The story of one woman, Ailsa Court of Portland, Oregon, illuminates an issue that has existed far before the COVID-19 pandemic – disbelieving women’s pain.
Court’s symptoms began in early March, and she is still experiencing “shortness of breath, achiness in her lungs, and a strange tingling in her calves”. Throughout her struggle, numerous doctors discounted her testimonies and downplayed the severity of her symptoms. Her primary care doctor believed she was “stressed because of the economy”, and an urgent care physician rolled his eyes when she explained her symptoms – memory loss, a severe migraine, chest tightness, and leg numbness.
The one word Court has been using to describe this disbelief is “gaslighting”, otherwise known as the “psychological tactic of making a person second-guess whether something they know to be true is real”. Sadly, Court is not alone in her pain and struggle, as many other female coronavirus survivors are fighting both residual symptoms and doctors that won’t take them seriously.
This phenomenon highlights an issue that has permeated much of medical history – the belief in the “hysterical female”. Hysteria was described by ancient Egyptians and Greeks and was first scientifically taught by Jean-Martin Charcot in 1880 – one of whose pupils happened to be none other than Sigmund Freud. Moreover, female hysteria wasn’t dropped by the American Psychiatric Association until the 1950s, and “hysterical neurosis” wasn’t removed from the DSM until 1980.
This history plays a dangerous part in present-day medicine – women in pain are more likely than men to receive sedatives instead of pain medication, women have to wait longer in emergency departments to be seen, and women are nearly three times more likely to die after a heart attack due to inadequate care.
These disparities are compounded for women of color. Black patients are 40% less likely to receive pain medication, and 34% less likely to receive opioids than white patients. A study found that almost half of medical students maintained the belief that Black people have thicker skin than white people.
Adrienne Crenshaw, a Black woman from Houston, Texas, was prescribed anti-anxiety medication, despite her asserting that her symptoms align with a heart attack, not anxiety. Alisa Valdés of Albuquerque, New Mexico, was told that her severe symptoms were the result of a “mental issue”. She believes that her doctors have been “minimizing me as a woman, minimizing me as a Latina”.
Clearly, these cases demonstrate the biases against women that exist in healthcare and must be addressed, given the unprecedented nature of the pandemic and the severity of its consequences.