GW Hospital must start treating women’s abdominal pain the same as men’s

This past Halloween weekend, the scariest thing that happened to me was not going to a haunted house or climbing “The Exorcist” steps. It was being sent back from the emergency room at GW Hospital after spending about three hours waiting to be treated for intense abdominal pain. Sent back with the same pain that I arrived with, I was told by the ER doctor that it was probably nothing and the fact I had bled while urinating shouldn’t worry me. But I was terrified.

When I visited the Colonial Health Center that morning, the doctor there told me that if my pain kept increasing, I should head straight to the ER. Yet when I had arrived at the hospital, it seemed all anyone cared about was whether or not my pain was related to menstruation. It was not. I explained repeatedly to the parade of nurses and technicians that came by to check on me that my pain was different from any pain I had ever experienced, and that it couldn’t be cramps from my period. I felt nauseous, lost my appetite and was wracked with chills. The only possibility that came to my mind was appendicitis. Yet when the doctor came and agreed with me, she decided to proceed with an ultrasound, rather than a computed tomography – or CT – scan, which is the best way to detect appendicitis in adults. When I asked why, she told me that the hospital tries not to expose anyone to unnecessary radiation, especially young women, implying that my fertility was more important than finding the correct cause of my pain.

I wasn’t the only one who experienced this mistreatment.

About five other women in the ER were given similar treatment when complaining of abdominal pain. Similar to hospitals across the country, some women at GW Hospital are not being taken care of with the same level of standards as men when it comes to abdominal pain due to gender bias, and it’s time for women to receive the care they deserve.

This commonly occurs in hospitals worldwide because it’s often believed that all women want is to have children. Some even believe that our pain might just stem from hysteria. And even when it’s not abdominal pain and your future babies aren’t in any danger, there is still a gender bias in the ER room. An example is the Yentl Syndrome, when female heart attack symptoms are dismissed for less severe conditions.

And the problem is not just the way women are treated, but how long they wait to be treated. After the ER doctor comes to see them, men nationwide wait on average 49 minutes to receive medication for abdominal pain, while women wait for 65 minutes. Women on average wait longer because doctors see women as feeling less pain than their male counterparts if they physically look like they are holding up better, according to a study. Yet women only tend to “look better” because of societal expectations for them to constantly tend to their appearance and the perception that they can tolerate more pain due to childbirth experience. At GW Hospital, once I was finally given a bed, it took 45 minutes before the doctor came to check my symptoms, and even longer for me to receive IV fluids and the ultrasound.

But I wasn’t the only one who experienced this mistreatment. Both times I’ve been at GW Hospital, about five other women were also mainly questioned about their menstruation rather than their conditions by different doctors and nurses. The woman next to me in the ER said she had been suffering from upper abdominal pain for days, yet the doctor kept pressing on the possibility of it being period cramps. The resident who had asked me and the other women in the room if we had had any vaginal discharges did so with the mocking tone of an immature 12-year-old boy. The man next to me was initially also discouraged from obtaining a CT scan for severe headaches, yet when he questioned the discouragement, they quickly accommodated his request. He was heard when he asked for medical assistance, and yet I was left to take the incorrect test. It could be that the man had a more serious issue or it could just be that the doctors saw him as more important to society, therefore worth saving more. A GW Hospital spokeswoman declined to return multiple requests to comment on the usual protocol for women who come into the ER complaining of abdominal pain.

At GW Hospital and in the medical community at large, pain experienced by women is not treated with the same importance as that of men’s.

The ultrasound – which only searched for signs of appendicitis instead of my whole abdomen to find the source of the problem – came back negative. I was dismissed from the ER soon afterwards, even though I had started bleeding while urinating again while waiting for medical attention, which the ER doctor had previously said was reason for return to the ER. She told me that the only thing I could do was wait and come back later if it gets worse. On Sunday afternoon, I visited Sibley Memorial Hospital, hoping they would have an answer. As I told them how I felt, the doctor and nurses didn’t doubt me, and I was given pain medication and IV fluids within 30 minutes. The doctor ordered a CT scan to be able to detect the cause of my symptoms. Thankfully, I did not have appendicitis. I had an ovarian cyst that burst during the night, which would likely not have been detected through the area-specific ultrasound I was given. I was treated with respect and given proper medical care which I, and many other women, were not given at GW Hospital.

At GW Hospital and in the medical community at large, pain experienced by women is not treated with the same importance as that of men’s, especially abdominal pain. It’s necessary for GW Hospital and every hospital to start treating women with the same care as men, and for us to have our voices heard by those that are meant to listen.

Alejandra Velazquez, a freshman majoring in journalism, is a Hatchet opinions writer.

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