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When ER Doctors Dismiss the Pain of My IBD Because I'm Smiling

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It took me two weeks to get the nerve up to walk through those doors. I’m greeted with a smile and the question, “How can I help you today?”

“I need to see a doctor.” The words are hard to spit out.

I’ve been told to come to the ER by my IBD (inflammatory bowel disease) nurse, even though it’s the place I dread the most. My friend stands beside me and smiles, trying to calm my nerves. I’m quickly triaged and pointed toward the full waiting room. I tend to talk more when I’m nervous, so I’m pretty sure I didn’t shut up the entire time we waited. I probably didn’t even “look” sick, as my port is tucked and hidden behind my shirt.

I’m finally called back to a room and, still nervous, I joke with the nurse. This is the defense mechanism I’ve developed over the years in response to pain and discomfort. The emergency room is the last place I want to be, but when you have a chronic illness, ER visits are unavoidable and equally uncomfortable. So I smile and laugh to get through it.

The doctor finally walks in, looking annoyed and impatient. Between his attitude and my nerves, my mind suddenly goes blank. But somehow I manage to keep a smile on my face and remain polite. The doctor spends all of two minutes with me, never even comes near me, then leaves.

In my experience, emergency room staff seem poorly trained on how to deal with IBD patients. I feel like they see us as chronic complainers. They’ve probably never had to live in a body they can’t depend on.

The compassion is so lacking that it’s hard to truly let my guard down to ask for help. I’d feel uncomfortable saying, “I’m in pain! Please help me! Reassure me that I’m not in crisis, that this trip isn’t going to end in surgery or another hospitalization.”

So I keep my mask on. I can’t let them see just how much pain I’m in. However, my friend can’t hold her tongue, so she speaks up about my pain level. Her comments make little difference in how the ER staff treats me.

Finally the tests and labs come back. The doctor says everything looks good, even though my inflammation markers indicate otherwise.

“So what do you want?” he says. Like he’s asking if I want paper or plastic. 

At this point, I can’t get out of there fast enough. I can see the exit sign just ahead – my freedom in sight – but a wave of pain comes over me and I can no longer walk. So I collapse and sit in the hallway for half an hour with my friend who’s visibly upset by what’s happening. 

I’m sitting in the middle of an ER, in horrible pain, but no one seems to notice. I feel invisible. I feel the stares. I feel the judgment. My friend once again has to speak to the doctors for me because all I can focus on is how much I want to leave.

Once again, I receive no compassion from the ER staff. I feel more like an inconvenience than a person in need of help. I’m eventually taken back to a room and given a lecture rather than actual medical care.

I wish the ER staff understood you can’t always judge a book by its cover. Just because I have a smile on my face doesn’t mean I’m not in so much pain I can barely breathe. Please don’t dismiss me because I don’t look sick or uncomfortable enough by your standards. Please try and understand the courage and bargaining it took with friends and family to get me through those doors, and try to have some compassion and understanding.

Originally published: July 11, 2016
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