There I was, an awkward 13 year old sitting in the doctor’s office. For the past two weeks, I had been complaining to my mom about rib pain, and she had scheduled a visit to the pediatrician. I was very active — I played softball constantly — and she wanted to be sure I hadn’t broken a rib.
“Where does it hurt?” the nurse asked me.
“Right here,” I said, pointing to the right side of my sternum. “I can feel my rib crunch if I move it funny.”
The nurse scribbled down some notes in my paper chart as she asked my mother a few extra questions. “OK, the doctor will be with you in just a minute,” she said as she walked out of the room.
The doctor came in a short time later. He was tall, in his 40s, and had that stern seriousness about him that only a doctor in a lab coat can have. This was not my usual doctor.
“Where does it hurt?” he asked me as he flipped through my chart. I again pointed at the right side of my sternum. He was much more interested in reading my chart than making eye contact, and I sat there in uncomfortable silence.
“OK, I’m going to need to do a breast exam,” he said, still looking at the chart. “Please take off your shirt and bra and lie down on the table for me.”
I was shocked. I didn’t even know what a breast exam was. Do they really examine breasts? No one had ever seen my newly budding body — not even my mother. And now I was going to be naked in front of a man my father’s age?
I looked over at my mother, who looked back at me with a blank face. I awkwardly took off my top and my bra as he stood there and watched intently.
To this day, I distinctly remember when he looked at me, half naked on the table and said: “Yes, those are breasts.”
I began to giggle, and I felt my face get hot. I didn’t know what else to do. I remember thinking that he kept saying the word ‘breast’ so seriously and it was weird. And he suddenly kept looking at me rather than the chart.
He didn’t ask me any other questions. He just started to give orders, and I obeyed, shaking and red-faced. Lie down. Move your arm here. Move your arm there. He palpated both my breasts for what seemed like an eternity.
“Do all doctors do this? Why do I feel so funny? Is this what it’s like to be with a boy?” I thought to myself.
Throughout the exam, he never once touched the area where I felt the pain.
I don’t remember hearing his conversation with my mother before he left the room, but I know he said I would be fine. I was confused – what was wrong with me? Did my growing breasts cause my rib pain? We left with no follow-up, no prescription, no diagnosis, and no X-ray.
Throughout my exam, I had no gown. There was no nurse in the room. I remember feeling embarrassed as my mother, and I walked back to the car. I felt as though everyone knew where he had touched me just by looking at me. Like my scarlet face matched my scarlet letter. I was somehow branded.
The pain went on for another few weeks, but I refused to say another word about it. My teenage brain couldn’t process my emotions at the time, but I knew I didn’t want to go back. I’d rather deal with the pain.
After the appointment, my mother also seemed upset — and I assumed she was upset with me for giggling so much throughout the ordeal. She was always telling me to stop giggling. This made me feel even more embarrassed that I hadn’t behaved myself with the doctor.
Looking back, she was probably upset with the situation. There was absolutely no reason for me to have a breast exam, but she was from the generation of “the good doctor knows best.” She didn’t ask questions. She just sat in silence and watched her 13-year-old daughter get a breast exam. That was likely no easy feat for her emotionally.
To this day we have never discussed it.
A case of costochondritis ultimately led to my first sexual experience. My pediatrician took that from me. To this day, I wonder if this is why I get so nervous going to the doctor. Did this also affect how I see myself? Is this why I went into the medical field — to prove that I’m above an unnecessary breast exam? Has this experience changed me in ways I cannot fathom? These things I cannot answer.
A good deal has changed in the past 20 years to help protect from unnecessary exams such as my own. Yet, cases such as Larry Nasser somehow keep happening. Are we doing enough to protect our children? Are the rules and regulations in place enough to stop sexual predators? What can we do to earn back the trust of those who have had these experiences?
As the #MeToo movement has come to the forefront, it brought back these memories: memories that I had buried in order to move on. But opening these painful memories forces us to reflect and share the experiences that changed our lives. Hopefully, sharing our hidden pasts will help us enact change for future generations.
People need to hear these stories. And doctors are people, too.
Lauren Feltz is an anesthesiologist assistant and patient advocate who blogs at Within My Skin.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com