The story of a woman going to the doctor about a health problem she’s having only to be ignored or palmed off is not a new one. Roxanne Gay has spoken about it, Joe Fassler wrote about it happening to his wife, Rachel, and Gilda Radner died because her ovarian cancer was misdiagnosed as chronic fatigue, menstrual pains and anxiety. Elsewhere women have shared stories of E. coli being diagnosed as menstrual cramps, of hyperemesis being written off as normal morning sickness, and of potential deadly infections being dismissed due to the patient being “sensitive”. Just today an inquest has heard a woman died after paramedics didn't take her seriously and told her to stop faking her symptoms "for attention".
Research has consistently shown that doctors don’t taken women’s medical problems and their pain seriously. They are less likely to believe that a woman is experiencing the pain she says she is, instead believing her to be being dramatic, and they are more likely to misdiagnose physical problems as being mental or emotional. Now artist Aubrey Hirsch has brought these stories and studies to life with her comic Medicine's Women Problem.
Medicine’s Women Problem tells the story of Hirsch’s experience of Graves' disease, a condition that causes an overactive thyroid gland. Hirsch first noticed symptoms such as fatigue, weight loss and irregular periods while she was at college, and was diagnosed with things like stress, homesickness, eating disorders, anxiety and IBS. When she went to A&E because she couldn’t stand up, they made her take two pregnancy tests before they would check her heart. It took over five years before someone tested her thyroid and discovered she had Graves' disease. Soon afterwards she started treatment and her symptoms all disappeared.
Hirsch’s cartoon is beautiful and sad, but it’s also incredibly angry. As she points out it takes an average of five years and five doctors for autoimmune patients, 75 per cent of whom are women, to be properly diagnosed, and more than half of those patients said they were labelled as “chronic complainers”. By the time her Graves’ disease was diagnosed, she had permanent damage to her bones, eyes and heart, but she says that the way her feelings and experiences were dismissed was almost worst than the physical pain she felt. She was ignored so often that she started doubting her own feelings and mind. Now she’s healthy, she’s vowed to never be ignored again.
Eating disorders, anxiety, depression and other emotional or mental issues are serious problems and doctors absolutely do need to be on the lookout for them in their patients. However, they must also remember that they aren’t the only things women can suffer from. A good start would be to stop dismissing women as being overly-sensitive or dramatic when they report that they’re in pain, and instead believe that they’re rational and trustworthy enough to know when there is something is wrong with their own bodies.