Not Urgent Enough: What Happens When Your Pain is not Listened to

Magda Baranowska gives us her harrowing account about the time when she had to receive urgent invasive surgery, for the cyst on her left ovary. She recalls how the intensity of the pain she felt was dismissed by several healthcare professionals, since it was a “normal” side effect of her contraceptive implant. Magda’s story is a potent reminder that we should never treat someone else’s pain so lightly.

I woke up on the morning of October 8th in pain, unable to find a comfortable position, but knowing that I could (or rather, had to) push through the rest of the day. I checked to see if my roommate was sleeping, went to my closet and grabbed the medical documents that I didn’t want to think about until then. I sat outside my door since there wasn’t much privacy in a dorm and dialled the number to my doctor’s office. I was determined that morning to schedule my surgery for the end of October. Determined to finally get a response. Determined to make somebody “pencil me in” for an appointment.

I laughed to myself as I remembered this determination - a determination I’d felt 6 months ago when I called the Scottish NHS and asked them to remove my Nexplanon© contraceptive implant. I’d been in pain for 3 months. I was told that this was to be expected, and my body needed time to adjust to it. Sitting here now on that morning - unable to walk up and down stairs and take very hot showers - I can tell you that I did not get pencilled in for surgery at the end of October.

Instead, I was pencilled in urgently for the following morning (October 9th). On that day I ended up in the ER for the second time within a two-week span (I was previously hospitalized and diagnosed on September 29th). Only this time, my pain was worse: my body reacted more intensely, and I couldn’t for the life of me answer any of the questions I was being asked. I tried my best to tell the doctors and the nurses through my teeth, that my pain was at a ‘9’, that I couldn’t focus on anything, that I needed an emesis (sickness) bag.

The day passed in a haze: IVs, pain medication, hospital gowns, questions such as ‘what level is your pain at?’, bags with fluid, pills, ultrasounds, hearing ‘that’s much bigger than we originally thought’, ambulances, and doctors.

I already knew what was wrong with me – I had a cyst on my left ovary. I knew (and had been told before) that it wasn’t urgent… but then why was my body in so much pain? I also knew it couldn’t rupture – queue to hearing this that morning, ‘Honey, it’s leaked into your pelvic region since the last time you were here’. And I definitely knew that I could schedule the surgery whenever I wanted – ‘Just call my office and we’ll schedule it when is most convenient to you’. I’d been told all of these things by the doctors.

So, I couldn’t possibly be here. And yet, here I was. I was woken up at 1:15am on October 9th and was asked to put on a new gown, and to put on a hair net. I woke up disoriented, no longer on pain medication, and scared - hoping my mum would get to this hospital in the middle of Virginia, in time to see me off.

Outside of the doors of the operating room, an anaesthesiologist rapid-fired through a list of questions which I couldn’t mentally process through the shock of the pain surging in my body. Following on from this, he asked one last question: ‘What would you rate your pain?’ When I answered ‘10’ quietly while laying meekly in my hospital bed, and asked shortly after with ‘Can I please have an emesis bag?’; he raised his eyebrow incredulously and replied: ‘Are you sure?’

As a general disclaimer: I am in no way saying that I know more than a doctor. I am also admitting to the very possibility that the way I feel now is “hindsight bias”: this feeling of I knew it, I told you so. I am not sure of many things after the events of the last few months. But, one thing that I am exceptionally sure of, is that my pain was continuously dismissed by healthcare professionals.

I was told that painful menstruation of 3 months was “normal.” I was advised by doctors to “wait out” an enormous and extremely painful ovarian cyst. I was asked if my pain “actually” was on such a high level, because I am silent when I feel physical suffering. I was made to feel that I did not know what my body was feeling.

After experiencing all of this, my mind is filled with an entire cloud of “What If’s?”: What if I’d been more demanding? What if I’d been more aggressive? What if I’d actually been taken in for a series of tests back in May? What if I had caught it earlier?

 Would it have prevented urgently invasive surgery that day? Would I not have the large scar I do? Would I feel better? Would I feel more complete? I have no guarantee that things would have turned out differently, if I had been more assertive. Despite that lack of guarantee, I realized that I know myself better than anybody else can.

 I trust my intuition. I trust what I feel. I trust that I can make the right decision when it comes to me. I am never letting my feelings, my pain or my intuition be discounted. Even if this makes me disagreeable, angry, or even aggressive; I know now that it is better to speak out, than suffer silently. I know now that it is okay to be assertive. It is okay to metaphorically grab someone by the shoulders, look them in the eyes, and tell them ‘Listen to me, hear my pain.’

 Even if they are a seasoned medical professional. Even if they tell you with authority that you are wrong.

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