Last Thursday, I was about to go to the admitting office on the hospital grounds where I’d come for my ultrasound appointment. Before I left, I just had to ask the OB-GYN receptionist, to make absolutely sure: “Is this a Catholic hospital?”
The receptionist hesitated and then asked one of the nursing staff who’d come up if she knew what faith the chaplain was. I turned to the nurse. “No, that’s not why I asked,” I said. “The last time I had a problem with a pregnancy, I had Catholic health care and they sent me home to miscarry. I want to know that they offer a full range of medical care here.”
She understood and said no, it wasn’t a Catholic hospital. She said they were checking me in because they thought this was serious and they planned to treat me immediately. I probably looked a little dazed. She found someone to walk us to admitting and make sure we didn’t get lost.
My ultrasound appointment had started as scheduled, at 3 p.m. that day. I figured we’d hear the heartbeat for the first time, go home with a blurry, indecipherable black-and-white image, and start planning in earnest for a new baby. We already had a nickname. But the tech said she was having trouble finding it. She didn’t play us the heartbeat and said she had to go get the doctor. She was so caring toward us afterward, but I bet she cleans up at poker.
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Then the doctor came in and explained that it was a tubal, or ectopic, pregnancy. Modern medicine can perform many wonders, but a tubal pregnancy can’t be saved. If it’s not removed in time, it’s a serious health risk to the pregnant person. As the doctor explained to me, since it was far enough along to hear a heartbeat, they considered this an emergency situation.
By 5:30 p.m., I was in a hospital bed talking with nurses and doctors about how soon they could get me into surgery, considering that I’d eaten half a granola bar at 2:30. I was shocked and panicked. I was grieving. I was having a hard time being still so they could get the IV started. I was probably not a fun patient, but everyone was about as kind as anyone could hope.
It wasn’t my first time as a surgical patient. As a child, I’d had appendicitis that waited too long for treatment because my parents delayed to find a doctor who would perform major abdominal surgery on a 7-year-old and agree not to use blood transfusions under any circumstances. Jehovah’s Witnesses. It turned into full-blown peritonitis, infection of the entire abdominal cavity. The treatment required two surgeries, rearrangement of my intestines and other organs to clean the infected tissue, more than a week in intensive care, and three months overall in a hospital.
During that hospital stay, the nurses had a hard time keeping IV needles in my arms. That was a problem because my digestive system had come to a complete stop, and it was the only way to feed me. One day, my mother counted, they’d had to replace the IV needle 14 times. I had near-daily blood tests. There was one test where they had to fill several large vials from the one site, and they took so much blood that my arm hurt too much to move it for three days. It made an impression. Needles terrify me. I can’t logic my way out of it. Sorry in advance, every phlebotomist I will ever meet.
Then there was the other surgery, for that problem pregnancy. The one that had started miscarrying by the time it could be diagnosed because I had a massive ovarian cyst that had gone undetected through years of no medical care at all. The doctors said it was urgent, but they couldn’t operate until I’d miscarried. Catholic health care. What if I don’t miscarry, I asked. But you are miscarrying, they said. They sent me home, increasingly shaky and too bent over with cramps to walk straight, until the pregnancy was officially over. I was so weak I passed out during one of my pre-surgery blood tests and was shaking for an hour until I could get something to eat. Then they had me do a 24-hour fast, drink something horrible that kept me throwing up all night, and brought me in for a surgery that I was surprised to wake up from missing an ovary. Someone forgot to discuss that with me in advance as a possibility.
So when one of the doctors last Thursday came to bring me consent forms and said that a possible result of the surgery they were getting me ready for was the removal of an ovary—while one very patient nurse was trying to put an IV in my arm and another was trying to take my medical history—I may have started backing up the incline of the hospital bed, saying something like, “No, you can’t! I only have one!”
Party in my room, everyone’s disinvited.
I calmed down enough to explain the previous surgery and to let my saintly nurse get the IV started. The doctor left to regroup. After a little while, another doctor came in. They’d looked at the pictures again.
She said she could see I was scared. She said there was no better place for me to be under the circumstances. I had to admit that she was right. She said she wanted to keep that remaining ovary as much as I did, because otherwise she’d have to treat me for hot flashes. She said it looked like the attachment point was also all the way on the other side, near where the missing ovary would have been, and that while they might have to take out a small piece of the uterus, there should be no long-term problems.
I thanked her with all my heart. I felt I could trust that she would be making decisions in the operating room that I’d agree with. I relaxed a little for the first time that evening, and my husband and I were able to have some time together to deal with the news.
I was talking to the anesthesiologist by about 9:30 p.m. that night. He told us it would probably be about three hours, and not to worry if it went a little long, not to feel rushed about going home. My husband held my hand as we went down the hall, my son’s grandparents brought him to the end of the ward so I could give him a kiss before going in, and shortly after that I stopped remembering things for a while.
I woke up to a new scar and not pregnant. And very, very grateful for my life. I got to go home to my family that weekend. Thank you, doctors. Thank you, nurses. Thank you, everybody who reached out to us.
Other things I’m grateful for include the many benefits of living in a state that hasn’t been taken over by misogynist barbarians who like tormenting women at what may be the worst moments of our lives. Or creating worst moments of our lives on purpose.
For instance, the doctor wasn’t required to tell me lies about the risks of removing that life-threatening pregnancy while I was also freaking out about whether or not I was going to wake up missing bits of me again. The ultrasound tech was allowed to be decent and compassionate toward us, instead of being forced to play us the sound of that doomed heartbeat and describe what few anatomical features she might have seen, even as my husband and I were both crying over what we’d suddenly realized was our loss. The only waiting period they had to be concerned about was the safe time they could operate based on when I’d recently eaten. I’m grateful that I was able to walk into that health-care facility without a sidewalk circus of nasty strangers talking to me about a baby that wasn’t coming, or calling me names as I went by and blocking my way during a very hard walk, or shouting at my heartbroken husband that he needed to “man up” and stop me.
I’m grateful that during this medical emergency, my doctors were allowed to follow only their best judgment about what care would keep me healthiest, according to the most current standards of their profession. Their only legal concern was my safety. The police had no part in our story. If you want to imagine me at this moment, picture me thumbing my nose at every meddling anti-choice medievalist who was prevented from making a terrible week even worse and threatening my health to boot.
Ectopic pregnancies are dangerous, and the only way to treat them is through a termination. If I were less well-off and in a rural part of a state like Texas, where low-income prenatal care has been nearly demolished in a blunt, smashing fit of rage at abortion providers, I might have had to forgo that routine ultrasound visit and just had to hope everything was fine until I could plan a trip out of town or get to my turn on a long waiting list. I might not have been lucky enough to be near three major hospitals that could admit me at once, where several doctors on staff were willing to take my case without hesitation.
A doctor might not have seen me until the growing embryo and placenta had caused a rupture and internal bleeding, until I’d felt cramps, or felt faint, or maybe passed out from blood loss. They might not have been able to get important details about my medical history if they hadn’t been able to wake me up first, or begun emergency surgery unprepared for the mass of internal scarring and missing organs I told my doctors to expect.
Or they might not have gotten to me in time at all. Because pregnancy is dangerous. It’s dangerous when everything goes right. It’s very dangerous when anything goes wrong.
Modern medicine has given us many wonders. But I think that makes it easy to forget, or to conveniently obscure, that every pregnancy is a risk. We can forget that every pregnancy is so risky that, if it weren’t a pregnancy but a procedure, we would have to sign a thick pile of consent forms and liability waivers to undertake it. If it weren’t a pregnancy, we’d have to opt in for it, rather than have moralizing strangers talk about why we should be forced to stick with it, hell or high water. Pregnancy without modern obstetric care is more dangerous than a kidney transplant, with a high child mortality rate for the trouble, and even now, you just never know.
This isn’t how I wanted any of this to go. I didn’t go to my ultrasound hoping for a political statement; I wanted a due date. And odds are, you’re not one of the handful of people I was planning to share my news with this week. But it happened like it did, and there’s nothing to do but to lie here until this scar heals up some more and try to get my head around the facts of the situation.
Writing has become part of dealing with things like this for me. But as long as I’m at it, I couldn’t help but think about all the ways it could have gone differently if anti-choice laws prevailed where I live. It would have been worse in every way, for no sound reason. The best care I could have gotten was the immediate care that I did get. The best information I could have gotten was the medically accurate information that I did get. For women all over the country, when they’re faced with a pregnancy they have to decide to end—and I trust without hesitation that their reasons are right for them, because who would know their lives better than they do—it is worse in every way.
Because messing with this aspect of someone else’s life should always be seen as the torture that it is. Torture inflicted on unknown women because they didn’t have the political power to demand humane treatment and a right to bodily self-determination.
If you think you know better than women whether we should be pregnant at any given time, that’s how I will always think of you. As a torturer. As someone who would have heartlessly complicated my family’s tragedy without knowing or caring anything about us. And on this, we will be enemies, until you finally decide to recognize the fullness of women’s humanity and our own right to our lives.