I was looking for a new primary care physician because Hank, my beloved general practitioner, had retired. I was referred to a new doctor by Fran, a friend of my mother’s. She was his patient and loved him. “He’s the best, Ellen,” she told me. “He really cares about his patients.” According to her, he was friendly, kind and very competent. He was also my age and she thought that the two of us would get along “like a house afire.”
Thus, because Fran was so enthusiastic about the new guy, I set up an appointment, but I was full of trepidation because I hate to have to do a full examination with a physician whom I have never met. Instead, if I could have my way, I would be able to simply interview new doctors and then, if we are simpatico, I would continue with the physical. To me there is something very wrong with a system where you have to take off your clothes for a person that you have just met, just because he or she is a physician. However, even though I would have paid him for his time, I learned that in Massachusetts, no doctor can agree to such a first consultation. Therefore, I prepared myself for the exam.
I decided to be very positive about Dr “Newguy”, hoping against hope, that he was the right person for me. I knew that if he did not work out that it would be so exhausting trying to find a new primary care – from lining up referrals from friends, family and other doctors, to having the first appointment where you have to explain yourself, to keeping your wits about you in evaluating the office. Thus, I even brought all my records, a clear indication I was going to give him every benefit and was prepared to sign on with him.
Dr Newguy practiced in a very old building which did not concern me since I was used to Hank’s ancient quarters. However, when I checked in, my heart sank because his secretary, was very cold and distant. She made me so homesick for Mary and Lorraine, Hank’s assistants. Unlike with them, there would be no bull sessions and I wanted to run back to Hank’s old office, which was right across the street.
However, I knew that was impossible and so I settled myself in the reception area, looking at the magazines and the other people around me. There were many patients, but I was not in the mood to chat. I just took in my surroundings, which were kind of gloomy. The lighting wasn’t very good and the seats weren’t that comfortable either. Nevertheless, I tried not to judge the place too harshly because I knew that nothing could measure up to Hank’s office, which had been so welcoming.
After about fifteen minutes, the new doctor appeared in his white coat and escorted me into his inner sanctum, with its family pictures, requisite books and an old desk and a couple of chairs. This space had a homey feeling like Hank’s and, thus, I began to hope that he would be the right physician for me.
At this point, I wanted to give him a fair chance and so responded pleasantly, telling him my story. He responded as though he understood everything about me and then began to take my history. His first few questions were mundane – my age, profession, marital status – and I answered them straightforwardly.
Suddenly, however, his line of questioning changed and he began to ask me very personal, even voyeuristic questions about my private life. In my view, the latter was none of his business and I said, “Why do you have to have that information, Dr?” “Well, Ellen,” he replied. “Since you’re a single woman, I have to know whether you’re practicing anything unusual that could affect your health.”
I looked at him in amazement – what kind of life did he think that I led? – and thought: isn’t his attitude discriminatory? Would he question married couples this way?
However, still wanting this appointment to be successful – and curious about what went on in in his examining room – I continued with the meeting, a major mistake, I was to learn later.
He was not phased by my non-answers and ushered me into the room where he would give me a physical. He left me alone for privacy and, like the good, obedient patient that I was, I removed my clothes, put on my Johnny, and waited for him to return to check me out. When he came back, he was very pleasant and more relaxed and I started to think that maybe I had misjudged him and that perhaps he and I would make a good team as doctor and patient.
After he had finished, he asked me if I wanted a tetanus shot. Having just read in Cosmopolitan Magazine that adults should take these shots every ten years, and since my due date had come and gone, I acquiesced. He went to get the syringe and came back very quickly, shoving it into my arm. Pulling it out as if he had hit a live wire, he exclaimed, “My God! I forgot the serum!”
I stared at him blankly, totally losing my ability to breathe and to comprehend what he had just said to me. Then I started to understand and I became terrified, starting to shake uncontrollably, in my Johnny and my legs dangling over the side of his table. All I could think was, “Where did that needle come from? Did he just give me AIDS?” And, unbelievably, because my mind was completely frozen, I allowed him to come back and insert another needle into my arm, this time with the serum.
Dazed, I quickly got dressed and met with the doctor in his office, where he told me that I was in great condition. “Sure,” I thought. “If you didn’t kill me just now!” I could hardly say a word to him – I think I responded in monosyllables – and then ran as fast as I could out of his building.
I was so traumatized that I did not tell anyone what had happened to me. I just could not process it and felt sure that I was going to die. You have to remember that AIDS was a major topic at this time –1993 – and everyone had heard horror stories of patients, as well as doctors and nurses, contracting it through contaminated needles.
When I went back to the doctor’s office where I found him sitting at the receptionist’s desk. Possibly, by questioning me in front of his patients, I believed that he hoped that I would be too embarrassed to confront him. Clearly, he did not know me, and, undaunted, I said in as loud a voice as I could summon, “Well, you almost gave me a heart attack when your tetanus shot had no serum. I was scared stiff – I still am – that you gave me AIDS. Where did your needle come from?”
Calmly and coolly, as if he were asked this question every day – and maybe he was – he said, “Oh, Ellen, that needle was perfectly fine. To prove it, I’m happy to give you a free blood test!” I looked at him in amazement. Did he really think that I would let him near me again and that I would trust his results? Moreover, everyone knows that AIDS incubates for up to ten years so at this point, what good would his test do me? Therefore, I declined his offer and was out of his office as soon as possible, grateful that I was still alive to tell the tale.
However, for the next ten years – until 2003 – periodically I would get fearful that he had given me the disease. During various medical appointments, I would tell my doctor the story. Other physicians suggested that I take the AIDS test to relieve my mind. However, I always refused because the stress of waiting for the results would have made a wreck out of me. Therefore, I never got tested and, thankfully, I did not get AIDS.