This is going to be another heavy hitter, Dear Readers. Please consider whether this is good for you to read before proceeding. It contains graphic descriptions of a miscarriage, surgery, and references to abortion.
I’ve given myself away, but then this is not fiction.
My medical school had an agreement with a VA (Veterans Administration) hospital, where third- and fourth-year medical students could rotate through and get some up-close-and-personal experience being on the front lines. Rather than standing on a stool (if you were short like me) holding retractors in the operating room, we were taught to actually operate.
And in the medical wing, we learned by doing, and by working closely with the attending physician. This was much better than standing at the back of a crowd of students, interns, and residents on ward rounds in the private hospital.
I had lots of harrowing adventures at the VA. I loved it. Everything was edgy and often dicey. The patients were high morbidity. The doctors were all foreign medical graduates, some of whom were the best docs I’ve ever worked with, and some of whom…well, I sure wouldn’t want them working on me. You just never knew, from day to day, what you would end up in the middle of.
I loved surgery. Part of that was Dr. Duy, a brilliant Vietnamese surgeon who taught me how to tie one-handed knots down in a hole (in those days, gall bladder surgery was done through an open incision, and you were literally working in a hole up to your wrist). He taught me how to amputate a gangrenous leg–we had to do that a lot because of the diabetic veterans who were “drinking men” and didn’t take care of themselves. (That was one of the intake questions: “Are you a drinking man?” It was crucial to know, because if he was, if deprived of his alcohol he might go into DT’s and die on us. For “drinking men,” part of the admission orders were two beers or two shots of rye whiskey per day, more if indicated.)
I dreaded operating with Dr. Chung, a Korean doc who didn’t speak much English and was a clumsy brute compared to Dr. Duy. He did a lot of abdominal surgeries looking for metastatic cancer. In those days the way you did that was by opening somebody up from top to bottom, and taking biopsies from all the major organs, to send to Pathology. Then you would stand around in the freezing OR, hugging yourself and jumping up and down until the frozen section came back. After that you either did or did not take out more stuff, and finally you closed the abdomen and took an x-ray to make sure you hadn’t left anything in there.
My job was to close the abdomen. There weren’t surgical staples back then, or any of a million conveniences we have now–just a bunch of different sizes of suture material, either dissolving or non-dissolving.
Dr. Chung would walk away, stripping off his gloves, and I knew that I was going to close. It was no easy task for a small person, especially if the patient was large, pulling the wound together and tying the knots, with nobody to put their finger on it to keep it from slipping. Yes, it was that simple.
Dr. Chung used to tell me to hurry up and just to make sure I did, he would tell the anesthesiologist to wake the patient up while I was still working!
The reason I’ve gone into all this is: One day I walked into the operating suite and smelled the distinctive odor of halothane gas. That is what we used in those days as the anesthetic. I’m sure some or even most of you have smelled that smell. There is nothing like it. It triggers my PTSD just thinking about it.
I walked into the OR and asked the scrub nurse, who was scurrying around setting up for the next case, what the deal was with the gas.
“Oh, the anesthesia machine is leaking,” she said in mid-scurry. “We have a requisition in.”
Uh-oh. That meant it might get fixed today, or next week, or next month…
So we operated with the doors open. I tell you, we were all half-anesthetized. I hope those patients did all right, because I don’t remember a thing. I spent two weeks half-gassed to death, and then my rotation ended and I could breathe again.
But not the baby I was carrying. I was married, and this was my first planned pregnancy. I was 16 weeks along, and I loved the little flutter in my tummy with all my heart.
Then one day, at the end of my surgery rotation, the fluttering stopped. The bleeding began.
I called my OB doc. He put me on strict bed rest. I was torn between being panicked at the prospect of losing my baby, and being panicked because my own OB rotation was supposed to start in a few days. But the bleeding got heavier, and finally waves of pain had me curled into the fetal position, panting. Then something warm and wet came out in a gush of blood.
I sat up and looked. It was a little alien, wrapped in its delicate capsule. All of it was there. I could see the tiny limbs, and the beginnings of a face….I wrapped it up in plastic wrap and took it to my OB. I don’t know what they did with it.
I can’t begin to describe the grief. I think losing this pregnancy unleashed all the grieving I hadn’t been able to do for the abortion I had suffered 13 years before. I was overcome, and could do nothing but sob for two weeks. Then I picked myself up, put on my whites and went to my OB-GYN rotation.
I knocked gingerly on the attending’s office door. She was the daughter of an OB with whom I had done a rotation as a 3rd year student, and we mutually hated each other. The daughter was worse than her father.
“Yes, come in,” she said to my knock. I entered. She did not offer me a chair. In fact, she did not even look up from her charting.
“I heard what happened. It won’t affect your grade,” was all she said. Then, awkwardly waiting for some other utterance, I perceived that there wasn’t going to be any, so I left her office.
I was met by a nurse in scrubs, who said “Come with me.” I followed her into a room where a woman was lying on a table, her feet up in stirrups, a stainless steel bucket on the floor between her legs, and what looked like a large suction hose…..
“Go ahead, sit down,” commanded a senior student. “You’re going to do this one.” I looked from the apparatus at the bottom of the table to the ashen face of the Hispanic woman at the top…
“Is this what I think it is?” I whispered. The senior student nodded. I threw up in the bucket and ran out. I ran all the way home and collapsed on the bed, hysterical. My husband came home and found me that way. It was the only time I ever saw him in a fury. I know that he went to the dean, because on another occasion when I was stuck holding retractors for the OB father and daughter combo (I had to repeat OB after that episode), they skewered me about my husband going to the dean.
All these years later, I just can’t, in my wildest nightmares, imagine expecting a woman who had just lost a wanted pregnancy, to go on abortion detail. I know there are many things more cruel than that in this world, but for me, at that moment, I would rather have suffered a horrible death than to perform an abortion.
All the while I was thinking of that woman. I found out her history, why she was there to get an abortion: she was a Mexican migrant worker, she already had six children, and her husband had threatened to punch her in the stomach if she didn’t abort, because six children was enough for him. Birth control pills were beyond her reach financially, and her husband refused to use condoms. So it was she who bore the consequences.
I firmly believe in a woman’s right to control over her own body. If that includes abortion, who am I to judge? When Rebecca, who was childless at the time, said “Give me children or I will die!” Isaac replied, “Am I instead of G-d, that I can give life? Go and pray!” I too feel that way: Am I instead of G-d, who gives life and brings death? I am just a mortal human, trying to feel my way as best I can.
As it says in Ethics of the Fathers (a Jewish text), “Judge not, lest you also be judged.”