I collapsed because of ovarian torsion and people were too uncomfortable to help me

Why are we so afraid of “women’s problems”?

Disclaimer: In the following article I use the phrase “women’s problems” to illustrate the stigma attached to gynaecological issues. However, these issues can apply to anyone with the corresponding anatomy – including those who may identify as trans men or otherwise. I use the abbreviation PWM to describe “People who menstruate”.

I had just arrived at the University gym changing rooms when a blinding pain shot through my lower abdomen causing me to buckle and see stars. As the pain intensified, I felt increasingly lightheaded. I forced myself to stagger to the lobby, desperate for help. Several concerned bystanders and members of staff rushed forward as I collapsed on the floor. However, in my haze of pain I failed to translate my problems into acceptable male speak and proceeded to compare the pain to extreme period pain.

Women’s problems instil an uncomfortable feeling in all genders. Even “period pain”, “ovaries” and “contraceptives” still cling onto their taboo nature of the past. Expecting to change the culture around women’s health is unlikely to happen overnight. But if a seemingly progressive institution like Edinburgh University still squirms in their seat at the mention of problems affecting 50 per cent of the world then I think we can safely say we are far off where we ought to be.

Women’s bodies are art

Why is everyone scared of “periods”?

When I choked out the forbidden word “period” (a word much less exciting than the gym staff might think), the atmosphere completely changed. It went from being concerned and helpful to awkward and embarrassed. Within seconds I felt humiliated. The man left straight away, turning to the closest woman that he could find to ask if she could “take care of me”. Clearly, this was not a job for anyone with a penis.

Honestly, in hindsight, I feel sorry for this poor girl. She looked only just out of her teens and was really not equipped to handle such a case. On top of that, she only had it passed to her because she was female. However, at the time, I wanted to punch her. She told me in the most patronising of tones to just to go and “get some paracetamol”. She tried to coach me into a chair in the corner and was mostly worried because I was blocking the entrance.

I felt totally embarrassed and totally ashamed. It was like I had somehow done something horrid, and everyone just wanted me out the way. It was only after I got someone to phone my mum, who whisked me off to hospital straight away, did I eventually start to be taken seriously.

It wasn’t just a bad cramp

It turned out I had been experiencing ovarian torsion, which is the female equivalent of testicular torsion. It involves your ovary twisting round and cutting off its own blood supply. If not treated quickly enough it can result in the ovary dying. So, while I was feeling bad for inconveniencing everyone, my ovary was literally killing itself.

It was a serious health problem. I have had two operations for it since that day and numerous hospital appointments. Multiple doctors have told me that if the same situation occurs again, I should not hesitate in calling an ambulance. Unlike my first arrival at hospital which was delayed by about 30 minutes because the students running the Sports Centre couldn’t fathom that my “women’s problems” were actually a serious health concern.

I’m not alone

I’m sure I’m not the only woman who has received this kind of neglect. For example, endometriosis is one of the most common gynaecological problems with the main symptom being extremely severe period pain. However, on average, women and PWM wait three years (that’s 36 gruellingly painful episodes) before even consulting a doctor! Even then it takes them a further eight years before they are taken seriously enough to receive a diagnosis.

We are teaching our children that to menstruate is to simply accept their monthly pain throughout life. Even a normal period can be incredibly serious. There’s evidence that period pain can be as painful as a heart attack. Too many women and PWM simply suck this pain up, handling it quietly in the back of a lecture theatre like me in the gym. Too afraid to make a fuss.

We’re all a part of the problem

It’s easy to just blame this problem all on the patriarchy, and sure, it plays a large part. More than just that, this fear of women’s bodies is everyone’s issue. There is an almost unspoken rule among women: “If I have to suck it up then you should”. It’s understandable. But it is something women can help change.

Even now I am terrified of mentioning my health problems. Each time I went into hospital, I told very few of my friends (and certainly fewer male friends) I was having an operation. I was afraid the word “ovary” would make it awkward. I never even applied for special circumstances because I was so scared of being judged. I felt guilty when I missed classes for appointments. I would rarely explain the true reason for my absence.

I am part of the problem – we all are! By keeping quiet, we keep all these problems invisible. Part of the change will involve PWM making a fuss. We have to miss classes, ask for deadline extensions, and rant about the pain to anyone and everyone.

As for the University, there are systematic measures that can be introduced: for example, training on period pain in first aid courses (let’s be real – it happens way more than random cuts and scrapes) or allowing it to be used as a reason for missed seminars.

Ultimately, we need make the world hear our pain that we have held in for far too long.