Wednesday, April 15, 2009

A Train Car Named Quagmire

In a previous blog, I mentioned an instance where I aired my dirty medical laundry on a train car to get what I wanted and needed from the administrative side of the medical system.

This is that episode.

The drama unfolded with me as lead actor, director, and writer of my medical destiny -- oh, and a train car packed with complete strangers who had no idea that their ticket purchases to downtown Chicago included entertainment. Well, that day, they got a lot of bang for their buck.

The situation: I had an appointment with a mastectomy surgeon the next day. Her office had squeezed me in quickly, as my surgery date would be in two months. I had just found out about the appointment that very morning. Understandably, her office needed my medical records faxed from another doctor's office ASAP.

It took a 45-minute phone fight, with me as victor, and, as it turns out, a crowd of strangers cheering for me.

When it comes to advocating for yourself, you must be willing to shamelessly share your situation within earshot of strangers. This is because medical staff and each of us have limited availability, and, well, you sometimes have to snatch that narrow window of time you have to make that call.

Even if you are in a bathroom stall. Even if you are on a train car.

Here's how my drama unfolded that very eventful day:

Needing my records faxed and knowing I'd be unavailable the entire afternoon, I make the call while on the train. The prissy record gatekeeper is refusing to fax my records to my surgeon's office. By the time I make the call, I am pissed off, tired, and my frustration has turned to steely determination.

MissyPrissy says it normally takes a week or two to transfer medical records, and I'm, like, "huh?" Then she scolds me for asking for the office to fax the records the day before the appointment and says that I should know better. I calmly explain that this mastectomy surgeon's office fit me in at the last minute because of the urgency of my medical situation and that's why I need the records delivered on such short notice. I just found out this morning I am seeing her tomorrow.

To my dismay, she counters that there are protocols to follow and that the office can't just fax records willy nilly whenever a patient asks for them. I remind her that the surgeon is the one who wants to see me immediately and wants my medical records before my appointment. The administrator says her office's policy is strict, and if they make an exception for me, then they are going to have to make it for every patient. So sorry, but no tumbling dice.

I say, "OK" and end the conversation. I cry quietly -- after all, it's OK for the whole train car to know my breasts are coming off, but I don't want anyone seeing me cry. (Yes, I'm train car-decorum- challenged.) I feel defeated.

Then I think of that famous and my favorite poem "Don't Quit," and I recalled a line: "Rest if you must, but don't you quit." I had the wind knocked out of me. That was my rest.

I would not quit.

I call the office again. The Records Nazi recognizes my voice and is amazed that I have the audacity to come back for more abuse. As she starts telling me her office's decision is final, I interrupt her with a blitzkrieg of my own: "I don't want to speak with you anymore. Give me your office manager."

Shocked at my irreverence, she complies.

When the office manager gets on the phone, she tells me she cannot go against the office protocol regarding sending records to a doctor's office.

Suddenly, I take a different approach: emotional manipulation -- and this is the turning point that gives me the upper hand in getting what I want and need.

Although my chemobrain cannot retain information well, I do remember our dialogue verbatim:

Me (seeming to change the subject): "Do you know I'm adopting a baby girl from China?"
She (disarmed): "Awww, how sweet!"
Me: "Well, how would you feel if she no longer had her mommy?"
She: "That would be terrible!"
Me (not wasting a minute): "Well, that will happen if I don't get my surgery. Your office's refusal to deliver my medical records today may delay my surgery and ultimately harm me. How would you like to tell my daughter that she no longer has a mommy?"
She (emotional): "Please don't talk that way! We don't want your child to be motherless. Let me see what I can do to get your records to the surgeon's office."

I thank her and literally two minutes later -- no I really mean literally two minutes -- the Records Nazi humbly calls me back and says the records have just been faxed to the surgeon's office. My surgeon's office calls me a few minutes later to confirm this.

I am exiting the train in shock at my own power to advocate for myself -- and in shock that I'm able to stand on trembling legs and that I am evoking smiles and congratulations from so many people in the car. Then a gentleman who was sitting far from me on this journey approaches me. He says, "Ma'am, I hope you don't mind, but I overheard your entire conversation, and all I can say is, 'Good for you!'"

That's when I realize how loud I must've been. I thank him and apologize for being so loud.

He says, "It was great hearing you not taking nonsense from those people. Your health is the most important thing in the world, and it's about time someone put these medical people in their place! Good luck with your surgery; my thoughts are with you."

At this point, I'm reeling. I am happy to have such a fan base, but then I wince as I remember saying the words "double mastectomy" and "breast cancer" so often during my conversations on the train. Everyone on my car had heard the sordid details.

As I leave the train, I see a Breast Cancer Awareness Month ad on the wall of the vestibule. I remember it is October. And on that train car, in front of a group of strangers, it turns out that my face was the face of breast cancer. But it was also the face of self-advocacy.

And as I walk on shaky legs, but not on shaky ground anymore, I think that perhaps I became someone's role model and hero that day. And I realize I have become my own hero that day, as well.



  1. Beth, I'm in tears. (And with all the depression meds I'm on, that's not an easy place to get me to.) I have read a lot of excellent writing from you, but this is by far my favorite post of yours.

    This is a story that needs to be heard.

    Now I'm gonna go twitter dat!

  2. It's a shame that patients are given such a hassle from gatekeeper medical staff that don't put the patient first. Good for you for advocating for yourself.