I use a wheelchair. And yes, I’m your Doctor.
When I was in the third year of my medical residency, I was asked to evaluate a new state-of-the-art, fully accessible exam table that would be used in doctors’ offices to better provide care for patients with mobility-related disabilities. The table could go as low as 18 inches off the ground to enable easier transfers for wheelchair users and had extra rails and grips to provide support for patients with impaired balance.
I was to assess this equipment as a “user expert.” Although the table was designed to accommodate patients with disabilities, I rolled up to it to evaluate it from the perspective of a physician. “Do you want my opinion as a patient, or as a doctor?” I asked the surprised representatives from the medical equipment company.
I have been a wheelchair user since early childhood, when I sustained a spinal cord injury in a farming accident. I am now a practicing physician in the field of rehabilitation and sports medicine.
In my busy outpatient clinical practice, I witness the spectrum of patients’ reactions when they find out that their doctor is, herself, disabled. Typically those first few seconds after entering an exam room — before the patient’s guard goes up — are the most informative.
I find that these reactions are somewhat generational. Younger patients, having grown up amid a growing awareness of disability in society, typically do not react at all. They have clearly encountered empowered people with disabilities working in various professional roles. Older patients often seem confused, curious or, in rare circumstances, dismayed.
Several months ago, I wheeled into the room of an elderly woman. She looked at me, placed her hand on mine and, with a kind look asked, “Are you an invalid?” More recently, a jovial older man exclaimed, “You’ve got to be kidding me!” A few times, patients will hesitate to tell me their concerns, indicating “Well, doc, I feel bad complaining about this to you, when clearly your problems are bigger than mine.”
Several years ago, while in my residency, I was in line at our hospital cafeteria. Although my badge reading “Dr. Blauwet” and stethoscope were clearly visible, a man next to me in line said: “You look like you are doing pretty well. When are you going to be discharged?” Clearly, my wheelchair was the only thing he saw. Moreover, he equated my wheelchair with illness, rather than empowerment.
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