On a Scale from 1 to 10, What is Your Level of Pain?: Preserving Universal Health Care Through Radical Tenderness

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My uterus has turned into a meat grinder, wanting to churn my insides out of me, and I’m dry heaving over the tub mumbling “no no no no” as the churn slowly makes another rotation.

My partner walks in with a package of Tylenol – I had sent him out earlier for Ibuprofen, but they had none at the store. That was then. I’m on the floor of the bathroom now, paralyzed by the jaws of this monster that is my body.

“What…what should I do,” he asks.

“I don’t know, um, call a pharmacist,” I say, trying to think of anything else other than calling the ambulance.

“What will that do?”

“Um, they can like tell me if this is normal?”

My period started today. I don’t want to make a big deal, but I’ve also never experienced this level of pain before. It feels abnormal, and I know that downplaying its severity could be life threatening. What the hell is going on? The monster keeps chewing me and I clench my teeth.

“Do you want me to call the ambulance?”

I pause for a second and then answer yes.

He makes the call.

Soon five or six large men have entered my apartment asking me questions and hooking me up to wires. I can’t recall the last time I’ve received this much attention. It feels excessive. But perhaps this is only because I’ve had a lifetime of learning to dismiss, downplay, or ignore pain. Vocalizing pain, asking for help, and letting others take care of me feels downright indulgent.

I worry the paramedics will be condescending or dismissive because this particular pain coincides with menstruation. Years of jokes from men in my life have taught me my period is more or less something I just gotta shut up and deal with. I can’t use my period as an “excuse” for anything. Under no circumstances should I draw men’s attention to the fact I have a body – at this time, especially. I’ve been taught the comfort of others around me is always more important than my own.

But, to my surprise, the paramedics are exceedingly gentle and compassionate. I suppose it’s just their job, but they’re doing it well.

“On a scale of one to 10, what is your level of pain right now?”

Despite the emergency situation, the paramedics never take away my agency. They check in consistently with my pain levels, communicate clearly with me, and put decisions in my hands. I feel like they are here to listen and support me in acquiring the kind of care I need.

I end up trying to walk, with one paramedic on each side for support. I feel like a child – not in an infantilized manner, but in the sense that I haven’t experienced this overwhelming amount of tenderness since I was very young. The ambulance ride is one of the most caring experiences in my entire life.

I don’t want it to end, but it does.

Once I’m at the hospital, I wait for seven hours in a fluorescent lit room, hooked up to an IV. The pain has subsided, and I feel stressed and frustrated. The ambulance trip has costing me $800 – higher than usual because my health care card is from another province. I’ve also had to call in sick to work. I want to go home, but know I should wait to make it all somewhat worth it.

Finally, the doctor arrives and prescribes me some painkillers. He says if this has happened to me once, it’s likely to happen again. Bad menstrual pain. Not much else you can do about it.

I take the prescription, relieved he’s told me it’s nothing more serious, but also frustrated that apparently this is just a “new normal” for me. No ultrasound, at least? Nobody wants a closer look?

Despite my frustrations, I am incredibly grateful for our healthcare system in Canada. Eight hundred dollars is not exactly something I can afford, but I know it could be a lot worse. Waiting for seven hours in a fluorescent lit room with constant beeping noises from various medical devices is frustrating, but is less of a barrier to me seeking medical attention than adding more zeroes to my bill.

That said, I do question why the experience of tenderness from the paramedics stood out to me as so abnormal, why I expected to be treated differently, with less care or gentleness.

I relayed my experience to my co-workers the next day. Some told me they’ve experienced that level of menstrual pain their entire lives. Another told me they had been diagnosed with endometriosis, after initially having the pain dismissed by doctors.

Today, I read about a Calgary woman who spent six years fighting to find answers about her own menstrual pain, which had interrupted her life so much that she had to drop out of classes for a semester.

She, too, was eventually diagnosed with endometriosis, which “occurs when tissues that usually line the uterine wall are found outside the uterus, where they attach to other organs, such as the fallopian tubes, colon or bladder.”

Since her condition took so long to diagnose, however, it has since resulted in a myriad of further complicated issues.

What is your level of pain, on a scale from one to ten?

What do you need?

What would you like to do?

What do you need me to do?

These questions are transformative because they put power into the hands of the person experiencing pain, and allows their experience be centred. For individuals with marginalized identities, the act of being centred – being heard, being actively listened to, is radical. The person asking these questions puts themselves in a position of service. In moments like these, pathways to healing are created.

Tenderness is revolutionary. Entire systems built to exploit, isolate and alienate individuals are disrupted when we practice tenderness with each other, when we seek to know and understand another’s pain rather than hide from it, and when we offer our assistance in service of another’s healing.

Canadian universal healthcare, for all its faults and flawed execution, is ultimately a gift and should be preserved and fought for. It embodies the notion that care is collective, that individuals are not simply left to the luck of their circumstances when it comes to medical care. In order to preserve this system and fight for it’s improvement and expansion (such as pharma care and dental), we must practice and value radical tenderness ourselves.

This is a value and character quality often overlooked, no doubt due to its feminine and maternal connotations. We do not learn in school, the job market, or in “leadership” programs about how to be tender with one another. Consider it then a revolutionary concept to bring tenderness to the forefront of our personal and political lives.

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