Female, Sick and Ignored

Why can’t a woman’s word be accepted when she says she’s ill or in pain?

In a personal essay published in the October 2015 edition of The Atlantic, the writer laments having spent 14.5 hours in a Brooklyn emergency room before doctors finally took his wife’s pain seriously, diagnosed the problem and scheduled her for surgery. 

You can almost feel the terror and angst they experienced while awaiting their turn, all the while politely insisting she really was in a great deal of pain. 

Here’s an excerpt:

“Something’s wrong,” she gasped.

This scared me. Rachel’s not the type to sound the alarm over every pinch or twinge. She cut her finger badly once, when we lived in Iowa City, and joked all the way to Mercy Hospital as the rag wrapped around the wound reddened with her blood. 

Once, hobbled by a training injury in the days before a marathon, she limped across the finish line anyway.

So when I saw Rachel collapse on our bed, her hands grasping and ungrasping like an infant’s, I called the ambulance. I gave the dispatcher our address, then helped my wife to the bathroom to vomit.

Despite arriving at the hospital via ambulance, the couple was forced to wait, wife on a cot in a hallway alongside an accumulation of other patients, many of whom appeared to be dealing with relatively minor conditions. 

The author, Joe Fassler, tells us what exactly what was wrong with his wife: ovarian torsion – an enlarged fallopian tube that rotates to such a degree that it cuts its own blood supply. You don’t need much medical knowledge to know the condition is painful. While doctors would not have immediately known her condition, it must have been agony for her to spend more than half a day in excruciating pain before being taken seriously. 

Fassler references an essay by friend and fellow author Leslie Jamison, “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” in which she examines various forms of female suffering are “minimized, mocked, and coaxed into silence.” 

While it is insightful, I believe the article falls short. Women who are ill in general are often not believed and they are minimized, mocked and coaxed into silence by family members, medical professionals and others who fail to understand what they’re feeling and don’t take the time to explore what is happening.  

I’ve had more than a few experiences of my own. One ER doctor in Washington, D.C., in the 1990s told me I didn’t have Sjogren’s Syndrome because it was rare. I informed him that rare didn’t mean nonexistent. Then there was my trip to the emergency room in Brooklyn for abdominal pains. I had a persistent cough as well, which the ER doctor noticed. He asked how many cigarettes I smoked daily. When I told him I didn’t smoke, he called me a liar. I could feel a volcano of anger bubbling up to the surface. The doctor turned to a nurse he was trying to impress and explained to her that “they all lie.”  I’m still not sure who “they” are – patients in general, women in particular? I later learned that the cough was the result of acid reflux, a prominent symptom of Sjogren’s Syndrome. 

As Americans we love to think that many emerging countries are backwards in their treatment of women. However, we forget that Western experts labeled hysteria as the first mental disorder attributed primarily to women.  Supposed symptoms ranged from fainting, nervousness, sexual desire, insomnia, fluid retention, heaviness in the abdomen, muscle spasms, shortness of breath, irritability, loss of appetite for food or sex, and causing trouble. It wasn’t until the early 1950s that the American Psychiatric Association stopped using the term.  Is it any wonder that women suffering from uncommon illnesses – chronic or otherwise – frequently complain that doctors don’t hear them? 

But back to the author and his wife. I wonder why the wife didn’t write this piece. I wonder if the story needed to be validated by her husband. I wonder if The Atlantic would have published it had she been the author.