You may or may not have seen the CBC news story about the woman who had to have part of her leg amputated after breaking her foot because she couldn’t get anyone to take her concerns seriously. If you haven’t, you really should read it.
A very loud voice in my head keeps screaming the same question: Would this have happened if she had been a man? Studies have shown that women, when visiting a physician, are less likely to be taken seriously then men. That some women feel the need to exaggerate or lie about their symptoms to be heard. That women wait longer for treatment than men and that both doctors and nurses prescribe less pain medication to women after surgery. The conclusions are that there is a gender bias against women by medical professionals. And it is becoming dangerous for women.
Historically, medical research has been done on men because it was believed that women, with their periods, hormones and other issues could not be consistent subjects. Women were considered hysterical in the past and were often isolated and sometimes locked up when they had female-specific problems. In reality, doctors know very little about women’s health. The recent realization that women who have heart attacks do not display the same symptoms as men and are often sent home from emergency departments without treatment is just one example of this.
When I was in my early twenties, I began to vomit up most of my meals. This was very difficult for me because I enjoyed food. Growing up, I was the kid who loved Brussels sprouts and spinach and cauliflower and onions. The kid who wolfed down dressing and mashed potatoes and gravy. The kid who picked at the spicy crackling on our roasts while my dad was cutting them and pretending to smack my fingers in fun. Suddenly, all I could keep down was dry Cheerios for breakfast, soda crackers for lunch and boiled white rice for dinner, sometimes augmented with a few frozen peas.
The other problem I had was a wildly irregular cycle. I could go months, and months, and months between periods. Plus I was gaining weight and looking bloated through the abdomen. Of course when I went to my doctor, his first response was that I was pregnant. He sent me for a pregnancy test. Yup back then you had to drop your pee off to get a pregnancy test. I was pretty sure that I wasn’t pregnant because I was recovering from a not-so-great relationship and had been avoiding both men and sex for a while. But he was the doctor and back then doctors were like priests so I delivered my pee. The test came back negative. He then sent me for an upper GI, which also came back negative, and then another pregnancy test and two more after that.
After I had been puking up my food for over six months, my doctor finally decided to send me to a gastroenterologist. This specialist was old and cranky. What he lacked in bedside manner, he supposedly made up for with his wealth of knowledge and his vast experience. He decided to put me under and put a camera down my throat. When I came to, he was staring at me with the sternness of a 1960’s high-school principal. “There’s nothing wrong with you,” he said. “Not a thing. You’re doing this on purpose. Probably to get attention.”
I added doctors below men and sex on my list of things to avoid and continued to eat dry Cheerios.
A few months after that, I fell down a flight of stairs and started what I thought was my period. It had been months and months and months since I had a period. Long enough that had I been pregnant, I would be pushing the kid around in a stroller. In reality, I was hemorrhaging and ended up in the hospital a couple of days later for an emergency ultrasound.
The surgeons had no idea what they would find when they cut me from my navel to my clitoris. What they found was two large cysts–one the size of a grapefruit, the other the size of an egg–attached to my fallopian tubes. In order to remove them they had to cut out sections of my tubes then join them back together. They left me with a scar that was one inch wide by six inches long and the prognosis that I would never be able to have kids. My son JT is very happy he proved them wrong.
I recovered, went back to eating all the things I loved and moved on. Then, in my early forties, just over twenty years later, I began to vomit up my meals again. I was also putting on weight and feeling bloated.
“I’ve had this before,” I said to my doctor after describing the symptoms. “It was cysts on my fallopian tubes. It took a year and an ultrasound to get diagnosed, so I would like an ultrasound. I don’t want it to go on for a year this time.”
This time my doctor was a woman. I honestly thought she would be more open to my concerns but I was wrong. “I’ll order an ultrasound,” she said curtly,” but if it is negative, I’ll treat you for irritable bowel syndrome.”
Aren’t you listening to me? I wanted to scream, I know what this is. I have had this before.
My second surgery followed the same path as the first. They removed what was an ovary that had grown into that unidentifiable mass described as being the size a volley ball. They also removed another smaller cyst; and at my request, so that this would never happen again, my other ovary, my uterus, and any thing else that something could grow on.
Was I smug? You’re damn right I was smug. That second surgery was almost twenty years ago, but things really haven’t changed. Women need to be smug more often. We know ourselves better than anyone, and we know when something isn’t right. When it comes to our health, we need to insist on being heard and insist on being treated. Doctors are not gods.
I was lucky, I only lost my faith in the medical profession, that woman in the news story–she lost part of her leg. Her future has been permanently altered. Think about it.