Did Sexism Kill These Two Women?

Be warned: I’m about to make you very, very angry. Possibly enraged.

Still with me? OK, deep breath in, let it out s-l-o-w-l-y … and let’s dive in to this effed-up quagmire of outrage.

Last September, Anna Brown died in a jail cell in Missouri, alone and in agonizing pain. We know this because we have footage from the prison security cameras. We also know that for three days prior to her death, Anna complained of extreme pain in her leg and went to several different hospitals seeking treatment and relief. In each case, she was treated for an underlying ankle sprain and released by providers who said there was nothing more they could do for her. Ultimately, she ended up in St. Mary’s Hospital emergency room, where she refused to leave after once again being dismissed. So the hospital had her arrested for trespass . She was carted off to the local lock-up, where she died later that day.

An autopsy revealed a blood clot had formed in her leg — which undoubtedly caused the extreme leg pain she complained of — and had worked loose and found its way to her lungs, where it killed her.

Both the hospital and the local police department have issued statements disclaiming any responsibility for Anna’s death. The police say there was nothing they could have done — how could they know she had a serious medical problem? The hospital, believe it or not, is saying the same thing :

“Unfortunately, even with appropriate testing using sophisticated technology, blood clots can still be undetected in a small number of cases,” according to a statement released by St. Mary’s Health Center on Thursday. “The sad reality is that emergency departments across the country are often a place of last resort for many people in our society who suffer from complex social problems that become medical issues when they are not addressed. It is unfortunate that it takes a tragic event like this to call attention to a crisis in our midst.”

Anna clearly did have some “complex social problems” — the MSNBC article linked to above recounts a horrible tale of escalating tragedy that started with a tornado and ended in that jail cell last September. But let’s be clear here: Anna didn’t die because she had “complex social problems.” She died because hospital after hospital failed to take her pain complaints seriously and a lethal blood clot went undetected.

And now let’s travel to the other side of the world and meet Elizabeth Howan of New Zealand, who died from undiagnosed colon cancer after complaining of severe abdominal pain for six years . Her family is, understandably, also outraged, just as Anna Brown’s family is. Ultimately, she was told her pain was “all in her head” and was even diagnosed “probably schizophrenic.”

I’ll say it again: colon cancer. No MRI or full body scan was ever performed.

I’ll be the first to admit that we may not know all the facts on either case. But I will state this categorically and without hesitation: I absolutely believe that in both cases, their pain complaints were either ignored or significantly discounted, and I believe that happened quite possibly solely due to their gender. One of them was written off as a schizophrenic. The other was possibly dismissed as some drug-seeking homeless woman and arrested.

In Ms. Brown’s case, the hospital’s hand-washing dismissal of their own culpability is particularly infuriating. Yes, blood clots are hard to diagnose in some cases. But the critical factor here was that the hospital’s employees discounted Brown’s pain complaints; we know that’s true because they had her arrested to get her out of the ER, and had they taken her complaints seriously, that would never have happened.

Now, let’s pretend these same two events happened to men. Would the outcomes be different? I submit they very well may have been, for one simple reason: when it comes to being taken seriously by our medical care providers, the two genders are often treated wildly disparately.

If two people — one male, one female — with the same demographics (age, weight, height, social status, etc.) come into the same ER complaining of pain in the same part of the body, and each rates the pain as “6 out of 10,” the man tends to be viewed as downplaying his pain, while the woman tends to be viewed as exaggerating her pain.

I don’t know if any studies have been done on this phenomenon — I hope somebody looks at it, because I suspect it’s far more rampant than even the anecdotal evidence I hear would suggest.

So, did sexism play a role in these women’s deaths? Would a more prompt response for either have saved their lives? I don’t know – but I know at least Ms. Howan wouldn’t have died viewed by the people who should have been helping her as a schizophrenic, and Ms. Brown wouldn’t have died moaning alone in a jail cell.

And maybe I wouldn’t be so freaking outraged right now.

2 thoughts on “Did Sexism Kill These Two Women?

  1. Shannon


    I hadn’t heard about the first story – someone should be fired or arrested or SOMETHING for getting that poor woman arrested.

    As to the New Zealander, that story has been bothering me for a week. She was so desperate in pain – she had ALL her teeth pulled out in case the mercury fillings were the cause. And further adding to insanity of the non-diagnosis of her pain… a doctor noted that she should have a bowel followup in 2006, but it was never done. That would have solved it 6 years ago!

    I myself have just this last week come up against a ‘lost referral’ and gotten a dx I am very upset about. I won’t have any real solid information about how bad it is until next week. Sigh. I was going to write a blog post about that missed opportunity for that woman… and it turns out I am in the same boat! Wow. Talk about karma or something.

    Shannon recently posted..Taking a Break for a Snack: Roasted Chickpeas. What a doll!


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