The Doctor Who Took a 10-Year-Old Seriously, And the 20 Year Friendship that Ensued

Chrissie was in pain far too frequently for a 10-year-old. It wasn’t unusual for her to run off the netball court or a dancing stage to vomit. Sometimes, she’d wake up in the middle of the night because she felt so sick.

Her concerned parents took her to several doctors, and after running multiple tests, they all reached the same conclusion — it was in her head. Chrissie, today a 28-year-old Sydney administrator, says the consensus seemed to be, “‘There’s nothing wrong’. It’s not a virus, she’s not allergic to anything, it’s not gluten intolerance, there’s no dairy allergy.”

Because she had recently moved from Western Australia to New South Wales, the many doctors she saw seemed to think she was making the whole thing up because she wasn’t thrilled about the move. Again and again, they hypothesised that her symptoms were psychological, because they couldn’t uncover any physical reason behind them. Perhaps worse still, even some of Chrissie’s own friends and family began to draw a similar conclusion.

Chrissie’s mother took a different view. Being in the health industry herself, she knew that her normally happy-go-lucky daughter had something seriously wrong with her and whatever it was, it wasn’t psychological.

Chrissie meets Dr Schnitzler

Chrissie’s mother continued searching for answers and after several unfruitful — and frustrating — doctor visits, was fortunate to meet Dr. Schnitzler from Lindfield Medical Practice. The experience was a life-changing one. As Chrissie puts it, “What really stood out about [Dr. Schnitzler] was that he was willing to take a 10-year old’s word seriously and that he talked to me like an adult.”

Rather than dismiss Chrissie’s symptoms, Dr. Schnitzler laid out an action plan. He asked Chrissie to keep track of when she wasn’t feeling well and what she’d eaten. In relatively short order, Dr. Schnitzler was able to deduce that Chrissie’s problems didn’t seem to be related to the foods she was eating.

He had, however, discovered a different correlation. Every time Chrissie was asleep or had physically exerted herself, she seemed to get ill. So Dr. Schnitzler referred her to a paediatric gastroenterologist to conduct a full endoscopy.

A diagnosis is made

Complete testing revealed that Chrissie had a hiatus hernia. The hiatus is a muscular wall that separates the chest cavity from the abdomen. Essentially, it’s an opening in the diaphragm.

In healthy patients, the esophagus or food pipe goes through the hiatus and attaches to the stomach. In Chrissie’s case, her stomach was bulging up into the chest through that opening.

Finally, a diagnosis. Chrissie says, “All it took was a tablet, essentially every day, that I’ve been on for the last twenty years to completely stop that. So after months and months of being ill, [Dr. Schnitzler] pointed it out within a matter of weeks.”

As you might expect, Dr. Schnitzler became Chrissie’s ongoing physician. What might surprise you, however, is just how long the relationship has lasted. To date, it’s been almost twenty years. Chrissie says, “It’s such peace of mind to have one person who has such a complete history, both medically and emotionally, and knows exactly what’s going on in my life. We can sort of have a chat and at the same time, he can say, ‘Remember 3 years ago, this happened? I wonder if they’re interrelated, let’s explore this further’.

“It’s really comforting and not something I think everyone has. It’s so different to just going see whoever each time and describe the symptoms that you have and they might be completely out of context. It’s nice to have a big picture of your health and for that to be conducted by one person is really special”.

The impact of patient engagement

As great as it is to have continuity when it comes to medical care, Chrissie cites another reason her relationship with Dr. Schnitzler has been so beneficial — it’s led to her positive approach to health care. She shares, “As I grow up, I find more and more people have this real aversion to the medical profession and seeing dentists, doctors, and specialists. I think having someone who was so brilliant early has really avoided that for me.

“I don’t have an issue and never had an issue going to the doctor and saying, ‘This is going on, I don’t know if it’s related to this, can we get a referral, can I see someone, what do I need to do?’” She adds, “I think not having that fear or frustration with someone in the medical field… is such a nice way to be. [My health issues] are always prioritised by him as well, which is really nice, that you’re not the only one that cares about your own health.”

Chrissie’s story makes it clear that when patients have strong relationships with their physicians, they’re more engaged. That engagement makes them more likely to seek care, ultimately leading to better health outcomes. 

Dr. Schnitzler agrees. He shared, “[Continuity of care] is good for the patient because it means someone doesn’t have to go through their whole history to know what things have been tried and not tried. It means you can treat the patient without repeating a lot of things that have already been done.

When I asked Dr Schnitzler what he thought led to Chrissie returning to him again and again for over two decades, he explained, “[The doctors at Lindfield Medical Practice] do their best to give people the time they need to talk, and they try their best to listen. So, when you do the consultation you take the time to listen to people and hear what their concerns are — rather than jumping in and cutting them off and going off on a different tangent.”

Chrissie today

Today you can consider Chrissie a Dr. Schnitzler evangelist. She says he now treats her friends, her husband, other family members, and “anyone who will listen to me.”

In fact, she says, “In my family, the minute someone thinks, ‘Oh, that’s not right’, it’s like, ‘Oh, let’s just go have a chat with Paul and see if he wants tests’. It’s really our experience to see a GP sooner rather than later.”

With the hectic lives people lead today, it might not be practical for every doctor and patient to develop a decades-long relationship. However, it’s apparent that when they do, ‘magic’ can occur — patients trust doctors more, seek medical care sooner, and experience better outcomes. Chrissie’s story makes that unmistakable.

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