My first direct experience with abortion happened in 1966, eight years before the 1973 passage of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that protects a pregnant women’s liberty to choose to have an abortion without excessive government restriction. This is the story of that experience as I remember it.
I was a 23 years old nun, working as a surgical nurse at a mid-size midwestern Catholic hospital. Weekends were always staffed with a skeletal crew, and so one Saturday when I got the call to go to the operating room for an emergency, I knew we would be understaffed. I was the first to arrive and found our patient already in the operating room, awake and immobile. Before she saw me, I saw the look of deep terror on her face; as I approached her, the terror seemed to escalate. Intuitively I sensed that the fact I was a nun made our encounter even more troublesome for her.
I prided myself in taking the time to interact with my patients before they were anesthetized, and so tried to say something comforting, ask her questions, touch her hand. She was immobile, silent, and continuing to escalate her terror as I watched her stare at me. Soon the anesthesiologist arrived, began the process of sedation and I left the room to scrub for the surgical procedure. I was already haunted by the woman’s facial expression and silence.
The surgeon arrived and I was relieved to find he was one I trusted and admired, a young and very competent physician who often noted that nothing unsettled him; he had been a resident at Cook County Hospital in Chicago and had once observed that he had “seen it all”. That day gave the lie to that claim, but neither of us knew it then. Still troubled by my experience with the patient, I asked him what he knew.
The patient was admitted with complaints of severe abdominal pain that had lasted several days and with symptoms indicating potential shock. She was a 40-year-old Catholic white female, divorced, with two children, a 12 year old girl and a 15 year old boy, who were in the surgical services waiting room. It was Saturday; they waited alone. Also, because it was Saturday, the physician’s partner had not yet arrived to assist in the surgery. We were reluctant to wait, worried about the patient’s state. We quickly moved into efficient action, and the surgeon made an incision in the patient’s distended abdomen.
I think we were both shocked: her abdominal cavity was full of large blood clots, some as large as an orange. We began rapidly removing them, searching for the source of the bleeding. As the surgeon palpated the various body parts within her abdomen, he looked up at me stricken: “I think she’s pregnant”. We escalated our search and our effort to remove clots and sponge up blood throughout her abdomen. We ordered blood and forced six units into her to try to compensate for what was clearly extreme blood loss. We could not find the source of the bleeding. The surgeon determined that the time spent in our search was increasing stress on the patient, and decided to close the incision, and try to stabilize her.
She was wheeled out of the operating room by an OR tech, though I think neither the surgeon nor I had been aware of his presence until then. We stood in the room silently trying to process our experience when the tech returned. “She died in the hall” he announced, accompanied by the surgeon’s partner who had arrived and confirmed the outcome.
The surgeon was bereft. “I have to go tell those two kids that their mother is dead and I don’t know either of them or her; no one here seems to know them”. Often someone knew our patients but not in this case. I offered to go with him and he dismissed the suggestion, I felt perhaps because he too wasn’t sure what impact the presence of a nun might have on the kids. I accepted his decision.
Due to the unusual nature of this patient’s health crisis and outcome, an autopsy was required. The surgeon came to find me one day, and told me that they had found the source of the bleeding: a small puncture of the wall of the bladder where we store urine. The hole was small enough that the judgment was made that it was unlikely anyone could have found it. The patient had obviously been bleeding internally for a very long period of time: confounding, and a sobering level of human affliction.
A few days later the surgeon sought me out again. The patient’s sister had found a crochet hook with blood on it wrapped in a piece of gauze and tucked behind the radiator in the patient’s bathroom. Piecing together this information and with the help of the sister, the explanation emerged. The patient had tried to induce her own abortion. She had hoped to insert a crochet hook through her vagina and puncture the uterus to activate an abortion. She had instead inserted the crochet hook through her urethra, the drainage tube for urine (which had to be painful) and punctured her bladder. She had endured a profound amount of suffering in her attempt to end her pregnancy.
I had not before and have not since ever seen the depth of terror that I saw on this patient’s face. I always will remember that. I also always will remember that I was the last person who spoke to her. I had tried to reach out, tried to comfort her. I did not feel that I had succeeded. She seemed to me then, and still seems to me a woman frozen in time and the consequences of a lonely irrevocable desperate decision.
I post this blog to honor this woman, my patient, and her children. Her story is my antidote to the often, facile, simplistic, dismissive and patronizing chatter of anti-abortion political activists, including those who serve on the US Supreme Court.
“Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.” ~Sue Monk Kidd