Two weeks before being hospitalized with a heart attack, I was sent home from the Emergency Department of that same hospital with an acid reflux misdiagnosis, despite presenting with textbook heart attack symptoms like chest pain and pain radiating down my left arm.
At that first visit, I left for home feeling embarrassed and apologetic because I’d just wasted five hours of their valuable time. I felt so embarrassed, in fact, that I even sent the staff in Emergency a sheepish little thank you note the following day, apologizing once again for making such a fuss over nothing.
Not making a fuss is a valued trait for many of us strong women, but this tendency can cause disastrous cardiac outcomes when it makes us reluctant to seek immediate medical attention when we need it most.
Consider this compelling example shared by a 49-year old American heart attack survivor from New Mexico. Like me, you too may also be able to relate to her tales of chronic apology:
“It dawned on me today how many times I said I was sorry on Thursday when I had to go to the hospital to have a cardiac angiogram done.
“The first time was when I phoned the doctor, even though he had told me to call right away if I had any more chest pains and I had already waited three days before calling. But still, I apologized for bothering him.
“When he told me to go to the ER, my 15-year old daughter was in the car with me. I apologized to her.
“I then had to go get my husband at work so that he could drive me the rest of the way to hospital. He was getting lunch for everyone at the office for a very important meeting, so I apologized to him, too.
“All the way to the hospital, I kept saying how sorry I was for putting my family through all this.
“When I got to the cardiac unit, I told the nurses that I was really sorry to bother them, but the doc did tell me to come.
“When all the heart tests came back, I apologized again to the staff. I also said I was sorry that I had to go to the bathroom so much, but the Lasix medication I’d taken that morning was doing its job.
“And then I called my friends and apologized to them for not being able to have lunch with them the next day.
“I have sometimes laid in my bed silently wondering if I was having the Big One, but not wanting to wake my husband!
“And it runs in my family. When my father had his major heart attack, he drove himself to the hospital so he wouldn’t bother anyone. I thought this was the dumbest thing I’d ever heard (especially since he waited too long so the damage was done and he died 2 1/2 weeks later). I thought I would never think like this. HA!!
“It is now my mission to NOT be sorry for something that is real and out of my control. When I offer help to friends or family, it warms me when my help is accepted and annoys me when they refuse help because they don’t want to bother me. So I pledge to not make others feel that way.
“From now on, I will ask for help when I need it, and accept it graciously.”
Researchers have long known that for women, saying sorry may be just part of our conversational arsenal, one of the tools we use to keep relationships steady. TIME magazine recently explored the rush of public celebrity apologies, like the “I’m very sorry I got caught” version famously produced by Tiger Woods. The difference:
“Women’s apologies are more a course correction than a U-turn. Women are more likely than men to apologize when they’re only partially to blame. They even say sorry when they’re not at fault, as a way of expressing empathy.”
A Canadian study from the University of Waterloo compared men’s and women’s experiences with apologizing. The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, found that women reported offering more apologies than men, but they also reported committing more offenses. There was no gender difference in the proportion of offenses that prompted apologies. Researchers explained:
“This finding suggests that men may apologize less frequently than women because they have a higher threshold for what constitutes offensive behaviour.”
In other words, women have a lower threshold for what they believe is offensive behaviour – like, say, having a heart attack and causing a fuss.
In a second study, the Waterloo research team asked participants to evaluate both imaginary and recalled offenses. As predicted, men rated the offenses as less severe than women did. These different ratings of severity predicted both judgments of whether an apology was deserved and actual apology behaviour.
Find out more about why women who don’t want to make a fuss engage in what researchers call our ‘treatment seeking delay’ behaviour: Knowing & Going: Act Fast When Heart Attack Symptoms Strike
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: I wrote about women’s treatment-seeking delay and much more in my book, “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease”. You can ask for it at your local library or favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 20% off the list price).