I used to have a very common condition known as “white coat syndrome” — a psychological and physiological change people experience when they go to the doctors’ office. My heart rate would increase, my blood pressure would elevate and I would begin finding it hard to breathe on my way to the appointment. When the doctor actually came in, I found myself agreeing with everything they said whether I genuinely agreed with them or not. I was unable to bring up any questions or concerns and I was always downplaying how bad I was really feeling. It was almost like I was afraid of being graded for not feeling well.
My family would see my suffering at home and encourage me to paint a realistic picture of my illness, but whenever I got in front of the doctor, I simply froze up. My mom tried to reframe the doctors’ visits and get me to see that I was in charge and I had a voice. However, I didn’t feel in charge. For years, my chronic pain condition had made me feel like I had lost all control. That everything was out of my hands and my only choice was to live in constant, debilitating pain. My disease had trained me to think that whatever I or any doctor did was futile.
It wasn’t until I saw a documentary by Kris Carr called “Crazy, Sexy, Cancer” that I was able to start finding my voice with the doctors. It showed her journey through her cancer diagnosis and the process of putting her medical team together. She decided to look at her doctor’s search as if “there was a job opening at my company… the doctors would be applying for a job with me.” She fought any potential white coat syndrome by going in with the thought process that these potential doctors are interviewing for a chance to treat her. They work for her, not the other way around.
This thought process was a complete revelation to me. The doctors work for me? I’m hiring them to work for me? Suddenly, speaking up and asking questions didn’t seem so scary. I was determined to go into my next doctor’s appointment with that same spirit. I got a notebook and wrote down key points and questions I wanted to discuss with the doctor. When the big day came, I still had plenty of anxiety, but I kept repeating to myself, “the doctors work for me.”
I wish I could say the appointment went perfectly and from then on every appointment was incredibly easy. I found out very quickly that some doctors don’t like being asked a lot of questions. They may not like having a discussion or being asked questions about their treatment methods. My doctor was one of those doctors, but I’m glad I found out then rather than later. That visit had a domino effect and led to me eventually seeing that my doctor and I were not on the same page whatsoever. Now I have moved on to a doctor who actually hears me and doesn’t brush off any question I may have.
It wasn’t an easy lesson to learn, and I wish I had learned it sooner. However, I’m glad I eventually got the confidence to take control of my health care team. I encourage anyone who begins experiencing “white coat syndrome” to remember the doctor works for you. You are the manager of your body and your health care and no employee of yours can take that away.
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Author: Lexi Barrientos