On Dismissive Doctors: Dorothy Zbornak Is My Hero

“You need counseling.”
“You should exercise more.”
“You’re a perfectionist.”
“Is someone abusing you?”
“It’s so funny how your legs shake! Why do they do that?”
“It’s all in your head.”

Sound familiar? Like something a doctor or nurse might have said that prevented you from getting a proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment? I bet you have. I know so many women who have had doctors dismiss them while blaming their symptoms on vague and baseless issues: stress, school, family, poor self-esteem, age. It seems to happen more often to women, especially younger women.

When I was 18, I had a doctor scold me because I stated that I had stomach issues but also pointed to my lower abdominal area. “I can’t help you,” he said. “If you don’t know where your problem is.” And he didn’t. I felt like what could have been a teaching moment turned into an excuse for him not to help. It was the beginning of my illness, and I didn’t know how to advocate for myself or how to even explain what was going on. I thought a doctor would work with me to understand what was happening to my body; instead, I was humiliated. Maybe I was mistaken to expect that a doctor is also an educator, someone who helps their patients learn more about their bodies and overall health but I don’t think I was wrong. (One day — years later — I was working at the public library when that very same doctor came to my desk to check out his items. I don’t think he remembered me and I felt so angry at that moment. Not enough to say anything to him but just enough to think to myself: “I HAVE LUPUS! LUPUS, YOU FOOL! AND RAYNAUD’S! AND FIBROMYALGIA! AND SIBO! AND…”)

What I wish I could have done is what Dorothy does in the Golden Girls clip below from a two-part episode called “Sick and Tired.” (The story is based on the experience of Susan Harris, one of the creators and writers of the show.) Dorothy has been suffering from severe, crippling fatigue for a while, going from doctor to doctor, trying to find one who will take her symptoms seriously. Eventually she finds a specialist who cares and listens and is even able to provide her with a diagnosis. At the end of the show, she has a run in with one of the more terrible specialists she’s seen; he had blamed her problems on her age and suggested changing her hair color to feel better about herself.

It’s a funny but moving moment. I know it’s something I wish I could have said. At this point in my life, I’m fortunate to have found a great primary care physician who’s referred me to excellent specialists. If you don’t have a diagnosis yet and have had bad experiences with nurses or doctors, please don’t give up. Take someone who can advocate for you to your appointments, ask friends or doctors you trust for recommendations. If you need to fire a doctor, something that’s so hard to do, write a letter explaining why you’re moving on or don’t (sometimes we don’t have the energy to confront a doctor in this way). It’s never easy! I’ve been fortunate that moving made the decision for me.

But now, if I had to do it, I think I would probably do three things to prepare me for this process: (1) request my records before I fired the doctor so I can see what they have said about my condition and me (that way I’ll know what info my new doctor will see), (2) write a calm and clear letter stating my reasons for letting them go and maybe send a copy to a director, and (3) explain to my new physician the reasons why I decided to find a new doctor and provide them with a written timeline of my symptoms and any treatment I may have had. Writing a letter (2) makes me anxious just thinking about it! So if I’m not brave enough or don’t even care to write a letter or give any kind of explanation when the time comes to say “Later, dude! Thanks for nothing!”, I think at least getting my records and having a conversation with my new physician would still be very helpful.


Short Fiction: Laundry by Maria Deira

I’ve convinced myself that if I do even one more load of laundry I’ll wither away, that my insides will dry up and turn to powder, that my skin will have the soft tackiness of dryer sheets, that I’ll shrink and flatten and smell like pancakes. Really. I know this will happen. I feel it in my gut. I dream it. I know it.

So the hamper overflows, clothing carpets the floors, layers of towels drape over the shower rod and I’m lying on the couch crying my eyes out because I don’t have any clean underwear left.

My mom calls, “I’ve been doing dozens of loads of laundry every week for over thirty years and I’m still here. You stop feeling sorry for yourself, get off the couch, and separate your lights from darks.”

“Well, I can do that much,” I say. “I just can’t stick them in the machine and start it.”

“Do you want me to go over there and do the laundry?”

I don’t say anything.

A couple of hours later she’s shoving towels into my washing machine. “You know this is disgusting, right?” she asks me as I hand her several gray wash cloths. They used to be white.

“I know.”

“And you know your fear is just in your head?”

“Where else would it be?”

“Don’t get smart with me,” she says. “I’m just trying to help.”

“Don’t treat me like a baby. I’m crazy, not dumb.”

She dumps a scoop of detergent in the wash and slams the lid shut. “You’re not crazy, you’re just — you’re just looking at the small things.” She smiles. “You’re over thinking the monotony of daily living. Washing dishes, brushing your teeth, doing the laundry — “

“Taking a crap.”

“Ugh. Don’t say that.”

We’re quiet for a moment.

“It’s only the laundry,” I try to explain. “Everything else, it doesn’t bother me.”

She chuckles, which is odd because my mother isn’t a chuckler. She crosses her arms, holding herself, and starts giggling.

“What?” I say.

“I feel like I’m being tickled. My skin feels all prickly.” She laughs now, gasping to speak. A single happy tear leaks from the outer corner of her left eye. And then it happens. She turns white, her skin becomes flaky, and before I know it my mother is a little mound of white powder on the floor. But the air smells like lavender soap, not pancakes.

I start to cry because it’s my mother. No one wants to see their mother transformed into dust, but there’s nothing I can do it about. How do I undo what’s been done? Oh God, I think, I’ll have to tell my father. And I know he won’t believe me, not until he comes over and sees it for himself, and when he does finally believe it he’ll blame me.

Then I have an even more horrible and selfish thought: it’s too bad she disintegrated so fast because I can’t really say, “I told you so,” can I?

I wipe away my tears, unplug the washing machine and the dryer. I sweep up what remains of my mother and pour her into a wine glass because it’s classier than a juice glass and if you know my mom, you know she’s classy. So I pour her into a wine glass which I place on the windowsill — this way she can see the sunset or at least feel the sunset or something. I get myself a bowl of dry cereal and eat it slowly, waiting for my father to call. I’ll have to figure out what to do about clothes and what to do without a mother.

I’m pouring myself another bowl of cereal when I hear my mother’s voice. I don’t know where it’s coming from, but it’s all around me and inside me and the vibration of her words gives me goosebumps. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself,” she says. “Get out there, go do something. Be something. At least pour some milk on your Cocoa Puffs for Pete’s sake.”

I’m smiling now. I’m thrilled. “I told you so, Mom,” I say as I get up to get some milk. “I told you so!”


laundryMaria Deira has lupus, fibromyalgia, sleep disorders, and a long, sad list of other chronic and invisible illnesses. Her fiction has been published in A cappella Zoo, Fiction Southeast, Word Riot, GigaNotoSaurus, and Strange Horizons. Maria is also one of the editors of And Then I Got Sick. You can find more of her work at Writing, Writing, Lupus Fighting

“Laundry” was originally published in Every Day Fiction (2011).

Poetry: Every Day is Good Friday by Michael Hanson

I watch as your body is pierced over and over.
You watch as I pierce your body over and over,
And over.
You manage your pain,
As best you can,
So others won’t know it,
But sometimes it’s overwhelming.
My son, my son,
why have I forsaken you?

Every day is Good Friday,
With its darkness and pain,
And every day we anticipate
The promised Sunday
When your body will be whole

This, my son,
I promise,
Your sacrifice, your blood,
Your pain,
Will have purpose.
Forty days, or years,
Or decades,
We do not know the hour,
but soon…

For now we wait,
And learn.
Because of your suffering we question,
We doubt.
Through your suffering we know
Struggle, we grow empathy.
Through your suffering we know


Michael profile picMichael Hanson is the parent of a 5-year-old son with Type 1 Diabetes who was diagnosed at 17 months and a 2-year-old daughter. He has Master’s degrees in both English and Library Science and currently works at a public library in the Pacific Northwest. Follow Michael on Twitter: @michaelhanson22