I spent Friday in the emergency room. I had quick-onset, debilitating flank pain. It was scary. While I thought it could be kidney stones or something I could tough out, there are too many organs in that spot to take it lightly. So off to the county hospital I went.
The hospital I went to is a teaching hospital, so there are a lot of baby doctors running around being all cute and awkward. My doctor was a young, timid, Muslim man. I assume he’s a virgin. He tried to be a pro as he asked me sensitive questions, but every once in a while he giggled or fidgeted. He was trying to let me know he didn’t mean to pry, but lower abdominal pain can often be associated with late-stage STIs. (He didn’t say that explicitly, but I know it’s what he meant). Despite my stage nine pain and morphine drip, I tried to explain that I’m perfectly comfortable with my sexuality and I was happy to answer any questions he had, no matter how “sensitive.” However, due to the delirium, I couldn’t remember when I had my first new sexual partner or how many I’d had since I was last tested. Even stone cold sober, I can’t answer that second question. (I was last tested in September.) He asked about my menstrual cycle, the genders of my partners, PAP history, etc. I answered everything, and told him I was likely suffering from kidney stones. Maybe gall stones, since the pain started so high in my back.
The doctor said I needed an internal exam, and I didn’t protest. He administered the exam with the same nervousness he had during the Q&A. A seasoned pro was the backseat driver, showing the young doctor how to lube up a speculum. Upon insertion, the baby doc jabbed me and was pretty fumbly about the whole thing. It hurt enough for me to shout “ow!” which isn’t my usual M.O. So it goes. I was happy he had someone like me to practice on (this was his 3rd internal ever, he said). He put his hands in the wrong places, and had a hard time finding my cervix. Whatever. Baby doc. So it goes.
Then the baby doc inserted his finger and prodded me in various directions to see where it hurt. For the most part there was no pain near my vagina, but when he pressed against the right side of my vagina, it felt uncomfortable. I won’t say it was painful, because that whole side of my body was in severe pain. But me saying it felt tender was enough for the seasoned doc to order an ultrasound to make sure my ovaries were a-okay.
At this point, it was 4 hours after I was admitted (6 hours after the pain started), and the pain had moved from my upper back to my lower abdomen.
Again I suggested it was kidney stones, since this seemed like the path they’d take. The nurse agreed with me, but she said that “male doctors always think it’s lady parts” when abdominal pain is involved.
So, more waiting.
Finally, I got sent downstairs to radiology. The radiologist was an awesome middle-aged lady. We talked shit about science education in the US and why otherwise smart guys won’t use condoms. (“Why they wanna meet Maury?!” she said.) By this time (about 7 hours after I was admitted, 10 hours after the pain started) the pain was completely gone. Completely. Still sounded like kidney stones, but it could’ve been a burst ovarian cyst, so onto ultrasound table.
She used the “normal” sensor first– the one that smears around on your belly. Then, she said, she’d use the intravaginal probe.
I admit, I was excited. I’d heard so much about this procedure from douche-bag politicians, I wanted to know what it was like.
The probe was long and narrow, made of gray plastic and wrapped with a female-condom type barrier. It felt like a dildo. She wiggled it around in me and pushed it into various depths, angling it for different pictures. It took about 10 minutes.
As she did it, I asked her opinion about the Virginia (and now Michigan) bill that required women in need of abortions to have a transvaginal ultrasound. She stopped and stared at me. “They WHAT?” she shouted.
I gave her the details as she stared aghast. Finally she said “This shit is all about male control of women’s bodies. They have no idea what I see every day. And most of the time, for a long time, there ain’t nothing to see in there anyway. Not even a tadpole. Just nothing. You know what? If a man wants to get his thing going without wearing a jacket, he should be required to have a trans-RECTAL ultrasound. Hell, I’ll administer them myself. May get these arrogant bastards to reconsider where they stick their things.”
I laughed and agreed with her.
I waited until 11pm when the new doctor on duty, a young woman who had little time for me, told me my ovaries were fine. I said I had guessed as much, but did they find kidney stones?
She said they didn’t check for that. It was a different test. The supervising doctor assumed my ovaries were the problem. I told her I had been saying all day it was kidney or gall stones. She shrugged, handed me my paperwork, and left.
I was discharged without a diagnosis twelve hours after I arrived in the hospital.
Late that night as I washed all that hospital off of me, I remembered a conversation from 3 years ago. I had met a pair of young male doctors at a party. One of them said he had done an internal on a newly-pregnant 16-year-old and she was freaking out about it. She’d never had one before. The doctor recounted the story as an amusing anecdote. He said he didn’t know why she was so freaked out. “I mean,” he laughed, “it’s not like she had a hard time opening her legs before.”
My demeanor turned stone cold. I narrowed my eyes at him. “It’s different,” I said.
The other doctor shrugged. “It’s not like he was going to hurt her.”
“It’s different,” I repeated, colder. Then I left to refresh my drink. My partner stayed back to school these men on white male privilege, a service for which I’m grateful.
In retrospect, it was easy to tell those men to shove it. I was healthy and clothed, at a fancy party with fancy drinks.
Friday, when I was in a hospital gown, writhing on a cot, it wasn’t as easy to stick up for myself. I could have insisted they run a CT scan along with the ultrasound. I could have told the doctor to press harder to make sure the pain was in the spot I thought it was. I could have asked for the seasoned doctor to glove up and feel for himself. But I was drugged and scared. So I let them prod me, swab me, and tell me what was broken without question. I’ll find out Tuesday how much I have to pay for the privilege.
I’m grateful the pain had subsided by the time I had to spread my legs for the second time that day. I’m grateful the radiologist was a no-nonsense woman who treated me like a human instead of a specimen.
I’m a sex-positive, open-book of a woman. I have lots of sex and lots of conversations about sex. I believe that a woman’s voice doesn’t disappear when her legs are open. I got the ultrasound not because I was raped, or coerced, or bowled over by an insensitive sex partner. I couldn’t imagine how terrible it would felt if that were the case. For me, it wasn’t the probe that was difficult to manage. It was every interaction with a man in that hospital. (Well, almost. The financial rep was gay and awesome.) The nurses listened, agreed, patted my hand and said they’d seen this a million times. They knew I was right, but they weren’t the ones who ordered the tests. The doctors probed, ignored, and sent me on my way once they’d been satisfied with the non-answers their tests gave them.
It’s been said by smart people on the internet that if women’s sexuality is so passive, why must we legislate layers upon layers of control upon it? Why are we nervous and fidgeting? Why are some questions so hard to ask? Why do we cease to listen to women as soon as their clothes come off?
Early on, women learn that we have to be the ones to keep our heads in sensitive situations. We’re supposed to be the ones in “control” of sexuality. We’re told that we hold the keys to sex. The truth isn’t so simple. Often the keys are wrenched away from us. Or even if we let someone in, they don’t always obey the house rules.
The transvaginal ultrasound mandate is insane and cruel. That’s obvious. What’s not as obvious is how women earn the agency over our bodies we’re supposed to inherently have. What will it take for our politicians and doctors to listen to us? How far removed from embodied consent are we that a doctor doesn’t understand the difference between a young woman opening her body to a lover and opening her legs for a doctor with a speculum?
My transvaginal ultrasound wasn’t unnecessary; it was incomplete. I consented because I knew it might help rule something severe out. But knowing it was necessary, or at least a good idea, didn’t remove the layers of anxiety and frustration from the procedure. Knowing that the only people listening to me were the ones who had no power to diagnose anything was insanely frustrating. I can only imagine how frustrated they are on a daily basis in their jobs. I’m tired of our culture of paternalism, where the only ones credited with expertise on women’s bodies are political nimrods or degree holders that don’t bother to listen to their patients.
I’m not asking for tenderness or preciousness. What I want is a culture of listening. I want doctors and men alike to know that when a woman is on her back, she retains the ability to think for herself. That if she’s given permission to speak, she often will. If she’s given a choice, she’ll often make the right one.