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First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Stories of Misunderstanding Women's Pain
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Below are all the stories from female readers recalling times when doctors dismissed, downplayed, or misdiagnosed their painful health conditions. The series was sparked by Joe Fassler’s account of his wife experiencing an ovarian torsion that went undiagnosed for an excruciatingly long time. To join, email hello@theatlantic.com. (If you’re a doctor or other medical professional who has a perspective to share, it would be great to hear from the other side of the examination table as well.)

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When Going to the Doctor Feels Like Rape

A reader writes:

Yes, it is true that doctors—and not just male doctors, and not just doctors—don’t take women’s pain seriously. I have vulvodynia—the skin of my vagina is so painfully sensitive that even the lightest touch feels like pureed habaneros—and I also have vaginismus—my pelvic floor muscles seize up constantly to prevent penetration. I’ve had vulvodynia and vaginismus as long as I can remember, but it’s been a long, awful road to be taken seriously, much less get diagnosed.

When I was a teenager, my mom took me to the doctor to see if anything could be done for my debilitating menstrual cramps. The doctor gave me a pelvic exam. I didn’t know what a pelvic exam was, so I didn’t know what I was agreeing to, if I agreed to it at all. The doctor stuck her fingers up my vagina and started feeling around, and I was in unimaginable pain—worse pain than the menstrual cramps that were so painful I couldn’t even walk. I was in agony. More than that, I felt violated. I had been raped.  

My mom and the doctor were puzzled that the exam upset me so much. They thought it wasn’t a big deal that it hurt, or that I was upset; they just thought that it was because I’d never had sex before and didn’t know what it felt like. I cried all the way home, all afternoon, and into the evening.  

My mom offered to take me shopping.

This week, Shruti Pinnamaneni and the brilliant team at Reply All did that thing they do so well: they took the slender thread of a story—in this case, a person suffering from a mysterious medley of ailments—and followed that thread to surprising and fascinating places. Hope, the story’s protagonist, tells a gutwrenching tale of going to different doctors for second and third and fifth and eighth opinions, receiving over and over the same diagnosis of anxiety-induced migraines, being prescribed again and again treatments that alleviate none of her pain.

And then, late in the story, there’s a particularly thought-provoking moment. Dr. Lisa Sanders, the Yale University School of Medicine internist whose New York Times column inspired the hit show House, says to Hope, “I bet neither of the primary care doctors you went to see were women.”

When I read Joe Fassler’s brutal account of the time no one believed his wife was having an emergency, I thought of Hope, and Dr. Sanders’s bet. Thousands of people are reading that story as I write, and I suspect these accounts resonate much more widely. Do you have stories like these? Hello@theatlantic.com.