Several years ago, I decided to donate blood. A friend had done this several times, and had said she would go with me and donate blood at the same time I did. At the best of times, I’ll acknowledge that I’m not comfortable with needles (even a flu shot creeps me out), but I thought that donating blood was such a worthy cause, and my friend would be with me… so we filled out the paperwork, and got prepared for the donation. I distinctly remember sitting in the chair and the needle going in to the crook of my arm… and a boiling hot sensation traveling the whole length of my arm from elbow to wrist. I yelled for them to remove the needle – I think the words were “Get it out!” – and several workers told me that it was OK, it would only hurt for a second. Some of the longest five seconds of my life passed before me, arm still feeling like someone had scalded the inside with hot water, still screaming for the needle to be removed, before my wish was granted. I was shaking and crying, and the next ten minutes, over the post-donation juice and cookies, several well-meaning workers came by and told me that it was OK, that lots of people couldn’t handle needles. Humiliated, my friend and I left the blood donation clinic, and I’ve never been able to muster the courage to try again – not because of fear, but because my cries of pain were treated as a simple discomfort with the needle.
Would this perception have been the same had I been sighted? I can’t say for sure. But over the years I have found myself in situations where medical professionals either “get it” and treat me like an adult… or they don’t. Many people I know have more experience than I in this regard, and I am more than willing to be called out as a medical-professional novice. Thankfully, the majority of my experiences with the medical profession have been positive. The one glaring exception was an orthodontist I saw when I was in my mid-teens, who constantly spoke to my mother and not to me during the entire 1.5 hour preliminary consultation. Even though my teeth were the ones to be worked on, and I was the one answering questions, in his eyes I was a child – a blind child at that – and thus not worthy of the courtesy of being addressed directly. The whole experience soured me on orthodontists for several years, until I knew I could not wait much longer. Fortunately, my dentist referred me to a terrific orthodontist who allowed 22-year-old me to be responsible for the care I received. He offered his opinions, I accepted some, chose alternatives for others, but I had the facts in hand and made informed choices about my own dental care. Maybe it’s because I came to my appointments alone for the first few months, but I was viewed as an autonomous adult, with preferences as to how I wanted my orthodontic treatment to go. It didn’t all go as planned, but I felt like I was a member of my own orthodontic team.
Over the years, I have accompanied friends, family, or my husband to medical appointments or emergency rooms, and have witnessed first-hand how the blind can be treated differently from the sighted. It can sometimes be demoralizing and frustrating – having doctors or nurses speak to one’s spouse/friend/parent and not to the one person whose body is being examined – and any time I need to go to a new medical professional, a little piece of me worries in the back of my mind about whether I will be spoken to, about, or over by front-line staff or – worse – by the doctor/dentist/physiotherapist themselves. So this afternoon, when I sliced my finger while cutting a green pepper, not only did I worry about the possibility of stitches (FYI, I get the creeps just writing this) but whether at the hospital I would be treated like a child or the adult that I am.
I was cooking chicken alfredo. The pasta was cooking, I’d sliced broccoli and mushrooms, and was about halfway through slicing the green pepper when the knife slipped and cut my left index finger. It started bleeding like crazy, but didn’t hurt much yet. I ran it under cold water and waited to feel… something. My husband grabbed Jenny’s emergency kit, used half a roll of gauze, wrapped my finger and bandaged it. We were out the door so fast that we left Jenny at home alone without dinner.
At the hospital, we were directed to the triage area. The greeter at the front door directed most of her comments over the next little while to my husband, and I had a little bit of a sinking feeling in my stomach, like I was invisible, even though I was the one who was injured. Thankfully, from the nurse who took my blood pressure and temperature (and removed Ben’s bandage masterpiece), to the one who took my personal information, to the doctor who gave me a band-aid and sent me home, I was addressed directly for all medical and personal information. Sadly, this is not always the case. Sometimes the person who accompanies a blind person to an appointment for moral support is addressed as though they are our carers; sometimes our choices or preferences regarding our own health care are swept under the rug because we are simply not medical professionals. And sometimes, like today, a blind woman with a bandaged finger is treated like a woman with a bandaged finger; it’s sad to say that such treatment tends to be so rare that I have a new spring in my step this evening.
And just in case anyone was wondering, Jenny did get her supper… and green peppers are evil!