Confronting Stigma in the Doctor's Office

Robin Cunningham Health Guide
  • The perspectives on schizophrenia I can provide are not those of a psychiatrist, psychologist or licensed clinical social worker, but rather a consumer and family member. I have walked the walk on both sides of the street. As such, I can speak with experiential authority. It is my objective to share with you, as best I can, what my experience with schizophrenia has been like on a day to day basis, i.e., to compare notes with you. I will also make observations about being a family member and advocate based on my own experience. Any observations or comments you choose to make in return will be of great value.
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    In my last two submissions I began a short series of blogs portraying the reactions of others to the sudden appearance of the strange ideation and odd behaviors which were to become the hallmarks of my schizophrenia. With this blog I continue the series, but with an interesting twist. I jump ahead in time from 1956 to the year2000. At this time I had been in recovery for many years, largely due to efficacious medications and appropriate therapy. Our family had just moved.

    I must emphasize that the following is a dramatization of my own experience and that all names have been changed. It reflects the experience of many consumers.

    * * *

    “Dr. Raddison’s office. Please hold.”

    Before I could respond, the last refrains of Lisa’s famous rendition of New York, New York assaulted me. I turned the volume down, put the phone into “speaker mode” and continued to unpack office supplies. I had decided to convert our fourth bedroom into an office where I would finish my memoir. Just as I had figured out where to put my inventory of paper and printer cartridges, the music stopped.

    “Dr. Raddison’s office, may I help you?”

    “Yes,” I called out from across the room. “My name is Robin Cunningham. I’d like to make arrangements to interview Dr. Raddison.”

    Navigating through a maze of unopened boxes, I picked up the receiver.

    “You want to interview the doctor?”

    “Yes.”

    “I see. What newspaper do you represent?”

    “I don’t represent a newspaper.”

    “A radio station?” The receptionist’s voice betrayed more interest.

    “No.”

    “A television station?”

    I thought I could hear her applying a fresh layer of lipstick.

    “No.”

    “Who are you then?”

    “I’m –

    “Oh my . . . , , you don’t work for Oprah do you?”

    “I’m a patient.”

    The silence was complete.

    “Do you mean to tell me you’re a consumer?” Her voice was now incredulous, as if I’d made an indecent proposal.

    “I prefer to think of myself as a patient.”

    “The doctor doesn’t interview consumers,” she reprimanded. “You’ll have to make an appointment. He doesn’t have an opening until the first of next month. You can’t wait until the last minute, you know. Dr. Raddison is a very busy man. And he does NOT accept Medicare or Medicaid.”

    I made four appointments that afternoon. None of the psychiatrists granted an interview, at least not to me.

  • I also made appointments to see two general practitioners.

    I was ushered into Dr. Manchester’s Office and settled into one of the black leather chairs. We exchanged pleasantries.

    “You’ve indicated on our questionnaire that you are a retired corporate executive.”

    “Yes.”

    “I see you were an investment banker as well.”

    “That is correct.”

    “Tell me, is there anything you haven’t done?”

    “I beg your pardon.”

    “You’ve indicated that you have schizophrenia.”

    “Yes.”

    “Which is it? Do you have schizophrenia or are you a retired investment banker?”

    “What do you mean?”
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    “Do you take me for a fool? If you’re some sort of investigative reporter you’ve come to the wrong place.”

    I got up and left.

    Dr. Manchester had the audacity to bill me for the full hour.

    My conversation with Dr. Henderson lasted about ten minutes. I left when he explained that I had obviously been misdiagnosed, that I was too articulate to have schizophrenia. He too charged me for the full hour.

    Dr. Lacey was more accommodating, or perhaps I should say patronizing. He explained that he understood how consumers sometimes tend to exaggerate. It was a natural thing to do. After all, we’d all had so many disappointments in life. He gave me a video tape on depression, saying that there was a place open in his Monday morning group therapy session. He ushered me out the door, indicating that he would apply half of his charge for this meeting against my first meeting with the group.

    I felt like the victim of a “bait and switch” con job.

    My appointment the next afternoon was with Dr. Spiro. I tried to shake off the discouragement lingering from the day before. At least this time I had a physical condition to discuss.

    My cell phone rang just as he entered the examination room. I had forgotten to set it to vibrate only.

    He shook my hand and sat down on his swivel stool.

    “You’re taking a lot of medications.”

    “I have a lot of health problems.”

    He motioned for me to sit on the examination table.

    “Take a deep breath and hold it . . . . . . . exhale.”

    “Well, your lungs are clear.”

    The doctor poked and prodded, then finally returned to his stool.

    “What brings you here today?”

    “To begin with, we’ve just moved to this area and I need a primary physician.”

    “We can certainly take care of that,” he replied. “Is there anything else?”

    “I think I’ve come down with bronchitis again. I suspect it’s related to the fact I was a scuba diver for many years. In any event, I seem to get it often. The coughing makes my rib muscles so sore I can’t sleep. My previous doctor usually prescribed a cough syrup with codeine. It’s the only kind that works.”

    He stuck a tongue depressor in my mouth and examined my throat, pulling it out when I began to gag.

    “There are no signs of infection.”

    “Is there something you can prescribe?”

    “It’s probably a virus. I’m reluctant to give you an antibiotic. You are dehydrated, however, and should be drinking more fluids.”

  • “How can you tell?”
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    “Your mouth is dry.”

    “Oh. That’s a side effect of one of my medications.”

    “I like the fact that you have your list of medicines and chronic illnesses all typed up. It makes it easier for both of us.”

    “I’ve found it always helps, especially in the emergency room.”

    Dr. Spiro frowned at me over his glasses.

    “You’re look far too healthy to be on so many medications. By the same token, according to your list you have an unusual number of chronic illnesses. Have you seen specialists about all these conditions?”

    “Yes.”

    He looked over my list of medications again.

    “I recognize all your meds except for the first four. Why do you have these highlighted? Wait, I see your footnote indicates these medications are essential to your mental and emotional stability and ‘must be administered on schedule’. What does that mean?”

    “I have schizophrenia. I require these medications to maintain normal mental and emotional functionality.”

    Dr. Spiro looked at me as if I just disembarked from a spaceship.

    “I see.”

    “Well, I won’t be prescribing anything for your sore throat today. We’ll have to see how it develops.”

    “When do you want to see me again?”

    “See my receptionist as you leave.”

    Doctor Spiro turned on his heels and left the room.

    I stopped at the appointment desk on my way out.

    “When does the doctor want to see me again?’

    “Dr. Spiro won’t be seeing you again,” she replied. “There’ll be no charge for your visit today.”

    * * *

    My challenge to the reader is to examine the above and to identify a single underlying reason why all of these highly trained physicians reacted to me as they did.

    You will now find among the comments to my previous blog my own thoughts about why Uncle Marvin reacted to the onset of my schizophrenia as he did.

    My next blog will dramatize the very different responses I received from other physicians, most especially an outstanding psychiatrist.

    I urge you to continue reading this mini-series and to post your responses to the questions raised in the comments section of each. It’ll be interesting to see if we all arrive at the same or similar conclusions.


Published On: February 01, 2007