Friday, January 12, 2018

Lying naked on the bed

A few weeks ago, my husband went in to have a vasectomy.  I am proud of him-- for being brave (only about 10% of US men get vasectomies); for announcing his reason for missing work to his all-male engineering team (imagine the uncomfortable squirms when he brought up the topic at their weekly debrief); and for taking ultimate responsibility for our family's family planning.

Image result for all juice no seedAnd so ends a two-decades long birth control chapter in this woman's life. Woohoo!

In his defense, he did way less milking of the situation than I had anticipated. I had envisioned him reclining dramatically on the couch with an ice pack on his crotch avoiding normal household duties and requesting room service and an endless supply of cereal and Game of Thrones episodes.  Instead, he came home with a smile on his face, exclaimed, "It wasn't really much more pain than a shot of Novocaine at the dentist", and went about helping out with the day-to-day madness that is having three young children. For the next few days, he took it a little easy, occasionally winced in discomfort, and his only recurring complaint was the itchiness.

All in all, it was a success. And a relief-- for both of us.

All said, I cannot help but ruminate on the one remark he made that I find particularly fascinating and somehow shocking: the totally new and "strange feeling of lying naked in the room waiting for the procedure to begin." He repeated a few times, "I've never been in that position. . . just lying there naked."

Lying naked on the bed.
Waiting for a procedure to begin.
Lying naked on the bed.
Lying naked on the bed.
Lying naked on the bed.
Lying naked on the bed.

How long have I been lying naked on a bed waiting for someone to come in?

Twenty-two years.

Since age 18, upon deciding I was going to have sex for the first time, and I dutifully made an appointment for my very first pack of birth control pills and my very my first pap smear. We don't do this, by the way, anymore. We don't pap 18-year-olds. Pap smears in the US start now at age 21, and in some countries in Europe cervical cancer screening doesn't start until age 30. We also don't tie birth control to the requirement you get a pap smear. Turns out that was a dumb idea. In fact, the only thing that birth control and pap smears have in common is that they kind of sort of both involve your private parts.

Again a year later, when I had another pap.

And again, when I had my first vaginal infection.

And again at age 21, when the Peace Corps required I have a rectal exam in addition to a bimanual  exam to be "cleared for service" (WTF?!?). The bimanual exam-- by the way-- is the "two hand" exam-- you know the one-- one hand inside your vagina, one hand outside on your belly, the one that doesn't feel very good and yet somehow seems important. It turns out that physicians don't really know what they are looking for when they do a screening bimanual exam-- our ability to detect cancers or other badness with our two hands is about the same as flipping a coin. In one study of women with known ovarian tumors, physicians were only able to "find" the tumor by examining with their hands 50% of the time. So this type of exam should only be done with forethought-- when your provider suspects you may have a uterine infection or some lesion that could be helped by examining you. 

And again, when I finished my Peace Corps service.
And again, and again and again.
When I got pregnant. And delivered. And got pregnant. And miscarried. And couldn't get pregnant. And had a test. And then another. And then another.
When I had surgery. And then intrauterine insemination. And then IVF.
When I got pregnant again. And delivered.
When the doctor yelled at me for not being undressed and "ready for him" at my postpartum visit with my fussy 6 week old baby who didn't want to be put down.

And again when I was pregnant with my third child and went in for my intake appointment. I was asked to undress completely, as the physician needed to examine my breasts and do a bimanual exam. The funny thing is-- I let her do it-- despite the fact that I know better. That there was no particular reason she should do such an exam at all. Her time (and mine) would have been better spent probing the safety of my relationship, my fears about my advanced maternal age, or heck, just getting to know me.

And yet, there I was, lying naked on the table.

This post is for you, women. For all of you who have laid naked on the table, wrapped in a generic cloth gown that gapes open no matter how you tie it-- or worse, a paper gown that literally rips into shreds as you attempt to preserve your modesty. And then wait for 3 or 5 or 25 minutes for that fateful knock on the door.  To have your very most private parts examined.

Being naked is scary. It's vulnerable. It's raw.  And, unfortunately, it's part of being a woman-- a woman who has sex, a woman whose parts are tucked up inside of her, a woman whose body is both capable and vulnerable-- to being pregnant, to contract disease, to have all the crazy shit that can happen to our amazing parts (everything from vaginal discharge to pelvic discomfort to herpes to a saggy post menopausal bladder).

This is also a post for you, doctors. The scariest part of being a doctor is being vulnerable to forgetting-- forgetting that every single body we have the privilege to see and touch and examine is that one person's only body. It is their most precious and private part. And they are entrusting me and you to acknowledge the power, recognize the specialness, and do what we need to do to care for them with utmost love and respect.

This is also a post for you, men, who may have less opportunity to lie naked on a table at the doctor's office. But your time, too, will come. You will get a hernia or a weird lump in your testicle, or maybe you will be one of the 10% of US men to sign yourself up for a vasectomy.  (It's not so bad, after all). In the meantime, please do us all a favor, and treat every body you come across (particularly those who are lying naked in front of you) with love and respect.

And some day, when you are scared or sick-- may your body be treated the same.