I was born a “people pleaser”. My mom says that, even when I was a baby, I was a “pleasant” baby. I tried not to make a fuss. Didn’t want to rock the boat. I can still remember when my mother was shampooing my hair and the soap got in my eyes, I would suck in my breath and say in a small voice, “Towel, please”, while the viscous green shampoo seemed to stab my eyes with tiny needles.
Some years ago I was confronted with a life-threatening disease. It was determined that I had some sort of growth or tumor in my abdomen. Needless to say, I was in shock and frightened in a way that is hard to describe. My husband and I were referred to a very revered surgeon in Nashville (where we were living at the time). When we had our initial consultation with him, he seemed kind and caring. He explained that, if the growth was benign, they would simply remove it. However, if it was malignant, it would be most advisable, given my age and stage of life, to perform a complete hysterectomy. (At least, this is what my husband and I assumed we had both heard).
When we arrived at the hospital the day before surgery to have blood tests and sign papers, the secretary mentioned in passing that I was scheduled for a complete hysterectomy. My husband and I looked at each other. We were confused. We thought it would just be a matter of removing the growth if it turned out to be benign. She shook her head adamantly that, no, I was scheduled for a complete hysterectomy.
We saw my doctor a half hour before the scheduled surgery, and we started asking questions. He confirmed that he had planned for a complete hysterectomy and, oh, by the way, an appendectomy “while we’re in there”. I was stunned. As my husband and I, along with my sister and my mother, tried to understand and asked what I thought were perfectly reasonable questions, the doctor got more and more annoyed. Finally, he erupted and said something I would rather not repeat. My mother and my sister were shocked into silence. I could not get a handle on what I was feeling, under the circumstances. There I was, lying on a gurney in a hospital gown, knowing that something menacing was growing in my abdomen, and that I was faced with a hostile surgeon.
I could have gotten up and walked out at this point – and I thought about it. But my instinct whispered in my ear, “He may be a jerk, but he’s a good surgeon. You need to have this surgery. Don’t be afraid”.
So I resolutely went through with it. The surgeon actually called my family in the waiting room when I was on the table and reported that there was a malignant growth in my uterus and stated sarcastically, “I know you’ve got your little ‘medical team’ in there. What do you want me to do?”. My sister got on her cell phone and called her doctor here in Los Angeles who quickly advised, “If it’s malignant, then she has to have the hysterectomy”. And so it was decided. All while I lay on the operating table, my vital organs on display.
I am not sorry for my decision. They caught this nasty disease at Stage 1. It could have been much worse for me. And although there was no love lost between me and the surgeon, I know that he did his professional best – if for no other reason, because he has a reputation to uphold.
But I am also not sorry that I questioned the man. Something in me became activated by this crisis. I think it was an overriding survival instinct that had been dormant for many years. It was hard for me to confront the doctor, even with all the support from my family. It is not my style. And yet I could not back down from my position. The fact that it was all moot in light of the cancer doesn’t change anything.
Two years later while having a routine follow-up exam, another growth was found. Once again I was confronted with surgery. I already had seen a new doctor, and I was comfortable with him. However, a beloved uncle – who happened to be a surgeon – did not like my doctor. He tried to convince me to have the surgery done by someone else. This was a most stressful and uncomfortable situation for me. Ultimately, I had two reasons for staying with my doctor – First, he was the only specialist approved by my HMO. Second, I truly trusted him, so I had to explain all this to my uncle.
Once again, I felt I had no choice but to quietly but firmly hold my position. Once again, I know I made the right decision.
These situations were big and dramatic, but there have been many smaller challenges since then. A recent one was trying to get a prescription. My doctor had prescribed one medication, but the insurance company did not cover that particular formulation. A woman behind the counter at the pharmacy did a lot of arm-twisting in an attempt to convince me to settle for the less effective medicine (which actually could have done more harm than good!). She even told me I had the “wrong attitude”!
I insisted on speaking with a senior pharmacist, who confirmed that there was an appreciable difference between the two medications, and in the end, I was able to get the generic form of the right medicine. This was a reasonable compromise, but even that entailed an hour of argument and phone calls at the pharmacy counter.
A doctor once told me that it is the “problem patients” who were shown to have the best survival rates in the hospital – not the compliant, pleasant, unassuming and meek patients who are the darlings of the staff.
So, remember – At least when your health is at stake – Don’t be so nice. Dare to inconvenience someone. Ask questions, even if you’re afraid the questions are “dumb”. (They’re not). Do not accept the unacceptable or the incomprehensible. Be your own best friend if you are sick or injured. No one on God’s green earth could possibly care more than you do. Pay attention to your gut instincts. Guard your health as if your life depended on it. It does!
© Robin Munson