Was this a case of medical neglect?
October 26, 2021 12:40 AM   Subscribe

I need perspective on something that happened to me when I was a teenager. I feel like it was a traumatic incident that I can't recognize as abuse, and I would like to get some outside opinions on it, to see if it can be made to feel more real. There are numerous issues I have to this day based on my families attitudes to health services, and I feel like this event contains the kernel of it.

When I was 15, I came home from socializing feeling quite weak. I had not been drinking or doing drugs, and did not do those things at that time. I laid down in front of the fireplace for a while, and when I got up to go to bed, I almost fell backwards into the fire. I was woozy and disoriented, but managed to take a warm shower and go to bed. The next morning I woke up with what I assume was a stomach bug like gastroenteritis. The symptoms lasted for many days, where I was unable to eat very much, and slept very poorly. My parents insisted I return to school, but I told them that the bathroom stalls didn't have doors that worked, and I didn't feel comfortable returning. Nevertheless, I did return to school for a day, but came home early and continued being sick. After a week, I had lost 7kg,  was unable to hold down food, and was still dry heaving from time-to-time. I couldn't keep water down reliably.

My stomach hurt constantly, to the point where I couldn't sleep, and I asked my parents to take me to the hospital. They dismissed me. I saw my brother and his girlfriend, and told them I wasn't feeling well, hadn't been able to eat in days, and had lost a lot of weight. My brother was hesitant to do anything about it, but his girlfriend immediately and pointedly told him that if he didn't do anything, she would take me to the hospital and that would be the end of their relationship.

My brother told my parents about it. My father showed up in my room, heavily disgusted, and said that he would take me to the hospital, if that's "what you really think you need to do". He said it while shaking his head like he was disappointed. I was too weak to handle his behaviour, or make a decision, and he seemed quite mad, so I told him I was fine, and went to bed. The symptoms lasted more days. I was able to start eating after a while, and eventually did regain the weight.

Years later, it seems odd to me that my parents didn't take me to the hospital or a doctor when I lost 7kg, which was probably 10% of my body weight. It seems odd that my brother's girlfriend saw immediately that I needed medical help, but my entire family dragged their feet. It seems abusive that my father showed up and shamed me into changing my mind. I was delirious. I can't remember that my parents did any research or thinking about how to get me back to a normal diet.

Was this a case of medical abuse? Neglect? Did I misunderstand the seriousness of my situation at the time? I've never been able to put the pieces together.

For context: A trip to the hospital or doctor would have been 100% free. I have been diagnosed with CPTSD in the last year, and work with a trauma therapist currently. I have discussed incidents like this with my therapist, but I am lacking perspective.
posted by chiorlemas to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The fact you got better on your own was just luck. Those symptoms correlate with some alarming and deadly conditions, and just because it turned out it wasn't doesn't mean it wasn't medical neglect. You needed help, you didn't get it.
posted by AlexiaSky at 1:00 AM on October 26, 2021 [26 favorites]

Best answer: I can’t answer your question but I have some similar experiences as a child where I wasn’t taken to the doctor for a couple of days when it ended up I had fractures (caused during play) and also repeated severe stomach pain and some other things I think back on and as a parent I would have investigated. I always thought it had to do with insurance premiums but you say that wasn’t the case for you. I was emotionally neglected and had a strange childhood.
posted by pairofshades at 1:18 AM on October 26, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: As somebody with parents who loved me and did their best but were often emotionally neglectful and sometimes medically or physically neglectful - yes, this is what I would call medical neglect.

That said, I'll share a few things that it's taken a long time in therapy for me to accept, and might help you in similar shoes. First, if something traumatised you at the time, it was trauma, period, regardless of whether it was "objectively" bad (though I think this was that too), and it's okay for you to have been impacted strongly by it. Give child you all the hugs and comfort that you didn't receive at the time, because you deserve it. Second, it's possible -- even common -- for you to have been hurt badly by someone even if you loved them and they loved you, even if they were doing their best, even if they aren't evil or bad. So if you have ambivalent feelings about this episode and your parents, and you're horrified and hurt but also wanting to excuse them and love them still, that's okay. The fact of your ambivalence and the existence of nuance doesn't mean that this episode wasn't hurtful. (And it's fine to not have ambivalent feelings as well!)
posted by contrapositive at 2:00 AM on October 26, 2021 [31 favorites]

Best answer: When I was a teenager, I had (still have) an extremely painful & disfiguring autoimmune skin condition, severe depression & anxiety with suicidal ideation, an eating disorder that caused me to lose just under 40kg in less than six months, and an escalating drinking problem. My parents did not help or encourage me to seek medical care for any of those issues, and on the rare occasions the idea was raised, my dad vetoed seeking care as an "overreaction". My mother said the skin condition was my own fault for being "dirty". They also regularly made me go to school when sick, something that feels particularly gross now in the context of the pandemic.

As an adult, I consider all of that medical neglect - and none of it rose to the level of needing hospital care. I would absolutely consider what happened to you both abusive and medically neglectful on the part of your parents. I'm not at all surprised at your brother's reaction, assuming he was raised in the same family culture as you - your brother's girlfriend was the only person in that whole situation who was capable of reacting appropriately to what was going on, and it doesn't sound like she had enough power in the dynamic to actually help you.

I'm really sorry this happened to you growing up. I know my own experiences left me with a profound degree of presenteeism while sick in my early adult working years (which I've thankfully gotten past now, hastened for sure by the pandemic), as well as lingering issues seeking appropriate medical care for myself. I'm a bad patient and it takes a lot more than it should for me to get over the hump and seek treatment. Like you, and unsurprisingly, I also have CPTSD from this stuff and the rest of the climate of abuse and neglect in the house I grew up in; intensive trauma therapy has been transformational for me and I hope this process helps you too.
posted by terretu at 2:38 AM on October 26, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Something else that's helped me contextualise this stuff, so as not to abuse the edit window, is to think of the adults I know now who are fantastic, involved, caring parents to their children (especially those whose kids are the same age as I was when my parents were unable to care for me properly), and to imagine how they'd deal with the situation if it were their kids.

My manager, for example, is a really involved dad who cares a lot about his children's wellbeing; even just the thinking exercise of "how would [manager] react if one of his kids were going through what I was going through, and how horrified would he be if he heard about other parents treating their kids the way my parents treated me?" has helped make it clear to me how completely unacceptable and abnormal some of my experiences were.

It's very normal with developmental trauma not to trust your own inner barometer on this stuff (I still don't entirely), because your context for what's normal and acceptable was warped in ways it shouldn't have been by the way you were raised; using people you know who had healthier early lives and imagining their reactions (or even talking to them about it, if that feels possible for you) can help recalibrate that barometer. If I were you I'd also be trying to hang on to your brother's girlfriend's reaction, as the only person in the situation who could see it for what it was and was insistent that it was worth escalating. I know it didn't help you the way it should have at the time, but when your mind drifts back to "maybe parents/brother were right and his girlfriend was the one who was overreacting", you can hold it like a righteous truth in your heart that she was the only person who wasn't wildly underreacting.
posted by terretu at 2:47 AM on October 26, 2021 [18 favorites]

Best answer: The fact that this went on for more than a couple of days, and that you lost so much weight, is what pushes this into neglect territory for me. I have taken my cat to the vet for losing weight; and as a parent, hearing that your parents wouldn’t take you to the doctor makes my heart hurt, and makes me want to give 15 year old you a huge hug. It seems neglectful you me, and it’s definitely the kind of thing that could leave lasting emotional damage.
posted by MexicanYenta at 2:49 AM on October 26, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You are lucky that you got better with time and rest; those symptoms are very alarming and I would have been as concerned for you as your brother’s girlfriend. Did she stay in touch? She sounds like someone you might want to reach out to, to get another perspective on your family from that time. Anyway, I’m happy you got better but it sure sounds like neglect to me.

Beyond that, it definitely was trauma for you. Trauma isn’t objective, you know? It’s about your personal experience of an event and so you should approach it with that level of compassion. It was real for you.

As a comparison, my parents are pretty great with these kinds of things but not smothering. I could talk to them about how I was feeling and they would help me decide how to take care of myself. Sometimes they would suggest a doctor, sometimes I would. I have always had mental health struggles and they allowed me a fair few days off school just for that. They were good at maintenance doctor stuff, explaining about the right ways to use OTC meds, judging about if a wound needed stitches or not, resting a sprain, keeping a bruise clean. But they didn’t tuck me in bed with a thermometer in my mouth and a washcloth on my head at the first sign of a sniffle or anything.

When I was 13, I felt fine until after dinner when I started throwing up. Throwing up is very traumatic for me so it also made me very anxious and I always freaked out about it. But then I continued to throw up. I had terrible GI problems too. I had a headache and felt woozy. My mom figured it was food poisoning and I had worked myself up too much, and with rest and calm I would feel a lot better. I tried to go to bed. And I think that they promised to try to get a doctor’s appointment for me the next day. But I felt ominously bad. A couple hours later as I was dry heaving in the bathroom I had a lot of pain in the right side of my abdomen. My dad suggested that we could go to the emergency room. I had never been to the ER before, never broken a bone or anything like that, had barely been in hospitals at all. But I knew something was really wrong so Mom bundled me up in the car and we did the ER at 3am. Turns out, you guessed it, appendicitis, and it was a close one. It was just a little bit away from rupturing, and I had so much inflammation around it too that it was hard to tell what was going on in the scans. I had surgery later that morning.

Looking back on the event, I am impressed by my parents, really. I have very strong emotional reactions to my own pain, and my mom did the right thing trying to focus on me calming my mind and body at first. My dad did the right thing by suggesting the ER and not deciding for me, since I was 13 and not a little kid. My parents both did the right thing by paying attention to me when I was in pain but letting me do gross bodily fluid things in private. And they worked in tandem once I had decided on a course of action.

I’m very sorry that your experience was not similar to mine, even though you got better on your own and I ended up with a scar on my gut. It sounds like your scar still hurts, and you deserve all the patience and understanding you can muster for yourself to heal.
posted by Mizu at 4:20 AM on October 26, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: The first thing I want to say is that your feelings are totally legitimate, and you don't need anyone's OK to feel neglected by your parents. I also understand wanting an objective assessment of the situation - it's normal to want that when something about your childhood doesn't feel right.

That said, if you are assessing your parents actions aside from your feelings, there's some context that matters. In my family and during my childhood, your parents' actions in regards to illness would have been pretty normal. If you are thirty, this probably would have been considered neglect at the time it happened. But if you, like me, are in your sixties, your parents would have been acting in a way that was more generally acceptable (and researching what you needed would have involved a trip to the library). In addition, my immigrant grandparents really went through some crap, and the family developed a huge distrust of outsiders - including doctors. Some relatives were 100% convinced that two family members who died in the hospital were murdered by medical staff. So going to the doctor was a huge deal. Members of my family have died from things that could have been easily treated because they just didn't trust doctors. These were adults making their own decisions.

Your brother's girlfriend's reaction does argue that this wasn't just an issue of the time period - but she could also have grown up in a very different family that had a different attitude about medical intervention.

I say this not to defend your parents - but to say that there's not enough information here for us to say that they acted terribly. Now it's possible that my alternative scenarios are completely off the mark - if, for instance, you are still quite young and members of your family regularly saw doctors for things of this nature. And again, your feelings about this incident matter - really, more than any objective "truth" about what happened. I hope you are able to find peace in dealing with this memory.
posted by FencingGal at 5:11 AM on October 26, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: THE most charitable reading I can give this is that one or both of your parents had a phobia or trauma associated with either all or emergent medical care and instead of sucking it up and being adults, they could have killed their child from dehydration.

Even in the 80s, my school system required a doctor's note to return to school after more than three consecutive absences (it may have also been three in a week), in part to prevent medical neglect like this.

I'm so sorry this happened to you. That is a very long time to be sick unsupported, especially as a young person with limited control over these decisions.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:30 AM on October 26, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It doesn’t matter if your parents were traumatized by the hospital system or whether they were paranoid about hospital murder; paranoid and traumatized people are utterly capable of inflicting trauma/neglect (in fact, they tend to be best at it). It can help you contextualize what happened to understand their issues, but their issues don’t excuse them. Your feelings of hurt and anger are natural and appropriate.

The fact that your father reacted toward you with disgust/contempt is the most obvious sign of some sort of narcissistic/abusive family system, rather than a simple misunderstanding about the medical facts. You were diagnosed with CPTSD so you most likely already know that. Part of healing is learning to process your own internal feelings; in this case I’d say based on how you told the story that they’re telling you your father just didn’t care, didn’t want you to have the “attention” he deserved and resented deeply the idea that you might have needs that overrode his own.

It’s very hard to separate the “facts” from the abuse context; you were being emotionally abused at the very least while the medical neglect was occurring. It does sound very much like neglect, though.
posted by stoneandstar at 7:39 AM on October 26, 2021 [11 favorites]

I agree that the girlfriend’s reaction is also a very clear signal. It sounds like she knew something was up, and that he (at the time) was going along to get along.
posted by stoneandstar at 7:45 AM on October 26, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: This is neglect. Unexplained vomited lasting days, weight loss, requesting help and not getting it, as a teenager you were more than able to gauge your need for medical care. I experienced childhood trauma and neglect and my parents were distrustful of doctors and didn't like to go for themselves but whenever I was sick or reported pain (and I was sick a lot, I had fairly severe asthma), they took it seriously and I'd be taken in. I was never scared that they would ignore me and never had to argue why I needed help.
posted by lafemma at 9:48 AM on October 26, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It was certainly neglectful behavior. Even if they didn’t think it warranted a hospital visit, most parents care for a sick kid. Did they think you were faking it? Were your parents generally good about caring for you and your brother?

If this is just one example of this kind of experience, then there might be something you are not aware of, or didn’t see--you were pretty sick, maybe there are parts of this you don’t remember?

That said, my not informed guess is it is typical of the way they parented you.

I grew up in a chaotic, large family --time and resources were limited. I had a painful foot injury and what turned out to be a broken bone, walked on it for about a week until parent brought me for an x-ray.

I had poor eyesight and was not provided eyeglasses until about a year of complaining I couldn’t see the chalk board. One sibling had jaw/teeth issues that were not dealt with until late teens, involving a procedure of breaking and resetting jaw.

As a family, we just accepted it. We all knew our mother loved us, and cared, but she was busy and stressed. She managed the best she can and had to triage things. We took a certain amount of pride in not being spoiled or coddled. I was well into my 30s when I realized appropriate and healthy parental support is not spoiling or coddling.

This was in addition to all the other lessons learned: suffering is a virtue, you and your pain are not special, being quiet makes you lovable, female bodies are less than males (I don’t think they would have let my athletic brother walk on a broken foot for a week)….and so on.

Sorry for your experience.
posted by rhonzo at 10:51 AM on October 26, 2021 [8 favorites]

Best answer: That sounds like neglect to me. It makes me wonder how your parents, your Dad especially, behaved with you. Parenting is hard, parents have their own issues, but therapy is not a bad way to address this. It's coming up because it's unresolved; it may be the obvious memory with more behind it. A lot of kids deserve better than their parents had to give.
posted by theora55 at 11:38 AM on October 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Absolutely medical neglect.

Based on what you've said, I suspect that this particular incident is one of many that, because they don't fall into blatant physical or sexual abuse, you're struggling with categorizing as abuse.

I suspect you've also experienced others outside your family minimizing or invalidating the abuse you went through, because they didn't see it as "bad enough". Often, the people who do this have not experienced this sort of abuse themselves, so it's difficult for them to understand that it's real, and just as, if not more, devastating then more overt forms of abuse.

I'm glad to see you mention that you're already working with a therapist. I truly hope that the therapist is NOT one of the people invalidating your reaction to this - if they are, you need to consider an alternate therapist.

I'm sorry that was done to you. I see you, and I grew up in somewhat similar circumstances. (((hugs)))
posted by stormyteal at 4:04 PM on October 26, 2021 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you everyone, for taking the time to answer my question so thoroughly. I'm always amazed at the kindness on display here. I have gained some much needed perspective that I can take forward with me into therapy and beyond.
posted by chiorlemas at 9:09 AM on October 27, 2021 [4 favorites]

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