When I was in The Vagina Monologues eight years ago, I met a lot of people who were really stretching themselves. They had found their edge in the material and in the idea of talking about vaginas in public. For me, it was more of an extension than a stretch. Yet I was proud to be dubbed a “vagina warrior,” an upholder of the value of speaking out.
This week, I worked as a Gynecologic Teaching Associate for second-year medical students who were performing what for many was their first-ever pelvic exam. A small group of medical students would join me and another GTA in a tiny exam room, alternating being examined and providing guidance and feedback.
These tutorials were set up “to teach students how to perform a sensitive and competent genital exam on a female patient and to provide students an opportunity to practice communicating with a patient before, during, and after the exam.” Before I started the actual work, I joked about “acting with my yoni,” since I had been recruited through a Standardized Patient program that often recruits actors to play patients in medical scenarios.
After a week, I’d say that while I had fun, I don’t find the whole thing as funny as I did beforehand. That doesn’t mean it’s not a funny-strange situation and it doesn’t mean I’ve suddenly become humorless, but my experience has been intense and powerful.
And I’ve met some amazing vagina warriors. One woman has come to Seattle solely for the purpose of participating as a GTA for three weeks; she’s done it for a long time and loves the experience. Another woman took the extra time left over after one especially efficient group for her “extra-credit lecture.” She pointed out that doctors would run into a variety of challenging situations if they worked in gynecology, especially in Seattle, including transgender patients, and clitoridectomies. Not to mention piercings. She shared her vision of correct etiquette in these situations, sensitively and thoroughly covering material I never would have thought of.
I’ve been asked why I would seek out work like this. One of the first reasons that came to mind was that I can. Doctors need the practice, I need the money, and it doesn’t bother me, either in concept or execution. Yes, it’s not the most comfortable experience, but it’s not the worst either. Not for me. If I have a chance to make it better for some woman in the future, especially a woman who is anxious about her first pelvic exam, that feels like important work.
I also want to make it easier for the students. For some of them, cutting up cadavers was a breeze compared to carrying on a conversation with a strange woman naked from the waist down. They shook, they hesitated, they made faces they didn’t intend to make, and every one of them thanked us graciously, many times, for offering direct experience to their training.
If I had a few more weeks with medical students, whether as a Gynecologic Training Associate or just a woman with a message, I’d let them know they need to continuously seek a balance between confidence and overbearing god-complex, that they need to remember that sick people are not interesting cases, they are people with histories and emotions they carry with them, and that warm human communication is often the best part of their healing. I’m pretty sure I met some people this week who already know all those things, but in my ideal world, all healers would.