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I had a severe flare-up of pancreatitis in August 2021. I woke up one morning feeling an awful stomach pain in my upper abdomen. I was soon taken to a large hospital in Toronto, where I was directed to the waiting area of the E.R. upon my arrival. At this point, my pain had reached unbearable levels, leading me to cry out for help in agony. In the midst of my distress, a triage nurse came up to me and asked me to be quiet. I explained, as best I could, that I wasn’t purposefully being disruptive and that I urgently needed care. He dismissed me and remarked, “[t]here are a lot of people here who are in pain so you’re just going to have to wait like everyone else.”
I managed to explain that I understood, but that I could not help it and urgently required assistance. Despite my attempts to explain my situation, the nurse responded condescendingly, threatening to isolate me if I continued making noise. I felt terrified and unsure of where I was being taken. Fortunately, he took me a bed in the rapid assessment area. I was given Tylenol by a nurse for temporary pain relief, while I waited for a doctor. It was later determined that I had a severe case of pancreatitis, which was likely caused by my cystic fibrosis.
When you are experiencing a medical emergency, the last thing you need is for someone to chastise and scare you. What a medical professional should do is keep you informed and do their best to provide you with assistance. Many structural issues shaped by the biases and crises in our society can impact the ability to receive the appropriate medical attention a patient requires. In Canada, medical misogyny and racism have been frequent issues plaguing the public health care system, compounded by its underfunding which has seen hospitals understaffed and medical personnel underpaid.
In my previous article, I briefly touched on the lack of sufficient funding for medical professionals. This lack of support can make it difficult for these professionals to do their job to the best of their capabilities. My personal experience with seeing a doctor was negative, and I felt that there was no need for them to mistreat me, who was maintaining a polite disposition despite being in desperate need of help.
However, as a journalist, I want to make it clear that my criticisms of the Canadian healthcare system is based on personal experience, and that I am not generalizing that all underfunded medical professionals act unprofessionally. I simply want to highlight that instances can occur where patients can face psychological trauma when exposed to mistreatment and negligence, which can be triggered by the systemic issues in our healthcare system. It is crucial to understand that this kind of mistreatment and gaslighting from some doctors can result in very real consequences for patients, such as prolonged experiences with serious pain and symptoms that can impact one’s ability to work etc.
Medical Misogyny in Canadian Healthcare
The neglect and disregard of some patients by some doctors, unfortunately, is an issue that persists throughout all of Canada. Many of the people that I have spoken to about their experiences in Canadian hospitals have commented that they have had very similar experiences. Lindsay Graves, a personal acquaintance with chronic health issues as well, said: “[i]n Ontario, I had excellent access to care for acute or basic issues, but a lot of my chronic stuff flew under the radar. Doctors didn’t know or didn’t care how to manage it, or it otherwise never got dealt with.”
As I had previously referenced, a structural issue that women and those who identify as female face is misogyny within the medical system. Medical misogyny is the well documented practice of women being dismissed, gaslit, and ignored by their medical providers–especially when describing grievous concerns or difficult-to-diagnose symptoms. This issue, of course, is as old as misogyny itself. One need only to think of the “hysteria” prescribed to women who were acting or feeling “odd” in Victorian novels to realize how long standing this issue is. Of course, this is an intersectional issue that affects all women throughout not just North America, but the entire world.
A study carried out by the Women’s College Hospital in Toronto suggests that due to the historical neglect of considering sex and gender differences in healthcare, many women are often disregarded and receive inadequate support and attention. As I had previously described, when a patient’s concerns are dismissed or ignored, it can end up causing a patient unnecessarily prolonged pain and sometimes even result in greater damage to the body. I spoke with Dr. Silver, a diagnostic radiologist specializing in neuroradiology, who explained that “if someone has a progressive chronic condition or an acute complication for an underlying issue, delays could result in impacts on quality of life and potentially cause unnecessary discomfort.”
Healthcare Disparities Based on Race
Regardless of the aggressive manner in which I was eventually checked into the hospital, I am grateful that I received care within a timely manner as pancreatitis can be fatal if left untreated. I recognize the privileges that come into play as a patient who is a cis, white woman. Often minorities and people of color do not receive any care or compassion in a hospital, even when they are in the midst of a potentially deadly medical crisis.
There have been many reported cases of racialized individuals in Canada not receiving the right care or even any care at all. In September 2020, an Indigenous woman named Joyce Echaquan live streamed the abuse she was suffering from nurses at a hospital. According to an article from The Guardian, the footage captured nurses belittling Joyce Echaquan, causing her visible distress with derogatory comments such as “stupid as hell.” They also made remarks like “You made some bad choices, my dear” and questioned the potential impact on her children witnessing her condition because they assumed her pain was a result of a drug withdrawal. Due to the fact that these nurses would not treat Ms. Echaquan, she died a few hours later at the age of 37.
Unfortunately, Ms. Echaquan’s case was not a one time occurrence. One only needs to Google inadequate healthcare for racialized individuals in Canada to see systemic discrimination and other instances of racially motivated mistreatment from medical practitioners. Brenda L. Gunn, Associate Law Professor at the University of Manitoba, notes medical racism to greatly reduce the “health outcomes” of Indigenous peoples and people of color. Marginalized patients may not only be subjected to racism within their interactions with medical staff; they also have limited access to healthcare due to “structural racism [existing] in [its] policies and practices.”
For example, inadequate funding for healthcare facilities in marginalized areas and limited availability of healthcare providers in these communities can disrupt access to healthcare. There are also many instances of implicit bias for individuals from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds, which can result in underdiagnosis, misdiagnosis, or delayed treatment. A lack of diversity within the medical workforce can also prevent effective communication and cultural sensitivity, which can lead to a loss of trust between patients and medical professionals.
Addressing Medical Maltreatment
There is never an onus on a marginalized individual within a broken system, especially when dealing with a sizable power imbalance, to rectify these systemic problems. I feel it is important to also provide information to empower the reader with additional information for how you can contact to file a complaint regarding maltreatment should that option feel right for you:
- Filing a complaint at the specific hospital through their Patient Relations and/ or a Complaints department.
- You may also make a complaint to the Patient Ombudsman for your city or province.
- You can also file a complaint with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO).
A complainant is instructed to first contact the patient relations department for the hospital where you had the negative experience. As part of this article, I contacted the patient relations department at the hospital that I had stayed at last summer. The attendant who noted down my account over the phone was nice and helpful. She told me that she would submit her report of our interaction and that either herself or her manager would notify me of whether or not there would be any means of resolving these issues–unfortunately, it has been several months and I have not received a reply. I am waiting to hear back about the status of my complaints.
Reflections of my Experience
Now, you are probably thinking that I must be fine by now or I would not be writing this, and you would be correct for the most part. A big part of the reason that I am mostly alright is due to the unwavering support of my beloved friends and family who did everything in their power to help, love and support me during my darkest days. So why then did I add a qualifier before the word fine to describe my current state? Because after taking a nap one time early into my hospital stay, I woke up my vision was all blurry. I started to worry when after a few minutes the problem with my eyes was not going away. I saw two different ophthalmologists within my first day and no one could figure out what was causing me to have these vision issues after a lifetime with perfect vision. At that time, I could only see out of my eyes by about 40%, so doing almost anything for myself was extremely difficult.
During the rest of my stay there were a few other concerning interactions with the medical staff at this hospital, but I do not have room to go into detail about them here. Fortunately, my vision got better and let’s just say that I will always be on the lookout for injustice, not just in the medical system, but wherever I go in life.
To Be Continued in Part 4
Edited by Majeed Malhas and Light Naing.