The Mighty Logo

When a Doctor in the ER Pointed Out My Self-Harm Scars

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Article updated July 22, 2019.

I was homeschooled throughout my childhood, and as such I never gained enough exposure to other children and various illnesses to strengthen the defenses of my immune system. That all changed when I moved over 700 miles away from home to attend a university. While I was there, I lived on campus and was suddenly exposed to any and all viruses I could pick up, everywhere from the countertops of my shared hall’s kitchen space to the desks of the lecture halls filled with over 70 students at a time.

One such day, I came down with the flu. I went to the student health center, but they told me that since it was a virus, they could not prescribe anything, though I could come back if things worsened. The flu virus had hit my lungs pretty hard, and I had been coughing and hacking away for several days.

It seemed as though my coughing had improved for a day or two, but then all of a sudden, it came back with a vengeance in the middle of the night. Not only did my coughing fits return, but I was fighting to simply breathe. I was gasping, my chest was in pain, and it hurt to inhale. The most concerning part of it all was how sudden and severe my symptoms had become.

I couldn’t go to sleep, and I couldn’t go to the student health center since they were closed.  I decided to go to the ER to make sure something wasn’t seriously wrong with me.

I drove myself to the ER and was quickly seen due to the difficulty breathing. At one point, I remember laying in the hospital bed and a doctor came up to me. The doctor looked me over, checked my breathing with his stethoscope, and reluctantly decided to order a chest x-ray despite my ragged breathing. My then-girlfriend was there with me, and ER personnel kept referring to her as my friend, despite being told otherwise. A homophobic interaction in the medical field was nothing new to me, so I brushed it off. What bothered me was what happened next.

The doctor took a glance at my right arm. “What are all of these?” he inquired as he examined the dozen or so scars on the top of my forearm.

I responded “I self-harm.”

He seemed fascinated with the scars to the point where I was left feeling humiliated.  He said “usually when people self-harm it’s a cry for attention.”

Oh great, I thought to myself, now he thinks I have attention-seeking behavior and is not taking my illness seriously.  All I could say in response was “That’s not why I used to cut myself. Can we talk about my coughing and wheezing?”

The doctor replied, “I am just trying to get a whole picture of you as a patient, and typically when someone has scars from self-harm they are seeking attention.”  There was stunned silence in the room. “Well, the x-ray technician should be here in a bit” he concluded, and walked out.

My ex-girlfriend and I stared at each other, still astonished and horrified. Her words have stayed with me to this very day. “Wow, he paid more attention to your scars than he did to the fact that you’re really sick right now.”  I nodded in agreement, but couldn’t find the words to respond.

I was given a chest x-ray, and to the doctor’s surprise, I had pneumonia in one of my lungs.  On one hand, I felt relief that at least it wasn’t both lungs, but on the other hand I felt righteous anger. I wanted to blurt out “I told you I was sick!” but I didn’t, as he was already viewing me as a bizarre person with a “friend” present and scars on my arm; scars that were unrelated to my ER visit and frankly none of his business. I didn’t want to say anything to anger him, as now that it was confirmed I wasn’t “faking” my illness for attention, he could provide me some treatment.

The doctor returned to my room with a prescription for five days’ worth of antibiotics. He told me to take the medication as prescribed, stay hydrated, and get plenty of rest. I wondered how much this ER bill
would cost my parents. “Thanks,” I replied half-heartedly, and I was discharged.

Unfortunately, as I was nearing the end of my antibiotic prescription, my symptoms were not improving in the slightest. I decided the best course of action was to go back to the free student health clinic on campus to see what they could do for me.

I sat in the room and the doctor came in to greet me. She asked me why I was seeing her, and I launched into my experience at the local hospital, including the dialogue about my scars, the dismissive attitude displayed to my ex-girlfriend, and the type of treatment the doctor prescribed for my pneumonia.  “You mean to tell me they only gave you a 5-day antibiotic and nothing else?” she asked, her eyebrows raised, her mouth agape.  I nodded. “Well,” she continued, and I braced myself, wondering if she too would chastise me for my self-harm scars, perhaps even stand up for the doctor being hesitant in treating me because he assumed I was an attention-seeker.

She started writing out a prescription.  “I’m going to extend your five day antibiotic to a 10 day antibiotic.  Please return if your symptoms still do not improve.”  I took the prescription note she handed me, and began to get up from the examining bed.

“No, wait a second, I’m not done. You need to have a breathing treatment, so I am going to ask them to prepare one for you. Let me know how you feel afterwards; it should only take about half an hour. Also, here is a second prescription for an inhaler. Use this while you are still experiencing the wheezing, just one to two puffs as needed every two to three hours. Now, please stay put and I’ll order the breathing treatment.”

I was stunned, speechless with overwhelming gratitude for the kindness this doctor showed me. A nebulizer was wheeled into the room, and I breathed in the medication. With every inhale, I breathed in the gentle energy from that doctor; with every exhale, a sigh of relief. When my nebulizer treatment finished, the doctor returned to check on me. She asked me how I was feeling, and I told her the breathing treatment helped. I thanked her profusely, and she said “It’s my pleasure, I’m here to help.”

Luckily for me, this considerate doctor did what any doctor should do. She listened to me.  She helped me. I came to the realization that I received better care at a free student health clinic than I did at the emergency room (which ended up costing over $500, in case anyone was curious). This situation taught me the most important lesson I could learn: there are still compassionate and empathetic doctors out there, and sometimes all I need is a second opinion and a little self-advocacy.

Originally published: August 5, 2016
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home