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.
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.
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.
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.
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.