An Open Letter to All Colorectal Surgeons

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To Whom it May Concern (Are you a colorectal surgeon? You should be concerned):

A while ago I was talking with a close friend (I’ll call her Allie) about her latest experience seeing one of the best colorectal surgeons in the country. Allie’s fistula struggle had been a long one, and was complicated by Crohn’s disease. Her quality of life had been so low that year that she finally decided it was worth it to brave the trip to get the opinion of one of the best.

This surgeon gave her good advice, and did a thorough examination, but what they said to my friend has lingered in my brain for over a year now. They told her about a patient of theirs who had a bunch of kids and over ten setons. They told my friend about how active, productive, and awesome this patient was.

Let me explain how problematic this kind of anecdotal story is. Imagine living with multiple bands hanging out of your ass, all kinds of leakage (hours spent keeping things clean), all of the complications that come with Crohn’s disease, and being in constant pain. Imagine these conditions completely changing your entire life–having to quit a career you loved, being unable to do the things you used to enjoy, coping with the deep depression that comes with being in constant pain…

Now imagine a doctor telling you about a superstar woman, living with similar issues, but just rocking life anyway. Imagine comparing yourself to this mythological creature who has kids and a job, yet somehow has energy to go jogging with her bajillion setons just gently swishing along.

Whatever the intentions of the surgeon telling this story, the result is leaving the patient feeling like, “Oh. Great. So I’m just not trying hard enough. What’s wrong with me? Why can this woman be a superstar, but I am a wreck?” The other consequence of telling a patient a story like that is the patient ends up feeling their doctor doesn’t believe them. If you are telling your patient a story about how amazing this patient is doing, who has been through the same kind of thing you are going through, you are also implying that you don’t particularly believe your patient is as badly off as they say they are.

I spent three years with a fistula, went through eight surgeries (not including EUAs and L&Ds), and I don’t have Crohn’s disease to contend with. I. Was. Wrecked. I lost my job, my social life, and on many days my will to go on. I have spoken to hundreds of fistula sufferers, I run an online fistula support group with thousands of members, and I can tell you that stories like the one this surgeon told my friend are rare. More often than not this condition is debilitating, messy, painful, and depressing. I can also tell you that stories like this are very common–so many fistula patients are living with not just the awful symptoms of having a fistula, but with navigating a health system filled with doctors who won’t believe them about their pain levels. This is UNACCEPTABLE.

I urge you to please BELIEVE your patients. They know more about how their bodies are feeling than you do. You would do yourself and your patients a great service by taking the small steps towards learning what your patient is actually going through, and letting them know that you believe them–believe that their pain is real. It’s not that hard, just imagine having a tunnel that’s eaten its way through important bits, and you’re leaking fecal matter into places it shouldn’t, like your vagina. That’s a good start.

And for the love of all that is holy, do NOT tell them about this one superstar patient you have. Not only is it not helpful, it’s psychologically damaging.

Regards,

Leah R. Chatterjee

(And to my dear friend “Allie,” if you are reading this, you ARE a superstar badass warrior)

Finally Fistula Free

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Hellooooo fistula warriors!

I have not been very active on here lately as I am going through a new health ordeal (adenomyosis and endometriosis! ugh!), and am navigating my way through all of that. I hope to soon be putting up some new stuff here, and have lots of ideas, so please stay with me!

I am excited to be able to share a new fistula project with you. Fellow fistula warrior Jen and I have been working on a project called Finally Fistula FreeOur goal is to provide a space where people going through the fistula nightmare can come to find success stories. We are currently collecting stories from people who have healed from their fistula, and want to share their journey with others. If you (or someone you know) has healed from a fistula and would like to share your story, please send us your success story at finallyfistulafree@gmail.com, we would love to hear from you and share your experience.

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Art by Jennifer Doolan

Part of breaking through the stigma of this health problem is being able to talk out loud about it. Speaking from my own experience, writing about my journey in detail has been empowering, and has enabled me to help others. I encourage you to step outside of your comfort zone, even if that means just reaching out and joining a support group (I run a great one on Facebook: Fistula Support Group, and Jen runs a wonderful group for women: Abscess/Fistula Support for Women), or openly speak about what you’re going through with family or a close friend.

You can check out my full success story on our new blog here: Through the Tunnel of Doom and Back Again, and on the home page you will find Jen’s amazing journey, as well as our first contributor, Mary’s story. We hope you enjoy it, and that it brings some hope!

Be Back Soon!

In Solidarity,

Leah R. Chatterjee