Midwives of the Revolution

Explorations, analysis, and reflections on women's health, midwifery, and politics from a feminist, marxist lens


Leave a comment

Healing to the test?

In this day of Common Core and mandatory ACTs for high school graduation, it should not be surprising that patients are obsessed about getting all the lab tests they can to make sure “everything is alright.” Luckily, unlike my teacher friends being measured by their students’ test results, my patients’ performance on tests or other health measures does not directly impact my pay or job standing. But this preoccupation with testing does impact  how I work.

What tests matter?

Don’t get me wrong. The miracles of modern medicine include such wonderful innovations as cultures and blood tests for herpes, liquid based pap and HPV tests, vaginitis cultures, gonorrhea and chlamydia DNA tests, and sophisticated tests for syphilis and HIV. You don’t have to just rely on the patient’s history and the exam findings to make a diagnosis when such tests are available. I am ever so grateful to have these tests, as I like to compare my clinical diagnosis to the test findings to learn more about what I’m seeing, especially as a new provider. And duh, there are many infections and diseases you can’t diagnose from an exam alone, like HIV.

Someone that has high risk sexual practices, like multiple sex partners or a non-monogamous partner, or who doesn’t practice safer sex with new partners needs to be screened. Luckily, our scientist friends over at CDC have figured out based on evidence that such folks should be screened for common STIs even if they don’t have symptoms, based on such risk factors. In a healthy clinic environment, we can educate patients about what health practices put them at risk and for which screening is indicated. We can point to evidence based guidelines to shape our practices, and we can counsel patients about what we recommend they get screened for. We can also educate patients on reducing risk and promote prevention.

It’s also usually indicated to offer HIV testing to all patients at least annually and three months following a positive test for other sexually transmitted infections like gonorrhea, chlamydia, trichomoniasis, or herpes.

Why isn’t it all about the test though?

I know why we’re all obsessed about getting tested for everything. It’s widely promoted as the be all and end all of healthcare. And it probably has a lot to do with the fact that lab testing companies make money every time providers order tests. They have put a lot of work into convincing the healthcare world that tests are better than anything for most diagnoses. This contributes to the the move away from physical examination as an essential skill in health provision. How many times have you been to see a physician for care and they have not laid hands on you at all? Not listened to your heart, lungs, and bowel sounds, not measured your abdominal girth, not palpated your tummy, not inspected your legs or feet? I hear frequently from friends that their doctors don’t even touch them.

We have been trained to think that the test says everything. And when it comes to women’s health, our bodies are so often the site of something wrong, something that could be wrong, and we want that test that says “everything is alright.” But we are not test subjects, we are human bodies. I hate that my patients think they need to hold themselves up to be examined like that: alright or not alright based on a test. Even if a physical exam appears to be normal or not normal, there are also other elements of the clinic visit to be taken into consideration — the patient’s history or symptomatology, for instance. Technology cannot replace the wise hands or critical thinking skills of an experienced practitioner.

Then what is it all about?

Heart disease is the number one killer of women in the United States. It drives me crazy that I have many patients who are not at risk for gonorrhea and chlamydia, who don’t even get bacterial vaginosis, but demand to be tested for these infections as though the results to those tests will be the major determinant of whether or not “everything is alright” for them. The far bigger impact on their health is not something that may or may not be wrong specifically with their vaginas but that they have sedentary lives, eat no fruits and vegetables, and eat a ton of fast food and junk food. Somewhere down the line, when they begin to develop diabetes or high blood pressure, there will be tests they can demand, and those tests may reveal whether or not everything is alright. Maybe everything is “alright” until the tests say otherwise. Maybe these test-hungry patients are trying to buy time until there will be a simple solution like a blood pressure pill or diabetes medicine to take, something far less complicated than trying to change a lifestyle when there’s nothing “wrong” except for…well, their whole lifestyle. And who can blame them? Pretty much nothing about how this society is organized facilitates healthy lifestyles for any but the few, and that’s why we are mostly an unhealthy society. If it were easy to be healthy, most of us would be.

What is it all about? Making the clinic a welcoming environment in which the normal and healthy are celebrated and explained, and the provider and patient can be partners in moving toward healthier habits and reducing risks. Demystifying the office visit and the technology we sometimes use to aid our assessments. Patiently explaining. And hopefully winning patients’ trust to lean on the exam and not just the tests.

Advertisements


1 Comment

“There are so many places in the world with no healthcare–how could our patients have all this access but not show up?”

This is a common refrain from my collaborating physician, a woman who has worked in this community for decades and whose spirit betrays her lack of ability to maintain empathy. I’m not sure what she had to begin with, but now it is worn pretty bare.

It was hard to imagine those first few weeks. It can’t be that bad, I thought. Most people probably have some level of interest in taking care of our health, have some buy-in. Especially pregnant patients, right?

***

Every week, there are patients who show up toward the end of pregnancy, realizing it’s time to have the baby, having not been in prenatal care for months, maybe at all. They know they need to get the baby out. But they didn’t come in for their second trimester anemia follow-up, the anatomy scan ultrasound, the diabetes screen. They didn’t necessarily take their prenatal vitamins and likely haven’t been eating healthy. Maybe they were smoking weed or drinking or having high risk sex. They don’t know if the baby is going appropriately or if the baby is “okay,” but they come in…they come in.

Everyone I work with, even those who have been working in this community for years, still seems surprised that our patients don’t reverence prenatal care the way they did, or the way they think everyone should. “I went for every one of my prenatal appointments, I took my vitamins, I showed up, why can’t these people?”

“These people.”

And it’s true. In the narrowest sense, all pregnant patients in my state can get prenatal  care. For undocumented mamas, it can be more difficult. No public health clinic is going to turn you away, that I know of. And for our patients, getting insured, getting Medicaid, is possible. Not saying the state doesn’t make you jump through hoops that may at times be humiliating and exhausting, but in theory pregnant women at least can get insured. But at least there is some assurance that the state will cover the cost of your care. It’s free!

And then there is coming in.

There is, of course, a wide variety of reasons patients don’t come in until midway through the second, or even until late in the third, trimester to establish care or to pick up where they left off after the initial dating ultrasound. I can’t pretend to understand all that goes on outside the clinic, in my patients’ lives, but I can say that moralizing about patients not showing up doesn’t actually help get them in the door or make them feel welcomed when they do show up.

No, this isn’t a rural community in subsaharan Africa, where there isn’t modern medicine. Oh, here, we have it all! We are in the heart of a wealthy American city!

***

…A wealthy city in which fifty public elementary schools were just closed, almost all in black and brown neighborhoods; in which the majority of my patients only ever see white faces in their health clinics, maybe their kids’ schools, and in blue uniforms; in which there are few grocery stores and terrible transportation systems in the neighborhoods that are majority people of color; where in some areas youth are tracked into the criminal injustice system and in others, they are offered the world.

When the City doesn’t really give a shit about you, doesn’t value your basic human needs, let alone your higher aspirations…why would you necessarily adhere to the proscribed regimen of care for the baby you are carrying?

And even in these terrible circumstances, most of our patients are active participants in their care — they show up, get excited each time they hear the baby’s heartbeat, they worry when anything isn’t normal, they ask great questions about their bodies and the life growing inside of them.

But just as you can’t compare yourself, who did everything “right” when you were pregnant, to the few patients that don’t show up for care, you also cannot compare these “delinquent” patients to those mamas in the (other) third world who would be so grateful to have access to the kind of care that our patients take for granted.

And what if your managed care Medicaid company has you tied to your primary care provider at a clinic where every time you meet with the doctor, you feel like she doesn’t have time for you, doesn’t explain where your cervix is, doesn’t follow up on your look of bewilderment with a simple question about how she can help you understand?

I might not keep showing up either.

***

It is frustrating and scary as hell to be a prenatal care provider in those situations. When you accept a pregnant patient into your care so late, you just don’t know what you’re going to get. Intrauterine growth restriction? Fetal alcohol syndrome? Uncontrolled gestational diabetes? Preterm labor? You feel like you’re scrambling to catch up, to find out what is going on physiologically, with the pregnancy, and what motivates the woman carrying the pregnancy. You worry she might expect everything to go perfectly, while it appears she hasn’t done her part to reduce risk, since you haven’t seen her for so much of her pregnancy. You might become the type of provider you swore you’d never become. You might not even recognize yourself after years of seeing the same social problems reflected in the faces of your beautiful young patients.

Until we fight for and win from the system quality affordable housing, excellent free public education, decriminalization of our youth and of blackness, safe and affordable food and water, expansive mass transit, and a single payer health care system, the circumstances under which we utilize any and all of these basic human needs will be less than ideal. And so will our provision of such care and services.

I look forward to working in healthcare in which women’s and children’s lives will be truly valued, and in which we will collectively trust, not scrutinize–but also, enhance–women’s decisions and lives.

For now, I am grateful for having a worldview that helps me find empathy alongside righteous rage against the system. I’m grateful for education that gave me the tools to provide evidence based care, so I can continue working to do my best for patients as they show up in my clinic, whenever they’re at in the lifecycle. I’m grateful for lunchtime office yoga or forest preserve walks that preserve my sanity. And I’m grateful for intersectional (anti-racist, anti-sexist, environmental justice approach) social and economic movements in the city, country, and world, that can make things better inside and outside the clinic walls. Because good lord, things need to get better, soon.


Leave a comment

Sad Vaginas

Vaginal infection is a major reason that women visit the gynecology office (Brown, Hess, Brown, Murphy, Waldman, & Hezareh 2013; Overman 1993). I knew that going into midwifery. But my god, I never thought I would see so many sad vaginas every clinic day. My patients have a lot of vaginal infections. I spend a lot of time with patients talking about why for optimum vaginal health, less is more. Many have heard before that they “shouldn’t” douche, from other healthcare providers — but even among those patients for whom this is not a new idea, they continue intravaginal practices and don’t necessarily know why they shouldn’t.

This raises two issues for me as a nurse midwife and a feminist — the social roots of intravaginal hygiene practices (IVHP) and how providers educate –or don’t- — their patients about their own health.

Why do women douche? 

Many women tell me they feel they need to get clean after menses. They don’t like the residual menses they feel might be hanging around when the bleeding stops, and in particular they worry about the smell. They also think it will help them prevent infections. Commonly, my patients douche because their mothers, sisters, and grandmothers had and taught them these practices. But as one patient asked me this week, “why would they sell all that stuff if it’s so bad for you?” Good question.

And since Summers Eve re-vamped and expanded their product line beyond simple douche products to an impressive array of “yoni” personal products, these commodities are hipper and more attractive to consumers than they have been in a long time. Image

In a small (141 participants) prospective cohort study of sexually active women 18-65 years old in Los Angeles, researchers found that 66% reported IVHP, 49% of whom admitted using an intravaginal product (other than tampons) and 45% of whom reported intravaginal washing (Brown et. al 2013). This washing could include vinegar, water, soap and water, or commercially available products (Brown et. al 2013). One 2004 pharmacy journal reports that the reasons for these IVHP vary according to geography, racial background, age group, and rates of sexual activity (Pray & Pray 2004). According to Pray and Pray, African American women inherit IVHP from their mothers, while white women learn these habits more from advertising.

There is nothing wrong with your vagina

Wherever women get the specific idea that they need to use special products and habits to keep the vagina clean, smelling like roses (or lilies or citrus or island splash!), no one who lives in a wretchedly sexist society should be surprised that any woman would get the general idea that there is something wrong with how her normal healthy vagina smells, tastes, etc. But if women in modern capitalism can’t be trusted to decide if, when, and under what circumstances she gets pregnant, labors/births babies, and parents — wherein, for instance abortion is expensive, unavailable, often provided under non-compassionate conditions, and women are shamed for considering or choosing abortion (and even using birth control, these days!) — why could they be trusted to take care of their own vagina they way nature made it?

As a matter of fact, the vagina has its own beautiful environment that does all the work you think a douche might do for you — keeping your vagina clean — all on its own, when you are healthy. The vagina likes to be nice and acidic, which is made possible by a wide variety of anaerobic and aerobic gena and species (Overman 1993). Acid-producing bacteria like Lactobacillus keep in check the more basic bacteria that cause the common infection bacterial vaginosis (Overman 1993).

When you douche, you are likely to wipe or wash away the “good” bacteria, leaving lots of room for the “bad” bacteria to take over, causing you bacterial vaginosis (BV). Studies have not shown a direct correlation between douching and BV — for instance, infrequent douching may not directly cause BV (Brown et. al 2013). Overall, however, douching may increase a woman’s risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection, or HIV if she is exposed to those pathogens, developing pelvic inflammatory disease, or be associated with preterm labor and birth when performed during the second and third trimester of pregnancy (Brown et. al 2013; Pray & Pray 2004).

Then there are all the products designed to make the vagina smell like something it’s not. All the deodorants, sprays, wipes, external washes, creams, and powders designed for vulvar application may place you at risk for yeast infections or irritation, but even if they don’t, their very existence and success on the market contributes to the cultural perception that there is something wrong with your vagina in its natural state. And it makes individual women feel bad about their bodies in a very particular way. As this wonderful columnist for Essence wrote: “There is nothing wrong with the totally natural, completely unaltered smell of your va-jay-jay in its normal state. (Our “down under” isn’t supposed to smell like summer linen, fruits, or fresh mint)” (Lucas, D. L. 2011).

Well, society doesn’t really value anything “natural” about women except for our bodies’ ability to 1. sexually excite men and 2. bear and mother children. So, we are meant to buy cosmetics, sexy clothes, enjoy pole dancing for exercise, be ok with making less money than our male counterparts, do more housework, assume primary responsibility for childcare, etc.

So if we do everything else to bend to society’s desires for who we are as women, why shouldn’t our vaginas be part of that package? As the “EVEangelist” over at Summer’s Eve reminds us, ”It’s time for a shower inventory. If you’ve got a cleanser for everything but your vaginal area, it’s time to make room for our pH-balanced Cleansing Wash.” Products for everything! You are not good enough as you are!

(As an aside, a simple, non-scented soap to cleanse the vulva should do the trick! Avoid body washes and avoid washing in the vagina itself.)

Don’t get me started about the pseudoscience and fake pro-vagina crap over at that website…Barf.

…Until there is

Not all vaginas are going to be happy all the time. And vaginal health isn’t just about products you do or don’t put in them or any sexual pleasure/stimulation a vagina might be party to. Vaginas are part of the female body, which may have lots of experiences that can enhance or hurt vaginal healthy: like diet, exercise, sexual consent, history of abuse or assault, body size, and emotional stress.

But none of those things can be rapidly fixed with an over-the-counter product that makes claims that it will fix up your vagina, unless it is medicine designed to treat a real infection, like intravaginal treatment for yeast infections. And I am all for trying things yourself, DIY, and taking care of yourself using health knowledge grounded in non-commercially biased information like that which is found in, say, Our Bodies, Ourselves and Guide to Getting It On. But douching and using these so-called yoni products that are making some CEOs rich over at Hate Your Vagina, Inc. isn’t gonna help.

Where the provider comes in

I’m glad when patients come into the clinic for evaluation of vaginal discharge because it allows for patient education. I like talking to patients about the difference between healthy and abnormal vaginal discharge, and what a healthy vagina might look/smell like, versus what could put it at risk for infection.

And that’s why I’m glad I’m a midwife (do I say that in every post?). Midwifery is about meeting women where they’re at, and working with them to achieve desired health outcome. Women really are the best expert in their own body/experience, and I am just there to facilitate her reaching her optimum health. When women tell me anything about their health habits that I may think is unhealthy or possibly harmful, my first question is “tell me more about that.” If you want to help a patient/client change a health habit, you need to know what motivates her to either continue or change. This is what we do for smoking cessation, nutrition or exercise promotion, and especially for sexual health risk reduction.

This gets back to my initial observation that many patients know they “shouldn’t” douche (or do lots of other health behaviors deemed unsafe/unhealthy, but I digress), but most don’t know why. When I explain to a woman how wonderful her vagina is and how douching disturbs that beautiful environment, she is more likely to understand her own anatomy and how to promote her own health. My hope is that instilling pro-vagina sentiment can also clear the way for greater acceptance of vaginal delivery of medication and contraception and to an increased motivation to use condoms/protect the goods from more dangerous infections and disease. We shall see.

Really sad vaginas

 

A much riskier health habit than douching, though douching may compound the risk, is practicing unprotected sex with someone whose infection status you don’t know, or having multiple sexual partners, having a partner who has multiple partners, anonymous sex or sex when high or drunk. (You can look forward to my forthcoming Condoms, Part II post for more on that.)

Actually sad vaginas have infections like trichomonas, chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, warts, and syphilis. Many of these have no symptoms or barely noticeable symptoms, but none of those can be treated with douching, and all of them require diagnosis and treatment in clinic. And someone who gets one of those infections is at higher risk for sexual transmission of HIV and hepatitis.

I guess a part of me understands that when my patients who are at risk for STIs douche, they may be trying to cleanse themselves of STI risk. (Fortunately, the old myth that douching can prevent pregnancy is much less prevalent these days.) And even here, I can find a good instinct. Douching may not get the desired results (a healthier, happier vagina), but it is a health habit, and I think providers need to recognize that patients do want to be healthy.

Toward a world with happier vaginas

I don’t blame individual women for buying into the crap that the vaginal hygiene industry sells them, any more than I blame women for using makeup, enjoying fashion, partaking in gossip and petty shit among women, or being in abusive relationships, for instance. These are all symptoms of a sexist society, and individual women who make these “choices” are operating in a false set of choices we are allowed to make in capitalism. Sexual liberation (or for the sake of this post, happier vaginas belonging to happier female bodied people) is about a lot more than lack of vaginal infection/STIs, but I do think that would be a good start.

Health care providers–not just midwives–can play a role in that by promoting and practicing in line with Dr. George Tiller’s call to trust women. We need to stop blaming women when they make “poor” choices about their health in a society full of so much sexism, racism, and class inequality. And we can take part in every social movement that confronts sexism, misogyny, and inequality, because health isn’t just about what happens in the exam room — it is determined by the world we live in, and we have to fight for a world that values women and allows for people to make the best possible real choices about our lives and our health.

References:

Brown, J. M., Hess, K. L., Brown, S., Murphy, C., Waldman, A. L. & Hezareh, M. (April 2013). Intravaginal practices & risk of bacterial vaginosis & candidiasis infection among of cohort of women in the United States. Obstetrics & Gynecology 121(4), 773-780. doi: 10.1097/AOG.0b013e31828786f8

Lucas, D. L. (July 21, 2011). Real talk: feminine care 101. Essence. Retrieved 04/14/2014 http://www.essence.com/2011/07/20/real-talk-feminine-care-101/

Overman, B. A. (May-June 1993). The vaginal as an ecologic system. Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health 38(3), 146-151. doi : 10.1016/0091-2182(93)90038-I

Pray, W. S., & Pray, J. J. (2004). Douching: perceived benefits but real hazards. US Pharmacist 29(1). http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/490338