Guest post by Jasmine Heyward, a non-binary contributor from the US

The writer of this guest post was paid for their contribution thanks to sponsorship from period and leak-free underwear brand Modibodi, and donations from Hysterical Women readers. Thank you to all of them for their generosity in supporting this #BlackWomensHealthMatters series. 

Taking an Uber to an emergency room during a global pandemic hits differently.

All three times I’ve been to the ER I’ve taken an Uber, but in July I was going to an active hospital with a COVID-19 unit. On the way, I had to accept the realities that I could get “the rona” from this emergency room visit, and it could kill me.

But I had to go, because there was something wrong with me that was getting worse. When I described my symptoms to a nurse on the hotline provided by my health insurance, they strongly suggested the ER. 

At first, I thought I might have an ear infection. Then I began to experience severe pain in my jaw area and assumed it was dental, as I’d had necessary restorative work postponed by COVID. After not sleeping for about a week, I went to the dental emergency room and was there for hours, with four different residents and dentists looking at my teeth. They couldn’t identify any specific tooth that had an issue, either through X-rays or manual testing, so they sent me home with nothing.

It got worse, but it was also spreading into my neck and shoulder. That’s when I went to the ER, about three months after I first started experiencing symptoms.

As a Black person in the US, seeing a doctor you don’t know can feel like Russian roulette. To end the game, you go to the ER, knowing that with your crappy private insurance you’re looking at a three-figure bill the second you walk in the door.

In the emergency room, I was diagnosed with trigeminal neuralgia, a cranial nerve disorder that results in unpredictable pain attacks caused by the lightest of touches to the face or nothing at all. The doctor gave me the lowest dose of a prescription medication and a referral to a specialist, which was closed for COVID-19 but scheduled to reopen soon.

That specialist is at the Craniofacial Pain Center at Tufts Dental School. This is the same parent school as the dental emergency room that wasn’t able to tell me what was wrong, or refer me to anyone else. The doctor in the medical emergency room was surprised they hadn’t suggested a potential nerve problem during that visit. I wasn’t, considering how the whole thing had gone.

The dental ER experience was a mess before I even arrived. I called for the first time in late June, and was told that my normal student at the dental school could see me instead, so I should get in touch with him. He told me that he actually could not see me, and I needed to go to the dental ER. I called them again on Wednesday, July 1, and was told the dental school was closed Thursday and Friday in observance of the Fourth of July, which was on Saturday. Because of that, I would need to wait until Monday, July 6 for care.

At this point, I was taking 3000mg of paracetamol a day, and still could not sleep through the night or eat solid food. My cognitive performance was impaired due to sleep deprivation, malnutrition and pain, and yet I was still working full-time and keeping up with life to the best of my ability – because what other choice did I have?

Acting normally in the face of extreme distress is a skill most survivors of complex trauma develop. (We are disproportionately people of marginalized genders, people of color, queer people, people with disabilities, etc.)

As someone who developed C-PTSD in late adolescence, and on-and-off chronic muscular pain in college, pretending like things are fine is essential because things rarely actually are. I feel like this tweet from writer/comedian/internet person Daniel Howell summarizes it best:

“People ask why i’m so calm and resilient in the face of chaos and where they can attain this superpower – but anyone can just by having a traumatic youth and normalising abuse to survive! Have fun.”

The dentist is actually a trigger for me, so I entered with a level of “calm” that was more like dissociation. This meant that when four different dentists — some students, some professors and specialists — all got inconclusive results from tests on the side of my mouth that was hurting, they decided I was just sensitive. There are some very small cavities on the teeth over there, so they assumed those were the culprit.

One of the specialists said over and over, “I am not seeing anything physically or in your X-ray that would be keeping you up at night, so I don’t understand.”

She explained to me that they weren’t going to do emergency surgery on my teeth without any proof that there was something wrong inside, and that made sense. But the biggest project of the year at my job started the next day, and I felt barely functional, regardless of what my teammates noticed. Desperately I asked her, “What should I do for pain management right now?”

She suggested I buy regular paracetamol instead of extra strength, so I could take it more frequently, and possibly combine it with ibuprofen.

I fell into a really deep depression after that appointment. I was already struggling with my mental health, and had three different mental health clinicians in my life to prove it, but my quality of life was unbearably low, and yet the dental emergency room said there was nothing that could be done for me.

Two weeks later I went to the actual emergency room and got my diagnosis. I also paid $350 for the privilege of that 50-minute appointment (America!) and got a referral right back to the same place I’d started.

I’m fortunate that my pain has improved, as I still haven’t gotten an appointment with that specialist at the pain center. My neuropsychologist, one of the aforementioned clinicians, also did some research on nerve pain in grad school and gave me some pointers. A nurse practitioner at my GP’s office gave me a stronger prescription as well.

I feel fortunate that the random white man at the medical ER took me seriously (and didn’t creep on me when he was having to touch my neck, back, and face alone in a room). I even tweeted about it. But I wish medical professionals understood that sometimes it’s not about the severity of the pain, it’s about the complex trauma, you know?

Jasmine is an AFAB non-binary journalism educator, activist, and creator based in Boston, MA, USA. You can them on Twitter

#BlackWomensHealthMatters is published in partnership with period and leak-proof underwear brand Modibodi.

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