December 9, 1997
“Don’t worry,” he’d tell her. “You just have a nervous stomach. It’s nothing serious. The more you dwell on it, the more it will bother you. Just stop complaining.” Then, he’d tell her to smile and he’d leave the examination room. It continued the same way for years and each time she saw him she was given the same message: what she said did not matter. She was thirteen years old and sick. But he wouldn’t hear her cries and he wouldn’t validate her pain.
She really did look fine. A petite young teenager with long brown hair and large brown eyes who always had a smile on her face. She enjoyed life. She was always out with her friends and still got perfect grades on all her tests. She was happy. So who could believe her? Why would he believe the words of the girl sitting in front of him, a girl he hardly knew? What he did know about her wasn’t consistent with her stories: Stories about not being able to stand up straight because it hurt too much. Stories about the tearing pains she felt in the middle of her body. Stories about being ill every time she ate. Stories about being sick. If she really felt as terrible as she claimed, how could she be doing so well and appear so happy? It didn’t fit. The girl sitting before him could not be telling real stories. And he told her that, time and time again.
Eventually, she stopped questioning him and she went on with her life. Some days were good, others were miserable. She dealt with it. After all, who was she to question what he said. He was a doctor with years of experience and she was just an adolescent girl. She had to be fine. He said so. There was only one problem: she didn’t feel fine.
As the years past, she grew used to how she felt. It was almost normal for her. She convinced herself that everyone felt as sick as she did every now and then—that way he could be right and she could be okay. But every now and then began to come more often. Fewer and fewer days would pass between her bouts of pain. Now, when she felt the pain, she hurt more than just physically. She hurt because she learned there was nothing she could do. She had been through it all with him before. He would listen to her heartbeat, take some blood and let her complain about her pain. Then, she would smile for him so he could leave the room.
Eventually she grew older and smarter. She was smart enough to know that there were real things that she could be suffering from and she found out for herself what those things were. Everything that she read about seemed so serious—things she could not possibly have. However, she learned that there were many tests that could be preformed to determine the origin of her pain, tests far more invasive to her body than a finger prick. That summer she went back to him with an ultimatum. She would not go back to school for her sophomore year of college feeling as she did. She wanted to be examined more thoroughly because she was certain he was wrong. “You’re too young for it to be anything serious,” he told her again as she thought about her best friend who was just diagnosed with testicular cancer and her other friend who never awoke from surgery to remove a tumor in his brain. “You have been complaining for years and you don’t believe me when I tell you that you are fine. I will schedule a test for your peace of mind. I already know that there is nothing wrong”. Not only was she whining, now she was making things difficult! Nevertheless, the test was scheduled for three days before she went back to school.
* * * * * *
I saw everything clearly on a small T.V. screen as the camera traveled along the inside of my body. I often imagine what my doctor’s facial expression must have been as he saw what I did. Ulcerations and inflammation lined my digestive tract. Crohn’s Disease. At that time, thirteen areas in both of my intestines were affected.
What could the doctor who had repeatedly assured me that I had nothing serious be thinking as he now viewed the images on that screen? Of all the emotions that I felt, anger was the strongest. I wanted an apology and I wanted an answer. I have a disease that was dismissed as nothing for years. Why? Not because all the attempts to find its origin came back showing nothing, but because my “complaints” had not been taken seriously, my “stories” dismissed as whines. What did my doctor think of me? Just a young girl going through many scary changes? Was I was looking to find a problem, looking to find an excuse to feel sorry for myself? Perhaps I was a drama-queen, quick to complain and experienced in whining?
It has been almost two years since I was diagnosed and I am still angry. I am angry at my doctor and angry at myself. I was put into a category: young, adolescent, female. Not only was that how I was viewed, I also acted out her role. My doctor saw me as the stereotypical young girl, and all of his actions and attitudes towards me reflected that. But I had my own part in it as well. I could have been more assertive, more demanding, and more powerful. I could have been less timid, less afraid, and less polite. I didn’t have to smile.
I know that I can’t turn back the clock and do things over again, but I do things differently now. I question and I ask for explanation. I learn. I listen and I speak. I form my own opinions and I reach my own conclusions. I don’t let anybody tell me that they know my body better than I know it myself.
December 9, 1997