You’re “Hysterical”: How the Healthcare Community Demeans Women’s Pain
Hysterical: deriving from or affected by uncontrolled extreme emotion.
synonyms:overwrought, overemotional, out of control, frenzied, frantic, wild, feverish, crazed.
Why is this uniquely female? See https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/hysteria#Etymology
I can’t recall any more why I was on my knees on the floor of my living room. I was upright, just kneeling. The next moment I was keeling forward. My face smashed into the wood drawers at the base of the living room book case.
I grabbed my head and was rewarded with a great deal of gushing blood. Head injuries will do that. And as a hemopheliac, my bleeding tends to be spectacular.
Pretty soon my beige carpet was covered with blood stains so big it looked like someone had committed an axe murder in the house.
Post surgical woes
The day before I’d had extensive, challenging rotator cuff surgery. I had come home with a nerve block and my right arm about as responsive as a slab of lamb hanging in a sling. The rest of me felt 100%, full of energy, and sure that recovery, while painful, was going to be swift and easy. Next to my couch (which is where I stay if I am injured) I had scripts for oxycontin, THC gummies, just in case.
I was all set.
Until the block wore off around 9 pm.
I’d done everything as instructed, including starting my meds to, as the instructions said “get ahead of the pain.”
What I hadn’t planned for was the simple reality that the oxy had no effect whatsoever. I took the prescribed dose, then another. And lay writhing in agony for hours. I tried icing. That made the pain unbelievably worse.
The next morning, out of desperation, I ate one of the THC gummies (mind you, NOT in combination with the oxy. I may be in pain but I’m not stupid).
Like a Mac Truck
For someone who doesn’t even drink wine, has never done drugs (with one exception in Australia), the THC hit me with all the subtlety of a Mac truck. One second I was upright, the next my nose was smashed into the hard wood of the bookcase. Now I was badly injured, my arm was in agony, and I was cabbaged as surely as had I downed two bottles of Bainbridge Legacy Organic Vodka.
There was no one home and no neighbors to help. I managed to crawl to the bathroom and treat the injuries, including a two-inch gash in my hairline, multiple cuts and some impressive bumps. Bookcase 1, Hubbel 0.
Screw the blood stains. Those were the least of my problems.
Let’s Discuss Pain
As an athlete who takes some pretty serious chances, I’m familiar with serious injuries and pain. I’ve fractured my pelvis, broken my back and I’ve had nineteen concussions. That’s more than many NFL players. I’m no stranger to pain or injury. I’ve had to climb stairs after shattering my pelvis and get off a horse and walk after breaking my back. I’ve smashed my head on concrete- hard clay in a Ugandan village, and gotten right back on my horse and ridden again for hours. I’ve had four huge open sores form next to my right breast during a seven-day camel ride across Tanzania, days away from even a Third World clinic. Never once did I cry or complain. Don’t you dare fucking call me hysterical. I have endured pain that would have put most men writhing on the ground. So if I call and say I’m in trouble, I am goddamned IN TROUBLE. Hysterical my ass.
I’ve had my share of surgeries, so the post-op protocol isn’t new to me. What was new was that the pain meds- so coveted by so many- were utterly useless. For whatever reason the meds had two effects: they didn’t relieve the slightest bit of pain and they made me dangerously drunk. When you are clobbered out of your mind with narcotics yet still in severe pain, that makes a very dangerous combination. I had oxy, hydromorphone, you name it. Nothing worked. Nobody’s fault, but the side effects were brutal, including two additional falls right onto the point of incision. Multiple full body weight impacts within 72 hours after surgery. I’d say that might be painful to just about anyone.
The worst of it was the response to my calls for help. At best, they were received with vague politeness, along with the reading of a script (ask the patient the following…) When I couldn’t answer the questions, such as when did you take your last pill, how long were you icing your shoulder, the on-call nurse got frustrated. I’m lying in a dark room, no clock, I’m drunk with narcotics, in severe pain. I am in no condition to get up and carefully note when I took this or that med, when I began icing. The lack of reality is stunning. She kept repeating herself until I said with some anger “I heard you the FIRST goddamned time” and hung up in frustration. There was clearly a greater commitment to process vs. patient care. Check the boxes. Therefore we’re protected. Against the patient.
Last week I had my first followup after surgery. While I like my surgeon, when he sat down across from me he didn’t even register the gash, the bumps, the bruises on my face and forehead. When I pointed them out, he dismissed them. He said that my phone calls were “hysterical.” My boyfriend, who had moved in just before surgery, arrived a few minutes later.
Here’s what riles my ass.
When this six foot, 220-lb man got into the surgeon’s face about the level of pain, the number of falls, and the fact that the narcotics didn’t work, my surgeon listened. Suddenly my claims were validated. The BF knows that for me to cry, cry out or ask for help I have to be in real trouble. I nearly have to have an arm torn off before I will ask for help. However, when I call this in to Triage, I’m fucking “hysterical.”
Women’s Pain is Meaningless
Here’s a little history as to where this comes from: https://easyhealthoptions.com/warped-reason-doctors-treat-women-differently/ and another more recent article https://medium.com/s/hysterical-women-and-medicine/can-new-research-validate-womens-pain-e6d8beb8ff43. It’s not only that it’s beyond insulting to have some asshole surgeon- no matter how competent a surgeon he is- dismiss multiple falls, including smashing your face into a bookcase as hysterical, it’s that your pain isn’t real until a man validates it.
To this I say SCREW YOU to the health industry that perpetuates this kind of brutally ignorant, viciously stupid, gender-biased health care which costs women far more pain and suffering-and deaths- than we deserve. Oh it hurts, does it? It’s all in your mind. Here, take these toxic, mind-screwing anti-depressants and shut the hell up so that I can go deal with a real patient: the guy in the next room whose pain IS valid. Your pain can’t possibly be as bad as his. Don’t think this is real? Think I’m exaggerating? Check out https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=383803.
As a female disabled veteran who has been called Mr. Hubbel at the Veteran’s Hospital for more than forty years, I have had my share of this kind of treatment by docs far more used to male patients than women. That’s why I chose a female nurse, a fellow jock, to be my primary care provider.
When I presented to my PCP on Friday, her eyes nearly bugged out when she saw my face. The surgeon didn’t even see the damage. She was very concerned about the head injury given my concussion record. I had, of course, informed the surgeon of this concussion record as well. All he was focused on was my shoulder. That’s all that mattered- the part that he had worked on. While that’s understandable, it’s myopic as hell.
Is this all healthcare? Of course not. Is this true of all docs, surgeons and providers? Not at all. But it is endemic to our system, and the implicit assumptions that women’s pain is imaginary has a long and storied history.
This is How We Die
The myopic approach to the body is how people die. A dear friend told me about a fellow professor who went into the hospital for a knee replacement. He ended up contracting pneumonia and dying. He was healthy and hearty when he went in, and came out in a box. The operation was a complete success. What a pity the poor man didn’t live to enjoy the fruits of the surgeon’s labor. What a pity the facility didn’t keep a proper eye on his whole body health. It reminds me of self-absorbed NFL receivers who are out collecting stats to pad their resume while the team loses the game.
When women aren’t taken seriously, we end up getting misdiagnosed. We get over-medicated for conditions we don’t have. We get anesthetized to shut the hell up, because the pain can’t possibly be real. We can’t possibly know our bodies. It’s all mental. Of course it is.
This article describes precisely what my BF was feeling while dealing with me, and is a perfect example of what I am reporting:https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/10/emergency-room-wait-times-sexism/410515/. Short of grabbing a doctor by the balls and squeezing hard enough to elicit the proper response (are we in pain yet, doctor?) I don’t have the answers. My direct experience is that the medical community wholly dismisses female pain as imaginary and hysterical. When a man hurts, pull out all the stops.
Okay, I have a strategy for that.
How about I crush your nuts until you’re hysterical, doctor? Will it register then?
A surgeon’s uber competence as it relates to fixing my shoulder (he made a point to brag to me about how many thousands of these he had done, and I frankly don’t give a flying shit, since I had already researched the man’s background) is severely limited by his ability to listen, to see the patient as a whole, and to take seriously what that patient is saying. Trying to get across what I had experienced to this man was like talking to a bowl of cold oatmeal. Until, of course, the BF walked in.
Angry isn’t Hysterical
Am I angry? You’re damned right. That’s very different from hysterical, although the fastest way to disembowel righteous anger is to ridicule and minimize it as female hysteria. I’m goddamned, mind-blowingly pissed off. For every woman who has ever been through this kind of gender-biased incompetent so-called healthcare treatment, I am beyond furious. I ache for every woman whose pain tolerance is far less than mine who is treated as though she has “a widdle boo-boo,” kiss it and it will be all better, while her organs are failing. I rail for every female whose guts are twisted who is shoved aside on a gurney for a man whose cries of pain are heard, and hers aren’t. And to add insult to injury we pay untold thousands for this kind of substandard, poor quality care.
“You’ll have to wait your turn, honey, it’s probably nothing.”
Wait until it’s your turn on the gurney, you are writhing in pain, and some professional numbnuts walks by, pats you patronizingly on the shoulder and tells you it’s “nothing.”
Just wait until it’s your turn to experience “nothing.”
Karma’s a bitch. You’d better hope she’s not hysterical when it’s time for payback.