Grey’s Anatomy fans will no doubt recall the episode where Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson) – a talented and adept surgeon, with a wealth of medical expertise and knowledge – realised that she was having a heart attack.
It was a hard-hitting storyline, and one which was inspired by scriptwriter Elisabeth Finch’s own experience with misdiagnosis. And it pointed to a persistent, often overlooked problem in medicine: women’s symptoms are often diminished and dismissed by doctors.
Speaking frankly about her experiences on Katie Lowes’ Katie’s Crib podcast, Union explained: “I went undiagnosed through multiple rounds of IVF with different leading doctors in the field around the country.
“Not until the last doctor, Dr. Kelly Baek in California. That first ultrasound, she was like, ‘Oh, so, you have [really pronounced] adenomyosis.’”
Adenomyosis, as described by the NHS, is a condition where the cells of the lining of the womb are found in the muscle wall of the womb (myometrium).
Around one in 10 women will have adenomyosis. However, as the most common symptoms are heavy, painful or irregular periods, pre-menstrual pelvic pain and feelings of heaviness/discomfort in the pelvis, many women go undiagnosed for years, if at all.
“When Dr. Baek started asking me more questions going back to my periods and what my experience was like with my periods as a younger woman,” recalled Union,
“I explained that I ended up getting on the pill not for birth control reasons, but because my periods were lasting like a third of the month and I was bleeding like I had been shot in the vagina.”
During her conversation with Lowes, Union pointed out that adenomyosis “affects your ovarian reserve.” As a result, she said, businesses like fertility clinics might benefit from a patient’s lack of awareness.
“If you’re going in and no one’s diagnosing you correctly… a lot of places will offer older women, or women who have these conditions that have been diagnosed, rounds to basically bundle – so you might do three rounds for this price because you’re not going to get a ton of eggs,” she explained.
Baek, thankfully, proved an exception to this. As well as diagnosing Union with adenomyosis, the doctor also sat the actor down and explained how this would impact her IVF journey.
“She just [was] honest for the first time that my road will be extremely challenging and the only way that I would be able to physically carry my baby myself is if I use this drug called Lupron,” Union said.
Baek, though, was quick to impress the side-effects of the drug – which includes brittle bones – on Union.
“She was one of the first people to really be honest about surrogacy,” added the actor.
The conversation proved to be a turning point for Union. She and her partner, Dwyane Wade, decided against her taking Lupron (“It only gives you, like, a 30% chance [of conceiving],” she noted), as they felt it would prove harmful to her active lifestyle.
The couple welcomed their daughter, Kaavia, by surrogate in 2018.
This is just one example, of course, of a woman having painful symptoms ignored or misdiagnosed by doctors. And it is not just a US issue, either: indeed, three years ago, a 51-page report by MPs indicated that thousands of women in the UK suffering from endometriosis or fibroids feel dismissed, ignored and unable to access information and specialised treatment.
With 40% of women saying they had seen a doctor 10 times before being referred to a gynaecologist and 67% saying they obtained most of their information on the subject from the internet, the findings from the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women’s Health revealed a lack of awareness around what is considered ‘normal’ menstruation and what indicates a more serious issue.
And of the 2,600 women interviewed, many reported similar experiences when it came to having their symptoms taken seriously – 42% said they did not feel they had been treated with “dignity and respect” by doctors.
Former MP Paula Sherriff, chair of the group, said she was “shocked” by some of the stories.
“If women cannot even get the right diagnosis and information about treatments, how can they possibly decide what is the best care for themselves?” she said.
“Women deserve every opportunity to take control of their own healthcare and this group is striving to empower women so they have this potential.
“The statistics in this report show that women are all too often dismissed by healthcare professionals when discussing their symptoms and choices.
“The fact that almost 50% of women did not feel that they were treated with dignity and respect is appalling.”
We hope that Union’s story will help to highlight this issue further and bring about a much-needed reformation of the healthcare system.