The best thing a doctor ever did to me

In fall of 1994, I was sixteen years old and sick. I had lost a lot of weight, reduced my diet to BRAT and roast chicken, filled a half-dozen stool samples, even tried a few prescriptions — and nothing seemed to help.

By that point I was seeing a gastroenterologist, Dr. C. After a pointless barium enema and follow-through, Dr. C performed a colonoscopy. From that, he gave me a definitive diagnosis: Crohn’s disease (CD).

In a way, I was extremely lucky: I had only been symptomatic for a few months. Many CD patients take years to diagnosis, and have to go through several wrong diagnoses before finally getting the right one. I had only been through a few low-hanging guesses, like giardiasis and lactose intolerance, before Dr. C brought out the ‘scope.

As much a relief as my diagnosis was — and the medicine that came with it — it was also terrifying. I was suddenly stuck with this thing, this name, that would follow me around for the rest of my life, causing problems, causing misery, maybe killing me. It was an incredible jolt: my doctor said a couple words, and suddenly I was a different person, my childhood over.

Dr. C was not the kind of doctor who talked to parents instead of patients. He was always very direct with me, and I appreciated it. But just one time, the day I was diagnosed, he did have a private word with my parents. He told them, “This is his thing — he needs to deal with it.” That, hands down, is the single best thing a doctor has ever done for me.

I had a highly-protective mother — not so much a “helicopter” hovering overhead as an AH-64D Apache Longbow hunting for targets — and the illness thing had her on full alert. She would have been counting my pills and watching me swallow them, planning out my meals, weighing me twice a day — maybe even photographing my stools, if she thought it would help. Instead, she gave me the space I needed to learn to deal with my problems, because Dr. C told her to.

I mean it when I say my childhood ended with my diagnosis. Illness is an adult problem: learning to deal with illness forced me to grow up. Some parents don’t let their kids make that transition (and for young kids, rightly so) — but my parents did. I can’t imagine how psychologically hamstrung I would be otherwise.

There’s another side to this: Dr. C did not say, “This is my thing — let me deal with it.” He did not claim my illness as his problem. He knew he could help, but recognize that it was ultimately my illness. The next year I went to college, and wound up with a doctor who told me, “You worry about school — your disease is my job to worry about.” That guy nearly killed me, and I never made that mistake again.

I can’t remember when my parents told me what Dr. C said — months later, maybe years — but I will always be grateful. That one firm sentence had profound effects on my prognosis, my adulthood, and especially my sense of self.  As important as the clinical side of my disease is, Dr. C was also looking out for the inevitable social consequences of my illness — and he helped me prepare for them. I am a better, fuller person for it.

I may be sick, I may be crippled with illness, I may desperately need help — but I never forget that this is my thing, and I need to deal with it.

Duncan Cross blogs from the perspective of a patient at his self-titled site, Duncan Cross.

email

Comments are moderated before they are published. Please read the comment policy.

  • Kristy Sokoloski

    Thank you for sharing this. This is also a good reminder for those of us who are also patients about the task we have ahead of us when it comes to the illnesses we have to contend with. And that we have to make the decision to want to deal with it the best that we can. I have never had a doctor tell me that I should not worry about the problems I have thank goodness.

    • Duncan Cross

      Thanks for you comment – glad you liked it.

      • Kristy Sokoloski

        You’re welcome. And if I would have ever had a doctor tell me that I should let them worry about the problem and not me I would have had a hard time not being upset. I know that sometimes one who says that may think they are trying to be helpful as far as trying to reduce the stress level, but unfortunately that does not always work. And when it doesn’t work it becomes a situation like you say where you came very close to dying. This is why we need to advocate for ourselves to make sure that we get the good and competent care we need. I hope that you are doing ok today.

        • Duncan Cross

          It did sound so reassuring when he told me not to worry, but a few months later I realized my mistake. It almost 20 years ago, so I’m in much better shape lately.

  • rbthe4th2

    Very enlightening especially the paragraph with “There’s another side to this:”

    Randy

    • Duncan Cross

      Thanks, Randy.

Most Popular