When I was 14 years old, my world completely changed. I got my first period, and with it began the cycle of living with pain each month. Every month since, I’ve dealt with severe bloating, excruciating cramps, excessive bleeding, and extreme tiredness and exhaustion. These symptoms last for 7 to 14 days and sometimes much longer. Three times, my traumatic cramps have landed me in the emergency room without any explanation about the cause of the issue.
Last May, I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism through a blood test in which my TSH levels were reviewed. This diagnosis, in theory, could help explain the excessive bleeding I experienced from my period. But sadly, I still don’t know as doctors never seem to want to talk to me about my symptoms, which include projectile vomiting from the pain. Instead, they can only focus on one thing: my weight. According to my doctors, being overweight is the only problem that I need to address and then maybe my periods will get better.
Why is it that anytime I see a doctor, my weight becomes a topic of conversation? Whether I am seeing an optometrist or an OB-GYN, doctors only want to talk to me about weight loss. This leaves me feeling frustrated, alone, helpless, and as if I don’t have a voice. I understand that I weigh more than I should and I am working out and paying greater attention to my nutrition. But for once, I would like for it to be possible to have my voice heard when I’m speaking to trained medical professionals. Instead, each time, I am prescribed birth control and referred to a weight loss specialist.
In a recent visit to a hospital on Long Island, it was reaffirmed just how little my voice matters to the healthcare industry. Upon arriving at the hospital on a cold evening, I tried my best to keep the pain at bay and answer questions the hospital staff asked me in between belting, screaming, and vomiting. After an hour of waiting, I was led from the ER waiting room to a bed where I was told I’d be seen by the doctor shortly. After another 40 minutes of waiting, a doctor approached me to tell me that he would send for tests and set up an IV for me to get fluids and pain medication. After another hour of waiting, a nurse took my blood for tests and I was sent for a sonogram. Later, I was told there were no fibroids or any indications that anything is wrong other than a thick lining of blood. Then, I was left sitting in a wheelchair outside of the room in a completely empty hallway and expected to wait until I was taken back to my bed. I was waiting like this, in a wheelchair while bleeding heavily with an IV in my arm, for another hour. At this point, I was ready to break down and cry but I was too tired and in too much pain. That’s when I realized that my health and wellbeing is never going to matter to the healthcare industry. This was my third visit to a hospital where I was told that there was no clear reason for the heavy bleeding. I left, again, feeling more defeated and without answers as to how to manage my monthly heavy bleeding and extreme pain.
I can’t say for sure that this experience happened to me because I am a fat black woman in America. But I believe that this doesn’t happen to women who look different from me in this country. Being left in a wheelchair in an empty, cold hallway for nearly an hour, bleeding on themselves, with an IV stuck in their arm is an experience that no one should ever have to deal with regardless of skin color or background. I’m a human being and I should be treated as such.
When growing up, my weight was discussed during each of my annual checkups in a way that brought me so much shame. While my weight increased my risk of high blood pressure and diabetes, I didn’t have either of those issues. But simply by existing in a larger body, I was constantly reminded to fear my weight because it could lead to one of those outcomes. Because doctor’s inquiries on this topic never ceased as I got older, I now expect doctors to bring up my weight during any visit. Somehow, even though my health wasn’t being noticeably affected by my size, my size is still an issue. This is sizeism at its worst.
Unfortunately, when I am having these conversations with doctors, I don’t feel empowered to push back against the doctor’s recommendations or questions. This is partly because I don’t see doctors as individuals that are interested in hearing what I have to say, seeing as I rarely am truly listened to in doctors’ offices.
It’s no secret that not all people are treated fairly or equally in this country at large or within the healthcare industry. But, when it comes to the way black women are treated in this industry, it is truly scary to hear the stories and accounts of the women who are brave enough to share their experiences. Even tennis star Serena Williams, who was noticing a shortness of breath the day after giving birth, wasn’t being listened to by her doctors. She spoke up, knowing her history of developing blood clots in her lungs. While even she was initially ignored by doctors (who claimed her medication was confusing her) she then insisted her providers gave her the care she needed which saved her life. I, like most African-American women, regularly feel dismissed and disrespected by my healthcare providers and I, unfortunately, do not have the clout of celebrity to convince my doctors.
I have dealt with extremely difficult periods complete with unbearable pain and excessive bleeding every single month of my life since I was 14 years old. Now that I am a 32-year-old woman, I am wondering when this will end. When will my pain and suffering be adequately addressed in the first world country I live in? The answer cannot be to remain on birth control, take my hypothyroidism medication, and lose weight. How can I ever start a family if I must remain on birth control? Why do I have to deal with crippling pain every 28 days? Why do my pain and suffering not matter?
I’m sharing this private and uncomfortable story in the hopes that other women like me feel less alone, that doctors can take a holistic approach to health instead of falling victim to sizeism, and to give a voice to others who don’t feel they’ll be listened to by their doctors. With plus-size women making up two-thirds of the population of American women, it’s important to realize that bodies of all sizes deserve to be heard and treated with respect. Prescribing weight loss as a solution that might help is not the answer.
I am on a mission to find a doctor who will hear me and care about what is going on inside of my body.
I’m not going to let my condition and symptoms hold me down. I have too many goals to achieve and opportunities to explore to let my pain stop me. I am determined to be heard no matter what, and I am on a mission to find a doctor who will hear me and care about what is happening inside of my body. If you’re looking for a way to advocate for your health at the doctor’s office, check out these tips. If you have a story like mine, I encourage you to share. Let’s be a support system for each other because we deserve it.
– Natasha Nurse
This article originally appeared on Dia & Co.