Physical maintenance and midlife go together, just like love and marriage (or so we thought). Medical adventures await both boomer men and women, but there’s a difference. Bias can block the brainwaves, resulting in inferior medical care—even tragedy—and even worse for the medical practitioner—in a malpractice suit.
It started hundreds of years ago—maybe when Hippocrates named hysteria after the female womb. One physician claimed in 1859 that a quarter of all women suffered from hysteria. A pregnant woman whose cervix opens prematurely has an incompetent cervix. A woman who gets pregnant after age 34 is termed an elderly primagravida. (I’m one). You get the drift—there’s a longstanding medical bias to see anything that happens in a woman’s body as a female failing.
Joni Mitchell recently announced in Billboard that she could no longer sing because of Morgellons Disease. When I looked it up on WebMD, I found that “Morgellons is mostly likely to affect middle-aged white women…many of the patients…showed signs of being obsessively concerned about health problems in general…” (not feeling well can do that to a woman) and that many medical practitioners consider Morgellons to be “delusional.”
Which is perfectly possible.
But the harried middle-aged man who marches into the examination room with Armani suit, briefcase, and complaints is not typically told that his heart is “incompetent” or that his cardiovascular system is too “elderly.” Middle-aged men who see a doctor because of urinary, prostate, or potency symptoms aren’t usually sent away with no diagnosis and a flea in their ear, or accused of being “delusional” or “obsessively concerned” with their genitals.
Mitchell is a 1960s boomer musical genius, award winner, and icon who is enormously successful and wealthy, has lived an extraordinary life with many famous lovers—James Taylor, Leonard Cohen, and Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, among others–and is scoring a ballet, painting, and writing. Which is why I’m prone to believe that she’s making the whole thing up just to wile away her empty hours. Joni Mitchell, what a kvetch.
There are medical practitioners who believe they have already seen everything they need to see when a middle-aged lady steps into their office—and their biases blossom like an allergic rash.
After many months of increasing symptoms and fatigue, I finally figured out that I had a sinus infection. The doctor I consulted had a wall full of credentials, certificates, and honors. He made sure to reiterate to me how he was the authority and expert in his field (in case I hadn’t noticed). He barely glanced at my medical records, CT scan, and nose, and cut off every comment I attempted to make. Because he’d already seen everything he needed to see—a middle-aged woman complaining.
“I’ve seen lots of women like you,” he thundered—“over-treated—too much medicine, too much surgery. Why isn’t your nose stuffed up like everybody else’s? When I see a CT scan so normal—so completely normal—I have to wonder.” He advised me sternly to never darken his doorstep again unless I had “verifiable acute symptoms.”
Several days later, I was bombarded with increasingly urgent messages from his nurse—I had to “come in immediately so the doctor could talk to me.” When I didn’t respond, the messages said “the doctor would drop everything and talk to me whenever I called.” He had received the written report on the CT scan stating that I had an acute sinus infection, and was frantically backpedalling to cover his error.
This malfunctioning medical practitioner only cost me wasted time from work and another week of feeling miserable until a (female) physicians’ assistant, armed with an endoscope and an open mind, took some bacterial cultures and prescribed the right medicine.
But a few years ago, a patient at a respected local medical center that trumpets its devotion to well-being wasn’t so lucky. The distraught middle-aged mother kept on coming back with her teenaged daughter. It couldn’t possibly be a sinus infection, the urgent care doctor told her, because it didn’t respond to the first antibiotic he gave her. Doctors know these things—right? –so she took her daughter to a different kind of specialist. Who had already seen all that he needed to see—an increasingly frantic middle-aged woman with a teenaged girl. Her daughter was just acting up, wanting attention, having “issues” with high school, he insisted. As the mother’s emotional distress and her daughter’s symptoms increased, he dug his heels in harder—it was his expert opinion versus an “hysterical” middle-aged woman with an accent.
The doctor ran behind the gurney asking if he could “help” when his patient arrived at the Emergency Room in a coma. The world lost an idealistic, talented seventeen-year-old whose dream was to study environmental science and save the world. She wasn’t saved—in large part, because a doctor passed judgment on an emotional middle-aged woman instead of doing a thorough workup. One wonders how he would have treated a middle-aged male executive who came in with a son suffering from the same symptoms who was the captain of the football team.
The family won a malpractice suit, which was absolutely no comfort. The doctor was asked to take all his diplomas and certificates off the wall.
We like to pretend that this kind of thing never happens. But boomer middle-aged women—or any boomer man related or married to one—need to be on the alert for the medical provider who has seen all he needs to see when a midlife woman walks into the room.