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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Medical Sexism in the South West

When I was serving as an elected Vice-President of the College of Health, there were three serious wrongs that I was campaigning about: the cruel uselessness of the NHS Complaints Procedures, the need for a rational approach to the treatment of pain, and the sex prejudice of doctors that led to failure to investigate and treat women's physical problems. As a result, I received post from people damaged by the system. Most of this post was about the great suffering caused to women by the sex prejudice of doctors.

This is the letter I received from a suffering woman in the South West:

Dear Margaret Wilde

An article in the Daily Telegraph alerted me to your work concerning the treatment sick women receive at the doctor's surgery. I hope my story will interest you and add grist to your mill. At least that way something positive will have been salvaged from an otherwise horribly negative experience.

In short, I can vouch that sick women truly do get treated as neurotics when they actually have some real and serious condition. The doctor's surgery is a place where women can meet indifference, complacency, and downright negligence all cowering under the prejudice that the greater part of a woman's problems is simply that she is a woman and therefore must be neurotic and nowhere near as ill as she claims to be. I am allowed to use as strong words as I please because I have nearly died not once but twice and am still ill and am still battling against the old black magic called the NHS.

My story is long and complicated so I shall try to be as concise as possible. The original problem that I suffered from was not complicated at all. At 22 years old with a small baby I was suddenly overtaken with terrific pain in my back. The attack lasted for a few hours. I was alone, no telephone, no neighbours, and had to wait till my husband returned before I could see the doctor. With very little ado he diagnosed that I had an infection in my water that travelled to my kidneys, and prescribed antibiotics. Over the next six years and through repeated attacks of terrible pain he stuck to that diagnosis and kept writing out the prescriptions for antibiotics, never once bothering to confirm or deny his critical diagnosis by any test or examination or referral to another doctor. My condition of course grew worse but that didn't seem to bother him. Time and time again I was offered Septrim and Flagyl for my 'infection' and nothing else. Even at the point when I lay dying in my bed for five days with pain so bad that one doctor administered shots of morphine to me, when he, my doctor, managed to visit me, all he offered was a cheery smile and a prescription for Septrim and Flagyl and hurriedly left. The next day, though called out first thing in the morning, he breezed in at four in the afternoon. Five days I lay prostrate in my bed, the culmination of a long period of illness, and he did not consider me to be seriously ill. Perhaps he thought that young women took to their beds as a matter of course.

I was finally admitted to hospital where it was discovered that I had an Ovarian cyst that had strangulated my ovary rendering it gangrenous and causing peritonitis. The explanation for his tardy treatment was really quiite simple. He thought I was neurotic; he made me feel I was neurotic. At one stage he implied that I was wasting his time by continually visiting his surgery. He had many patients to look after and most of them were far sicker than U was. Those were his words. When my husband saw him about a sore throat he said, "It's amazing how someone like you never comes to see me unless they are really bad, when other people are here all the time over every little thing." My husband took his inference that the other people referred to meant me. A man with a sore throat is automatically assumed to be truly suffering while a woman with a persistent pain is a persistent nuisance. That he never took my suffering seriously is confirmed by the fact that he never bothered to investigate the series of infections that I was supposed to be suffering from.

The operation to remove my ovary saved my life. But it left me with a shattered digestion and a series of terrifying abdominal spasms. Down to my new doctor's again. That went on for another four years. Was it taken seriously? Was it heck. Though I repeatedly maintained that it was caused by the operation, I was told that it was my gall bladder, that I was allergic to wheat, that it was simply bellyache caused by adhesions and it was not at all serious. Why was my suffering never taken seriously? Why? Why? Why? In August last year I suffered a spasm to end all spasms. My bowel was dangerously involved with an adhesion and finally won by twisting itself around the adhesion and strangulating itself. There is no way to describe the pain of that.

Another emergency operation. Gangrene again. Lost six inches of bowel. Recovery from that operation was marred by abscesses. When they eventually disappeared I realised that I was not going to recover normally. I am in pain all the time. But what has enraged me beyond words is that I still meet with the same old cavalier attitude from doctors. My God, what does a woman have to suffer from before she is treated with the same respect as a man? If I suffered from a heart complaint I'm sure I would be taken seriously. After all it kills men. But death by adhesions though agonising is a lesser form of death. After a lot of pushing I'm finally going for a barium meal X-ray. But how I have had to push for that! I find writing this letter hard as I am still very weak and distressed. I have had two serious conditions that have been ignored by doctors till they nearly killed me. I am left to pick up the pieces of my shattered life in pain and virtually told that there's not much can be done for me. I could not have received worse treatment if I tried. A witch doctor in Africa would at least have cared for my spirit, and a money-grabbing doctor in America may not have respected my sex but he would have respected my money. I would rather be faced with the prospect of a large bill than a life of pain. But the NHS cares for neither God nor Mammon, so the likes of me get lost along the way. I am suing everybody that I can but that is no consolation either for my pain or the lost years. Most of all I wanted the world to know what can happen to a young woman who develops a simple complaint like an ovarian cyst and what the system can do to her.

Then I came across your article in the paper and suddenly felt that I was not alone. On behalf of women like me I want you to scream from the rooftops that lives are being shattered by this prejudice. My list of complaints against the NHS is endless. But the prevailing factor has been that of prejudice, the old prejudice that most of my trouble lies in the fact that i cannot cope either with my pain or my life. The fact that my distress may be genuine is the last one to be considered.

I hope you find my story appalling. I hope it will help you in some way. Here in Cornwall I shall try to do all I can to expose the complacent attitude towards women. Please write to me if I can be of further help to you. You have my best wishes.

You can read HERE about some of my own experience of terrible suffering and permanent harm done by the sex prejudice of health professionals.