It’s official – I am a reverse ageist, and it’s all the fault of a bunch of precocious young ear, nose, throat doctors in London.
Thanks to a persistent outer ear infection, I’ve recently had the pleasure of adding yet another hospital to be included in my future bestseller, A Rough Guide to Hospitals Around the World.
At night time, The Royal National Throat, Nose and Ear Hospital – also known by its unpronounceable acronym, RNTNEH – has the feel of something out of a Stephen King horror story, with narrow halls, dim lighting, and lots of bolted doors; daytime, the premises instil only a marginally less creepy feeling. I had nothing but empathy for the young girl screaming down one of the examination rooms on my visit yesterday. I too wanted to cry.
The eerie premises aside, on my three visits to RNTNEH, I’ve been met with the utmost respect and competence, and I’ve got nothing but admiration for the hospital staff working hard under pressure from NHS underfunding and still managing to deal admirably with the massive flow of patients.
On my visit yesterday I was a bit disappointed not to be seen by my Dooggie Howser-look-alike doctor, although the young doctor who did see me, was a perfectly acceptable replacement. Despite her very petite, young-girl appearance, I guessed she must have been in her early 30s. Still, that made her at least 15 years my junior and the older I get, the more I become suspicious of younger doctors. What could she tell me about my aching ear that I, having had 47 years of ear trouble, didn’t already know?
She didn’t have much to say, in fact, other than to confirm the infection hadn’t entirely healed yet, so I’d have to come back again, following another course of medicine.
‘Can I wear my hearing aids again,’ I asked, having previously been advised to wait until the ear was properly healed.
‘Yes,’ she replied, and asked, ‘why do you wear hearing aids?’
‘Because I’ve got shoddy hearing,’ I answered.
‘Yes, yes, but what’s the underlying cause of it?’
So, I explained to her that my ear trouble related in part to my cleft lip and palate, upon which she looked at me and said,
‘Your scar is barely noticeable,’ referring to the zig-zag line on my upper lip.
Perhaps she thought my perplexed look was one of doubt, so she added, ‘it’s barely visible.’
But it wasn’t that I doubted her comment, it was that I found it entirely inappropriate and irrelevant to the situation. She was an ear, nose, throat doctor, not a plastic surgeon, and I wasn’t there to talk about my cleft but about my aching ear. What also bothered me was the implicit suggestion that having a ‘barely noticeable’ scar was a good thing, as if scars are blemishes, to be hidden or erased.
It’s not the first time I hear this kind of comment from a doctor, usually a consultant, but it tends to be made by older, male doctors with a more patronising attitude towards their patients. In the past, I would have let the comment pass without mention in order not to act like a ‘troublesome’ patient, but this time I decided to speak up.
‘Can I just say something before I go,’ I began, and the doctor nodded, surely expecting me to ask something ear-related.
And with as much diplomacy I could muster and without sounding overly aggressive, I told her I was perfectly content with my scar – the visibility of which has never been an issue for me – but more importantly, her comment was inappropriate, and she’d crossed a line by making it. Next time she saw a patient with a cleft, would she please refrain from making such comments.
To her credit, she took my words with a big dose of grace and humility and even thanked me before I left.
It’s not me being overly sensitive; I’ve spoken with plenty of people with visible scars, often from cleft-related surgery, and almost everyone agrees that comments like the one made by the doctor are misplaced. Don’t assume that everyone with scars would rather not have them or would like them to be as invisible as possible, for that’s not true. A lot of us love our scars, each of which tells a unique story about our lives.
Aside from the scar on my lip, I’ve got a long scar across my back, and several smaller ones dotted across my body, each of which makes up part of my personal anthology of life stories. Without them, I wouldn’t be who I am.