There were no size 5 gumboots on the surgical unit.
I was doing a six-month obstetrics & gynaecology residency. I looked all through the women’s theatre changeroom. I found nothing but single-use elasticated paper shoe covers, and a few pairs of clogs and sneakers. I sneaked into the men’s theatre changeroom. There were lots of pairs of white gumboots, but nothing smaller than a size seven. (This is men’s sizing; my size 5 feet are the average size for a woman). I tried the sevens on, but I couldn’t walk in them safely. Not an option for an OB/GYN resident rushing from place to place.
I asked theatre staff about smaller gumboots.
“All the female residents before you just wore the shoe covers over their street shoes”, came the bemused reply. “Why do you have a problem with that?”
Have you ever been at a C section? Right up close, I mean — assisting? There’s a reason obstetric staff don a huge shin-length plastic apron before putting the sterile gown on. And it’s not just because some surgeries can involve blood splashes. When a women’s uterus is cut open, amniotic fluid gushes – sometimes fountains – out. Typically, it gushes toward the assistant, possibly because the obstetrician isn’t so keen to take a shower in it, and positions the operative field accordingly. Being quick with a suction tube can help, as can leaping away from the table at a strategically-timed moment. But if it’s under pressure in there, and especially if it’s a “crash” section (luckily, we did few of these), the assistant can expect to have bloodied body fluids dripping off the bottom of their gown at least some of the time.
Gumboots come up to just below the knee, and are waterproof and readily cleaned and sanitised. Gumboots leave the assistant safely undeluged in bloody fluids. Paper covers over street shoes… well, you can imagine the rest. There is no way to get them clean them after that. It is unhygienic and unsafe, not too mention the expense of shoe replacement.
This is Infection Control 101, right? Right? Gumboots are basic safety equipment for hospital employees who are required to assist at C sections and similarly non-tidy procedures.
Well, I asked, “What do the male residents do? Do they wear paper shoe covers?”
I was told, “They just grab some of the hospital gumboots from the pool in the men’s theatre change room.”
“Could I have some gumboots in my size, please? A five.”
There came silence. “I don’t think they make them in that size. Nobody ever asked for them before.” I was brushed off.
In this hospital, functional protective equipment was only provided for doctors who happened to be men. The embedded sexism was so powerful that it had not occurred to the staff that women were doing the exact same jobs as men. It was just assumed that women would wear dinky paper covers over their street shoes, dealing with the contamination and cleanup on their own time and on their own dime, while men clumped around in practical, safe, sanitary boots, provided free of charge and cleaned by the hospital. I guess clumping around in boots was no job for a woman. Hospital administration preferred to deny the existence of female OB residents, ignore them, pretend such oddities didn’t exist.
It was the same story with scrubs. The women’s change rooms were stocked with two-piece scrub outfits, the top being a basic tee-shaped shirt which pulled off over the head. If the shirt was bloodied, there was no way to safely and cleanly remove it – it would only pull off over the head. The men’s changerooms were stocked with one-piece overalls with a zipper up the front. If contaminated, the wearer could unzip the overalls and drop them to the ground, without contaminating their head and hair in the removal.
I went into the men’s change rooms and grabbed a stash of overall scrubs to wear. I had to wear an overlarge size to accommodate my breasts and hips, meaning I had to roll the legs up (again, a potential safety hazard) – but it was better than the “women’s” scrubs.
What happened with the boots in the end? I had to escalate the gumboot question through three or four levels of the hospital hierarchy before someone begrudgingly agreed to locate and buy a pair of freakishly small gumboots especially for me. It took several weeks of bureaucratic hogwash, and I was forced in the interim to work in an unsafe environment with improper safety equipment.
Those gumboots are probably still there, though perhaps my name, writ large along the backs in black marker, has rubbed off by now. I hope there’s a woman resident finding them useful to this day, someone who didn’t have to fight the system just to avoid getting blood on her shoes.