Friday, May 23, 2014

Abortion Hurts Women: I've seen It.

This post conforms to the blog rules.
I witnessed emergency surgery on a woman with complications after abortion. Someone had perforated her uterus, and she was rushed to our hospital.

I only heard about the case incidentally. I was on a different service (not the gynecology service, and not even on my OB/GYN rotation). I happened to be down in the main OR, and I was just leaving when I saw one of the OB/GYN chief residents I knew. I’d been trying to arrange a meeting with him about residency program selection. I was eager to hear what he had to say, because I happened to know that this chief had interviewed specifically to avoid performing abortions, or “terminations” as OB/GYNs often say. We’d never gotten to talk because he was out of town for vacation, I was out of town for the cardiothoracic surgery rotation, etc. When he saw me, he seized the moment to sit down in the physicians’ lounge and give me a list of programs he liked and a list of programs he didn’t like.

As we were talking, I noticed that not only was he there, but so was the third-year GYN resident, their attending, and the medical student on gynecology. This meant they had a pretty intense case. (The rarer the case, the more likely the upper-levels are involved. And to have two residents in on a case is rare indeed.)

The third year resident (R3) noticed that I was counting and surmising. “Something's coming up from the ER,” the third-year said, to explain why they were all there.

“A perf’d uterus from an abortion,” the chief said. The attending sat wordlessly by, watching the television.

“Your dream case, right?” the R3 said to the chief, smiling. From his comment and tone, I surmised that the R3 was probably pro-choice, and was joking with the chief, who had never done an abortion but who (I guess?) needed to log one. “Are you going to count this as an abortion?” the R3 joked.

The chief smiled back good-naturedly. “Yeah,” he said quietly, “ ‘open abortion,’ ” he said, referring to how he would make his incision. What must it be like to be pro-life among pro-choice colleagues for four years of training?

I asked to observe the case, even though I knew I couldn't scrub in (because there was already a med student and two residents, and because I wasn't even on the gynecology service). The attending gave her permission, and I went to see the patient in preop. She lay there on the ER cot she'd come in on; next to her was her significant other. She looked like a woman in pain—physically and emotionally. The other medical student (the one actually on the gynecology service) was scrubbing, so I took my place at the foot of the table, behind a machine and next to the kick bucket (where the used/bloody sponges are tossed).

There were a dozen people in the OR. This is a stock photo.
Once the patient was asleep, the chief resident made a large midline incision. Blood and clots came out as he reached the peritoneal cavity. The anesthesiologist ordered two units of red blood cells. I literally had to be careful not to get splashed as bloody sponges were tossed into the kick bucket in rapid succession.

The chief and the attending opposite him pulled the incision open like an emergency C-section, and then the chief reached in to explore the patient’s body with their hands. The chief resident emerged and passed something to the scrub tech, who placed it on her mayo stand, just a foot away from me. It was the head and shoulders of a fetus—a tiny, perfect bust the size of a plum. Next, they found the uterus and pulled it up. I could see it: part of it was a healthy pink, but one corner was mangled, raw, purple, and bleeding. They then explored the surrounding organs, and found the sigmoid colon nearly transected, the proximal and distal limbs held together by a pencil-sized strand of mucosa or mesentery (I couldn’t tell). When they pulled that up, there was an instant of silence as everyone in the room mentally said something between “oh my gosh” and an explicit oath.

“We need colorectal,” the attending said commandingly.

“Colorectal?” repeated the circulator, lifting the phone.

“Stat,” replied the chief resident.

The other medical student, who had already been on the trauma service, turned to me and said, “that’s worse than I ever saw on trauma.”

Again, stock photo. The OB/GYNs didn't need
headlights or loupes (or that sternotomy
retractor), but the rest is accurate.
Then began the fastest and bloodiest hysterectomy I’ve ever seen (and the only supracervical hysterectomy I’ve ever seen). As they cut away the fallopian tubes and ovaries, I heard the anesthesiologist say, “can we get two units stat?” The OB/GYNS continued to work like machines, clamping vessels and cutting uterine muscle, while the anesthesiologist updated them: the patient’s blood pressure was dropping, and he couldn’t get it up. “We need a trauma tray,” he finished.

“Trauma tray!” confirmed the circulator.

The anesthesiologist was starting an arterial line at the patient’s wrist. Beneath the sterile towels he’d draped over her arm, I saw that her fingers and fingernails were white, like the bodies we’d dissected in gross anatomy. The patient had started as a beautiful shade of bronze—she must have lost a lot of blood to be sheet-white like that! I started to pray.

Colorectal arrived—an attending and two fellows. Because I was the only one in the room without a job, I gave them the one-liner presentation. “This is an **-year-old female with perforated uterus and sigmoid after therapeutic abortion earlier today.”

“I heard,” the attending said grimly. He and one of the fellow got gloves and gowns. The OB/GYN attending looked up at them, her bloodied gloves holding two enormous clamps that disappeared into the patient’s pelvis. Her expression was remarkably calm. “We’re almost done,” she said. “We’re taking out the uterus.”

At that moment, my pager went off. I thanked the attending and went to see the patient I was paged about. It was a very boring “trauma,” for which I did nothing and the patient was wheeled (completely stable) to the CT scanner. As soon as I was free again, I went back up to the OR. The case had just ended, and the chief was writing the post-op note in the physician’s lounge.

I only had one question for him: did she make it?

“Yeah,” he said. He told me about the remainder of the case, most of which I don’t remember. I talked with the medical student the next day and he had more information.

“It was a cornual pregnancy,” he said. “So whoever was doing the abortion was going to perforate the uterus no matter what.” He knew I was against abortion, and I expected he said this so that I didn’t go on an abortionists-are-so-incompetent march. What he said fit with the appearance of the uterus—one corner destroyed.

“She also got a colostomy,” the med student went on. “And she didn’t know that. So when I went to round on her this morning and asked her how she was doing with a colostomy, she didn’t know what I was talking about. And she was pretty upset when she found out.”

This woman lost her baby, her uterus, and part of her colon. Although her colon would probably be reanastomosed later, she currently had a colostomy and unexpected time away from work, plus a long new scar and postop pain. Add to this that she was not safe during this surgery: her blood pressure was very low during it, and I was afraid for her life.

*SIGH* Stock again; her baby would have been much
smaller, less developed, and in the horn of the uterus.
I was very unhappy for her. Laws were recently enacted in my area to require preop ultrasound. Would preop ultransound have shown the location of her fetus? Had it been done? Had it been done carefully and well? Did they rule out cornual pregnancy? Did they see it but think they could do it anyway? Did they tell her she had a cornual pregnancy? Did they really give good informed consent?

I left with the overwhelming feeling that abortion clinics don’t provide best medicine to patients. And I already this, but now it was impressed on me forever: abortion hurts women.

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