I got a call the other day, telling me I needed to come in for an annual woman's checkup. Since my regular nurse-midwife wasn't there this week, they asked if I'd be okay with seeing one of the other doctors in the office.
I didn't recognize the name. I asked, "Why am I coming in, I don't need a pap, right?" They confirmed that I didn't need a pap, just a standard visit this time. This was a relief since the pap is an invasive and uncomfortable test, and I'd rather not have some stranger doing it to me. So I agreed to see Dr. Lava*.
At the doctor's office I did the usual dance of filling out forms and handing over identification. I went to go to the bathroom, but it was occupied, so I waited. A person came out and I looked up, she stepped one way, I stepped the other and we pretty much crashed into each other. She was tall, a black woman with a round face, her hair in a bun and wearing red nurse's scrubs. She's squishy, I thought, and I had an odd urge to hug her as we tangled. We laughed, I apologized, she smiled and said, "It's okay" and then I went back to the waiting area.
A few minutes later, I was called in by the very same nurse I had just encountered. This was great, because our earlier run-in made it easy to slide into some friendly chatting. We talked about the weather, she introduced herself as Sheila, she asked me the standard questions. She had just started to pull out the blood pressure cuff when we were interrupted by a knock on the door.
A woman I didn't know poked her head inside. She said to us both in an educational tone, "Hi, Sheila's new, so I'm here to make sure that everything's covered." She didn't introduce herself, just came in and closed the door, then leaned against the wall. Whatever kind of relaxed atmosphere that the nurse and I had been building was now stopped in it's tracks because her supervisor was present. The room got very quiet. Sheila had finished the pre-exam steps and was about to leave when the second nurse told me to get undressed and prepare for my exam.
"But...I'm not getting a pap? What do you mean?" I looked at all of the tools laid out on the counter and thought, are those for me?
"No, you aren't having a pap." She said. "But you still get a pelvic exam. It's part of your checkup."
Then they both left.
I had a few minutes to change into my gown and absorb this new information before the doctor came in. Great, that's unexpected, I thought. Now someone I don't know will be poking around my private bits. Fun-fun-fun, I just hope it's over really quickly.
Dr. Lava came in. She was a tall woman with dark hair and an uncertain smile that didn't seem to reach her eyes.
She held out her hand and said, "Hi, I'm Dr. Lava, I haven't seen you in a long time." "Um, really?", I said, "Because I don't remember you at all." She insisted that we had met before, a few years ago. I said, "Um, okay." Why are we arguing? Then she asked me to lie down to start the exam.
To clearly paint the picture; I'm wearing a paper gown that opens in the front, held together with ties. So I'm nearly naked, cold in the office air-conditioning and flat on my back on a table about waist-high.
Then there was another rat-a-tat knock on the door, and Sheila came in. She left the door open behind her as she went to the computer. I'm seeing that door open and I'm thinking, I'm barely covered over here, what's going on, when is she going to close that door? I was about to say something when the mystery-nurse came in and shut it behind her with a snap.
I was a little unhappy before, but now I was really squirming. I was remembering now about another time, during my first childbirth experience at a hospital. Then, a large group of nurses and staff came in to watch the big event; live and up-close. I thought, hey, doctor, I'm not some kind of a circus sideshow to be gawked at, I was a person.
I was vulnerable and a little scared now; with all these feelings and memories running around my head. I made a joke to try to break my own tension, saying, "No, no please, invite some more people in, ha ha." I started babbling, I think I was talking about my time in the hospital. As far as I could tell, no one was listening to me, or if they did they didn't care, because they didn't say anything.
And that was it. The doctor did her exam, and I was out of there in a few minutes.
I walked out the door relieved that it was over, and feeling like I don't ever want to go back. I don't want to see that doctor again. Next time I'll make a different choice.
I've had many good, positive experiences with doctors and nurse-midwives over the last ten years. The great ones talk with me, they listen to me. They spend time to build a relationship with me. They treat me like a person, using empathy to build a better connection. This wasn't one of those times, and the lack of empathy in the experience was palpable.
How have your doctor experiences been lately?
If you are a doctor, please tell us about your experiences. Were you trained in empathy, do you see benefits (or lack of benefits) in doing your job?
*As usual, all names have been changed.
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