Good and Horrible Doctors I Have Known

The other day a friend told me about a doctor who wouldn’t give him a referral for a vasectomy. Instead, the guy gave him a talk about how he was Catholic and had eight kids and it was great. When my friend’s wife wanted to get her tubes tied after giving birth to her second daughter, the hospital wouldn’t do it because they were Catholic, too.

I recommended my general practitioner, even though I got mad at him last year for telling me to reverse a modest weight gain. Come on, I quit drinking! It’s not hard to keep the pounds off when you substitute wine for dinner.

I can’t stay mad at him, though. I can always reach him on the phone. When I have a bug that won’t go away, he prescribes antibiotics over the phone instead of making me drag my coughing, feverish self into the office.

Best of all, he seems to be able to boss other doctors around. A lump in my breast? He calls the boob doctor and makes him see me that day–or six in the evening, to be exact. One Saturday when an ear infection caused me unbearable pain, he got my message and called me back at home, told me to go to the ER, and made an ear specialist meet me there.

This is all making me sound like I’m sick a lot, and I’m really not. He’s been my doc for about twenty years. I’ve had my gynecologist for about that long, and she’s great, too. She did the surgery for my hysterectomy and I barely hurt afterward and I have no scars. None. Either she is a supersurgeon or I am a superhealer, or maybe both.

I appreciate these doctors, because I’ve had my share of horrible ones.

I am pretty sure the doctor I went to as a kid was a total perv. I’m no expert, but I think you can check a kid’s ears and throat without grinding your crotch into her knees, or have a meeting to talk about her attention problems without feeling up her just-developing chest. The worst thing about him, though, was that he didn’t know what he was doing. He prescribed heavy doses of two different anti-seizure drugs for me (I am not epileptic), along with Ritalin (which counteracts one of these anti-seizure drugs), making me feel like a zombie in middle and high school, or more like a zombie than most students.

In college, I stopped having my period, and drugstore pregnancy tests were negative. Like a lot of young women, I had a preoccupation with dieting and thinness, but I didn’t realize this could cause you to stop menstruating. At the doctor’s office, an assistant had me strip from the waist down and put a big sheet of paper over my lap. I waited there so long that I was asleep on the table when the doctor came in.

“Don’t get up,” he said. He walked over and jammed something up my vagina. It must have been a speculum. It felt like a handheld vacuum. After a minute, he took it out and went over to his desk and started writing. I sniffled on the table. It seemed like he was never going to talk to me, so I asked him what he thought was wrong. He looked up as though startled to see I was still in the room. “You’ll need more tests. You probably have cancer.” I got dressed, crying, while he still worked at his desk.

I didn’t have cancer, any more than I had chlamydia, which another gynecologist told me was the reason I was bleeding all over after a Pap smear. Sadly, this was before I had the confidence to tell her, “Nope, it’s not supposed to hurt like it did and I’m bleeding because you did something wrong.”

I’m embarrassed that I let another very young doctor remove a vaginal cyst in the checkup room, without anesthesia, while I had to hold a challenging yoga position she suggested so she would have a good angle. This never should have happened. I’m not 100 percent convinced now that she was an actual doctor, although she was wearing Doc Martens.

My first foray into therapy wasn’t much better. On my second visit, I was talking about a horrible thing that happened to me as a kid and crying, as one does. My psychiatrist looked out the window and interrupted to ask, “Is it raining in my BMW?” I laughed and made fun of him. He was probably lucky that was my reaction. I broke up with him shortly afterward, with a version of “it’s not you, it’s me,” but it was definitely him.

I think a lot of us naturally defer to a doctor’s authority, and we want to be “good” patients, which is why so many bad doctors get tolerated, and why so many people don’t seek second opinions, which sometimes save lives. I try to remember now that although the doctor is hopefully an expert on medicine, s/he doesn’t have the knowledge I have about what’s normal and what isn’t for my body.

And if I run into a bad doctor now, I drop him or her immediately and find a new one. They can be hard to find, but they’re out there.

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Bryn Donovan

Romance writer, poet, quilter, and dog cuddler.

19 thoughts on “Good and Horrible Doctors I Have Known”

  1. So glad you have some decent ones. Having bad ones is a horrible thing. We don’t put up with them any more, though, because when I was a kid, We followed the P-Doc’s instructions about things and didn’t challenge them. I ended up with all sorts of long term health issues that can be linked to some of the things they prescribed, and how they failed to respond to certain side effects. Also, my metabolism has been fubar’d since age 12, when I was on a medication for three months and came out with damage. Yeah.

    People, take Bryn’s advice. Don’t settle for shitty docs. And know your doc might be good for you but shitty for someone else as well. I had strategies dealing with my old doc’s religiousness, but other people who saw him had horrible experiences with him because of that. He moved to teach at Duke, and another doc bought out his practice. my new doc is meh, but his PA is AWESOME.

  2. I am truly fortunate with the doctors I have. I once walked out of a gynocologist’s office because the nurse made some horrible offhand remarks about the fact that I wanted it noted in my record that I wanted to talk about permanent birth control options. (“What if you meet Mr. Right and he wants kids?” I was engaged to Mr. PoM at the time, and I tried to make it clear that a guy who wants kids would never be my Mr. Right, and then I realized I didn’t owe her a damn explanation.) My current gyno is 100% on board with whatever I want to do as long as I realize the medical risks. I’m one of those people who had nothing but problems with female gynos, and as soon as I switched to a man, I wanted to cry in relief for being taken seriously.

    My primary care doctor is a godsend. He’s in practice by himself (no reception staff, even), I have his cell number and his email, he’ll see me whenever I can get there, and he takes me seriously. I’m on a medication long-term that many doctors only prescribe short-term, and he knows it’s the only thing that works for me and doesn’t treat me like a drug-seeking scumbag because of it. (One of my pharmacists, however…) I try to be a good patient, but I expect good doctors. And I’ve finally gotten to a place where all of my doctors are good.

  3. Some positive doctor stories…

    In high school, my wrist started hurting for no apparent reason. My pediatrician sent me to PT for tendinitis, which was reasonable since I played flute and piano. PT did not work, loosening my watch didn’t work, rest didn’t work, nada. I ended up at a neurologist who diagnosed me with a compressed thingummy in my shoulder. Doc could totally have dismissed me as an over-reacting kid, but didn’t, so yay him!

    The other was my lady doctor, who also provided primary care services. I have a history of high cholesterol and most doctors just lecture me about my diet. This doc actually ran some tests that showed that much of my cholesterol was genetic. Previous docs had brought up the possibility of statins and I told her that I really did NOT want to go on them. She said there was no reason for them, as I lead a decently healthy lifestyle and all my other risk factors were really low. However, she did recommend a high-fiber diet because “it’ll make you poop. Poop, poop, poop.”

  4. The worst doctor I ever had like to tell everyone he saw (he treated my mum too) that whatever you went into get checked wasn’t a real problem. You could have gone in with a missing finger and he’d tell you that you were making it up.

    My weirdest was when my pediatrician tried to prescribe me barbiturates to treat my migraines (I’ve had migraines forever, he was just the first to treat them). I thought my mum was going to rip his head off.

  5. I’m going to respectfully question the point of this post. I promise I’m not being snarky, but I can’t help but feel that this post could be written about any profession and I’m unsure why it’s about doctors. Will there be a post next week about good and bad teachers? Nurses? Lawyers?

    I suppose I think this was a missed opportunity to critically explore some legitimate issues within the medical system. What are the consequences of teaching medical students professional detachment to the point of being unable (or unwilling) to relate to the patient experience? What role does religion play in health? How can we teach patients that they have rights and the ability to question doctors within the context of an uneven relationship?

    For what it’s worth: When I went to see my doctor at 25, single, and childless and told her I wanted to have my tubes tied we had a quick conversation about it, she clarified that I had put thought and time into my decision, let me know that I would have to be clear to the gyn that there was no chance I would change my mind and that was all.

    Months and months later I received a call from a OBGYN office to set up an appointment. By that time I had met and married my ex husband. We showed up to the appointment ready to defend ourselves and our choices and the nurse came in and started taking my vitals. I then realized I wasn’t going to have to defend my barren loins, they were confident I was confident. The doctor came in a few minutes later, realized in the meantime I had married, gave my ex a pep talk and told him to get a vasectomy, referred him a GP and two weeks later it was done.

    1. “I suppose I think this was a missed opportunity to critically explore some legitimate issues within the medical system. What are the consequences of teaching medical students professional detachment to the point of being unable (or unwilling) to relate to the patient experience? What role does religion play in health? How can we teach patients that they have rights and the ability to question doctors within the context of an uneven relationship?”

      Agreed. Though my knowing sympathies, Bryn, for having shitty doctor experiences. I’ve had mostly good luck (which is bloody amazing, considering I have 2 different conditions that you can’t specifically test for), but I did have a doctor in college try to tell me that the reason why I was getting bladder infections was because she thought I had chlamydia. Um, no, that is not why, thank you.

      Also, once my daughter’s doctor (we’ve moved since then) tried to tell me that cooked dairy products would eliminate lactose. LADY, I have lactose intolerance, and you wanna tell that to how many times pizza and nachos made me sick before I figured that out?

      But right now *knocks wood* everyone in my family has a good doctor situation.

    2. Sure, there could have been more analysis, but I feel like terrible doctors affect us more. I once thought I had a yeast infection and walked into a doctor’s apartment that I chose blindly from my insurance list. Of course there was Jesus music playing. Sigh. I sat through the appointment just to confirm the diagnosis and never went back.

      And I think that happens a lot. I think we end up having to go to whatever doc that’s at the top of our list and it’s a huge risk.

      I’m very lucky that I’ve found a primary care doc who also does most of my lady things who is AWESOME. She listens and if I disagree with her, she’ll let me make the decision. If she thinks I really should make a certain decision, she’ll give me the reasons (but she won’t judge me if I don’t go her way). But the only reason I found her was through recommendations (and that was after seeing some truly terrible docs).

  6. Woah.

    I’m only on my second doctor, the first retiring last year. He was very ..erm how to say it. If you weren’t bleeding, bent over in pain or projectile-vomiting he was very scroogeish with handing out medicine. Once I did an allergy test and the outcome was “Yeah you’re allergic to some things but in such a small way that it won’t influence your life”. I didn’t get to hear what I was allergic for.

    We probably never moved because luckily I didn’t need him often and hey, it’s hard to change doctors. Now I have a female, attentive doctor I know how different it is.

  7. I don’t have any horrible doctor stories. I <3 my OB/GYN so much. I haven't actually been to a general doctor in a few years. I tend to go to the campus health services when I get sick, and they're pretty good. Although I think one gave me an ear infection by scraping the inside of the ear canal when they look in it. But nothing compared to what I'm reading here. I wish you all can find wonderful doctors (also, stories like this is why I still go back to my parents' to go to my doctors).

  8. Does anyone have any suggestions for finding good doctors in a new city?

    I haven’t stayed anywhere very long since I finished high school, and nowhere have I gotten around to finding new doctors outside of the university health services. At some point, I’m going to need a local doctor instead of waiting until I visit my mother (600 miles away) to visit all my doctors in a couple of days, but I don’t know how to go about that other than pulling up the in-network list from my insurance company and picking someone with a convenient office.

    1. I found an OB/GYN on Yelp in Chicago. You can use it in big cities, in smaller cities, I would ask around. I’m going to have to find a new eye doctor, and I plan to ask my boss and the office admin asst. One of them will have a good suggestion within the insurance plan.

      That having been said, I will probably go out of my way to see my gyn that I’ve been seeing for the last couple years. She is FANTASTIC and I love her. I saw her for my very first appointment, and she was really calm and explained everything and is really interested in total health. It makes a nice change.

      1. Are you still in Chicago? Because you are making me think that we might have the same doctor, haha. Mine is wonderful, and she talks to me and never makes me come into the office before she renews my birth control and is super into holistic health, which is awesome because it means she always explores non-medication options with me before we decide what to do about any particular problem.

  9. I wish that I had a “good” doctor story for every “bad” doctor story…

    At my first GYN appointment (I was 16 or 17), they refused to do anything until they had checked my hemoglobin to make sure I wasn’t anemic. They made me run my hands under hot water, while the doctor sighed and made his displeasure at having to wait on me very clear. They “milked” my hands, which means the nurse squeezed and squeezed my hands and fingers until they hurt. By the time they gave up, they had stuck every single one of my fingers, and I was crying. The doctor almost refused to do my exam. And then…even though he knew it was my first exam, he did not explain what he was doing at all. It was awful.

    In college, I went to the university’s women’s health clinic in tremendous pain. I had been in discomfort and awake all night, and went in first thing in the morning. The female PA started with the biggest speculum she had and cranked it up so much that it popped out when she let go. She chastised me for crying as she worked her way down to the smallest size. She was sure I had chlamydia, and maybe other things (which really pissed me off because I was married and pretty sure my husband wasn’t messing around). She was finally so exasperated with me that she gave up, and told the doctor on duty that she couldn’t do anything with me because I was such a damn baby, so he’d have to “deal” with me. Turns out I was having a severe allergic reaction to the nonoxynol-9 in our condoms, because my husband and I were being super-responsible young marrieds, using condoms and BC.

    I have a heart condition that was diagnosed when I was 19. At one point during college, I had to go in for a checkup, but my regular cardiologist wasn’t there. The sub railed at me about the fact that I shouldn’t have any heart problems at my age, and that I should start jogging, stop smoking, and stop doing cocaine. He completely refused to believe that I exercised at all because of my less than ideal BMI (in fact, I walked several miles every day, many of those carrying a 50 lb backpack, then more miles on the track in the evening before dinner) and I never smoked or did coke. He was a real winner.

    And after my second child was born, while I was trying to get help from my OB/GYN for some major PPD, she told me that I needed to stop feeling sorry for myself and instead of eating cookies all day, pay attention to what I was eating and get up and exercise. Not that that wasn’t true, but I was barely holding it together and only able to do the bare minimum to care for myself and my kids at the time. She also yelled at my 4 year old daughter for not behaving in her office and at me for bringing her with me (not that I had a choice). She essentially refused to do anything for me or refer me to anyone. She gave me photocopies of breathing exercises to try instead. She acted like I was exhibiting pill-seeking behavior, when all I wanted was HELP.

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