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first, do no harm


My mother went to the doctor once when she had a really bad headache. The first thing he said to her, brusquely, was “You need to lose weight. You’re too large. You’re going to die.” She told me later she was so shocked at the statement that she doesn’t even remember what he prescribed for her headache, or if they even got around to discussing it. She just remembers crying, and feeling ashamed. Not to mention TERRIFIED that a doctor told her she was going to DIE.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of doctors explaining away every ailment a patient faces as a result of their weight. This isn’t even the first time I’ve heard of doctors telling patients they were going to die when they’ve come in with a routine problem or something specific. Is that on the doctor’s checklist? Oh, this person is overweight by arbitrary standards, tell ‘em they’re gonna die, $60, NEXT.

I recognise there are some issues relating to weight that might be affected by that weight, or exacerbated by it. What I don’t condone is telling a patient off for their appearance off the bat, without even examining the possible causes of the ailment the patient has come in for. Whatever happened to first do no harm?

We convinced our mother to go to another doctor and get a full blood/health check-up. It took a bit of work because she was so upset and also because her veins are super hard to find and most nurses have trouble with her. But we wanted to find out if maybe there might be some truth into what this doctor has said.

There wasn’t. Everything was fine. Her vitals were within the normal range for her age group and height/weight/medical history. The other doctor told her to just keep doing what she’s doing and she was fine the way she was. The headaches were completely unrelated to her weight.

Unfortunately, not every doctor is like that one. A great deal can be like the first doctor. Disbelieving fat patients or thinking they know their bodies better than the patient does.

Seeing a doctor can be an upsetting experience for certain people. Whether it’s because of your medical issues or your fear on how you will be treated, it can be a dehumanising and devaluing time. This can deter people from even seeing doctors for issues that can become problems.

I’ve heard activists recommend to people going to their doctors to ask them, “How would you approach this ailment if I were a skinny person?” I’d recommend having a checklist of questions you want to ask the doctor, or responses ready if they mention your weight. If you have to write them down and look at them, that’s fine.

The only person who is going to advocate for you, is you. If you find a doctor who treats you positively, talk about them – add them to the All Bodies Directory. I’m sure most doctors would prefer patients come to them before it is too late or whatever issue becomes too serious. I’m sure most patients would prefer that too, if they had the access and knew they weren’t going to be discriminated against because of their weight.

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2 thoughts on “first, do no harm

  1. Great post! I did my honours thesis on type two diabetes and peoples experiences in the medical system. Something which happens in the west with health is that often one’s overall health is reduced to what a bunch of measures say without much regard for things that aren’t easily measured. Weight is one of those things – easily measuarable and vaguely linked to so many health problems that doctors tend to focus on it. It is really unfortunate too because there can be more to one’s health that can be quantified. I think that doctors are getting better at acknowledging this as well, particularly with more awareness of mental health problems, chronic fatigue, chronic pain, etc. It’s horrible what they said to your mother and I hope she gets more helpful apointments in the future.

  2. Thanks, Erin! I bet that thesis was a fascinating topic to research. I think the stigma is reducing slowly, but there is a long way to go yet. She’s switched doctors and her new one is much better for her, luckily.

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