A patient I saw recently, who has been sick on and off for the past 16 years, spent the better part of the past two years in the hospital, under the knife, and once released, shuttling between doctor’s appointments. At one point she broke down in tears and said, “It was an assault. It was like being raped.”
And I found myself tearing up while silently witnessing the confession she had just made.
Was I Assaulting People?
Hearing this broke my heart. Trained as a gynecologist, I know that what we do can feel like a violation. In the office, we strip off people’s clothes, insert cold foreign objects into their warm vaginas, and sometimes let our fatigue and busy schedules lead us to be more brusque than any healer should be. We forget to call people by name, fail to ask for permission, and walk out before listening for the questions our patients may be too frightened to ask.
In the hospital, it’s even worse. We dress people in modesty-stealing hospital gowns, feed them bad food, and wake them at 4am for blood draws (and stick them again a few hours later when their doctors think of new tests they want drawn after rounds.) We call them “Room 201” instead of by their names, we expose them to a roomful of people before placing cold stethoscopes on bare breasts, we talk about them in front of them like they’re not there, and then we leave as quickly as we entered.
We strip people of their dignity, dehumanize them into body parts, violate them, and then leave without saying “I’m sorry,” much like someone who commits date rape might.
In more subtle ways, we bare not just people’s bodies, but their souls, without leaving anyone in charge of tending those bared souls. As we suffer from pain, fear what is happening, or even contemplate our own death, we become more vulnerable than we’ve ever been in our lives, and who is there to hold our hand?
My Own Assault
As I alluded to here, I’ve been blessed to only be hospitalized once, when I gave birth by C-section to my daughter. I was an attending physician at the hospital where I gave birth and like any OB/GYN having a baby, I was considered a VIP. Even so, giving birth to my daughter was one of the most dehumanizing experiences of my life. The surgery wasn’t too bad. I trusted my doctor, and my business partner was assisting, so I felt held by two doctors I loved. So while it wasn’t exactly a touchy-feely home birth or even a nurturing midwife drug-free birth, I coped pretty well.
It wasn’t until I was in the recovery room afterwards and started puking my guts out that I started feeling fearful. I had warned them that narcotics throw me through a loop, and they promised me I would be getting only spinal anesthesia. Nobody told me they put morphine in the spinal. The vomiting began - and continued for 12 hours straight until I almost dry-heaved my sutures out.
I asked for Zofran, the nausea drug I knew helped me when I’d been given narcotics before because of a dental procedure. They told me I was given Zofran, but in fact, they gave me Compazine. It made me nearly psychotic.
In the midst of all this, my IV ran dry for hours, until blood was creeping up my IV line and I had stopped making any urine because I was so dehydrated. I begged them to hang a new bag and bolus me with more fluids. I pleaded for Zofran. Nothing happened.
By midnight, 10 hours after I had given birth, I was so dehydrated that my lips were cracking and, needless to say, there wasn’t much coming out when I tried to breastfeed. Dried out and in severe pain from all the wretching, I called my doctor at home because by this point, I was so dehydrated that I knew I needed at least another liter of fluids, only the nurses weren’t giving it to me. My doctor, in a gesture I’m sure she meant to be helpful, wrote an order that I could order my own drugs and IV fluids. Every hour all night long, the nurse came in to say, “Doctor, what shall I do next?” And I’d bark off the orders.
By morning, I was finally peeing and the nausea had stopped. But I was exhausted, my baby was crying, my husband felt completely helpless. So what did I do? I checked myself out of the hospital and went home. At least there, I could take care of myself in peace.
Healing The Wounds
If this is what happens when a doctor gets hospitalized, it’s no wonder people feel assaulted when they leave the hospital. My patient told me she’s recovering from PTSD because of her hospitalization, and something just feels wrong about that.
As doctors and other health care providers, aren’t we supposed to comfort, nurture and heal, rather than assault, violate, and traumatize? What is wrong with this system?
I know there are wonderful doctors in this world. I know we’re all doing the best we can and navigating our way within a very broken system. Now that I’m out, my goal is not just to bitch about how broken it is, but to be a voice of healing and to start a conversation about how we might begin to mend the wounds the system has inflicted upon not just the patients, but the health care providers who care for them.
Have You Felt Assaulted By The Health Care System?
Does getting hospitalized feel like being raped, or are we just being melodramatic? Do you feel nurtured by the health care system? I know people have stories on both ends - miraculous stories of doctors and nurses who have nurtured them every step of the way and horror stories of what went wrong. As someone from inside the system, I know we’re all doing the best we can. So tell us your stories. What’s working? What’s not? Let’s get this conversation going.
With wishes for healing for us all,
Lissa Rankin, MD: Founder of OwningPink.com, author of Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof You Can Heal Yourself (Hay House, 2013), TEDx speaker, and health care revolutionary. Join her newsletter list for free guidance on healing yourself, and check her out on Twitter and Facebook.