There was a time not so long ago when my experience with doctors was sporadic and rare. Once in an ever long while I'd make an appointment for a physical, slip into my paper robe and play Tetris on my cell-phone. I barely spoke a word, never asked questions or made friends. I did what the doctor told me to do. I was the perfect patient.
When I found out I was pregnant I was referred to a highly respected OB in a highly respected hospital by my primary "it's okay if you smoke while pregnant" care practitioner. I liked my Obstetrician immediately. He was young, attractive and funny with a firm handshake and what seemed like good bedside manner. I appreciated his confidence as he scraped at my cervix with long, sharp objects. He even offered goody bags full of pregnancy swag and free copies of E-parenting Magazine. He was charming. I was sold.
When my husband and I found out we were having a boy, my doctor asked if he could perform the circumcision in the hospital. We agreed and trusted he would do a fine job.
"You made the right choice," he said. "Circumcisions are my specialty. They call me The Circumcision Doctor. I am known all over Los Angeles for what I do. I promise your son's penis is going to look beautiful."
I should have known then it was a bad idea. I should have taken the check back and called a Mohel. It's kind of like believing a man you meet on the Internet who calls himself "tall and handsome" and doesn't have a photo to back it up. There is a 99.2% chance said man is actually a four-foot-tall troll with a comb-over. In this case my doctor was that troll, elongated of course, and neatly disguised in his white coat with stethoscope.
Archer was born healthy and beautiful but contrary to the impervious boasts and self-praise, the doctor did not remove enough of the foreskin. I knew it weeks later when Archer's penis healed and still did not look circumcised. I brought the point up with the pediatrician who dismissed my concern with a "he'll grow into it." A year later still nothing had changed. It took an emotional outburst and some angry words for her to concur, in her way.
"I guess one could say that yes, his circumcision could have been better," she said.
I was furious. For twelve months I had been ignored, brushed-off, smiled at and assured with pie charts and graphs.
"At least your son is healthy."
"Yes, I know, but..."
After snooping around the Internet and making a few phone calls, I found to my horror that mistakes were commonly made during routine circumcisions, often resulting in botched jobs or partial amputation of the penis.
"Doctors aren't properly trained to perform the procedure. They do not look at the child specifically, and it's quite common to see mistakes," a prominent Los Angeles Model explained to me over the phone.
We are at the mercy of our doctors. We trust them to do their job and educate us accordingly. We trust them to make the decisions we could be making ourselves if only we had access to all of the fine print.
The problem is that mistakes and malpractice cases seem to disappear. Lawsuits are neatly filed away, leaving patients in the dark and doctors safe of scrutiny, a fresh slate and plenty of room to mess up again. If only we were given pie charts for our pediatrician's performance history. If only doctor's offices were like Los Angeles restaurants, their grades prominently displayed in the windows in big blue-blocked letters. Forget Geisha House, a grade "A" pediatrician would be the newest hot-spot in town.
After the bout in the pediatrician's office, I brought Archer to see an urologist for her expert opinion, hoping she might be of help.
"He's fine," she said. "He has a healthy penis. Sure the doctor didn't take enough off but it's not the end of the world. I'll do the surgery. It's going to hurt and I don't think he needs it, but I'll do it if you want."
"Of course I don't want him to have surgery but I don't want him to have a half-assed circumcision either."
"Sounds like you are undecided. Come back when you make up your mind."
She left the room before I could argue or ask her to stay.
With constant and impressive advancement in medicine something terrible has happened: doctors seem to have advanced away from humanness and caring. Have they been desensitized to illness in such a way that health has become relative? Is a healthy patient a patient at all?
There is always a chance that medicine itself will have the opposite effect as suggested, evidenced when Archer was vaccinated for chicken pox and ended up speckled with blisters a week later.
Once again, my pediatrician slapped her face in surprise. "Are you sure they're pox? It's virtually impossible and unheard of..."
What she called "virtually impossible" ended up being completely untrue. I found it to be common for a child to develop the pox from the vaccine. I found no scientific studies to confirm this of course, only the apparently unwarranted evidence of fellow parents whose children had also contracted the virus through immunization.
"Finding a good doctor is like dating in high school," a fellow pissed-off and pregnant mama of one explained to me over the phone. "They will likely try and screw you every time." In two years, her daughter has gone through six pediatricians and she is on her fourth OB-GYN. "These days you have to pick your poison, plain and simple."
Unfortunately, as patients we come from a limited place of knowledge. We are not supposed to disagree. We cannot fight the "medical journals." We cannot argue with a doctor when they say "this never happens" even as we witness it happen to our child.
Maddening as it is, a doctor's ego often interferes with the truth. Assurance can be deceiving. There are always risks involved. Doctors regularly misdiagnose and make mistakes.
Our power then as patients comes from doing our homework, researching on the Internet, and communicating with fellow mothers and friends. By forming communities where we can articulate our problems and scenarios we are educating one another in ways a doctor seldom does. Doctors are wrong to think they are always right. It's bad business and it's making our children sick.