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Gaslighting fuelled the fire that burned my trust with many doctors

My name is Diana and I’m a sister, auntie and daughter. I love nature - forests and the ocean soothe my soul. Two years ago, while in medical school, I experienced major neck and head trauma leading to CCI (craniocervical instabilty diagnosis). Follow my recovery @evergreenzest

These are a few of the least favourite things said to me by medical physicians in the last year and half as I navigated the most difficult chapter of my entire life

  • “You are going to be a bobble head forever. You should get used to it.

  • “You won’t be able to finish medical school if you can't walk properly. I had a colleague who hit her head and was unable to work as a doctor.”

  • “There is no bone chunk in your throat. It must be anxiety.” (Turns out it was a structural issue involving my bones/spine/jaw discovered a year later).

  • “You’re going to get cancer from the amount of radiation exposure you've had. I would buy a lottery ticket on you.”

  • “Yes, I’m concerned that your legs are collapsing, but there’s nothing we can do for you. Do not try to access access (X type) of care here in the future. Do you understand?'

  • “Impossible. It’s impossible that you’re able to alleviate a bone chunk sensation with that manoeuvre. Your bone chunk will never, never go away.”

Even today, as I write out these statements, I’m still in shock that these words were said to my face. Different physicians across a variety of specialties, hospitals and even geographic locations. I can't help wonder why? What was the point of speaking this way to an extremely sick patient during a brief encounter? These statements shouldn’t have been said at all. In the very least, they could have been communicated differently.

Words matter.

After I was told I would get cancer (by the doctor who really didn’t know me at all), I spent the next few months thinking that I was going to get cancer. I was so afraid of the radiation exposure (that I’d gotten to get to my diagnosis) that my anxiety and my fear delayed my future care.

For instance, when I had stroke-like symptoms and the ambulance arrived, I was afraid of the hospital, and getting more radiation. Another time, I had severe pain but I waited until my partner pleaded to take me to the hospital. Turns out, I needed an emergency abdominal surgery and I was grateful we went when we did. As a medical student, I never thought I would be afraid of doctors and be afraid to seek care (even when experiencing red flag symptoms). But, here I am. The trauma associated with medical gaslighting and is all too real.

Words matter.

Before my illness journey, whilst in med school, I was an enthusiastic learner. I was eager to support complex cases and listen to patient stories. I was happy as a clam, moving from one patient ward to the next.

When I became the patient, everything changed. The hospital looked different as it took on a new meaning. I was scared to stay overnight, and the beeping machines and blinding fluorescent lights that I had never really noticed before, now aggravated my symptoms. Residents and med students came by to exam me - “a complex case” they’d say. It felt surreal being the patient. I longed to be back in my previous role as a student bouncing happily through the ward.

As I lay in the hospital bed, I was struck with what a privilege it is to be the examiner and how difficult it is to be sick. By far, the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

“How did I not know how hard it is to be a patient????” I cried to myself.

My heart burst open with empathy for other patients that day. I internalized so much more compassion through my lived experience. Some things you only understand when you experience them. At least the physician interactions during that specific hospital admission were generally positive, and for that I’m grateful.

Words matter.

Thinking broadly, how we can encourage trauma informed care amongst health care professionals while also holding them accountable for unnecessarily harmful communication? I know that physicians and health care professionals are overworked and the health system has many ways it can be shaped and shifted for the better. Plus we’re all humans.

But, it all still leaves me asking why? Why the medical gaslighting? Is it the system? Is this a good enough reason? It is stress? Is it perception? Even when I am at my lowest, I STILL try my best with communication. I speak respectfully towards others. AND If I can treat health care professionals with respect during my hardest moments, I should be treated with respect too. Period. That is my perspective. Of course, I’ve had positive interactions with healthcare professionals, and it’s something I value so deeply (more on that in its own dedicated post), but those interactions are unfortunately, much much rarer.

Words matter.

How can future health care professionals, speak more compassionately to patients and ensure our words don't cause harm?

One day when I’m recovered from CCI, I’ll continue my studies. As a future doc, I will educate myself in trauma-informed care, listen to patients, validate them, bring awareness to complex chronic illnesses like CCI, and view patient interactions as a privilege with inherent power dynamics that need balancing out. I will stay attune to patient body language as best I can. For instance, when I was told I would get cancer from radiation, I started sobbing. I was clearly VERY upset by the doctors’s. words. This would have been an opportune time for the doc to check in and re direct, clarify or say sorry. But, the physician shrugged dismissively, said they had to see other patients and left me hurting for months.

Words matter.


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