Almost exactly a month ago, I was taken to the ER for severe abdominal pain. I was brushed off and called names by nurses and doctors. No one would take my pain seriously because I was a woman “in child-bearing years” experiencing “minor” abdominal pain.
What should have been a few hours in the ER with a diagnosis turned into an 8-hour ordeal, reluctant testing, rudeness, and emergency surgery with higher stakes than necessary because of the length of time that had passed since onset. To say all of this was frustrating would be a huge understatement. I’m going to describe my experience (and frustration!) with the medical system as a woman who was not taken seriously by male medical professionals.
It was 2:30 am on Tuesday, and I had had the flu since Friday, but had started to feel better. I still had a fever and my body felt achy, so I emailed my boss to let him know that I would not be in at 8:00 that morning. I hadn’t slept yet, so was looking forward to getting some rest and sleep in the next day.
At 4:30 am, I woke up in a cold sweat. My fever was worse, and I had a sharp stabbing pain in my abdomen on the lower left side. My first thought was that I had appendicitis, but I realized that was on the right side. I sat up, and the pain started shooting through my body. I laid in bed, in the fetal position, contemplating waking my boyfriend. I was in a lot of pain, but I was supposed to be getting my period any day now, so I kept telling myself it was menstrual cramps.
I knew it wasn’t menstrual cramps. I’ve never experienced anything like this before, and the pain continued to get worse. By 7:00 am, I woke my boyfriend. I couldn’t stop crying, the pain was the most intense thing I’ve ever felt, and I started feeling nauseous. Immediately he said we’re going to the hospital. I started to protest but couldn’t even lift my head to look at him, so agreed. When he got me upright, I started vomiting, and continued to do so every time I moved. He eventually got me to the car and sitting in the seat was the most painful thing I’ve ever experienced. More painful than a broken rib, dislocated knee, gallbladder removal surgery or anything else I had ever experienced.
By the time we got to the hospital, around 7:30 am, I was screaming and crying and just trying to hold myself together. I struggled through the triage nurse taking my temperature, my blood pressure, and asking me what was going on. My temperature and blood pressure were both through the roof! After sitting in the waiting room for a couple minutes, two nurses came up and asked me, very rudely, to stop screaming, as this was a hospital and I was disturbing other patients. Thank God for my boyfriend, who replied that if they wanted me to stop screaming, then they needed to give me something for the pain and let me lay down flat. The nurses left and returned with some Tylenol 3s and led me to a bed to wait for a doctor.
An hour later, the pain was worse than it had been before, despite the pain medication. I hadn’t seen a doctor yet and was asked by multiple nurses to try and be quiet. After a lot of persistence on my boyfriend’s part, they hooked up a hydration fluids drip and a morphine drip. After a few minutes of morphine, I could stop screaming and crying, but I was still in an intense amount of pain.
Another hour later, around 10:00 am, the doctor came in for the first time. He asked me if I knew I had ovarian cysts. I did. They are genetic, and run in my mom’s side of the family. “Case closed,” said the doctor, “when ovarian cysts burst, it feels like somewhat mild stabbing in the abdomen. I’m going to send you home with some Tylenol 3s for pain and you should feel better tomorrow.” I was furious. He was diagnosing me without any testing, without talking to me, without asking more than one question. I told him that I had had them burst before, and while painful, it was not anything like what I was feeling right then. He said I was being dramatic and that he had heard me crying for hours. He said I’d be fine if I just went home to sleep. Nothing, and I mean nothing, I said was changing his mind. He stood in the doorway with his arms crossed just nodding and sighing when I demanded tests to confirm. After a few minutes of me begging and pleading, the doctor ignoring me, and my boyfriend gritting his teeth, he spoke up. He demanded that the doctor at least order an ultrasound. The doctor started to argue, but my boyfriend reminded him that I hadn’t had an ultrasound in 3 years, so he should at least check that I do indeed still have cysts and that is what is causing the pain. Eventually, the doctor agreed and said someone will be here in an hour or so to take me to the ultrasound.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my boyfriend and will be forever grateful that he stood up for me and demanded I be treated properly, but I was furious. The doctor wouldn’t listen to me about what I was feeling in MY body. He wouldn’t listen to MY experience or what I wanted. He listened to my boyfriend. He took my boyfriend’s opinion on what to do with my body over mine.
Another hour went by. A nurse came in and asked if I could walk yet. I shook my head no, I couldn’t even sit up right now. She rolled her eyes, looked at my boyfriend, and asked if he thought I could walk. SHE ASKED HIM WHAT I WAS CAPABLE OF. He said there’s no way, she’s in so much pain right now. The nurse nodded and unlocked the wheels on my bed before wheeling me down to the ultrasound lab.
The ultrasound technician was the first sympathetic person I met that day. She took her time and made sure I was in comfortable positions while she performed the ultrasound. I cried the whole time. Moving my body was excruciating. She mumbled to herself while watching the screen, it didn’t look good. After the screening, she was even more sympathetic than before the test. It was clear she saw something, and I was both terrified of what was going on, but relieved that I was about to get answers. The nurse returned and wheeled me back to my room.
2.5 hours went by. The nurses would pop in periodically and give me more morphine and something to help with the nausea.
Around 3:30 pm, a nurse hurried in, started checking my IVs, added more fluids to all of them, gave me more morphine, piled on more blankets, and took my vitals again. I asked her what was going on. She said she was prepping me for surgery. “Wait, what?! SURGERY?” I blurted out. She paused, then asked if I had seen my doctor. I told her I hadn’t seen him since 10:30 this morning. She dropped everything and rushed out. A few minutes later my doctor came in. He said, “We’re sending you to [another hospital across the city] for surgery. You have what we call ovarian torsion. Basically, your ovary is twisted. We need to untwist it. The paramedics should be here in a few minutes to take you by ambulance. Good luck.” He walked out and I never saw him again.
Sure enough, a few minutes later I was being loaded into the back of an ambulance by three paramedics. The two males got into the front of the vehicle, and the female sat in the back with me. She asked me if I knew what was going on. I told her “No. I’m in a lot of pain, I don’t know what ovarian torsion is, I don’t know what’s happening and no one but my boyfriend knows I’m here or what’s going on.” All she could say was “WHAT?” She took a deep breath, and gave me more morphine and a dose of Fentanyl. She held my hand, and told me she understood what was happening and she’s so sorry about the attitude and resentment I had to deal with just because I’m a woman. She explained what ovarian torsion is, and what surgery they were going to have to do.
Basically, ovarian torsion is when something causes the ovary to twist on itself. The tendons and ligaments holding the ovary in place are torn or stretched, and the muscles are heavily strained. This cuts off the blood supply to the ovary. All of these things cause intense pain, and most women become unconscious soon after. The surgery requires surgeons to make small incisions and use a scope, or make a large incision like a C-section surgery, to untwist the ovary and stitch the tendons and ligaments back together to support it again. Super scary stuff!
Within 15 minutes of being at the other hospital, I was in the operating room under anesthesia. The two surgeons came to my room before, introduced themselves, ran through the procedure, what was going to happen, how I was going to feel, and any possible complications or side effects. They told me that an ultrasound isn’t very clear, but they didn’t have time for an MRI so they wouldn’t know what they were getting into until I was in surgery. They said that I have large cysts on my ovaries and fallopian tubes. Likely, one of the larger cysts burst and caused the ovary to twist, so they were going to remove any remaining cysts to prevent it from happening again.
After surgery, I found out that two of the cysts were the size of baseballs. BASEBALLS! My fallopian tube was twisted as well as the ovary, so the blood supply was cut for that whole side of my reproductive organs, for 14 hours. But the cysts were all removed, the surgery went well, and they were able to use the scope, so my recovery time was cut in half. Bed rest for 3-5 weeks, no lifting over 5 lbs, and no exercise for 8-10 weeks after. Unfortunately, there’s so much uncertainty surrounding long-term effects with this kind of surgery. The surgeon told me I may never be able to have kids because the blood supply was cut for so long. Because of nurses who wouldn’t take me seriously. Because of a doctor refusing to do tests. Because I was being dramatic.
To say I am upset is the biggest understatement of the year. Not only did I have to go through that horrifying and traumatic experience, I was ridiculed by medical professionals throughout the process. My boyfriend had more say over my body than I did. AND, while it was traumatizing going through the experience, there are likely long-term effects. Life-altering, long-term side effects because a young woman with abdominal pains is, obviously, just on her period.
This is why we need feminism. So women have the final say on their bodies. So women don’t suffer because of assumptions. So women can put their faith in medical professionals. So women have a choice.
“Feminism isn’t about making women stronger. Women are already strong. It’s about changing the way the world perceives strength.”
- G.D. Anderson