I recently saw a new OB-GYN for the first time. Overall, I liked her a lot. She was no-nonsense, but seemed personable, and she knew her stuff. During our visit, we discussed permanent birth control for me. I can’t take hormonal birth control any more, and the other available options either have the potential for failure or would not be a good choice, given my birth history. It would be extremely risky if I were to get pregnant again, and combined with my age, permanent birth control is the most logical choice.
At some point while I was providing her with information, I mentioned to my OB-GYN that I narrowly escaped having a hysterectomy after my postpartum hemorrhage. She remarked, “Well, if you had had a hysterectomy, it would have taken care of the birth control issue for you.” I know this is a logical conclusion that someone trained in science and surgery would come to, but common sense should dictate that you don’t actually say that to someone. My scarred, but intact uterus is a badge of honor. It means I did not lose more of myself that day than I already had. My uterus is still a meaningful and necessary part of my body and identity as a woman.
Although the procedure will be non-surgical (meaning that it does not require an incision) it still means a hospital procedure under sedation because of my insurer’s requirements. My OB-GYN was clued in enough to recommend a minimally invasive option since she knows my history was traumatic, but not clued enough in to watch her language when talking about it. There is the tendency by health care professionals to view body parts in terms of their function, and not how we emotionally associate them.
Today, I went for my first mammogram. The radiology tech that did my mammogram hefted my right breast in my hand and asked, “Do you have implants?” I joked that if I had, they’d look perkier. I added I was glad they didn’t droop after breastfeeding (because mothers do care about that.) She adjusted the mammography machine and replied, “Yeah and you only did it once, which was good.” Once again, a case of speaking and not thinking. I know she was trying to affirm that yes, breastfeeding had a minimal impact on my appearance. But for someone who can only have one child, the implied comment was that breastfeeding another child probably would have made them look bad, so it was better that I didn’t have more. It really would have been enough for her to stop at “yeah” or nod and then go image my breast.
Time and time again I find that many health care professionals make these offhand statements, unaware of how it might sound to their patients. Most doctors who truly have a great bedside manner seem to come by it naturally. Doctors are often too busy and two steps ahead in their head in terms of getting you through the appointment and getting you out the door. What comes out of their mouth is rarely what’s really on their mind.
When I am with my clients, I am exceedingly careful with what I do and don’t say. Many of them who come in for Reiki treatments or coaching sessions are dealing with physical or emotional issues, and may be in a lot of pain. I can’t diagnose, but I do have to respect what they are feeling is real and is valid for them. That often means being mindful of more subtle cues or information my clients provide. Some do need more affirmation or information, but sometimes saying too much is more than what a client needs at that moment.
I usually don’t take what someone says to me personally when I know the intentions aren’t malicious. Neither my OB-GYN nor the radiology tech was trying to hit a nerve. However, I do know many women who would be hurt or insulted to have received these kinds of comments. Occasionally, some health care professionals are jerks or are taking their bad day out on someone else, but the vast majority of them aren’t. They just aren’t hearing themselves.
Believe me, I’ve been on the receiving end of more of these kinds of offhand, insensitive comments from health care professionals than I can even recount. The worst was the neurosurgeon who treated me so callously when I was hospitalized 20 years ago for cervical spine neuropathy. He was smooth as butter until the tests indicated I had a congenital condition he didn’t have the opportunity to operate on. Suddenly had no interest in my situation. I still remember with great clarity when he walked into my hospital room, explained my situation, and shrugged. “You’re just going to have to learn how to live with the pain,” he told me, and walked back out.
What a doctor or other medical professional says can positively or negatively influence their patient’s state of mind or recovery. It’s time for medical professionals – doctors, nurses, techs, and so on – to receive more training in how to read a patient more closely and use supportive language. The chart only tells part of the story. There’s a time to be clinical, and there’s a time to be compassionate. Health care professionals should use language that reflects both of these aspects.
(Photo credit: comedy_nose on Flickr)