A recent episode of Grey’s Anatomy felt like a love letter to every woman who’s ever tried to explain her pain to a new doctor.
At the beginning of the episode, Grey Sloan Memorial’s powerhouse chief of surgery Miranda Bailey asks her husband to drop her off at competitor’s hospital on the way to work. Once inside, she calmly but firmly informs the front desk that she thinks she’s having a heart attack.
What follows is a textbook lesson in Gaslighting 101, as doctor after doctor examines Bailey and tells her that what she intuitively knows to be true about her health is in fact incorrect. Even though Bailey is a trained medical professional, even though she is living inside the body currently malfunctioning, each doctor she encounters minimizes her concerns and ultimately overrules her wishes.
In a heartbreaking moment, Bailey admits to a doctor that she suffers from OCD. Everyone who’s ever struggled with mental illness can predict what happens next. True to form, a psychiatrist comes to Bailey’s bedside and gently suggests her medical condition may just be stress-related, being driven by her emotions.
To her credit, throughout the episode Bailey REFUSES. TO. BACK. DOWN. She snaps at people, she calls them out on their B.S., she questions hasty, poorly-researched decisions. She behaves in a manner that in some social circles people might call “bitchy.”
Thank goodness she does, because it ultimately saves her.
Eventually Bailey’s co-workers arrive to help her advocate for herself (one of whom ends up having to get a little bitchy herself.) They are able to step in to help save Bailey’s life when her situation takes a turn for the worse.
Have you ever had a Bailey moment?
Unfortunately, this scenario is all too familiar for many women, especially those who have visited ERs due to invisible illnesses or chronic pain.
Pain is a subjective phenomenon, so unfortunately that means its diagnosis and treatment is susceptible to a doctor’s inherent biases and stereotypes. In many cases, the people who are most negatively affected by those biases are women — particularly women of color. For example . . .
- Women report pain that is more frequent, severe, and of longer duration than men. However, they are often treated for pain less aggressively and are often taken less seriously by health care professionals than their male counterparts.*
- Health care professionals are more likely to dismiss women’s pain reports as “emotional, psychogenic, hysterical, or oversensitive” and therefore “not real.” In other words, their pain is more often misdiagnosed as a mental health problem instead of a physical one.*
- Racial/ethnic minorities consistently receive less adequate treatment for acute and chronic pain than whites. Across every therapeutic intervention, people of color receive fewer procedures and poorer quality medical care than whites.
This means that thousands of women have found themselves in Dr. Bailey’s shoes — misdiagnosed, shuffled from office to office, inappropriately treated, left to search for answers on their own, or forced to advocate for their health in the midst of their own medical crises.
Embrace your bitchiness
Thankfully, there are medical professionals out there who are aware of these biases and are working to fix them by conducting further research, educating health care professionals, and expanding public awareness.
In the meantime, female patients need to take a lesson from Dr. Bailey and stop being so darn nice.
Far too often women don’t speak up when they’re getting push back from doctors (male doctors, in particular) because they don’t want to be perceived negatively or thought of as “unladylike,” “crazy” or the most loaded label of all, “bitchy.”
You need to let those fears go. Having your pain treated is a fundamental human right, no matter who you are, no matter how you behave.
- Put your health and safety before decorum and manners.
- Trust your intuition.
- Assertively advocate for yourself (or call a friend to do it on your behalf.)
- Call out instances when you suspect your mental health issues are being used as a scapegoat for your physical ones.
In other words, don’t be afraid to be an unladylike, crazy, bitch.
It just might save your life someday.
* From the report: Chronic Pain in Women: Neglect, Dismissal and Discrimination: Analysis and Policy Recommendations, Campaign to End Chronic Pain in Women. (May 2010) Mary Lou Ballweg, Carol Drury, Terrie Cowley, K. Kim McCleary, Christin Veasley,