get old to be sniped at. Docs see people every day who do their damnedest to be unhealthy and expect the docs to make it all better.

And by “we,” I really mean “I.”

For every doctor who has made me wait, there’s a doctor who has taken extra time. For every doctor who’s been rude and dismissive, there’s a doctor who has cried after a loss. For every doc who has ignored my concerns, there’s been a doc who has answered pages of questions.

For every Dr. Smith, there’s a Dr. Menaker.

Maybe that’s not true, but I’m hoping like hell it is.

Be sure to read Ups and Downs of a Yoga Mom’s post here. You can find all of the “Validate Thy Neigbor” series here on Social Butterfly Mom’s blog. On Twitter: #validatethyneighbor

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