Dr. Jeff, the Jugular, and Me

To be read with “Is Your Doctor Hurting Your Mental Health? Why You Need an Emotionally Intelligent Doctor,” originally published by ALS News Today, October 2, 2017

Whether or not your doctor practices emotional intelligence will make an enormous impact on the quality of your care and mental health. At best, a doctor lacking emotional intelligence can make you feel unheard, unimportant, or confused. At worst, you may end up feeling completely devalued or even traumatized.

Let’s travel back in time one week. Zoom in on me lying on the table in the OR. Right away, things started going wrong. I stayed on the table for a half hour while nurses darted around me like frightened birds, trying to find out where the surgeon was through every phone and pager in the room. One nurse even ran out into the hall to ask random people the question on everyone’s lips: “Where is Jeff?” I knew the instant he finally arrived because he owned that room. Even though my face was covered, I could feel him walk towards me, the nurses falling silent as he passed. He never paused his diatribe about paperwork and how he refuses to do another page today. He didn’t even stop when he put his hands on me. I remember thinking, he should see my face, speak my name, explain the procedure to me, anything to indicate that he knew he was touching a sentient being. That’s what an emotionally intelligent doctor would do. When he touched me, I felt like a piece of meat.

Next, the team couldn’t sedate me because of my low blood pressure. I was paralyzed when I heard this. That’s right, heard as in, overheard. No one said, “Your blood pressure is pretty low. Has this ever happened before?” No one said, “If we do this procedure right now, you won’t be able to have a sedative. How do you feel about proceeding?”

Taking care of a patient means approaching him or her with empathy. A cornerstone of emotional intelligence, empathy consists of admitting ignorance about a person’s inner life and taking steps to remedy that ignorance by asking questions and imagining a different perspective. However, Dr. Jeff was too busy ranting about his least favorite nurses and why they should get fired to address me, much less ask for my opinion.

The team gave me Lidocaine, which didn’t cut it – pun intended. Apparently, Dr. Jeff remembered he was operating on a person because he finally spoke to me: “You are going to feel just a little pressure here.” I braced myself. Then, a fire alarm went off in my brain, screeching, “Sharp! Sharp! Sharp!” as red strobe lights blinded me. I cried out when I felt the blade going in and out of my skin.

“You are going to feel pressure, there’s nothing wrong with that,” Dr. Jeff patronized. Did he forget I was not sedated?

The next thing I heard was, “Wow, she is bleeding all over the place.” This is not what you want to hear immediately after someone slices your jugular. It seems that one of my medications contains an anticoagulant. At that point, an emotionally intelligent doctor would have addressed me to manage my emotional experience of the surgery and reassure me. You probably know Dr. Jeff well enough by now to realize that this didn’t happen. In fact, after he closed the artery, he joked, “Now don’t go repeating anything you heard in here.” Naturally, I interpreted this comment to mean, “Hey, Right Shoulder and Side Neck, thanks for being such a good sport. Feel free to publish this experience as a non-example in your article on emotional intelligence in ALS News Today.” So here we are.

Apparently, a lot went right with the surgery. The results were exactly as hoped for. Still, imagine my surprise when I returned to my room to find my mother and husband smiling. They squeezed my hand, kissed my forehead, and told me how brave I was. “The surgeon stopped by and said that the procedure was a success!” my mom said.

It was then that I started to cry. The experience of being helpless to pain and violence dragged me back eleven years to the night I was nearly murdered. My PTSD symptoms flared to life; anxiety and depression crept in, first through nightmares, then into my waking life. I kept thinking about how different my mental state would be if Jeff had just spoken to me. I remembered how my would-be killer barely spoke to me, either. Why would he? I was meat to him, too.

How does the term “medical success” not take patient experience into account? Answer: when the success is being described by a doctor who shows zero emotional intelligence. No one deserves this treatment, especially not those made vulnerable by disease.

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