Stupid things that doctors say to heart patients

13 Jan

by Carolyn Thomas

“It’s definitely not your heart – it’s just acid reflux!” That was the first regrettable (and wrong) thing that the E.R. doctor said to me, despite my textbook heart attack symptoms of crushing chest pain, sweating, nausea, and pain radiating down my left arm. When I raised the  topic of stupid comments on Inspire’s WomenHeart online community, cardiac survivors jumped right in.

These women were all too happy to share some of the real-life comments that physicians have actually said out loud to them.  Most of these dismissive comments were made shortly before these patients subsequently had to undergo life-saving cardiac procedures.  Each comment is true; the names of the physicians have not been disclosed in order to protect the stupid (a word, by the way, which I’m using here in its most charitable dictionary definition: “lacking common sense, dazed, unable to think clearly”).  Here goes:  

TT, age 49, USA:

  • “Well, you’re just like any other 80 year-old patient I see.” (I’m 49!)
  • Me: “I’m short of breath!”
  • Cardiologist: “You’re just out of shape!”
  • Me: “I have a crazy heart rate – I feel like I have a vibrating pager in my chest!”
  • Cardiologist: “Maybe your breast is just buzzing.”
  • (triple bypass surgery)

MJ, age 37, Finland:

  • Cardiologist, after I had suffered an odd burning in my chest for months every morning:  “I think you should go to a therapist. I would call your symptoms a Housewife-Syndrome.”
  • (triple bypass, five stents)

MB, age 37, USA:

  • Cardiac surgeon: “You have from six weeks to 20 years to live!” – and then left, with no explanation.
  • Therapist: “Suck it up – why do you have to wear v-neck shirts? It doesn’t make sense that your bypass scar is sensitive.”
  • (quintuple bypass)

G, age 66, Canada:

  • The doctor kept telling me I was just having a gall bladder attack when my heart attack became full-blown. Later, when I had to go back to hospital with a possible blood clot in my leg (the harvest field where a blood vessel had been removed for my heart bypass surgery) she said: “Well, I guess I was wrong about your heart attack!”
  • (two stents, quadruple bypass, sternum removal)

S, age 70, USA:

  • When I complained to my (former) cardiologist that I had shortness of breath when I climbed just one flight of stairs, her reply was:  “So do I!”
  • (atrial fibrillation)

BA, age 44, USA:

  • Cardiologist #1: “Don’t know what the pain is, but it is definitely not cardiac.”
  • Cardiologist #2: “Your arm hurts when you walk because you swing it too much. You get out of breath when you climb stairs because it is just you. Your stress tests are all bad, but we just won’t do anymore because we know they will be bad, but that is okay.”
  • (Inoperable Coronary Microvascular Disease, vasospasms, pulmonary hypertension)

HS, age 54, USA:

  • “But you look so good on the outside!”
  • “Lose a little more weight – you will feel better!”
  • “If you got rid of some stress, that would help a lot!”

JG, USA:

  • 1st cardiologist after I spent one week in CCU: “It’s just a virus!”
  • Endocrinologist, after three more months of constant chest pain and shortness of breath:  “You should keep running and swimming. There is no way YOU will have a heart attack!
  • 2nd cardiologist, after two MORE months of constant chest pain and SOB: “You are just a complainer – it CAN’T be your heart!” (too young, too fit, too everything)
  • 3rd cardiologist, after two more weeks of crushing fatigue and pain – “If it isn’t pheochromocytoma, then it must be in your head. Take Wellbutrin!”
  • 3rd cardiologist, after a cardiac MRI shows  mitral valve insufficiency: “I don’t believe in that diagnosis, so it can’t be your heart!”
  • 3rd Cardiologist, after another month: “If you’d taken Wellbutrin like I said two months ago, we wouldn’t be here today!”
  • Endocrinologist, one month after I returned from Mayo Clinic for treatment – with good results: ” I think the diagnosis is wrong. The treatment is wrong, and it is all the placebo effect. You’ll be back with all the symptoms in another few months.”
  • P.S. Can I please tell my insurance NOT to pay these idiots?!! PLEASE, PLEASE?

B. age 51, USA:

  • “I’d much rather tell a patient he/she had heart disease than cancer.”
  • (double bypass, two stents, Prinzmetal’s angina, vasospasm)

S. age 43, USA:

  • Cardiologist, yelling: (after I almost died from sepsis, one week after being admitted to the CCU, and feeling very groggy from pain meds): “Wake up!” You had a heart attack! Wake up!!”
  • (two heart attacks, four stents)

BH, age 34, USA:

  • First doctor (in hospital where I’d been admitted for lungs filled with fluid):  “I don’t think you need to be here!”
  • Second doctor (a few hours later):  “You have congestive heart failure.”

M, age 54, USA:

  • I worked as a mail carrier. After I told my cardiologist that I needed to find a new job, he said: “Well, you’re gonna need one where you can lay down a lot. How about a mechanic? Or a prostitute?”
  • (Prinzmetal’s angina)

SP, age 59, USA:

  • “Why don’t you come back in two weeks for an angiogram when I finish my vacation?”
  • (Instead, I sought a second opinion and needed emergency surgery for a massive “widow-maker” heart attack caused by a full blockage in the Left Anterior Descending coronary artery).
SH, USA:
  • First electrophysiologist:  “Go for a cardiac ablation and don’t be afraid to get out of the box of fear!”
  • Second EP: “Don’t do that!
  • Me:  “Why not?”
  • Second EP:  “Because you’ll die, of course!
CT, age 58, Canada:
  • ER nurse: “You’ll have to stop asking questions of the doctor. He’s a very good doctor, and he does not like to be questioned!”
  • Doctor, later: “Things could be a lot WORSE, you know!”
  • Same doctor: “Can’t you just PUSH THROUGH the fatigue?”
  • (heart attack, stent, inoperable coronary microvascular disease)
RW, USA:
  • “Honey, you have  just moved away for the first time. You are probably lonely for your mother. I would go and have a baby if I were you!” - all without ever putting a stethoscope to my chest. 
  • (aortic and mitral valve replacement, pacemaker)
D, USA:
  • “Well, you are fixed, right? You have those bypasses. And the stents. They fixed you right up. Nothing more to worry about…..”
  • (triple bypass, stents, aortic rupture)
LL, age 39, USA:
  • “Are you SURE you didn’t abuse drugs?”
  • (dilated cardiomyopathy)
NA, USA:
  • When asked if I had any chest pain, I replied : “Yes, a sharp pain when I breathe.”
  • Doctor:  “It’s probably psychological!”
  • (three stents, peripheral artery disease)
DU, age 41, Australia:
  • “Your second cardiac enzyme blood test for troponins came back elevated. You’ve had a heart attack. You’ll be airlifted to another hospital first thing tomorrow morning. Oh, and we’ve admitted you, but there are no beds in the CCU, so you’ll have to stay here in the E.R.”
  • (And then he left me there…..all alone. Thank God for the sweet nurse who heard me crying and came to speak with me).
DG, age 53, USA:
  • “You’re still on pain meds? You need to get off those. I have patients much older than you who are off pain meds by the time they leave the hospital.”
  • (after quadruple bypass surgery with infection in my incision)

TY, USA:

  • First ER doc: “You are having an anxiety attack. We will probably send you home tonight.” (two days later,  heart catheterization confirmed a heart attack and blockages in four arteries).
  • Second ER doc: ” Dizziness is not a symptom of a heart attack. It is probably your sinuses.” (second heart attack and emergency quadruple bypass surgery the next day).

RP, age 41, USA:

  • Cardiologist: “Maybe we should try some anti-anxiety meds.”
  • Me: “Well, if it will help me not have chest pain when I carry laundry upstairs, then okay.”
  • Cardiologist: “Maybe not…”
  • (heart attack, two stents)

JIC, age 65, USA:

  • “Dear, you’re a cardiac nurse, you’ve seen too much and are just ‘assimilating’ these cardiac symptoms. I have had over 10,000 heart patients and I have only ever seen one vasospasm. Your coronary arteries are clear. It’s your gall bladder.”
  • (cardiac arrest, microvascular disease, vasospasm)

LL, Australia:

  • Me: “I have been having terrible trouble with my heart racing too fast when trying to use the exercise bike.”
  • Cardiologist: “Well, of course it will go faster if you are exercising. Mine would too!”
  • (heart attack, coronary artery spasm)

PUR, age 44, USA:

  • Doctor: “Fortunately, you do NOT have an abscess in your esophagus!
  • Me: “But what about my ascending aortic aneurysm?
  • Doctor: “We only CT’d your neck, not your aorta.”
  • (congenital heart disease, aortic valve replacement, cardiomyopathy, atrial tachycardia).

WF, age 53, USA:

  • After I told my previous cardiologist that I couldn’t deal with not knowing if my heart would ever go back into regular rhythm, or tolerating the shortness of breath and rapid pulse (160+) when I was in atrial fibrillation, his response was: “When I ride my bike or run a marathon, my heart rate is way up, and I am okay. You’ll be okay, too. You’re too young to have to worry about that.”
  • (atrial fibrillation arrhythmia)

BE, age 51, USA:

  • Me:  “Am I well enough to go on my vacation?”
  • Cardiologist: “Well, not really, but you should be fine. If you’re asking me if you will have another heart attack and die while you are gone, I don’t think you will. But people drop dead for all sorts of reasons every day, so….”  – and then he shrugged his shoulders and left the room.
  • (double bypass, two stents, Prinzmetal’s angina, diastolic dysfunction)

KI, age 47, USA:

  • “Eat butter only on your birthday!”
  • (SCAD – Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection)

CS, age 70, U.K:

  • Me: “The heart medications I’m on are causing my legs to swell up.”
  • Cardiologist: “Buy baggy trousers!”
  • He is the same one who told me I could no longer work, but added: “Go home and live a quiet life without any worries!”
  • (inoperable coronary artery disease)

SE, age 50, USA:

  • First cardiologist, 1999: “WOMEN DON’T HAVE HEART PROBLEMS!”
  • Second cardiologist, recently, to my husband: “Her artery (80% blocked) is causing a ‘small amount of pain, and she is getting anxious and making it worse.” (I gave birth to six babies with NO anesthesia.  I think I can handle a “small amount of pain”!!)

LM, age 43, USA:

  • Cardiologist, filing his nails leaning against a table: “There’s nothing wrong with you other than you have a fatty liver from high cholesterol from the way you eat.”
  • Me: “Well, what was my cholesterol level?”
  • Him:  “I dunno. We didn’t do a test.”
  • (arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia)

BN, Australia:

My husband swears this groggy conversation actually happened in the ICU:

  • Cardiologist: ” And what brought you to hospital?”
  • Me :  “An ambulance.”
  • Cardiologist : “No, why are you here?”
  • Me:  “Isn’t this the Hilton?”
  • Cardiologist to other cardiologist: “We have a live one here!”
  • Me:  “Gosh, I hope so. Let’s try and keep it that way.”
  • (congestive heart failure, ICD (implantable cardioverter-defibrillator), familial dilated cardiomyopathy)

Share more fascinating, hilarious, educational, horrifying or heart-warming experiences from others living with heart disease on the Inspire WomenHeart online support community.

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♥  This article ranked in the Top 10 Most-Read Posts here on Heart Sisters for 2011.

16 Responses to “Stupid things that doctors say to heart patients”

  1. Leora March 3, 2012 at 7:41 am #

    When I hear stories like this, I wonder, “How on Earth did these people become doctors?”

    It’s embarrassing to see how badly you women have been treated, and how little your doctors cared. I work with doctors every day, and you’d be hard-pressed to find one who admits when they are wrong, or apologizes for making assumptions that turn out to be incorrect.

    YET, I am a double major (Bachelor of Science) in Neuroscience and Biology. I have a strong GPA, wonderful writing skills, and have done well on practice MCAT questions. I have great compassion and empathy for patients at my volunteer job. However, I am afraid I will never go to med school – I have been told that I don’t have the confidence and independence for it.

    Sad, it seems as though the criteria for med school applicants doesn’t exactly select for the best people…

    Like

  2. Sausalito October 27, 2011 at 4:01 pm #

    How about: “There’s no such thing as microvascular disease? Your symptoms are all in your head!” = this from a board-certified cardiologist just two years ago.

    Love your website – thanks so much for all you do here. AT LAST, a smart, informed woman who “gets” what we are talking about.

    Like

  3. Bartie October 2, 2011 at 5:07 pm #

    I agree with you, Carolyn – The line that leaped right out at me from among this list of world-class stupidity was this little phrase:

    “Cardiologist, filing his nails leaning against a table..”

    For some reason, this wins the prize. Insufferable, rude and unacceptable behavior from any professional. “Filing his nails leaning against a table…”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Mary Trout January 18, 2011 at 7:51 am #

    Cardiologist: “I think we just give you meds and discharge you once your pneumonia has cleared up. Even though you have been diagnosed with cardiomyopathy (ejection fraction only 15%) which is non-curable, and the other Drs. on the team very strongly suggest that you be put on the expedited heart transplant list, just make an appt with my office in 8 weeks. We’ll put in an IACD then because that will be “cheaper” than a heart transplant and save money!!”

    This is the honest truth of what was said to me in front of my family members as well at Civista Hospital.

    Like

  5. Mary January 14, 2011 at 10:06 am #

    Carolyn, I’m not sure you made clear that these stories come from *women*, who are often discounted and dismissed, particularly if they are young, anxious or overstressed. If not GI or reflux based (gallbladder; fat, forty and female), then the nebulous “anxiety” dumping ground is the next choice.

    If any MD takes anything away from this, let’s hope that the message is that testing can produce false negatives, and respect for the patient (in your head as you assess them) is essential.

    MB, age 56, USA, years to diagnosis
    Microvascular Ischemic Heart Disease
    Familial Hyperlipidemia: LP(a)

    Like

  6. Dr. Stephen Parker January 13, 2011 at 2:48 pm #

    Carolyn:

    I must say, I was incredulous when I read many of these responses. And these are just some of the people who read your column!

    Extremely sobering and essentially frightening post about the failure of many cardiologists to respond in informed or compassionate ways.

    This deserves wide publicity, should be in Medicine 101 at medical schools.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carolyn Thomas January 13, 2011 at 3:39 pm #

      I agree – and the truly frightening part is that this is merely the tip of a very large iceberg, comments from just one small demographic of patients.

      Most disturbing to me were some of the descriptions of the doctors – like, “leaning against a table filing his nails”. Absolutely appalling.
      Cheers,
      C.

      Like

  7. Ski Bunny January 13, 2011 at 1:09 pm #

    Me, age 36, U.K: “Could my extreme shortness of breath and exhaustion be linked to my heart?”
    ER Doc: “Absolutely not. You’re far too young. And you’re not having any serious chest pain so it’s highly unlikely that these symptoms are heart-related. You’re probably just pooped out from holiday stress. Why don’t you and the hubby plan a nice little vacation to get your focus off yourself so much?”
    (had emergency double bypass surgery two days after he said this to me)

    Like

  8. Dr. Ruth Simkin January 13, 2011 at 8:58 am #

    These are sadly hilarious but definitely make me ashamed to be a doctor and I feel dejected and mortified to be in the same profession as these idiots.

    Doctors should be tested for other things than pure textbook medical knowledge, like consideration of others, politeness, kindness.

    Unfortunately, book knowledge is considered the thing, even though most of these jerks apparently never read them anyway! I wish before people could get their MDs they would have to pass a test on being a kind, gentle, sensitive human being first.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carolyn Thomas January 13, 2011 at 9:27 am #

      Thanks so much for your comments, Dr. Ruth. I couldn’t agree more.
      Cheers,
      C.

      Like

    • AP January 13, 2011 at 10:32 am #

      Sounds like Dr. Ruth Simkin actually follows her Hippocratic oath! Thank you on behalf of the lucky patients you affect!!!

      I think docs should have to repeat that oath every year as a firm reminder of the scope of medicine as an Art as well as a Science!

      Like

      • Carolyn Thomas January 13, 2011 at 3:54 pm #

        I know that Dr. Ruth’s patients ARE the lucky ones! :-)

        Like

    • SP January 15, 2011 at 10:54 am #

      Good to know there’s a physician that “gets” it, thanks Doctors!

      Like

    • Leora March 3, 2012 at 8:12 am #

      Thank you, Dr. Ruth Simkin. I aspire to be like and work with doctors like you. I, too, am appalled by some of these stories, and wish that there were better filters to weed out med school applicants who lacked compassion and respect for other human beings.

      “Filing his nails leaning against a table…” This is absolutely unprofessional and unacceptable. There is a human aspect to health care that is just as, if not more important than the physical aspect when if comes to healing patients. Ruth – Thank you again for your post, very eye-opening perspective from another MD :-)

      PS, I would be interested in learning which of these doctors were men…

      Like

  9. Carolyn Thomas January 13, 2011 at 5:36 am #

    Heart sisters, let me add just one more to this list, this time a response to a written question submitted online from a young female heart patient to the website of a man with the letters M.D. after his name who practices cardiology in the North Shore University Health System, Evanston, Illinois and teaches at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine:

    * Patient: “Could the magnetic front closure on a bra that sits right in between the breasts interfere with, change the settings of, or turn off my defibrillator/pacemaker?”

    * Cardiologist (who published his response alongside a large photo of a gorgeous, young, well-endowed model dressed only in a sexy hot pink bra): “Let me say thank you for asking this question: who knew research could be so, er, entertaining?

    Like

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