Guest post by Caitlin Evans

I’ve tried to write this piece five times now. Which is ironic, because it took five doctors to get me any kind of meaningful diagnosis. I keep getting stuck with the intro – how do I tell this story without it sounding too sappy, or too whatever?

So, here I am, staring at three pages of notes, hoping you will bear with me as I try to explain my frustration and anger as best as I can.

Before we dive in, I need to give you a bit of background. Hello, my name is Caitlin, and I am a 28-year-old recreational ballet dancer, recovering from a knee injury that has benched me for just over a year.

I haven’t always been a dancer – in fact, I started very late, as a fully-grown adult, and getting my body to do the things that came so naturally to the young and very young girls at my studio was, at times, excruciating. But ballet has given me something to go with the pain that I wasn’t quite expecting: a sense of freedom, empowerment, self-respect, I’m not even sure how to call it. It was like a whole new avenue of who I was opened up, and I had stepped into myself in a completely new way.

Ballet became more than a hobby – it was a passion, a part of who I was, a very important part of my identity.

The injury

To be honest, I knew I was going to get injured at one point or another. I’ve heard plenty of stories about jumper’s knees, meniscal tears, hip tendonitis, stress fractures and all the other ailments that come with dance. I’ve met dancers who live with pain every day of their lives and keep dancing. I’ve also known dancers who were benched for good with a seemingly innocent injury.

So, when I heard a very loud and very menacing pop emanate from my left knee one morning, I was not going to take it lightly. I was not going to be one of the unlucky ones who were forced to give up their passion. I was going to heal.

The pain itself was bad – very bad, in fact, but I could walk without help, and it would lessen when I rested my leg. Off to the doctor I went nevertheless, looking to do whatever it takes to get back on the floor.

A quest for a diagnosis

This is where the actual nightmare started. Never mind the pain and the actual injury, the way I was made to feel while looking for help was the worst part of the experience. The first doctor I went to told me it was a tendon injury, gave me some meds, told me to rest. It didn’t get better. Well, it might not be a tendon injury, but hey, you just take it easy, it will get better.

The second doctor told me it was a meniscal injury, and recommended I undergo
electrotherapy, i.e. TENS, which my insurance would not cover, and which I needed to pay for myself. Of course it was expensive, and of course he recommended his own clinic. It didn’t get better.

I learned that throwing money at the injury wouldn’t do any actual good. I forget which the third and which the fourth doc was. I was told I needed an MRI, but that it would
probably not reveal anything. The key takeaway was: you’ve forced your body too much, take it easy, take a walk, it will go away. Why be so hung up on dance? What do you want to dance for anyway? Give it up girl; it’s no good, who cares?

A quest for peace

Now, in my mind, as a doctor you try to help every patient live the best life they possibly can. If that means they want to dance, you help them dance, for goodness sake! And I wanted to dance. True, this was not my vocation, but what does that matter? I wanted to
lift my leg without pain. I wanted to jump knowing it would not make it worse. The five men I consulted looked at me with a more or less vacant expression. All they wanted was to get me out of the office as soon as possible, and convince me that walking was all I needed.

Not one of them acknowledged my wishes. They literally told me to walk it off. No physical therapy designed to help my specific case. No sympathy. None of them actually treated me like a human being. All I was to them (or at least that’s what I felt) is a foolish woman who wants to do something silly, and is wasting their valuable time. One was particularly happy to compliment my dancer’s body, and feel how my knee moved. But help me? God forbid.

Let’s not even talk about sympathy for the patient – why should their wishes be acknowledged? After all, I was a woman looking to dance: something that wouldn’t benefit anyone but myself. Would they be just as dismissive if I were trying to get pregnant? Would they fight for me then? Would a female doctor have more understanding and treat my anxieties differently?

All I wanted was to hear a straight answer – you will never dance like you used to, and another injury could keep you from walking again. You will dance in pain. Do this and it will get better. I never got any of that.

The road to recovery

I did finally recover – somewhat. I did start walking (well, hiking, to be more exact), like they told me. Not because this was a recommended course of treatment, but because spending time in nature helped my anxieties and calmed me down. I prepped myself well and read up on hiking, and started taking my body out; it was a form of self-therapy and tension relief. I figured I needed to keep my legs strong but do something low-impact, and this was the best solution.

After the MRI, I prescribed myself a set of exercises to get some strength and support back. And it seems to be working – I’m dancing again. But my brush with injury has only left me wondering: why are we still happy to let male doctors dismiss the wishes of female patients, when they feel they are not worthy? Why do we accept this treatment and fume about it? How can we start to change these underlying currents present
in our healthcare system? Feeling helpless doesn’t come naturally to me, and working towards another woman never having to go through the same again deserves a fair chunk of my energy.

You can find Caitlin on Twitter