Care for women's reproductive health

CLAUDIA | USA | South Bend, Indiana

1 in 10 women suffers from a hormonal disorder called polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). As an aspiring OB/GYN-psychiatrist, it is my lifelong mission to educate myself and others about reproductive health.

Every one in ten women suffers from a hormonal disorder called polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). This is a hormonal syndrome that causes infrequent or prolonged menstrual periods and excess androgen levels. As a consequence, the ovaries may develop numerous small collections of fluid called follicles and fail to regularly release eggs. PCOS has many side effects which cause extreme suffering among many women everywhere including: irregular periods, infertility, cystic acne, excess male-patterned hair growth, head hair loss, severe depression, anxiety, a lack of emotional control causing extreme rage and sadness, intense cravings, weight gain, and many more debilitating symptoms. However, fifty percent of the women with PCOS go through life without a diagnosis because Western medicine is still largely based on the assumption that a disease needs to be physical and apparent for it to be worth treatment. Without a diagnosis, women are incapable of controlling their disorder and thus cannot reverse some of the hormonal damage this syndrome can wreak on the body. Instead, thousands of women are left silently suffering with their pain unacknowledged.

For a long time, I was one of these silent sufferers. I went through four years of high school with painful cystic acne, irregular and often missing periods, embarrassing male-hair growth, and a lack of control of my appetite and hanger. I just assumed this pain and lack of control was part of puberty. In college, I slowly began gaining weight and lost my period completely. I was emotional all of the time and my cystic acne had only become worse. I felt completely out of control. It was only after my gynecologist took an ultrasound and pointed out the tons of tiny follicles hanging from ovaries, that I was diagnosed with PCOS. This diagnosis, although terrifying, was such a breath of fresh air. I was not going crazy. My symptoms, my emotions, my hanger and rage, my acne, all of it had an explanation. My suffering was not all in my head. Ever since my diagnosis, I have been researching PCOS. I have tried different diets and lifestyles and honestly I am not at all in control of it yet. I still have so much to learn, but knowing that there is a community of thousands of women who are also going through what I am going through gives me hope. Even though this syndrome can make me absolutely hate myself sometimes, I know I am not alone. Although there are times when I feel so isolated that I just want to curl up into a ball and hide, I know that there are other strong women out there who are regaining control of their lives, so I can too.

Even though I was able to obtain a diagnosis, many women are still silently suffering. We need to educate women from a young age, so that we can look out for symptoms of PCOS and many other hormonal disorders.

For my Bridging Histories Changemaker Project, I decided to paint a self portrait. This is an acrylic on canvas. I roughly based the background of the painting off of Vincent Van Gough’s style because I think it captures the angst and darkness which I wanted this portrait to portray. I chose to go with a deep fiery red and black to symbolize the blood and the loss of all of the miscarriages which have happened and will happen to women with PCOS. The woman is curled in the fetal position, not only as a display of suffering and isolation, but also to represent her own birth through fertility which her uterus so desperately struggles to continue. I also painted the woman with bright blue hair and fun blue sneakers to show her spunk and fire. In any other position, she would be the picture of coolness and togetherness. You would never suspect her to be hiding all of her insecurities and pain day by day. I also chose to paint someone young because PCOS can begin as early as puberty and affect you for years to come. I have found myself in this exact position, curled up with nothing but feelings of hopelessness and self-loathing many times. And then I begin to question my pain. Is it all just in my head? And even if it is, why am I not allowing myself to label that as real pain?

I have reached out to many PCOS advocates, nutritionists, and influencers, and have asked them to post my self portrait and testimony. Additionally, I plan to post on a few PCOS awareness pages on Facebook. I also hope to talk to the University of Notre Dame’s Health Center about PCOS awareness on campus. I would love to be able to support other Notre Dame students and women in the South Bend community. Already, I have shared my painting with a few friends and family members and it has sparked some amazing conversations on what my life is like with a hormonal disorder. I know that a change in reproductive health education starts with me and the way I share about my experiences with others. It does not have to be a taboo “hush hush” subject. As an aspiring OB/GYN-psychiatrist, it is my lifelong mission to educate myself and others about reproductive health, in order to pick up those who are silently suffering, curled up in the isolating dark.

Bridging Histories butterfly