In a recent interview with Vogue magazine, tennis icon Serena Williams shared a horrific story about her experience in the hospital after giving birth to her daughter. Williams has a history of blood clots, including a pulmonary embolism a few years ago. The very next day after giving birth, she began to feel short of breath, and recognized this as a physical sign that she might be having another clot. Unfortunately the medical team minimized her symptoms and did not take them seriously until she INSISTED on having a CT scan which showed several blood clots in her lungs. Thank God she advocated strongly on her own behalf, and probably saved her own life.
Too often the current health care system devalues people’s embodied experiences of their own health. This is especially true for women, people of color, immigrants, the elderly and LGBTQ+ people, particularly if English is not your first language, or if you are too embarrassed to ask the doctor to explain something you don’t understand, or if you’ve experienced physical or sexual abuse at the hands of a medical provider, or you’ve had medical trauma, or you are misgendered by the health care system, or you are assumed to be somaticizing your feelings and therefore your symptoms are not taken seriously, or you have an abusive partner who never leaves you alone with the doctor, or you are/have been an addict. Shall I keep going?
Even Serena Williams, a woman of international respect, fame, wealth and power, as an African American female her own body wisdom was not taken seriously by her health care providers.
As a medical social worker at a tertiary care center that was an internationally known academic medical institution, I supported thousands of women through high risk pregnancies, pregnancy losses, health scares and medical challenges. I watched for years as the medical students and residents had their souls pulverized by the medical education system, which in turn impacted the way they treated (and sometimes disrespected) their patients. At this very same medical center, Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen has taught a class called “The Healer’s Art” for many years, and written eloquently about how to humanize our health care system.
With a patient’s permission, I would sometimes accompany them in the exam room as an advocate, and I would willingly humiliate myself in order to preserve the patient’s dignity by saying things like:
“Doctor, I am just a social worker so I don’t always understand these things. Could you explain it to me as if I were a kindergartener?”
It was so important to me that the patient understand what was happening with her own body that I was willing to feign ignorance (stupidity) so that she could hear things explained to her ABOUT HER OWN BODY in normal human terms.
Now as a psychotherapist in private practice, I still advocate for my clients, many of whom are living with chronic illnesses, disabilities, acute medical issues and more. I continue to work with people who have experienced high risk pregnancies, infertility, stillborn babies, and other pregnancy-related medical traumas.
Some people like Serena Williams are able to speak up for themselves, but it is a heavy burden to carry alone, even for those of us who are naturally assertive. It is critically important to have a veritable pit bull advocate with you as you navigate the health care system.
Listen to the ways your body intuitively communicates to you. Consider finding a trusted person to help you hone those deep listening skills even more. You are the person who lives inside your body every day.