Yentl Syndrome: Taking Women’s Pain Seriously

yentl syndrome

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A study in 1996 examined 1,411 patients with chest pain over the course of one and half years. They found that men were more likely to be admitted to the hospital than women. Of the women that were hospitalized, they were just as likely to receive a stress-test as men. However, the women who were not hospitalized were less likely to receive a stress-test at their one month follow-up. The authors of the study suggest that the bias against women that they recorded is due to what is referred to as Yentl syndrome.

Yentl syndrome: What is it?

You may recall the 1983 Barbara Streisand film called Yentl, wherein Streisand’s character plays the role of a man in order to get the education she wants. In the case of medicine, Yentl syndrome refers to women having to prove that they are as sick as men in order to receive proper treatment. When it comes to heart pain, many women have died due to dismissing and misdiagnosing their symptoms.

The Girl Who Cried Pain

A few years ago, 21-year-old Kirstie Wilson died after being diagnosed with cervical cancer three years prior. When she was 17, she went to her general practitioner for painful stomach cramps. But he dismissed her three times as having “growing pains” or thrush. After begging to be seen by a specialist, a Pap smear revealed the cancer. Kirstie had surgery which successfully removed the cancer. However, it returned and had spread to her liver and spleen.

Before her passing, Kirstie stated, “I was bleeding in between periods and I was in agony, but doctors diagnosed me with thrush and growing pains. You know your own body and I knew there was something seriously wrong when the pain and bleeding persisted. It took me four months of going back and forth to my GP [general practitioner] before I was given a smear test. I wish I had been given a smear test when I first visited my doctor, as it might have saved my life.”

Are Women Hysterical Lunatics?

Do you realize that the word hysterectomy comes from the word hysteria? This is rooted in the Latin hystericus, meaning “of the womb.” An article highlighting the stigmatization of women expanded further on this idea of hysteria: “This was a condition thought to be exclusive to women – sending them uncontrollably and neurotically insane owing to a dysfunction of the uterus (the removal of which is still called a hysterectomy). Here’s another: loony. Coming from lunacy – a monthly periodic insanity, believed to be triggered by the moon’s cycle (remind you of anything?). These etymologies have cemented a polarisation of the female and male mental states: men being historically associated with rationality, straightforwardness and logic; women with unpredictable emotions, outbursts and madness.”

As outdated as this mindset is, it is actually still highly pervasive even in the medical community. After all, it was until 1993 that the National Institutes of Health mandated the inclusion of women and minorities in medical research. Prior to that, many clinical studies excluded women. In fact, that was the same year that marital rape was finally a crime in all 50 states. These delays only reinforce the frequency and normalcy of dismissing women’s cries of pain.

“Women cry – what can you do?”

A compassionate piece written by the husband of a woman who endured extreme abdominal pain explained his wife’s unnecessarily long E.R. visit. He says, “Nationwide, men wait an average of 49 minutes before receiving an analgesic for acute abdominal pain. Women wait an average of 65 minutes for the same thing.” His wife ended up waiting nearly three times that long, despite her expressions of intense agony. Every time he would ask for help while they waited for her to be examined, he said, “…every nurse’s shrug seemed to say, “Women cry—what can you do?” Even when the doctor quickly visited her bedside, he too dismissed her pain and misdiagnosed her. It wasn’t until a competent female physician came by that the woman was taken into surgery to in order to remove a dangerous and dying ovary.

When it comes to medicine, women must constantly prove that they are as sick as a man in order to receive the same treatment. This is appalling and absolutely dangerous. The pain women experience is routinely dismissed. Think of chronic conditions like fibromyalgia wherein most women must go through several healthcare practitioners, perhaps over the course of many years, just to have their pain taken seriously. Has this happened to you? How did you finally get the correct diagnosis? Were you frequently dismissed because of your pain? Tell us your story.

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