The Most Important 'Adulting' Lesson I Learned in a Doctor's Office


I’m a millennial. My generation is stereotyped as entitled, but truly, we’re so fresh out of childhood that we don’t know how to be entitled yet. As children, we get used to deferring to adults, whether they’re parents or teachers or doctors. Only adults can raise the entitled battle cry, “The customer is always right!” and be a force to be reckoned with. The most important lesson I learned in my first year of college wasn’t about studying or getting along with roommates, but getting what I needed from medical professionals.

At 15, my wrists and fingers started aching. I’d quit halfway through piano practice or homework and wait until I had the strength to get back to my tasks.

“You’re too young for carpal tunnel,” my piano teacher told me, when I explained my troubles with practice.

“You’re too young for carpal tunnel,” my pediatrician told me. “You’re in ninth grade. Take Advil and wear wrist braces.”

“You’re too young for carpal tunnel,” said the internist. It was the summer after high school graduation and I saw adult doctors now. “Must be low B12. Take vitamins.”

“Classic carpal tunnel,” said the hand specialist. I was 19 now. I’d spent my freshman year of college getting B12 injections, explaining that my “boxing gloves” were actually wrist braces, and cheering at the top of my lungs at basketball games because I couldn’t clap. “If you were older, I’d send you off to the operating room. But since there’s only a 95 percent chance you have carpal tunnel, I’ll refer you to another doctor for a test.”

I waited for that appointment. In the meantime, I wore braces all day but took them off to hold a pencil in class. Most students nowadays take notes on laptops, but carpal tunnel weakens the shoulders too and it was hard for me to lug one around in my backpack.

I waited. The receptionist called. She told me the test involved an expensive machine that sent electrical shocks into my wrists, so should check if my insurance covered it. I did and they did. At last, my appointment day arrived.

“You’re pretty young for carpal tunnel, aren’t you?” the doctor said. He held out a piece of paper and told me to press on it. “Yes, you’re gripping it like someone who has carpal tunnel. But you’re young, so I’ll have to run some tests. Come back for an appointment with our expensive electrical machine.”

I told him how long I waited, how I already had 95 percent of a diagnosis, that we were so far past the point of staring at my hands and neglecting modern medical equipment, “Your receptionist said I’d have a more accurate test today. I’ve already cleared everything with my insurance. I paid you today for a test, not to squeeze a paper.”

He apologized but said he didn’t have the machine on hand. I should come back later.

So I came back and paid twice for that test a second time. As he hooked me up to the machine, he told me, “You know, after we messed up your last appointment, I thought I’d lost you. I’m glad you came back.”

Lost me? And… did he say coming back was a decision?

That’s when I learned the most important “adulting” lesson of my life so far. Doctor’s offices, like restaurants and mechanic’s shops, are businesses. I can choose to see someone else. You are entitled to the service you paid for. You are entitled to doctors, medical assistants, receptionists, and insurance people who connect you with the services you need in a timely and courteous manner, because they’re entitled to a paycheck.

That was a year ago. I wish I could say I learned my lesson and now have no problem getting the help I need from medical offices. Sometimes it’s a scheduling conflict, a clerical error, a miscommunication, or my fault for arriving to the appointment 20 minutes late. Sometimes, people are bad at their jobs. I’ve played phone tag with, “Your call is very important to us,” receptionists. I’ve had appointments canceled without my consent. I’ve been accused of lying. I’ve had a doctor chase me out of his office, screaming and swearing, and physically shove me out the lobby door.

When I call home and share my “Misadventures in Pain” with my mother, she tells me it’s “just part of being an adult.” Everyone deals with bad doctors. Actually, everyone has bad doctors, but dealing with them is my choice to make. If they’re going to bill me, yes, I’m going to leave a bad review, a complaining voicemail, and in the extreme cases, report them. Because dealing with my complaints for two minutes doesn’t hold a candle to another month of pain while I wait to see my second choice doctor’s nurse in the next county over.

Healthcare is complicated, especially when you’re fresh out of high school and have no clue how insurance and prescriptions work. But I’m 20, so I probably have 60 years of doctor’s appointments ahead of me, and I want to figure out how to handle them well. If I had gotten the care and competency I needed at 15, I wouldn’t be juggling physical pain and emotional exhaustion on a college schedule five years later. If it’s hard now, how will I handle it when I’m working full-time? When I’m a mom? I look at the elderly people sharing my waiting room and wonder if my wrist pain will last until I’m their age, and what new health problems I’ll collect by then.

I know when I walk up to a middle aged medical professional, I have two strikes against me: the entitled millennial stereotype and “you’re too young for pain.” But the most important adulting lesson I’ve learned as a college student with chronic pain isn’t to accept bad treatment, but to deal with it.

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