Rachel Fassler was in so much pain that she couldn’t remain still long enough for the emergency room nurses to take her blood pressure. After hours of being overlooked, dismissed, and misdiagnosed (she was initially treated for kidney stones) by two male doctors, Fassler was finally treated appropriately by a third physician, a woman, and rushed into emergency surgery to have a swollen ovary removed.
The details of Fassler’s horrific experience in the hospital that day was told by her husband Joe Fassler in The Atlantic back in 2015. The piece “How Doctors Take Women’s Pain Less Seriously” opened the floodgates for women to share their stories of having their pain ignored sometimes for years by mostly by male doctors, though not exclusively. Rachel Fassler refers to this as “the trauma of not being seen.”
On a recent episode of Kindreds, a podcast I co-produce on faith and feminism, entitled “Women and Pain” my co-host Ashley Peterson and I spoke at length about the dynamics of Fassler’s experience–and the fact that it was her husband who told the story publicly. We wondered, would this piece in The Atlantic have gained as much traction had Rachel written about it herself? Why do women need male validation in order to be believed and taken seriously?
When I was 19, I awake one morning with my neck so stiff that I couldn’t get off the couch. My head pounded; my body ached. My mother called the urgent care where a good family friend served as the on-call doctor. I mustered up the willpower to pull on a pair of gym shorts and make it to the car. When we got to the urgent care, I laid on the reception room floor. “On a scale of 1 to 10, what’s your pain level?” asked the nurse. “8.5” I said. I am aware now, but wasn’t at the time, that saying a number that high can immediately make you seem overly dramatic. As the nurses said repeatedly to Rachel Fassler, “Women cry. What can you do?”
When we arrived, we discovered that family friend had been called to an emergency elsewhere. The doctor on call, an older white man, didn’t seem at all concerned by my symptoms. Like Joe Fassler did for his wife, my mom advocated for me fiercely. “This isn’t like my daughter,” she insisted. “There is something terribly wrong with her.” Eventually I was treated with fluids and pain medication that gave me enough comfort to sleep. A few days later our family physician called to check in on me and to tell us, “I am fairly certain that Katey was infected with the West Nile Virus.”
Women’s pain is systematically downplayed and disbelieved by the medical community. Our waiting time in emergency rooms is longer, and we’re less likely to be prescribed pain medication than men. Reproductive health issues are perpetually ignored, particularly among women of color. Black women who suffer from endometriosis, a painful condition that can cause infertility, are often misdiagnosed with pelvic inflammatory disease, a sexually transmitted infection, and may suffer needlessly for up to 10 years before receiving an accurate diagnosis. After giving birth tennis star Serena Williams, who has a history of blood clots, essentially had to orchestrate her own care when hospital staff ignored her concerns about what turned out to be a life-threatening pulmonary embolism, which cascaded into several other major complications.
As Ashley and I discussed on the podcast, no woman ought to be expected to have extensive personal medical knowledge in order to have her life spared after childbirth. No woman ought to need a male validator to get the third medical opinion when the first two are wrong. See women. Listen to women. Believe women.
In reflecting on these current realities, I was reminded of one of the stories I write about in my forthcoming book Women Rise Up. In all four Gospels you’ll find the story of an unnamed woman who has hemorrhaged for twelve years. The text reveals that despite her efforts to find a cure, no physician has been able to heal her. In fact, they have taken all of her money, and they have only made her condition worse. Like Rachel Fassler, she suffers from “the trauma of not being seen.”
With no other choice, the unnamed woman takes her care into her own hands. She reaches out to touch Jesus’s garment with the belief that it will heal her. Miraculously it does. Her bleeding stops. But what happens next is another form of healing that goes beyond her physical body. Jesus stops to listen to her story of suffering. In listening he affirms her: “Your faith has made you well.”
My daughter, I see you. I hear you. I believe you.
Rev. Katey Zeh is an ordained Baptist minister, a nonprofit strategist, writer, and speaker at the intersections of faith and gender justice. She is the co-host of Kindreds, a podcast for soul sisters. Her book Women Rise Up will be published by the FAR Press this year. Find her on Twitter at @kateyzeh or on her website kateyzeh.com.