Many of us are conditioned not to question medical professionals. However, I believe that feeling empowered to ask for a second opinion, about other options, or in depth questions about the process of procedures is part of the solution to a much bigger problem. Many of us carry around the burden of fear, and often it is fear of the unknown.
I am retelling this story with the permission of my seven year old son.
Recently, my son had a few symptoms that needed further investigation and he was scheduled to have a blood test. Medical procedures can be scary for anyone, so I made sure to spend lots of time in the lead up answering his questions and talking him through the process. He has high anxiety in new situations and unfamiliar environments, but the day of the test he seemed relaxed.
We went to the hospital and entered the room where they were going to do the test. We sat on the chair together. He put his arm out like we had talked about and let them put the strap around to make it easier to find his vein. As the nurse got the needle ready, panic set in. He pulled his arm away. Bravely, he put his arm out again, but quickly changed his mind. It was clear he was becoming more and more anxious.
The nurse said to me, I am going to have to get you to hold him down. I said ‘I’m sorry I am not comfortable doing that. Can we just wait a moment and see if he is able to go through with the test?’ They agreed, but I could sense their impatience. I could see we were becoming an inconvenience and it was more important for them to move on to the next patient than to do this respectfully.
The nurse returned with a second colleague and I could see the fear in my son’s eyes. I reassured him ‘it is your body and your choice and no one is going to touch your body unless you allow them to.’ He started to cry. ‘I really want to get the test done so they can make sure I am not really sick, but I am scared it is going to hurt.’ I empathised and said, ‘would you like me to ask the Doctor what our options are and come back another day?’ I saw relief flood his face.
The nurse was upset. ‘He needs to have this test.’ I was feeling the pressure too, and in the past I know I have allowed high stress situations to dictate my parenting in a way I am not comfortable with. The thing is, very rarely are these kinds of situations life or death and giving yourself a bit of space can give so much clarity. I said, ‘his Doctor said that this test needs to be done in the next week, not today, and he is not comfortable having it done today so I will reschedule.’ She dug her heels in. ‘You have paid for the test and it has to be done today.’
‘I am going to go speak with the receptionist to see what we can work out, but if it means losing the cost of the test, that is what I am going to have to do.’ Unsurprisingly, the receptionist was happy to reschedule our appointment with a note that it was already paid for.
But what to do now? Would the same problem occur the next time?
In the car, my son said, ‘I’m so sorry I couldn’t do it mum, I feel really bad.’ I made sure to let him know how proud of himself he should be for going into the room and how he had done every single step except the needle and he would know exactly what to expect next time. I also said that I could see how important it was for him that it doesn’t hurt and that I was going to call the Doctor and discuss what our options were.
I called the paediatrician to relay the story and ask if there was an option of sedation to deal with my son’s extreme anxiety, or if there was some kind of anaesthetic to remove the pain. Our Doctor was incredibly understanding and low and behold, there is some magic cream to be applied half an hour before the test that numbs the entire area. I am going to leave out a discussion on why it is that medical professionals wouldn’t give this option to all children, or all people needing needles?!
My husband and I talked to our son and he was keen to try again. I realised that my own anxiety with the nurses could also be a problem, so we chose a time where my husband was able to come too. A support person for the support person!
So in we all went, my son with the cream on his arm, and an intense understanding that everything done to his body was going to be on his terms. He pinched his arm to check that he couldn’t feel anything and gave us a big smile. He put his arm out for the nurse and watched the needle go in. No tears, no fear, but a lot of validation that his feelings were real and important. And, he was found to be healthy and fine!
So why does this matter? Is it just a story with a happy ending or is there a bigger picture?
I know there are going to be some people who think that we wasted the time of the nurses, but our story has me thinking about medical advocacy at a deeper level. I want to know how many adults have an intrinsic mistrust of medical professionals because of their experiences as children? How many adults delay investigating poor health until it is very serious because of this fear? How does this issue then contribute to increased medical costs because of easily treatable conditions turning into serious problems? If these adults were instead filled with trust that their feelings and fears would be validated and taken into account, would they seek help earlier? Perhaps rather than ‘wasting time’ making sure children are respected and comfortable during medical procedures, it is a big investment in reducing time in the long run.