He Got away with it
Vacant-eyed people who appear as if they have already given up, stare as I follow the lawyer to her office from the waiting room. Everywhere, chaos reigns. Boxes of files spill out of room and line the corridor, as office telephones ring incessantly. I wasn’t sure if this was the right place, but I felt I had to do something. He had gotten away with it for far too long.
Smoothing my lilac school uniform down over my stomach I stare at its size. No matter how little I eat, my stomach seems to just grow and grow. I look fat and I feel fat. I’m seventeen and I’m ugly.
“Morning. Here’s your breakfast,” my mother says as she brings me toast. I know that I have to choke this down, but I’ll make up for it by throwing out my lunch when I get to school and by jogging to the train station.
Being a good Catholic schoolgirl, I don’t take a seat on the train. It’s forbidden with our school passes. I stand, holding on to the pole by the train doors. The train stinks. It’s summer and there is no air-conditioning. Even at this time of the morning, body odour mixes with heavy doses of deodorant while a hot wind gusts through the open windows. It’s a thirty minute train ride to school and I can’t stand it any longer. The searing pain in my stomach takes over and I slide to the filthy floor clutching my belly. Mortified, I ignore the stares of the suited passengers as I get out at my stop and gingerly walk the seven hundred metres to school, tormented by agony.
School used to be fun, but now everyone just stares at me. No-one wants to sit near me anymore as my protruding stomach might be contagious. Our HSC is only months away and my grades are dreadful. I can no longer concentrate with the constant pain and by the whispers that are surrounding me like a dense fog.
“Do you think she’s pregnant?”
I hear this daily. Even my science teacher is giving me the evil eye this morning. In a Catholic school no-one dares to ask in case it’s true.
After months of hearing, “It’s just period pain. All women have to deal with it.” My mother finally agrees to take me to the local GP centre after school. The doctor asks a few questions as he examines me, and I explain that I’ve always had painful periods, but now they’re unbearable. I’m embarrassed sitting in my singlet and underwear, as I haven’t developed enough to wear a bra. As he carries out a perfunctory feel of my belly, I flinch and start to cry.
“Get dressed. You need to pull yourself together. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re just stressed about your HSC. I’ll prescribe you some Buscopan which relieves severe cramps and you should be as right as rain. Go home and stop eating so much.”
“I told you, you’re fine. Women’s bodies are made to suffer. We’re stronger for it,” my mother expounds as we wait in the chemist for the Buscopan.
“We’ll give that new cabbage diet a go. You’re getting quite fat.”
I’ve never felt so lonely.
Wearing a loose tunic and skirt to cover my belly, I work in the video store, punching out movie rentals ranging from the silly to the pornographic. This was all the work I could get after failing my HSC. The porno customers don’t usually look me in the eye but the ones that do, are the ones I worry about as I walk home in the evening.
My boss, who typically is too close and too observant, comments, “What’s wrong with your leg?”
I look down to see a purple, blue bruise covering my leg, from my ankle to half way up my thigh. My foot is so swollen that it is bulging over the sides of my shoe. Clearly showing his distaste at my disfigurement, he grudgingly allows me to end my shift so I don’t scare the customers. Frightened, I take a bus to the local GP centre. This time it’s a woman.
“You’re still on the Buscopan I see? If you can please undress and hop on the table, I’ll have a look at you.”
Her slim hands are cold and confident as she examines my leg, yet they hesitate as she comes to my waist.
“Are you pregnant?”
Imagining my ultra-conservative and radically Catholic parents’ apoplectic reactions for being in a position to be even asked that question, I emphatically say, “No.”
Incredulous she says, “I think you need an emergency ultrasound. The bruise on your leg is far too large for you not to have noticed bumping it. In fact, it’s more like a severe injury after a motorbike accident. We’ll also check to see if you’re pregnant. You need to go Casualty at Westmead Hospital.”
I’m scared, but I’m also angry. I’m not pregnant. Why doesn’t she believe me? Is it because I’m a Westie eighteen-year-old girl that fits a certain stereotype?
In Casualty, the ultrasound doesn’t take long. The pelvic examination takes much longer with the male doctor constantly ordering me, “To relax.” His exasperation and impatience is clear. My humiliation complete. Not only am I a liar, but I’m also a difficult patient, who is too frigid to be examined, despite the ultrasound request to check if I was a slutty, pregnant teen. Just another suburban adolescent in denial.
Lying in bed waiting, I hear the moans and screams from other patients. Minutes, or maybe hours later my doctor appears in the corridor, with two other men in white coats. He closes the curtains when he sees me watching. Unbeknownst to them the curtains do not act as a cone of silence and I hear snippets of their murmured conversation.
“Unknown…extensive mass…cancer.” Covering myself in the blanket, I curl into the foetal position as I’m possessed by fear.
The next three days are a blur. An emergency laparoscopy turns into full blown surgery when it is revealed that my body has been dealing with severe polycystic endometriosis. Both of my ovaries are removed as they have been invaded by cysts and are no longer viable. My uterus has been engorged by a cyst the size of a large tissue box – the malicious source of my fat stomach. The combination of all these cysts had begun to interfere with the blood flow to my leg, leading to the extensive bruising. By the time surgery was finished, I was unable to bear children and had to take three months off work to recover. Later that week I also became unemployed.
Still in shock, I ask the doctor, “If I knew about this earlier, could you have saved my ovaries?”
Unable to look me in the eye he replies, “Unlikely, we probably would have waited to see how you went after being put on hormonal treatment.”
There is no vindication here. Unwittingly or perhaps deliberately, he has completely absolved the previous doctor, who had been looking after me for a year with dismissal and prescriptions for useless, expensive pills. No-one believed the amount of pain I was in and as a result I could no longer have my own children.
My deeply Catholic mother, who believes having a family is the ultimate for every woman, watches me cry and says with pity, “Who will love you now?”
In an effort to make him understand, I go see the doctor who misdiagnosed me ten years ago.
“I didn’t realise,” he says, as he stares out the window refusing to make eye-contact.
“There is nothing I can do for you. Get out.”
Standing in the waiting room, the receptionist starts to shout at me.
“He’s done nothing wrong. He’s a good doctor.”
I’m no longer a good girl and I calmly repeat, “Can I please have my files? I will not leave until you provide me with a copy.”
I catch the file as it’s thrown across the desk. The patients in the waiting room can stare at me all they like. I turn and leave with my head high as the receptionist calls me “bitch” on the way out.
Later that evening I see my lawyer after she’s had time to absorb my story and read my file. The file that labelled me an "overemotional teenager" who was trying to avoid her HSC studies.
She closes the door behind her and the cacophony of office phones and mutterings from the waiting room, fade away. She sits behind her desk and folds her hands.
“You definitely have a case that has merit for a civil claim. But there is one major problem. For this type of medical malpractice, The Statute of Limitations came into effect two months ago. I’m sorry, but time has run out.”