I don’t know if this story is appropriate for the blog as it is looking at medical prejudice from the opposite end of the spectrum but there were so many parallels with fat prejudice in the medical system – doctors making assumptions based on weight/appearance, doctors not listening to patients, not administering basic obvious tests that could have easily diagnosed the real health issue, this negligence leading to long-term problems due to incorrect/non-treatment – that I really want to share this story.
My colleague – I’ll call her Lee (not her real name) – is naturally petite, small and slender and has a natural, healthy weight that puts her just inside the underweight BMI category – she doesn’t diet or do anything silly, it’s just the way she was born. All her family are the same.
About two years ago she suddenly started suffering from severe stomach cramps that left her lying on the floor in agony. She found it difficult to eat and suffered from severe stomach reflux that led to her vomiting up nearly everything she swallowed. Not surprisingly she lost weight. After two weeks of this, she went to her local doctor for advice.
The doctor took one look at her, put her on the scale and asked her how long she had been anorexic for. In vain Lee tried to explain she wasn’t anorexic, she wasn’t deliberately avoiding food and throwing it up, she was suffering from severe abdominal cramps and there was something wrong. The next thing she knew, she knew she was leaving the doctor’s office with a referral to a psychiatrist. She didn’t make another appointment.
The next month Lee’s mother was in town and dragged her off to second doctor. By this stage Lee’s weight had dropped five kilos to about 37kg. The second doctor also started asking Lee questions about how long she had been anorexic. In vain Lee tried to explain that she wasn’t anorexic, these abdominal cramps had come on suddenly and were making it difficult to swallow food and she was throwing up whatever she ate and this was why she had lost weight. The doctor refused to believe that she could have become so skinny in just six weeks and when Lee’s mother tried to explain that Lee had always been tiny, that everyone in the family was tiny, the doctor accused her of enabling Lee’s anorexia and putting her own obvious insecurities about weight onto her daughter.
The next visit was to a Chinese herbalist who gave her herbs to be made up as tea. This was actually the first thing that helped. The Chinese herb tea soothed her stomach and made it possible to eat a little bit again – although she still threw up any time she consumed milk or meat or anything too fatty. Not surprisingly she stopped eating these products. Nonetheless she managed to stabilise her weight but she still suffered from cramps, threw up several times a week and knew there was something wrong.
Over the next 12 months she visited a gynaecologist who confirmed there were no cysts or anything in her reproductive system that looked at of place – and told her that her periods should return once she put on some weight. A dentist then told her off for her “bulimia”, saying the constant throwing up was destroying her teeth and he could see damage in the back of her throat. This scared her enough to see a third doctor who listened to her long enough to send her for tests for colon cancer and ulcers. These came back clear but with comments about how damaged her stomach and intestines were and urging the GP to address her “bulimia”. When the GP read this to her, Lee burst into tears.
“I’m not anorexic! I wish I could eat normally and not throw up. There is something wrong inside me!” she said.
The doctor sighed and said he would send her for some blood tests and see if they showed anything. Almost as an afterthought he added in tests of her urine and faeces.
A week later his secretary called Lee and said she had to come in for an appointment right now. By this stage Lee was convinced she had cancer and braced herself for the worst. Instead the GP was smiling and waving around her tests. It turned out that for the past 18 months Lee had been carrying around a rather persistent – but common – bacterial bug in her stomach that had made its way into her bowels and intestines and destroyed her natural stomach lining. The constant irritation from the stomach acids had started to literally eat away her insides and the damaged skin was vulnerable to infections. Somehow along the way Lee had also developed a lactose intolerance, adding to the problem. The best news – this could all be easily treated with common antibiotics.
No anorexia, no bulimia, just a simple untreated stomach bug and allergy. That after 18 months of non-treatment had led to permanent internal damaged of her gastronomic system. That could have been diagnosed during her first visit to a doctor if he had just ordered some simple blood tests.
I’m posting this because any kind of size prejudice that leads to inadequate medical care needs to be called out. vesta44