The XX Factor

Why Can’t Doctors Admit it When They Don’t Have an Answer?

How sad that Summer Stiers , the young woman suffering from an as-yet uncategorized illness who was profiled so heart-breakingly by Robin Marantz Henig in the New York Times Magazine , has died. At least she ended up at the National Institutes of Health where the doctors tried-unsuccessfully-to puzzle out the reason for her many medical maladies.

One of my daughter’s favorite shows is Mystery Diagnosis , which presents the story of someone with strange symptoms who goes for years without being able to get a diagnosis. Inevitably, during the course of their search, a doctor, or doctors, tells these patients that their symptoms, from nightly vomiting to loss of consciousness, are all in their heads.

This, too, happened to Summer Stiers, as Robin writes, even though she ended up with kidney failure and loss of eyesight. These difficult patients are told they should just see a psychiatrist, pop some anti-depressants, and leave their busy internists alone. Both the Washington Post and the New York Times have regular features that describe the quests of people with anomalous symptoms to get help. These accounts are full of dismissive doctors who tell the patients there’s nothing wrong with them. I have great respect for the medical profession and understand that doctors are under constant pressure from all sides. I’m sure there are patients who are physically fine and suck up busy doctors’ time. But over and over I’ve wondered why it is that doctors, when they don’t know what to do, can’t say to suffering people, “I’m sorry you’re going through this. There is something wrong with you, and right now I don’t know what that is. But I will do my best to find out.”

Photograph by Getty Images.