It took doctors more than five years to diagnose writer and artist Aubrey Hirsch's Grave's disease. Five years of symptoms such as unexplained weight loss, extreme fatigue, nausea, bruises and white spots covering her skin, irregular periods, and a heart problem that left her in the hospital for four days.
Doctors told her that she was just stressed or going through normal growing pains. Later, they thought she must have an eating disorder or anxiety. But only one of them dug deep enough to realize that she had a serious autoimmune disorder and was incredibly sick.
After recognizing that all of these doctors had misdiagnosed her or written her off as a complainer likely just because she is a woman, Hirsch is using her art to speak out in comic form.
"When it was happening, I didn’t know the end of the story," Hirsch tells Refinery29. "So I really did start to think of myself as a problem, a complainer, or a hypochondriac."
She went on feeling that way until she finally met a doctor who took her seriously. That doctor told her that he was shocked she wasn't sicker. But the thing is, she was — she had just stopped talking about it, since no one believed her anyway.
At first, she was just relieved to have a diagnosis, but then she got angry. "It wasn’t just me," she says. "I didn’t do a bad job of talking to my doctors. It's a problem with medicine."
She's right. Hirsch isn't the first person to tell a story like this. A 2015 Atlantic story by Joe Fassler details the night his wife waited in agony for 14 hours because the emergency room staff didn't believe that her pain was as bad as she claimed.
This kind of unconscious bias that tells doctors (even women doctors) that women's pain can't possibly be as bad as they say is such a widespread problem, in fact, that when Hirsch tweeted a link to her comic it became something of a thread for women to share their own terrible experiences at the doctor's office.
"You’re in that room and in your underwear and there’s a weird power dynamic," Hirsch says. "We're conditioned to trust whatever the doctor says to you." Looking back now, though, all she can think is "how did all of those doctors let me live in this pain for so long?"
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