Medical gaslighting: the doctor lied to my grandmother about her menopause symptoms

Tracey Folly

*this is a work of nonfiction as told to me by my mother based on actual events that she witnessed and experienced firsthand

My mother told me a story about my grandmother's experience with menopause recently.

When my mother was younger, she accompanied my grandmother to all her doctor's appointments to serve both as emotional support and as a translator. My grandmother was born in the United States, but she spent her childhood and early adult years in Europe, so English was her second language. Doctor appointments made my grandmother so anxious that she couldn't remember how to speak English at all.

My mother translated for my grandmother as she expressed her concern about her imminent menopause to her doctor. My grandmother was terrified. She had heard terrible things about going through menopause, and she wanted to know whether the things she'd heard were true.

"Oh, yes," the doctor responded. "Everything you heard is true. Menopause causes women terrible suffering. It's so awful that even your toenails will hurt.

"Menopause is the worst thing ever."

My grandmother was strangely comforted by the doctor's lie. She felt like her concerns had been heard.

On the other hand, my mother was horrified. Surely, it couldn't be that bad, she thought.

My grandmother went through menopause. Although it was awful, and she found many reasons to complain about it, she never experienced the pain in her toenails that her doctor had predicted. She considered herself lucky.

Years later at another appointment with the same doctor, my mother pulled him aside and asked him about it. "Why did you tell my mother that menopause would make her toenails hurt?" my mother asked.

The doctor laughed. "I made that up," he confessed. "Older women like to complain, and they like doctors to acknowledge their suffering. So I always tell women that, and they love it." He shrugged. "It makes them feel better."

My mother didn't question him further, but she never forgot his words or his lies.

Was it medical gaslighting or empathy when the doctor told my grandmother menopause would be the worst thing ever?

Not taking her concerns seriously enough to answer her honestly and with authority could qualify it as gaslighting. Is it gaslighting if she gaslighted herself into believing things about menopause were untrue, and he simply agreed with her?

He misled her in matters of her health, but I'm not sure if it rises to the level of medical malpractice.

Yet this doctor, a man and medical professional, believed he was doing my grandmother a favor by lying to her. He seemed to believe he was showing empathy by agreeing with her doom-and-gloom outlook of menopause and even adding a little doom and gloom of his own in the form of warning her that her toenails would ache.

This happened many decades ago. While I hope expressing empathy is still a part of any doctor's patient care routine, I hope equally that giving false agreement, lying, or exaggerating to make a patient feel better is not.

My grandmother needed honest and accurate medical advice. Instead, she got disingenuousness and misinformation in the guise of empathy.

I still don't understand how it could make a patient feel better by telling her she would feel worse, but in my grandmother's case, it did work.

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Ordained Minister, Universal Life Church

Massachusetts State

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