“Your wrist isn’t broken.” The pomp and sneer in her voice made it clear she thought me a hypochondriac stealing precious moments from her important day.
“How can you tell?” I snapped back, aghast. “You’re on the phone.”
Ten days previously, I’d gone ice skating and managed to stick a spectacular wipeout by landing on my right wrist. By the time I was processed and X-rayed at the ER, it was after hours. The nurse who eventually looked in informed me, “I can’t see a break, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t one. The radiologists will look at it tomorrow. Meanwhile, here’s a splint. If it’s not improved in three days or better in ten days, call a doctor.”
I went home to take my Tylenol and ice my swollen, purple appendage.
Three days later, the swelling was somewhat reduced and I had learned to do a remarkable number of things with my left hand, though drawing, which I do for a living, was not one of them.
Ten days after the fall, my wrist still hurt like a son of a bitch. The least movement or jostling provoked shooting pain and the bruising was nasty. I was wearing the splint day and night to protect my joint as much as possible. I asked a nurse friend what she thought.
“For a ten-day-old injury, that looks really bad,” she offered. You should go to a doctor.
I called my GP. “I don’t do bones,” he said. “Call the orthopedists’ office.” Which is how I got the psychic receptionist on the line.
“If your wrist were broken, the radiologist would have seen it on the X-ray and we would have called you for an appointment. If we didn’t call, it’s not broken,” she proclaimed with a startling degree of certainty in response to my description of pain, visual symptoms and the passage of time.
“Well, something is really wrong, and my doctor told me to see an orthopedist,” I countered, playing the doctor card.
The best she would do was schedule me for a visit with a physician’s assistant two weeks hence. Clearly, she thought I was a crank.
That evening I reported my frustrating experience to my husband. “Do you want to accept that, or do you want me to do something about it?” he asked. “I went to college with the head of radiology. I can call him.”
My usual way of being in the world is to avoid special treatment, but at this point I had been stoic through ten painful days and was rip-roaring angry at the insulting dismissiveness with which I had been treated. “I’d like it if you spoke to Peter,” I sighed.
John called Peter at home. “Jesus Christ!” Peter boomed over the line. “Just listening to her symptoms, I can tell you the wrist is broken. Get her back to the ER. I’m going to call and order X-rays.” And that was that.
Shortly after the X-rays were completed, an orthopedist magically materialized and put a proper cast on my wrist. “Good thing you kept that splint on. The bone stayed in alignment,” he mused as he applied the fiberglass mesh.
“It was too painful to take the splint off,” I replied. “Why didn’t the break show up in the first X-ray?”
“Sometimes, if a break is particularly clean and the bone is still in alignment, it won’t show on an initial X-ray. It will only appear after the healing process begins,” he breezily explained.
“Good to know,” I said, when what I really wanted to say was, “Maybe you’d like to explain this to your receptionist.” But I didn’t want to tick him off. He was being nice, and the rigidity of the cast compared to the Velcro-on splint was making a huge difference in my pain level.
What would have happened if I hadn’t had strings to pull, or, perhaps more importantly, hadn’t had a man to go to bat for me? My problem was a straightforward one, a sports injury, something common, gender-neutral and easy to fix. What if my problem had been more amorphous, deep-seated and gendered? What then?
The medical establishment must stop patronizing the women in their care and start listening as if female patients’ experiences were real and their voices mattered, because they are and they do.
Lives are at stake. This is not hyperbole.
As an instructor for a cancer survivor program, I learn the backstories of my clients. I am shocked at how many of the women related early symptoms of cancer to doctors only to have their experiences minimized or, worse, pigeonholed as psychological until the cancer was advanced enough to be unignorable. I am appalled how many times women have told me it was not until they brought a man with them to a doctor’s appointment that they were taken seriously.
As a friend of Abby Norman’s, I smolder with anger over how she — despite her brilliance, stoicism, articulation and history of operable (for what could be more real than a thing you can hold in your hand) maladies — has been dismissed and patronized time and again by the very people we are told to trust with our lives. Her story is one our culture needs to hear, and she is the perfect one to tell it.
Just published by Nation Books, Ask Me About My Uterus: A Quest to Make Doctor’s Believe in Women’s Pain, is a beautifully written, introspective memoir wrapped around the history of women’s treatment by medicine, especially the gaslighting of women’s pain.
Was being sick making her depressed, or was depression making her sick? How many of us have asked that same question, or ask it almost daily as we slog forward in time? It’s the Ouroboros of pain from which we cannot escape, no matter how hard we try, unequivocally felt by us and questioned by everyone else — until we, too, are forced to doubt the veracity of our reality. — page 23
She surgically dissects our cultural biases regarding female body function and the role these play in women’s medical experience.
…if you were really to listen to women who have ovarian cancer speak, you’d find that it wasn’t so much the disease process that was silent — but that they were. Conditions that seem to lurk unnoticed in a woman’s body go unnoticed by others because, for one thing, they are an assumed part of womanhood, and, for another, women are taught to keep those pains private. I’ve often found it curious that when a woman is suffering, her competence is questioned, but when a man is suffering, he’s humanized. — page 197
Abby has saved her own life more than once, persisting through doctoral denials of illness and smears against her competency with determined research and tireless advocacy for her health. With Ask Me About My Uterus, she takes these same skills and advocates for women everywhere.
I have no doubt her work will save other lives.