our sisterhood of pain

IMG_1414It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences. -Audre Lorde

I bring my red Moleskine notebook to every oncologist appointment. In it I’ve carefully recorded the date and the questions I need answered. I haven’t seen my official oncologist in months. I catch a glimpse of her in the staff room and hallway, but she doesn’t see me. Instead, I get the family physician in the clinic or the oncologist resident. I know this is how it works. I’m post-treatment with a boring low-grade cancer – and I don’t want to be an interesting case for an oncologist – but I can’t help but feel unimportant by this rejection.

Regardless of who I see, I try to be organized and look put together for whoever shows up in the treatment room. If I’m feeling stronger and in self-advocating mode, I’m sure to dress up and have make-up on. Is it wrong of me to do this, to lean on my privilege? I’ve learned over the years that I get listened to and taken seriously by clinicians if I look and act like them as much as possible.

I once heard of a mom who was a First Nations woman who had a kid with a disability. Every time she went to the children’s hospital, she dressed up in a (goddamn) business suit to purposely overcompensate for the shocking power inequities between patients/families and health care professionals. This power imbalance was exacerbated by the fact she was Indigenous. Is this okay? No. No it is not okay.

The worst part is that many health professionals don’t even realize they contribute to these imbalances with their obliviousness to their own privilege. I wrote a review of the brilliant book When The Spirit Catches You, which highlights this concept and is a must-read for anyone working in health care.

I don’t need someone to give me a voice. I already have a voice. I need someone to listen. If I have to get dressed up to be heard, I get dressed up. Should I be able to present disheveled in my sweatpants? I should, but then I’ll be judged. This isn’t paranoia; it is my reality.

I’ve been written off as a ‘hysterical mom’ many times when I’ve accompanied my son to the clinic or hospital. I’m careful not to show emotion – to not cry or to raise my voice, even if I’m upset. Recently, I asked a pediatric audiologist to ‘please speak to me more respectfully’ so she would stop her sighing and eye-rolling at my questions. I shouldn’t have to ask to be treated respectfully. My standards are not too high. As a patient or family member, I wish to be treated by health professionals with the same common courtesy that is afforded to a colleague.

(Oh wait, health professionals don’t necessarily treat each other courteously. Scratch that concept). Think of me as someone you love, then, if that helps. As your sister, wife or mom. No matter how well-dressed or well-spoken (or not) I am. This Cleveland Clinic classic video highlights this empathetic approach.

Recently, there was yet another article published in a medical journal written by a physician who became a patient. I appreciate the author’s humbleness and recognition of his own privilege. Here is a male oncologist/patient, asking for the receptionist to smile. I’ve been calling for receptionists smile for years, but who am I? I am just another layperson patient, a middle-aged breast cancer patient, a mom of a kid with Down syndrome. I do not have an oncologist’s platform.  Health care loves to listen to doctors.  To regular people, not so much.  Therein lies the problem.

It is important to note that I am white, well-off economically, generally well-spoken and I have worked in health care administration my entire career – specifically in patient and family experience for the past 13 years. Alas, I am also a woman and a patient, which knocks me down a few rungs on the health care ladder of status. I struggle to be taken seriously.

There is starting to be stories about how much of this power imbalance is due to gender. I applaud these stories. May they continue to be told.

I wrote about my own ‘lady’ experience in March, being brought to the Emergency Room by ambulance in excruciating ovarian pain. Joe Fassler writes about his wife’s similar story here in The Atlantic.  Sarah Frey also recently published this piece on gender-based health care for CBC news, and Jennifer Brea’s important film Unrest is about myalgic encephalomyelitis, a neglected women’s issue. There’s so much more to say about this gender imbalance in our sisterhood of pain.

The great imbalances reach other people too – those in the LGBTQI2-S community, those with disabilities, those from a different race or culture – I mean, I could go on and on. What does it take to be listened to by the health care system? Do we have to be exactly like health professionals to not get diminished or dismissed? Mostly yes, but sometimes no.  Let me share a positive example, my recent little ray of light.

I had my oncology appointment on Thursday. While I approached the day with oncology dread – waking up at 5 am with my head whirling; carefully preparing my questions in my little notebook; driving white-knuckled to the appointment; avoiding parking at the cancer hospital (the parkade there sends me into a medical PTSD tailspin); taking an Ativan to calm the hell down (an Ativan prescribed to me by an oncologist – that I only take when I have a health care appointment #irony); picking up a Starbucks to bring with me to the clinic as a crutch/my armor; walking in like my friend Isabel taught me, like I am The Queen; and asking the medical assistant not to tell me how much I weigh (the very first thing they do there is weigh me, my least favourite activity on earth).

Still, despite my many strategies to stay strong, I sat in the windowless, joyless clinic room, waiting for a knock on the door, feeling small, hunched over and nervously picking at my fingers until my hangnails bled.

In the end, the person who knocked at the door was a senior oncology resident, a pleasant man who forgot to introduce himself, but who was otherwise lovely. We had an actual conversation about my four questions in my notebook – a back and forth – where I asked and he shared information and options. I listened and then we discussed resolutions. I felt as if we did tackled all my questions together, in a most collaborative way.

I left this follow-up appointment feeling greatly relieved. If this doctor thought I was hysterical or difficult, he didn’t show it. If he was rushed or having a bad day, I didn’t know. I appreciated his careful listening and consideration. It was a good experience. Yet it was extraordinary in the fact that a positive patient experience is exceedingly rare. I felt treated with courtesy, compassion, validated, understood and listened to. This is how it should be, no matter one’s gender, gender identity, ethnicity, citizenship, religion, race, disability, orientation, dress, eloquence or otherwise. (My apologies if I’ve missed anybody or used the wrong terms – I’m still learning too).

It is humanity we all so crave from the health care system – no matter – or maybe because of – our different expressions of human identity. We are all people first. I’ll keep on squawking about health care and I hope you will too. Use your voice. I’ll end with another quote by the glorious Audre Lorde, who always says it best:

When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.

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