When a Doctor Dismissed My Symptoms and It Almost Killed Me
Saturday, December 29, 2018 was a pretty normal day for me. I had worked a 12-hour shift and other than my regular issues, I felt fine.
I got home at around 7:45 that night and began my post-shift routine: Comfy clothes, a snack and onto the couch (which my husband and I call my happy place) to watch TV. Only I wasn’t able to make it to that last part, as I suddenly began to feel intense pain in my stomach.
I recently discovered – at the age of 29 – that I’m lactose intolerant. I’ve had gastrointestinal problems since childhood, including daily gas. Anyone who has ever had gas pain knows how bad it can be.
“Oh. Oh, God.” I said to my husband, clenching my right rib cage. “This isn’t normal. I don’t know what this is.” Searing hot pain hit me like someone shoved a hot poker up under my rib cage. My husband jumped up to help me onto the bed, where I lay in a fetal position praying it would just stop.
“What can I do?” He asked. I didn’t know what to tell him, so we decided that he would run to the CVS up the street and get some stomach medicines. This didn’t feel like my usual stomach problems, but I couldn’t fathom what else it could be, and as a chronic pain patient I wanted to avoid the ER at all costs.
After a while the pain subsided some and I was able to move. I went to the couch and my husband started a movie, but I only made it about 30 minutes in before I decided I just wanted to sleep. The pain had subsided enough by that point that I was able to fall asleep, but I woke up at 2 a.m. to more searing pain. Again, because of my complete apprehension regarding the ER, I waited to see if it would pass. It did, and I fell back into a restless sleep.
Then at 4 a.m. I woke up shaking and sweating from the pain and I knew I had no choice: I had to go to the ER. I woke my husband up and we went to the nearest emergency room, although I later realized we would have been better off to go to the ER in the hospital where I work.
We arrived and I hobbled up to the desk while my husband parked the car. Through ragged, shallow breaths I explained what was going on. They were nice enough, and fortunately the place was pretty empty so they got me back right away.
The night shift doctor was actually nice. She listened to me with concern on her face and didn’t flinch when I told her I was a pain patient. Unfortunately, though, she wouldn’t be there long. Shortly after, the day shift doctor came in and I knew immediately what he thought of me, as he didn’t even try to hide his disdain.
I was dealing with two problems: the stigma surrounding pain patients in the ER and gender bias, which is highly prevalent in the medical field. I’ve experienced both of these as a patient and I’ve seen it in action as an employee. This guy acted like I was either making up my pain for pain medications or at the very least, over-exaggerating it for the same reason.
On top of all of that, my symptoms weren’t typical. My blood pressure, which should have been sky high due to the amount of pain I was in, was low. My heart rate was too. I hadn’t vomited and I had no nausea. The only symptom I had was pain.
He ordered an ultrasound of my gallbladder, and my husband had to physically hold me flat for them to do it, as my body wanted to be in the fetal position. The ultrasound tech obviously thought I was overreacting and she was this close to rolling her eyes at me.
The ultrasound was normal, so the doctor returned to my room to inform me that I was fine.
“The test was normal so we’re sending you home. There’s no reason for your pain,” he said smugly. Mind you, he hadn’t done a physical exam and the only test he had done was that ultrasound. I wasn’t shocked, though.
“Well what can I do for the pain? Would ice or heat work?” I asked, desperate.
“I mean,” he smirked, “I don’t know.”
“She can’t lay flat,” my husband said, “there has to be something else you can do.”
Finally, the doctor donned gloves and did a physical exam. (By the way, I always recommend women bring a male with them when they go to the doctor if they can.)
“I’ll order a CT scan since the pain is widespread,” he said grudgingly, as he walked out of the room.
I thought the pain was bad before, but I almost had an out of body experience when they put that dye in me. I had to apologize profusely to the nice CT tech for the amount of cussing I was doing.
About 20 minutes after returning to my room the doctor re-emerged, one foot out the door.
“So, there is a reason for your pain.” He said. “The CT scan showed that you have a perforated ulcer. You’ll need to have surgery immediately and I’ve already put you on the schedule.” Before we could ask any questions, he was gone.
I was in the operating room for two hours, and I awoke with a tube down my nose and a drain coming out of my stomach, positioned right next to a four inch long incision. I spent five days in the hospital and another few weeks recovering at home.
I later discovered that perforated ulcers can be deadly. Had my husband not spoken up, I could’ve gone home and bled out or become septic, all because a doctor made assumptions about me. I’m a female pain patient with severe pain but atypical symptoms, so further scrutiny wasn’t warranted in his mind.
People ask how I couldn’t have known I had an ulcer. Weren’t there symptoms? Well, looking back, yes. One day at work I had severe pain in that area, but it only lasted a few moments. For the weeks leading up to the perforation I was dealing with daily nausea and I even joked to my husband that I thought I had a tapeworm, as it didn’t matter how much I ate, I always felt stomach-growling-hungry.
But because I have been doubted and called a hypochondriac my whole life, I doubt myself too. I assumed not only that I was making these symptoms up in my head, but that no doctor would take them seriously. If severe abdominal pain wasn’t enough to convince a doctor something was wrong, being hungry and nauseous and having fleeting pain wouldn’t either.
If nothing else, this experience has taught me to always trust my instincts. If my body is telling me something, I listen. I suggest others do the same.
Getty image by Gorodenkoff.