We need our doctors to take our symptoms seriously ... any way we can.
Several years ago, I was pregnant and battling an awful case of bronchitis. Being three kids in and an asthmatic meant that I took chest congestion seriously. The second that the symptoms appeared, I dutifully made a same-day appointment to see my doctor.
“Well, your lungs don’t sound too bad,” she said cheerfully after listening to me inhale and exhale.
“Right, I know they don’t sound bad now, but this is day one. If I get worse I will definitely need prednisone, antibiotics, and albuterol for my nebulizer,” I listed off.
She gave me serious side-eye and said, “We really do not recommend that pregnant women take medication prophylactically. And steroids are very bad for the baby.”
I sighed and, having walked this path before, stayed silent. “You’ll get along just fine with some Robitussin and a good night’s sleep,” she said cheerfully as she shooed me out of the office.
I did not get along fine with some Robitussin and a good night’s sleep. The next morning I was using my emergency inhaler every other hour and coughing so hard blood vessels began to burst in my eyes. I called and left a message with the nurse, only to hear that I should “give it more time and try to relax.”
The day after that I began coughing so hard I threw up, repeatedly. That night I did not sleep at all, because any position other than bolt upright restricted what little oxygen I was able to get.
Finally, on the fourth day, my husband called the doctor’s office and demanded to speak to the doctor immediately. Unsurprisingly, she was suddenly no longer with a patient and was promptly on the other line. Five minutes later she had called in prescriptions for prednisone, antibiotics, albuterol sulfate, and a cough syrup.
This is such a common experience for women that I doubt anyone reading this is highly surprised. Doctors underestimating women’s pain and illness is such a universal phenomenon that articles have been written, research conducted, and now, according to Healthline, a new book has been published about it:
Maya Dusenbery, author of Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick, shared in a “Fresh Air” interview that “one of the most disturbing things that I found in my research [was] how many women reported that as they were fighting to get their symptoms taken seriously, [they] just sort of sensed that what they really needed was somebody to testify to their symptoms, to testify to their sanity, and felt that bringing a partner or a father or even a son would be helpful. And then [they] found that it was [helpful], that they were treated differently when there was that man in the room who was corroborating their reports.”
… She writes that “women wait sixty-five minutes to men’s forty-nine before getting treated for abdominal pain in the emergency room … Young women are seven times more likely to be sent home from the hospital in the middle of having a heart attack … And they experience diagnostic delays in comparison to men for nearly everything, from brain tumors to rare genetic disorders.”
There are many theories about why this happens, but the reality is, it does. Every day.
When I asked my husband what the doctor said, he said she seemed surprised that I was that sick. He was frustrated when she repeated that she “had no idea it was that bad” and told her that I had called the day before and left her a detailed message about exactly how bad it was.
“Well, yes, I got the message,” she responded, “but I assumed she was exaggerating!”
So, what’s a woman to do up against “assumptions” like that?
First, rely on your allies. Whether it’s your husband, father, brother, best friend — whoever can go and attest to the veracity of your pain or illness, ask them. It might sound silly, but it can make the difference between a proper diagnosis and being ignored.
Second, point out your doctor’s erroneous assumptions. The next time I went to my doctor I brought up the entire incident, pointing out the serious harm she could have caused by refusing to believe me, her actual patient.
She did not apologize once. Rather, she told me that the next time I was “actually that sick” I should just make another same-day appointment (and bring in my three children and pay another $45 copay) so she could “see for herself.”
Which brings me to the third thing you can do: shop around.
That doctor did not end up being my doctor for much longer, and I warned others away from her. I eventually found a wonderful, sweet, brilliant doctor who saved my life after my next child was born — and the only reason she was prepared to take the extraordinary measures necessary was because she spent over an hour listening to me recount the history of my previous four births. She asked questions, clarified, took notes, and above all, she believed every word I said. That trust saved my life.
So don’t settle for poor treatment from a doctor who doesn’t listen. Demand the treatment you deserve, and keep looking until you find a doctor who will give it to you.