As originally posted on The Mighty on June 9, 2015:
To the doctor who asked if my other daughter was “normal,”
You may not remember me or my daughters, but you saw us recently at an urgent care center when our 9-month-old, Ava, was suffering from yet another double ear infection.
You may not remember providing care to Ava, but I can tell you that my 7-year-old daughter, Olivia, and I will never forget you. And it’s not because of the high quality of services you and your office provided that day, which you did and we are very grateful for.
Instead, what will remain ingrained in our memories from our time with you is how you asked, right in front of Olivia, even pointing directly at her, “Is she normal?”
I had just gone over Ava’s medical history with you and said we were still awaiting genetic tests for answers. Instead of responding with compassion about what Ava has gone through in her short 9 months of life, you questioned, right in front of her, whether my oldest child is “normal.”
From the lack of response on your part, I suspect you didn’t see how my face fell when you made that statement. I also suspect that you didn’t see how Olivia’s little jaw dropped in disbelief. Isn’t it interesting, and telling, that my 7-year-old found your question surprising, and as she called it later, “disrespectful,” and yet you showed no recognition of how your question could be off the mark.
I wrestled on whether or not to write this letter and send it off to you. I wrestled on whether to post it on the Internet, because I’ve had enough contact with medical professionals in the last nine months to realize you’re only human and say things in the heat of the moment that you may not mean. But Olivia’s response motivated me to write this, and I hope it’s helpful not just to you, but to other medical professionals as well.
During that moment in your office, I was more focused on getting through the appointment quickly and finding Ava much-needed relief. I mustered a light-hearted response of, “We think she’s normal most of the time,” exchanging a quick smile and laugh with Olivia about it. But inside, my heart was aching.
As a mother, I understand that how Ava’s body has acted in the past nine months is far from the norm. But I can tell you she is normal, just as Olivia is and just as you and I are. You may not have called Ava abnormal that day, but your very question of Olivia’s normalcy and accentuation of “she” made your point for you. In your opinion, Ava is not normal, and therefore, you had to question whether Olivia is.
As if the question wasn’t hurtful enough, you made it right in front of Olivia, and she still brings it up often. Knowing her, she’ll continue to bring it up for days to come. In her opinion, you disrespected not just Ava that day, but her. Her assessment of how it was disrespectful is interesting, of course, since she is 7 years old, but here it is in her own words: “Ava is just as normal as me! Everyone is different and that’s OK and normal. There’s nothing not normal about being different!”
And because we have raised Olivia to recognize that differences are to be appreciated and respected, she continued on from there: “It’s disrespectful of that doctor to ask if I’m normal or not, because if she’s calling me normal, she’s not recognizing that I am different and unique.”
I love her thoughts on this. As I often like to remind people like you who makes negative comments about Ava being different, she is simply perfectly imperfect like we all are. Olivia realizes this, so in her book, we’re all not normal, and that is a very good thing.
There are so many things I’d like to say to you about how your comment has affected Olivia and me and even my husband, even though he wasn’t there when it happened. There are so many things I’d like to share with you about how beautiful, sweet, funny and determined our Ava is. She’s made me a better person and brightens the lives of everyone who comes into contact with her. I would love to tell you about how “normal” she is and what “normal” baby things she does.
What I will do, though, is encourage you to be more aware of the words that you use in your practice.
No matter how busy you are, no matter how difficult the crisis or sick the patient, the children and families that you serve each have their own stories, their own strengths and difficulties. And yes, that will include chronic health issues and disorders. Those illnesses and disorders don’t make the child any less normal, less loved or less worthy of providing medical care to.
Now that I’ve had the time and space to think about the question you asked me, this is what I wish I would have said to you: “Yes, Olivia is normal. She’s just as normal as Ava is. Ava has had her own particular health issues, but Olivia had her own particular health issues as a baby, too. That’s the funny thing about us all. We tend to live in bodies that suffer infections, diseases, broken bones and various other ailments. I think we could call that job security for you.”
Again, I’m sure you meant no harm that day in your office, but as you can see, it has left an indelible mark on our family. You may not ever remember us, but we will always remember you. And we’ll be praying that no other family has to hear the words “is she normal” ever again.