When Doctors Don't Listen Dr.Peggy Drexler

He was the second internist I had contacted about symptoms that seemed to be dragging me toward the edge of a cliff. He looked at me with the kind of fatherly concern designed to determine who put a dent in the family car. “If we are going to work together,” he said, “you’re going to have to be straight with me.”

Straight with you? Do you think I’m making this  — Oh my God. It hit me. This white-coated icon of the medical establishment had branded me a hysterical female. Everything I said; every symptom I described was being filtered through a base conclusion: This bitch is crazy.

My visit to the office of internist number two  — and the realization that I had been branded as a whifty female fabricator all started innocently enough. I came down with an earache.

I could not have known that a minor irritation would hurl me into two weeks of mistreatment and misdiagnosis that would call into question my tenure on the planet. Nor could I have realized the hard lesson to come in the reality of a gender bias that doctors vehemently argue does not exist.

It began when I called a new doctor let’s call him internist number one. I described my ear pain over the phone, and he prescribed penicillin.

I thought it odd that he didn’t actually want to see me, and didn’t feel the need to take some medical history. But a friend told me the diploma on his wall said he went to Harvard, and he sounded caring enough. So I chalked it up to the new world of third party payers. Time is money and earaches are earaches.

The pain subsided. But it was replaced by a fever that pushed my temperature to 103. My bowels were in furious revolt, my head was pounding, and I was dizzy and nauseous. I called him again. This time, he said I had the flu and to just keep taking the penicillin. In my altered state, I never thought to ask why he would tell be to take an antibiotic that is clearly useless in treating a virus.

I made a bit of a comeback, but still felt off with a low grade fever and a headache that never quite went away. This time the doctor volunteered to make a home visit. Before he arrived, I thought about the box of Tampax on the shelf, and its warning about toxic shock. The systems were in the ballpark, and I was out of answers.

Mainly to placate me, he left a message with my gynecologist and said that toxic shock was a possibility. At that point, he did a lateral arabesque out my door and largely out of the patient relationship. I had been handed off.

My gynecologist called back, listened to my symptoms, and prescribed a higher dose of penicillin.

My symptoms got worse. I had weights on my limbs, fire in my intestines and a vice around my head.

My gynecologist finally ordered blood tests. Dragging myself back from the lab, I opened the door to the sound of the phone ringing. It was the gynecologist. His first question: had I been out shopping? It was a ham fisted implication that I was not as sick as I let on.

He then handed me off to internist number two whose assumption that it was all in my head can only have been arrived at in consultation with the gynecologist, who must have reached a similar conclusion in consultation with internist number one.

Then the results of the blood test came back: A huge spike in my white cell count said clearly that my body was in mortal combat with something. But what?

It was now the weekend. I was in pain, disoriented and with the terrifying feeling that the slide toward the cliff was accelerating, and there was nothing ahead to break my descent. Internist number one was the only doctor I could reach. Distracted, irritated and with a child crying in the background, he told me to take two aspirin.

By Monday, and increasingly desperate, I called yet another doctor. He did something the first three did not. He listened. For the first time since I had gone down this medical rabbit hole, a doctor took a comprehensive medical history.

One of his questions was: “Have you ever taken penicillin before?”

I said “no.”

Armed with that simple bit of information gained from a question that nobody thought to ask he concluded that my symptoms were caused by Clostridium difficile, or C. difficile. It is a common bacteria that is encouraged to multiply in the digestive tract by the very penicillin that, on doctors’ orders, I had been faithfully taking for two weeks. Unchecked, it can cause anything from diarrhea to life threatening inflammation. Long a problem in hospitals, C. difficle is now spreading beyond medical facilities mainly because of the kneejerk over prescription of antibiotics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says C. difficile sickens tens of thousands every year. Some 5,000 of them die. I’m now very pleased to report that I won’t be one of them.

As someone who likes to take lessons from life’s twists and turns, I asked myself: what did I do wrong? The answer is clear. I listened to people who did not to me. It’s a common mistake. And it’s one I would urge women everywhere not to repeat.

Image via Shutterstock

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  1. I hope you informed the other doctors about their mistake!! Maybe it would make them see what they are doing to their patients…
    I know exactly how you felt – it happened a couple of times to me too. Here are just two examples:
    – It took a mob of doctors two years to detect my severe rhumatism. At one point, one of them even had both my forearms encasted – at that time I was in my last year of high school and was supposed to do a lot of writing. By the time they found it I was 17 and had spent a lot of time in severe pain.
    – A Hospital sent me home with a leg fracture. They only discovered it after I went there again because the swelling and pain wouldn’t go away. After that they told me that physiotherapy wouldn’t be necessary. Luckily my general practitioner didn’t agree.

  2. Between the games of 14&16, I was popping 3 ib profens three to four times a day to battle intense pains in my knees that at one point, radiated down my shins. The doctors kept telling my mom it was just growing pains, but I didn’t grow a damn inch during that time period. T
    They final sent me to a sports medicine doctors who took X-rays and found out it wasn’t growing pains….my knees “naturally” hyper-extended & also sat to one side in those one, causing the cartilage on on side to wear at a higher rate. They refused surgery, but now with the help off my chiropractor and being more conscious of standing so I don’t lock my knees, I am not in chronic pain. I did habe to give up playing basketball and soccer though, which was a drag.

  3. I had a similar issue with a hospital last year. The week after Thanksgiving I started having severe abdominal pains. I thought it was just my IBS and I would get over it. Over a week goes by and it got worse. I wait until I have off from work and go late one night to the hospital after talking to my doctor on the phone, with his recommendation. The hospital shrugged off my symptoms and made me feel as if I was exaggerating and that I was constipated (even thought I told them I was having regular bowel movements). I was recommended to just opt for a ultrasound instead of a CAT scan, for which was immensely painful and I was supposed to drink as much water as I could without going to the bathroom, which made me have an accident right there in the hospital. No one said anything. I was then told I had probably contracted an STD because of them finding something on my ultrasound (which turned out to be nothing) and my boyfriend and I were promptly pulled into separate rooms and were accused of cheating on each other. We were there for 7 hours, leaving at 4 Am. A week and a half goes by. Pain gets worse. I go back. Different doctor sees me and says I should now get a CAT scan, but the doctor that had seen me before stops by and says he’s “surprised to see me back.” 4 Hours after I got the CAT scan, I had fallen asleep and was woken by the doctor telling me that they saw something and it was probably why I was getting so many urinary tract infections (which I had never had and told her so). She told me that I should see a urologist when I got a chance and that it would be in the paperwork I received and I was promptly dismissed. When I got the paperwork it just said, “unknown abdominal pain.” and to see a urologist and a gastrointestinal doc. Frustrated, tired, and in pain, I just went home after asking the nurse about it, and she said there was nothing in the computer. The next day I called the urologist and was told the best they could do was see me over 30 Days from now. I waited 2 Days, to the point where I was unable to stand and I started having panic attacks, and went to see my doctor. She told me that she received all my results from the hospital and asked how everything went, I told her her, and she said that my results showed that my bladder and my kidney were swelling and the connection betweens the two was shutting down! She told me I should have been admitted to a urologist right away and gotten a stint put in. She had to rush to find me one. And the urologist sent me to the hospital for a rush surgery and when I got there the same hospital told me to go home and that they would deal with it after the Christmas holiday! I said, “No, that’s not what the urologist said, she’s on her way now.” When she got there I was finally taken care of and put into surgery and fixed. Worse yet? The same hospital noted that there was an issue there when I had a CAT scan a year previous when I needed my appendix out. How am I supposed to trust doctors after that?

  4. I know I’m just a cat but I would file a complaint of some kind.

  5. This is a serious problem with the medical community, one that I have dealt with firsthand. Starting at age 16 I had to be taken to the emergency room near constantly for severe abdominal pains, malnutrition, and my bowels being on revolt. At 5’8″ I dropped down to around 100lbs. Doctors saw me as a teenage girl and assumed that I was starving myself for vanity reasons or abusing laxatives. The ones that did acknowledge there was a problem would treat the symptoms, refer me to another doctor, prescribe me narcotic painkillers and send me home. I got lost being sent from doctor to doctor, meanwhile at 17 I was living off of percocet. Finally, it reached a conclusion when my intestines burst – turns out I wasn’t being a teenage girl desperately trying to be thin, or someone who was over-exaggerating their pain (go figure!), I had severe Chron’s disease and the narcotics they kept prescribing were doing even more damage. I was sent for emergency surgery, and have had 4 surgeries since. If the emergency room doctors hadn’t just assumed I was a waste of their time I could have been diagnosed early and never had to go through all this.

  6. What a fascinating and compelling read. Thank you for this. I, someone w chronic health issues, trust only my psychiatrist, therapist, and sometimes my gynecological practice. (Sometimes.) I’ve never had much luck w GP or anyone in that practice such as a(n) NP. Not only do I have the female thing working against me, but also the condition upon which my chronic illness is based. Guess, much of the time, my voice is heard–or rather, not heard–as completely unreliable. Somewhat like a Hemingway narrator, except that he would be trusted. Thank you again!

  7. As a physician I am appalled by this. I am so sorry you went through this and I could not imagine treating a patient this way. Ugh.

  8. Great article. I had a similar issue when I was 14. I had massive stomach pains and was nauseous all the time. The doctor assumed that I was pregnant, but when she asked I said “no”. She probed me a million times trying to get a different answer, and I told her very clearly every single time that I was absolutely certain pregnancy was an impossibility, which it was (unless there`s something I don`t know about getting pregnant). So, perhaps to placate me, she ordered a blood test. My mother, having a background in nursing, looked at the requisition and knew that it was for a pregnancy test. That was fun to explain. I was furious and ended up going to seek out a second opinion. The next doctor sent me for a few tests and discovered immediately that I had an ulcer.

    I guess doctors see so many people with symptoms that they think are apocalyptic but are actually no big deal at all. It becomes easy to dismiss because a lot of time the quick easy diagnoses are correct. But at the same time I know some doctors can become so convinced they are correct they actually refuse to look for alternate solutions or take the time to dig a little deeper. Not saying they need to send in Dr. House and his team every time, but maybe after the 500th time of swearing under oath that you`re not pregnant a doctor could look for option B.