Waking up at 6:30 a.m. was not normal for my 18-year-old self, but my body clearly had other plans.
The pain coursing through my abdomen was like nothing I had ever experienced before, where nothing I did seemed to help. Sitting, standing, laying down; none of these positions eased the agony I was forcing myself to endure.
My worried family drove me straight to the emergency room, having come to the hesitant conclusion that I was suffering from appendicitis. Going into the ER, I was hopeful that these doctors would help quell my fear of this new, unknown territory. Unfortunately, what I got was far from that.
The first nurse I encountered was less than sympathetic to my situation. Her tone was accusatory as she asked when my last period was, insinuating her belief that I was exaggerating cramping pains.
I waited for over two hours before I was given a temporary room, where more than four doctors and nurses asked me if I was sexually active. I definitely wasn’t sexually active and I couldn’t understand why it was so hard for them to understand that this wasn’t some sort of miracle, virgin pregnancy.
That was the first time I experienced medical gender bias, something I didn’t even know existed until that night. But after doing more research, I realized I wasn’t alone.
In an 2019 online poll of 3,891 adults, 52 per cent of the women who participated believed that gender discrimination against patients is a serious issue in health care.
The poll’s statistics intensified when the focus was women with chronic pain. Around one-third of these women felt that they had to “prove” their symptoms to their doctors.
“Men are considered more trustworthy, sturdy, less emotional, and of course, that all feeds into what happens to women when they go to see a doctor,” says Gabrielle Jackson, author of Pain and Prejudice, a 2019 book that discusses the medical system’s disregard for women.
This lines up with an earlier study that states women with chronic pain worked hard to express their pain so that doctors would believe them. The biggest hurdle was finding the balance of making themselves seem sick enough without being perceived as being mentally unwell.
Some women attempted to convey this through their apparel, according to the study, making it so that their physical appearance paralleled their internal pains.
When I went to the hospital, my appearance paralleled my pain as well as it could have.
I was wearing pajamas because they were the only thing that didn’t constrict my abdomen. My hair was unbrushed and I hadn’t been able to eat anything that day. I imagine I was looking relatively haggard by the time the doctors saw me.
They didn’t keep their doubts about the seriousness of my pain a secret. I was still young from a medical perspective, lacking in knowledge.
I started to believe their skepticism. There was no way I could tell the difference between intense reproductive pains and something more disastrous.
“I used to joke that I was a hypochondriac, because that’s what I thought I was,” Jackson says. “The medical gaslighting really affects your sense of self, it affects your self esteem.”
An article from this year looked at users’ postings on a Reddit thread from women who had gone through medical procedures without anesthetics.
One woman described her cervical biopsy. She cried from the pain during the procedure. The doctor questioned her reaction, claiming that there were no nerve endings in the cervix.
He accused her of faking her tears.
“There is just a very deep seated belief that because childbirth is painful, women can put up with pain,” Jackson says. “That pain is part of a woman’s existence, or a part of anyone with a uterus’ existence.”
The issue doesn’t seem to lie with the gender of the physician, but rather their education as a whole.
Historically, medicine has primarily used men as its research subjects. This means that most medical solutions and cures are tailored to the male body, rather than females.
A report from 2014 found that medicine constantly fails to recognize the significance of gender and sex. According to the report, it starts in the earliest stages of research, when females are left out of both animal and human studies. It’s also an issue when the genders of a study’s subjects aren’t declared with the results.
“I think the problem is medicine’s lack of knowledge,” says Jackson. “They are not taught in medicine, in medical school about women’s health very well.”
That is changing a bit now, however. Participants in clinical research conducted by the National Institutes of Health are now 50 per cent female. The increase in participant diversity increases the knowledge the medical field has on sex and gender differences.
If this diversity had been around when I was hospitalized, my experience would have been more efficient and validating.
The ultrasound of my abdomen was my saving grace. No signs of pregnancy, and my appendix was swollen. My appendectomy operation was performed first thing the next morning. At the end of the day, I suppose what should matter is that they took care of the problem and kept me alive.
What mattered to me in that moment, and now in the present, though, is the fact that my pain was written off so many times, to the point where I even began to doubt myself.