I’m not sure when I realized that I needed my husband to validate my concerns when I see a doctor, but sweet baby Jeebus, do I ever. Especially on first-time visits.
I thought that fully-formed words leaving my mouth in an acceptable order at an audible volume met the sufficient requirements of communicating clearly. I had no idea that I was missing an integral element to actually be heard.
You see, quite often when a woman goes alone to see a physician for health issues, chronic or not, there is an underlying perception that she is…how can I put this delicately?
From the Classical Era of Ancient Greece (and let’s be honest, probably long before that), women have been viewed to hold hysterical tendencies. Hysteria was literally thought to be the product of a “wandering womb”(1).
Let that sink in for a moment–if a woman had any complaint, whether physical, emotional, or mental, it was believed to be because her uterus was taking a stroll. If you can’t actually hear me rolling my eyes, rest assured, I am.
The unsaid flip side to this mindset was that women were unable to suffer like men, that certainly they had to be exaggerating, or confused, or flat-out just seeking attention when they presented complaints.
Lest you think this is a man-hatin’ slugfest, I should mention that female physicians generally aren’t any better. In fact, there can be the additional issue of female physicians looking down on their female patients for seeking help instead of toughing it out; “manning up”, so to speak.
For instance, there was the rheumatologist that told me that I needed to “pull myself together” when I tried to explain that I had had to withdraw from college and was finding it increasingly difficult to work even part-time due to pain and fatigue. Because she had been able to work her way through med school, she saw no reason why I couldn’t work and/or complete my undergraduate degree without complaint; my concerns were completely dismissed. There was palatable contempt because I was exhibiting a negative female stereotype–weakness–and I was making the rest of womankind look bad.
The hysteria mentality is embedded in medical culture, much to the detriment of women the world over. I asked a couple of my chronic pain social media groups if they had ever experienced misogyny with medical providers, and within half an hour, I had received 20 incidents that made me positively ragey. Less than 24 hours later, there were 80. EIGHTY. And none of them were any less infuriating. Here are a few examples:
“My whole life. And in contrast- my dad went in with an almost identical problem, got a diagnosis and a fix almost immediately.
I have been anemic my whole entire life. Complained of being sleepy and cold. I was told I have heavy periods and eat red meat (I am allergic). I quit leaving the house out of fear of being cold. I got dark circles under my eyes from severe anemia at age 10.
I napped every single day of my school years. My joints creak like an old wooden door. I’m tiny and underweight so I must be fine.
I got turned away from so many doctors because girls are just anemic sometimes (it was before I got periods and continued after my periods were stopped with medication by OB/GYN because she said I could die with iron that low). I’m fine I was told for 17 years. I was never fine. I have severe Crohn’s and it’s suspected I have for over 20 years. I complained to anyone who would listen and no one believed that I could be sick. Crohn’s almost killed me from internal bleeding. That’s why I was anemic. It took a team of 6 great (all female) doctors to realize women and girls aren’t ‘just anemic sometimes’. I hate every doctor that told me I was too skinny to be sick and that I was making it up for attention.”
“I was pretty much told that I was making it up and should look into seeking help for possible Munchhausen when I went to the ER for severe pain in my abdomen. The male doctor told me that it was probably just bad cramps and that I should get used to it. I didn’t tell anyone about the pain for the next year until my mom caught me crying from it, which she knows is a big red flag because I’m used to a certain level of constant pain. It was stage 3 endometriosis and and what was now a golf ball sized cyst that had cause pretty severe uterine torsion.”
“I have PCOS and went to the ER with shooting pains in my legs and they said it was just cramps. My first OB/GYN thought I was just saying I had pains to get birth control and then found cysts and an irregular shaped uterus.”
“I had an ovarian cyst that had hurt constantly for three months and the male doctor told me it was probably my period. When I asked “you think the constant, one sided pain is my period?” he sighed super heavily and was like “so you want a CT or something?” Then, my insurance called to tell me they were denying the CT and when I asked why, they said they’d been given insufficient information on why I needed it. Apparently the doctor had written on the order ‘unnecessary; patient request’.”
“Boiled down my breathing problems to anxiety…nope. I had food allergies.”
“My GI doctor called me ‘a precious little girl’ when I had to go in for an ultrasound and sonogram for my insides. He then made fun of the amount of anxiety medications I’m on, stating I had ‘white woman’s disease’ and said he would’ve diagnosed me with hysteria if he were my GP (seriously what year is this?) my issues/complaints fell on deaf ears. When I stated I wanted a second opinion, I received a letter stating that I was no longer allowed at that GI practice, regardless of which doctor I was to see. It was a really unfortunate time and I definitely was dismissed as just being a ‘hysterical woman’.”
” I had a broken neck misdiagnosed as stress, LOL.”
“My gynecologist recommended I get the Mirena IUD, well, long story short, I hemorrhaged really badly as a result, to the point I was so anemic I was having difficulty breathing and was passing out. I wound up in the ER. I was explaining everything to the doctor there and, out of nowhere, this other doctor comes in to the room and starts listening to the tail end of my description (I guess because it’s a teaching hospital…hell if I know). He butts in, says, ‘If you’re that dramatic over having your period you should have a hysterectomy.’ Then he turned around and walked out. I just sat there stunned. Turns out I had bled so much I had to be given blood and a shit ton of iron. Thankfully, the damn IUD actually came out because I was bleeding so much.”
“I wound up having a hysterectomy at age 25 (and childless) for stage IV endometriosis (which means it was in other organs at that point, no longer just limited to my reproductive system). The reason it had progressed to stage IV is because I had been previously diagnosed as having IBS and anxiety by one doctor & ‘female complaint’ by another.”
“When I had horrible stomach pain and severe rectal bleeding as a 17 year old, my doctor sent me to stress therapy. I lost 1/5 of my body weight and got admitted to the hospital with a high fever before anyone believed I was sick, and got my Crohn’s diagnosis. (Doctor was female as well, which goes to show that misogyny is just that pervasive in medicine.)”
For the sake of my own sanity, I’ll limit myself to relaying only these experiences, but know beyond any doubt that I could write a full post just like this one about each and every woman that has had to deal with persistent medical issues. I think that I would be hard-pressed to find anywomen that haven’t felt disregarded by someone in the medical profession at some point.
It’s maddening that the presence of a penis at an appointment is the catalyst that leads to being taken at my word. Suddenly, my symptoms aren’t second-guessed, my mental status is not brought into question, and I’m not given a heavy sigh and asked if I’m sure I’m not exaggerating.
Having a physically intimidating husband escort me to visits doesn’t necessarily erase all problems, but I can guarantee you that Dr. Dick would never have been such an ass if I had been accompanied by my 6’4″ soldier. My husband’s mere presence conveys that at least one man believes that I’m worth being heard. Think of it as the medical equivalent of telling a creeper that you have a boyfriend–no matter what else you might say, the fact that you ‘belong’ to a man is what is actually heeded.
So, as infuriating as it is, I highly suggest women take a spouse/boyfriend/father/brother/male friend to, at the very least, the first appointment with a new doctor or when presenting a familiar doctor with new symptoms.
It’s up to you whether or not you make him wear an EMOTIONAL SUPPORT PENIS vest.
(1) Hysteria and the Wandering Womb-