Hillary Koch: We need to talk more openly about women’s health

There is a carrot commercial on TV that is impossible to miss. It educates viewers about the penile condition known as Peyronie’s disease and a drug that can help them.

This isn’t the first commercial to address men’s sexual health, but I’ve never seen one for women. When I think about how we raise boys and young men, the conversations about men’s bodies are vastly different than women’s.

It is clear that we need to discuss women’s sexual and reproductive health more often and openly.

Three weeks ago, I had a hysterectomy, and my experience has been an eye-opener. Facing six to eight weeks of recovery, I joined a few online support groups for women who have had (or will be) hysterectomies. I’ve joined two, both of which have over 35,000 members. All questions are welcome.

Outside the group, it’s another story.

From the time we are young, until puberty, through our reproductive, perimenopausal, and menopausal years, discussing women’s bodies is taboo. Sure, we cover the essentials. For example, many women don’t really know much about perimenopause until they experience symptoms so severe, they either seek help from a doctor or compare notes with friends. Pain is something we are taught to expect and tolerate. When our sexual health is discussed, it is done behind closed doors, between best friends.

When women seek medical help, it can be challenging. Because women are taught to be shy about their bodies, and this pain is just part of being a woman, it’s common to ignore symptoms or put off going to the doctor. Once in the office, women feel embarrassed to talk about their bodies. And it doesn’t help that women struggle to be taken seriously.

We know that there is a disparity in the treatment of women and men. A study published in 1990 showed that when women had surgery at the same rate as men, they were half as likely to receive pain medications. Why? because “health care professionals hold stereotypical [sic] Women are thought to be more emotionally unstable and more apt to exaggerate complaints of pain than men. Ten years later, a separate study showed that women who were having a heart attack were seven times more likely to be misdiagnosed than men, because women’s symptoms tend to manifest differently. Today, heart attacks are still misdiagnosed more often in women than in men.

In my case, I delayed going to my doctor. It was a combination of epidemiology and I was waiting for the pain to get bad enough before something went wrong. Unfortunately, my delay only made my condition and my surgery more complicated.

The people at Eastern Maine Medical Center were awesome, as were my doctors. But my uterus didn’t play well. My robotic-assisted laparoscopic hysterectomy turned out to be abdominal surgery, and I lost a lot of blood. I also lost one ovary. Still I was kept for one night only. Three days later, I found myself in the emergency department.

My surgeon didn’t do anything wrong, but complications do happen. However, based on what I’ve learned from my support groups, they are surprisingly common. And I am sure many more lives could have been saved if the women had not been taken out of the hospitals so quickly.

In addition, women in my groups report difficulty accessing their providers in a timely manner. Their problems range from excruciating pain to tears in the vaginal cuff to internal bleeding. These are women who are not allowed to drive and or have someone at home to help them. Within minutes he has answers to questions from fellow patients. For serious medical questions, the response is often “Call your doctor” or “Please go to the ER as soon as possible.” Others just want to know if vaginal estrogen is as good as they’ve heard. And women need answers to questions that weren’t addressed on our release paper — because apparently, doctors think sex is limited to intercourse.

In order for me to recover, I was told not to bend, squat, or lift more than five pounds for six weeks. I have never known such exhaustion in my life. I could sleep for six whole weeks. And I am fortunate that I have a family that can take care of me.

But I know that most women are not as lucky as I am. I’ve seen pictures of how they’ve moved their recliners closer to the bathroom or stolen shelf-stable food because they’ll have to recover alone.

This doesn’t even begin to address the devastating emotional consequences of a hysterectomy. I felt relatively prepared. Yet, I must admit that it is still difficult to come to terms with losing a piece of my body that has shaped so much of my existence. I have no doubt that I will be fine. Yet, we often send women home the very same day of this life-changing surgery, without providing them with any mental-health support that should be automatic.

So do pelvic floor therapy. stop! do not tell me. You’ve never heard of it? you’re not the only one. Let’s talk about it!

Hillary Koch lives in Waterville. It can be accessed by: [email protected]

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