Put Aside Your Stethoscope & Listen to Women’s Pain

It was sudden, debilitating pain that would come out of the blue. It just kept getting worse. Eventually, I ended up in hospital.

The emergency room doctor sent me home with no leads on the cause of my pain. He told me to follow up with my primary care physician, and so I made an appointment.

As I sat in my lovely exam gown waiting, my mind went to dark places about what this pain could possibly be. “I really hope the doctor will have some thoughts on this,” I thought. “I hope he’ll be able to reassure me somehow.”

He didn’t. Instead, he asked me two questions and mumbled something while scribbling on his prescription pad. He shoved the paper in my face and told me to pick it up at the pharmacy.

Before I had time to decipher the handwriting, he was gone. Securing the back of my gown with one hand, I jumped off the exam table and chased him down the hallway.

I don’t embarrass easily, so I didn’t care that I was running around in a paper-thin gown while other patients gave me the side eye.

“I’m not done, I have questions” I said. Visibly annoyed, he followed me back into the exam room.

I hopped back onto the table while still holding my gown closed, impressed with my own acrobatic abilities. But I was even more impressed with my boldness. Where had it come from?

I was taught that doctors are powerful and mighty. They shouldn’t be questioned, only readily and blindly trusted.

Yet, here I was, demanding he take the time to answer my questions.

“What are the side effects?” I asked.
He smirked.
“There are very few. This is a very common medication for stomach upset.”
“Stomach upset? I’m having sharp pains. And they’re not going away.”
“You’ll be fine. Just take the medication as prescribed.”
“But what do you think is causing it?”
“Take the medicine and if it doesn’t work, call us.”
“Do you need to do any tests?”

“Tests?” he said. “We don’t need to do any tests. It’s probably just gas.”

This was useless. I’ve made plenty of excuses for doctors like him before: he’s busy, he’s stressed, maybe it’s the nature of the job.

The truth was, he just didn’t care.

At home, I began to read the little pamphlet inside the box of medication. Did it really state that caution should be taken with Asian patients due to higher risk of side effects?

But…I’m Asian?

I made an appointment with a new doctor. A woman. By now, the pain was worse and more frequent. I had done some research on my symptoms and was starting to think it it lined up with some form of dietary sensitivity. There was a pretty clear pattern and I’d been taking detailed notes.

The doctor was an older woman with a commanding presence. “She’ll listen,” I thought. “She’s a woman.”

Instead, she dismissed everything I shared and everything I asked. She attributed the skin breakouts around my elbows to a type of spider bite.

“So you think it’s a coincidence that I have these breakouts every time I eat bread?” I asked. She actually rolled her eyes. Finally, she agreed to test for celiac disease, saying it was nearly impossible that I had it.

The test was negative. I started to feel like a hypochondriac. Was I making these symptoms up?

I reminded myself that dismissal of symptoms are a reality of health care for women, and that I’d have to fight to be listened to.

In my appointment with a third doctor, she shook my hand warmly. But she scrunched up her eyebrows as I explained my symptoms and gluten theory. “Here it comes,” I thought. “She’s going to tell me I’m imagining this.”

The doctor scooted closer to me and said, “You know, there is a test for celiac disease but not gluten sensitivity. It sounds possible that your body is reacting negatively.” She paused, and then said, “My goodness, it must’ve been frustrating dealing with this.”

My mouth dropped open. She went on to share next steps and review possible treatment options. She even asked me about my thoughts on my symptoms. I walked out feeling informed and validated.

Listening is one of the most healing forms of medicine.

To know we’re not alone is a powerful form of treatment. Hear us. Believe us. Put aside your stethoscopes for a moment and listen with your hearts.

Breaking the Silence on Vulval Pain

“Well, you need to have sex, if you don’t it will only make things worse,” the gynaecologist told me.

At the time, I was a single woman at the age of 24. For lots of people, being told to have sex wouldn’t be much of an issue, but when you experience pain during sex like I do, those are hardly the words of comfort you want to hear.

Since the age of 18, sex has been a problem for me.

As a young girl, sex education didn’t teach me which feelings are normal and which aren’t, and I never learnt anything about issues or difficulties I might face in the future.

As a result, for years I thought painful was how sex was supposed to feel.

Other women must experience this pain and just get on with it, right?

But from the way everyone else spoke about sex, I felt confused. It didn’t match up with my own experience. I felt lonely, isolated and upset, so I turned to a doctor for help.

I visited my university doctor 12 times over the 4 years I was studying.

“Maybe it’s this…”
“Maybe it’s that…” 
“Can you test me for this..?”
“Can you do a swab for that..?”

I went back time and time again with my own internet-researched-suggestions of what might be causing the pain I was experiencing and what the solution could be. During each appointment I was examined, assured that physically I was fine, and told it’s all in your head”.

Being told a problem is ‘in your head’ is never easy to hear. At the time, I understood it to mean that there was no solution available to me and I would need to work this one out on my own. Did I need to be more relaxed? Was I too tense?

I was young and clueless and I had no guidance whatsoever.

It wasn’t until I eventually opened up to my mum that I realised I wasn’t being proactive enough. Yes, I was doing all of the research I could do on my own but I didn’t really know what I was looking for. I didn’t even know at this point that I could request a referral to a gynaecologist myself.

Years passed by, and I visited the hospital every 4 months in the hopes my next NHS appointment would shed some light on what was happening to me, but the process moved slowly. Each scan ruled out another potential cause of my symptoms, which I knew was a positive thing – but with each month that passed, the experience began to take its toll on my mental wellbeing.

I started to fill the gaps between these appointments any alternative method I could think of – Acupuncture, Hypnotherapy, Psychosexual Counselling… Each new option gave me a glimmer of hope, but time and time again I had no luck.

I felt let down by my doctors. I felt as though no one was taking me seriously.

I’ve cried in medical appointments more times than I’d care to admit and each referral to a different department left me feeling abandoned – as though no one was willing to take the time to learn about the pain I’d been experiencing for years.

I was the one coming up with potential solutions and offering ideas to my doctors, but every suggestion I made was cast aside. I even had one Gynaecologist laugh and shrug while casually asking me, oh, what are we going to do with you?!, trivialising what I was going through even further.

According to the NHS, vulval pain affects women of all ages, although symptoms often begin before the age of 25. A study on almost 5000 women in America showed 1 in 6 women experienced the symptoms of vulval pain for 3 months or longer, with 60% of women visiting more than 3 doctors, many of whom provided no diagnosis.

How is it that so many women are experiencing the same problem, yet so much of the medical world is completely oblivious to our pain?

Instead of being supported, we’re being made to feel like we’re ‘crazy’. I believed something was really wrong with me until one day, I found an online forum that changed everything.

All of a sudden, I found a group of women from all around the world providing support and advice for each other. It was unlike anything I’d experienced anywhere else. It was the conversations I had in the forum that led me to find a doctor in the UK who sounded as though she had not only heard of, but actually treated, many people in my position.

After all that time, all it took was a 15 minute appointment to lead to the diagnosis I’d been searching for. It may have taken me 8 years to get here, but I can finally say it;

I have Vestibulodynia.

Tying the Tubes: It’s Time We Took Women Seriously

Do you remember the last time you randomly decided to get your tubes tied on the way to the doctor? 

Me neither.

While tubal ligation is not a major surgery rife with side effects, it is still surgery. Most people will consider it – seriously – before requesting it. So why does it seem to be something people assume is a fleeting fancy?

Women Making Decisions

Some women don’t want to have kids. Strong maternal instincts don’t drive everyone. Sure, some women get pregnant by accident and love their child(ren). But that in no way means other women would be happy with that situation or that those women who have kids would’ve been unhappy without them.

‘The Girl Who Cried Pain’ shows a clear, medical bias against women. This bias manifests in various ways throughout the medical community, but one of the most common is to filter women’s complaints through a ‘hysteria filter’. That is, women are thought to be overly dramatic, so their pain isn’t considered to be as serious as claimed. 

Many women report finding it difficult to convince a doctor they’re serious about being sterilized. In fact, many women are flat-out told they’ll wish they hadn’t done it. And sure, you can argue no one can know the future. You can also argue that some long-term contraceptives accomplish something similar. The problem lies in the idea that if you, as a woman, don’t want kids, then you aren’t a complete woman.

Patriarchal Roots of this Response

The main problem is most people have to be convinced women aren’t maternal because women are ‘supposed’ to be maternal. It’s what’s considered normal. In fact, a few years back, the CDC went as far as to recommend that all women of childbearing age start caring for their pre-conception health by doing things like avoiding alcohol, watching their weight and taking folic acid supplements.

While these tips are admittedly good for anyone’s health, many women found it distasteful that a government institution was asking women to behave as though they were already pregnant – even if they had no intention of conceiving. For many, it just confirmed what was already well-known — society tends to place all women, regardless of their personal goals and desires, into a neat little box of moms-to-be.

Women who don’t want kids don’t fit into the box. When they request sterilization, they’re sometimes turned down and told they’ll change their minds once they’ve matured. Women have reported offensive comments such as “What if you met a billionaire who wanted to have kids with you?”  

A doctor with this response is overstepping their bounds. There is no way for them to make that decision for you, and there are no legal limits on who can get a voluntary tubal ligation. Most methods of birth control have side effects, which some women find incredibly uncomfortable and can be life-threatening. Getting your tubes tied takes care of those problems, and the rate of complication from the noninvasive surgery is low.

That doesn’t mean your doctor shouldn’t talk to you. There is a risk some women are not aware of other options, or they’re being coerced into it. But for a woman risking pregnancy and abortion who has seriously considered her potential role as a mother and rejected it, a doctor has no real cause to deny that option.

The Irony of Coerced Sterilization

The male method of sterilization is a vasectomy. Vasectomies are similar to Russian roulette, where the reversal success rate is anywhere from 30-70%. This means that the success rate of men being able to impregnate their partners after a vasectomy reversal is 30-70%. In the cases of women, tubal ligation reversal leading to live births has a success rate between about 55-81%. This means that women actually have a higher chance of their reversals being successful and allowing them to become pregnant.

Obviously, there are complications associated with surgeries, and wanting to be careful is understandable. But women often face a lot of criticism and questioning from not just doctors, but also friends and family, when they bring up the idea of sterilization.

There are many reasons why a woman might want to go that route, success rate being just one potential reason. The assumption that a woman has not considered all these factors before requesting a surgery is inherently rooted in the systemic tendency to pass off a woman’s concerns as the result of her being misinformed or as some sort of hormone-induced hysteria.

Theoretically, any and all women who request a tubal ligation should be able to have it if they meet the age and medical requirements. Yet, many women still end up relying on vasectomies for their partners or dealing with the side effects of birth control simply because those around them succeed at talking them out of what they already know deep down.

If men can get vasectomies just by asking for them, why can’t women access the same thing (with even a little less risk) without a bunch of hullabaloo?