Abortion: Stories from doctors and patients - Part 1

This week, we're presenting a special two-part bonus episode featuring the stories from our June 2018 show in New York City, "Abortion: Stories from doctors and patients," which was part of Caveat's first annual Underground Science Festival. Rather than the speeches we typically hear on this topic, our storytellers -- who are both OB-GYNs and patients -- have shared firsthand experiences that cross both generations and borders, and are crucial to our understanding of women's health. Stay tuned for Part 2 tomorrow, August 29!

 Story Collider's artistic director, Erin Barker, and New York producer Paula Croxson introduce the show at Caveat last June. Photo by Zhen Qin.

Story Collider's artistic director, Erin Barker, and New York producer Paula Croxson introduce the show at Caveat last June. Photo by Zhen Qin.

Part 1: Actress and playwright Jacey Powers faces a difficult decision when she’s diagnosed with breast cancer just as she discovers she's pregnant.

Jacey Powers is an actress and a writer, a stand-up and a storyteller. Jacey started acting at the age of five, when she appeared in the classic drama, The Chicken and the Man. She played the chicken. Her only line was “Cluck, cluck, cluck.” In the end the man ate her. Since then she has been seen performing off-Broadway and regionally. Some favorites include Our Town (Barrow Street Theatre), Falling (Minetta Lane Theatre) and Band Geeks! (Goodspeed Opera Company). She played the lead role in Picking Up (DR2 Theatre), which she also wrote. Her newest play, Not About The Cat had a reading in NYC last summer. It featured Kathryn Erbe, John Pankow and Deidre Lovejoy. As a stand-up she’s been seen at The Comedy Cellar/Village Underground, Stand-Up NY, Broadway Comedy Club, Dangerfield’s and more. She delivered the opening speech at the final Avon 39 Walk to End Breast cancer this past fall, and her story: “Army of Women,” aired on NPR last spring. She is a graduate of NYU and believes Nutella is the way to world peace.

Part 2: Working with Doctors Without Borders in a war-torn country, OB-GYN Rasha Khoury tries to save a pregnant woman in critical condition. 

Dr. Rasha Khoury is a Palestinian woman who works as an emergency obstetrician with Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres -MSF) and is a fellow in Maternal Fetal Medicine at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, NY. Dr. Khoury’s clinical work and research centers around reducing maternal morbidity and mortality by improving access to high quality, dignified and safe abortion and contraceptive care, antepartum, delivery, and postpartum care among vulnerable populations (including women of color, women living in poverty, and women enduring displacement and war). Her work as a humanitarian medical aid worker has taken her to Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Cote d’Ivoire, and Sierra Leone.

Part 3: Abortion doula Molly Gaebe is surprised to find herself in the same position as her patients. 

Molly Gaebe is a comedian living in NYC where she writes for Lady Parts Justice League, a reproductive rights organization that uses comedy to expose anti-choice extremist douchebags. She can be seen performing every Saturday with her house team Women and Men at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. Molly is an abortion and birth doula with The Doula Project, and a member of the sketch team Buzz Off, Lucille (buzzofflucille.com). A psychic once told her to look at the moon every month and demand "love and money" from it, so she does that too. Find more info at www.mollygaebe.net.

 

Episode Transcript

Part 1: Jacey Powers

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. 

 Jacey Powers shares her story at Caveat in New York City in June 2018. Photo by Zhen Qin.

Jacey Powers shares her story at Caveat in New York City in June 2018. Photo by Zhen Qin.

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 twenty 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.  Sex was sort of a rarity in my eighteen-month relationship which is something they don’t tell you about like death that it will affect you in weird ways.  I felt guilty about having sex for a while. 

So 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 twenty 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.”

Moira was standing in the back of the room and the doctor shot her a look as she started to cry.  Then he scheduled a bunch of other tests for me, mammogram and a biopsy. 

All day long, Moira was by my side and at some point she apologized to me for crying.  She said, “You know, it’s just I lost my daddy real suddenly too just like you and besides I’m so hormonal with being pregnant and everything,” which of course I was really conscious of. 

Every new doctor I went to I had to add this addendum.  “Hey, what if I might be pregnant?  Can I do this test?”  “Hey, what if I have to get an abortion?  Is that going to affect this?” 

After the twelfth time I had used the word ‘abortion’ in front of Moira, I started apologizing.  I said, “I’m so sorry.  I’m sorry that I keep having to talk about terminating a pregnancy when you're here and you're pregnant.” 

She stopped me and she said, “Girl, I've had two abortions.”  She said, “You know, when I was younger, I was with some men and I knew that I didn’t want to be with them for life.  I knew that they wouldn’t be the fathers of my children.  The second abortion was right before my daddy died.  For a while I felt bad about it.  I felt like maybe I had robbed him of grandbabies or something.  But a few months after his passing, I met the father of my children.  This is my second baby now. 

I’m just saying you got to do what you got to do to take care of you.  You know, you've already done the most important thing.  You got yourself here.  You are catching this early.  No one should judge you for that.” 

So I took care of me.  The first thing was seeing all of the doctors.  I saw an oncologist and a breast surgeon and a plastic surgeon and eventually a fertility endocrinologist.  If you are a person who wants to have babies at some point and has to have chemotherapy they send you to someone to help you preserve your eggs against the damaging effects of the chemotherapy. 

I went to Dr. Schmidt, this endocrinologist and he didn’t know what the hell to do with me.  He was like, “Well, I've never had a patient who was already pregnant.  I don't even know if I can stimulate egg growth in someone who’s going to have the levels of pregnancy hormone that you will have even after the termination.  Have you considered keeping the pregnancy?” 

I said, “Yes, I have.  Do you think it’s a good idea?” 

He said, “Honestly, no.  You're young, it wasn’t planned, it’s obvious you can get pregnant.  It’s hard for me to say because it’s my job to get people pregnant.  That’s what I do for a living.  But I think we’ll be able to protect your eggs and right now you should spend all of your energy focusing on treating your cancer.” 

Perfect.  Now, two doctors had told me that there was no real decision to be made.  My oncologist the week before had told me that technically it would be possible to keep the pregnancy.  It would involve me having immediate surgery for my cancer and then delaying chemotherapy and then beginning chemotherapy while I was still pregnant and then inducing an early labor.  It would compromise my treatment significantly.  It was obviously not ideal. 

She also thought that because I was only four weeks pregnant that the stress of this whole situation might cause things to resolve themselves.  But here I was a week later and the scope of my uterus show that I was five weeks pregnant. 

I would learn that at Planned Parenthood, when they performed these scopes, they faced the screen away from you and they used terms like ‘viable pregnancy’.  But in a fertility clinic like this one, they face the screen towards you and use terms like ‘the baby has a heartbeat’. 

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?” 

Now, I want to know whose job it is to pick up the TV programming in the waiting room at the Manhattan Planned Parenthood.  It must be a really hard job figuring out what should be on the screen as women sit there considering the complicated situation they found themselves in.  The morning I was there, the TV was playing Space Jam.  Looney Tunes and jerseys are running up and down a basketball court, R. Kelly crooning in the background. 

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. 

 Photo by Zhen Qin.

Photo by Zhen Qin.

And from my perch above the fray, I noticed one woman sitting in the middle of the horseshoe-shaped room shouting into her cell phone.  “Jason.  Jason, I ain’t having you baby.  Jason, there is no baby.  I’m at Planned Parenthood right now.  Alexia brought me here.  Oh, you can come down.  You're going to get a lot of mad in here anyway so I don't know what…

"Jason, I ain’t having your baby.  There is no baby.  Jason, Jason.  You strike me in the face and you want me to have your baby?  I saw your ID when the cops came.  You said you were thirty years old, you’re forty fucking two years old.  I ain’t having your baby, Jason.” 

And I thought, “Thank God for Alexia.”  Thank God for Planned Parenthood, otherwise Jason’s girlfriend would be having the baby of this man who lied to her and hit her. 

Anyway, a few minutes later, I found myself in the recovery room at the Manhattan Planned Parenthood sitting back, drinking my juice, happy, relieved, where I was meant to be, a new beginning. 

I looked around the room for Jason’s girlfriend.  I didn’t see here there.  I wonder if she felt the same hazy relief that I felt, that all the women around me seemed to be feeling.  I wonder how long that feeling lasted for them.  Other women I know who have had abortions have feelings about it.  They feel self righteous or proud or guilt or usually guilty that they don’t feel more guilty. 

But I didn’t feel anything because I didn’t make a choice.  I had to have an abortion.  But so did Jason’s girlfriend, right?  It’s easy to say that this choice wouldn’t be your choice when the possibility of being pregnant by your abuser or pregnant and unemployed or pregnant and fighting cancer seems totally impossible and remote. 

Anyway, that’s where my story ends.  I left holding on to my recovery-room glow without ever having to ask the question, “Do you want to have this baby?  Do you want to be a mom?”  But the funny thing is I know the answer to the second question.  Yes.  More than anything. 

Somewhere in a freezer in Minnesota, the eggs that I froze with Dr. Schmidt are laying in wait.  They are waiting for the day that I am ready to embrace that answer.  They are waiting for the day that I choose them.  Knowing that makes me feel happy.  It makes me feel relieved.  It makes me feel that I am where I am meant to be.  It feels like a new beginning. 

 

Part 2: Rasha Khoury

I’m riding in a white pickup truck and I’m crammed in there with three other people, a pile of flak jackets which are very heavy, helmets and chemical weapon survival kits, which I'd never seen before.  When I saw them I wanted to go home instantly.  And we’re riding from our very sleepy village where we sleep and we smoke too many cigarettes and we eat too much rice and driving to the destroyed town where we work every day. 

 Rasha Khoury of Doctors Without Borders tells her story at Caveat last June. Photo by Zhen Qin.

Rasha Khoury of Doctors Without Borders tells her story at Caveat last June. Photo by Zhen Qin.

It’s about a four-hour drive everyday 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. 

Then we’d get to this ER in the hospital where we worked every day for about ten hours with a lot of local staff, so people who lived in the community, and we treat everything from the totally extreme to the totally mundane. 

I am an obstetrician-gynecologist.  I’m sort of a nerdy activist and I work for Doctors Without Borders which is a humanitarian medical aid organization.  I’m Arab and I’m from an Arab town very much similar to what I’m describing.  I can’t tell you the exact location for security reasons but you can imagine any place at war then that’s the place that we’re in. 

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. 

So 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.  This is a problem called anencephaly which just 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 U.S.  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, fortified food to early pregnancy care to family planning, to healthcare in general. 

 Photo by Zhen Qin.

Photo by Zhen Qin.

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. 

Outside of our facility, which was a Doctors Without Borders facility, was a completely wrecked town with no other healthcare facility.  So I’m starting to think what is going to happen to her if we don’t do this here?  What if she goes home and feels worse?  What if her shortness of breath gets worse?  What if she goes into labor at home and starts to bleed and it’s unattended?  She could basically lose her life. 

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.” 

I start to curse under my breath and I radio back, “I can’t leave.  We have to hold it for a medical emergency.” 

And holding the convoy in a destroyed town for a medical emergency is not a small thing because you're putting all your team members at risk. 

I continue to work and then out of the corner of my eye I see my field coordinator peeking and look at what’s happening and then I hear on the radio, “Everything on hold until the medical emergency is finished.”  And I think I need to give this guy a hug later because that’s amazing. 

I keep working with my midwife and the patient.  I’m like, okay, she's got to deliver soon, she's got to deliver soon.  And in a little bit of time she does deliver then she starts to have a hemorrhage which is a very severe type of bleeding. 

And we’re running and all the different team members are running to get more blood from the blood bank, to get medicines from the operating room.  We have a very fancy thing called the uterine balloon that helps keep the uterus from bleeding too much and helps it contract.  And we’re doing all this massage and the mother is praying.  After about an hour of a lot of stress and a lot of sweat, the patient is okay.  Her blood pressure is okay and she smiles a little bit. 

Her mom is kissing the midwife’s hand and the midwife just looks so incredibly proud.  Then I realize I’m really late for this stupid white truck convoy and I say goodbye and I run to the convoy and I get into the truck.  This German nurse turns around, looks at me and she says, “You're late.”  In the moment I was like I wanted to say some curse word expletive but I’m just so proud I just can’t say anything.  I’m like we were the best, we did the best thing that day. 

So on the ride home I’m thinking and talking with the people in the truck with me.  I think when you think of war you think of really serious injuries and death from shrapnel and bombs and gunshots and you don’t really think of all the people that suffer from lack of access to medical care and lack of access to abortion.  And a thousand women everyday die from pregnancy or from complications of pregnancy and that’s a really big and serious thing. 

I’m so proud to be an abortion provider and to be a humanitarian aid worker who helps take care of women so that they can actually survive these events and thrive in their communities.

 

Part 3: Molly Gaebe

I shut the door to the exam room and stand and look at Claire who’s in the room with me.  I tell her where she can put her belongings.  She put her purse in the chair, jacket behind the door, shoes in the corner there.  I apologize for the temperature.  It can get really hot.  In the winter they really pump up the heat so I can open a window and let a nice breeze come in. 

I hand her a clear plastic bag.  It’s kind of like a giant Ziploc bag and there's three things in it.  There's a medical gown and two light blue booties. 

 Lady Parts Justice League's Molly Gaebe shares her story at Caveat in New York City last June. Photo by Zhen Qin.

Lady Parts Justice League's Molly Gaebe shares her story at Caveat in New York City last June. Photo by Zhen Qin.

“These go over your socks like this.”  And I mime putting them over my own feet.  I do the same thing with a gown.  “Arms to the front, opening in the back.” 

I like to give a visual as well as verbal instructions because I know for me, whenever I’m at the doctor’s office, I’m never listening when they tell me what to do with the ties, the this or the that.  My mind is always on the reason why I’m there at the doctor’s office in the first place.  I’m thinking I hope I’m not sick.  I hope the test results are negative.  I hope my tampon doesn’t show up on the x-ray here. 

So I pull the curtain to give her some privacy to change and when she's done I come in and I say, “Okay, now we just get to chat and hang out and wait until the doctor comes in.” 

She looks at me, she looks at the ground, she looks at me again.  I know what she's about to ask.  It’s probably the most common question that’s asked in this room.  She looks at me and she says, “Is this going to hurt?” 

Claire is here for an abortion.  She's early.  Five weeks.  And today, I’m going to be her abortion doula.  That means I’m going to be with her during and after the procedure.  That means I’m just here to encourage her, empower her, distract her, be a witness for her. 

I’m not a doctor, clearly.  I don't know how x-rays work.  My function in this room today is just to be a hand to hold and, mostly actually in Claire’s case, just to have distracting conversation about which Hogwarts house we would be divided into. 

So we’re in the room and we have the procedure and I tell her what I tell everybody.  I said, “Hang in there.  You're doing great.”  Because that’s what a doula does.  That’s it. 

I think the term ‘doula’ is most often associated with the birthing process but it’s really at its base just a compassionate support person.  I think about all the times in my life when I could have used a doula, like when I got a tattoo on what turned out to be the boniest part of the human body, or when I went on that first date with a guy who surprised me and brought me to his weekly four-hour slam poetry session.  Again, because I just could have used a doula to be there and be like, “You got this, Molly.  Hang in there.  It’s almost over.” 

So that’s what I did for Claire that day and she was great.  Then we went into the recovery room and I was handing her a little glass of ginger ale and she sipped it.  Then she looked at me and she asked me another question. 

She said, “Molly, have you ever done this?  Have you ever had an abortion?” 

And I said, “No, I haven't.” 

Two weeks later I was walking home from work, going down the stairs of the subway and my boobs had been hurting so bad, the kind of bad where you have to hold them like a precious toy dog as you walk down the stairs.  You know what I mean? 

And to get home I have to pass a pharmacy and I was thinking, “You know what?  I got a couple of CVS ExtraBucks.  Why don’t I go ahead and pick up a pregnancy test, just for fun.  It’s Friday.  What the hell.” 

So I go home to my apartment and I go to the bathroom and I pee on the stick and I wait for that one line to appear.  That one line that will tell me that I’m not pregnant.  I really actually appreciate the drama and the magic of the pregnancy test.  It’s like reverse disappearing ink.  It’s very fun. 

I’m waiting for the one line and the one line appears.  Great!  Show over.  Curtain call.  And then another line started to appear.  I started to panic.  I was looking at the pregnancy test like Marty McFly looks at that photograph of his siblings disappearing, but in my case another line was appearing.  And I was like, “No, no, no.  We've got to go back.” 

But I couldn’t go back.  I was pregnant and pregnant for me meant having an abortion.  I just never wanted kids.  It’s as simple as that.  Actually, my mom gave me some really interesting advice growing up.  She said, “Molly, never have kids!”  I really took that to heart. 

I also knew that it would be easy for me to get one in New York.  I live in New York City, I have insurance, I know exactly where to go.  I’m an abortion doula, for God’s sakes.  I’m basically Abortion Barbie with brown hair, and less shoes, and no car, and more moustache. 

Where was I?  Two lines.  I’m looking at the two lines.  Two lines is bad for me.  I’m nervous.  My pulse is racing.  My cheeks are hot and my ankles are sweating, because that’s a fun thing that my body does now.  And I’m thinking even though I know every part of the procedure, I still don’t know how I’m going to act when I’m there for my own procedure. 

Then I look at the two lines again and I think, “Oh, crap.  I have a date tonight.”  I’m like, “I’m not going on that thing.” 

So I briefly entertained texting this guy to cancel, the text, “Can’t make it tonight.  I’m pregnant.”  And then seeing how long he freaks out before he realizes we've never had sex.  But I don’t because I’m not a monster.  Instead I just ghost him and pretend I never was alive. 

 Photo by Zhen Qin.

Photo by Zhen Qin.

If you're here, Ted, I’m sorry.  It wasn’t you.  It was me.  Poor Ted. 

So I made my appointment for two weeks later and so I had kind of that amount of time to prepare for my role reversal from abortion doula to abortion patient.  I was nervous but I had other things to deal with first. 

The first order of business was telling people.  I had to tell people.  I don’t keep anything to myself, especially this.  So telling people that you are pregnant and going to get an abortion is a very nerve-wracking experience because once you speak that fact out loud, it’s out of your hands, in a way.  It enters the realm of public opinion and, apparently, everybody has an opinion. 

In my case it wasn’t even about the fact that I was going to get an abortion but it was how I told people, who I told, and in what order I told them.  Did you guys know about this?  There's an abortion notification pyramid.  What it is, you have to tell your closest friends first and in a whisper lest a stranger overhear and the whole pyramid comes toppling down. 

But I didn’t want to do that because doing that kind of felt like it was some shameful secret I was supposed to keep and it didn’t feel like that.  Not to me.  So, on purpose, I told everyone I saw in the order that I saw them.  I think that next day it was my deli guy, my boss, my friend Jen, everybody who works at Lucky Burger and then my deli guy again.  We’re very close now. 

I also ended up telling the person who participated in making me pregnant.  At the time I found out I was pregnant, I actually hadn’t spoken to him in two weeks because, finally, after years, I had gotten the courage to leave that toxic and abusive relationship.  I believe that every pregnant person has the right to do with their body what they want and tell who they want and not tell who they want, so it kind of surprised me that I did tell him.  I think part of me wanted comfort from him and the other part of me wanted him to suffer some of the anxiety of it with me. 

There was no playbook for how to do this.  This all felt messy and complicated.  I didn’t know if what I was doing was right or wrong.  I was just reacting to how I was feeling moment to moment.  And pregnancy temporarily tied me back up with that part of my life that I wanted gone and I knew abortion was going to be the thing to free me from it forever. 

So two weeks went by, very slowly, and then way too fast.  Then the morning was here.  I got up very early, earlier than I ever want to again.  I’m a night person so I guess I've only gotten up that early for flights and abortions from now on. 

I get to the clinic and I take a deep breath and I walk inside.  Usually, if this was the clinic where I was doula-ing at, I would walk straight back, put on my scrubs, get together those plastic bags for the patients.  But now I found myself stopping at check-in and checking in and then waiting in the waiting room.  I was just mindlessly flipping through magazines for God knows how long until they called my name. 

The walk back there felt so surreal, like I was still in the mind frame of I’m not the patient.  I’m a person in the back waiting for the patient. 

I was acting extremely gregarious, cracking jokes, making fun of myself.  I wanted everybody there to think that this was old hat for me when, in fact, this was a brand new hat.  This hat still had the label on it. 

I finally get to the procedure room and I’m waiting for the doctor to get in.  She walks in and I am thrilled.  This is a doctor who I have worked with before at another clinic as a doula and she is the best.  She's so kind, caring, compassionate, wonderful. 

I spring up and I give her a big hug and I’m like, “Oh, my God.  You're here.  What are the chances?  This is like crazy.”  I needed an abortion, she provides abortions, the chances are high. 

I was talking very fast.  I remember that.  Even as I was laying on the exam table, I was still talking like a mile a minute, trying to fill the space with myself, with my voice, and my faux nonchalance.  I didn’t want to leave any extra room, any extra air, any space to go unfilled lest someone have the chance to ask me if I have any more questions because, honestly, the only question I had in that moment was, “Is this going to hurt?” 

 Photo by Zhen Qin.

Photo by Zhen Qin.

So me and the doctor were talking as the nurses were drawing up the medication and I think I had gotten away with this I’m-still-the-doula act when the doctor stops.  She lets the room be silent.  She touches my shoulder and she looks at me.  She was onto me.  I know this because the next thing she said was, “You're going to be fine.” 

In that moment, in that small moment of stillness and connection, I got permission to drop the act.  I let myself be cared for and supported.  I fully surrendered to that moment of deep kindness and I let myself be doula-ed.  I left it to the last second, right before the procedure.  But in that final moment, I finally let myself be vulnerable.  How human of me.  Thank you.