Winnipegger Megan Duczminski will never forget the moment when, lying in a hospital bed and waiting for treatment, she overheard residents outside her door talking about her case.

They were laughing.

“They were saying ‘Oh, she thinks she has this symptom, too? And she thinks she has that symptom, seriously?'” she said. “They were ridiculing me.”

Duczminski, 29, said she’s spent close to two years in and out of hospital seeking respite from myriad symptoms, ranging from headaches to partial paralysis, only to get conflicting diagnoses, ridicule or both.

And that, CBC health columnist Dr. Brian Goldman says, is a symptom of a larger issue: how chronic undiagnosed illness is stressful for both patients and physicians.

Bad bedside manners

“I would hope that my colleagues aren’t dismissive” in these cases, Goldman said. “But if I don’t know the diagnosis, I’m getting anxious, ’cause I’m thinking ‘What am I going to say?’ How many times am I going to say ‘I don’t know’ before someone says ‘You call yourself a doctor?'”

In times of stress, the medical community sometimes succumbs to bad bedside manners, he said.

“A lot of the time, people like me are thinking about our own distress when they see people like Megan,” Goldman said. “And as preposterous as that sounds, it’s very hard to be empathetic if you’re thinking about yourself and not about the person that you’re empathizing with.”

Duczminski has unsuccessfully searched for answers since the first symptoms appeared, including going to doctors in the U.S. who now say she has Lyme disease. Doctors in Manitoba say it’s a combination of some mystery illness and fibromyalgia.

None of them are her advocates, she said.

‘Tuck her in’

“I remember on one of my visits to emergency, I was waiting for 10 hours, sitting in a chair and in severe pain, so my mother asked if there was a bed for me to lie down in,” Duczminski recalled. “The nurse said ‘Oh, does she want us to tuck her in, too?'”

Controversial diagnoses — the Canadian medical community is divided over the validity of U.S. tests for Lyme disease — carry added challenges, Goldman said.

His advice for Duczminski and others dealing with similar scenarios is to do some research, find someone in the mainstream medical community who’s well-respected — and advocate for yourself.

“And you hope that you’ve got your physician on your side who can advocate on your behalf and say ‘You know what? Somebody like Megan is a reasonable person,'” Goldman said. “‘I don’t think they’re making this up. The symptoms don’t fit into the usual package of neurological diseases that I see. Could it be …?’ And then you send the patient to a specialist.”

And treat the physician with the same respect you want, Goldman advised, especially once you’ve found one who will listen to you.