In the medical field, we are just like everyone else in that we have our own religious, political and social views. We all have our own set of moral values just like anyone else. But at the same time, you have to know when to put them aside. There is a time for intellectual debate and then there is the time for understanding, even if it goes against your deepest moral fibers. Today was a day that tested many of us in the ER.
Heather came into my ER today with her husband seeking help for a severe pain she was having in her abdomen. She tells me that this pain started today and has been constant for the past few hours. She describes the pain as a dull feeling across the whole abdomen, but hasn’t had any nausea, vomiting or diarrhea. She hasn’t had any fever either, no shortness of breath and no back pain. She has never felt anything quite like this before in fact. She is otherwise a healthy young woman in her mid-20’s who has just given birth to their second child about 6 months ago.
During the course of testing in the ER, it became obvious that she would benefit from having a CT scan (CAT scan). As a woman, it would be necessary to first be sure that she wasn’t pregnant because of the extreme harm that could come to a developing fetus if exposed to all that radiation. I had asked her if she could be pregnant and she said it was very unlikely. She seemed a little sad when she answered that question, but not to the point that I felt the need to ask. We still checked a pregnancy test to be sure though.
And … it was positive. Hmm, interesting I thought. I guess that might help explain the stomach ache, but not in the way that I initially expected it turned out. I went in to the room to deliver what I hoped would be good news (you can never be sure) and received my next surprise. Heather had undergone an abortion this morning. Just a small detail that she forgot to mention I suppose.
Heather was 8 weeks pregnant this morning when she and her husband went to an inner city clinic to have this pregnancy erased. She didn’t want to bring it up because it was a very private and extremely difficult decision that she and her husband had to make. It certainly explained why they were so quiet and reserved. She cried when she told me about the procedure and her husband looked to be grieving as well.
As difficult as it was for them, I had to understand what exactly was done because abortions, even when done in appropriate clinics, still have some serious risks associated with them. She cried when she told me how after they had numbed her private area that they hooked her up to a vacuum suction and that it was over in seconds.
I held her hand feeling the remorse and sadness in her heart. Although it wasn’t necessary, she tried to explain why she felt they had to do it, “We just had a baby 6 months ago and I just wouldn’t be able to handle having another one so soon. I know I should have been more careful, I know … I just couldn’t.” I tried my best to reassure her without judging her, without criticizing her. Then her pain started to get better, almost all on its own.
Before long it was time for them to go home. I went into their room one last time to go over things that would indicate an emergency requiring her to return. She took me by surprise and gave me a hug. They both then told me how much anguish they had been in and how much fear they had of being judged. They appreciated how we had all treated them with compassion, with empathy and without prejudice.
Sometimes the pain in our hearts expresses itself in strange ways. Was it the grief she had over losing her child, over making a decision she would possibly regret for the rest of her life, was that the reason behind her pain? Incidentally, all of her tests came back normal and when I called them the next day to check on her condition, her husband told me they were both getting better.
We all do things that we regret because we are all human with a limited perspective, with the potential to be weak in the face of great trials or overwhelming circumstances. I was grateful not to have been in her circumstances and that I didn’t have to make that decision. I just wonder if the rest of the world has the heart to step back the next time they meet someone who has made a choice with which they disagree. They won’t have to live with the pain the rest of their lives the way others do.