What it’s Like Being Queer, Latina, and a Young ER Patient
Picture this: There is a girl. She is young and wearing a floral mask. She is waiting in line behind a man who seems to be nervous. Her mom is watching from afar in order to keep her distance from the ER doors. The girl waves, trying not to show how worried she is. The girl is also incredibly weak. Her chest has been hurting for the last three days with no respite. Her heart rate is almost at 120 and she struggles to even walk. Once she is admitted, a physician's assistant informs her that it’s probably all in her head. That it’s easy to make a big deal of slightly elevated heart rate. His mask is crooked but she can tell by the crinkles by his eyes he is smiling. It’s all in her head. It’s all in her head.
I’ve struggled with my health my whole life. It’s something that I’ve learned to manage and be aware of. From struggling with an eating disorder for a few years to struggling with a yet to be diagnosed pelvic pain. I have dealt with my hand of doctors and while a lot of them dismissed me, I have never felt more unsafe, unheard, and disregarded as I did in the ER.
It’s no secret that discrimination is a very prevalent in healthcare. Some of the very language that is used as a basis, is biased and bigoted. Medicine has a horrible history of dismissing women, committing acts of torture on people of color, and justifying cruel acts against queer and trans folk. Health care also disregards fat and disabled bodies frequently. Now if you have intersectional identities, well, that can make the health care world very dark and dangerous place. Even though I knew this, even though I’ve experienced discrimination with several different doctors, I was still shocked at the way those doctors treated me.
I had called the nurse advice center earlier that day, and I was advised to go to the ER, so I did. Mostly because I felt horrible. I couldn’t do anything without feeling winded and light headed. My chest pain and heart rate were close to unbearable. So I went, hoping it was nothing huge, hoping for a reason, hoping for some kindness, but most of all I was looking for help. I was scared and all I wanted was some help.
On the Inside of the Emergency Room
After being screened at the entrance of the ER I went to have my vitals taken. I was just glad to be sitting once more. The first nurse was kind and patient. I was clearly not feeling well and he wanted to his best to make me feel at ease. We talked about how I had just graduated college, what I liked to write about, and our favorite movies. It was short and easy conversation, but it made me feel at ease. He said that my blood pressure and heart rate were abnormally high but that I would be well taken care of. From there I went off into another little room with a different nurse to wait for the doctor.
After about 30 minutes later a doctor appeared. He was a physician’s assistant. He was balding and short. His mask looked like it was too big for his face. He moved quickly and I didn’t even register his name before his eyes were looking me over, reading my body in a way that made me feel uncomfortable before announcing his diagnosis.
It was all simply in my head.
Somehow I had blown the whole situation out proportion when in reality I had nothing to be worried about. I could tell by the crinkles next to his eyes, he was smiling, proud of himself. I took a deep breath but before I could say anything else, he was gone. I was angry and still worried about my physical state.
I tried to channel my inner “take no bullcrap” persona and prepared what I was going to say when he got back. This definitely didn’t help my heart rate. When he returned with my vitals he looked at me again. I mustered up the courage I could and did my best to advocate for myself.
- I asked if he could run some tests to be sure.
- I asked him why I had been like this for three days.
- I asked him why he was so quick to assume it was all in my head before even looking at my vitals
- I asked for him to document that he was not going to do anything about the debilitating state I was in.
After a very painful conversation and a lot of stuttering on my end, he asked if I wanted another doctor and I said yes. However, despite me being transferred to another doctor it didn’t stop him from entering my room, reading my tests results, and basically acting like my doctor. The new physician who I was transferred to, was even worse. He walked in slowly, his mask was crinkled and looked like it was too tight on his face. There were no crinkles by his eyes.
He looked at me and said, “You’re 22, I see that you’re on anti-anxiety medication, maybe you should increase the dosage”. I looked at him in shock. I knew what both of these doctors saw when they looked at me. They saw a young girl. A young latina girl. And they were grown men who knew my body and symptoms better than I did. I was hysterical to them. I was simply unable to control my emotions and I was giving them work that they didn’t want to do.
He went on to defend his colleague but by this point I knew that I wasn’t going to get very far with them. After me once again asking him to document things in my chart, he allowed me to get some tests done. But not without making it extremely difficult for me. Both doctors left me waiting for hours, would cancel and reschedule my labs, and despite me firing the physician's assistant, he still kept showing up in my room.
Once they did what they considered enough, they discharged me and I had never felt so defeated and angry. I felt lucky I even got any labs taken. I felt like maybe I was just crazy. I felt crazy. I had walked into that ER terrified and unsure, and walked out feeling like I had lost something. I felt like bursting into tears. It was humiliating and I was defeated.
This is the question i’ve been asking myself for the last few days. I’m nervous to go back to the hospital. I feel nervous to talk to another doctor. I don’t want to be made to feel crazy. I don’t want my mental illnesses to be used against me. I just want to be taken seriously and offered real, tangible help. If it is my anxiety, point me in the direction of a psychiatrist, if it’s something else, help me manage it. I’m so devastated by this one ER visit.
I’ve dealt with so many doctors who have dismissed me and been cruel. However, this singular experience has lowered the bar even more. The misogyny, racism, and ableism was so blatant and strong I was at a loss. Plus it was two doctors against me. I didn’t have anyone at my side.
So I did research. I stumbled across this video by Stevie Boebi about how to get diagnosed and be taken seriously by medical professionals. It was truly helpful and educational. Seeing another queer, disabled, woman talk about her struggles and discuss what has helped her, made me feel heard and seen. While I’m still terrified of going back to the doctor, I feel more prepared having watched other videos and read other articles by other marginalized folks. Seeing them give advice and talk about how to navigate the health industrial complex is really and truly helpful.
This whole experience was a mess but I know that I still had some privilege as someone who is white passing, as someone who is straight passing. This was a taste of what many other people go through more often than not, and it was horrible. I truly never want to go through this again. And that’s why i’m sharing this experience. I want other people to see this and know that they aren’t crazy. That even when you advocate for yourself you don’t always win. That you gotta keep going. That you also gotta find a community of people who have experienced it and help you navigate.
Because, let’s be real, these biases are dangerous. More people of color go undiagnosed. Many women get dismissed as crazy. Trans folk are subjected to the gender binary and are constantly invalidated. Queer kids have to live in fear of their doctors slipping up and not sharing important material. It’s dangerous. I suffer with chronic pain everyday and I go undiagnosed every day. And that’s horrible. It shouldn’t be something that happens, yet this is a reality for many marginalized individuals.
I still have a long road to go, in terms of getting the help I deserve and need, and this experience definitely has scarred me. I also feel like the bar can’t possibly go lower now so why not try and talk to my doctor. I’m armed with new resources and I’ve talked with my family and friends so that they can come with me or help advocate for me. It’s a new start. But an important one. I just hope one day I don’t have to arm myself to the teeth just to receive care and help.