Ask questions. Get answers. Explore options. Florence Slatinsky makes the case that effective health care is a verb—and it may just save your life.
Photography by Mackensey Alexander
Until I had children, I thought of advocacy as something we did for others, to represent voices that aren’t heard because of income or skin color or zip code. But then, I gave birth to my first son, Michael, who was a large, loud and sick little fella. After a year of sleepless nights and multiple rounds of antibiotics and steroids, I finally asked his pediatrician why he kept getting sick so frequently. Was it normal, I wondered?
Turns out it wasn’t.
Michael needed tubes in his ears because they weren’t draining properly, so he had recurrent infections—a simple, underlying cause that could have been detected if our pediatrician at the time would have treated my son rather than his symptoms.
Being responsible for my children’s health taught me to ask questions and have conversations about my own health options. It’s this same desire for direct, two-way communication that’s fueling Dr. John Hargrove’s functional medicine practice, Holistic Health Center of Savannah. Although he doesn’t advertise and he’s billing less in insurance reimbursements than ever before, Hargrove has experienced an increase in the number of patients and a decrease in their overall ages.
As a chiropractor, Hargrove often saw middle-aged people and seniors, who required adjustments due to pain, injury or surgery. During the past year, however, Millenials have turned to him out of frustration with one-size-fits-all medical treatment.
“What’s happening,” Hargrove explains, “is that people are taking their health care into their own hands, doing their own research and making choices about the care they want based on the information they’re gathering. The age bracket under 35 isn’t ok with being excluded from decision-making; they don’t like being dismissed. They’re looking for a doctor who will listen to them.”
His patients have come to him not just for chiropractic care but for all manner of tests to get a baseline picture of their overall health so that they can take action for a long, healthy future. From his perspective, a patient being his or her own advocate is a good thing—more invested patients are more likely to follow through and therefore have better outcomes.
By listening to her own instincts and pushing to get noticed, Lindsey Wirht may have saved her own life.
The vivacious, in-demand makeup artist and mother of two young sons decided she couldn’t wait six weeks to see her regular ob-gyn about a rash and swelling on one of her breasts.
On December 4, 2015, Wirht called her doctor’s office, described her symptoms and asked if she could come in for an examination. She was told the doctor had no openings until January 21. She went ahead and made the appointment, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. Concerned and tired—standard for a mother of busy boys during the holidays—she followed a friend’s suggestion to try a local walk-in clinic.
The clinic’s nurse practitioner diagnosed Wirht’s rash as mastitis and prescribed antibiotics. Although Wirht didn’t think mastitis was the culprit, she took the medicine. Ten days later, one breast was nearly twice the size of the other and the rash remained.
She returned to the clinic and asked about Inflammatory Breast Cancer, which she had researched online. The nurse practitioner did a breast exam, but after finding no lump sent Wirht home with a topical cream and instructions to call back if it didn’t help. The cream made no difference, so Wirht called and asked for a referral for a mammogram. The scheduler at the imaging center told her it would be three weeks. In tears at this point, Wirht asked if there was any way they could see her sooner. The woman on the phone managed to squeeze her in the next morning. Wirht credits this sympathetic receptionist with saving her life.
On January 23, Wirht was diagnosed with Stage Three Inflammatory Breast Cancer, a particularly aggressive form of the disease. It had been six weeks since she noticed the rash—most women with IBC aren’t diagnosed for four to six months, by which time the cancer has already spread and often metastasized. In May, Wirht, donning a bright head scarf and red lipstick, celebrated her last chemotherapy treatment.
In May, Wirht was named Susan G. Komen of Coastal Georgia’s Survivor of the Month. A double mastectomy and radiation lie ahead. Wirht’s story is a powerful reminder that we know ourselves best and that we can’t always wait to be worked into the system.
Dr. John Hargrove reminds us that the most important quality of any medical professional is that he or she listens. Here are other qualities you should expect:
- Your doctor should take a full medical history. This step is often overlooked because of the pressure on overworked doctors to get through as many patients as possible, but it should be part of any patient care.
- The office should follow through with returning phone calls, scheduling and referrals. These are basics, but frequently a source of frustration for patients.
- Your health care provider should understand your goals and, within the realm of medical possibility, help you achieve them. More medications may help a symptom, but if you want to reduce the number of medications you’re on, there might be other options.