Those Two Snakes…

Belittling encounters with medical professionals could probably spin out into a story as long as War and Peace. 

The symbol for the medical profession is the caduceus, featuring two snakes winding around a winged staff. And despite the many caring medical professionals I’ve encountered over the years, I sometimes fear that those snakes are uncannily accurate!

This struck me forcefully a few days ago when a friend called for advice on behalf of her sister. She wanted to know if I thought (as she did) that her sibling should make some type of complaint regarding the treatment she’d just received at the hands of a specialist, a pain management doctor to whom she’d been referred. All three of us were well aware that pain management is a tricky subject these days due to the opioid epidemic; even more so for a patient being treated for long-term depression and emotional issues, as the sister admittedly is. But she’d also been enduring untreated chronic pain for months, and had waited patiently for weeks to see the specialist…only to leave his office in tears, not one  whit closer to being out of pain, and having been demeaned, insulted, misinterpreted, and shunted aside.

I commiserated with my friend and we determined a course of action for her sister to take. But the event brought clearly to mind the many times I and others of my acquaintance had endured reprehensible behavior from someone in the medical profession.

cauduceusI vividly recall my shock and dismay when, years ago, having seen my doctor regarding symptoms suggestive of an underactive thyroid, I received his verdict. Although my thyroid activity was on the “low end” of normal, he explained, “What you really need is an aerobics course. Or a psychologist.”  Just as my friend’s sister had done, I left the medical office in tears. Ignoring the doctor’s assessment, I researched and found a natural solution to my problem: two herbs that I continue to take to take to this day, since whenever I neglect them my symptoms return. But I’ve thought about that doctor’s words many times in the intervening years, as I’ve participated in many forms of exercise and mental health counseling that did nothing for my “low normal” thyroid.

Then there was the anesthesiologist who treated me during a breast biopsy. To say that I was frightened the day of that surgery would be the understatement of the decade, and my way of handling emotional discomfort often is to joke. So when the anesthesiologist saw me prior to the procedure, asking about allergies, I said laughingly, “Mostly, I’m allergic to my whole planet of origin.” Her face darkened and her lips twisted into a snarl as she snapped out that she needed accurate information. Chastened, I quickly recounted my precise allergies. But conflict terrifies me, so I was still trembling as they wheeled me in for surgery

I’ve wondered since if that anesthesiologist trained alongside the tech who handled the anesthetic for my emergency c-section.  During that procedure, despite trying my best to remain still as the needle was inserted into my spine, I jumped slightly. The anesthesiologist smacked me across the upper arm and growled, “I said DON’T MOVE!”

Another friend recounted her miserable experience with a doctor whom she saw for knee problems. Although my friend never denies that she is overweight, she was shaken and humiliated when the specialist genuinely threw up his hands. Threw his hands into the air and declaimed that there was nothing he could do, owing to her weight. She continued her story of medical mistreatment, explaining to me that,  many years earlier, when she’d first begun to gain weight, she’d visited another specialist.  She’d described to him a breathing problem she was experiencing that was limiting her activity and contributing to her weight gain. Prior to developing this breathing problem, she explained, she’d weighed only 127 pounds.  Later, as she dressed following the examination, she overheard the doctor dictating his notes regarding her case: “Patient claims to have previously weighed 127 pounds. Frankly, I find that hard to believe.”

I could probably recount a dozen or more such unpleasant, degrading incidents, both mine and others. I feel certain almost everyone has such a story. Many are far worse than those I’ve already related here: the breast cancer patient who was slammed into the radiation therapy machine by an angry tech; the woman who was told of her 102°F temperature, “That isn’t a high fever!” Belittling encounters with medical professionals could probably spin out into a story as long as War and Peace. And still I recognize that there are always two sides to every coin: During my daughter’s long labor and eventual c-section, I was thoroughly impressed by the kindness and quality behavior of the two anesthesiologists who treated her pain.

Nevertheless, thinking over so many disagreeable experiences, both my own and those of others, I persist in believing there is a genuine reason for those two sidewinding snakes on the caduceus.

2 thoughts on “Those Two Snakes…

    1. Thank you for sharing your story! I sort of wish I’d added the one about Mary, from our Monday night group, seeing the oncology specialist during her last illness, when she was trying to be accepted for an immunology trial. On learning that she’d refused chemo, he exploded, “You know you’re going to die!” (I would have snapped back, “SO ARE YOU! Everybody’s terminal, doc! Ain’t nobody gettin’ outta Dodge alive!”

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