Updated: Jan 19, 2022
By Eilidh Murphy (she/her)
Listen to it here: https://open.spotify.com/episode/3MYlXWsEvOqvj8hEH8aGD1?si=c68ab660d8834db1
What is “a girl thing”? The truth is, pretty much anything can be. But there is at least one thing that is never “just a girl thing”: a medical condition.
“It’s just a girl thing” was the first dismissal I heard from a medical professional. I was 13 and unconscious on the floor of my art class, coming around from a particularly bad fainting spell when I heard our school nurse sigh. “There’s one in every year,” she said, “It’s just a girl thing.”
I was “one of those girls who faints”. And I suppose, in part, I assumed it was just a girl thing. I wasn’t the only girl to ever faint in school, and a quick online search returned hundreds of medical articles and opinions that all said the same thing: fainting was common in teenage girls. The fact that my fainting spells were considered to occur because I was a girl probably influenced the fact that I ignored all my other symptoms as they slowly got worse over a few years.
Just over a year and a half ago, I experienced my first episode of severe low blood pressure and a blinding headache. After fainting in my GP’s office, I was admitted to hospital where I stayed overnight as doctors and nurses tried to control my symptoms. Since my CT scans were clear, my headache was considered to be a migraine. I was told I could go home to continue recovering but fainted while leaving the ward. The nurses called the doctor who after checking me over said; “there is no reason for you to be so dizzy, you are fine to go home. Women often get bad migraines because of stress etc”.
I wasn’t stressed; I was frustrated. I felt terrible for apparently “no reason.” The doctor just thought I was worried and that because I was female, it was presenting as a bad headache. I wasn’t offered any treatment for my ‘stress’ or even given any advice. So, I went back to my GP, who disagreed with my hospital doctor. She didn’t think I was stressed, and she’d known me for a long time; she knew how I coped with things and she knew the sorts of things going on in my life. For example, she knew I was a student, in the middle of my summer break. I considered that patient knowledge was important. My hospital doctor didn’t know me well enough and maybe just made a snap judgement because I was female. Even though she was also female, perhaps in the bustle of her day, she simply saw an otherwise healthy 20-year-old and made an assumption.
Unfortunately, I wouldn’t continue to be otherwise healthy. My next hospital admission would result in a referral to neurology, the consultant whom, despite the fact that I had been admitted to hospital with severe symptoms 3 times by then, pretty much thought the same: stressed out female student. He prescribed me amitriptyline: a medication that can be used for many things, one of which is preventing migraines, another of which is as an antidepressant, which is why he chose that one. That was all the neurology care I received.
I have now been admitted to hospital with severe symptoms 7 times and headaches and dizziness are part of my everyday life. I am so lucky to have a wonderful GP who has tried 4 different preventative medications and has also tried to get to the bottom of my low blood pressure and fainting spells by referring me to cardiology. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, I have never actually met my cardiology consultant however the nurses there who have ran my tests have been wonderful and the consultant has been ordering other tests to get to the bottom of the abnormalities that have been found. To me, having never met this doctor doesn’t matter. The tests he has ordered have shown that actually, I wasn’t fainting because I was a girl. I was fainting because my heart rate and blood pressure rise and fall quickly. And my consultant and GP are still working out why.
Despite making progress from being “the girl who faints,” I am still met with scepticism. This summer, just before I began seeing cardiology, I was sent to A&E with severe pain in my left side and heightened dizziness and nausea. A&E can sometimes be called a ‘trauma department’, a name which I think serves fittingly to my experience that night when I learned how traumatic trying to be taken seriously and getting medical help being a girl can be. When you add in somebody who looks and can be anxious, you have a recipe for disaster. From the get-go, they didn’t want anything to do with me. A nurse called me and marched me through the corridor; I could hardly keep up with her. I was left unsure of where to go, almost unconscious. Finally, somebody asked if I was okay and found out where I was supposed to be. I was so sore, I curled up on the bed, shaking. Nurses took my blood, monitored my heart rate (which was slightly too fast) and took my temperature but I was left in pain. Because of the pandemic, my mum couldn’t come through with me and I was worried about explaining everything well enough without her when I was in such a state. When the young doctor came in, I tried my best. At this point I was sitting, but bent over, and she sat next to me asking me some questions. I felt uneasy when she sat down, like she was going to be casual about it and wasn’t taking it seriously. I was proven correct when after she examined me, she said “So our brains are a very powerful organ. Sometimes when anxious girls think they have or feel pain, even though it is there to the patient there isn’t actually anything there. If I looked for something wrong in your stomach, I wouldn’t find anything wrong.” I was insulted. I study psychology and know about the links between the brain, the other parts of the nervous system and the physiological experiences that can occur in the body. I knew that she had read my history and decided that my pain was related to anxiety. I couldn’t believe that she didn’t trust me to know my own body, or even ask if I had ever had physiological symptoms like stomach pain because of anxiety before. I waited in floods of tears for my blood results to come back and was then sent home. I was shown no compassion, no respect of having an understanding my own body and frankly no medical concern.
The experience alone would have been enough for me to try and ride the problem out at home, but thankfully my mum wouldn’t let that happen. She called the GP, who sent me back to the hospital the next day. I was admitted for pain relief and extensive tests to try and determine the cause of the pain. I was on edge; I didn’t want a repeat of my experience the previous night. Luckily, all the doctors and nurses I saw were caring, compassionate and understanding. Although a few doctors did try and mention anxiety as the cause, my Mum was able to help me explain why this was different and unlike the doctor and nurse I saw in A&E, the staff listened. My first line medical tests were clear, but more detailed tests showed some abnormalities possibly related to my other neurological symptoms. I was very sick for a few days and then spiked a high fever. At this point, the doctors wondered if I was experiencing a bad virus, which together with the abnormalities found before, could explain why I was so sore. Testing for viruses is difficult; there is rarely one test which can give conclusive results for specific condition, let alone determine which of millions and millions of viruses somebody could have causing their symptoms, so they treated me with fluids, painkillers and medications to bring my fever down. After 12 days in hospital, I was better and able to continue recovering at home.
A couple of different suggestions were made by my wonderful hospital consultant; perhaps a virus that wasn’t tested for or the problem was related to my headaches and fainting spells. Either way, there was something wrong.
I was lucky. Without my mum, I would have been very ill at home, and the effects of dehydration and poor pain management could have been dangerous. But not every young girl in pain who is dismissed by medical professionals will have a supportive parent or guardian to fight their corner or the ability to do that themselves. How many serious illnesses could be or have been missed? Females get ill and can experience some debilitating conditions and symptoms that are valid and deserve to be taken seriously by the medical community. Somebody dismissed by doctors’ time and time again as experiencing symptoms because of their gender will be less likely to seek medical help in a time where they really need it.
So please, if you are a medical professional with a patient in pain; be compassionate. There may not be a physiological cause that you can find for the pain, but don’t let that be your immediate response. And if you identify as female and are being dismissed by a medical professional, my message to you is to shout. You know your body better than anybody and no doctor, surgeon, or consultant has the right to tell you differently. Speak up for yourself; you shouldn’t be afraid in the medical environment to do that.
At the moment, I remain undiagnosed and unsure which, if any, of the symptoms I experience daily or have experienced severely are related. I’m lucky to have a GP who wants to help me and has helped to reassure me that whatever these medical condition(s) are, they are valid, they matter, and they are not “just a girl thing.”
(originally published 13/12/20)