Along with about 8.4% of the US population, I have asthma. To promote good doctor-patient communication, I can’t sit too far away from you. To perform a high-quality physical examination, I must enter into your personal space. Several minutes of inhaling that strong scent, however, can cause me to have trouble breathing.
I’ve never been brave enough to bring this up before, fearful of irrevocably harming our relationship. You have the right to wear as much perfume as you like. It’s not your fault that I have asthma, and it’s not your responsibility to help me deal with it. But the boundary between your rights and my responsibilities seems to be tilting more toward me. I’m also compelled to speak up for the 1 in 12 people around you with asthma. A quick Google search confirms that this is a common issue for us asthmatics.
I despise these hypersensitivities that humiliate me with coughing fits after exposure to what should be innocuous stimuli; in a more perfect world, I could at least conceal my problem from those around me. Maybe part of my reticence to broach this issue relates to an intense desire to present myself as “normal and healthy” to those around me, including my patients.
At the end of the day, too, I value the doctor-patient relationship too highly to jeopardize it for something as banal as perfume. After all, docs sacrifice other elements of well-being to do their job. Most of us buy into the premise that a career in medicine requires dedication and sacrifice. So, for now, I will settle for this generic cyberspace plea:
On behalf of the 25.7 million Americans with asthma, please think twice about how much of that perfume you apply before heading out the door.
Jennifer Middleton is a family physician who blogs at The Singing Pen of Doctor Jen.
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