When Doctors Don't Listen

How long should you listen to your doctor, if he or she does not seem to be listening to you?
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Eight years ago, I went to see the doctor complaining of hip pain.  I was thirty-five years old and twenty pounds overweight.  A former dancer and choreographer, I made my living working a variety of part time jobs including teaching yoga and swimming lessons.  I had recently returned from two years spent caring for my dying mother, I was single and I didn’t have medical insurance.
My doctor was a naturopathic physician and also an MD.  I had always preferred naturopathic medicine myself, and as a yoga teacher without medical insurance, seeing a naturopath seemed the best choice.  Plus, this doctor was also a regular MD, so I thought I had made a good choice in physicians.

The pain in my left hip was extreme, and I had been in pain for several months.  I could hardly walk, which was impacting my whole life.  The constant and excruciating pain made me irritable and depressed.  I had already been exhausted from having spent the past two years of caring for my mother, and that exhaustion combined with the day to day stress of pain was wearing me out.  I sought out medical care looking for a solution.

I knew what had caused the hip pain.  Several months earlier, I had been hit by a drunk driver while riding my bicycle home from work.  The impact had thrown me into the air and I remember landing on hard, wet pavement, directly onto my left hip.  Disoriented but full of adrenaline, I remember thinking “I have to get up.  I have to work tomorrow.  I have to ride home tonight.”

When I got up I felt very odd.  My hips and legs felt strange.  Painful, yes, but mostly I remember an out of place feeling.  I felt almost detached from it, like when a spoke is loose on a bicycle wheel.
In spite of the pain I got back on my bicycle and rode home.  Riding was easier than walking.  The bike felt strange too though, off kilter.  I remember wondering if maybe the fork was bent.  On later inspection, I saw that the bike was actually okay.  My left hip, however, was swelling rapidly and in a few hours I had a large grapefruit-sized swelling on my left side.

The swelling went down after about two months, but the pain kept getting worse.  I told this whole story, about the bike accident and the swelling, as well as the constant pain and limited movement, to the naturopathic MD.  Her first question was about my diet.  She wanted to know how much caffeine, sugar, chocolate, dairy products and animal protein I consumed.  I told her I’d been a vegetarian for twenty years and was mostly vegan.  I do drink coffee.  I wanted an x-ray or an MRI to see what was going on with my hip.

The physician did not order an x-ray or an MRI.  Instead, she told me to drink herbal tea in the morning instead of coffee, to stay away from refined sugar, and to keep a food diary and bring it back to show her in three weeks.

Now, as I write this, I think to myself, “That’s crazy, I should have gone to see another doctor.  I needed an x-ray.”  But at the time, struggling with depression, low self-esteem and self consciousness about being overweight, I caved in and succumbed to her scolding remarks about my inflammatory diet.
I kept the food diary.  I did a lousy job at giving up caffeine and sugar, for which I felt more and more ashamed.  The pain drained me of so much energy I was constantly reaching for caffeine and sugar.  Food became one of the only things I enjoyed and looked forward to, since my movement was so limited.  As time went on and the pain worsened, I gave up many things that I had enjoyed.  I could no longer run, I couldn’t take long walks, I couldn’t hike, I stopped practicing yoga and I had to stop teaching because I just couldn’t do anything.  I struggled to find work and ended up cleaning houses.  I didn’t socialize with friends because I was so miserable with pain.  And every three to four weeks, I went to see the naturopathic MD, to be scolded for overeating and to get different herbal remedies to supposedly reduce inflammation.

A turning point was when I found myself breaking a glass all over the kitchen floor so I could use one of the shards to slit my wrists.  As I sat there among the broken pieces of glass, wanting to die because the pain was so awful, I decided angrily that I had to find a solution.  I could not live with this pain, but there must be some solution besides killing myself.

I went to see the doctor the next day.  “Look,” I told her, as I limped into the office.  “This pain is terrible.  It’s not my diet and it’s not my inflammatory lifestyle.  Something happened when I was thrown from my bike and we need to see what’s going on in there.  I need an x-ray or an MRI immediately.  Last night I tried to kill myself all because of this stupid hip pain, and I’m not willing to give up yet.  I want to know what’s going on in there.”

Miraculously, the doctor listened to me and ordered an MRI.  The result of that MRI showed a completely destroyed hip joint, with a barely recognizable ball and socket, filled with fluid and surrounded by numerous bone spurs.  There was no cartilage left.  My doctor immediately referred me to an orthopedic surgeon, who was shocked to see such a progressed condition in someone so young.  The surgeon was surprised that my doctor hadn’t listened to me when I first went in complaining of hip pain.

Within two months I had a hip replacement.  The pain was gone, and soon I could walk again.  In a few years I was teaching yoga, choreographing, and living my usual, active life. 

What continues to dismay me is how short sighted and narrow minded that naturopathic MD had been.  She didn’t really believe that my hip pain was serious.  She saw an overweight, depressed patient who in her mind just needed to lose a few pounds and eat a healthier diet.  With my new hip, of course, I did lose all the extra weight, and as a result of being happier and feeling better, I eat healthy, nourishing food so I can stay active.  I also became social again, went out and saw friends, met a wonderful person to go hiking and snowshoeing with, and married him.
I never went back to that naturopath, of course.  Sometimes I would like to, just to show her how different I am now that my hip pain is gone.  I’d like to tell her off for not ordering an x-ray when I first went to see her, and for causing me to waste so much time in pain and misery.  Truthfully however, I have no desire to see her again.  Perhaps it was my responsibility all along to insist I get an x-ray or to see another doctor.

This experience makes me want to caution anyone who has a debilitating condition to be careful of doctors who patronize, talk down to you, or avoid dealing with your specific complaint because they have another agenda, or because they have made a judgment about you based on your weight, age, skin color, profession, accent, or anything else.  If they treat you unfairly, go see someone else.

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