No Harm Done? Ignoring Women’s Pain by Doctors

A new five-part series podcast, The Retrievals, recounts the disturbing story of a dozen women who sought fertility treatment at a renowned university’s medical clinic and experienced unexpected and excruciating pain. Despite the similar complaints of many of these patients, the real reason for the pain was not revealed until a significant time later: a nurse was stealing their pain medication and replacing it with saline, a saltwater solution. The documentary underscores the issue that women’s pain is often ignored by the very doctors who are supposed to treat or prevent it.

What Happened to the Women at the Fertility Clinic?

The Retrievals is a five-part narrative series from Serial Productions and The New York Times. This is the story as recounted by the publications:

A dozen women with reproductive health issues went to a medical clinic at Yale University to have eggs retrieved. During the procedure, the women felt excruciating pain. They complained to their healthcare providers during the procedure that something wasn’t right. It was too painful. One woman said it “felt like someone was ripping something out of your body.” Another echoed this sentiment: “It felt like someone had been inside her and gutted her.”

Even though the women voiced their discomfort before and after the procedure, they were ignored. One patient was told that she couldn’t have any more medication during the procedure, that the nurse had already given her as much medication as she legally could. Another said when her healthcare providers kept giving her pain medication, she told them it wasn’t making a difference. One doctor threatened to leave if another patient crying out in pain didn’t calm down.

And the dismissal of their experiences was even worse after the retrieval procedure. The women explained they were treated “like a hysterical woman…who’s childless… and hormonal.” They felt ashamed and blamed for their reaction. Nurses told them “they were waking up” during the procedure, as though it was their fault or they weren’t sensitive to the Fentanyl they were receiving. They were told that it wasn’t that big of a deal. Some felt like they were being rushed out of the clinic. One patient was given anxiety medication before her next procedure.

One thing the patients had in common was feeling like they weren’t being listened to. Something wasn’t right. But the women were correct. Months after undergoing the retrieval procedure, they received a letter from the clinic that revealed that a nurse had been “diverting” the patients’ pain medication, Fentanyl, and replacing it with saline solution. She had reportedly removed drugs

from hundreds of vials from the clinic. When the women underwent the painful procedure, they were unknowingly given salt water instead of the pain medication they expected. The letter indicated that, though the problem was identified, no harm had been done and the women’s health outcomes had not been affected.

A federal investigation revealed about 200 women were given the saline solution instead of the pain medication over a five-month period. However, lawyers representing women in a civil case against Yale University believe that more women were affected over a period that spanned years. These women wonder how the doctors could have failed to notice the problem when there was a pattern of women making similar complaints. One of the women was a doctor herself and even said she told her provider she could taste salt water in her mouth after receiving the injection of what should have been Fentanyl.

The nurse plead guilty to the charges. She was sentenced to a few weekends of jail to be served on alternating weekends to accommodate her custody schedule of her children. The civil case against Yale is still ongoing.

Revealing an Even Bigger Problem

Unfortunately, doctors not listening to female patients is nothing new. Many women know firsthand what it’s like to explain pain to their doctors, only to have their concerns dismissed. This issue is especially common in minority populations.

The Washington Post published an article on this issue. It told of one woman who complained about painful headaches and pounding in her ears for months and was told she was being “dramatic.” She had a brain tumor. A woman who endured a torturous 33-hour labor yelped in pain while her healthcare providers dismissed it. Her epidural had fallen out.

These anecdotes point to the same results found in numerous medical studies. The Journal of the American Heart Association published an article that found women with chest pain waited 29 percent longer to be evaluated for possible heart attacks, compared to their male counterparts. An article published in the National Library of Medicine found women with acute abdominal pain were up to 25 percent less likely to be prescribed opioid painkillers.

Research published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America found half of white medical students and residents held false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites, which predict racial bias in pain perception and treatment recommendations.

When healthcare providers cause their patients to question their own perception, sanity, or memories (a practice referred to as “medical gaslighting”), women’s treatment for various health issues can be affected, including heart problems, stroke, chronic illnesses, reproductive health problems, and more. Women may be subject to misdiagnoses, delayed examinations, or no examinations, which can lead to chronic health problems, unnecessary pain, and sometimes even death

Gender Bias in Pain Management

The Retrievals is one more example of how women in pain is an issue that is often overlooked by the healthcare system. As one woman in the podcast explained, “Women are [treated as] unreliable narrators of their own symptoms…anxious…exaggerating.” Societally, women are treated as the weaker sex who complain about the slightest discomfort. But many strong women find themselves thinking, “We’ve delivered babies for millennia, often without any pain medication, yet we are the weak ones?”

Unfortunately, these biases have led to many healthcare providers labeling women as “hysterical” or “exaggerating.” Sometimes, women in chronic pain are diagnosed with psychological issues, even when there is an underlying physical reason for the pain.

Many possible explanations exist for the differences in pain men and women feel, including different anatomical structures, hormones, genetics, or social factors. If women’s pain is ignored, this could be medical negligence.

What You Can Do If Your Pain or Other Symptoms Are Ignored

If you feel that your healthcare provider is ignoring your concerns, it is critical that you advocate for yourself. Your health is the most important matter. Seek another opinion. If you still feel the same, seek another. Begin documenting your symptoms, including dates, times, and details about what you are experiencing. You know your body better than anyone else, and you deserve to receive quality medical care.

If a doctor’s dismissal of your symptoms or medical gaslighting cause you harm, reach out to an experienced medical malpractice lawyer. The Law Office of Kelley J. Johnson focuses exclusively on cases involving medical negligence, preventable errors, and fatal mistakes. Kelley J. Johnson has over 15 years of litigation experience. She will take your concerns seriously and fight to make things right for you. Contact us today for a free and confidential case review.

Injured patients and their families need solid legal guidance after a serious medical error. At the Law Office of Kelley J. Johnson, we listen attentively to our clients’ questions and concerns. Our goal is to help them move forward after devastating, even fatal medical errors.