Nicole Abi-Najem's Story

"The health gap for me felt more like a chasm, this gaping void where I could not see the end; I could not see hope."


Women’s College Hospital has been drawing attention to the “health gap” – a term that describes the unique challenges faced by women when it comes to their healthcare. Research shows that, across the system, women’s needs are not being met as a result of overlooked physiological differences, cultural obstacles and life circumstances.
 
As the only hospital in Canada devoted to advancing health for women, WCH is working hard to close the gap. Nicole’s powerful story demonstrates this work in action. We are thrilled to champion her voice as she champions health for women and the impact of Women’s College Hospital.
 
The health gap for me felt more like a chasm, this gaping void where I could not see the end; I could not see hope.
 
It started in 2012 with this unrelenting urge to pee, no matter whether my bladder was full or empty. It drove me crazy, no matter what; it was there, this storm within me, tormenting me. Physical pain and discomfort is maddening, and what makes it even more intolerable is when you’re in the shadow of a disease for which no one is there to show support, or offer treatment.
 
I knew from early on I had interstitial cystitis (IC): a chronic condition of the bladder where the inner lining is compromised for reasons not yet known, causing symptoms of pain, urgency and frequency. IC has led many to take their own lives, and for myself, I had thought of it plenty of times, because no money, no luxuries and no love can make living a life of chronic pain and discomfort worthwhile.
 
Countless specialists treated me with everything from antibiotics for UTIs to the range of medications for overactive bladder syndrome. But mostly, I was told it was in my head, to see a psychiatrist, to deal with it. I was told over and over that “it will get better,” before they – they being some in the medical community – closed the door and I was once again alone.
 
For me, the health gap has felt like long waits to see doctors, dismissals from the medical community; the health gap has felt like hopelessness. The shadow is still there, and I have to be aware of it, otherwise it engulfs me.

I’m not alone. Research shows that three-quarters of women have been told by their doctor at least once that their pain is all in their head, that nothing can be done for them.
 

Compared to men, who are taken more seriously by their physicians when they report pain, women are often deeply underserved when it comes to their health concerns.

 
Knowing that IC overwhelmingly affects women, I eventually asked to be referred to Women’s College Hospital. I felt I needed a safe haven where my unique symptoms would be looked at with sensitivity. I remember when I heard the name of my doctor who’d be seeing me there: his last name sounded like it had the word “love” in it, and to me, that felt like hope.
 
Going to see Dr. Lovatsis has not meant a cure, but for the first time, someone didn’t question me. He didn’t make me question myself. He was the first one to acknowledge what I had long known: I had IC.  
It certainly hasn’t been the end of the journey, but it has been the beginning of one that’s a bit brighter. Dr. Lovatsis was the first to prescribe me medication specifically for IC, and the first to hear me.
 
Since then, I still struggle, but I have had moments of triumph. I recently talked to David Main, CEO of the pharmaceutical company Aquinox, and he showed me what could be next – a revolutionary treatment for IC, the first of its kind. This gives me hope.

The chasm is shrinking, however slowly, with the help of Women’s College Hospital. I can now start to see the other side of the gap, and on the other end, I see women. I see them and they’ve made it, and eventually, I’ll be there, all women will be there.  

For more information about the Health Gap and how Women's College Hospital is closing it, visit www.thehealthgap.ca

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