Most people have had negative experiences with a doctor some time in their life. Not everyone faces discrimination in the medical community but for people of color, disabled people, and LGBT individuals, going to the doctor can be really difficult. Although we like to believe otherwise, doctors are human beings with personal biases that can affect how they do their jobs and treat their patients. One such instance of discrimination left me in an emotional medical crisis for nearly a year
In December of 2014, I started taking an oral contraceptive prescribed by a doctor at Planned Parenthood. Shortly after starting birth control, I noticed symptoms of a mild infection. I did some online research, which supported my original conclusion that it was a vaginal infection. Several sites noted that some oral contraceptives can trigger infections, as the hormones can change the chemistry in the vagina, which may allow for yeast growth.
I treated myself with over the counter medications and controlled the infection for a few months, but after repeated cases, I decided to see a doctor. I went to a gynecological center run by a local hospital. There, I was tested for STDs (which came back negative) and brought into an examination room. The doctor came in after my vitals were taken by a nurse. He introduced himself, asked me a few basic questions about my symptoms, and took a brief look at me. My examination, which I had been prepping for over the course of the past week due to anxiety, consisted of no more than five seconds of poking my labia with his fingers.
“No infection,” he said.
I told him I was pretty sure I did have an infection, as treating it with over the counter medications did help my symptoms, but the problem was the repeated cases of the same infection. I explained how I researched my symptoms online and had multiple sources all list my condition as being signs of an infection that I should see a doctor for.
“No. No yeast,” he said.
I insisted he give me an exam, take a culture swab, or prescribe me something stronger than over the counter medications for a chronic infection. The nurse accompanying me had prepped the table beside me for a full exam, but the doctor insisted we were done. He had even warned me upon looking at my chart that I was long overdue for a gynecological exam (me being sexually active at 23 and never having had one). Still, he refused to examine me.
Instead of an infection, he proposed my problem was caused by my weight. I was perplexed by this and asked him to explain why he thought that when he had no medical information about my situation. No tests, no culture samples, no blood work, no known medical conditions that would imply this was weight-related. He grew upset at my questioning and said the problem was my weight and that if I wanted my symptoms to get better, I had to lose weight. He left the room shortly after and instructed the nurse to tell me to get dressed
I left the office livid. I even considered not paying my copay and insisting to see a medical supervisor about the situation, but I was so upset and embarrassed that I paid and left and gave my boyfriend an earful on the ride to our lunch date.
At lunch, I refused to order anything. I couldn’t think about eating. I was so overwhelmed with shame and embarrassment that I left my boyfriend alone at the table and went outside to call my best friend about the situation so I didn’t have to watch him eat alone.
For months, I feared seeing another doctor. My situation grew worse and worse and was becoming a major inconvenience. I feared risking my partner’s health by not getting properly treated, and my periods stopped. For a few months, I avoided sex due to fears of passing the infection to him. I eventually went off the birth control, which stopped my problem for a few short months before it came right back. I decided enough was enough and that I needed a second opinion.
I made an appointment with my local Planned Parenthood this time, wondering why I didn’t do so in the first place. Their staff took me into a room and asked extensive questions about my sexual and medical history to make sure they had the correct information, all while being completely nonjudgmental about my answers. I felt very safe with their staff, who answered all my questions in depth before leading me to the examination room.
The doctor came in and made usual conversation while he examined me. He took a few culture swabs and put them on slides for observation under a microscope. It took him under three minutes to come back into the room and confirm what I had suspected all along. I had a bad infection that had gone untreated for nine months.
He prescribed medication, discussed options for me, and talked about further testing Planned Parenthood could do to avoid a problem in the future. It took three days to clear the infection up for good. Three days for something I suffered with for nine months because a doctor’s first impression of me was that I was fat and needed a reason to lose weight.
When I explained to the Planned Parenthood clinician what my previous healthcare experience was like, he was greatly concerned. He said that even if he associated my weight with diabetes, which can explain chronic infections, losing the weight would in no way treat my current infection, but only avoid future ones. He said there simply was no medical reasoning for the lack of care I received.
The nine months I spent with that infection were an exhausting, emotional time for me. I was very conflicted on seeking medical attention because I feared being told over and over that my weight was the issue. Because of a biased doctor, my infection grew worse, I experienced moderate pain over the course of several months, my mental health suffered, and I risked my partner’s health in the process.
This is not the first or last time I experienced discrimination based on my weight, nor was it the only time from a doctor, but this incident will haunt me for years to come. Nine months of stress, pain, and embarrassment could have been avoided if I had received proper medical care. If I were not overweight, my condition would have been investigated and treated properly the first time I sought help. This doctor’s bias about my weight directly affected the services I received as a patient, and that is simply inexcusable.
I’m grateful for Planned Parenthood for providing me with nonjudgmental treatment. I’ve used various services in three different Planned Parenthood locations across Connecticut and the staff have always treated me with respect. I will rest more easily knowing I was cared for in the hands of Planned Parenthood doctors, but the fear of facing discrimination by my medical provider will always linger with me.