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The Struggles of Being a Female Patient

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In case you weren’t already aware, March is Women’s History Month, which was first instated in 1987. As such, I thought it would be relevant to discuss how I believe that my sex and gender have affected my interactions with doctors and the types of treatments I’ve been prescribed over the years.

Before that though, I would like to offer up the following disclaimer: I am aware that men can be mistreated in appointments too, especially when it comes to mental health and any matters that aren’t physical. I hear your struggles and your pain and I empathize, truly. Yet, this post is meant to focus on women, as it’s Women’s History Month and I’m a woman. Therefore, this critique will focus on the intersection of my *individual and unique* experiences in the healthcare system.

Historically speaking, women have been mistreated when it comes to medical appointments. Whether it’s through body shaming, disbelieving claims about chronic pain or the outdated practice of diagnosing women with hysteria from back in the day, being taken seriously as a female patient wasn’t – and still isn’t – always a guarantee. Thankfully, much of the discrimination and mistreatment of women has fallen by the wayside, but we have a lot of room to improve as a health care system.

While I have done a lot of work to educate myself before entering appointments, do research when it comes to finding a doctor and refuse to be mistreated by anyone in the medical community, there was a time where I didn’t know any better and I truly believe that my being female allowed certain doctors to take advantage of my time and be dismissive of the major health crisis I was going through.

Breakdowns in Doctor-Patient Communication

In May of 2012, I had a copper intrauterine device put in called the Paragard. A month or so later, I was suffering from a very severe case of copper toxicity, unbeknownst to me at the time. My mental and physical health completely deteriorated in that short span of time to the point where every bodily function was compromised and I felt like my life was over at the young age of 22. It was so bad that I had to give up my dream of pursuing my master’s degree in California because I couldn’t function.

Naturally, I decided to go back to the doctor’s office who recommended and performed the insertion of the Paragard. I had been seeing this OB/GYN for years and I thought that we had a good working relationship, but like many conventional doctors, they were clueless about how to really help me.

I recall sitting on the examination table and talking about all of the symptoms I was experiencing, including the loss of my monthly period (that couldn’t be good, right?). The suggestion that I received in return still shocks me to this day. She said it was probably because I was “depressed” because I had just graduated from college and was “sad” that that chapter of my life was over. I couldn’t believe my ears. All of my other complaints were chalked up to me getting used to the device or simply dismissed.

Now, I have struggled with depression since my preteen years and I knew deep down in my heart and soul that whatever I was going through was far different than a run-of-the-mill depressive episode. Moreover, to suggest that my health was completely falling apart because I was “sad” seems very negligent to me, especially considering how horrible my mental state was at the time.

Over the past few years, I wondered if a male patient would have been treated this way. I wondered why women have to go through so many side effects and symptoms just to practice safe sex by way of birth control (yes, I am aware that abstinence is an option, but it’s not a realistic option for me). I wondered why I wasn’t being listened to and was being called emotional (read: sad). I was especially baffled about how it was hard for the doctors to believe that a device made from copper could cause me to have copper toxicity, especially because I was displaying nearly every symptom.

The Struggle to Be Heard Continues

Thankfully, a former professor of mine suggested I seek out treatment from another doctor. After one appointment, he said that I needed to get the IUD out in order to feel better. I called my OB/GYN’s office and asked if I could have the device removed, as I was experiencing a number of adverse effects and didn’t feel comfortable having it in anymore.

Unfortunately, I was met with pushback and almost deference, as I had only got the device in five or six months ago and it could be left in for five to 10 years. They did not want to remove the device and continued to not listen to my complaints. Again, I wondered if this would happen to a male patient – would his claims and his assertions be taken seriously?

But being the determined lady I am, and knowing that I had to get this thing out in order to feel better, I decided to check myself into the ER. I asked to have the device removed, and again, I was met with hesitation. In order to be taken seriously, I had to embellish how much pain I was in and that only the pain was disrupting my daily life. I didn’t even bother to bring up the mental anguish I was in for fear of being sent to a different doctor or being dismissed as “sad,” like at my OB/GYN’s office. Ultimately, the device was taken out and that day in October 2012 began my healing journey.

No Matter How Empowered You Are, You Can’t Control What Doctors Say

Since that day in October, I have learned a lot when it comes to being a patient: I take responsibility for my health and if I don’t like how I’m being treated I find a different doctor/practice. Yet, no matter how much responsibility I claim or how empowered I feel, you can’t control what others say.

For instance, one doctor recently said to me that it must be difficult for a man to take me out on a date because I can’t eat out at restaurants or drink and about difficulties surrounding childbirth (which by the way, I never plan on having children anyway). While I’m sure the doctor was trying to show some form of sympathy and had his heart in the right place, the comments didn’t sit well with me because I’m already well aware of how my illnesses and restrictions cause dating issues, not to mention him assuming my sexuality and that I must want to have kids.

All in all, both men and women have negative experiences within the healthcare system – some stem from gender/sex and others are just from the nature of health care or the individual practitioner’s inability to communicate and listen. But I’d like to hear your thoughts – do you think gender/sex affects how patients are treated (feel free to get intersectional with this – in my opinion, it’s the only way to address issues properly)? Have you been mistreated based on your sex/gender in a medical setting?

Hopefully, continuing the dialogue on this subject can lead to improvements in the healthcare exchange for all people involved.

This story originally appeared on Chronicles of Yoolie.

Unsplash photo by Ravi Roshan

Originally published: March 9, 2018
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