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#MedicalGaslighting: The Health Threat Black Women Can’t Ignore

Don’t settle for any provider who disregards your instincts and input. Here’s how I took control when a doctor dismissed my health concerns.

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Shreya Gupta
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My butt was numb and tingling from sitting for an hour and a half waiting to see the doctor. My lower back spasms worsened, and the pain radiated down the back of my left leg. I changed position every few minutes to relieve the pressure and stiffness at the base of my spine. I moved from the exam table to the chair and back again in my paper gown, sitting on the sheet that was meant to cover me. I was in pain, and I was edgy.

When Dr. Whitecoat walked in, he washed his hands and rattled off the notes from his handheld computer. I had to correct or clarify every statement he read, and he never looked at me. My edgy disposition became even edgier. I crossed my legs, folded my arms and pursed my lips, waiting for this doctor-patient facade to end. It took longer than I could stand. Finally, I leaned forward and said in my best I’m-trying-to-not-cause-a-scene voice, “I really need you to sit down and listen to me.”

The doctor stopped tapping the keyboard. He sat down, scooted back his chair and faced me. “OK, I’m listening.” He leaned forward, but two seconds later straightened up and interrupted to ask if I needed prescription refills. I told him no and continued to explain the pain. Again, he interrupted, “No more refills?” My voice trembled from the back pain and the pain of knowing, yet again, a doctor was dismissing me.

Seriously? He hadn’t listened to my concerns, done an examination or made a diagnosis, but he was asking what treatment I wanted like it was an after-dinner dessert? I was done with this conversation.

“No, I still don’t.”

On my two-week follow-up visit, I didn’t let my dissatisfaction with the last interaction carry over to this one.

“Good morning. What’s going on today?” Dr. Whitecoat said.

“My back pain isn’t getting better. And now, my left ankle has been swollen for two weeks. I don’t know if it has to do with my back, but I’m worried because it’s not going down.”

“Have you used heat or ice?”

“Then try keeping it elevated.”

“I did that, too,” I said.

I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and reopened my eyes as I slowly exhaled. This is my go-to self-control mechanism. It keeps me from rolling my eyes, offending someone and coming across as the angry Black woman.

I stuck out my leg, wanting him to look at my swollen ankle. He looked at the clock instead.

“So, what would you like to do about your back? Do you want a refill on your muscle relaxer or an MRI?” he asked.

I was stunned. Seriously? He hadn’t listened to my concerns, done an examination or made a diagnosis, but he was asking what treatment I wanted like it was an after-dinner dessert? I was done with this conversation. As he had dismissed me, I dismissed him.

“Neither,” I said with a fake smile, and left, feeling defeated and invisible.

I was in physical agony; yet again, I managed my emotions and tempered my actions so the doctor wouldn’t feel uncomfortable with or threatened by me. I catered to his feelings while he neglected his obligation to care for my health. I worried about how I presented what I was feeling instead of simply feeling it, a luxury my experiences repeatedly taught me I didn’t have.
But I shouldn’t have to accept a standard of care that leaves me uncertain about my health. I didn’t want to be the strong Black woman or the angry Black woman — I just wanted to be a woman seeking and getting appropriate medical attention.

The second opinion that saved my life

It’s the same story, no matter the book. Black women can’t be too assertive, lest we be labeled aggressive. We can’t be too creative, or we’re not following the rules. When we set boundaries, we’re being too difficult. If we’re too vocal about unfairness, we want a handout. We can’t be too honest, or we’re overly dramatic. And every chapter in each of these books ends the same way. We adjust our thoughts, feelings and behaviors hoping we’re granted our right to be seen and heard. This time, I would write a new ending.

Two days later, I saw a new doctor.

“What brings you in today?” she asked.

I gave her the same explanation I’d given Dr. Whitecoat. “I’ve had terrible lower back pain, and now, my left ankle has been swollen for two weeks. It’s not going down with heat, ice or elevation.”

“Let me take a look at it,” the doctor said, scooting her chair closer and reaching for my ankle. After examining it, she asked about my medical history, physical activity and medications. “I’m going to set up an ultrasound for tomorrow so we can rule out a blood clot,” the doctor said.

Now that’s how it should be. The doctor ruled out medical conditions instead of ruling me out. I had mixed emotions, relieved to be heard finally, but nervous about what I would find out.

The following day, the doctor called me with the results. “You have deep vein thrombosis. It’s nonocclusive, but you need to go to the ER right now.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“It means you have a blood clot that’s not blocking the flow of blood in your veins, but you’ll need an IV with a blood thinner. You also need testing to find out if any of [the clot] has broken loose and traveled toward your heart or lungs.”

As I waited in the ER, I researched blood clots online, making me even more scared. If they’d gotten to my heart or lungs, I could have had a heart attack or stroke. What if that was happening while I was trying to get Dr. Whitecoat to pay attention? His refusal to take me seriously put my life at risk. I was grateful the second doctor cared enough to save it.

I rolled my shoulders, twisted my neck and wiped a tear from my eye, feeling overwhelmed that something terrible could’ve happened to me and still could, as I sat waiting.

Within a few hours, extensive testing revealed the clots had indeed traveled to my lungs. The emergency room staff quickly gave me an IV with a blood thinner to dissolve the clots and save my life.

I prayed the decision to rewrite my story hadn’t come too late to join the voices that advocate for us. I prayed my medical outcome would be a lesson I could share instead of another statistic about the dangers of the disparities in health care for Black women. I wanted to encourage Black women to keep fighting the inattentive and dismissive system that enables our inequitable treatment. Keep asking questions until they are fully answered. Schedule and attend annual and follow-up appointments. Use our right to choose a provider and refuse anyone with whom we don’t feel comfortable. This is what saved my life.

I’ll never know for sure whether Dr. Whitecoat treated me as he did because of my race. Sadly, he may not even know. But as Black women, we’ve read the book enough times and we know the characters. Many of us have lived the plot and, according to a recent New York Times article, are calling out the culprits on social media using #medicalgaslighting. If we don’t take control of the parts we can, we know the ending.

So let’s write our own story to get the care we deserve. Let’s fight as if our lives depend on it, because the reality is that they do.