How to Take the High Road (When Your Doctor is Mean)

Lisa Copen, who lives with rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia,* is founder and director of How to Take the High Road (When Your Doctor Is Mean)

It can be hard to take the high road when it comes to physicians who feel they are in control of your treatment and what you are allowed (or not allowed) to do.

WEGO Health [which has made November National Health Blog Post Month] asks for their daily writing challenge “write about a time you had to take the high road.” Day #6.

I was young, 27, and had only had rheumatoid arthritis for a few years. I was learning to navigate the world of medical care, insurance premiums, nursing politics, and doctors who (felt they) had power.

According to the Urban Dictionary, the “’taking the high road’ expression refers to one being a ‘class act’ during a very difficult time. Those who take the high road are demonstrating being honest, fair, and selfless while not being completely defenseless.

I had waited a decent amount of time to see one of the best rheumatologists in the San Diego County area. In fact, when I was first diagnosed I had consulted him, paying him over $200 outright just to offer his opinion on the recommended treatment style my current rheumatologist advised me to take. My rheumatologist was covered by insurance. He was not. My rheumatologist didn’t seem confident in his advice. I wanted the best.

Was I to go on multiple medications to try to get it into remission, despite the side effects? Or take one at a time? The theories, medically speaking, were changing.

A few years later, I was able to start seeing this affluent rheumatologist on a regular basis. And after a year or so, I came to him with my plan to attempt to have a family and try to get pregnant. He wasn’t enthused, but said, “Don’t wait until you get better. You will never get better. If you want a baby, you need to get pregnant as soon as possible.”

So I spent nearly a year off of my medications. . .

Flaring, asking questions, getting my knees drained, frustrated. And then online, buried in the middle of a tiny little newsgroup, I read what I had not read on any of the credible health web sites – that prednisone can stop ovulation. I picked up the phone and called him to see if this was true. He wasn’t in. His partner was. “Yes, of course it can affect it,” he said. He was surprised that the doctor had not mentioned this to me at all. (That man would regret that conversation.)

I liked this doctor. His personality was abrasive sometimes, but I valued his medical expertise. He knew what he was doing – until now. Despite my questions about prednisone having an effect, he didn’t think it important enough to tell me. I had wasted months of pain. I was mad. He had filtered out valuable information on a whim. Simple lab tests could have easily avoided this situation.

So at the next appointment I tried to take the high road. I asked him why he had not mentioned this risk that his colleague had confirmed was a well-known risk among doctors. And he said, “You were on such a low dose, I didn’t think it would matter.”

“But I asked you specifically about this,” I said. “I trusted that you would give me all the information. You knew I had started infertility medications and you still didn’t tell me this. The infertility specialist would have liked to have known this too.”

He didn’t care.

He even refused to drain my knees even though they were three times the normal size, full of fluid. He was mad he’d been called out on something by a patient. And even though I had to hold onto the walls in the hallway just to walk, he told me my knees were fine today.

Frank Addante of says, “It can be hard not to get emotional in these cases. The feeling of being ‘wronged’ is one of the hardest to overcome. It feels personal. Wars are started over differences in opinion or beliefs. In these situations, I urge you to always, always, always take the high road. . . . Moving forward and achieving results is always going to be more important than being right” (“Leadership Strategy: Always Take the High Road”).

I left the exam room to go to the window and pay, fuming that it was just a joke to him. The planning, my dreams, the months of being told they thought I was pregnant, but had had a miscarriage – or maybe not – they just couldn’t tell. Those sticks that have a tiny little pale plus sign and then nothing the next day.

And then I heard him. . .

I heard him laughing about it all, joking around the corner from the front window, with the nurse – about me.

He walked around the corner. . . and saw me. . .

“Doctor,” I said, with my voice shaking, yet sturdy. “I like you, and I think you like me. You can joke around with me and I accept it. But there is a line between what is acceptable between a patient and a doctor – and YOU. . . JUST. . .CROSSED IT.”

What?” he pretended not to know what I was talking about, but I could see the guilt in his eyes.

I tried to take the high road, choosing my words carefully and slowly. “I specifically ask you about the effects of a medication and you didn’t tell me. I come to you for help, and you won’t help me. And now I stand here and hear you making fun of me with your staff. I don’t appreciate it and I have lost my respect for you. This will be my last visit.”

He turned and walked away. The receptionist smiled at me and whispered, “good for you!”

That was nearly 15 years ago and as I write this, I question if I am embellishing the words to make it sound good. But I’m not. It was one of those few times in my life, that, when put on the spot, I actually said exactly what I wanted to say instead of sitting in my car later and thinking of what I wished I had said. I said it – I looked him in the eye and said it. And the sinful part of me will confess that it gave me a bit of pleasure to do it in front of his staff.

All of us have made mistakes.

We have laughed when we shouldn’t. We have gossiped when we knew we could hurt someone with our words. We have made an error, but refused to admit it.

Physicians are not any different. However, they do make an extreme difference in our lives when they do it – They alter our lives. We at least deserve their respect. We should be able to expect they will not laugh about our pain – especially when we are standing there paying them three feet away.

I tried to take the high road. I was respectful. I communicated. I was blunt. I didn’t yell or cry or say he was a big meanie.

And although it didn’t really change anything for me, my hope is that it made him think twice. I had shared with him my faith. He had even asked me how it influenced how I coped with my illness. I felt it vital that while telling him my feelings about his actions, I spoke as if Jesus was standing next to me and that I would not regret my words later.

I was not trying to be cross or demeaning, but allow him to think about the next time he decided to laugh at a patient. I hope he remembered his words stung someone once before. And perhaps he won’t say them this time.

So what is exactly does it mean to take the high road?

I read a few articles online about what it means to “take the high road” and these are some of the overall themes:

• When we take the high road it means acting with integrity, even when you feel like blowing up.

• It means that we do not use their wrong-doing as an opportunity to “get even” or act the same way.

• It means being respectful, even when you feel like there is nothing there to respect.

• Taking the high road means we set limits about how we will and will not be treated, and state them clearly.

• It means taking care of yourself, and then deciding how you will make changes if the other person continues to be disrespectful.

• When we take the high road it means we respond – to our own limits we have set in advance, rather than react to a person’s actions.

This way we don’t have what psychiatrist Lisa Merlo-Booth describes as “reactivity hangover” where we say something we regret because we responded in anger. When we take the high road we are more concerned about keeping ourselves in healthy relationships than we are about seeking revenge for the wrong-doing someone has inflicted on us. We avoid the squabbles and communicate as grown ups, not as a bunch of grade-schoolers.

Psalm 15:1-4 is a good description of what it means to take the high road.

By taking the high road, we can protect our hearts, yet, still speak the truth – without slander. Without speaking poorly about someone, without being vile. May we all take the high road in our relationships – especially with those in the medical field….

Have you ever had a doctor say something that really hurt? How did you respond?….


Related article: “How Do I Get Doctors to Listen and Stop Passing Me to Another Doctor?”

* Lisa Copen lives in San Diego with her husband and son. She is gradually learning how to balance motherhood, family, illness, and ministry, but she still knows it will be a lifetime lesson. You can see the books she has written, including
Why Can’t I Make People Understand? Discovering the Validation Those with Chronic Illness Seek and Why, at the Rest Ministries Shop.

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