Warning: Doctors Can Be Bullies, Too

A few years ago my GP suggested I see a rheumatologist because I had some arthritis. I followed his advice.

The rheumatologist’s office had me get a bone scan and when I saw her afterwards, she said the scan showed serious osteoarthritis and that I needed to get on medication immediately. She handed me detailed brochures and told me to choose between two drugs before my follow-up visit. And she urged me to start taking mammoth amounts of a Calcium supplement. Right away.

When I got home and read the potential side effects of the two drugs, I was horrified. One of them could cause jaw necrosis, and the other had a very serious cancer risk. I did research on reputable medical web sites, and was not happy with the percentages. And the one that caused cancer could only safely be taken for three years. I wondered: what if you got cancer after two and a half years on this drug? Did Cancer have some kind of secret calendar?

It seemed crazy to me to play Russian Roulette like that.

On my return visit, the rheumatologist was outraged when I said I didn’t want to risk taking either drug. Her face grew cold and angry, and she hectored me when I talked about cancer risks. “They’re minor! Do you want to get out of bed one morning and break a leg?”

I don’t remember everything she said in her tirade because I was so shocked. I’d never been spoken to like that by a doctor before. Her attitude was utterly contemptuous and she acted as if I were a moron. I told her that I was not illiterate, and not opposed to medications per se, but that I’d read the brochures closely, weighed my chances, and just wasn’t ready to endanger my health with such dire possible side effects.

Her answer? “If you change your mind, you know here to find me!” And she stormed out of the office. That is not hyperbole.

When her physician’s assistant came back to find out which drug I needed a prescription for, I said I wasn’t getting any prescription, and explained why. Very softly she said, “I wouldn’t take either one myself.”

I went to another rheumatologist who a friend had recommended, and the experience couldn’t have been more different. She said my bone scan was crap. Anything but dictatorial, she first took the most thorough medical history I had ever had, spending a good hour interviewing me before we talked about the scan. In her opinion, it clearly hadn’t been done by the right, well-qualified person and she showed me its flaws, point-by-point. Was I in danger of getting out of bed and breaking a leg? No way. Did I need massive daily doses of Calcium? She laughed.

I left feeling heard and relieved, and I also gave the first rheumatologist bad reviews on line.

After posting this blog yesterday, I learned that a friend’s mother had followed a doctor’s orders, and the huge amounts of Calcium she took were later diagnosed as the cause of the stroke she had that forced her to abandon a flourishing career.

Lev Raphael is the author of the historical novel Rosedale in Love, which upends Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

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