After years of visiting various impersonal medical centres, I thought I’d found The One. But no: the time had finally come to say goodbye to my doctor of two years and it was because she told me I had a smelly, disgusting vagina.
I’d experienced some itching, my discharge looked different, and I suspected that my vagina wasn’t smelling particularly pleasant — but I couldn’t be sure. There had been plenty of occasions when I’d guessed I had a yeast infection (also known as thrush and candida), only for the results to come back clear. I think many women are familiar with the ‘do-I-don’t-I-have-an-infection?’ game that comes with being a vagina owner.
Sure, I could have just gone to the chemist to buy an over-the-counter thrush treatment, but I decided that the most responsible thing to do would be to see my regular GP, Dr Valle*, for a proper diagnosis. It seemed pointless to put medicine in my body if there was a possibility that I was infection-free.
Going to see Dr Valle always made me feel special. Her practice was in an old Californian bungalow with a rose garden out the front. She was always dressed in the latest fashions and her hair and makeup were flawless. The magazines in the waiting room were the latest issues, not 15 years old like at other medical centres.
Call me superficial, but all of these little touches made me feel like I was getting a higher quality of care. Dr Valle’s practice felt so much more personal and established compared to the busy, sterile medical centres that I’d been frequenting.
Watch Dr Ginni and Shelly Horton discuss what makes a normal, healthy vagina. (Post continues after video.)
Once inside Dr Valle’s office, I sat in front of her mahogany desk and she asked me, “So, Paulina, what can I help you with today?”
“I think I have thrush,” I told her.
Dr Valle immediately wrinkled her nose in distaste, and then slowly typed some notes into her computer. Without looking up, she tried to offer me a quick solution: “You should go the chemist and buy a cream. You can get a three-day or six-day cream treatment for your vagina.”
Then she stood up as a signal for me to leave. I was shocked at the abrupt way she had treated me; usually, if I even had the slightest symptom of a cold, Dr Valle would be looking into my ears and listening to my breathing before I could even cough “hello”. But today it seemed she was keen to dismiss me – almost as though she was avoiding examining me properly.
I began talking quickly, in an effort to capture her attention.
“I’m not one hundred per cent sure if I have thrush, though. Sometimes I think that I have it and I don’t. I want to be sure. Could you examine me?” I asked.
She directed me to lie down on the examination table behind her. As instructed I hitched up my skirt, took off my undies and lay down on my back with my knees bent. A small fabric sheet over my groin provided some modesty.
Dr Valle turned around with a swabbing stick in hand. She held it by the very tip, as though she wanted to stay as far away from me as possible. She bent down slightly, so that her head was at the same level as my vagina. Then she stood up straight away and made a disgusted face at me – the sort of face you’d make if a bird pooped on your head.
“Ugh, I can smell your candida from here!” she complained. “It smells awful!”
She was standing about 1.5 metres away from me when she said that. I felt horrified and ashamed; my vagina must have smelt revolting if Dr Valle could smell it from so far away. I concluded I must have had the most disgusting, horrendous vagina in the world.
“Sorry,” I said meekly.
“Your candida is really bad,” Dr Valle emphasised. “Couldn’t you smell it? Didn’t you notice?”
Well, yes. That’s why I was there.
Dr Valle then took a swab sample from my vagina and then put it into the lab baggie as fast as possible. She told me to call in a few days’ time to get my results and any treatment information.
Then I left her office, my cheeks burning with humiliation.
Would Dr Valle have preferred to see this instead? (Post continues after gallery.)
On the bus home I crossed my legs tightly and cast surreptitious glances at my fellow passengers. What if they could smell me, too? I checked for any indication – was anyone glaring at me, holding their nose, or trying to move away from me? Well… no. Even the young high school boy sitting next to me was too busy on his phone to notice that I stank – that is, if I stank at all.
I felt so embarrassed that the stylish Dr Valle thought my vagina was stinky that I knew I wouldn’t call the practice for my results. I imagined she had hissed to her receptionists, “Dear Lord, Miss Trimble’s vagina smelt horrendous!” I was paranoid that everyone in the practice knew my vagina reeked. I could never go back.
Instead, I slunk off to a local, scruffy bulk-billing medical centre and asked to see a female doctor. It was there I met Dr Chan*, who I would return to over several years. I told her the exact same things that I had told Dr Valle, and was surprised when she nodded her head sympathetically and said, “Ah, yes — sometimes it is hard to tell if you have a vaginal infection, isn’t it? Why don’t I examine you?”
As Dr Chan swabbed my vagina silently, I held my breath and waited for her to exclaim that my vagina smelt like rotten eggs or something. When she started to quietly take off her gloves and pack away the swab sample, I summoned the courage to ask her myself.
“Does my vagina smell bad to you?” I stammered. I couldn’t believe I’d actually asked her that.
“No different from the average thrush infection!” Dr Chan replied cheerfully. “And even then, it’s nothing to worry about.”
I was relieved. I wasn’t a freak. And when I went back to see Dr Chan a few days later, it was confirmed I had a standard, run-of-the-mill vaginal infection.
I never saw Dr Valle again. I’ve come to believe that a good doctor should never shame their patients, particularly for symptoms that are normal. And by “breaking up” with Dr Valle, I realised something about myself: I’d mistaken luxurious interiors and clothes for good practice, when those things were actually disguising a lazy doctor who was a disappointment to the sisterhood.
After all, a doctor who owns a vagina has an extra responsibility to make their female patients feel at ease with their own genitalia. Life’s complicated enough as it is.
What would make you dump your doctor?
* Names have been changed