Treating the Body

I never wanted to be a doctor. For a few years after my puppy died I wanted to be a vet, so I could save the puppies, but then I learned how much school I would have to do and how much better I would have to get at math, and decided I would join the SPCA as a junior member instead. The idea of being a doctor was terrifying: responsible for preserving the lives of other humans! Having to put your hands on other peoples’ bodies! Having to touch bodily fluids! I couldn’t even crack an egg to make chocolate chip cookies until I was 19, I sure as hell didn’t want to think about somebody else’s blood.

I imagine that people become doctors and nurses for mainly altruistic reasons. I’m sure, among those people, there are some who are made squeamish by body parts and fluids. I assume that those people make an extra effort to separate the body from the human when doing an exam or cleaning up a mess. When my body is giving birth, for example, the doctor does not concern himself with me as a person, other than how it might affect my ability to give birth. He doesn’t need to think about me brushing my teeth, or what I might think of his hair, or that I just peed on his hand. He needs to think about my cervix and whether or not it is dilated enough to let a baby out. My cervix doesn’t need a name, its name is cervix and it is a body part, not a person part.

I theorize that this is why there are so few doctors who are excellent at looking after both the Human Body and the Human Being. If my imagining is correct, then doctors do separate one from the other and while looking “under the hood” are rarely concerned with what is in the trunk. This might make them seem cold, especially if there is something in the trunk we want to share with them, but really, in a lot of ways, it’s a reasonable thing to expect from an average to adequate physician. Not a denial of person attached to body but the necessary separation of them for the purposes of treatment.

There are those Magnificent Doctors who do both. Like people who excel at any profession, they are gifted and rare.

There are those who appear equipped to do neither.

I read an article today in Canadian Family Physician Magazine, written by a 3rd year medical student. He feels uncomfortable learning how to give a pelvic exam. He wrote an article about how uncomfortable he is. He kicks off with:

“I know women hate Pap smears. I wouldn’t enjoy a complete stranger shoving foreign objects into my body either. But here’s a little known fact: men, especially young men, hate performing them.”

(Well hey! Then we’re on equal footing aren’t we! Oh except I’m flat on my back and half naked. But sure, we hate having things “shoved” into us and you hate “performing!” A revelation!)

I don’t know why he thinks this is a little known fact. After all, we women understand that we are dirty. We are taught to cross our legs in public so that no one gets a glimpse of our underpants. We are embarrassed that we bleed every month. We put stickers on our nipples so they won’t show through our clothing. We douche, we pluck, we wax, we fret. Yes, 3rd year medical student, we have probably considered your feelings about our genitals as you approach them, speculum in quivering hand. We are probably assuming you hate touching our genitals because Nice People Don’t Touch Each Other’s Genitals Unless They Are In Looooove. Mostly, it is a bit alarming to hear you say it out loud because it shows us you’re thinking of us as women, not as body parts that need examining. You broke the fourth wall, dude. Put it back up!

I know he thinks he is joking. I know it is meant to be read by other medical students, not by students. And I can see that the questionable humour is anxiety-driven. He doesn’t know what he’s doing and he’s embarrassed. OK. But there is something about his unfortunate language choices (“hapless female,” “perils of the vagina,” “show time,” “week-old tampons are not what get me up in the morning”) that make me think he hasn’t grasped the concept of practicing medicine. Or the concept of being a respectful human being.

More importantly, most of the reasons he cites for fearing the perilous vagina of a strange patient are applicable to female physicians as well. Just because I, as a female doctor, have had a yeast infection does not mean I want to stick my nose in someone else’s. Just because I, as a female doctor, have a cervix, does not mean it would be any easier to find someone else’s cervix in her own body. He makes it about being a man, not about being a medical student. Which makes his patient a woman first, not a patient. Which, to me, says he’s not ready to be a doctor.

(I wonder if he knows he could just practice the pelvic exams while the women are unconscious. SO much easier. None of that stupid rapport-building to practice.)

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