“No one offered any support or suggestions beyond weight loss,” reads Ellen Maud Bennett’s obituary.
Recent statistics around sick leave have shown that it takes a lot to convince someone to go to the doctor nowadays. Indeed, it seems more of us than ever before are succumbing to our culture of presenteeism, preferring to ignore our symptoms and soldier on into the office.
This means that, when we do eventually decide to visit our GP, we fully expect them to take us seriously, listen to what we’re saying and always have our best interests at heart. After all, we have finally put our health first: why would we not want to speak to someone about it in an open and respectful environment?
Imagine, then, how devastating it must feel when a medical professional shames you for your body.
However, we need to remember that fat-shaming from doctors isn’t just emotionally tough: it can also be potentially fatal – a fact which has been underlined in a Canadian woman’s self-penned obituary.
Ellen Maud Bennett was given “mere days to live” when she was diagnosed with an inoperable cancer. However, she decided to fill her days spending time reminiscing, laughing and eating delicious food (think fresh lobster flown in from Nova Scotia) with the people she loved the most.
Bennett, though, also decided to pen a “final message” to the world – which was entirely focused on the “fat-shaming” she received from those in the medical profession.
“Over the past few years of feeling unwell she sought out medical intervention and no one offered any support or suggestions beyond weight loss,” reads the obituary, which has since been published in Canada’s Times Colonist.
“Ellen’s dying wish was that women of size make her death matter by advocating strongly for their health and not accepting that fat is the only relevant health issue.”
Since its publication, Bennet’s obituary has resonated with people on social media and in the comments section of her obituary online. Indeed, many have felt encouraged to share their own experiences with fat-shaming from the medical community.
“I had ovarian tumours producing thyroid hormones growing in masses all over my pelvis,” wrote one Twitter user.
“These hormone producing tumours caused me to go from 130lbs to 220lbs IN A YEAR. All the doctors saw was ‘fat’, not WHY I went from fit/healthy to fat/sick. So check your BS opinion at the door.”
Another said: “For decades I was told to lose weight, even while I had an arrhythmia that required two different surgeries, and psoriatic arthritis.
“Falling asleep at my desk even without carbs, I finally realised I have low stomach acid due to my weight loss surgery. Your words ring so true. You were not alone in this fight. We will continue to educate ourselves, and demand better from our medical community.”
One more shared: “Your story reminds me of a long-ago co-worker who had the same issue.
“She also passed away from cancer, which should have been found earlier, but she said the doctors always blamed any symptoms she presented with on ‘obesity’.”
“I have been touched by Ellen’s story as a fellow person of size,” wrote one user. My mother spent five years seeing doctors for her pain and weakness and got the same treatment as Ellen until she finally found a doctor open enough to discover her autoimmune disease. Thank you Ellen for your words and your message.”
And another added: “I told my new primary care physician about my severe back pain (due to surgery years ago) earlier this year.
“He smiled and said, ‘Try starting each morning with a healthy breakfast’.”
While weight obviously can be a factor when it comes to your health, research has shown that doctors’ attitudes towards overweight patients are much as has been described above.
In one small 2001 study, researchers studied 122 physicians, having them evaluate medical charts of patients, described in the charts as “either average weight, overweight or obese, who presented with a migraine headache.”
In their findings, the study authors noted that some of the doctors “reported that seeing patients was a greater waste of their time the heavier that they were” and “that heavier patients were viewed to be more annoying, and that physicians felt less patience the heavier the patient was.”
And in 2016, similarly, The New York Times reported on other research that has shown doctors spend less time with obese patients – and noted that some medical equipment is often not able to accommodate obese patients.
Worse still, this culture of fat-shaming has discouraged many plus-size patients from visiting their doctors at all.
“I have avoided going to a doctor at all,” said Sarai Walker, the author of Dietland. “That is very common with fat people. No matter what the problem is, the doctor will blame it on fat and will tell you to lose weight.”
“Do you think I don’t know I am fat?” she added.
We can only hope that, going forward, Bennett’s obituary encourages medical professionals to look beyond a patient’s weight.