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33 of the Worst Things Medical Professionals Have Said to People With Chronic Illness

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When you or a loved one get sick, injured or just don’t feel right, the medical profession is supposed to be there to listen and help in whatever way possible. But while there are certainly some fantastic and caring people in the medical field whose priority is truly the well-being of their patients, there are also some who, unfortunately, seem to be lacking that same compassion.

It is a sad but true reality that many people in the chronic illness community have had a negative or uncomfortable experience with someone in the medical profession, be it a primary physician, nurse or specialist. Though they’re highly trained professionals, they’re also human, which means they sometimes make mistakes. We can’t expect doctors and nurses to be perfect, but we can hold them accountable when they act in ways that are disrespectful or negligent. Every patient deserves to be listened to, believed and treated with compassion, respect and dignity – regardless of who they are or what they are going through. But this isn’t always a given. For many patients, myself included, being treated poorly by the medical profession happens more often that not – and that needs to change.

We asked our Mighty community to share some of the worst comments they’ve received from medical professionals in the hopes of highlighting just how prevalent and, quite frankly, horrific the mistreatment of patients can be, while also providing some examples of the types of hurtful and offensive comments that doctors and nurses should think twice before saying. Our intent is not to villainize medical professionals, but rather to call out the toxic comments and behaviors that are never OK so that both current and future practitioners can learn directly from those they’re treating about the best (and worst) ways to help them.

For those of you on the patient side, we also asked our community to share their advice for responding to hurtful or inappropriate comments. They offered some great words of wisdom for handling yourself in a medical setting and advocating for yourself and your health, which can be found in the second part of this article.

Here are some examples from our community of what medical professionals should not say to their patients:

  1. “‘Have you tried Advil for the pain?’ Um… let me think. Yes. Yes I have. For five years. And it obviously wasn’t enough which is why I came to a pain management doctor. Duh.” – Beth P.F.
  2. I had a doctor once tell me that chronic pain patients just needed to learn how to deal with their pain. That they didn’t need pain medicine – just suck it up. I asked him if he had ever known anyone with autoimmune arthritis or any autoimmune disease because even with pain medication we do ‘suck up’ more pain than most people do. The pain medicine is not a choice or a convenience, it literally is the only way to function because the pain is unbearable and your body physically shuts itself down. I left that appointment in tears and the worst panic attack I have ever had that day. Thank goodness for my amazing rheumatologist who laughed at the doctor’s notes on me and told me not to worry, she had my back and would never leave me in pain.” – Janine T.
  3. “‘You should be glad you have these illnesses, God wouldn’t give you something you can’t handle.’ A doctor told me this after meeting me once.” – Tiffany T.
  4. A PA told me to stop eating boxes of donuts and I’d feel much better. I have hEDS [hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome], microscopic colitis, fibromyalgia, asthma and Sjogren’s syndrome. I have never eaten a box of donuts and am dairy- and gluten-free. I have never been so angry at someone.” – Melissa A.K.
  5. At 23 years old, after being incredibly sick with no explanation for months and unintentionally losing [a lot of weight], doctor said, ‘Have you considered maybe you just need to go out on a date and have some fun? Plus, if something were legitimately wrong with you at this young age, I could become famous by writing a study about you in a medical journal.’ A few weeks later I ended up hospitalized and subsequently transferred to a major medical center where I stayed for six weeks until stable enough to go home – after being diagnosed with Addison’s disease.” – Makenna J.C.
  6. A neurologist told me I was a ‘delicate flower’ when I asked what had caused the sudden onset of nerve pain and then weakness that severely restricted my mobility. Fast forward 12 months, and I was diagnosed with acute inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy. To that neurologist: I was paralyzed and you wrongly profiled me and dismissed my pain as a mental health problem just because your pride got in the way of saying, ‘I don’t know your diagnosis.’” – Jillian R.
  7. “‘I believe all women should be on antidepressants.’ [Said by] male physician.” – Terri S.G.
  8. The first ‘specialist’ I saw examined me, said I had a post-viral illness and ‘there’s nothing I can do for you until a major organ explodes.’ I burst out crying and he sent me to a psychiatrist. (Later diagnosed with severe ME/CFS.)” – Darcie M.
  9. When I first went to my doctors when it was obvious to me that I just wasn’t right, didn’t know I had ME at that point, my doctor said, ‘Well, we’re all getting older!’ when I tried to explain how tired I was!” – Anne J.
  10. “‘Oh, you’re not a professional sportsman so we won’t operate.’ I had snapped my anterior cruciate ligament and torn my medial collateral ligament and torn my meniscus in my left knee. Demanded second opinion. Second surgeon: ‘Can’t leave you in this state, let’s book you in for the operation.’” – Craig R.
  11. I was told that I should stop eating tomatoes and try to poop at the same time every day. Somehow this would cure my pain (a year before I was diagnosed with EDS). I was there asking for a refill of prescription-strength NSAIDs. I still dream of tracking her down and mailing her a book on EDS.” – Stephanie B.
  12. “‘Oh, it’s nothing,’ followed by a week in hospital on a drip with top people in their field trying to stop an infection getting to my brain and killing me. They called students in from all over because they would never get to see this kind of infection before specializing if they didn’t [see me]. ‘Nothing’…” – David L.
  13. “‘You cannot have two illnesses at once,’ or when suffering with chronic nausea in hospital, instead of being given antiemetics so I could eat, whispering in my ear, ‘I can stick a tube down your throat and force feed you.’” – Lucy S.
  14. “‘What do you mean you don’t have $600 [a month for one medication]?’ Made me feel terrible.” – Karen S.
  15. “‘The great thing about vasovagal syncope is that, when the heart stops, it almost always starts again by itself. Unless you die.’ From a cardiologist while diagnosing me with vasovagal syncope after my heart stopped for six and a half seconds and was caught on a monitor. I literally could not form a response as they walked out of the room. The knowledge that my heart has stopped and can/will continue to stop is terrifying, yet those were the parting words I got.” – Caitlin M.
  16. In reference to my son who was born with severe hemophilia: ‘He really wasn’t meant to live.’” – Mary F.
  17. I have endometriosis in my lungs and I cough up blood every day because of it. In the beginning when they weren’t sure he tried everything to stop the bleeding and when it didn’t work because he wasn’t familiar with treatments, he told me that I’m just drinking cranberry juice and spitting it up.” – Faithann P. 
  18. I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis when I was 23. My very first rheumatologist looked at me on my very first visit and said, ‘You will be in a wheelchair by the time you are 30 and you will never have children. Better learn to deal with it now.’ That was my first and last visit to him. I am now 41 and nowhere near [needing a wheelchair] and I have a daughter.” – Melanie W.
  19. “‘You’re too young to be seriously sick.’ Doesn’t matter how old I am, if I’m sick, I’m sick. And 21 is not too young to be seriously sick. It took five more years to finally get the POTS and hEDS diagnoses, and I’d had worsening symptoms since I was 16.” – Trisha P.
  20. I once had a rheumatologist tell me that she was ‘more hypermobile’ than me, and turned the appointment into a comparison between myself, and herself. I thanked her and her colleague, and walked out. I later filed a grievance with her office. I’ve since connected with a wonderful rheumatologist who takes my concerns seriously.” – Anna B.
  21. I had horrible recurrent UTIs and kidney infections and I had a urologist who told me it was because of ‘my young promiscuous behavior’ even though I was in a long-term relationship. I was honestly too shocked to reply but as soon as I left I fell apart in tears.” – Josie W.
  22. I have POTS and when I was first trying to get properly diagnosed I had a lot of trouble being able to walk and stand up. The first neurologist I went to said to me, ‘If someone put a gun to your head right now would you be able to run away?’ I answered no.” – Jacqueline M.
  23. When the neurologist gave me a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, I asked if there was anything I could do related to diet and exercise to improve the course of the disease and she straight up laughed at me. Well done, doc.” – Laura J.
  24. A GP I don’t see any more – when I suddenly lost [a lot of weight]: ‘You look great! This is great!’ I was scared for my life, my hair was falling out, body falling apart, but hey, GP thinks I look fab.” – Stellar G.
  25. The worst wasn’t said verbally, it was ‘the look’ when you know they have stopped listening and think you’re exaggerating, it’s all in my head. You know… ‘That look!’ Sigh.” – Paula D.
  26. My ENT told me that I had poor personal hygiene because I kept getting sinus and ear infections… Little did he know I had CVID [common variable immune deficiency] but wasn’t diagnosed yet.” – Cathy B.
  27. There’s so many to choose from, but the worst has to be a neurologist asking me, ‘What’s so bad about having seizures anyway?’ I was at a complete loss for words.” – Ella R.
  28. When I told my doctor that the medications were making me too tired and unable to function, she said, ‘Well you are disabled, so what do you have to do anyways?’” – Cara R.
  29. “‘You’re just pregnant.’ There was no way I was pregnant. Another doctor was standing right next to this man saying, ‘We’ve already tested and she’s not pregnant.’ ‘Well she’s obviously pregnant.’ My mum says, ‘There’s no way she would be pregnant.’ He says, ‘Do you know how many times I’ve heard that from teenage girls’ mothers?’ I ended up having grumbling appendix and a brain tumor, both causing the symptoms.” – Hanna R.
  30. When I was in the hospital in horrible pain, unable to keep any food or liquids down and so weak I could barely lift my head I had a doctor kneel down next to my bed, look me straight in the eye and say, ‘You’re not really sick. You just like being in the hospital, don’t you?’ Months later I was finally diagnosed with adrenal insufficiency.” – Amy W.
  31. “If you’re chronically ill, you’re probably all too aware of the agony of the forms when seeking disability coverage or support. So many forms, the same information repeated ad nauseam for yet another government official who could just ask for the previous 15 forms to be forwarded to them. My previous GP got so fed up with filling them in (at $100 a pop from me), he was always complaining about having to do them. Then, finally, the last time I saw him he blew up, saying angrily, ‘Not another form! I can’t stand this – waste of my time! I hate them – in fact, your forms make me feel like quitting and retiring.’ Needless to say, I found a new GP, and quit on that guy.” – P. Jean O.
  32. This is the worst thing anyone has said to me: An endocrinologist who was supposed to help me figure out how I was gaining weight despite eating less and less encouraged me to use a smaller plate. ‘I already do that.’ Well, cut your portion in half. ‘I’ve already done that,’ I tell him. At that point he says, ‘Well, keep cutting your portions in half until you start losing some weight. No fat people ever came out of Auschwitz, you know.’ I reacted with shock. And I can’t remember saying anything coherent or meaningful to combat his outrageous comment; I cut the appointment short and went to a different endocrinologist. I’ve always felt awful that I didn’t tell him off or something.” – Debi V.P.
  33. “‘Ignore that. That’s nothing. Don’t worry about that. Stop being dramatic, it’s not that bad.’ Telling me to ignore my nerve-related symptoms, before I saw someone who diagnosed me with CRPS. If you’re undiagnosed, be consistent and keep voicing your issues. Write down your symptoms!” – Marybeth M.

And this is the advice our community shared for dealing with frustrating or hurtful comments from medical professionals:

  1. My advice for people is to hold your ground and not let people walk all over you. It’s OK to be sharp and ‘bold’ when someone says something rude. Sometimes however I know the person will be so defensive that I don’t even bother and vent about it later when they leave to not make things worse.” – Cassidy S.
  2. “Know your body and know yourself because ultimately only you can advocate for your health.” – Megan D.
  3. “I’ve had so many run-ins with physicians or other medical professionals who laugh at me and brush me off because of my age, etc. and the biggest lesson I’ve learned through it is that I know my body 100 percent better than any other person ever will – so if I know something is wrong, I continue to advocate for myself because I know how much it matters for the sake of my well-being.” – Kaylee H.
  4. “We have to be our own advocates. If you’re not getting the respect and treatment you need, find a new doctor, if you can. I think you can gently call out someone who is being totally disrespectful: I feel ____ when you ____.” – Terri P.
  5. “My dad went into the doctor saying he had a hernia. Doctor did not one test and sent him to Toronto (five-hour painful bumpy drive) for surgery. Got assessed and ready for surgery where they then said this is not a hernia, go back home (same day, so now a 10-hour painful drive). That doctor sent him to a specialist and he passed away from colon/liver cancer four months later. I’m begging all men and women, don’t be shy, nervous or embarrassed to get checked up on by your doctor. Don’t be afraid to get second or even third or fourth opinions! Eight out of 10 times your gut feeling is right and those doctors that say it’s all in your head are wrong… don’t give up.” – Kelsey L.
  6. “My advice is only using one doctor, who is your specialist, and have everyone, even your primary defer to the specialist. After years of misdiagnosis and improper care, they all have to check with my specialist before they do any test or treatment.” – Annmarie H.
  7. Every [ignorant] comment and nasty side remark has made me terrified of not having my voice be heard. The best advice I have is to have someone you know and trust and can advocate for you with you whenever possible. I’m young, I’m sick and I’m often terrified so I find having a support person, someone to stand up for me and to make sure that I’m getting appropriate care and feel safe is so important.” – Sarah-Paige S.
  8. I do not have time to deal with doctors that think they know my body and symptoms better than me. Be your own advocate. You know your body and if something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t right. You do not have to take a medical professional being disrespectful, you have the right to be heard. Be respectful but be firm and stand your ground.” – Kristin K.
  9. “My response to a doctor who won’t listen is to go elsewhere – I haven’t the time or energy to spend convincing them to change their viewpoints, and that is usually my advice to any who ask about doctors who won’t listen: find a better doctor, one who listens and hears you and who takes your concerns seriously, even if it turns out to be something minor.” – Laura G.
  10. “Take everything with a grain of salt. And it’s OK to be upset, cry, be angry, etc. It is not your fault for their ignorance. I take every situation as a learning and teaching experience both for me and the medical provider. Just don’t give up!” Em T.
Originally published: March 15, 2018
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