There’s no accounting for people’s pride. I remember a few years back getting a lab report that determined, even though I was a pack-a-day smoker, my oxygen saturation was 100%. To give you a sense from whence the sperm of self-confidence gestated into a pride-baby: normal, healthy, non-smokers are usually in the 90s. I stuck it on the fridge where it nudged out an article about my cousin who finished two medical degrees at Stanford and had her dissertation published. But anyway… 100%! You can’t buy those kinds of percentages.
So lab reports for me are as important and worthy of admiration as report cards or artistic achievements. Which is why lately I’ve been disappointed in my underachieving body and the entire medical establishment in general.
A recent physical revealed a few concerns. One, that I just had a birthday. Doctors don’t take birthdays lightly. Every time a patient ages, it makes their jobs that much harder, because the body accumulates diseases, nodes and bunions at a rapid rate beginning at age 30, and in less than a decade, the whole thing becomes a Race Against Time.
Dr. Incurious George (not to protect his identity but to explain him) had his nurse take my blood pressure, which she determined was startlingly low. She actually looked disappointed. She said, “Sometimes when people come into the doctors, their BP goes up, but it seems you’re pretty relaxed for someone who’s just had a birthday.”
She consulted with Incurious out of earshot, so as not to spook me, like a horse. Bewitched by these numbers, they re-cuffed my arm and took it again. 86/55. The nurse asked me if I were seeing cartoon birds and then wondered aloud why I wasn’t passed out on the floor. It perturbed her more that I was conscious and living than almost dead. Last (and also, apparently, least), there were traces of blood in my urine, although Incurious didn’t seem plussed. I asked him why there would be blood in my urine if I’m not menstruating or scaling concertina wire every night.
“We don’t know,” he answered. (Notice the classic use of the “we” pronoun, basically implicating all of the medical community in not knowing what to make of my anomaly. It’s not his ignorance, after all. It’s everybody’s.)
“Should we look into this?”
“But is it normal to have a little blood in my urine?”
Finally, I decided to be proactive and run this mother myself. After pouring over enough medical websites to receive an honorary medical degree or a real one from the University of Phoenix, I went back to Incurious and made a few demands:
“Shouldn’t we run another urinalysis to detect the presence of microcytic blood and, if confirmed positive, send both reports to a trusted urologist who may decide to perform a cystoscopy to check for abnormal cells in the lining, given that I have a familial history of bladder cancer, of which I am very proud?”
“Meh, why not?” Incurious said with all the compassion of a bored cat. “Although I think it’s probably nothing and you may be overreacting. Whoops, I mean, the entire medical community thinks you may be overreacting. Personally, I think they can be very judgmental.”
In a hyperbolic nutshell of an amalgamation of biased memories and selective recall, this is my typical experience when dealing with physicians. As a female patient, I am constantly rushed through my concerns or, worse, told that my floating reproductive parts just don’t have the stamina of a penis and I am fated to be crippled by a lack of “man heat.” Or that my period prevents me from maintaining homeostasis when I jog and that’s why my back hurts. Once, I swear to God, I was told that I may have an imbalance caused by a uterus full of hubris. These memories may not be totally accurate, as I have a thoroughly documented medical history of overreacting.
The French have a phrase for people like me: la maladie du petit papier or “tiny papers.” It’s a phenomenon that is actually taught in medical school so doctors can learn how to deal with annoying female patients. The literal translation is “Blimey! (or Egads!) I see the lady-patient has brought in a list of symptoms with her, the length of the Magna Carta unfurled, that she believes bother her. How adorable.” I can’t say a lot of great things about the French, but they sure are succinct.
The problem with the petits papiers logic, if I can deign to even use that word, is oftentimes small, seemingly benign symptoms cut and pasted into a larger context of a patient’s overall wellness and health, may show a chink in the armor. For instance, a few months back before Incurious noticed the mystery blood, I was knee-deep in symptoms that were ruining my life: ubiquitous fatigue, constant infections, low libido, and unexplained weight gain. I was turning into Boxer from Animal Farm, and I was afraid the prognosis would eventually be: “You have about six months at most before we make you into glue.”
When I whipped out my petite papiers of symptoms, you’d have thought by Dr. Incurious’s reaction that I was some kind of patient-provocateur who was about to artfully segue this medical appointment into a staged reading of the entire Great Gatsby. He glanced at the sheet and said, “I can’t get to all of those today. Let’s just talk about the first few.”
“Oh,” I laughed. “I don’t think I have ten individual conditions all happening concurrently, and it’s just a stark-raving coincidence. I think… they may be related.” This was met with a dismissive wave of the hand and a scratch-n-sniff sticker. My insurance paid Incurious $75 to listen to five of my fifteen floridly descriptive nouns. If I wanted to talk about the other ten, he told me that I’d have to make more appointments, like this was a sex hotline. Of course, I fired him on the spot. (I left the clinic, crying and vowing silently to myself never to return. Like a boss.)
Instead of spinning the HMO network globe and randomly selecting whichever tier-one practitioner my finger landed on, I asked around for recommendations. A friend suggested her primary, whom I’ll call Dr. Beyoncé, a qualified medical professional who made time to listen to the uncut version of my complaints, volumes A-Z. She didn’t interrupt. I told her, “I really hope my empowered patient stance doesn’t get in the way of your god complex.” (Haha, no, I didn’t. Remember the crying?)
On top of everything, she asked me for more information, as though I had agency. I had never been treated like that before. Up to that point, Incurious always had me drop my pants and point to the frowny face on the wall, and I only knew the appointment was over when I got a lollipop.
Turns out, my Anna Karenina-level paranoia was not an overblown reaction: I had a severe vitamin D deficiency that could’ve turned into osteomalacia (adult rickets) or complete destruction of my immune system. The D3 supplements fixed every. single. problem. on. my. list. I went from potential horse glue to Seabiscuit in three months.
Oh, and the blood-in-the-urine thing? It’s fine. I just have overactive bodily humors that respond to my sanguine or “blood” temperament, which can affect my weak, effeminate bladder. No biggie. Also, no jogging! These hips were meant for birthin’!
Am I crazy? Or have any of you had similar experiences with doctors? Do you find yourself generalizing about the gender differences in treatment that may not actually exist because you overreact a lot, given your nervous countenance? Or do doctors generally take your complaints seriously? AND WHO ARE THEY AND WHERE DO THEY PRACTICE?