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I Wish I’d Said Something…

Published on 10/20/2022

For most of my life, I have relied on my brain for judgment and decision making. The problem is, there’s a lot of noise in my head, and it’s not always pleasant. Like my shitty inner critic telling me I’m not worthy and I’m a fraud, I should shut up and let others, the real experts, tell me what’s what.

I’ve only recently learned there’s a whole other part of me clamoring for attention. And that’s my body—if only I’ll listen.

Did you know our gut has been called our “second brain”? That’s because, equipped with more than 100 million neurons, it relays critical information (mainly via the vagus nerve) to the brain in our heads.

Intuition usually begins in our body: Ever had a gut feeling about someone? Felt butterflies in your stomach when nervous?

Just last week, I went to my yearly cancer “skin check” at my dermatologist’s office in downtown Chicago. She’s a sought-after expert in skin cancer with the renowned Northwestern Hospital. I book appointments a year in advance! (If you have a history of skin cancer in your family, like I do, please get yearly skin checks.)

After the nurse ushered me into the examination room, I was left to strip down to my panties and don the provided hospital gown. Once I was settled on the exam table, a knock at the door revealed not my doctor but two young men. They introduced themselves as a fourth year medical student and a first-year dermatology resident, who were going to do a preview skin check before my doctor came in. The resident took the lead and went over my medical history. Then he, with the med student observing, started a very thorough examination of my body, looking for cancer.

Now I know Northwestern is a teaching hospital and I am fine with helping students learn, but my gut was sending distress signals.

What did I do?

Did I stop them and ask for the doctor or a female nurse to be present? No I did not. I just lay there and let them look at my near-naked body. I asked questions, I cracked jokes, anything to distract myself. Mind you, they were perfectly polite and professional, but I felt way overexposed and uncomfortable.

That feeling nagged at me through the rest of the day and even into the night, when I had a very hard time falling asleep. I kept replaying the situation and wishing I’d said something. I was angry at the staff but mostly at myself. But I also recognized that in that doctor’s office, the voice in my head was colluding to keep me quiet: “Don’t make trouble. Who do you think you are? These are important people who don’t have time for your silly demands.”

The next morning, I decided it wasn’t too late to do something about my discomfort, if not for me, then for other women. I messaged my doctor over the hospital portal:
I wanted to let you know that I felt uncomfortable having two young males, a medical student and a first year resident, examine me yesterday and see me mostly naked. They were perfectly nice and totally professional but it felt weird and I should have asked that a female nurse/aide be present. Wanted to let you know as there might be others who feel uncomfortable but do not speak up. I should have and will in the future. Thank you.

I have been hardwired over decades to be compliant and agreeable, and to disregard my feelings (and my gut) in the process. Especially anger, since I often don’t allow myself to express it.

When I processed this incident with my somatic therapist, Cece, she explained that anger shows up when a boundary has been violated, and she encouraged me to tune into my body so I can learn how to honor that feeling and speak up for myself. It is a practice, as it takes time to rewire our brains (both of them)! Here’s a quick video Cece sent me to demonstrate how hard it can be to change ingrained patterns.

Here’s the message I got back from the doctor’s nurse, Katie:
Our apologies on not feeling comfortable with the male staff! We try our best to ask beforehand, but should this happen again, please do not hesitate to speak up before the exam and I can also put a note that I can see on your chart regarding this!

Hmmm… That was pretty good but was not enough. While I agree that we should all learn to speak up for ourselves, I also feel that the onus should not be entirely on us. So I responded:
Katie, yes, please put a note in my chart. I’d also ask that you make it a practice to have a female present when males are examining any female patient’s body. Many women simply don’t feel comfortable (as I didn’t at the time) speaking up in the moment. And if a woman has any kind of history of abuse, having a male examine her body may be very triggering. Thank you.

She must have passed this on to my doctor, as I finally heard back directly from her:
Thank you so much for sending this note. I completely understand where you’re coming from. I really apologize that it made you feel uncomfortable. That is the very last thing I would want any of my patients to feel. I will definitely make sure this doesn’t happen again, and I will also be very sensitive of this potential situation for any of my female patients in the future.
Thank you for taking the time to let me know, and again, I truly apologize for how it made you feel and for having put you in that situation.

Much better!

YOUR TURN: Have you had an experience when your gut was telling you something and you listened—or didn’t? Tell us more in the comments.

 

HeleneTStelian Musing
I’m Hélène Stelian, the Midlife Mentor with a passion for facilitating personal development in women 40+. Through my THRIVE community, I help introspective, curious, action-oriented women 40+ deepen their journeys of self-discovery and growth—and create their next chapter with courage and intention.

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8 Comments

  1. Diane

    Yikes! I would have been SO uncomfortable, like you–hardwired to be agreeable–probably wouldn’t have said anything. Heavens, a woman doing my Mamo tore both of my breasts and the pain was excruciating and I didn’t speak up. Now that I truly regretted as well!

    Reply
    • Hélène

      Wow, that sounds so painful Diane. Yep, learning to be less agreeable each day! Thanks for sharing.

      Reply
  2. Sally

    Ugh, I had a similar experience years ago at Stanford University Clinic, also a teaching hospital. I wasn’t even married yet, but out of school and in my first job, so must have been when I was 22–so 38 years ago. I had large breasts that were considered fibrous. My female pcp DID ask me if I didn’t mind having an intern examine my breasts because she wanted him to feel “fibrous but healthy” breast tissue. I said sure, but I thought she meant with her there too, but she left and the intern came in without her or a nurse. He was a guy a few years older than myself and VERY attractive. Honestly that made it worse. I was soooo uncomfortable and it felt like the exam was taking waaaaay too long. Maybe it was my imagination, but I felt like he was going over and over the same real estate again and again. Generally speaking I flush quite readily and I definitely broke out in a whole body sweat, so I’m sure my face and chest were super red and blotchy. Yuck. Not good. And I didn’t comment or complain about it to anyone…

    Reply
    • Hélène

      I’m so sorry you had that experience Sally. The two docs who came in were not that attractive but they were my kids’ ages! Thanks for sharing your story.

      Reply
  3. Gail Silveria

    Wow, Helene! That must have been so uncomfortable! I had a friend that had a creepy doctor ask her to undress from the waist up (with no hospital gown) for a sore throat. She never went back to him and was so upset with herself for not speaking up. Good for you for speaking up for yourself as well as others.

    Reply
    • Hélène

      That is awful! Thanks for reading Gail!

      Reply
  4. Dora

    Just reading about your experience, both made me feel uncomfortable and brought back a memory from decades ago. Starting in my 20s, I’ve had female gynecologists, but when I was in my early 30s, my GYN asked me if an intern could do my Pap smear. I agreed because I knew he needed to learn somehow. But he was obviously very nervous, and I felt sore for days after, like never before or sense. But at least my gynecologist was in the room. I think it would’ve been a much worse experience if she had not been. And yes, trusting gut feelings is important!

    Reply
  5. Hélène

    Thank you for sharing your memory Dora– sounds super painful! Yes, glad your doctor stayed in the room at least. A nervous doctor is the last thing I want!

    Reply

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