Fat Shamed By My Surgeon

I walked into the Emergency Room at Riddle Memorial Hospital in Media, PA on Wednesday May 1st, 2013 with lower abdominal pain. I walked out of the hospital on May 4th minus one appendix and feeling disgusting and fat. What happened in those three days? The judgment of one medical professional (and appendicitis). 

For as long as I can remember, I have had trouble challenging authority figures. I could get Freudian and blame it on an alcoholic parent, or cognitive behavioral and blame it on my multiple rapes by older men. Regardless of the cause, I have a deep seated fear of getting in trouble and correcting someone who is in a position of power. I’m working on it. I never expected that to become an issue in a hospital, where people go to HEAL. In some ways, I left the hospital hurting more than I was when I arrived.

First Impressions

I met my surgeon, Dr. Mahin Bebehanian, early Thursday morning, the day of my surgery. She introduced herself and began the physical exam. One of her first comments to me was, “do you have children?” That seemed like a somewhat odd question, but I replied that I did not. “Oh,” she responded, “usually when you see stretch marks like that, it is from having children.” I could have asked for a different surgeon right then and there. I didn’t. True to form, I was shocked into silence and felt some of my old body hatred feelings stirring.

The next time I saw my surgeon, I was getting ready to go into surgery. She told me it would be an open appendectomy. When I asked about scarring, she told me, “Don’t worry about the scar, it’s not like you’re going to be wearing a bikini anyway.” Dumbfounded, and partially woozy from the painkillers, I laid back and tried to think happy thoughts. When I woke up in the recovery room, I was nauseated, in excruciating pain, and based on the urgency of the nurses’ pleas, not breathing well. In my post-op haze, I saw my surgeon walk up to me to let me know that the surgery was slightly more complicated than she expected. “You have a big belly,” she said. “I had to make a wider incision to get my hand in and I had to cut through this much (she held her hands about a foot apart) to get to your abdomen.” Now I know I’m not a thin gal, but I also know that I do not have 12 inches of adipose tissue on my abdomen. Again though, I was silenced by the sheer rudeness and insensitivity of the surgeon’s words. I begged for painkillers and fell back asleep.

Follow Up "Care"

My experience in that particular hospital was pretty unpleasant on a number of levels, especially the behavior of my surgeon. Thankfully I was discharged two days later and allowed to return to the comfort of my own bed and the care of my wonderful partner. I slept a lot, ate a lot of pudding, and slept some more. It was glorious. I had a follow up appointment with the surgeon scheduled for Wednesday, three days after my discharge. The goal was to check on my staples and possibly remove them. On Wednesday, my partner drove me to the appointment and waited with me for the surgeon. As is usually the case, we waited about 30 minutes before being seen. She came in and asked about pain, activity level, and compliance with post-op medications. She looked at my incision and took out two staples, which was a bit more pinchy than I anticipated.

As she was wrapping up the appointment, she told me that due to the nature of the surgery, I would probably be out of work for at least three weeks. I was thrilled that I had made it through an interaction with her where my weight wasn’t mentioned. As if she read my mind, she turned around and said, “Now you go on down to McDonald’s and get yourself a Big Mac.” I was stunned.  It was all I could do to keep my partner from shouting at her, but at that point, I just wanted to leave. I was sore, I was embarrassed, and I was ashamed.

The Breakdown

I went home and got into the shower, and as the hot water rained down on my body, I started to cry. I looked down at my stapled incision with its reddened edges and felt hideous. I cried harder. I felt ugly, I felt damaged, I felt broken. I was in physical and emotional agony. My partner heard my sobs and came into the shower and just held me until I calmed down. I cried into his shoulder as he whispered in my ear that I was beautiful and that he loved me. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. A doctor, a healer, was not supposed to make me feel this way.

Reaching Out

I went back and re-read my article on Life on the Swingset about positive body image. I wanted to feel that way again. I wanted to feel the confidence and the body loving. I wanted to feel flirty and sexy. I reached out to friends. I reached out to the internet as a whole and spoke with others who had experienced fat shaming at the hands of medical professionals. I started to feel less alone. I threw my energy into updating my website and blogging. I was determined not to let this destroy me. I was reminded painfully that healing from anything, including an eating disorder and negative body image, was not a linear process. The hospital stay and the days that followed were filled with anguish, but after my shower breakdown, the next few days felt like the first steps out of the cave and into the light.

Part of healing and surviving is having the support of others. I am incredibly grateful to my partner who has been unwavering in his support throughout our relationship but most especially during this time. I am grateful to my fellow sex educators for inspiring me to move beyond my negative experience and to do something positive with it. I am grateful to my friends (who are my family) for get well wishes, cards, and care packages.

Moving Forward

Reclamation begins by refusing to be treated poorly. After this experience I have vowed to speak up if anyone (especially a professional) speaks to me in a way that I feel is inappropriate or shaming. I want to create a YouTube PSA that will feature me, in a bikini, talking about loving my body and showing my “big belly” and my scar without fear or shame. This is my body. This is my catalyst.

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  • commented 2015-05-03 13:00:35 -0700
    Hello Ashley, I was looking for something entirely different online when I happened upon your blog. I had a very shaming, embarrassing, horrifying experience myself with a gynecologist. I went to in-patient treatment at Radar Institute Pacific Shores Hospital for binge eating disorder from December 2010 to January 2011. That month was such a blessed experience; although, admittedly I do still struggle with BED today. For months prior and during my stay in PSH I had been experiencing ridiculously long (months long) periods. Things did not clear up even though I was put on Seasonique. I decided to take the suggestion of a friend to see Dr. Pedro Diaz to try to find some type of resolution to bleeding for months upon months.

    When I arrived at his office as a new patient I had already had my records from PSH faxed there for my records at Dr. Diaz’s office. I also verbally informed him I was currently undergoing treatment for BED and had stayed at an in-patient facility. He proceeded to tell me that I needed to have gastric bypass surgery. I tried ever so politely to tell him I was not interested in having surgery because I wanted to continue the treatment I was already receiving via counseling and psychotropics. I am also a survivor of sexual abuse, and I am well aware of the roots of my eating disorder. He continued to push and push and push. It takes a lot for me to speak up to medical professionals, especially males, or anyone in a position of authority for that matter. I finally got slightly more forceful and flat out said, “I am not going to have gastric bypass surgery. I do not think it is the right choice for me.” He immediately got quiet. The anger was very apparent. I knew I was not in for a good examination after that because he had not even touched me yet.

    The exam was extremely painful as when he conducted the internal exam he was rather rough. I cramped for hours afterwards and felt very violated. Additionally, he told me my vagina smelled. I get it. I was having menstrual issues. I did not need more embarrassment when I was having a pelvic exam while menstruating. He made me go to his office after I got dressed, which I have only ever seen happen in movies although I am sure some doctors still do this. He once again addressed me having a gastric bypass. He was not as rude about it, but I did not like how he violated a boundary I had already set yet again. I never went back to him. I was severely dissociated from everything for the rest of the day.

    Apparently I still haven’t really processed this thoroughly because I am getting rather emotional as I write. I understand that doctors have an obligation to tell their patients honest information about their health. I appreciate a doctor who can tell me honestly when something I am doing is bad for me. I just don’t understand why there has to be judgment and condescension when this happens. I informed my next gynecologist of this experience. She was appalled. I hope that my story helps others to know they are not alone in their battle to overcome eating disorders, self image woes, sexual abuse, and standing up to medical professionals. Anyway, thank you for sharing your experience and allowing me to relate and share my own. God bless.
  • commented 2014-01-06 08:53:42 -0800
    Wow, sadly I can’t say I’m surprised but am deeply hurt you went through this. While my PCP doesn’t make such snarky remarks, my weight is noted every time I go in, no matter what the issue is. If I’m going in for a cold, I don’t need you mentioning how fat I am!

    I’m glad you’ve vowed to speak up! I’ve never understood why doctors feel like they have the right to speak down on you because of a ‘health’ issue. There’s nothing wrong with you…nothing wrong with your body. You were having pain and they should have done their part to relieve it, not add emotional to it. I’m impressed by your strength and am so glad you wrote this post. I have a feeling it’s going to help a lot of people! Thank you again!
  • commented 2013-12-07 12:55:08 -0800
    Jeannie, your comment was so incredibly thoughtful – thank you! I will definitely reach out the the Ombuds’ office at Riddle Memorial. I also didn’t think of it until now, but I’m going to leave a Yelp comment for not only the hospital but for her specifically. I do want people to realize that she is not providing compassionate care. I would definitely like to see her held accountable for her behavior. I’ll be sure to let you know when I produce the YouTube PSA! Thank you so much for your support, I appreciate it!
    Warm hugs,
    Ashley
  • commented 2013-12-07 12:48:29 -0800
    Thank you Ruth and Karin!
  • commented 2013-12-04 10:03:55 -0800
    Ashley, you are a powerful, intelligent, beautiful, valuable, and inspiring woman. Fuck this awful doctor and their unethical, uncaring, unacceptable behavior. Thank you for going public. I am excited about joining forces with you.
  • commented 2013-12-03 18:59:29 -0800
    Thank you so much Raven. It feels so good to have such a great outpouring of support from those who’ve read it.
  • commented 2013-12-03 18:54:46 -0800
    You my sweet are beautiful inside, outside, upside down and backwards and that doctor was an abnoxious abhorrence of a healer. Thank you for sharing this story so others will know they are not alone and ALL of us can take steps in not allowing this behaviour to continue, from ANY quarter!!

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