There is nothing more frustrating, frightening, or saddening than having your pain dismissed by a doctor after you’ve opened yourself up to him or her and asked for help. Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence among IBD patients. When it comes to pain, we are often alone, left to suffer and fumble our way through half of a life. Like other chronically ill patients, I have so many stories and thoughts about this subject, that this will be the first in a series of blog posts about pain. More than anything, I want to let my readers know that they’re not alone.
My first experience with a doctor dismissing my pain had nothing to do with Crohn’s disease, but it prepared me for what I was about to face. When I was 26 years-old, I had a c-section to deliver my son at 37 weeks. My obstetrician is a very well-known and respected high-risk doctor in the area. Because I had gestational diabetes that was not controlled by diet alone, I was referred to him. My first hint that our relationship was not going to go well was when he told me that he didn’t “believe in” postpartum depression as if it was Santa Claus.
The night before I left the hospital, I had an elevated temperature. They said it was fine and I believed them. Instead of the pain from the c-section wound getting better, it slowly got worse. I called my doctor’s office a week after the surgery and they said that pain was to be expected and to not come in until my two-week check-up. I still remember the feeling of my high-risk doctor wiping the pus off of my aching incision and proclaiming that I was “fine”. At this point, the pain throbbed and reverberated throughout my pelvis in time to my heartbeat. When I asked the nurse if I could have more pain medication, she gasped and told me that my doctor “would never agree to that”. I went home that day, shaking deep inside from the infection I didn’t know I had, with a clear feeling of shame. I was ashamed of myself for asking for pain medication. It was the first time I was labeled a drug seeker and told that my pain wasn’t real.
Less than a week later, I could barely hold my newborn son or care for my two-and-a-half year-old daughter. My lips were white and it took all of my energy to walk down the hall. Chills had settled deep into my bones and each step was an effort I no longer had. Instead of calling my obstetrician, I went to my family practitioner–a woman who believed in very real conditions like postpartum depression and pain. She told me that I had a uterine infection and that I had to call my obstetrician immediately. When I called him, he was angry, and told me that my family practitioner had overreacted and that the antibiotics and pain medication she’d prescribed were “overkill”. He asked me why I hadn’t called him first, and I reminded him of our last appointment. In a very nasty voice, he told me to “pack my bags” because I was most likely going to the hospital. But instead of sending me directly there, he made me come in for an appointment the next day.
When he saw me the next day, he was visibly shocked by my appearance and was kinder for it. My fever was 104 and I fought off any attempt to touch my abdomen. I was admitted to the hospital and almost had to have a hysterectomy. I spent seven days on IV antibiotics and almost lost my ability to have more children because he assumed I would lie for a measly Percocet.
I still get angry when I think about this man and how I was treated. I do know that women are more likely to be dismissed when they complain of pain to a male doctor. There is a tendency to revert back to a quiet assumption of “hysteria”, and this delays the diagnosis and treatment of many women who are suffering with the symptoms of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Pain is often the first symptom and it’s a condition that has become so suspect that many doctors will refuse to acknowledge it, let alone treat it.