Doctor Tries to Be Hip And Misses

21 Jul

spine(Image by Katie Cowden used under CC license via)


Fifty-five year-old Terry Ragland of Tennessee recently sought medical attention for lower back pain at her local orthopedic center. She was introduced to Dr. Timothy Sweo, who ordered x-rays. After analyzing the results, Sweo concluded that the pain was caused by a curve in the spine called lumbar lordosis. He delivered the diagnosis to the patient by saying plainly, “You have ghetto booty.”

Lumbar lordosis is a severe curvature of the lower spine most visible from the side and it can be caused by a variety of a factors. “Ghetto booty” is, according to the most popular Urban dictionary definition, “a term used when you see a girl with a firm, big, tight packed ass. {Most black girls have ghetto booties}.” In other words, it’s slang for simply having a big butt.

For a medical professional to use the term is fantastically patronizing at best. For a white male medical professional to use racially-charged sex slang with a black female patient he has only met once before is jaw-droppingly gauche. His attempted apology to Ragland via letter does not help his case: “I was trying to take a technical conversation regarding your lower back and make it less technical.”

Presuming orthopedic patients are unable to comprehend medical terms like “lumbar lordosis” is ludicrous. After a month into my first limb-lengthening procedure at age 11, I could explain the difference between lordosis and scoliosis, a corticotomy and an osteotomy, and I could name every bone in the human body. I wasn’t exceptional – I just wanted to understand the world I was living in, like every one of my fellow pediatric patients. Priscilla Alderson’s excellent book Children’s Consent to Surgery presents overwhelming evidence that child patients are far more aware than adults tend to give them credit for. And Ragland is not a child.

“It says to me that he doubts what type of intellect I have, how intelligent I am to be able to understand what he conveys to me in a medical term,” Ragland told reporters.

While Sweo’s condescension comprises a particularly stunning mix of nasty prejudices, he is hardly the first doctor to speak disrespectfully to a patient. Medical specialists are renowned for being scientifically brilliant but socially inept. After making you sit in the waiting room, sometimes for several hours, they swoop in, keep their eyes on your body or the floor, bark a few questions at you, rattle off some orders for the nurse to take down, and swoop out again.  The patient is supposed take solace in the fact that it is all a sign of how important the doctor is.

Since this stereotype has become so pervasive, some medical professionals do make earnest attempts to shatter it, but their success varies. Some try through their body language and demeanor to give you the sense that they are genuinely listening and care about your all-around well-being. Others try by jamming a few blunt jokes into your narrow time slot. It gives you the sense that they’ve just watched Patch Adams and decided that being a clown is the perfect defense against being accused of coldness, so let ’er rip! Your body, your condition and your diseases are hilarious!

Years ago I attended a conference where an orthopedic specialist did a presentation on achondroplasia and said with a smile, “The short bones cause the average-length muscles on achondroplastic people to bunch up so that they look like the Michelin Man!”  He clicked forward to a slide featuring a list of achondroplastic symptoms with “Michelin Man look” featured at the top.  He was obviously very proud of having come up with this description.

I was the only person in the room with achondroplasia, and I had to kick my friend sitting next to me because he couldn’t stop giggling at the surgeon’s cluelessness. The Michelin Man?

Indeed, the most exasperating aspect of the Dr. Sweo case is that he appears to genuinely believe that his comments might have been helpful. Usually it is easier to engage in productive discourse with someone whose intentions are good than with someone who aims to hurt. But in light of his oblivious apology, it seems Ragland has a better chance of getting through to other, more perceptive doctors via the media than to Sweo via complaint.

I have lumbar lordosis.  It’s one of the primary symptoms of achondroplasia and it’s why I had to undergo spinal surgery last year.  I could have crashed this site with a list of all the off-putting doctors and healers I encountered, as well as the sarcastic jokes my closest friends came up with to keep me sane.  As Ragland files a formal complaint with the Tennessee Department of Health, there will inevitably be some backlash about PC culture gone mad and minorities being too sensitive and humorless.  But more power to her for sticking up for herself, and for patients everywhere.




5 Responses to “Doctor Tries to Be Hip And Misses”

  1. athanasia July 24, 2013 at 5:13 am #

    Just catching up on your posts.. Thoughtful, poignant and inspiring as always!

  2. Chris R - London England May 14, 2014 at 9:47 pm #

    I happened to strike up a conversation with a man in a pub who all though not very small did seem smaller than a man of that age. We have become good drinking friends (even if the only thing he can talk about is busses!), but interestingly he has a child like sense of humour and sometimes behaviour.

    I met his wife sometime later and she is a double lower leg amputee and we have had dinners together. It was at one of these Sunday dinners, that I met his two sisters, both of who are also dwarves. One only three foot six and the other about four feet. They both carry infant stools so that they can reach adult dining chairs, and even sofas; their homes a specially adapted for them, with cookers and food prepartions surfaces at lower levels. It really is like going in to a childs doll house in terms of the equipment.

    Having asked by Sharron to lift her up on to the taller chair ( I am six foot tall) I made my first mistake: that was to totally over-estimate her weight and nearly sent her through the ceiling ! By contrast Jackie also asked me to lift her up, and having being fooled the first time, did not put as much effort in. That was mistake number 2; she was considerably heavier than I anticpated, and nearly broke my back !

    It is interesting to note their completely different charachters; in Jackie’s case, very independent, can drive,cook and look after herself. By contrast her sister, is very dependent on other people and behaves like a very “clingy” 7 year old, always asking for reassurance. Indeed she will always hold me, her brother or sister by the hand when walking down the street. She is very aware of traffic and has a fear of crossing the road, even on a designated crossing where she can be seen. In England these are known as “Zebra Corssings” which are road markings across the road in black and white stripes alternating across the two pavements. For cars there is a mandatory give way to anyone about to cross that type of crossing.

    We have another type of crossing called a “pelican” (derived from people [pedestrian] can) crossing which is a set of traffic lights controlled by the person wishing to cross, by pushing a button and the traffic lights will change up to Red so that they can cross. Similar to America, there is a traffic signal facing the pedestrian, but as opposed to the American version which has the two lamps “Walk” and “Do Not” , one above the other, with the walk light being over-ridden by the Do Not light, The Do Not extinguishes when the traffic lights change to Red.

    In the UK We have a Red “Man” light which comes on as a seperate light which then extinguishes when the traffic lights have changed to Stop, and a light diplaying green man “crossing” meaning that the the cars are stopped to give way. Depending on the sitieng of the lights, they may have longer phases so people may cross wider roads, or “phase” more quickly. For those who are partially sighted an intermtitant “bleep” goes off to show the light are in favour of the pedestrian. This stops when the when the lights are about to change in the sequence out lined below.

    When the accepted time is up, the green “man” starts to flash, to indicate to the pedestrian that the traffic lights are about to change. At the same time a flashing amber light in the traffic light sequence tells the driver that the crossing should be clearing. However, even if the traffic light turns to green, the pedestrian still has right of way.

    A pedestrian is not supposed to cross if the green man is already flashing, however it is a warning to a person on the crossing that the lights for the driver are about to turn green. Again, even if the Red Man lights up, providing the person was already on the crossing they still have right of way.

    This may be of interest for those comming over to England, find these types of crossing and the difference in the rights of way.


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