A Pained Life: The Power of the Coat

By Carol Levy, Columnist

I have what I call a "chronic emergency" when, because of the paralysis and lack of sensation in my left eye, it turns bright red and needs to be seen immediately.

The diagnosis is always the same, a dry eye with little punctates throughout. Sometimes in a bad state, sometimes not so bad. It has nothing whatsoever to do with my eye pain -- the trigeminal neuralgia pain that keeps me disabled.

Yet no matter how good the appointment ("Your eye is doing okay," the doctor will say), I find myself always upset, even angry, when I leave the office.

If the diagnosis was bad, the cornea eroded or ulcerated, which can mean having to let them sew it closed temporarily, my anxiety would make sense. The conundrum is, even when the eye is doing fine, I become distraught.

It finally occurred to me there is, in the recesses of my mind, an explanation for the emotional upheaval: I saw a doctor for my eye. Since he examined it, he should have cured my eye pain, right?

The thought is really senseless, but given the power that doctors have, or the power with which we invest them, it seems logical.

When I was in college I had pretensions of going to medical school. Our local hospital had a program for students like me, so we could see what life might be like as a physician.

I was given a long white coat – that usually marked one as a resident or attending. On my lapel was pinned a very prominent name pin. Underneath my name, the words: "Volunteer College Student, Pre-med".

Despite my lowly position, as soon as I put the coat on I felt different, more secure. I stood straighter. I felt powerful. And why not? The coat is a symbol.

As soon as someone walks into an exam or hospital room we make an immediate survey of them. To ourselves we pose the question, "Can I trust this person? Will they help me?" The coat answers the question. This is a doctor, he or she is here to help me.

One afternoon I was in the hospital’s ER when a woman with worsening kidney disease arrived. Her condition was tenuous at best.

Her husband cornered me, "How is my wife doing?"

I pointed to the name badge. "I'm sorry I'm just a college student. You need to talk with the doctor."

As I walked outside he ran after me. "Please. Please. Can't you just tell me? What is going to happen with my wife?"

His eyes tearing, his voice tremulous; the visible, tangible need for me to help him, to save him, was terrifying. Especially because I could be of no help.

Why couldn't, or wouldn't, he hear me? “I can't help. I am not a doctor.”

I truly believed then, as I do now, that the white coat blinded him to my words and repeated denials.  The coat means something. To many patients and their families it is a message of hope; this person will help, will make it better.

My ophthalmologist has the power of the white coat and the title. As a result, I keep expecting the impossible of him -- that he could and should fix my neurological pain.

Power is a scary thing. We have to make sure that when we give someone our trust, because they wear the coat or the title "Doctor," that we leave ourselves room to not expect the impossible or miraculous.

Like it or not, accept it or not, underneath the coat is just another human being. Just like you or I.

Carol Jay Levy has lived with trigeminal neuralgia, a chronic facial pain disorder, for over 30 years. She is the author of “A Pained Life, A Chronic Pain Journey.”  Carol is the moderator of the Facebook support group “Women in Pain Awareness.” Her blog “The Pained Life” can be found here.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.