health

'I felt like I was going to die but my doctor still refused to believe I was a virgin.'

A few years ago, a bad reaction to a new medication landed me in the Emergency Room. My hands had swelled. My face looked bloated. It felt like the flu times three.

I told my manager at work. I knew something was definitely wrong. She didn’t care.

“We’ll see how long you last,” she texted me. I lasted 10 minutes.

Out of fear of losing my job, I went to work. I’m still not sure how I managed the 25km drive.

I sat at my desk. It didn’t take long before the whole world went topsy-turvy and I blacked out, landing on the floor. Coworkers called Mum, who came to my work and drove me to the ER. Nurses immediately brought me back to a room.

I knew the problem had been the new medication. Even a simple Google search could’ve told you that. Several others had had a similar reaction to the same pills. But I knew tests were necessary — blood, urine, so on — to rule out anything else.

When the doctor came in, I remember distinctly the way he looked at me. His face twisted in irritation. Impatience radiated off him. He had things to do, that aura said. Things more important than examining me.

I felt like a burden as I lay ill in the hospital bed.

I answered a few basic questions. I explained the new medication and the bad reaction I was having. Although a Google search is far beyond refutable proof of it being the exact cause of my issue, I explained others had had similar reactions and it seemed like the most logical reason.

He appeared to consider it, at first at least, before his questions began again.

The doctor asked, “Have you considered you might be pregnant?”

Pregnant?

“No, that’s not possible,” I said. I had never had sex. Mum, who sat diligently by my bed, almost laughed. She also knew I had never had sex. As an added bonus, I didn’t like men sexually.

“How can you be sure?” The doctor said.

“Because I’m a virgin,” I answered.

His eyes narrowed. It felt angry and demeaning. The hostility made me feel bad for seeking help at all. He didn’t believe me.

“You don’t have to lie to me because your mother is here,” he said.

I sat shocked. Lie? Here I was in my mid-twenties — a full-grown, independent adult. I wasn’t a scared teenage girl hiding her sexual history from Mummy. I had no reason to lie.

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“I’m not lying,” I said. “I have never had sex.”

Mum chipped in next. She looked like she might laugh at the whole thing.

“It’s true,” Mum said. “She hasn’t.”

He refused to believe either of us. The doctor demanded a urine panel. I expected a urine test as part of a normal workup, but the doctor demanded to specifically check if I was pregnant. It felt humiliating.

I must have been lying, he decided. Why would I tell the truth?

All my problems, he decided, were based on his one notion that I probably got knocked up and either was hiding it or didn’t want to believe I was pregnant.

It wasn’t until my urine cleared me of pregnancy did the doctor care to tend to my actual sickness. I lay in that hospital bed for hours upon hours in agony — my misery prolonged — before he even dared consider anything else could be wrong.

I fell in and out of sleep, so sick it hurt to move. I ended up staying in the ER for over eight hours, with far too many of those hours going without any treatment. I feared at one point I would die due to his inaction.

Eventually, he ordered some sort of medicine in an IV once his initial diagnosis fell through. I never saw him again that night.

Should I always expect that level of hostility? I wondered. Was this just part of being a woman?

In a different year when I started to experience severe digestive issues, my primary doctor sent me to a specialist — a man — who wrote off all my problems as my weight, my diet, or my period. Probably a mixture of all three, he said.

It didn’t matter to him my brother had also had severe digestive issues, which began around the same age as mine did. My brother’s problems grew so severe he required intestinal surgery.

The specialist decided I was a woman with a period who needed to eat less fast food, even as I told him I couldn’t eat that much fast food in the first place because it made me sick. He kept saying perhaps it’s my period or the common suggestion of Have you tried exercise?

The specialist didn’t want to do any tests but I demanded it. I knew something wasn’t right.

My stomach issues affected work. I feared food. I couldn’t eat before work events out of concern of being stuck somewhere without a nearby bathroom. It had grown so bad it didn’t matter what I ate or drank. If it wasn’t water, I would be sick.

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When the specialist performed my colonoscopy he discovered the problem— a bad case of colitis.

I had dreaded coming into the follow-up appointment to find out my results. What if it is my period? I thought. What if I do eat too much bad food? What if exercise could cure all my problems? Was I a hypochondriac?

I began to convince myself I burdened him with even asking for help. Others needed his help more than I did. It’s selfish of me to take up his valuable time.

My eyes widened as he read the results. I wanted to loudly proclaim, “Told you so!” I still wish I did.

Finally, some vindication.

Do people lie to their doctors? Of course.

But too often, doctors minimize the health concerns of women, as Camille Noe Pagán outlined in her piece “When Doctors Downplay Women’s Health Concerns” published in The New York Times.

Pagán wrote, “… Research on disparities between how women and men are treated in medical settings is growing — and it is concerning for any woman seeking care.”

It’s painful for women. Literally.

“Research shows that both doctors and nurses prescribe less pain medication to women than men after surgery, even though women report more frequent and severe pain levels,” Pagán continued. “And a University of Pennsylvania study found that women waited 16 minutes longer than men to receive pain medication when they visited an emergency room.”

Too often, women are deemed dramatic or exaggerating their problems. It’s so bad they need tips on how to convince physicians to believe them. Even TODAY launched a project — “Dismissed” — based around the ongoing issue.

Beyond the need for changes within the health care system, we need an entire cultural shift.

It’s been touted that men are less emotional, men “don’t cry,” so when a man does showcase his pain, it’s serious.

Women, on the other hand, have often been deemed as feeling too much. Women whine. Women are easily upset. Women are the butt of jokes about crying too much and about everything. It’s all in her head.

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Almost every woman who experiences a period has likely heard the joke at some point, “Are you on the rag?”

It reminds me of the specialist telling me that my severe digestive issues were likely symptoms of my period. When a woman expresses emotion, especially anger, it’s her period. When she has health symptoms, it’s her period.

It’s easier to claim a woman’s emotional and health care needs are all period-based rather than actually trying to understand her. God forbid someone give her the light of day otherwise.

Characterisations by gender plague all parts of life, but when it comes to health care, women too often have their suffering prolonged.

Rampant gender bias leads to misdiagnoses or dismissal of serious health complaints. The historical delay in women’s involvement in clinical trials continues to hinder their health in unimaginable ways — with sometimes deadly consequences.

Remnants of old-age health care beliefs and lack of understanding impact racial minorities too, with patients of colour often undertreated for their pain or ignored. What if you’re a woman and a person of colour?

Women deserve better. They should not need advice on how to convince their physicians to believe them. They should not need to bring a back-up person to appointments as a way to “prove” themselves.

Yet as this issue persists, these things will remain necessary to receive adequate care when confronted with disbelieving or ignorant health care professionals.

Organised medicine needs to address gender bias in health care. Without change, women will continue to be ignored, misdiagnosed, and die as they fight to have, at its basic level, equitable care to their male counterparts.

As TODAY reported, U.S. medical students surveyed in 2015 overwhelming agreed sex and gender medicine should be part of their studies.

We can hope these future medical professionals can push the momentum forward to help eradicate medical bias — for the sake of all current and future women and minorities.

Cassius Corbin is a writer, poet and photographer from Oklahoma. Follow Cassius on Instagram @sixfeetrooted or Twitter @cassiuscorbin.

This post originally appeared on Medium and was republished here with full permission.

Feature Image: Getty.

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