The Gyno Diaries: Welcome To The Wonderful World Of Female Reproductive Health Care!
Welcome to The Gyno Diaries. This column will be dedicated to telling the stories of real women and their experiences with women’s healthcare—from deciding to have an abortion, to deciding not to have an abortion, and all that’s in between (literally and figuratively). For the sake of openness, I decided to begin this series with my own tale of vagina-related woes. The goal here is to foster a dialogue between women about our experiences with the limited world of female reproductive care, and create an anthology for men, anti-abortion women and everyone else who doesn’t understand the necessity of Planned Parenthood. If you’d like to discuss your own story please email me at [email protected]!
The exam room where I’ve been getting pap smears since I was 16 has always made me uncomfortable. Just down the hall is a spacious, windowed, golden-lit sanctuary with wood flooring, wing back chairs and state of the art looking equipment. The door to this gynecological temple is always open, and the room is always empty. But every year they throw me in this little closet-sized room with harsh fluorescents and the same kind of cabinets that your elementary school teacher hid the glitter glue behind. And that’s not even what bothers me most.
The first thing that greets me in my vagina closet is an ugly, framed needlepoint that says “Be nice to strangers. You never know when you’re talking to an angel in disguise.” The words are flanked with cartoonish angels and flowers. It is yellowed, and reminiscent of the kinds of things that get dropped off at Goodwill and never taken home again. And every year it surprises me. Yes, I live in the south, but in a progressive city in the south. And regardless of geography, I feel like it’s pretty standard to treat anything medically related with a secular attitude—as beings of all faiths need doctors. But apparently my doctor doesn’t care about my faith-based comfort.
Then comes the worst part, the actual exam. As I wink at the stupid angels on the wall, and lie back in a paper gown, what is on the ceiling but a collage of famous men. Like the needlepoint, it is old and unattended to, crinkled and potentially going to fall down over a patient’s agape mouth one day. It features a strange selection of men. In full clothing are Kanye West, pre-McConnaisance Matthew McConaughey, Tim McGraw, and a shirtless Bradley Cooper. As unpleasant things happen between the stirrups, I am always distracted by this damn collage. Which perhaps is the intended effect, but my concern with it is for a much different reason than the person who scotch taped it up there how ever many years ago thought of. First off, why those men? It’s very obvious that Kanye is thrown in there so that they don’t seem racist. Tim McGraw is up there because, like I said, the south. But if I have my choice between seeing Cooper or McConaughey shirtless, I, and I think most women, would chose the latter–even if it is circa stoned bongo playing and box office flops. And when did anyone really think of Bradley Cooper as a sex symbol anyways?
More importantly than the poor choice in sex symbols, the biggest problem with my gynecological office is that within moments of being there, I am being visually assaulted by two reminders that my reproductive healthcare is not framed within the context of me. Instead it is very clearly being looked at through the lens of religion and male sexuality. When I have to take a half day off once a year to be probed in uncomfortable ways, I shouldn’t be doing that for God or any man—I’m doing that for my health. And yet somehow this is completely lost on my doctor and her staff, the out of touch group of women with bad bed side manner whom I have entrusted with my care for almost ten years now, because finding a good gynecologist is very rare, and requires a lot of trial and error that I guess I’ve never been up for. It’s like sleeping with an ex: not ideal, but I have a job that needs doing, and they’ve gotten it done before. And that’s just the beginning of the story.
I’ve only ever cheated on my gynecologist one time. It was when I was living in Los Angeles, and needed to be seen immediately due to recurring abdominal pain and a yeast infection that wouldn’t go away no matter what I did. I looked up a practice in Burbank on Yelp that had great reviews, and decided to wing it. The office was the co-op of two doctors, one a Russian woman, the other an English man, both over 50. The first time I went, I saw the woman. She didn’t even give me a check up, but just prescribed me some yeast infection pills and sent me on my way.
A month later when I was still having symptoms, and the abdominal pain had worsened, I went back, this time requesting the male doctor. He had a much more affable bed side manner, took me into his oak-lined office before the exam so that we could have a clothed conversation about what was going on, and then decided I needed a transvaginal ultrasound. This experience could not have aligned me in more solidarity with women fighting against this measure being a part of many anti-abortion type legislations—requiring women to have this procedure in order to get a late term abortion in the event of rape. A transvaginal ultrasound is basically a dildo-shaped X-ray wand that they shove inside you. It is on my top five list of most uncomfortable experiences of my life. I cannot even imagine what having to endure such a thing after having already been violated would do to a woman’s state of mind.
The ultrasound revealed that I had cysts on my ovaries. They were caused by my birth control not being “strong enough for me,” and my body releasing eggs even though it wasn’t supposed to. The eggs then turned to cysts, and the abdominal pain was caused by the cysts bursting inside of me. The yeast infection was being caused by all of the hormonal nonsense inside my body from the eggs adversely affecting my body’s pH levels. So months of this painful, uncomfortable and embarrassing ordeal were all being caused by my birth control, and it took two doctors at a private practice, paid for by my insurance, just to find that out. If it was that hard for me to get the care I needed at that time, I have no idea what someone without insurance would do.
The solution the second doctor decided upon was to switch my birth control to a very strong variety that would limit my period to four times a year, so that my body could have a chance to regulate. This actually didn’t sound great to me—I personally like the monthly reminder of not being pregnant, and I don’t know, I feel like much like the moon, as a woman it’s beneficial to have a regular cycle. But I did as I was told and everything seemed to clear up.
Fast forward a year, and I’m living back in Nashville. It was Father’s day, and I was at brunch with my dad when all of the sudden I was very convinced I had just pissed my pants in the middle of a fancy mimosa-scented restaurant. I went to the bathroom, pulled down my pants, and there was blood everywhere. Not clotted period-type blood, but bright red, fluid blood. And then a clot about the size of a quarter just fell out of me.
I was traumatized. I had no idea what had just happened to my body. I drove to my mom’s house later on and told her what had happened. She said that she thought I’d had a miscarriage. I called my doctor the next day, and she nonchalantly agreed that a miscarriage was most likely what had occurred. I asked if there was any way to be sure, and she said no. I asked what I should do next, and she said there wasn’t anything I could do but keep taking my birth control and move on.
There really wasn’t time to get too wrapped up in it, as it was days before I was flying to Washington to attend my boyfriend’s sister’s wedding, and meet most of his family for the first time. Being hung up about having lost a child I didn’t know I was carrying wasn’t really an option for me. And yet, I was preoccupied with it anyways. I do not want to have a child right now by any means, but I was still sad, and felt like I’d done something wrong. My doctor was no help either in feigning any kind of concern for what had occurred, or suggesting potential changes in course for me medically. In reality these kinds of things happen all of the time to women whether they know they are pregnant or not—but our culture reinforces so adamantly the sanctity and responsibility of motherhood, that I felt incredibly guilty for probably having lost a baby I didn’t even want or know was maybe floating around inside of me. I also couldn’t help but feel guilty that I was kind of relieved, that if I had been pregnant, at least I didn’t have to make the choice to have an abortion or not.
The point of this story is to illustrate through my own personal experience just how nuanced and confusing the world of women’s reproductive healthcare really is. It is hard to find a doctor who is both knowledgeable and makes you feel comfortable. During this whole saga, I remember my boyfriend at one point just shaking his head, exasperatedly asking me “Why can’t they just figure out what’s wrong?” The truth is that women’s medical care is not a priority.
Historically, women have been accused of exaggeration of pain and hypochondria since the dawn of medicine. And there just isn’t enough being done in the way of research of the intricate and elaborate world of vaginas and the things that go with them to streamline women’s healthcare. If men needed their reproductive organs checked up in the extensive way that women do every year, and could have as many complicated and confusing things wrong with their sexual organs as women can, then you bet your ass there would be government funded men’s centers in every strip mall in America. This isn’t about abortion, it’s about access to affordable, coherent reproductive healthcare for women.