Listening First

This article, written by Rachel Vogel Quinn with photography by Emily Kestel, originally appeared in dsm magazine’s 2023 Inclusion issue and is republished with permission from Business Publications Corporation.

Kaaren Olesen, D.O.’97, M.H.A.’96, OB-GYN clinic section chief at Broadlawns Medical Center in Des Moines, was the first gynecologist in Des Moines to perform a transgender hysterectomy. In 2015, a retiring doctor started referring his transgender patients to her. Through continuing education and learning from peers, she has become an expert in gender-affirming surgery and was named a One Iowa Inclusive Provider.

“I can remember the first trans male who came to me, 19 years old, wanting to transition,” Olesen said. “The power that I was able to give him, honoring his request and performing the surgery, was super impactful. And I feel that every time.”

Olesen treats patients from many different backgrounds, including women who have experienced sexual assault or been sexually trafficked. She makes sure patients know they are in control of the appointment. Especially with LGBTQ+ patients, she tries to ask open-ended questions and listen first, rather than making assumptions. She doesn’t rush into an exam, as some LGBTQ+ patients may have been traumatized by a gynecological exam in the past. If the patient just wants to talk on that first visit, Olesen is all ears.

“I want to make sure everybody that I take care of feels listened to, acknowledged and valued.”

— Kaaren Olesen, D.O.’97, M.H.A.’96

In surgery, even when the patient is unconscious, she corrects nurses or other staff members who inadvertently use the wrong name or pronouns for the patient. “I stop and make sure that the patient, who can’t advocate for themselves in that moment, is being honored the way they want to be,” Olesen said.

Broadlawns has created a culture of inclusivity that helps patients feel more comfortable from the moment they arrive, Olesen said. But the medical field isn’t always so welcoming. She often hears stories from her LGBTQ+ patients about their experiences with other doctors: times they weren’t listened to, times when their needs and opinions were ignored. These stories break her heart.

“I want to make sure everybody that I take care of feels listened to, acknowledged and valued,” she said.

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