Over to You

LOST IN THE TRANSLATION

A misunderstanding between a patient and her doctor results in a near-crisis

SUZANNE PIERSON June 23 2003
Over to You

LOST IN THE TRANSLATION

A misunderstanding between a patient and her doctor results in a near-crisis

SUZANNE PIERSON June 23 2003

LOST IN THE TRANSLATION

Over to You

SUZANNE PIERSON

A misunderstanding between a patient and her doctor results in a near-crisis

IT STARTED OUT with a celebration and it ended with a celebration, of a sort. But in between was a near-crisis that could easily have been avoided.

My husband, Tom, and I live in Orangeville and like many others in small-town Ontario, we had recently been without a family doctor. This was the second time this had happened. The first time, about six years ago, our doctor had pulled up stakes and moved to Texas, and it was a couple of years before we were able to find a replacement. Then, after setting up his practice, our new doctor was diagnosed with cancer and hasn’t been able to see patients for an extended period. Fortunately, both my husband and I are in relatively good health, so a few trips to a walk-in clinic and one to emergency for a back problem were all we had to deal with.

Not long ago, we received a call from our doctor’s assistant asking if we would like to switch to a new general practitioner in town. We gave up our spots on our former doctor’s list with some reluctance, but mainly we were delighted—we knew from experience this opportunity might not come again for a long time. I eagerly booked an appointment to meet the new doctor. I wasn’t sick, but since the last time I had had a checkup, I had gone through menopause, retired and started a new phase of life. I thought it would be wise to exchange a bit of information before I needed her for something urgent.

I realized that, during that period without a doctor, I hadn’t really been an active participant in my own health care. Before then, I had relied on annual checkups to cover the basics. I really didn’t remember when I had last had a mammogram, or a tetanus shot, and when did that doctor tell me to come back for another colonoscopy? I had been able to get by for the first 50 years or so, but what about the future? So, before I went to my first appointment, I started making some notes of things to mention. Not big things, nothing you’d specifically make an appointment for. Just little things to help

the new doctor get an overall picture of my health. I was prepared, I thought.

As it turned out, I wasn’t prepared at all for what followed. I am a retired elementaryschool principal, well trained in communication, but after I tried to explain the symptoms of a minor twitch I sometimes feel in my head and neck, she quickly arranged to send me to a sleep clinic, a neurologist, and for intensive testing. She also advised me to stop driving and said a letter would be sent to the ministry of transportation.

Was there really something wrong? I was so baffled I left without clarifying why she was sending the letter. A call back to the doctor clarified only the process. I was told that in Ontario, doctors have a professional obligation to advise the ministry if they have any concerns about a patient’s ability to drive, but that doesn’t necessarily mean his or her driver’s licence will be suspended. It’s more like a red flag. In my case, ministry staff would contact the neurologist and the other specialists and conduct their own investigation. If there was no problem, there would be no reason for me to lose my licence. The

whole thing still seemed like overkill to me.

The next two weeks became a round of tests. I was wired up so many times I’m surprised I didn’t start to receive radio transmissions. The unofficial feedback each time was good. No seizures, no sleep apnea. I was fine. A quick follow-up appointment with my new doctor confirmed those unofficial results. I left her office feeling so relieved I never did ask what she had thought was wrong with me.

And then the letter from the ministry arrived. It was a Friday, of course, and I had been away for the day so I didn’t open my mail until about 4 p.m. The letter said my licence was suspended because of the reported episodes of blacking out. It took a minute to sink in. This was all wrong—I’d never lost consciousness. With rising panic I began to understand why the doctor had ordered all those tests. What I had tried to describe as a millisecond tick must have sounded far more serious. A frantic phone call to the doctor’s office got me an appointment—on Monday. A very calm and patient person at the ministry explained that my suspension didn’t actually start until the end of the month so I had a week to try to sort things out. The Catch-22 was that to get my licence reinstated, I needed a diagnosis and proof that I had been successfully treated. How do you diagnose—and cure— a misunderstanding? I was in trouble.

By the time I saw the doctor I was finally calm enough to explain myself coherently and we were able to clear up the initial mixup. With all the satisfactory test results in hand, she agreed to fax a second letter to the ministry stating she no longer had any concerns about my driving.

When you call the ministry, a recorded voice mail tells you that a medical review takes five to eight weeks. But on the Friday I was required to hand in my licence, I called again to check whether they had received the fax. Not only did they have it, they had dealt with it and a letter cancelling my suspension was already in the mail. It arrived on Monday and, yes, I did celebrate.

I want to stress that I still believe that you should talk to your health-care professional about anything that is concerning you. A word to the wise though: make sure you and your doctor have understood each other before you leave the office. Iffl

Suzanne Pierson is still behind the wheel.

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