Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. is a Gynecologist, Director of the New York Menopause Center, Clinical Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Weill Cornell Medical College, and Assistant Attending Obstetrician and Gynecologist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. She is a board certified fellow of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology. Dr. Allen is also a member of the Faculty Advisory Board and the Women’s Health Director of The Weill Cornell Community Clinic (WCCC). Dr. Allen was the recipient of the 2014 American Medical Women’s Association Presidential Award.

by Patricia Yarberry Allen, MD | bio

I was completely caught off guard when I was watching "The Closer," my favorite television program, last week.

I listen to menopausal stories from patients in my office. I respond to questions online from women who write in about hormone therapy, hot flashes and other menopause-related health issues. So watching episode 8 ("Manhunt") of this third season, I thought I was having a déjà vu moment, conversations from work coming through my television set on a Monday night.

"I’m 100 years too young for this," LAPD Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson (Kyra Sedgwick, who turns 42 on Sunday) screamed at the gynecologist who had just given her a diagnosis of early onset menopause. Dr. Rebecca Dioli (played by guest star S. Epatha Merkerson) then proceeded to list every negative, frightening and stereotypical symptom.

"You are young for menopause," she said, "but you will have the same memory loss, fatigue, no sleep, wrinkles, dry skin and hot flashes as all women in menopause have." Followed by this supportive information: "I know all about it. I’ve had such terrible hot flashes that I haven’t slept for three years and I keep a fan in my purse."

Those are my notes from watching; the dialogue may not be exact. The key point is that as a gynecologist, I found this exchange between the knowledgeable doctor and the suffering patient to be important and illuminating.

The scene made me wonder how often women in the menopausal transition are not only given no hope for symptom relief, but are also handed a laundry list of all the unpleasant symptoms ever experienced by those with full-blown menopausal syndrome.

How can we expect women to come up with a plan for symptom management when the doctor is blind to the opportunity this medical visit presents? Instead of focusing on the symptoms that brought Brenda to the gynecologist’s office in the first place, the doctor chose to focus on menopause as an alarming and unmanageable aging process.

When Brenda pointed out that "the symptoms that I came to see you about before the tests were done have disappeared," she was asking for reassurance and support. The doctor responded, "You are just lucky for the moment. They will all come back."

I believe the first visit that a woman makes to her gynecologist to discuss menopausal symptoms is likely to have a real impact on her attitude from that day forth. Doctors must listen carefully and not offer unnecessary or alarming predictions. We must understand that this is an opportunity to provide factual information and to listen to our patients’ fears.

It is, in other words, an opportunity for healing and hope. In this case, the doctor not only delivered the news in a very negative way, she compounded the problem by revealing her own extreme experience.

It’s terrific to see television address a very real issue in women’s lives. I only wish the writers had taken the opportunity to present a more enlightened and supportive discussion. It will be interesting to watch how this storyline plays out in upcoming episodes.

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  • Carolyn Hahn August 14, 2007 at 9:22 pm

    …But, clunky as it was, it was an honest discussion about menopause, which never happens on TV. So I know what you mean about wishing it had been more nuanced { I wouldn’t expect my primary care doctor or my gyno to go on about his/her medical issues} but at least it took place, flawed and all.