How many pelvic exams does a woman have in her lifetime? Why should one in particular stand out?
Even at the time it didn’t feel right, back when I was a 25-year-old theater student at USC. Today, 16 years later, I’m a women’s health nurse practitioner who has performed thousands of pelvic exams. I’m a person who knows in great detail what is and is not a typical part of an exam. And I know that what happened to me was not normal.
When someone shared a news article about the investigation of a USC doctor, Dr. George Tyndall immediately came to mind. As I read the details in the article, my blood ran cold.
I’d come to USC’s student health center for an annual exam. Tyndall reviewed my medical history and then instructed me to undress behind a curtain that separated his office space from the exam space. I recall thinking to myself: “Is it weird that this middle-aged dude sits on the other side of this thin piece of fabric while young women disrobe?” But I pushed those thoughts aside and sat upon the crinkly paper covering the exam table.
The first thing I remember about the exam is that prior to inserting the speculum, he placed his fingers in my vagina and did something that caused a distinct pain. “Ow!” I said. There seemed to be surprise in his voice as he asked, “Did that hurt?” I replied that it had. He repeated the motion and asked again, “This hurts?” Again I replied that it did.
Then he said, “I thought you said you weren’t a virgin.” I replied that I was not. “Well,” he told me, “your hymen is still intact.”
I was confused by this statement. I’d had only one sexual partner, but we’d had sex on multiple occasions. The first time it had hurt, there had been blood and a stinging sensation when I urinated afterward — surely that had been my hymen rupturing. I don’t recall exactly the words he used, but Tydall’s message was: I don’t know what to tell you, your hymen is intact. And because he was a doctor who had access to, and knowledge of, parts of my genital anatomy that I did not, I believed him and tucked that piece of information into the back of my mind.
When I recall the events of that exam through my trained eyes, I’m left with a sad, sinking feeling in my gut. I know far more about female genital anatomy now. And because bodies have the ability to remember pain even years after it occurred, I also know where I felt pain that day. It was not near the location of my hymen, it was deeper than that, on the anterior vaginal wall — an area commonly known as the G spot. Palpation of the G spot in a completely asymptomatic woman is not part of a normal pelvic exam, not even a very thorough normal pelvic exam.
There are legitimate reasons a healthcare provider might place fingers in a woman’s vagina during a pelvic exam: to evaluate a history of pain in a specific area or a lump, or to evaluate for vaginismus. But that would be indicated only for women exhibiting symptoms. Some providers routinely perform a bimanual exam to check the uterus and ovaries and some routinely evaluate pelvic floor muscles, but let me be clear, Tyndall was doing none of these things in the moment I am describing.
Did he make up the story about my hymen to cover for the pain he inflicted? Did he get some thrill talking to a young woman about virginity while doing this? I’ll never know — and honestly I don’t care to. Tyndall told the Los Angeles Times that he did nothing wrong. USC has called his actions “physical exams [that] did not meet current practice standards.” What I know is that he touched me inappropriately and gave me inaccurate information about my body.
I am writing this as a victim, yes, but also as a women’s healthcare provider who spends her days making sure women have a safe, comfortable and respectful experience during a pelvic exam. I want the other women violated by Tyndall at USC to know they were not confused. Tyndall used his position as a doctor and his knowledge of what could be considered normal in an exam to exploit women. What happened in my case — and I can only speculate happened in so many other cases like mine — was not normal and was not acceptable.
Tyndall was quoted in The Times as saying: “When I am on my deathbed … I want to think there are thousands and thousands of Trojan Women out there whose health I made a difference in.” His time would be better spent seeking forgiveness from those whose trust he betrayed. He did a grave disservice to his profession and to all the women’s healthcare providers who hold sacred the trust placed in them by patients.
Cate Guggino is a women’s health nurse practitioner in Ithaca, N.Y.