Oct 12, 2012

Undressing in Medical Setting



With a perfect row of shiny white teeth and a plump face, she was quite pretty. Though I thought she was middle aged at first, on second thoughts she appeared quite young, maybe early thirties. I should have noticed that, instead of her obesity and the tube coming out of her nose. Because when she said that she “did not like it when a male nurse comes to give her a bath”, I did a double take. Because I did not expect a sick, unattractive-at-first-glance person to feel that way. With so many tubes coming out of her body in the first place, I expected her to be beyond caring.
I was at a nursing home, in conversation with two inmates, Patty and Sandy. I then turned to Sandy and asked her if she felt the same about taking off her clothes in the bathroom. Sandy was over sixty years old, with white hair and a full set of dentures. She replied that she felt extremely uncomfortable being washed by a male nurse. “When I shower, I ask the guy to stand outside, and if I fall down because of the lack of oxygen, I tell him he can scrape me off the floor!” Patty tried to make light of the situation. “Oh wait, I tell him that he can first knock me out, because I don’t want to watch him watching me, and then he can scrape me off the floor!”

Sandy told me that in response to her concerns, the nurse told her that “I seen them of all sizes, and shapes, I seen so many that not even Dolly Parton would interest me!” I realized that I had been as dispassionate as any of the medical practitioners in assuming that just because someone was sick, they did not care about modesty. Well, maybe for the nurse, one person’s body is the same as any other’s, and they see it as dispassionately as seeing a bottle of medicine. But that conversation taught me that every person, no matter how blasé they may seem on the outside, has body issues.
At that moment, I could do nothing but laugh at their embarrassment, since they were trying so hard to see the lighter side of things. But jokes apart, I began to think of my own and a few friends’ experience of undressing in a medical situation friends. As far as I remember, the experience is extremely squeamish, and I would really prefer to keep the undressing at a minimum.
 In Nepal, apart from the usual level of squeamishness, the women I talked to mentioned other problems. One adult woman still remembered how, when she was a teenager, she was asked to undress by the doctor who wanted to examine wounds on her body. Though she trusted the doctor, she was extremely annoyed at the onlookers who crowded in to have a look as well. Another young woman talked about her suspicions of being groped that she could never prove or even express. Jhamak Ghimire, in Jeevan Kaada ki Phool, discusses her discomfort in similarly invasive medical situations. All the women I talked to admitted to being deeply disturbed by these experiences.
I thought of those violently ill women at the nursing home who told the nurse to stay outside while they showered, even though it is the nurse’s duty to shower them. Why do we, women in Nepal, not have the confidence to do the same? (I guess any man in a similar situation would be just as embarrassed to be undressed in front of strangers. However, because of medical situations like pregnancy and childbirth, an average woman is likely to face many more invasive medical procedures than an average man. Coupled with the fact that there are (still) more male doctors than female ones, and we women in Nepal are (still) very embarrassed about showing skin, a woman has a far higher chance of going through uncomfortable medical experiences than men. A normal heart examination, for example, which requires the patient to take off upper body clothing, is passé for men while it is deeply embarrassing for women.) Why can we not ask for uncomfortable situation to be kept to a minimum? Is it up to the medical practitioner to ensure their privacy? Or is it up to the patient themselves to ensure they get their privacy?

The women I talked to agreed that they were unable to protest or complain to anyone about their embarrassment, as they did not know what to say, who to talk to, and if they were even allowed to say anything in a medical situation. I too had felt the same hesitation during such uncomfortable situations. My impression is that the medical profession is so revered that we never question anything that a doctor or nurse tells us to do. Not that it should not be revered, we depend on medical professionals for our health and very lives. But at the same time, maybe there should be better communication between the patient and the professional. If we, the patients, stay silent and “okay” every step that we are asked to do, then no doubt the other person is going to think we are ok with it. Hence, we as patients, should definitely learn to voice our concerns. We are the ones who should gain confidence and discuss our limits with medical professionals, to ensure our own comfort and peace of mind. 
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