When I pause to reflect on the highs and lows of running Choices for the past 48 years, the thread running through it all that keeps me going is love. Love of my work, love for my patients and the mission, and the profound love and gratitude they give back to me.
There are certain moments that I’ll always remember and often think of when I need a reminder of why I do what I do. This is one of them: I call it, “The Love of Strangers.”
“Patient #4 in recovery was moved by your work and wants to see you.” When my assistant’s email came through, I was in the middle of a meeting in my office. Excusing myself, I put on the white coat I always keep hanging on the back of my chair and went up to the recovery room.
In the fourth bed, I met the wide dark eyes of the woman who wanted to see me and introduced myself. She reached out her arms, and as I drew her close to me her words spilled out: “You saved my life. I was 18 weeks–the baby was dead–they should have told me weeks ago. The doc–she didn’t want to help. I found you on the Internet–read all about you. Why didn’t they tell me earlier? You saved me–thank you, thank you.”
As we embraced, I thanked her for reminding me why I have spent the last four decades of my life doing this work. When I left her bedside, I grabbed her chart to get the whole story from the counselor’s notes.
(Caucasian patient was 19 weeks pregnant with a planned pregnancy. While receiving pre-natal care she was informed, two weeks ago, about fetal abnormalities indicating severe developmental issues. Patient told to return in two weeks and seek an abortion independently. No assistance was offered. Patient was severely upset because the same abnormality had been confirmed with a prior pregnancy of 9 weeks gestation leading to a much easier termination process. Patient became familiar with Merle Hoffman and her activism on the Internet and became teary-eyed during session when describing what Ms. Hoffman’s work meant to her, and later inquired about the possibility of meeting Ms. Hoffman personally.)
Reading this, my mind flew back to the first patient I had counseled in 1971. She had come to us from New Jersey because abortion was still illegal in that state.
I was nervous. In this, as in all of my other tasks at the clinic, no one had trained me. What could I say to her? What would she say to me? All my psychology courses flooded into my brain . . . theories, theories and more theories.
This woman was terrified. She was pregnant and did not want to be. Coming to the clinic had required an enormous amount of courage, and now she was in my hands. I was to guide her way. I was to be her bridge, her midwife into the realms of power and responsibility that are so much a part of the abortion decision.
I held her hand tightly in mine as I listened to her nervous staccato breath. I kept her talking to help ease the discomfort of the dilators. I locked her eyes in mine, breathed in rhythm with her, joined with her to the point of personal discomfort.
In the end, I do not remember a word of what passed between us. It was strangely irrelevant. But I do remember her face. And I remember her hand, the hand that came to symbolize the intimate, personal connection of one woman helping another, the gravity of forging a natural alliance with that woman and the thousands who followed her.