How 5 Women Suffering Dangerous Health Symptoms Finally Got Their Doctors to Take Them Seriously
When unexplained health symptoms strike, your doctor should be one of the first people you turn to for help. But for some women, seeing their provider can be a frustrating experience.
That's especially true if your main symptom is pain. A 2018 review of 77 medical studies found that women who complained of pain were described by doctors as "hysterical," "emotional," and "not wanting to get better." Non-white people have it even worse, research shows. Black patients are 40% less likely to be given medication in the ER to ease their pain, and Hispanic patients are 25% less likely. In fact, 20 years of studies confirmed that patients of color are significantly less likely to receive pain meds. That's true whether the patient has knee pain, stomach pain, migraines, appendicitis, or is in labor.
Bias on the part of health care providers hits people of color hardest. Black adults are more likely than whites to have had a specific negative experience with a health care provider—such as having a provider not believe they were telling the truth about a symptom. Black women are also more likely than white women to experience discrimination during childbirth. More than 10% said they were treated unfairly during their hospital stay; on average, 10% said they were treated roughly or experienced rude or threatening language from their provider.
With more doctors now being trained in culturally competent care, these biases will hopefully disappear. But as it stands now, being from a marginalized community means you may be subject to lesser-than medical care—so it's crucial to know how to handle a situation and get the attention you need. Take a cue from these five women, all of whom went to their doctor with a dangerous symptom, were met with dismissal, yet stood up for the care they needed and deserved.
She challenged her doctor and insisted she take her pain seriously
"Did you seriously come in here because you had a little pain?" Nashville-based Debilee Flores, 36, who has both polycystic ovary syndrome and Crohn's disease, was stunned when her gynecologist asked her that in 2018. Flores had called her doctor's office about a sudden, stabbing pelvic pain, and a concerned nurse insisted she come in.
Flores, who is Afro-Latina, had been a patient at this ob-gyn practice for nine years. But she'd never seen the new doctor, who wasn't a person of color. "She looked me up and down, with her arms crossed," Flores tells Health. "I felt I was being profiled."
After Flores described her symptoms, the doctor accused her of having frequent visits, as if she was only coming in to try to get pain pills. Some pain was "just part of life," the doctor said, and advised Flores to "get over it."
"For a second, I froze up and didn't know what to say," she remembers. "But I snapped myself out of it."
After experiencing trouble at home as a teen, Flores went through domestic violence counseling. "One of the things that always stayed with me was that many abusers tend to back down if you speak up and speak out," she says. "I worked hard to develop the confidence to [do that] and it's become part of my personality—to not stay quiet, but to speak out whenever I feel I'm being mistreated or see someone else being mistreated."
Flores informed the doctor that her every-three-months appointments were due to her diagnosis—not to get drugs, as the doctor seemed to imply. "I told her, 'You made assumptions based on my last name and the color of my skin. If I'm in pain, I expect to be taken seriously,'" she says.
After insisting on seeing another doctor, Flores was diagnosed with an infection. Then she went home, called the office, and made a formal complaint. "[They] deserved to know what was happening," she explains. "That doctor treating people with disrespect will cost them more patients than me."
After that ordeal, Flores found a team of doctors who take her health seriously. "It's a world of difference when you don't feel like you have to fight with your doctor," she says.
She had her primary care doctor authorize an emergency referral
A month after her son was born in 2018, Corritta Lewis, 31, started having severe chest pain. At her three-month postpartum checkup, she told her ob-gyn about it. But the ob-gyn dismissed it as anemia, telling her to take an iron pill and give it time.
Lewis, who lives in Oceanside, California, wasn't so sure; heart issues run in her family. Plus, she had a friend who died days after giving birth because doctors didn't take her cardiac symptoms seriously. "Black women are dismissed and not cared for in the same manner as others," Lewis says. "Our system has created this bias—it's just ingrained."
Lewis's wife encouraged her to get a second opinion. She went to a doctor from her usual primary-care practice, but that doctor ran a few tests and also dismissed her concerns. "You're young, you're fine," he said. Still unconvinced, Lewis pushed her PCP to issue a referral for a cardiologist. But once she got one, her insurer refused to approve it.
"They didn't even give me a reason. At one point, I got so frustrated and angry, my wife had to talk to them," Lewis remembers. "We thought, 'Why do we have insurance if it won't pay for this?'"
For nearly two weeks, Lewis called her health insurer every day and spent hours on the phone. "With my family history of heart disease, I believed there was a possibility that I could die," she explains. "I was so stressed about what could have been wrong that I was making myself more sick."
Looking back, she feels the insurer was biased—about her age. "All they saw was a 29-year-old woman who should be healthy," she says. "They weren't listening to the concerns from me or my doctor."
Not until Lewis asked her PCP to authorize an emergency referral did her insurer finally agree to approve a cardiologist visit. Sure enough, after multiple tests, a blockage was found near her heart. Fortunately, surgery hasn't been necessary, and after much watchful waiting, the issue resolved on its own. Still, says Lewis, "I could only imagine what could have happened if I didn't remain persistent."
She reported her doctor's behavior to administrators at his practice
In high school, Cassandra Greenfield, 41, had severe cramps that extended well beyond her period. "On one occasion, the pain was so bad, I dropped to the floor at my job in the local ice cream shop, which scared me and the customers," the Dallas resident recalls. When Greenfield's mom took her to the ER in their small town, "the white male doctor said I must have an STD because I was a black teen and most of 'us' are sexually active," she recalls.
When she informed him that she was still a virgin, he countered that she was probably lying because she didn't want her mother to know, and he dismissed her pain as menstrual cramps. Still, she was proud of herself for speaking up. "I just knew it wasn't right," she says.
While away at college, Greenfield's pain became more frequent—and intense. "It felt like I was being stabbed in the abdomen with a piece of barbed wire, and it came out of nowhere," she recalls. "My boyfriend would have to carry me out of restaurants and movie theaters."
At the student health center, a doctor told her that her symptoms indicated endometriosis—but only white women could have the disease. He even pulled out a book, published in 1968, to prove it. "It described endometriosis as a disease related to infertility but only found in white or European women," she remembers.
Livid, she reported the doctor to the administration. "My focus wasn't on prosecuting him but letting others know, 'Hey, that wasn't okay,'" she says. An apologetic nurse practitioner diagnosed Greenfield with endometriosis and referred her to a specialist, where she was finally able to start treatment.
"I suffered years of excruciating pain because white male doctors viewed my race, gender, and perceived economic status as the primary 'disease,'" says Greenfield. Her advice to other women: "You need to care about yourself more than about hurting someone else's feelings," she says. "Advocate for yourself and find a physician you're comfortable with."
She demanded bloodwork and refused to take no for an answer
Two years ago, Julie Pankey, 49, began developing some alarming symptoms. Her hands trembled and her heart raced. She felt winded going up even one flight of stairs, and if she didn't nap in the middle of the day, she felt like she might collapse.
Her doctor's explanation? "Women start to get this way at a certain age." Her gynecologist dismissed her symptoms as anxiety and offered a prescription for Prozac.
"I was treated with cookbook medicine, not individualized care," says Pankey, who lives in Maine. "Google for yourself '46-year-old woman feeling irritable, tired, weak.'" She took home the prescription and sobbed. "They didn't even try to figure out what could be wrong with me," she says.
Over the next few weeks, her symptoms worsened. Again, she tried to talk to her doctor. Again, he told her she was headed towards menopause and under stress (and then he scolded her for not taking the Prozac).
"I looked square into this doctor's eyes and said, 'There is something wrong with me,'" recalls Pankey. "It was totally out of character [for me] to demand diagnostics, but I felt so bad and so sick. I knew there was something wrong with me and if I did not stand up and take my control back, no one was going to help me."
She asked for comprehensive bloodwork to be done, holding firm when her doctor pushed back. The results revealed that she had hyperthyroidism and Graves disease, an immune system disorder that causes overproduction of thyroid hormones. "My numbers were off the-charts out-of-whack," says Pankey.
Immediately, she asked to be referred to a thyroid specialist—and for copies of her medical records, since she would never be back.
"It's hard for women to advocate for themselves because we're taught to respect authority. We're taught to trust our doctors. We're embarrassed to say we're feeling off; we are afraid of not being perfect or being judged," says Pankey. "When you're meeting with a doctor who's questioning you, it's scary and intimidating."
But if you feel you aren't being heard? "See another doctor," she advises.
She found another doctor, one who shared her gender and cultural background
In the fall of 2019, when Nikeya Young, 40, who lives in the Chicago area, was eight weeks pregnant with twins, she woke to find her pajamas covered in blood.
ER doctors determined that her babies were fine, but Young was at increased risk of a miscarriage. It was unclear why—she was in great health. "I'm a Black, curvaceous woman, but I've always been size proportionate," she tells Health. A group fitness instructor, she'd never had any major health scares.
At her 25-week checkup with her ob-gyn, a nurse took Young's blood pressure—which was high. "I was shocked," she remembers. "I said, 'Whoa, that's kind of elevated, isn't it?'"
The nurse joked, "Well it's a lot better than it was the last time you were here!"
Young didn't laugh—her doctor had never mentioned her blood pressure was a concern. When she brought it up during the exam, the doctor, a white woman, dismissed the spike as "unrelated" to her pregnancy—which Young took to mean that it was due to her race or size.
"She had made up her mind—despite having had no interactions with me as a patient prior to this pregnancy—that I'd always had this issue so there was no need to discuss anything," Young says.
When she expressed her fear of pre-term labor, the doctor's only suggestion was that she take a baby aspirin every day. "I sat in the parking lot and cried for a good 30 minutes in sheer disbelief," she recalls.
She decided right then that this doctor was not going to deliver her babies. "I no longer trusted her ability to have me and my children's best interest in mind and give us adequate, unbiased care," Young says.
At her 34-week checkup with a highly recommended Black female doctor, Young's blood pressure registered at the same high number her former ob-gyn had shrugged off. Realizing Young was at risk of pre-eclampsia, a potentially deadly condition that can develop during pregnancy characterized by high blood pressure, her doctor immediately admitted her to the hospital. Four days later, when Young's blood pressure continued to rise, her twins were delivered via emergency C-section.
"The other doctor likely would have sent me home that day, and anything could have happened," Young says. "When I think about the alarming number of Black women in this country who've died during childbirth due to lack of proper medical care, I look at my daughters and I am just so grateful that I switched doctors."