Female Troubles

Maybe there is such a thing as womens’ work.

I had a doctor’s appointment recently—a long overdue physical at my Pasadena-based internist’s. It’s not a great practice, and the doctor, a broad, pink man of great bulk and humorlessness, is far from a whiz at his job. But it’s clean, convenient, and suffices for my basic check-ups.

In the past, the female nurse practitioner there performed any PAP smears I’d needed. I hadn’t had one last time, though, and I knew I couldn’t put it off again.

So, when the rest of my exam was done, I told Dr. Bland as much.

He was facing away from me at the moment, putting an instrument away. I thought I saw his back, clad in a white medical jacket, twitch. For a moment he froze, then he turned and said,

“A —I’m sorry?”

“A PAP smear. You do those, right?”

He hesitated, his expression fixed. “The nurse isn’t here today. Can you come back when she is?”

I frowned. This place was sort of far. I really didn’t want to make another trip.

“I’d prefer to do it now. Is that—can you do it?”

There was a beat. He cocked his head in an odd way, as if he was trying to recall a long-lost song lyric, then said “Sure.”

He told me he’d be right back. His large body moved with surprising swiftness as he left the examination room.

I leaned over and grabbed my phone out of my purse, my paper dress susurrating against my arms. I’d barely begun to check my texts when the doctor was back, a female receptionist in tow.

“Oh, hi,” I said to her, like it was a question.

“She’s here to observe,” the doctor said gruffly as he rooted in a drawer for a speculum. “Or help. Abby, we’re going to try…a….PAP smear, here.”

I shot Abby a glance. She smiled wanly and looked down at her feet.

“Is everything OK?” I asked the room in general. Neither of them would make eye contact with me.

Abby reached over and pulled the stirrups out of the table with a clang.

“It’s fine,” she said.

Dr. Bland strode across the room and yanked a tissue from a dispenser. Folding it carefully, he used it to mop his brow, then dropped it into a sterile bin.

“Right, here we go,” he said, in a falsely jovial tone. “I said a little prayer out there, so it’s all going to be OK.”

I half sat up, which isn’t easy when your feet are in stirrups. “You what?”

He chuckled. “I had to pray. I haven’t done one of these in a while. Maybe a year or two. And I’ve got these darn new glasses. The distance…well, the cervix sits right in the blurry spot.”

The blurry spot.

“But we’ll be fine.”

He pulled on a rubber glove with a snap.

I know. That was when I should have left. But when your feet are in stirrups and two strangers are staring into your “blurry spot” it’s hard to make good choices.

I leaned back slowly and tried to relax as the doctor first lubricated and then inserted the speculum. It felt normal, which is to say, weird and extremely uncomfortable.

Abby watched quietly, shifting from foot to foot, as Dr. Bland adjusted the instrument. I would’ve killed to know what she was thinking. Or maybe not.

Moving his face down to the speculum, Dr. Bland peered in. There was a long silence. I winced slightly as it moved, shifted once more, and then opened. It’s a yucky feeling that you never quite get used to; fortunately it’s over quickly.

Usually, that is. But not this time. The seconds ticked by, and then the minutes, and the room remained completely, funereally quiet. Abby stared at her arm hairs. I stared at the ceiling. Dr. Bland stared at my groin.

Finally I couldn’t take it. I crooked my head up again. “How’s it going down there?”

He grunted. “I’m just—“ the speculum shifted again, and I gasped slightly. “Sorry, sorry. I’ve almost…got it….”

Again, the silence. Craning my neck, I could see sweat droplets forming on the doctor’s head. It was cold in the room. I lay my head back, resigned. I’d never leave this table. We were here forever, the doctor, Abby, and me. Like “No Exit,” but with cramping.

And then, all in one quick movement, Dr. Bland withdrew the speculum. He straightened his posture and looked at me sheepishly.

“I’m sorry,” he said, shaking his head. ” You’ll have to come back when the nurse is here.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Why?”

“I couldn’t find it.”

“Find what?”

“Your cervix,” he said apologetically. “It’s doing something strange.”

I scratched my head. There was an awkward pause. “That’s odd.”

“I found part of it…” he said, as if this should console me.

I nodded, waiting for more. Had the other half gone missing? Maybe eloped with one of my ovaries?

He pulled off his gloves and tossed them in the trash.“I got almost all the way there, but…no. Not close enough. You’ll have to come back.”

It was quiet again. I could tell he was embarrassed; I didn’t want to make him feel worse. Plus, we women are at such a disadvantage in these situations. Privates front and center. We can’t exactly get sassy.

I pulled my feet out of the stirrups and swung my legs off the table.

“I’ll make an appointment with the nurse,” I said evenly, smoothing the paper across my knees.

“Good idea. Sorry again,” Dr. Bland said, as he shot me a grimace and lumbered out of the room.

I turned to look at Abby, hoping, perhaps, for a moment of solidarity. No such luck. The receptionist busied herself tidying, then muttered “I’ll get your bill ready” and hurried out of the room.

As I got dressed, I wondered what on earth I had been thinking. I should have fled at the first moment of weirdness. From now on I’d only go to women for this woman’s job.

And a week or two later I made an appointment at a birthing center, where a young, knowledgeable midwife not only found my cervix, but showed it to me in a mirror. Perhaps, having heard my story, she wanted to prove it was there. I felt like taking a picture of it for Dr. Bland.  I could post it on Yelp. Next to his no-star review.

Going forward I’m voting with my dollars. I’m switching to a doctor who knows female anatomy. So birthing center? I’ll be back. Dr. Bland? Only in my nightmares.

By the way, the first thing that midwife said to me when I lay down on the examination table in her pretty pastel office?

“We don’t do stirrups here—I hope that’s OK.”

I knew right then I was home.

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