Children, Respect & The Doctor-Patient Relationship

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Every so often someone asks me why I became a doctor.  And although the reasons are many, I was partially driven by the lack of respect I felt from the doctor I knew as a child; and I think many adults AND children relate to this.I can remember being seven years old and visiting Dr. T’s office. Our family doctor was this very large, loud, bald, Polish man, and I was scared to death of him.  His office was antiseptic, not only in its scent but in its decor.  There were green marble-esque tiled floors and black leather chairs, you know the ones; the old brass tacks that held the shiny leather tightly to the highly varnished and perfectly sterile wood.  The office came complete with an old, gray-haired nurse with glasses and the classic white dress uniform, hat and all.
I understood everything that was going on in that office but I felt invisible to Dr. T and his nurse.  Looking back on it, I could play a movie in my mind of what was going through my head, and what I was seeing on the screen.  He never spoke to me directly, only to my mother.  He set the plan and my mother, who was normally on my side, aided and abetted him in carrying out this plan.  This is the side of my mother I would remember when subsequent illnesses emerged and I had to begin figuring out a way to get out of the visit.  I begged and pleaded with her to tell him THIS time I didn’t want a shot……as if my message through her voice would be the determining factor as to what would happen.  Each visit inevitably ended with a shot of penicillin that he gave to my buttock like he was throwing a dart at a bulls-eye.  I have this vision of him holding his arm way up in the air and plunging it downward until it reached my skin; then I would feel that all too familiar pain of cement being pushed thru a needle and directly into my muscle.

In those days, the Kilbane kids only visited the doctor when we were practically on death’s doorstep (just a slight bit of sarcasm here).  I don’t remember a single “well child check”.  I think when you are one of five kids, only severe issues were addressed with the help of the doctor.   Since I only associated Dr. T with shots, I avoided seeing him at all costs.

When I was sick and I could sense the impending doctor visit, I would leave my mouth open a little bit while my mother was checking my temperature.  I would then suck in the ambient cool air in order to prevent the thermometer from showing what my true body temperature was……fairly clever for a seven-year-old eh? Yeah, no; it didn’t save me a single visit.

I disliked those visits so much because I didn’t feel like Dr. T listened to me or—surprise surprise—cared that I didn’t want a shot.  He didn’t attempt to form even the slightest connection with me, so I didn’t make any attempt either.  With this mutual disconnect, it’s no wonder I have very bad childhood memories of the doctor-patient relationship.

Now perhaps Dr. T’s way of communicating was more a sign of the times or perhaps even cultural, but what seven-year-old knows or cares about that?  I vowed then and there, I would become a doctor and I would speak directly to the children.  I would discuss the treatment options with them and give them a say in the plan if at all possible.  My big lesson from Dr. T is this: never underestimate the mind of a child and their ability to understand and interpret what is happening around them.  If we treat our kids with the respect and honor that we all would like to be treated with, I wonder how many behavior issues would be eliminated?