Is Your Doctor Really Listening?

It was 1998 and I had just moved to Louisville, Kentucky, very close to where I grew up as a child.  I was returning to my native state to care for my mother who was dying of ovarian cancer and her mother who was bedbound by a stroke.  My life had been interrupted and part of me was okay about that and part of me was not.  Caregiving can be hard.

Having been diagnosed with a rare heart disorder many years before, finding a good cardiologist in town was one of my top priorities along with tending to their health needs as well.

I checked my health plan, researched the local paper, called the university medical centers and settled on a highly regarded, mid-50s, white-haired cardiologist in private practice with an affiliation at one of the medical centers in the area.

Our relationship lasted six months.  Well, maybe one year, but that would be a stretch.

As a former physician assistant, I handled the paperwork and repetitive tests that come with seeing a new doctor without concern.  But the first few months of my move I was miserable and emotionally a wreck.  My mother died within weeks of moving; her mother the next month.  The job I was hired to do was eliminated and I missed passing the bar exam by one point.  I was exhausted and trembling at night from the weight of all the changes and uncertainty in my life.

When the palpitations started, I knew the stress was too much.

“I think I’m depressed,” I said with a lump in my throat to the Midwest cardiologist a bit shocked that I could utter the word.  It was our third visit.  I went on.  “I’m not sleeping well, all I do is cry, and I’m just a bundle of nerves.”

Without looking up from the note he was scribbling in my chart he said, “Have you thought about looking for help on the internet?”

It was all I could do to sit upright on the examining table.  I was shocked and disappointed that this was his best suggestion.

“The internet?” I thought to myself.  “Who is going to hold my hand or hug me on the Internet?”

At that moment I realized I needed a different doctor.  I walked out of his office and never returned.

What I had overlooked was the importance of finding a doctor I meshed with personally.  Not just one who had a prominent title, several clinical trials to his name, and a prestigious academic center standing behind him, but one that could simply look me in the eyes and tell that something wasn’t right.  Someone with empathy and a gentle touch.  Someone I could build a relationship with.

The doctor-patient relationship is delicate; for patients living with chronic conditions or illnesses it means balancing personal rapport with clinical knowledge. For a very long time.  Sometimes all you want are the facts from your doctor.  But sometimes, you want a hug and some encouragement and the personal connection does as much good as any pill.

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