-Written by Dr. Geeta Sundar

My father recently was diagnosed with an acute cholecystitis. Having studied the gall bladder in detail, I knew in seconds of examining his acute abdomen that he had gall stones and needed surgery. But my father being the old school, charred, obstinate man, refused the surgery till his symptoms worsened.

I had to take him rushing to a diagnostic center in the middle of the night when he developed vomiting and a pain he said was the “worst”. The radiologist confirmed a gall stone obstructing the neck of his gall bladder. On the way back, in the chilly night, in the auto, my father tells me, clutching his abdomen, that I had never ever felt a pain like this.

I laughed out loud like a freaking hyena!

Pain? Lol. Me? Lol. Not felt ever? Lol.

Just…lol, lol, lol, and lol.

Seriously though, my own father, knew nothing of the biggest pain in my life? Oh wait, he did know about it, but just refused to see it as something important or significant. Because he just pushed that aside as “women problems” or “natural pain”. That was all he was taught in his upbringing, and that was all he decided to label it through his years of being a husband and a father. No shit. Here was a man, educated in honors over the years and claiming to know nothing of or understand that pain of what millions of women underwent each month.

Trust me, that pain, is solid, is troublesome and can cause havoc in every system. I have had the great misfortune of enduring this pain all across the last seventeen years and no, its not natural, or simple, or small, or insignificant or something to brush aside. I have spent years, dealing with it, its after effects, its consequences, and in words that cannot explain in a nutshell the repercussions of that pain. And to add it all, with my bleeding disorder, the pain and the bleeding aren’t best friends on any given day, and even if my threshold to pain is higher than most, its at the mercy of analgesics like all others.

My father ignores my laughter and continues to add that he cant move, that his pain is like a vice grip and he just wants to rest and sleep…  There are some harsh words at the tip of my lips, and I let them slide. Why discuss with a man who is already down under? Why explain to him what I have been through when he doesn’t care? 

Because I have stood in OT, dealing with long hour Whipple surgeries on some days, an OT list of over 8 cases, retracting, with no food, no rest, or medication breaks, praying the flow isn’t too bad or too heavy or stains my scrubs; I have attended 48 hour shifts, including emergencies to ward rounds and work; I have smiled and interacted with my male colleagues and professors who didn’t give a shit as to how I am, or what was happening with me (my face surely conveyed the pain I was in, if these so called professors and seniors can pick up a wincing in Murphy’s sign, this is something they should be trained to recognize as well); and gone through my entire duty, non-stop, not caring about the pain, though all the pain did was cloud my mind with intense feelings of pain, irritation, emotions and grief.

I remember that once, out the stupid, naïve foolishness I possessed as a first year resident, I made an earnest request to my Head of Unit to spare me half a day of leave, and when he probed on the reason for it (I was the only resident in the unit with many post-op patients in the ward and our duty day the following day, he was very reluctant to allow me that spare time, otherwise who would follow up on the ward work), I told him, honestly, sincerely the reason for the leave.

I came to know after a week that he had informed everyone in the unit, and it had reached many other units’ ears as well and everyone including the SR’s, the professors were laughing at me, cracking jokes about my pain, openly in rounds in front of my other colleagues, mentioning how it was bloody useless to have a female resident in surgery for this reason only – that women are weak and can’t deal with pain.

I was blind with anger initially. I had spoken to my Head of Unit, with what I thought was privacy and confidentiality and that someone would make fun of me at the cost of my hard, painful, troubled times was unnerving. Then, came the tears, I sobbed like crazy, my heart out, my lungs out, all stuffed inside a pillow, so upset at the way the department handled it.

I hadn’t expected this from a team of professionals I worked it. If these same professors and seniors couldn’t understand a pain in their own, what of the pain then in their patients? How could they belittle something they didn’t even understand? How could they act so crass and cheap, unrefined? Where was their damn professionalism? Where was their sense of compassion? Where was their sense of humanity?

Alas, I was dealing with roughened, toughened surgeons in the brink and little did I know, if this so-called educated class of men couldn’t sensibly understand this, then it was a waste to expect it out of them. I wasn’t here to change them, I couldn’t. 

And even though the whole lesson and incident toughened me up, and I learnt to get a better grip with my pain, in whatever way I could, more so as a woman surgeon in the making, by not asking for leave, but gritting my teeth, doing the needed duty hours to make it through. I know I will always be at the scrutiny and will have to offer explanations for this pain in my life, because even if it’s not an excuse for me, people will like to think of it as one. 

I guess, I just want the society, especially men to understand that even though they don’t experience this pain, it’s not something to push away or tarnish for societal or taboo reasons. It’s as severe a pain as any other type of pain, as cancer pain, or as small as a pain with a bee sting. It matters and it can create a lot of social and functional discomfort for those who suffer. And if you men cant give us the understanding, the care, then least of all, keep silent, be neutral and stop spreading hate onto a pain that already spells taboo.

And for women with this pain, I am on your side sisters, but while we suffer in silent tears and forced smiles, its also completely okay to educate people around us, including our sons, husbands, brothers, fathers that pain is not to be hidden or shrugged off. Pain is not normal, it’s not a lie, no matter what anyone says.

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