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Do People Think Your MS Problems Are All in Your Head?

June 25, 2018

Have you ever had a friend, spouse, or even a doctor tell you that you’re imagining your MS pain, your fatigue, or even your sexual problems? “You’re not trying,” they might say. Or, “You just need to exercise.” It happens all the time for many of us, and it’s not unique to people with MS.

But there’s a doctor in Boston who understands and feels your pain, literally. Dr. Alice Flaherty is a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, and as a recent profile in the STAT e-letter puts it, “She likes seeing patients other doctors have given up on.”

“These poor patients are typically seen as just not wanting to get better,” Flaherty told STAT’s Eric Boodman. “What was it about us — the caregivers, family members, and doctors — what was it that made us attribute willfulness to people who were obviously miserable?”

Dr. Flaherty treats, and consults about, patients who have been told by other doctors “Oh, it’s all in your head.” She’s been told that herself as a patient. Dr. Flaherty is bipolar. She told The New York Times back in 2009, “The psychiatrists said, ‘You should get used to this as your new normal,’ but I never did. It was always alienating when people said, ‘Oh, that’s just bipolar illness talking.’ No, hello — that’s me.”

The key, according to Dr. Flaherty, is for doctors and caregivers — anyone who deals with people who have an illness, really — is to have “empathy.” Merriam-Webster defines “empathy” as follows:

“[T]he action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner. …”

For people who care for patients, I define empathy as the ability to listen to what we, as patients, have to say, watch how we’re forced to live our lives, and then try to walk in our shoes to understand how we feel. Empathy is what the husband of the MS patient who vented on Facebook needs to learn. That shouldn’t be that hard to do.