First Do No Harm or That Time The Golden Girls Saved My Life

Photo by Ani Kolleshi on Unsplash

Some kids were raised on Sesame Street. Others Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

I, on the other hand, was raised on The Golden Girls. Dorothy, Blanche, Sophia and Rose were as familiar to me as a kid as Elmo and Big Bird were to well, the normal kids.

Now, many people would argue The Golden Girls is not suitable television for children. And I might be tempted to agree with them — had an episode of The Golden Girls not saved my life.

***

It was fall 2015.

I had been to more doctors’ appointments in the past three months than I had in the past 28 years of my life. I’d been poked and podded, examined and swabbed, and still I had no answers.

I had no answers for this searing pain that seemed to start somewhere in the vicinity of my pelvis and travel the length of my right leg and into my low back. Sometimes the pain was pinching and stinging and burning, like I was being stabbed by thousands of fiery needles. Other times, it was dull and throbbing and monotonous, but bearable. But it was always there.

The pain had seemed to come out of nowhere one day. There was no accident or injury to explain it and all of the tests seemed to indicate that there was no illness to blame. On paper, I looked fine and in person I looked fine too.

But I wasn’t. I definitely wasn’t. The pain was so bad I couldn’t sit for more than 15 minutes at a time. I couldn’t work out, which I’d loved to do and I couldn’t concentrate at work, because the pain was so intense I had to keep getting up from my desk and walking around every 15 minutes.

My boss had generously agreed to let me work from home and while I did my work as best as I could, I decided to devote myself to figuring this out.

I saw myself as the sort of person who figured things out. I liked to solve my own problems. I was aggressive, a go-getter. I was bright and capable and confident that I could solve this — this pain thing.

And I thought I’d finally found the doctor who could help. My primary care doctor had sent me to an ob-gyn and on my very first visit with her, my new ob-gyn had listened to my symptoms and assured me that she would solve this thing. “We’re going throw the book at this,” she told me and I believed her.

That very day she gave me an ultrasound where she discovered an ovarian cyst. “Ah ha! Problem solved,” I thought.

I was wrong.

My new doctor told me I had a cyst alright, but she didn’t believe it was big enough to warrant removal. She assured me it would, like most cysts, go away on its own. She sent me home with a pamphlet on cysts and told me to call back if the pain didn’t subside. It didn’t. It only seemed to get worse.

So I went back to the doctor, as I had been instructed to do. And, ever the good student, I came prepared. I brought a detailed list of everything my other doctors and I had tried before — all the tests and the medications. I also brought my husband along because I wanted someone else there to let me know if I missed anything. I wanted to cover my bases. I wanted to “throw the book at this.” I was ready to do whatever it took — surgery, physical therapy, medication, you name it. I was prepared.

What I was not prepared for — was for my doctor to tell me it was all in my head.

As I sat there on that hard exam table, shivering in that stupid, thin, patient gown, my doctor who I’d seen only once before, said, “Sometimes when my brother is stressed, he starts to not feel well.”

I was silent. “Why the hell was she talking about her brother?” I wondered, but I said nothing.

I just sat there. I sat there as she stopped speaking to me and turned to my husband, addressing him as though I wasn’t in the room, or as though I was a child who wouldn’t understand.

“Are stressful things going on in your life right now?” she asked him.

He answered, saying something noncommittal about how he’d be graduating soon and we’d move and we’d have to look for new jobs.

I moved all the time. I got new jobs all the time. Neither of these things were stressful for me. What was stressful for me was this pain, this ridiculous, soul-crushing pain. Looking back, I wish I’d screamed those things at her. But at the time I don’t know if I even thought them. What I do know for certain is that I didn’t say them.

I didn’t say anything. I just sat there silent and broken, far more broken than when I’d come in that day.

Because she had broken my will to fight. I’d been running on fumes for weeks now. It was hard enough forcing myself to get up each day and just keep myself alive. To not give in to the pain and give up. What had been keeping me going was the hope that I could solve this. That I could fix it. That I would feel better one day.

And she took that away from me. She took away my hope. Because if what she said was right and I was creating this pain, this incredible pain with my mind, I didn’t think there was any way I could stop it. It would go on forever.

I couldn’t do this forever. I just couldn’t. It was too much.

I was going to give up.

***

And that’s where The Golden Girls comes in.

Thanks to my childhood obsession with The Golden Girls, I have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the show’s episodes, so the day after that terrible doctor’s appointment, I knew which episodes I needed to watch.

I needed to watch “Sick and Tired: Part 1” and “Sick and Tired: Part 2.”

In case you’re not familiar, in these two episodes of the show, Dorothy Zbornak, the show’s most no-nonsense, sensible character gets sick. She gets very sick. And just like me, bright, capable, confident Dorothy is told that it’s all in her head.

It wasn’t. She had chronic fatigue syndrome, but it takes her multiple doctors to get to that diagnosis.

In “Sick and Tired: Part 2” Dorothy confronts the horrible doctor who told her it was all in her head. The doctor who treated her like a child, a fool. When Dorothy sees this doctor at a fancy restaurant, she strides over to him and lays into him in classic Dorothy-style in a roughly three-minute speech that is equal parts articulate and scathing.

Watching Dorothy give that speech changed everything for me. Moments before, I had been sitting on my living room floor, sobbing, because I believed my horrible doctor was right. I thought there was no hope for me. I thought I should just give up.

But Dorothy convinced me otherwise. She gave me the guts to stick up to my doctor too. So I called her office, transferred to a new clinic and when she called me to ask why I was leaving, I told her I thought she was wrong about me.

And I was right. It would take nearly two more years to figure it out, but that pain that was not in my head.

I had a hip labral tear, plus femoro acetabular impingement (FAI)or hip impingement where my the top of my femur bone wasn’t fitting correctly into its socket in my pelvis. This, in turn, was pinching the nerves and causing all that pain.

All that pain that was not in my head.

Now, thanks to surgery and physical therapy I’m doing much better. I’m doing better because I didn’t give up. And I didn’t give up because of Dorothy Zbornak.

Were she a real person, I’d thank her.

As for my doctor, I never called her up again to give her my correct diagnosis and to tell her how wrong she was. But if I did, I’d end my speech to her just as Dorothy ended her speech to Dr. Budd:

“Someday…you’re going to be on the other side of the table and as angry as I am, and as angry as I always will be, I still wish you a better doctor than you were to me.”

And if somewhere out there, you’re going through something like I was all those years ago, please trust yourself and don’t give up. You are stronger than you know and you will find a way through this. If you need some motivation in this fight, I highly recommend checking out Dorothy’s speech.

I’m a freelance writer and editor. I’ve written nonfiction children’s books, bar reviews, health care communications and more: https://ashleystrehlehartman.com/

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