Physician, heal thyself

When a doctor breaks a patient’s trust

Illustration by Gabrielle Funk

One’s relationship to their family doctor is a weirdly personal one. On paper, it’s professional, with its own legal dynamics and bureaucracy. But it’s intimate. Your doctor knows more about your body than anyone else. Your life is sometimes literally in their hands. If you’ve had the same doctor since childhood, it can be one of life’s longest relationships. So when your doctor fails you, it’s more than a professional slight – it’s a deep betrayal.

I had the same doctor from birth throughout my entire childhood. He was like a family friend, my parents’ and siblings’ physician, my aunt’s, uncle’s and cousins’. He and my dad grew up together and were chummy. We often made trips to his office to examine my lousy tonsils and cure my recurring strep throat.

Early in my teenage years, I started manifesting the symptoms of what I would eventually learn was major depressive disorder. I white-knuckled it for years. I could deal with the emotional ailments that everyone thinks about when they hear “depression” – the darkness, despair and dysfunction. But left untreated, the less-discussed symptoms became unmanageable. My concentration and memory were so bad that school and work became impossible.

Aged 18, I finally sat in my doctor’s office and tearfully told him what was going on with me. “That sounds like depression,” he told me with what I still believe was genuine compassion. He’d known me since I was a baby. How could he not have been affected by it? “I’m going to send a referral for you to see a psychiatrist. But the wait is long, up to six months. If things get bad, go to the emergency room at HSC.”

Then the wait began. I was determined not to go to emergency. There were people with more urgent issues than me, I thought. But six months went by, and we heard nothing. “It’s just a long wait,” they said. “The referral has been faxed.”

But six months became a year, became 18 months, and still I waited, falling deeper into a cognitive hole. I asked to see my doctor, but he’d been away in a mysterious months-long absence. None of his patients could reach him.

Thankfully, on one of my toughest days, my mom went to his office in full “let me speak to the manager” mode. The receptionist pulled my file to demonstrate that my doctor had faxed my referral. But there was the referral form, paperclipped to the front of the folder, never sent. The next day I went to the ER and shortly wound up in PsycHealth at HSC, which saved my life.

A short while later, the news broke. My doctor’s license had been suspended. He’d abused his power as a doctor to fuel his own addiction to narcotics, sedatives, tranquilizers and hypnotic drugs. He’d been writing himself and others prescriptions for OxyContin.

As family and friends started talking, we learned that many people had the same story as me: waiting for referrals to specialized treatment that never came. One person had waited over a year to get tested for what the doctor suspected was cervical cancer.

I don’t begrudge anyone their issues with addiction. But the truth is, I trusted my life-long confidante in a moment of most desperate need, and he failed me. Not through abuse, but neglect. A fax. All he had to do was send that damn fax he kept insisting he’d sent.

I think back on all the reprimands I received from parents, teachers and bosses for school and work assignments I couldn’t complete because I was falling apart, waiting for help that wasn’t coming. And all he needed to do was send a fax.

I still think of that period as my lost year and a half. I had many important experiences in those 18 months. I started university, got my first real job, recorded my first album with my band, had my first real romantic relationships. I barely remember any of it. The period from my 18th birthday to when I received my first prescription for antidepressants is a haze, life milestones that I try and fail to locate in the shadowy parts of my memory.

I just needed him to send a fax. He kept insisting he’d sent it. It would’ve taken 45 seconds for him to check if he had. I’d trusted him implicitly since infancy. It still hurts to think about. The thing I remember best about that foggy period might be the hurt I felt when I learned that I’d been falling apart because he couldn’t be bothered to send that fax.

Less than a year later, I read in the newspaper that his license had been reinstated. It felt unconscionable that someone who so recently had harmed so many people was back in his position. People should know that he’s not safe, I thought. I went to RateMDs. com and left a negative review of my experience. But I soon received an email letting me know that my review had been removed. People could complain about long wait times or rude receptionists, but not malpractice.

My last interaction with him was several years later. I had a terrible ear infection and no family doctor. I needed a prescription badly and heard through the grapevine that if old patients went to his new walk-in, he could see you quickly. When he saw me, he had a look of deep gratitude and relief on his face. We didn’t talk about what happened, but I’m sure he talked about it with some of his old patients who returned (if his RateMD is to be believed, many did).

But with the unspoken look, he seemed to convey to me that he was grateful that I had forgiven him, that I trusted him with my care again. But it was that wordless ex-change that made me realize that I didn’t forgive him, and I’d never be able to trust him with my care again. I left with my prescription for ear drops, never to return.

I have a family doctor now. I like her a lot. She’s on the other side of town. It’s a pain in the arse to bus there. I inevitably lose at least halfadayeverytimeIgotoseeher.But I still make that trek, because I trust her. And that trust doesn’t come easy.

Thomas Pashko is the managing editor of The Uniter. He’s 34 years old and was just recently diagnosed with ADHD.

Published in Volume 78, Number 20 of The Uniter (March 7, 2024)

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