Doctors can say the most awful things to chronic pain patients.
In 2009 I started to have severe pain, weakness, and fatigue. I felt like I’d been run over by a truck. One of the first doctors I saw was an infectious disease specialist who tested me for Lyme disease. The test had the required positive bands for a new infection but she decided the result wasn’t significant. I was clueless about what the test meant, and continued to see specialist after specialist, trying to figure out what was wrong. I didn’t make it to a Lyme-literate doctor until the end of 2013.
I think I saw about 40 doctors in total, mostly rheumatologists, pain management specialists, and psychiatrists.
Why psychiatrists? Chronic pain patients are often referred to psychiatrists when MDs can’t be bothered to figure out what’s really going on.
And despite their knowledge of emotions, psychiatrists say some of the most horrible things.
Here are some of the worst and strangest things I heard:
1) Psychiatrist, female:
I called this doctor “psychiatrist Barbie” because of her obvious familiarity with plastic surgery, pricey-looking highlights, designer suits, and four-inch heels. She had so much Botox her forehead didn’t move at ALL, and her lips were suspiciously puffy.
Her comment was just bizarre. Is there such a thing as “chronic illness dress-for-success”?! A doctor’s appointment is not a job interview, right?
At the time, I was in so much pain it was an achievement to get dressed at all, and I had to wear sneakers because my back hurt so much. And in general, I think people dress casually to go to the doctor, unless they’re coming from work and they work in, say, a white-shoe law firm.
2) “You radiate female energy. You’re all woman.” — Psychiatrist, male, supposed “pain specialist.” OK, I was wearing the exact same jeans and sneakers as with doctor No. 1, but she said I was too frumpy to be taken seriously and he sounded like he was hitting on me. Ugh. Also, five minutes into the appointment, he promised to help me break my addiction to opiate painkillers. The problem? I don’t take opiate painkillers. I’ve used them after surgeries, but they mess with my stomach. He just didn’t read my chart.
3) “You’re using your boyfriend as a crutch so you can act like a cripple.” — This was also the “pain psychiatrist” from No. 2., a real winner. My boyfriend has helped with cooking, grocery shopping, and household tasks since I became ill. He is a naturally helpful person and I feel lucky he lives with me; it isn’t about “using” anyone. And of course this doctor, despite having lots of disabled patients, had to use the ableist slur “a cripple.” Hello, disability rights awareness?
4) The nose-picking psychiatrist:
After removing his finger from the depths of his nostril, he handed me the prescription he had been writing. I used my elbow to drag it into my purse so I wouldn’t have to touch it.
I should mention that he was in Best Doctors in New York. Never trust Best Doctors in New York.
5) Pain management specialist, male:
Another one from Best Doctors in New York.
6) “I do 500 exercises a day to stay out of pain.” — Pain management specialist, female. Wow, only 500? That sounds realistic.
7) “Everything looks just beautiful down there!” — Gynecologist, male. In this case, there was a language barrier, and I really wanted to believe that by “beautiful” he meant “without severe growths” or something similar. And maybe he did. But I later learned that another patient sued him for sexual harassment.
8) Psychiatrist, male:
Correct, doctor, but the issues I hadn’t dealt with were undiagnosed Lyme and worsening thyroid disease.
9) “You need to forget about your pain and get on with life.” — Pain management doctor, male. Uh, how to do that, exactly?
10) “I’m not going to massage your hand. I don’t do hand massages. I want to last in this profession.” — Occupational therapist and certified hand therapist. I was seeing her for my carpal tunnel and other repetitive strain injuries. The whole idea of going to a hand therapist is to get massages to relieve your pain (also to get rehab exercises, but the therapist should use pain-relief techniques in conjunction with exercises). Maybe this woman didn’t get the memo, because she only gave exercises. She wanted to keep from getting repetitive strain injury herself as a result of giving massages; this does happen to therapists. Still, she was protecting herself at the expense of her patients.
11) Rheumatologist, female:
She was the one who referred me to the “pain psychiatrist” in No. 2 and No. 3. She was in Best Doctors in New York too, of course. I used to have two cats, and eventually I ripped up Best Doctors in New York and used it to line the litter box.
12) “Americans are very spoiled.” — Acupuncturist, female. True in many cases, but do I need to hear it when I’m laying on a table with needles all over my body? Granted, the woman grew up in Mao’s China during the Cultural Revolution, but there’s a time and place for every comment.
13) “You have a few little positives on the Western blot, but I don’t think it means anything.” — the famous infectious diseases doctor. I wrote about this in my Lyme disease story. The “few little positives” were the 39kda and 41kda bands, which are important bands for diagnosing Lyme on the “new infection” part of the test. But the doctor didn’t even give me the few weeks of antibiotics that the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) claims are enough to cure Lyme (despite tons of research showing the Lyme bacteria can persist in the body).
14) “Wow! You blew up like the Michelin man!” — Endocrinologist, male. This actually happened before I got Lyme. The doctor took me off thyroid medicine and I gained 60 pounds. It took me years to lose those pounds, even when I was back on the right dose. I think this story might need its own post.
If you have a doctor comment you want to vent about (and so many of us have gotten awful remarks), please share in the comments section (unless sharing the experience will retraumatize you, which I totally get!). I’ve had a while to process all these experiences, so writing about them (and especially making unflattering drawings of doctors) is therapeutic for me. I think the therapeutic power of sarcasm is underrated.
In the meantime, I wish everyone only pleasant, helpful medical encounters!