February 16th, 2011

Offering My Breasts For Science

Never did I think that feeling myself up would be beneficial to anyone but myself (and a webcam friend or two), but it is, and here I am. Topless. Sitting in one of America’s best medical schools, teaching eight doctors-to-be how to perform breast examinations.

It is my first day as a Genital Teaching Associate (GTA) and I am a little nervous. No one told me I’d be sitting in front of so many good-looking people. It’s like I’m on the set of Grey’s Anatomy. If only I’d known; I would’ve worn nicer pants.

GTAs are a group of specially trained men and women, who use their bodies as a model for medical students to practise breast, pelvic and rectal examinations. The rationale is that these examinations can be awkward and intimidating for both the patient and the medical practitioner.

Why not provide a safe, structured environment for nurses, medical students, and even some doctors to learn proper techniques, bedside manner and gain feedback?

Many students don’t realise it but they’ll put on their gloves, adjust their hair or some other germ-riddled item, and then touch a patient’s privates. Or they’ll forget to tuck their fingers in during a pelvic exam and tweak the clitoris. My personal favorite: Telling a patient to spread her legs.

I originallly became a GTA for less than altruistic reasons – I was doing research for a mockumentary script I was writing (that’s one of the benefits of this vocation – I get to try all sorts of things in the name of research). However, as I delved more into the world of GTAs, I realised the importance of the role they play. I don’t enjoy going to the gynaecologist. I think few women do. But I’ve been to enough gynae appointments to know that the person at the other end of speculum can make such a difference.

Some women, traumatised by their gynaecological experiences, eventually stop going. Given how important reproductive health is, if there is anything I can do to make the entire experience more pleasant and welcoming for others, why not? And it doesn’t hurt that GTAs are, quite understandably, compensated well.

Jaclyn Chan. Photo by Su Yin Mah.

The students are now standing in two lines, on either side of my breasts. There is a Gorgeous Man who has no problem with the exam (I presume he’s had a lot of personal experience). There’s the Giggly Lady, who is afraid to use any pressure, lest I explode. And then here is the Chubby Redhead, who is probably seeing his first, real-life breast.

Chubby Redhead is sweating buckets. As he steps up, all I can think about are the beads of perspiration, rolling down his face, coalescing into a huge globule and falling onto my chest. I resist the urge to giggle. Instead, I take his hand, put him at ease with humour and guide him through a few palpations. Mid-way, he stops and asks if he’s found a lump.

My breasts could be considered, for lack of a better word, textural. I ask Chubby Redhead to palpate the other breast. How does it feel? He shrugs; the same. Examining both breasts in comparison, I’ve learnt, is the fastest way to figure out baseline consistency. Gorgeous Man asks if he can have another go. I nod. Soon, others are asking for seconds.

Their desire to be good doctors fills me with pride. Single tear. There is hope for the medical profession.

Breast cancer is the second most common cancer amongst women. As much as medical practitioners provide an important line of defense, women owe it to themselves to be familiar with their bodies, so they will be aware of any changes. Although I consider myself to be fairly attuned to my body, my experience as a GTA, having to explain and articulate my thoughts to students, helped me understand it even more.

So, ladies, feel yourself up. Feel someone else up. Better yet, feel each other up, since breast lumps are very often found by partners. It’ll be fun and it might even save lives.

Jaclyn Chan is a television and film writer based in Singapore. She worked as a GTA while attending film school in Southern California three years ago.

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