Why Is Your Pediatrician So Grumpy?

I was worried I had a brain tumor.  That afternoon at work, I began having double vision. I could correct it by tilting my head, but as the day went on I was talking with parents with my head cocked over more and more.  My Fourth Cranial Nerve was malfunctioning, a nerve that controls eye movement, and it was weakening by the hour. I needed an MRI and couldn’t get one where I worked at the time.

The next morning I called my internist to get seen, but the receptionist said, “Go see an eye doctor.”  ”You don’t understand,” I explained, “It’s a cranial nerve, not my eye, and I need to get seen.” She still stalled me until I pulled the “doctor” card, insisting I speak to my colleague.  She put me on hold, then came back on: “He said ‘go see an eye doctor.’” I hung up, not believing my ears.

Coincidentally I had a check-up scheduled that day with Dr. David Fisher, my optometrist. Fortunately, David knew exactly what was wrong. My vision was already recovering, and he explained that that nerve goes funky occasionally, especially in plumbers who bang their heads on the underside of sinks.  No worries about brain tumors, whew!  Then I found a new internist.

Why do doctors, supposedly caring professionals, sometimes act insensitive or downright grumpy?  It starts when applying to medical school.  You need good grades in a tough science curriculum to get in, and nerds don’t always learn people skills, being too busy learning study skills.  Then in medical school you are surrounded by other “medical nerds,” and don’t learn how to relate to non-scientists.

Then comes residency.  My father was a seminary professor, and once gave a workshop for hospital chaplains.  He told me of a priest who had observed that the hours are so long and punishing, the apprentice doctors in residency get the humanity “ironed out of them.” After graduating, some regain their hearts, some don’t.

All doctors get grumpy.  For me one time, it was a mom who kept interrupting. Her child had a headache, and I was explaining that I didn’t think she had a brain tumor, but needed a CT scan to be sure. But every sentence I started, before I could get to the CT part, mom cut me off with “that’s all stupid, I want a CT.” I finally snapped and shouted, “Shut up, quit interrupting, and I’ll tell you what you want to hear!”

Everyone, especially doctors, gets grumpy in “people” professions.  While most patients are nice and polite, some aren’t.  And doctors don’t always start life warm and fuzzy. As we discussed above, medical schools select for academic performers rather than kindly grannies with a twinkle in their eyes.  Then comes the rigors of residency, where long hours and crushing responsibilities turn the nicest guys into ogres.

After residency, the hours and the responsibilities don’t quit.  Fatigue is an occupational hazard, and one continues to have to make potentially life-and-death decisions all day. Doctors dread the patient coming back to the hospital, maybe dying, after making a judgement call that turned out wrong.  Dr. Richard Selzer explained this internal struggle best:

“Yet he may continue to pretend, at least, that there is nothing to fear, that death will not come, so long as people depend on his authority.  Later, after his patients have left, he may closet himself in his darkened office, sweating and afraid.”

So doctors sometimes get snappish, and may seem uncaring about your child’s suffering. Yet worry for patients caused the stress in your doctor in the first place.  So if your kid’s doctor seems grumpy, give him or her a break, a second chance to recover. If he continues to seem uncaring, get a new one.      

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