Life + Love, Life Stories

Doctors don’t know sh*t about women’s health, and it almost cost me my life

I was suffering from two hidden illnesses, but my doctor never asked the right questions.

About halfway through 2012, a wellness coach encouraged me to see a doctor about some persistent health problems. In the initial screening session, he gave me a ridiculously thorough health questionnaire. As I filled it out I began to realize that I was having GI problems with alarming frequency. Though I was experiencing gastric distress, to put it politely, on almost a daily basis, I had ignored it, hoping it would eventually go away.

Like many women, I had internalized the idea that I shouldn’t complain. Click To Tweet

When the wellness coach saw my health questionnaire, they exclaimed, “These symptoms aren’t normal! Why haven’t you seen a doctor?”

I just shrugged.

Like many women, I had internalized the idea that I shouldn’t complain. I was probably exaggerating it anyway. Maybe I was even making it up. At the time, I had no idea that I was suffering from two hidden illnesses and that the medical industry had been gaslighting me for years.

I spent the next two years going to doctors, naturopaths, and specialists. I had most of my bodily fluids tested, my blood drawn more times than I can count, and had a colonoscopy. My naturopath prescribed me multiple supplements and at times I was taking 10-15 pills per day. I was put on elimination diets: no dairy, no gluten, no sugar, all to identify a supposed food allergy. When none of that worked and my thyroid and white blood cell counts plunged, I even had a bone marrow biopsy to make sure I didn’t have leukemia. Thank God I didn’t.

He didn’t ask me about my period or my weight, and these proved to be the key. Click To Tweet

The naturopath I was working with was compassionate and persistent. He was willing to go to any lengths to find out what was wrong with me, but he made the unfortunate mistake of not asking me the right questions. He didn’t ask me about my period or my weight, and these proved to be the key.

After two years of constant testing with no answers, I began to do my own research. I randomly found a message board that linked some of my symptoms: GI distress, fatigue, and thyroid issues, to endometriosis.

I’d never heard of it before, so I Googled it.

Endometriosis is a reproductive illness where the uterine lining, called endometrial tissue, grows outside of the uterus, where it’s not supposed to be. Endometriosis causes intensely bad periods. I’m not talking about bad cramps and some heavy bleeding. I’m talking rolling on the floor in pain, vomiting, migraines, and heavy bleeding for 10-14 days per month.

Doctors told me that periods could be painful and I would have to get used to it. Click To Tweet

I’d been experiencing symptoms like that since I was 12, but I thought it just meant I had bad periods. I’d been to the hospital a few times when I was a teen for pain from my periods. The doctors prescribed me birth control and told me to go home, take some Midol, and suck it up. It had never occurred to me that my periods weren’t ‘normal’. I just thought they were worse than some other women’s, and doctors throughout the years were happy to reinforce this. I’d never heard, “You might have endometriosis,” even though all my symptoms clearly pointed to this chronic illness. Doctors, almost exclusively male doctors, always just told me that periods could be painful and I would have to get used to it.

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When I mentioned endometriosis to my naturopath, he was visibly embarrassed. After I described my period to him, he hung his head and admitted that he should have asked me about my period when we began working together.

When I mentioned endometriosis to my naturopath, he was visibly embarrassed. Click To Tweet

I went to a gynecologist, got diagnosed with endometriosis, got on a hormonal IUD, and most of my symptoms resolved. If my male doctor had taken five minutes to ask me about my periods, two years before, or if any doctor in the past had given any credence to my complaints about my period, I would have been saved years of pain.

A little over a year later, I found myself in treatment for a restrictive eating disorder and compulsive exercise problem.

While I was learning about my eating disorder in treatment, I discovered that symptoms like thyroid dysfunction and low white blood cell counts, symptoms that had been revealed in my testing and were still unresolved, could be caused by calorie restriction and over exercising. I realized that my naturopath had also ignored my eating disorder.

I wasn’t 'thin enough' for my naturopath to be concerned. Click To Tweet

We had talked quite a few times about how I was unable to lose the weight I wanted to lose even though I was ‘eating well’ and exercising daily. He had prescribed me restrictive diets to rule out food allergy problems. When I started to gain weight because I became too fatigued from my illness to work out daily, he treated the weight gain as a symptom of my undiagnosed illness, not as my body desperately trying to normalize my weight.

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He was never concerned about my weight, eating habits, or exercise habits because I was a ‘healthy weight’. I wasn’t ‘thin enough’ for him to be concerned. He never connected my symptoms with the way I ate or exercised. In fact, he complimented my discipline to my ‘healthy lifestyle.’

Unfortunately, this story is not unique. Doctors, especially male doctors, are woefully under-trained in ‘women’s issues.’ They are not trained to connect chronic reproductive illnesses, like endometriosis, with vague symptoms like abdominal pain and GI distress. Many male doctors still feel awkward asking women to describe their periods. If they do ask, they’re awful judges of whether period symptoms are ‘normal’, especially since women typically diminish the severity of their symptoms when describing them. On average, it takes women seven years from their initial symptoms to be diagnosed with endometriosis. In my case, it took twelve years.

Doctors are also completely embedded in the diet culture, which tells us that healthy = skinny and diet = skinny so diet = healthy. Doctors applaud calorie restrictive diets and encourage over exercising because they, incorrectly, believe this leads to better health. This means that red flags for eating disorders are often missed or ignored. It’s part of women’s everyday lives to say “I’m on a diet,” so it makes sense that a doctor would not consider this a red flag, even if other symptoms indicating an eating disorder are present.

Many male doctors still feel awkward asking women to describe their periods. Click To Tweet

Women make up over half the population, yet doctors have very little insight in to what’s going on in their bodies. This is unacceptable. It’s time for doctors to receive better training in ‘women’s issues,’ so that women get the care and treatment they deserve. No one should have to go through two years of misery and testing like I did just because their doctor can’t recognize reproductive illness. No one should be prescribed a restrictive elimination diet when they are clearly struggling with an eating disorder.

Women deserve better.

Robin Zabiegalski

Robin Zabiegalski

Robin Zabiegalski is a Spring Editorial Fellow for The Tempest. She is a freelance writer for digital media publications and her work has been published on The Tempest and xoJane. She is also an occasional writer of short fiction and satire. Robin has a BA in Professional Studies from Johnson State College and she is passionate about feminism, body image, writing, snowboarding, and backpacking.

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