A friend recently related a disturbing experience that happened to her when she went in search of medical treatment at her regular health care provider.
She went to see her doctor complaining of abdominal pain. The doctor sent her to the ER. While she was in the ER and dealing with the triage nurse, she noticed a piece of paper with some of her medical information on it. Directly under her name, in quotation marks and circled, was the word "gay".
That can't be what I think it is, thought my friend, but she saw it again clearly in the room when the doctor was examining her.
She asked him about it, and his response was "oh, you weren't supposed to see that. I don't want to get X (my friend's primary care MD) in trouble."
She said she went to her doctor the next day and confronted her about it, and the doctor was oblivious to the reasons for my friend's outrage.
Even if my friend made half of this up (not likely) it is terrifying to consider.
My friend was (and is) concerned about violence being visited upon her person. She is about as butch as me, but weighs less than half what I do. She's teeny. Being butch won't do you much if three knuckle-dragging rednecks decide to take out their sexual insecurities upon your head in a parking lot at night when you weigh something around 100 pounds dripping wet in a sweater.
Now for those of you who may not understand what is making my friend and me so angry, here's the basic run-down:
The justification used was that the note was written so the ER doc would know that my friend "was not pregnant and didn't have any STDs to test for."
Reality check here: because of the nature of the sexual behavior, lesbians are the group at lowest risk for sexual transmission of HIV. That does not mean we are immune, merely that we are the group at lowest risk for transmission. Not zero risk, lowest risk. There is a HUGE difference. Nor are exempt from any other form of sexually transmitted disease, and just because a woman is a lesbian does not mean she cannot or will not become pregnant, in any of the usual ways that event occurs.
The thought that one physician, never mind two, could believe this misinformation is horrifying. The alternative is that they used this bogus reasoning as a pathetic excuse for their outrageous behavior. Anyone feel any better about this yet? Yeah. Me neither.
The point is, now and as it always should be, that a person's sexual orientation HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH THEIR MEDICAL TREATMENT!!!!! Providers should take universal precautions with everyone they treat. Doctors should ask the same battery of questions of each patient as determined by appropriate diagnostic protocol.
If news of this woman's queer status were leaked outside the hospital because of that document, it would be a grave breach of confidentiality rules. Agreed. And we all know that never happens. No nurse or CNA or doctor EVER goes home with interesting stories about what transpired at the ER that night.
Bullshit. I have known plenty of health care providers. Some are more ethical than others, but all have stories from work. It is human nature to share one's experiences.
So it is not out of the realm of possibility that someone from the hospital might tell someone at home about this woman who came through the ER the other night whose doctor had written "GAY" at the top of her folder. Can you imagine a doctor doing that? Oh, you know her, too. She works at such-and-such, or she drives that little truck with the stickers, you know, yeah, the blue one. And now skinhead wannabe boyfriend has a target for his hate. Bingo.
And the doctor has no clue.
After we had both vented our frustration and outrage, I was able to think a little bit more clearly.
I suggested that she call the Maine Human Rights Commission and gave her the phone number.
I suggested that she call a lesbian doc with whom she has a friendly relationship and who works at the same office and tell her what she had experienced.
I suggested she call a local activist guy I know because he's smarter than I am and probably knows lots of people who could help. Plus he's got letters after his name and everyone knows him as a stand-up guy. His name was familiar to her from letters to the editor and news stories, she said. He was a practicing psychologist in the area for many decades and is widely respected.
It was also my instinct of course, was to call my friend Jen at the Maine Speak Out Project BUT ITS FUNDING WAS CUT AND IT NO LONGER EXISTS!
These docs need some education, some sensitivity training and some real awareness. The woman doc still does not understand that it is not safe for people to be out in many parts of Hancock County.
So, what else do we do? This really seems like a job for the MSOP, but it's not there any more. I told her to call the Human Rights Commission FIRST because once something is reported there, it becomes a little more real for people like hospital administrators. Someone complaining to a doctor friend might get brushed off, but when the conversation involves "when I spoke with Pat Ryan at the Human Rights Commission in Augusta, she said..." shit is much more likely to happen and mean something when it does.
I also told her to write down everything as it happened, using quotes as much as possible and recording her feelings and fears as the events of the past two days played out. I figured a record like that would be useful somewhere in this mess.
I don't know what else to do. The one organization that would have been perfect to address this thing is gone because of lack of funding. I know there are still volunteers out there, but there is nobody to coordinate or train them. What happened to my friend was outrageous. The automatic cover-up by one doctor for another was outrageous. The fact that the note with the handwritten "GAY" label has now disappeared is outrageous, and possibly illegal, could it be proved.
I guess all I can say is be careful when you go for health care in Hancock County, Maine. Ignorance runs deep here.