TrustWhy I find it difficult to trust doctors. It is not their fault
Quiet Wards and charming doctors
How my trust was abused
Have you ever been to an English hospital ward? I hadn’t really, up to this point in October 1982. I was born at home; my own personal trauma with hospitals developed many years later. But wait, I do have a faint memory of visiting my father in the hospital. I was about seven. He had had a heart attack. It was a totally different setup.
Probably an intensive-care-unit, although then I wouldn’t have been allowed in. It was very noisy. You tend to imagine that hospitals should be quiet places where you can recover; they aren’t. I remember my mum in a long, dark-brown fur coat, heavily made up and wearing a lot of jewelry, sitting on his bed. We didn’t stay very long. This was different.
It was my father again. This time cancer. Previously his arm had been aching for a long time. He had been resting it on the radiator in the kitchen, whilst having his evening meals. The kitchen table was where my dad did many things apart from eating. He tallied the household costs on Sundays; cleaned his shoes, they had to be really shiny; he made technical drawings of the car he wanted to buy, being an engineer and very meticulous about spending his money. And next to the white, formican table was the radiator.
The doctors thought it was some sort of muscle pain. From what? I ask. Dad agreed with Churchill, “No sports.” And in those days, directors didn’t have to type their own thought drafts, they had secretaries.
The muscle pain turned out to be advanced lung cancer. I was living in Germany at the time. Previously my dad had rung me every week from the office. That suddenly stopped. I couldn’t get hold of anybody for days. Finally, I was able to reach one of his colleagues who said: “You need to speak to your family.” Indeed.
When I managed to get my stepmother on the phone, she told me that dad had been diagnosed with lung cancer and that he was about to go into hospital. I assured them that I would get the next flight. Dad was sitting at the kitchen table finishing his pudding. I could hear him scratching the bowl with his spoon, Betty told me he was smiling. I never asked, why they hadn’t told me before my call. I was used to not asking questions.
So here I was in an English hospital ward. It bore no resemblance to the wards you see on hospital serials today. I remember wood panels, it was quite dark, not white and sterile. Our whole day revolved around hospital visits. Typically buying the freshest fruit on offer in the morning, nobody had heard of cancer diets then; Betty, my step-mum, washing and ironing dad’s pyjamas, they were changed every day; and our monotonous journey on the underground to the hospital. We stayed for hours. It was a steady routine.
After the initial operation I remember huge glass bottles beside his bed: the bubbling noise and the feeling: “He is not going to recover from this”, although everybody said he would.
Dad was soon transferred to another ward, where there were about twenty beds.
I saw patients in great pain, coughing their hearts out, disappearing and being replaced by new patients with fresh hope. My dad who, although not an exceptionally tall man, had always seemed of imposing stature to me. Now he was becoming frailer and aging before my eyes.
One day the senior consultant, Dr.Windam marched into the ward. This was the doctor who had allegedly operated on him. My father told him I was living in Germany. Upon hearing that he fetched two German newspapers: “Bild Zeitung” and “Süddeutsche Presse.” which represented the two opposing sides of the journalistic spectrum.
Dr. Windam had only just had articles published about his contribution to new cancer therapy. He asked me if I would translate them. I was rather surprised at this request. In contrast, dad’s face lit up. “She can do that for you, no problem,” he said proudly.I, on the other hand, wasn’t quite sure I could.
I had no dictionaries with me, and the World Wide Web was not yet at everybody’s fingertips. Moved and motivated by my dad’s pride, I agreed to have a go. Later, however, I learned that the articles had already been translated.
That evening at least, I had something to take my mind off my father’s plight. I kept thinking of his face, how it had come to life. I had no typewriter either, so I wrote the translation by hand, sitting where dad would sit, at the kitchen table. The next day, dad was keen to read what I had written, and I watched his expressions; he was happy with what I had produced.
When Dr. Windam came in to do his rounds, dad could hardly wait to give him the texts. Dr. Windam quickly scanned the translations that he did not need and then remarked, how well I had written them. He took me aside, where dad could not hear us and asked me out to dinner; to say thank you.
I was nineteen at the time, quite attractive but almost without experience with men. I knew, however, that there was something not quite right about this. I spoke to Betty. She said I should go. She was hoping I would gain more information about dad’s situation. Doctors weren’t very open in those days. She said, “He’ll probably take you to the Ritz, enjoy yourself.”
This could not have been further from the truth. But somehow, I felt obliged to go. The picture of a charming doctor turned out to be just as off the mark as the picture of a hospital being a quiet place.
I accepted the invitation.
The evening arrived. No mention to dad. Dr. Windam picked me up in a very ordinary car, and we were not driving into the city, I did realize that much. I didn’t ask where we were going. Why not? I was used to not asking questions. We stopped in the middle of a rather run-down housing estate. I started to feel uneasy and talk myself into believing I was making a fuss about nothing; it would be alright.
He knocked at a door. A friend opened and seemed to know what was going on. He got his jacket and left.
Dr. Windam ordered a Chinese takeaway; we ate out of foil containers. And Betty was at home, imagining me at The Ritz. I plucked up some courage and inquired about my father. “He’ll be fine,” he said, “He needs to make more of an effort.”
My dad needed to make more of an effort. My dad was a really proud person. He never let anyone see him when he was ill and did everything he could, not to be ill. If he had heard that, it would have hurt him deeply, but he wouldn’t have displayed that either.
Dr. Windam cleared the table, lugged me towards him, and said: “You’re not beautiful you know.” Shy as I was, I remember a short spout of indignation. Which was strange, because I didn’t want him to find me attractive, I felt more like a scared child than a woman. I should have slapped his face, and left, but those were the days of telephone boxes, where the telephones were often out of order. The streets of London were not safe everywhere, and I had no idea where I was. I was honestly terrified.
He said something about working hard, and I was beginning to drift into a state of denial: “I am not here, this is not happening.” I was wearing silk trousers and a blouse, nothing provoking and nothing that was easy for him to grope about in. He tried hard. His unshaven skin was abrasive. His smell repulsed me. I froze. He started getting angry.
Suddenly, he had some kind of awakening. He abruptly let go, stopped touching me and said he would drive me home. I showed no emotion whatsoever, and at that moment I felt no emotion.
Betty asked how the evening had been, I said “Not as expected,” she did not pursue it.It was years until I told her what had happened.
The next day at the hospital and those to follow were so hard to get through. I could not tell my dad anything. He was Dr. Windam’s patient. He would have been at his throat if he had perceived what the man, who he was looking up at, who was supposed to be saving his life, had attempted to do.
Dr. Windam strolled into the ward as if nothing had happened. He smiled at me. I felt sick but held my face together.A couple of weeks later I had to go back to Germany.
Despite what the doctors had maintained, I knew dad was going to die. Not yet, but he would not recover from this cancer. He died about a year later.
By then we had learned Dr. Windam had not actually operated on him. It had furthermore been evident from the beginning that dad would not survive this cancer. I am convinced he would have decided to spend his last year in a different way, had he known that. Betty did consider taking steps against the hospital; because of the lies. She decided it wouldn’t bring him back.
At the age of forty, I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. On the path towards that diagnosis, I consulted many doctors. I mistrusted many of them, and it was difficult to believe they were acting in my interest. I was incapable of articulating my apprehensions or even recognizing them.
This impaired my Trustbut I had forgotten about the actual trigger
It is so important
to be able to trust your doctor.
I cannot tell every doctor I meet, this story. I don´t doubt that some people would say, “You shouldn´t have gone with him”, or “Nothing really happened.”
The fact is, firstly, I had so little information about what was going on with my dad, and secondly I was terrified. And it wasn´t just about what did or what did not happen, but also the intertwining with my dad´s treatment, and the trust issues there.
Why am I telling you this? After all it is not something easy to talk about.
Sometimes there are stories that make life difficult for us. It is important to realize this and if possible address them, for our own sakes.