My Dad is a Doctor. Yeah, he's 'retired'. But in my experience, Docs never stop being Docs.
He's 77 years old (at this writing), and he never stops; truly he will still be dispensing medical advice in Valhalla someday (hopefully a while from now), and if you get there as well, you'll be lucky to know him.
Dad's also a retired military man, and a student of history. And while he loves to pore over his books, he's been a participant in plenty of history as it occurred, from Southeast Asia to the Persian Gulf.
But history happens everywhere; certainly in loud crashes of the great theatres of war, but also in the quiet hallways of home.
Here's one history that Dad experienced firsthand... that has always haunted me.
Judge it however you will; it's a highly controversial topic. But regardless of your standing on this matter, no matter who you are or how you feel... this is a history we cannot afford to forget.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript from a conversation I recorded with Dad at LudHaven, on August 5th, 2016.
"I took a rotation, an extra rotation, in OB/GYN at Wayne County General Hospital.
Where is Wayne County General in relation to Detroit? Is it downtown, or -
No. It’s out in Eloise Michigan, which is about 25 miles from downtown Detroit. And Wayne County General Hospital was the place where indigent young women who had septic abortions were sent. They’d put them in ambulances and send them to us.
So there was there is a center or something established for that, or... someone just made that decision?
No, it was because that hospital was equipped to take care of it, and these were indigent young kids, anywhere from about 12 to 18…
What year was this?
They would have abortions done by anybody they could get to do it, and there were a number ways that they did it…some of them used potassium permanganate which was put in the cervical os, the opening of the uterus, and that would induce the…abortion. Some of them had abortions done by black market doctors, well not doctors usually, by black market people who were really not qualified to do it… and a fair number them ended up with severe life threatening pelvic infections… so bad that many of them that I saw come in to Wayne County General…did not leave. They died there.
Many of them were in septic shock which was from the horrible infections that they would get in the pelvic organs, the female organs, the - uterus, tubes and ovaries -
And how many days past the procedure do you think most of these women were?
Well, depending on what what bacteria was involved, very often it was a strep bacteria, and that would actually get them into serious trouble within 24 hours.
Some of them would come in later than that, and about half of them, uh… about half of them that survived, these young women ended up having their entire pelvic organs removed in order to save their life, because they were so full of infection.
So that was the only choice you had?
Well, it was one of the only choices they had to try and keep them alive. So many of these kids came in with intact pelvic organs, and left with no uterus, tubes or ovaries. Bottom line was that… there was a high mortality. Probably in the range of 25 percent, of all of the septic abortions that came into that hospital. And these are kids that were as young as eleven, twelve years old, and up to eighteen.
How long were you on this rotation?
I think I spent six weeks out there. It was a terrific rotation because we saw a lot of indigent people that had needs for obstetric care. And so I really got a broad experience, I’m very happy with the experience I had, but… it was just terrible, it was awful to see what these kids were going through. All really because they would have these illicit abortions done.
I think you told me a story once of one girl who came in with a blood pressure of zero over zero?
Oh yeah, well, most of them were in septic shock which meant that their blood pressure was lower than normal; most of them with that ended up in the intensive care unit, and quite a few of them died in the intensive care unit. A fair number of them were taken to surgery to do salvage surgery as I mentioned, and that basically would mean cleaning out the pelvis, the pelvic organs.
The thing about the pregnant female, particularly if they’re between the first and second trimesters of pregnancy, they’re more prone to infections than the non-pregnant woman in that state.
I didn’t know that.
And so inducing an abortion in non-sterile conditions, which is the way that illicit abortions were done, would put them at great risk to have bacteria introduced into their pelvic organs during the process. In those days, abortions were not done the way they are today, with a ‘suction curettage' as they call it - that had yet to be designed. What they did was, it was a surgical procedure - they actually went in and scraped the inside of the uterus out, and if this was done in an unsterile manner, the risks were a good deal greater than if it were done in a sterile manner.
Could you guess in that six week period how many you saw…
Oh, there were probably half a dozen that I saw die, or were so critically ill that they weren't expected to survive. And I remember going to the operating room and watching the surgeons do operations on these kids to clean out this foul smelling mess in their pelvis; you’d open the abdomen and it just smelled terrible and… it was, uh, what we today call a flesh-eating infection.
Now these illicit abortions were more common in Detroit, but there was even a guy across the street from my father, in Port Huron… who did them in his garage.
The bottom line was that abortion was available; and these kids were desperate. It was a little different then, because if you got pregnant it was… a stain on you. You didn’t want to be seen as pregnant because it sort of ruined everything for you in High School in those years, so… mores were different than they are today.
But the last thing I want to see today is for a woman to have that option taken away from her. Because I fear that we’ll go back to some of the same problems that we had before. From my standpoint, I - you’ve heard me say this a number of times - the last thing in the world that I want to see is that woman’s right to choose go away. On the other hand, did I do abortions in my practice? I did a lot of OB/GYN in my practice… but I never thought, nor did I want to do, an abortion, under any circumstances. But neither did I have any issue with the doctors that were doing them. Because they were safe, and they were being done appropriately.
At Wayne County General - you were 26 when you saw this.
26 years old, yes.
I mean… you were a medical student, so you’d seen some things, but to see a 12 or 13 year old girl in septic shock and that… messed up must have been hard to… I mean, was it hard to watch?
Oh, sure. A lot of them were little Black kids, there were quite a few Whites… you know, it was such a tragic situation. I remember watching one little girl who was, probably, 12, 13, something like that. She was on the ventilator… she was just barely alive in the intensive care unit, and… she just looked like a little kid. She was just a little kid.
I think one of my duties as a doctor is make sure that I can pass this on to some of the younger people who had no idea what was happening before 1965. I think a lot of these anti-abortion activists have no idea…what it was like back then.
I… I was profoundly affected by that experience. I never forgot it. Having been there, having done a huge amount of gynecologic surgery in a rural setting for many years after that, there is no question in my mind that we can't go back that way. And I don’t think we will. But if I were to say anything I would repeat that this is not a political issue.
It seems to me that if the choice went away, that this would come back. Do you believe that?
Well, it might. I don’t know. I can’t really tell you that. But I can say this; Abortion is not, as far as I’m concerned, a political issue, and I think the fact that the religious right, AND the left, make it an issue is totally inappropriate; this is a purely personal decision that should have nothing to do with an election. And the people that are so strongly for or against this need to go away and stop trying to change elections. There’s plenty of other problems in our world, and we shouldn’t be spending our time on it.
I think we have come far enough. I think it’s time for the Religious Right and the, Vocal Left, I guess you’d call it - I think it’s time for them to bury the hatchet and forget about making this a political issue. All it’s doing is wasting our time.
I’m proud of you Dad. This is one of the stories that makes me very proud to be your son.
Well… I’m not sure you’re very well founded in that, but… this situation is one that needs to be addressed, done right, and then gotten off the radar."