The day I learned not to trust doctors

I’m finally reading Stephen King’s On Writing. King is one of my favorite writers, and I’m enjoying the read immensely. He describes a incident from when he was very young, when a doctor said “Lie still, this won’t hurt,” and then jabbed his infected eardrum with a needle. It hurt horribly and he inquired why do doctors always lie about that?

It reminded me of a story I’ve told many times of how I learned that doctors cannot be trusted. Now, it’s been a lot of years, but this is how I remember it.

But first, some rather trivial background:

I have curly hair. As an adult, I have finally reached a truce with my curls and most days I’m quite happy with them. As a child, I hated them. I couldn’t make my hair look like the other girls no matter how I tried and it was a constant source of distress for me. So, one day in August, just a few days before the start of school, I convinced my mother to purchase and use a chemical straightener on my hair.

Me, eying some curls

Me, eying some curls

After it was all done, I discovered the curls are the only reason it looks like I have any amount of hair at all. My hair is quite fine and without curls, well… let’s just say it was a failed experiment and I never tried using a straightener on my hair again.

But, moving on.

I had a lovely little bay quarterhorse yearling named Tonta. I loved that horse. However, late in the summer of my eleventh year, she was still not trained to ride. Our neighbor, an experienced horseman had advised us to get her used to the feel of something on her back like a blanket or to lean on her to get her used to weight.

I don’t remember which of us had the idea, but knowing my father and myself, it could have either. Tonta was tolerating the blanket well and didn’t seem to even notice when I leaned on her back, so we decided it would be a good idea to just hop on up on her back.

It was not.

I wasn’t even fully on Tonta’s back when she yanked free of my father and tore off across the pasture. I tried in vain to pull myself up. I ended up with one arm over her neck, one leg over her back and the rest of me dangling off her left side. She arced through the pasture and then turned back, running at what felt like top speed.

I will pause for a moment just in case some of you aren’t familiar with quarterhorses. They are known for a few things, one of which is agility. They can turn on a dime and can start or stop instantly – this will become important in just a moment.

I realized that Tonta was racing straight towards a barbed wire fence. I was afraid to let go for fear of getting trampled, but I was also afraid of her taking me through that fence.

Before I could make up my mind what to do, however, Tonta took care of it. She planted her feet, bounced to a stop, then whirled one hoof and raced away. I did not go with her. I sailed into the barbed wire fence.

I don’t know what my father was doing between the time Tonta carried me away and the time I hit the ground, but I remember him running towards me. All he’d seen was me coming down on my shoulders, and he was afraid I’d broken my neck. He asked if I could move, and I could. Then he offered me his hand to stand up and things went wonky in my head.

I lifted my right hand to take his, but my hand wasn’t where it was supposed to be. It was dangling below my wrist. I couldn’t make sense of what I was seeing, so when Dad stuck his hand out again, I once again offered him my right hand. He had to bend down to take my left hand to help me up.

The next twenty minutes or so are a surreal blur. My parents bundled me into the station wagon where they wrapped me in a woolen blanket to prevent me going into shock. In August. In Oklahoma. I immediately protested and then the blanket came off, the windows went up, and the air conditioning came on. Until someone would notice that I looked pale, then the AC went off, the windows rolled down and the blanket was draped about me once again. Then I’d complain it was hot and….
The whole trip was like that.

The next thing I remember was my doctor explaining that my broken wrist was a little unusual because because of the way the broken bone was displaced, but that was ok, because he could fix it. So, they injected some local anesthetic into the break – which hurt very very much.

Then, the doctor lied to me. He said, “I’m going to pull on your hand, and it’s going to hurt. I need you to be brave so that I can fix your wrist. But if it hurts too bad, you just yell ‘stop,’ and I’ll stop.”
I believed him.

Here’s the thing. I was quite the tomboy, and I was eleven years old. When a doctor tells an eleven year old tomboy to be brave, you are about to see a true demonstration of the epitome of bravery. I would not let him down.

He took my hand in his and he began to pull. And it hurt every bit as much as he said it would. But I was brave. And he pulled harder, and I endured. And even harder…

Let me take a moment to explain what is a displaced fracture – a non-displaced fracture means that even though the bone is broken, the ends are more or less where they’re supposed to be. In a displaced fracture, the broken end has moved out of place. And then muscle tension pulls on the bone until the ends overlap. That was why he had to pull so hard, to move the bone ends back where they were supposed to be.
…I’m a veterinarian. I do this with my patients ASLEEP…

Anyway, eventually the bone ends will line back up and broken bone starts scraping against broken bone. That’s the point where my bravery fled. It went in an instant from a pain I could endure to something that no amount of bravery could overcome.

So I screamed, “Stop!”

And do you know what happened?

I’ll tell you what didn’t happen: He didn’t stop!

Instead, he gave my wrist one final yank to set the bones in place.

I was still reeling from the depths of his betrayal while he placed the cast on my wrist. He gave my parents the follow up instructions and sent me home.

My little eleven-year old heart was broken. I’d trusted the nice man and he’d lied to me. I’ve never forgotten it and will forever carefully evaluate doctor’s words, looking for that lie.

But, on that night, I went home, floated off to sleep on my good pain meds that still didn’t quite manage my pain.

I missed the first day or two of school that year. When I did show up for sixth grade, I was prepared to be cool. I would be all casual about the cause of my injuries, it was no big deal.

As I arrived, my best friend ran out to meet me. I must’ve been a sight. Not just the cast on my arm, but a few bruises and scrapes and also a six-inch long gash on my leg from the barbed wire (I still have the scar).

He skidded to a stop a few feet from me, his eyes traveled down and back up, taking in my altered appearance. “What happened to you?” he gasped.

“Oh,” I said, every bit as nonchalant as I’d practiced. I even threw in a little shrug. “My horse threw me into a barbed-wire fence and broke my wrist.”

With wide eyes, he stepped closer to me and asked. “Did she step on your hair?”


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