Medical Bullying: Less Well-Known but Older than Cyberbullying
Medical bullying compared to cyberbullying is one of the least recognized forms of bullying reported in the news. In spite of the fact that medical bullying predates cyberbullying, public awareness by the media about bullying fails to recognize that the avoidance and shunning of patients with disfiguring conditions can be as painful for a patient as the medical condition and therapies they receive. Many children born with and treated for medical conditions that make them appear different from the status quo suffer from emotional neglect and ostracism. One patient writes a blog post about what it was like growing up with a medical condition that gave her overly wide set eyes and an atypical nose that resulted in her experiencing medical bullying.
Kelly Rock is a 19-year-old young woman who grew up with a rare facial deformity called “hypertelorbitism.” Hypertelorbitism for Kelly resulted in her being born with eyes that are wide-set and a nose unlike any of the children in her neighborhood. Kelly has a twin sister who does not have hypertelorbitism, and often had to endure unending questions of if they were twins then why didn’t she look like her sister
Treatment for hypertelorbitism requires multiple reconstructive surgeries throughout a child’s adolescence. Kelly will be undergoing her 9th surgery in the near future. “At times I feel like I grew up in the operating room, and there were plenty of times where I wished I could’ve been outside playing with my friends instead of being in a hospital bed attached to IV’s, wires, and drinking all kinds of nasty tasting medicines to ward off infection,” states Kelly in a blog post where she describes what it was like growing up with the condition and how people treated her.
While Kelly credits her doctors and her family with the exceptional care they gave her throughout her childhood, she also discusses how others often treated her badly. “I remember going to camp and having kids laugh and exclude me, or try to make me feel alienated just because I looked different. To this day I vividly remember a day in third grade, when I tried to play hopscotch with some of my classmates but they just turned their backs to and said I couldn’t play,” she states.
Dr. Peter Raffalli, MD, FAAP and the director of Children’s Bullying and Cyberbullying Prevention and Advocacy Collaborative (BACPAC) wrote a companion blog post regarding what Kelly and others in similar circumstances have to face as patients who experience medical bullying. In his post, Dr. Raffalli discusses the national problem bullying has become and how that Kelly’s story is both helpful and inspirational.
Dr. Raffalli points out that one of the many forms of bullying involves social exclusion. He states that, “Another insight we gather from Kelly’s story involves the way in which she was bullied. Kelly experienced shunning, otherwise known as exclusion. Shunning is one of the more prevalent forms of bullying. As human beings, we are all sensitive to being cast out of the group. Being socially isolated is painful. Shunning tactics are also more stealth and difficult to detect than physical bullying, like pushing, hitting or kicking.”
Dr. Raffalli provides a list of things to watch for that may indicate a child is being bullied:
• A change in grades
• A depressed mood
• A change in sleep patterns
• School avoidance
• An increase in physical complaints such as headaches, stomachaches, etc.
He also says that it is important to monitor your child’s relationships:
• Ask your child who he/she eats lunch with?
• Who does he hang out with at recess?
• Does she get invited to afterschool events like birthday parties?
Dr. Raffalli credits Kelly as being an exceptional person, but warns parents that not everyone is as strong as she is. “Fortunately, she [Kelly] had the fortitude to focus on what was important to her, including her loving family and her dedicated medical team,” he says, adding that, “ It’s important that we remember, however, that many children do not make it through their bullying experiences so well intact. Many suffer long term psychological and medical effects including depression, sleep disorder, academic underachievement, poor self-control, inattention and headache, to name a few.”
He concludes his post with the reminder that bullying is a public health problem that requires vigilance, detection, early intervention and follow-up involving parents, schools and pediatricians. Above all else, that education about the problem, its warning signs and finding avenues of help are important first steps.
As for Kelly, she is now enrolled in college, has a job, drives a car and lives like any other typical teenager. Typical except for perhaps a level of insight that is mature beyond her years and a testament of who she is when she states that, “I know it sounds cliché, but my life thus far has really made me realize that who a person is on the inside matters far more than their appearance. Funny thing is, I’ve known this since I was very young, but some people go their entire lives without ever realizing it and make others feel bad in the process. To me, that’s the real deformity.”