Before I entered the emergency room, I ran frantically through two choices in my head: cry to the doctor that I was in unimaginable pain (I was) and ask for medication or take a deep breath and calmly explain my history of rupturing ovarian cysts and explain that the pain I was experiencing was similar.
Why did I do this? Because I haven’t had great past experiences when explaining my pain to doctors. Act too upset and be seen as hysterical and overreacting or act calm and have my pain not believed. The day before, when I first felt the searing pain and my mother urged me to go to the ER, I immediately cried to her, “No one will believe me.”
Years of Pain and Struggle
Since the age of sixteen, I’ve struggled with ovarian cysts. Every few months, they’ve pressed painfully on my ovaries and bladder, causing daily, crippling pain and long, excruciating periods. They’ve ruptured, sending me to the emergency room for morphine, painful pelvic exams, ultrasounds, and CAT scans to ensure that I didn’t have ovarian torsion — which could cause infertility. Each time I’ve been sent home with a pat on the back and some Advil. Meanwhile, I’ve been prescribed higher and higher dosages of birth control pills in order to “calm” my ovaries and prevent them from producing anymore cysts (spoiler alert: I’m 20 and my ovaries are no calmer, but I digress.) On top of that, I’ve experienced long, painful periods (during which I do not go to class) and chronic pain throughout the month at various intervals.
For four years, I’ve received a variety of responses to my pain, from sympathy to concern, but what sticks out most is the doubt. I switched gynecologists after one rolled her eyes after I expressed concern over lower abdominal pain I’d been experiencing. “Maybe it’s a UTI,” she suggested, refusing to hear anymore. When it was revealed that I didn’t have a UTI, she didn’t press the issue. She just ignored it and shrugged her shoulders when I brought it up again. Another gynecologist suggested I simply take Advil when I told him about my unusually painful periods and other pain during the month — which persisted through pain medication. That day, in the ER this February, as I mulled through my two choices, I finally decided to take the calm route. The doctor frowned and asked me, “Are you sure you’re in that much pain?”
And I’m not alone. When deciding to write this article in a moment of intense cramping, I reached out to the rest of the VocaLady staff and asked if they’d ever had bad experiences with a doctor not believing their pain. Note, my staff is mainly female and within minutes of sending my message, I received several “YES”s back.
So, my question began: do doctors take women’s pain less seriously?
When Women Are in Pain
If you Google that question, you’ll find a plethora of responses. In 2015, Joe Fassler published an article in The Atlantic where he detailed his wife’s struggle to be seen at a hospital. Fourteen hours after coming in with lower abdominal pain, she was finally wheeled into surgery to remove an ovary that suffered torsion from an ovarian cyst. Fassler writes, “Nationwide, men wait an average of 49 minutes before receiving an analgesic for acute abdominal pain. Women wait an average of 65 minutes for the same thing. Rachel [his wife] waited somewhere between 90 minutes and two hours.” Rachel hadn’t been taken seriously, Fassler believes, due to her gender. He references an essay by Leslie Jamison wherein she writes that women are often seen as more hysterical, exaggerating their pain. Thus, they have to prove that their pain is truly bad in order to be taken seriously.
This phenomena is no joke. It can have deadly consequences. For sufferers of heart disease, gender bias has a name: Yentl syndrome. According to the Huffington Post, women suffering from heart disease may be refused treatment unless their symptoms look like a man’s. This is because a man’s symptoms may differ from a woman’s for the same disease and yet, a woman will not be treated or taken as seriously due to the focus on male symptoms. Largely, heart disease is understood as a “man’s” disease. When women suffer from it, their treatment is delayed due to disbelief. Nearly 400,000 women die each year in the U.S. due to heart disease.
After Fassler’s article came out, The Atlantic started a series where female readers were invited to share similar stories to Rachel’s. Scrolling through, one can see that many female readers have felt as though their pain has been downplayed, ignored, or not believed. Magdalene Bedi, one of the VocaLady staff members, recalled, in an email, a doctor refusing to consider that the treatment prescribed for a condition she was suffering from wasn’t working and simply prescribing more to Magdalene, who continued to suffer.
Sexism is alive and well in healthcare, as hundreds of women have continued to point out. It’s also important to note that this sexism is internalized, too. Magdalene writes that her experience shows, “that even female doctors can be disrespectful to other women. We don’t all share symptoms and experiences, and internalized sexism is very real and arguably even encouraged.” I’ve also had poor experiences with female doctors as this sort of sexism, where we believe that women are merely hysterical and exaggerate their pain. This is deeply ingrained in our society.
What can we, women, do about it?
Forced to be Proactive
Magdalene wrote in an email that she had to give up her search for medical help and, “started doing holistic treatments, changing my diet, and bearing through the worst of it.” Countless forums have detailed the stories of other women changing doctor after doctor to find someone who believes them while other women have made key lifestyle changes. I’ve seen about six different gynecologists in the past four years and I’ve kept careful logs and diaries of my pain. Furthermore, there are a variety of tactics one can employ in order to be better listened to at the doctor’s office.
So, do doctors take women’s complaints less seriously? The answer I’m going with: yes. If you’re still not convinced, there are countless articles and other writing on this subject. I, like many other women, have been forced to take my health into my own hands, begging to be listened to, seeking self-treatment, switching doctors or simply ignoring the issue in hopes that I really am “overreacting” and it’s nothing.
Nonetheless, no matter how proactive and vigilant we are, the fear and the scars remain. Fassler writes that his wife suffers from nightmares. Magdalene writes that her stomach liner is damaged irreparably from the stomach ulcers she suffered from for years. I fear the day that I’m ignored or disbelieved so long that by the time I get treatment, it’ll be too late to fix the issue.
My final question is this, a question that is harder to Google: when will women’s pain be made visible?