When I was seventeen, I developed a medical problem due to no fault of my own. It was painful, it was embarrassing, and when it became uncomfortable enough to disrupt my life, I went to see a well known surgeon downtown.
The specialist, tucked away in the hallow halls of academia, stared down at me past a pair of spectacles perched at the end of his ever-protruding nose. When he examined the area, he spoke in a measured and controlled manner.
“It’s really kind of disgusting, actually.”
These were not the words a self-conscious, suffering teenager wanted to hear.
He then proceeded to do an uncomfortable, totally unnecessary procedure, to “rule out other things” even though the diagnosis was obvious. He eventually offered a series of treatments. I returned to the office once a month, and low and behold the symptoms abated. I felt more comfortable. Maybe this nightmare was finally over.
When September came, it was time to go to college, I still needed a few more treatments. I arranged to see a specialist at the university because I would not be able to travel back to Chicago. Although the new surgeon was no more affable, he showed up on time and asked few questions.
Unfortunately, the symptoms took a turn for the worse. I trekked back to the hospital, and sat impatiently in the specialist’s office. After waiting for over an hour, he entered the room, didn’t bother to examine me, and said I would need surgery. The surgery would be minor, but recovery would take several months.
I immediately called the doctor from back home. After the two surgeons talked on the phone, it became clear that the second had never clearly identified the issue, and was treating blindly based on the previously established diagnosis. He offered surgery out of desperation without actually visualizing the problem.
Needless to say, I walked out of the office and never returned to either surgeon again. I did my best to treat my own symptoms, and six months later I was better. Nearly a quarter of a century later, the problem has never reoccurred.
I often think of these experiences when opening the door to an exam room to see a patient.
Many of the details of the offices, the personal characteristics of the physicians, or even the quantity and quality of the pain have disappeared.
What remains after all these years is not the suffering caused by the particular medical malady, but the callousness of the two surgeons who treated me.