Listen to Women

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“Listen to women.” This message was emblazoned on the pin worn by a resident I met on my first day of obstetrics and gynecology clerkship as a medical student. Now as an obstetrics and gynecology resident myself, the message still resonates with me. “Listen to women.” A simple command, this motto represents the heart of our specialty of obstetrics and gynecology. Being an advocate for our patients means listening to them, in the truest sense of the word: hearing their voices and understanding their experiences to the best of our abilities. To advocate for our patients, we must make their stories known—but how can we tell their stories without really listening?
From the first day of medical school, students are taught that listening is a critical component of caring for our patients: asking the right questions and listening to the answers to diagnose and treat their ailments. Even more, we must listen to a patient’s whole story and learn the role that her health plays in her life. I recall a young pregnant woman who showed up to obstetrics triage with a variety of vague complaints, her story shifting and her eyes untrusting. With no explanation for her symptoms, we eventually sent her home. Hours later she represented with more odd ailments, and only then did I truly take the time to listen. My patient revealed that she in fact was not sick at all but rather homeless, with no place else to go on that cold Fall night. With a bit of arm-twisting, our staff allowed her to sleep in the waiting room for the night, with a blanket over her shoulders and a social work appointment for the morning. During the night that she was under our care, we were able to give her a warm meal, a safe place to sleep, and, perhaps most important, someone to really listen to her.
Another afternoon in a busy gynecologic oncology clinic, my last patient of the day was a young woman in her 40s with cervical cancer. A long-time, beloved patient of my attending, she had gone through extensive surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation 10 years prior, when her only daughter was in grade school. Now, with her 20-year-old daughter by her side, this woman sat in the clinic as my attending and I faced the difficult task of breaking bad news: her cancer was back. As mother and daughter held each other close with tears streaming down their faces, we explained the diagnosis. We spoke, and we listened. We had dozens of unfinished notes to write, pages to return, and other duties on that busy day, yet we sat with our patient and her daughter for over an hour. Through our conversation, we helped mother and daughter plan the best path forward for their lives and for their family. My attending showed me how to be an advocate for women that day. Our conversation was neither easy nor pleasant, but the extra time and effort to listen helped make a meaningful difference for our patient and her family.
Being an advocate for women extends beyond the four walls of our clinic or hospital. We must educate ourselves about the various issues affecting women in our communities and our world—laws that threaten reproductive health rights, cultures of sexism, and inequalities that keep women across the globe in poverty—and fight against these problems. We must vote for policies and policymakers who share our goal of supporting women and volunteer our time and resources with organizations that work to improve women's lives.
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