Editor's Note: The woman who shared this story asked to be kept anonymous.
When I was a college student in Louisiana, I was very ill vomiting for a few days so I went to the doctor. They told me they couldn't find anything wrong with me so I must be fine, and they sent me home.
I went to the ER one night after vomiting all night long (maybe 100 times total or more). The E.R. told me to go to my primary care doctor. I went again and they did some tests. After a few weeks, the results came back and they didn’t show what was causing my symptoms. They told me the vomiting was caused by anxiety and that a lot of women have that, so they gave me antidepressants.
I explained I had not been depressed but that I was starting to become depressed after not being able to eat for so many days and throwing up so much. They advised that it would help to take the medication.
I started taking the antidepressants, but I kept throwing up, now with increased pain. After about a month of this I grew actually depressed and felt unlike myself. I started feeling suicidal. I went back to the doctor and explained that I had not felt this way until taking the pills and that they may be having a negative effect on me.
They told me to take a higher dose. I continued to be ill and feel more mentally unwell. I went to the ER again begging for help with what my mother thought was my gallbladder. I explained how the symptoms matched and how the general doctor grew furious when I brought it up, and that maybe I just needed to see another doctor.
I mentioned I was feeling suicidal and needed medical help after no doctor would see me. I was then sent to a mental institution for three days where some staff were kind and some were not. The female nurse believed me about my gallbladder but the male psychiatrist did not and told my family that I had a somatoform disorder. [Editor’s note: Somataform disorder is a mental illness that causes bodily symptoms that cannot be traced to any physical cause. It is a diagnosis of exclusion, which means that you cannot properly diagnose someone with this condition unless it has been conclusively determined that there is no physical cause of their symptoms.] I was labeled a hypochondriac in my medical charts and released.
I went back to Michigan where I had family feeling like I would die. I had lost so much weight and could only eat some rice, water and bananas, and I was still throwing up often. One day I had the feeling that I didn’t have much time left. I told my mother to prepare her. She took me to a female doctor from the Ukraine who came highly recommended. We told the doctor what happened and about the pain and vomiting. She asked if I had gallstones and we let her know the gallstone test came back negative but it is in my family history to have gallbladder issues. She did a test called a HIDA scan. The test came back showing my gallbladder was functioning at a 1% and this was a day I had felt good.
They told me I needed surgery as soon as possible. I was overjoyed that they finally figured out what was wrong with me. I called to make an appointment and the wait time was almost two months. My father knew a neighbor of ours was a doctor and told him about the situation. The neighbor got us in sooner (about a month) and I had the surgery. When I woke up from surgery, I was told that my gallbladder had grown gangrenous and that if I had not had the surgery when I did, I would have been dead in a week.
This all took place the winter after Hurricane Katrina so I know hospitals were backed up, but all the doctors that told me it was in my head were male and everyone who believed me was female, even with my own parents. I almost died, and now I always schedule with female doctors as much as I can. I hope this story helps. I wanted to tell others because sometimes bias can be a matter of life and death.