Heart and Soul

Heart & Soul Series: Susan Spencer on what Gender Equity Means to Her

A few years ago, my husband was having a terrible day at work and developed chest pain. He called his cardiologist, who—though the doctor strongly suspected that stress was the cause—immediately sent him to the hospital for a CT scan. The test showed that he was not having a heart attack, but found a partial blockage unrelated to the chest pain—an unforeseen but lucky discovery, as the doctor was able to catch the problem early.

Here’s what didn’t happen to my husband: He wasn’t told by a doctor that he was just having a panic attack, which was what Kathi Hovey heard when she went to the ER with severe chest heaviness, or that he was “too young to have a heart attack” and was simply anxious, as Maria Quinn was informed. Unfortunately, women often hear these kinds of messages, not just when dealing with heart health but also with other medical concerns as well. This is gender inequity at its starkest and most dangerous.

Woman’s Day told Kathi’s and Maria’s stories in an article last year on bias against women in the ER, and over the years the magazine has made gender equity in healthcare part of its core mission. In the same story, we reported that before women even walk in the door of a doctor’s office or hospital, they’re up against standards of care that are tailored to men and some tests and protocols that have been developed from male-only research. (Fortunately, this is now changing, thanks to the efforts of advocates and organizations like the National Institute of Health’s Office of Research on Women’s Health.) Even where we live can stack the deck against us: Research from Professor Jennifer Montez at Syracuse University has shown that a woman’s longevity often depends on the state where she resides.

That’s the landscape. But to truly attain gender equity in healthcare, we need to look to ourselves as well. Women are sometimes reluctant to speak up to medical professionals. I get this—for years I would turn into a forgetful puddle in doctors’ offices. Like many women, I have a God complex around physicians, and coupled with my natural tendency to worry about pretty much everything, I’ve had many tongue-tied appointments.

I finally learned to write out a list of my symptoms or concerns and literally check them off as I spoke to my doctor, a small trick that’s helped me feel much more empowered about my medical care. I encourage other women to do the same. It’s a small but important step toward combatting the “It’s all in your head” mentality and working to achieve true gender equity where it matters most.