It started with a persistent stomach cramp after Labor Day weekend. I thought I’d eaten something a bit off, or maybe had a mild stomach bug and just needed to drink water and rest up. After a week of persistent and increasing pain, I had to admit that maybe a stomach bug or bad soup wasn’t the culprit.
Something in my lower right abdomen hurt so much, I could feel it with every step. I was running a low grade fever and I was consistently nauseous. The pain crescendoed to the point I finally deemed it necessary to seek medical help. Of course, the pain became most unbearable at about 9 p.m. Out of uncertainty over what ailed me and fear that due to the ever-increasing pain, I would die in my sleep if I ignored it another night, I went to the emergency room.
It’s necessary to note this decision was particularly fraught because I live in Forks, Washington. In the fictional series set here, “Twilight”, medical care is expertly administered by a vampire named Dr. Carlisle. He has centuries of medical experience, is immune to the lure of human blood and is very empathetic and professional towards his patients. I have rarely experienced this to be the case at the local hospital and nearby clinic and loathe going in since moving here.
The front desk staff do not acknowledge you if you didn’t go to high school with them, pointedly ignoring your hellos to continue banal conversation about a niece’s prom dress or a son’s haircut. I’d heard stories of friends going to the ER and hearing doctors prescribe antibiotics to everyone regardless of their complaint, and patients being victims of the staff’s lack of knowledge and unwillingness to do more than the bare minimum.
My first visit seemed OK. A kind ER doctor came in but did nothing but palpate my stomach. She said it was likely I had a burst ovarian cyst. I’d had one on the same side two years prior and I agreed that seemed likely. Given their ER doesn’t keep an ultrasound technician around after clinic hours, she recommended I call and schedule one immediately the next morning. She prescribed no pain pills and explored no other options except a pregnancy test and blood work. All tests came back normal.
Before being allowed to be seen for my follow-up three days later, I had to make the front desk assistants stop purposely ignoring me to check in for my appointment. Standing right in front of them in an empty waiting room and politely saying, “Hello” three times, one finally asked how they could help me. Her tone and demeanor made it clear I’d been rude to interrupt a conversation about their fall plans.
The ultrasound showed a 2.5 centimeter cyst on my right ovary, but it had not burst. The clinic doctor dismissed the idea of my pain being OB-GYN related. After another round of pregnancy tests, blood work and palpations, with literal leg-pulling added in (the pain had begun to shoot down my right leg,) the clinic doctor concluded I likely had colitis or was slowly developing appendicitis. They recommended scheduling a CT scan as soon as possible to make sure. This doctor also prescribed nothing, despite the pain being just as intense or worse and keeping me from work.
So I contacted my insurance to be allowed to schedule a CT scan. I looked up colitis-friendly foods and ate them in all their paltry blandness. I practiced walking like my right side didn’t feel as if it were carrying a bomb about to explode. I went back to work. The pain continued on without getting better.
A week later and still no word from insurance about a CT scan, the pain became more severe — as did the fevers. I stopped going to work again. Convinced I was going to die, I returned to the ER on a Sunday night.
Going back was not an easy decision, even though I was in pain and feared the state of my well-being . I’d always been self-conscious about asking for medical help and wasn’t totally sure the pain I was feeling merited an ER visit. I kept asking myself, “Is this really worth a trip to the ER? It just hurts. It hurts a lot but I’m not actively dying.”
When my boyfriend pointed out that anyone too afraid to go to sleep due to pain probably needs medical help, I stopped wavering. I was in a lot of pain and had been for more than two weeks with no answers. I deserved peace of mind and more, even if I was afraid of not being taken seriously.
The front desk person, who had also previously ignored me, snapped to attention this time. I think it had less to do with me being in pain and more to do with the fact my boyfriend was there with me. Now I was two people asking for attention and one was a male over 6 feet tall.
A different ER doctor ordered another pregnancy test and blood work. But this one listened to my symptoms and agreed it was time to find answers. He ordered a CT scan as soon as they could prep me, saying we could sort it out with insurance later.
Right away, something was wrong. The IV in my arm to draw blood and push CT contrast fluid was hurting three hours later. Like, hurting. Shoots of lightning rod pain went up and down my arm, made worse if I did anything but keep it perfectly still. Every nurse and doctor told me there was nothing wrong with the IV insertion and it would be out soon. Three hours is a long time to try to quietly put up with a pain nobody believes you’re experiencing. At times, it was impossible to be quiet about it.
Finally, the CT tech came for the scan that could actually tell me what was behind the pain that drove me to the ER in the first place. It was one in the morning. I was haggard from the pain in my abdomen, the lightning strike pains of the IV and crying from both. Just before starting the scan, the tech told me to put my arms above my head.
Tentatively, I tried to lift up the arm with the IV inserted into it. The effort was excruciating and caused me to yell in pain. It felt like being stabbed and I said so.
Crying with pain, I asked the tech if there was anything else I could do with my arms for the scan. He was expressionless as he responded, voice dripping with disdain and condescension, “I can’t treat you if you won’t do this. Are you telling me your arm hurts more than your stomach? This is an emergency room — for emergencies. If your arm hurts more than your stomach, maybe you don’t need to be here. The door’s right over there.”
He went on to mock and belittle my pain and the legitimacy of my need for emergency services. Only the first four sentences are a direct quote. The rest is paraphrased because I only half-heard the rest of his tirade while crying from sheer stress and pain after he began. I couldn’t believe I was being treated like a misbehaving child for not being able to move my arm due to the red hot pain from the IV they put in me. I came here because I was sick and scared and my fear of not being taken seriously at the hospital had quite literally come true right in front of me.
“Did I ask to leave?” I managed through teeth gritted from pain and anger.
There was silence.
Then he told me to move my arms in a different way to get them clear of my abdomen for the scan. It was still excruciating but more bearable than the first way.
The scans showed a lemon-sized cyst 7 centimeters wide on my right ovary. I was referred to a specialist in the nearby city of Port Angeles to be evaluated for surgery as soon as possible. I didn’t go to work at all that week. Terrified about the possibility of surgery, my mother came out from Wisconsin to go with me. Even amid the chaos of fear and pain as I waited for that next appointment, I couldn’t help but feel vindicated that someone with a lemon-sized cyst absolutely should be in the ER — and that cruel CT tech could eat his words.
For a long time afterwards, I wondered if I really needed to go to the ER that night. It took friends (who live elsewhere) responding to the story in horror for me to realize how inappropriately I was treated. I spent almost equal time wondering if that tech was right about the validity of my going to the ER. Then I look at the two types of medication I’m now taking to prevent further cysts and realize it was more important I found answers sooner rather than later. I will choose my medical care over his feelings every time.