I often wonder, if you knew how much you destroyed me, would it make you a better doctor? You didn’t just damage my health, thanks to potential spinal column and nerve damage; but, I wish you could feel how much I quake in fear of every doctor I meet. Will this one believe me? Will this one blame me?
When we met, and I told you how bad my headaches were, and thanks to military moves, I had no consistent care, I thought that we were going to be a good fit. You were young, and up-to-date on research. Best of all, you were what I used to be: a female officer, fighting to be respected in a man’s world. I believed you when you said we’d figure this out, together.
Then, I got so much sicker. I begged you to take me seriously. I called all the time. I told you that I’d been to the ER. I told you that I’d been there six times this month. I told you this, every month, for over a year. I asked if it might be cluster headaches, or ice pick migraines. I worried that you weren’t worried.
Worst of all, you told me that it was my fault. You said, I probably took too many pain-relievers, causing rebound headaches. No matter how many times I told you that I hadn’t taken any pain relievers, you didn’t believe me. You’d say, one pill can set you back. Months of agony, with no treatment, except IVs in the hospital, after being given the drug-seeker-side-eye by ER doctors.
Finally, you ordered an MRI, because I cried. While the machine clanked, I hoped that they’d stop it and and rush in, because they’d found a massive tumor. I kept thinking how weird it was to want a tumor; what I really wanted were answers.
That week, I endured one of my worst headaches, to date. I kept mumbling, “Tell our son I love him;” I wanted those to be my last words. My husband carried me to the ER on base; I was afraid though, afraid that you’d be on-call. Still, my husband told the ER doctor that we weren’t leaving until someone told him what was wrong with his wife. The ER doctor called the on-call neurologist to review my MRI; you were on leave. My MRI had a clear answer: Chiari Malformation.
The short description of Chiari is that my skull never developed large enough for my brain. This means that the lowest part of my brain, descends out of my skull, and literally crushes the spinal column. Obviously, this hurts. It can also cause permanent damage.
I want you to know, my doctor, that your being on leave was the single greatest thing that ever happened to my health, because the on-call neurologist, referred me to neurosurgery. I met with two surgeons, both of whom looked at my MRI, reviewed my history and couldn’t recommend surgery fast enough. So, before you even returned from vacation, I was scheduled for surgery.
Alas, when you called to check-in, when you returned, I was able to confidently shake off your remarks, telling me that, had you been here, you’d not even have told me about my Chiari, as it barely counted, according to you, let alone referred me to neurosurgery. And, when I stressed again, how you’d been ignoring all the scary neurological symptoms that I’d been having for the previous year, that matched perfectly with this diagnosis, I was able to ignore you, when you said, “you shouldn’t be having those symptoms, so you aren’t.”
You told me, in that conversation that if it makes me feel better to be told by a neurosurgeon that I’m not sick then that’s fine, that patients “like me,” sometimes need that type of reassurance. I didn’t bother telling you that my surgery was already scheduled.
It’s been nearly a year since my surgery, and I’m still sick. I’m facing a second brain surgery that may well have been avoided, had the first one been done sooner. But that’s not the worst thing to come of this whole fiasco. Now, every time I see a doctor, I see you. I see your mistrust. I question if they question me. Because I was sick, very sick, but you didn’t believe me. I am riddled with self-doubt when I talk to the very people who are supposed to help me.
You took the worst thing that could happen to someone, and you made it worse than it should have been. You made it an experience filled with self-doubt, self-judgment, and fear. Your oath is to do no harm, but you harmed me in ways that I am not sure will ever fully heal.