There’s a carrot commercial on TV that’s impossible to miss. It educates viewers about a penile condition known as Peyronie’s Disease and a drug that might help them.

This isn’t the first commercial addressing men’s sexual health, but I’ve never seen any for women. When I think about how we raise boys and young men, the conversations about men’s bodies are quite different than women’s.

It is clear we must discuss women’s sexual and reproductive health more frequently and openly.

Three weeks ago, I had a hysterectomy, and my experience has been eye-opening. Facing a six- to eight-week recovery, I joined some online support groups for women who have had (or will have) hysterectomies. I joined two, both of which have over 35,000 members. All questions are welcome.

Outside the group, it’s another story.

From the time we are little, to puberty, through our reproductive, perimenopausal, and menopausal years, it’s taboo to discuss women’s bodies. Sure, we cover the essentials. For example, many women really don’t know much about perimenopause until they experience symptoms so severe, they either seek help from a doctor or compare notes with friends. Pain is something we are taught to expect and endure. When our sexual health is discussed, it’s done behind closed doors, among best friends.

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When women do seek medical help, it can be challenging. Since women are taught to be shy about their bodies, and that pain is just part of being a woman, it’s common to ignore symptoms or put off a trip to the doctor. Once in the office, women report feeling embarrassed talking about their bodies. And it doesn’t help that women have to fight to be taken seriously.

We know there is inequity in the medical treatment of women and men. A study published in 1990 showed when women have the same surgeries as men, they were half as likely to receive pain medications. Why? Because “health care professionals hold stereotypic [sic] views of women as emotionally labile and more apt to exaggerate complaints of pain than men.” Ten years later, a different study showed women who were having a heart attack were seven times more likely to be misdiagnosed than men, in part because women’s symptoms manifest differently. Today, a heart attack is still misdiagnosed more often in women than men.

In my case, I delayed going to my doctor. It was a combination of the pandemic and waiting for the pain to get so bad before I would admit something was wrong. Unfortunately, my delay likely made my situation and my surgery more complicated.

The folks at Eastern Maine Medical Center were tremendous, as was my doctor. But my uterus did not play nice. My robotic-assisted laparoscopic hysterectomy became an abdominal surgery and I lost too much blood. I also lost an ovary. Still, I was kept only one night. Three days later, I found myself in the emergency department.

My surgeon had done nothing wrong, but complications happen. However, based on what I’ve learned from my support groups, they are surprisingly common. And I’m certain that many could be avoided if women weren’t ushered so quickly out of hospitals.

Moreover, women in my groups report difficulty reaching their providers in a timely manner. Their problems range from excruciating pain, to tears in vaginal cuffs, to internal bleeding. These are women who may not be cleared to drive and or have anyone at home to help them. Within minutes they have answers to their questions from fellow patients. For serious medical questions, the response is often “Call your doctor,” or “Please go to the ER as soon as you can.” Others just want to know if vaginal estrogen is as good as they’ve heard. And women need answers to questions that weren’t addressed on our release papers — because apparently, doctors think sex is limited to intercourse.

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For my recovery, I was told not to bend, squat, or lift more than five pounds for six weeks. I’ve never known such exhaustion in my life. I could sleep all six weeks. And I am privileged to have a family who can take care of me.

But I know most women are not as lucky as I am. I’ve seen photos of how they’ve moved their recliners closer to the bathroom or stashes of shelf-stable food because they must brave recovery alone.

This doesn’t even begin to address the devastating emotional consequences of a hysterectomy. I felt relatively prepared. Yet, I’ll admit it’s still been hard to come to terms with losing a piece of my body that shaped so much of my existence. I have no doubt I’ll be fine. Nevertheless, we often send women home the very same day of this life-altering surgery, without providing them any mental-health support, which should be automatic.

So should pelvic floor therapy. Wait! Don’t tell me. You’ve never heard of it? You’re not the only one. Let’s talk about it!

Hilary Koch lives in Waterville. She can be reached at: [email protected]


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