I mentioned earlier that one of my three odd-jobs is being an SP (standardized patient). I’d expected it to be an interesting little side operation, which it is. I never expected it to lead to me standing in a room with four male medical students, one of which was pushing two shaking fingers into a beaming woman’s vagina as a brisk old lady told him what to do.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the strange world of the female program at a medical school. I’d heard about it from Lena, the woman who runs the whole SP operation.
“If you like being an SP and you want to get more involved, they’re always hiring for the female program, which is a whole separate thing. It takes a…certain kind of person to do it, but the pay is excellent.”
The certain kind of person that Lena meant included Pi (Pai? Pye? Pie?), an olive-skinned young woman with curly hair and an easy, crooked-toothed smile, who was there when I arrived to observe a female program session to see what it was like.
Pi showed me around the cluster of rooms where just hours before I’d been psychoanalyzed and pretending to have life-ruining seizures (I swear, I’ll write a blog about being an SP soon, because it’s a blog of its own). I hadn’t, however, been to one of the small rooms where an eerie rubber pink torso sat on the exam table, sliced off just above the bellybutton, the two short stumps of the thighs spread to reveal a rubbery slit where students could practice inserting their scapula or fingers in the correct way.
A bowl full of scapulas, metal beaky things that have caused discomfort and awkwardness for women worldwide, sat next to three flattened, rubbery models of breasts. Pi demonstrated how to hold and use a scapula, and how to insert. “You have to push down hard, about 30 lbs of pressure.”
“Oh, no, it doesn’t hurt, but you need that pressure to get below the cervix. The worst is when students don’t get it low enough right away, so you have to let them try again…and again…” She beamed at me and laughed. Everything seemed to be a secret cosmic joke for her.
This lighthearted attitude spread over to Janet, the aforementioned brisk old lady, one of the main instructors and organizers. She came in, greeted me, then ushered Pi and I into the examination room. “When we did this last week, we got to laughing a lot. We had a lot of laughing and it was really fun. That’s sort of what we aim for. We still want to be informative, of course, and professional, but also…not like a professor.” Suddenly she’s peeling off her swater. “Sorry, I’m not a very modest person,” she said, baring her breasts. Definitely not like a professor. Pi just grins at me and looks away. “But then the next class was so grim! It seemed to stretch on forever.” Janet pulled on a bra then put her sweater back on. “How far into your cycle are you, Pi?”
The groups in these sessions are never larger than four students. I supposed that when I pictured Ob/Gyn students I pictured a majority of females, but instead four athletic, tall white males came in and settled in front of the DVD player.
“You’ll need to either tuck in your ties or take them off for the examination portion,” Janet said, then played a 15-minute video featuring her and an acting doctor going through an examination. The close-ups of vaginal examinations made me think back to puberty classes in elementary school, although none of those videos were quite so candid.
After the video, the doctors-to-be practiced holding the scapula, then moved into the examination room to watch Janet demonstrate an exam on Pi, who grinned the whole time, baring her vagina to four pairs of men’s eyes. It might seem nerve-wracking, putting your body on display and letting people touch it as well, but as someone who took a life drawing class, I understand the medical students’ perspective. There’s nothing pervy going on here. If they wanted to see something sexual, there are millions of hours and pictures of things far more erotic than seeing a woman get a flashlight shined on her cervix through a metal thing shaped like a duck’s bill. The medical students just want to make sure they get things right. It was the same way in art class. You didn’t sit there with your charcoal thinking, “Hot damn! A naked man!” Instead, the instructor was telling you that you had two minutes to gesture draw the figure before he changed poses and you were too busy thinking, “Is this proportion right? Shoot, I didn’t draw the load-bearing leg first. How am I going to add tone? Does this even look like a person?”
Then again, I haven’t modeled for a pelvic exam demonstration yet. I’m sure I’ll be nervous when I do it for the first time. Especially when everyone in the room takes turns sitting on a stool and peering through the scapula like a telescope to look through the tunnel to my cervix.
Once Janet was finished with her demonstration, she broke away so that each of the medical students could practice the exam. The first volunteer’s hands were shaking as he did the breast exam and I could see him growing more frustrated as Janet or Pi corrected him.
“Remember, we want to minimize touch. Ask her to move the gown instead of moving it herself.”
“I’m going to feel under your arm here—“ “Examine. Remember, neutral language.” “Examine,” he’d correct, sighing.
Once he got to the pelvic exam, his hands were shaking even worse. It was strange and oddly funny to see this tall, wide-shouldered man with the neck of a football player and an arrogant personality to get shaky and fumble over his words and procedures as Pi grinned down at him and offered advice. Poor guy. Vaginas are complicated things. I would much rather be the one spreading my legs for a doctor than to be the one staring into the abyss and trying to figure out where the hell everything was and if it was functioning properly. No wonder my gay friends are afraid of them.