HER NAME WAS SUSAN
A recent diary posted at dKos discussed the remembrances of an old ER doctor in dealing with abortion before Roe v. Wade. That diary had a profound effect on me and forced me to relive an experience from my own medical school days more than 50 years ago.
Her name was Susan. She was young. She was beautiful. She was intelligent. She was articulate. She was dying…
Susan was a 23 year old single woman who came to Los Angeles in the early 60’s to pursue her dream to become an actress. She had played the leads in her high school plays somewhere in Utah. She was runner-up in the Miss Utah pageant. She managed to get a couple of walk-on parts in some B-grade Hollywood films. She was a starlet.
A year or so after coming to the West Coast she became pregnant. The father quickly faded away into faceless LA. Her good Christian parents were humiliated, outraged and wanted nothing to do with her. She was on her own. Broke. Friendless. Pregnant. Scared.
So she took the bus to San Diego, walked across the border and headed to a cheap, dirty Tijuana abortion clinic. Four hours later she was back on the other side of the border, in pain, bleeding and completely debased. By the next day, the pain had become unbearable and she was spiking a temperature. She went to a local emergency room and was hospitalized overnight at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica. She was subsequently transferred to the Medicine unit at UCLA Medical Center, at that time a small teaching hospital in its embryonic stages.
I was a 3rd year medical student in my first clinical rotation at UCLA. Susan was one of my first patients. We were about the same age. I was embarking on my medical career. Her life was ending
Over the next three weeks, I learned how people die from sepsis. Her uterus was perforated. She had developed gram-negative septicemia. Our knowledge of and access to antibiotics was primitive and limited. Eventually she went into renal failure. She burned with fever. She was racked with abdominal pain. The lovely face become sallow, sparkling eyes sunken, lifeless. Her skin turned a sickly bronze color. Her breath reeked the pungent stench of ammonia. After weeks of agony, her frail body mercifully surrendered.
As I recollect these painful images of my brief encounter with Susan, the most outrageous aspect of this experience is not even the way she died. It is that she died alone. During those three weeks, she never had a visitor. There was no boyfriend - he was off to other conquests. There were no parents - they disowned her in shame and embarrassment.
Even worse was the mindset of the medical staff. While she was given the requisite care, there was little, if any, sympathy or compassion for this young woman or her situation. There was always the profound sense that “she brought this on herself,” that she was, in the final analysis, just an unfortunate tramp - Even As She Lay Dying.
It is now 50 years later and I still carry this burden of shame for myself, my colleagues, my society, my country. And to this day, whenever the subject of Roe v Wade comes up, whenever I see and hear the holier-than-thou religious fanatics trying to take away the rights of a woman to control her own body, to make her own choices, to force her into the back alleys of Tijuana, I can still smell the stench of ammonia in the air.
Goodnight, Susan, we will not forget you.