USA and A WAR-TORN COUNTRY – Abortion: Stories from doctors and patients

The Story Collider has featured a number of personal abortion stories on their website from a June 2018 show in New York City. They’re too long to reproduce in full here, but it’s well worth reading them to the end. Here are excerpts from two of them:

Jacey Powers – an actress and a writer, a stand-up and a storyteller from New York City.
There was a lot going on when this whole thing happened. There was my dad’s sudden death and my mom getting sick and then this unplanned pregnancy, so it’s hard to really know where the story even began, but I know where the story ends. The story ends in the happiest place in the world, the recovery room at the Planned Parenthood in Manhattan. If you’ve never been there, you don’t get to judge. For 20 beautiful minutes you sit a room with a lot of ladies in recliners and everyone is drinking orange juice and eating cookies. Everyone just seems happy. Everyone seems relieved. Everyone seems like they are aware they are meant to be. It seems like they’re staring at a new beginning.

I guess the beginning of this story is technically sex, like five weeks before I found myself in the recovery room… Two days after this sex, I felt a lump in my left breast. Not really a lump. Like a density. I mention it to my boyfriend. I didn’t think it was a big deal but he insisted that I go in and see a doctor.

So when you get into doctors it gets into a lot of logistical bullshit. I didn’t have any insurance so I called Planned Parenthood. They told me that they wouldn’t give a mammogram or a breast ultrasound to a woman who was only twenty-five years old without first having a physical exam, which would be $100 which they couldn’t schedule for another two weeks. If I needed another test that would be another $300 and that could be another month of waiting. So I made some other calls and eventually I found a breast cancer navigator at a hospital in Harlem, and she said she could see me the next day. Then she passes my call over to this nurse who starts asking me a barrage of questions. What’s your birthday? How much do you weigh? Blah, blah, blah. When was your last period? Well, there’s an interesting question that I don’t have an answer for

A few months before, a friend of mine had bought me a bag of pregnancy tests as a gag gift. She thought it was hilarious that you could get three of them for a buck at the Dollar Tree. I think she thought it was funny because she was like a twenty-five-year-old virgin. I don’t know but I think that’s funny. Anyway, she gets me this bag and as I’m staring at these tests I’m not that nervous because I had a scare once or twice before but it always ended up with just me being crazy. That’s what I thought this was going to be. I’m like I’m going to end up with a negative pregnancy test and this lump in my breast that only exists in my imagination.

So I try one test. Then I try a second. Then I try a third. Blue line after blue line after blue line. As this reality sets in, all I want is to not have to make this decision. I had sort of decided for myself when I graduated from college that even though I was totally pro-choice, abortion was never going to be my choice. I would just feel… Anyway, I went to the internet and I Googled ‘ways to not be pregnant’. I didn’t want to have an abortion or anything. I just didn’t want to be pregnant. The best internet advice was to suck on Vitamin C tablets and chew on some parsley like a lunatic.

Twenty-four hours and twelve pregnancy tests later, I was in the office of the Harlem Breast Cancer Navigator. She said, “Hey, did you take that pregnancy test as you were instructed?” And I said, “Yes, I took two. One was positive and one was negative. I don’t know if I’m pregnant.” See, I had to lie. I had to lie because they told me in the phone that if I was pregnant they weren’t going to examine me because if I was pregnant then the density I felt was probably just a clogged milk duct or something, but I knew that it had been there before I could have possibly been pregnant. So the navigator examined me and she felt the density I was referring to and so she sent me across the street to get a breast ultrasound. I was greeted by a radiology nurse named Moira. Moira was this beautiful African-American woman with this broad smile and she was just glowing as she entered the waiting room, because she was eight months pregnant.

She’s just chatting me up, “Oh, yeah. Cysts are real common among young women, especially if you might be pregnant. I know you don’t know for sure but I was looking at your clipboard and it’s probably nothing. We see this kind of thing all the time. If you’re thinking of…” And then she was silent, just totally silent as she moved the ultrasound wand over my breast. I said, “What are you looking at?”
“A mass.” I said, “Mass sounds like not a cyst.” She said, “No. I mean, I don’t know. I’ll take some pictures and I’ll send Dr. Wilder in to come and talk to you.” Then she was gone.

And I lay there in that darkened exam room for the longest 20 minutes of my life. I just stared at the ceiling and I bargained with God. I said, “You know what? It’s totally cool if I have cancer. Really, it’s fine. I won’t even complain. As long as I get to live, it’s chill.” I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t even considered the idea that I might have cancer. I had been so busy worrying about possibly being accidentally pregnant. I just…

So the doctor comes in and he repeats what Moira had said to me and I just ask him point blank. I say, “Are you telling me that you think I have cancer?” Very gently he says, “I think there’s a 90% chance that the mass is going to come back malignant.” I say, “Okay. It’s just a lot, you know? I mean, my dad died six months ago totally unexpectedly. My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer just last month. She’s had cancer three times so it’s not like I never thought this could happen. I guess a part of me always thought that I would probably get cancer at some point, I just didn’t expect it to be today.”…

So my next call was to Planned Parenthood. Even with my newly acquired Medicaid and a medically necessary abortion, there was no way to cover it. Planned Parenthood was the only way to go, according to my doctors. I expected more red tape when I reached the operator but I didn’t even have to tell them that I had cancer. I told them I wanted an abortion and they said, “Can you come in tomorrow?” I quickly identified different kinds of women in the waiting room. Half the women were really young, teenagers basically, embarrassed, staring at their shoes, regretting some mistake they made one night. And the other half of the women were women closer to my own age staring you down, daring you to judge them. This was not their first time at the rodeo. But I was in either of these groups. I just floated above it. This whole thing was out of my hands…[continues]

Dr Rasha Khoury, a Palestinian woman who works as an emergency obstetrician-gynaecologist with Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) and is a fellow in Maternal-Fetal Medicine, Montefiore Medical Center, New York City
It’s about a four-hour drive every day to work for about ten hours in the hospital with our local staff and the route from the village to the destroyed town always made me feel homesick. Because we would ride in this convoy of white pickup trucks, past these rolling green hills with herds of sheep and shepherds and small village houses, and then the terrain would change into these flat fields with UN refugee camps which are basically white and blue tents, hundreds and hundreds of tents, and then these requisite soccer fields with little kids playing.

Then we’d get to the part that was probably buildings before and now is just pile of rocks that were kind of collapsed down. Then we drive a little bit more and come across burnt car skeletons. This was our cue, the women’s cue to put on our head scarves for the rest of the day. Then we’d drive past building after building that was destroyed and bombed in ways that I could never really decipher how exactly it happened We’d always wondered did the people get out in time? Then we’d get to the checkpoints and there was about four of them before we got to our hospital. In each checkpoint we’d sort of roll up, slow down, turn off the sappy music that was playing on the radio, take off our sunglasses. Everybody would kind of tensely smile at the armed guards as they checked our papers and waved us through. Eventually we’d make it to our buffer zones around our hospital which were filled with very smiley, unarmed guards who were MSF workers or Doctors Without Borders workers and they would smile and wave us through.

So on this day, I arrive and the ER is crammed with people crying from shrapnel wounds, screaming from burns, people having heart attacks, people that sliced their finger cutting bread, really everything, and my staff run over and they say there’s a woman in the maternity ward that I need to go see. She’s having trouble breathing. Having trouble breathing is an alarm sign in medicine and I run over to make sure this person is okay, much like somebody having an allergy. I see she’s hunched over. She’s really struggling to breathe. She looks exhausted and her mother is standing by her side. The patient tells me that she’s pregnant but she’s not sure how far along the pregnancy is. She whispers to me in Arabic, which is my first language, and she says, “I really need this pregnancy to end.”

I carry her over with my staff to a bed just so she’s more comfortable and I send somebody to grab the ultrasound machine from the ER so we can scan her and figure out what’s going on. My younger staff are so excited because I’ve been training them how to use the ultrasound and they love every opportunity to practice. They’re putting the probe on her belly and they’re kind of sliming over too much gel and they’re trying to see what they see. Instantly, I can see that there’s way too much water inside her uterus. It’s a problem that’s probably causing her to have a hard time breathing.

And they’re looking and looking and I see one fetus. I see the heart beating and then I realize we haven’t quite seen all the fetal parts. So I ask if I can help move their hand on her belly to check what’s going on. And I realize that the fetus doesn’t have brain structures, it has anencephaly, which means the absence of brain structures and these fetuses actually can’t survive. It’s a really rare problem. You almost never see it in the US. In my ten years here working, I’ve seen it a handful of times. And that week, in this project we’d seen it five times in five different women. It’s linked to things like not having access to food, to fortified food, to early pregnancy care, to family planning, to healthcare in general.

I start to tell her what’s going on and I’m explaining what I see and she starts to sob. Her mother, who is standing by her side, explains to me that just a few weeks ago she had lost three of her five kids in a mortar attack. Then it collapsed her home, and a couple weeks later her husband had been killed while trying to escape the siege of where they were with his elderly father.
So I take a deep breath because I’m also delivering some pretty terrible news and start to figure out how we’re going to move forward. Then in the background of where we’re standing I start to hear the word ‘haram’. ‘Haram’ is a word in Arabic that means forbidden in Islamic jurisprudence. It’s also a word that’s sometimes thrown out for socially unacceptable behaviors in the Arab world. People are saying haram, haram, haram, haram. All these different people. People are weighing in from other wards. The cleaners are weighing in. All my maternity staff is weighing in. To me it was very clear what needed to be done. What needed to be done was for us to help her end this pregnancy so that she would be okay.
So I’m discussing with my team and I’m trying to bring them on board and people are really hesitant. Eventually they say if I as a non-local staff take responsibility for this abortion, they’re okay with it. I internally get really mad because we’re a humanitarian organization. We offer impartial, neutral medical aid. We treat armed groups that perpetrate violence and the people who are victims of violence. For some reason when it comes to women and abortion, we get all wrapped up in the morality and the risk of the medical aid we’re providing. But I keep all this anger to myself and I sort of reflect on it many months later when I’m not in that situation. In the moment I say, “Okay, no problem. I’m a non-local staff. I’ll take the responsibility. I’ll do this abortion.
We are stressed because I soon have to leave because at sunset everyday our medical convoy has to leave this destroyed town because of risks of mortar attacks and kidnapping and such things, so I feel like I’m racing the clock. We start to give her the medications that induce her labor. It’s something called an induction termination, which is just another word for abortion and she actually starts to go into labor. She starts to contract, she breaks her water and then she starts to bleed, which is a very common problem when you have too much water in your uterus. Now I’m getting really nervous because I really don’t want anything to go wrong with this abortion and nothing bad to happen to this woman.
I’m working with my midwife and she’s amazing. She’s supporting this woman. The mother is praying for her, and we’re grabbing bags of saline and blood and the different medications that we need. In the midst of all this, my radio, which is how we stay safe in the field in such projects, starts to go off and it’s saying, “Medical convoy is leaving in ten minutes.” [continues]

SOURCE: The Story Collider: True Personal Stories about Science Part 1 + PHOTOS, 24 August 2018

SEE ALSO: The Story Collider: True Personal Stories about Science Part 2, especially the quite disturbing story by a doctor from the USA, working in a clinic in Uganda, who is accused of doing an abortion for a four-months pregnant woman, by a very threatening group of men from an anti-abortion organisation, even though she had refused to do the abortion when the woman had requested it. The story focuses on how the group of men are finally convinced the abortion didn’t happen by the male clinic director and another male staffperson, and they then go away. But the pregnant woman, sitting in the corner, says nothing and no one talks to her, and her need for an abortion is never addressed again.