First published in The Independent as ‘Do you have to hate people to become a doctor?’ on 20th January 2001
What a bad start to 2001 the medical profession in this country has had. It started with the revelation that Dr. Harold Shipman may have murdered over 300 people, making him the world’s most prolific serial killer. Then the shock news that doctors regularly take organs and body parts from the deceased for medical research with out asking or informing the relatives. Next Bedford Hospital is storing corpses on the floor of a Chapel of Rest, although personally I feel that printing photos of the diseased on the front cover of news papers with out a thought for the relatives is much more of a scandal, and now Sir Donald Irving, the president of the GMC, has complained that the medical profession has “cultural flaws” manifesting themselves as problems with “…excessive paternalism, lack of respect for patients and their right to make decisions about their care, secrecy and complacency about poor practice.” He is worried that these problems will make patience believe “that a lot of doctors put their interests before that of their patients’.”
Well I don’t know about that but I do think that we are gradually waking up to the fact that doctors are not miracle workers or gods, much to their annoyance. My personal experience of the medical profession is one littered with blunders, arrogance and secrecy. I was born with cancer, but the doctor who performed the postnatal check missed a tumour the size of a tennis ball in my newborn body. I cried in agony for eight weeks, my mother being labelled as a “hysterical mother” by any visiting midwives and doctors, and it was only when I stopped crying and became limp and lifeless that my Aunt, who was a nurse, declared “This baby is very sick”. The cancer was cured, (OK they get it right sometimes) at which point my mother was informed I would never sit up, walk, or be able to even feed myself.
I was walking by the age of three, and by the age of five I started at a normal school. During this time my father had started complaining of chest pains and went to the doctor, who informed him he had indigestion. A month later my father died of a massive heart attack. During my teens my spine started to bend and a surgeon informed me that at the age of sixteen I might need to have an operation to fuse my spine. At the age of fifteen my spine collapsed. After two major operations, during which time a staff nurse wrongly informed me I had cancer again and was going to die, I left hospital and began years of physiotherapy to try and walk again. I gave up and felt I had failed. By now I had lost my faith in doctors and avoided them at all costs.
However two years ago I began having terrible pain in my back and legs. It was so bad that my GP prescribed me a Morphine based pain killer (which I became addicted to… that was fun kicking that!) and I became so worried I made an appointment to see a specialist. The day of the appointment I was nervous, I feared that I had another serious problem with my spine, the pain was that bad. I had been for an MRI scan previously and today the doctor was going to tell me if anything was wrong. Once in the consulting room a junior doctor looked at my scans. He studied them, looking stunned and rushed out of the room. I began to get scared. The surgeon came in, briefly glanced at the scans and left the room. Then a nurse came in and began to fuss around me and could hear the surgeon on the phone in the room next door. Now with my previous experience of medical procedure, it appeared to me that my worse fear were coming true. I obviously had something wrong and a bed was being found for me. My girlfriend, who had come in with me, gripped my hand, sensing how scared I was. At this point the surgeon came in, announced “there’s nothing wrong with you”, and turned to leave. My girlfriend, stunned by his arrogance, asked, “ So what is causing his pain?” “No idea” the surgeon replied. My girlfriend snapped, and in a reflex response grabbed him by the throat and subtlety insisted he find out what was wrong (add expletives as you wish). I must point out I hadn’t actually been talked to yet and the surgeon hadn’t even touched me. So it was arranged to send me for tests, which took so long to arrange the pain had all but cleared up… by itself! During my brief stay, I thumbed through my notes and I discovered an operation report on my first operation I had when I was fifteen. On reading it I discovered the line “ the L1 nerve root had unfortunately been separated during dissection”. This meant that during my operation a nerve root had been severed, which meant that the years of physiotherapy to get me to walk again was a total waste. It had no chance of working; the nerve damage was such that I couldn’t control my legs enough. To think of all that pain and anguish I went through at MY failure to walk.
So with this as history with the medical profession, I think you may understand why I agree with Sir Donald. If the whole profession do not start trying to change, they are in danger of living up to the old joke “Doctors-they’re just under trained vets!” If I had received the level of care I received from doctors from a car mechanic, I’d be suing his arse BIG time… that is if I hadn’t been killed in car crash.
It amazes me when I come into contact with doctors who have no interpersonal skills. It almost feels sometimes like they hate people. Why become a healer if you can’t stand the thing you’re healing. Surely they must know how scared we are at the thought of being ill, of being powerless, of being totally in their hands. Of course they do. That’s why suicide and addiction is rife among doctors. They know when they are ill, and worst that that, they know that if they do ever become ill they will fall into the hands of people who will treat them as if their feelings don’t count. Doctors!
Now I know that not all doctors are like this. My old GP from Luton, Dr Spiro, and my current GP are great, and thank God for them. Otherwise every time I felt ill, I’d be going to a fancy dress shop, buying a dog suit and go woof, woofing my way down to my local vet.