It Happened To Me: A Recent Trip To The ER Became A Humiliating Lesson In Female Disempowerment

Though the negative aspects of this experience may be attributed to unprofessional medical staff or restrictive procedures, one fact stands out: Simply by being a woman within this situation, my well-being was put at risks in ways that my male counterparts will never know.
Publish date:
September 11, 2013

As s.e. smith so aptly pointed out the other day, the medical system is just, well, different in its treatment of those of us who possess female anatomy than for those who experience male privilege. Our needs are less regarded, and our perspective is less represented.

However, I live in a small, liberal college town, go to a female doctor, and though highly attuned to the inequalities inherent in the medical system, I had never experienced them firsthand. I lived in my own rose tinted world of equality and nice MDs who have their office send over flowers following an outpatient surgery.

A few weeks ago, however, I felt a sharp pain in my lower right side. I ignored it for a bit, thinking that it was probably just my stomach acting up. After it persisted for a few days, however, I became a bit worried and was finally convinced by my loved ones to seek medical advice after they pointed out that I was showing symptoms of appendicitis.

Unfortunately, I was home visiting my parents rather than in the charming little town in which I live. I can’t help but think that this experience would have been much different if I were in my town, but then again these events should not happen to anyone, anywhere.

I knew that my needs were not going to be respected the minute that I saw the attending female nurse in Urgent Care. After telling her that I wanted to be checked for appendicitis, she begins asking my routine medical history.

“Any previous medical issues?” she quizzes me.

“Well, I just had a minor surgery a month ago for fibroid tumors, but I…”

“Fibroid tumors? Well we should probably check you out “down there,” huh?” she interrupts, eyes wide like she has discovered a secret malady.

“Well, I called my obgyn’s office, and they said that it shouldn’t be related to the surgery this far out. It was really minor, I didn’t even have an incision. Plus this is higher, around my belly button, and it hurts when I sit and stand up. I haven’t had an appetite in days.”

“Hmmm” she says. “Well, we’ll see. It’s probably something reproductive.”

Ten minutes later I’m staring up at a grey haired, spectacled male doctor. He gives me what I now know is called the “Psoas” test for appendicitis; it makes my abdomen throb. “Still,” he says, “I think you have an ovarian cyst.”

I protest -- I had had gynecological surgery a month earlier, wouldn’t the multitude of sonograms I endured have shown something? He persists and calls in the student doctor who is a female and asks her to conduct a gynecological exam. She is young and is clearly uncomfortable with examining me in this setting. Her face looks grimaced and taut the entire time.

Half an hour later, male doctor comes back in.

“Look”, he says. “I don’t think you have appendicitis, but I’ll order a CT scan just so you feel safe. I think you are having “lady problems” (he actually refers to them as such) although we didn’t see anything. I would recommend that you schedule a checkup with your OBGYN."

I go home, confused, still sore, and feeling like my personal agency has no weight at all. I can’t sleep because I’m in so much pain and toss and turn all night. The next day, the CT scan comes back and I’m rushed into surgery when the gray-haired doctor sees that my appendix is, indeed, inflamed.

Upon entering the surgery prep room, I see that my nurse is a man I worked with in my early twenties. He asked me out repeatedly at the time, but I had no romantic interest and turned him down.

When he sees me now he ignores me, then begins smiling at me discreetly. I think about how awkward the situation is; after all, I’m scared, sweaty, and shaky and clothed in only a thin, open backed hospital gown. Though I am uncomfortable given my history with this person, I decide to trust in his professionalism -- after all, he certainly attended nursing school for this. There’s a code of ethics, right?

I come to in the recovery room fairly quickly. I am highly lucid and soon notice that it is just me and the male nurse in the room. I don’t want to be forced into awkward conversation and so pretend to be asleep but open my eyes slightly a few times and catch him looking at me.

A few days later, after I’m dismissed and back at home recovering, I realize that the “code of ethics” learned by medical professionals is apparently open to interpretation, at least for this nurse. The male nurse begins sending me flirty Facebook messages laden with winky faces one night. It’s gross, inappropriate and unethical. I feel disgusted and completely violated.

I was in one of the most vulnerable situations I have ever experienced, and this man somehow thought that his unwarranted flirtations were appropriate? I think about reporting him to the hospital but realize that, as he did not make advances in the hospital or mention my stay, they may not do anything. Still, my mind thinks of all the possible horrors that could have occurred while I was anesthetized, and though I dismiss them, I feel uneasy about the entire experience.

Though the negative aspects of this experience may be attributed to unprofessional medical staff or restrictive procedures, one fact stands out: Simply by being a woman within this situation my well-being was put at risks in ways that my male counterparts will never know.

My health was risked, as my pain, knowledge of my body, and history were completely disregarded when brought up. I had a real problem, but because I mentioned my reproductive health ONCE, the doctors would not take my concerns seriously. I was sent home overnight with an inflamed appendix, a that which becomes riskier with time.

Similarly, my safety and mental well-being were jeopardized by a nurse who saw me as an objectified sexual being rather than as a helpless, sick patient. This should NEVER be the case for any woman.

The dynamics of the medical field should seek to make women feel safe and their opinions valued. Instead, (at least this hospital) proved to be a male-centric, devaluing place. While I know that there are some excellent medical professionals and hospitals in the world, I feel as though my experience is indicative of larger practices that disregard female lived experience.

While some of you may disagree with my assessment, I think that there needs to be some degree of change within medical practice. It must be feminized to an extent and made a place of nurturing rather than a space for authority. The old practices and thought processes espoused by doctors of yesteryear are sexist at best, and they contribute to silencing the female voice. In times of duress, women should have input in what happens to OUR bodies.