by Diane Caldwell
It was a lump. Hard and big. When I pressed on my lower abdomen, I could feel it. When I lay on my stomach, it pushed itself into my inner parts. And I, who had been blessed with painless periods all of my life, was suddenly besieged by monstrous monthly pain. It felt as if my uterus were trying to purge its own lining.
“Fibroids,” the woman gynecologist announced.
The bright overhead lights and clinical smell made me feel dizzy and vulnerable. I had chosen a woman doctor with the hope that a female would better understand the plight of another woman. But a Canadian snowstorm in January couldn’t have been colder than this doctor’s response. “You need to schedule a hysterectomy with my receptionist.”
The rose-colored walls did little to warm my shock. And emotional me did what I tend to do in times of upheaval. I started to cry.
“Really,” Dr. Ice Queen said, a look of solid disapproval on her face. “Hundreds of thousands of women go through this every year.”
As I was to learn, her statement was true. Hundreds of thousands of hysterectomies were being performed yearly. And as I was later to ascertain, many of them were unnecessary.
“Isn’t there any alternative to surgery?” I asked.
She averted her eyes, pulled off her rubber gloves, tossed then into the bin, and examined her well-trimmed fingernails.
“No. It’s a simple surgery. No one ever died from a hysterectomy.”
It wasn’t death I feared. I just wasn’t ready to part with an inner part of myself, an intrinsic part of who I was as a woman. Wasn’t there any alternative to the removal of this precious part of my anatomy?
I tried to make eye contact with the doctor, but she looked away. I know it’s absolutely ridiculous, but the little girl inside of me wants everyone to love and approve of me. I was raised to be a “good girl.” I knew I should just accept the doctor’s diagnosis and treatment with a bright smile, but something in me rebelled. Despite the disapproval I knew I would receive, I defied the doctor’s orders.
“I think I’ll wait before making an appointment for surgery,” I told her.
“Your uterus is the size of a five-month pregnancy. You have multiple fibroids. It needs to be done as soon as possible.”
“What dangers do I face if I wait a bit longer?” I asked. Tears continued to leak from both corners of my eyes.
“They’re going to keep growing. There’s no other option.” Her lips retracted into a thin line of scorn.
Okay, I told myself as I bounced back and forth on the bus heading home. If it has to be done, it’s not the end of the world.
I tried to be tough and talk myself into what had to be accepted. But glancing around at the other women on the bus, I couldn’t help wondering how many had had hysterectomies. I wanted to shout out: “Have any of you lost your uterus? What does it change in your life, if anything? Any regrets? Any phantom itches?”
Two days later, I made my way to the library. It was 1988. Fast facts were still a slow process. The world of Google and easy internet access was not the common phenomena it is today. But, with the librarians help, I sat down to a stack of magazines with articles about fibroids, hysterectomies, and alternatives.
According to one article, tens of thousands of unnecessary hysterectomies were performed annually in the United States. Besides ending a woman’s possibility of child bearing (not a concern for me at age 40), it also sent a woman’s body over the edge of the life-change abyss, into the ravine of menopause. No gradual diminution of the process I had lived with for twenty-five years, the process that defined my body, the wave and flow of change that characterized my life. No, in the snip of the surgeon’s scissors it would end. Bye-bye womb. Bye-bye hormones. Hello menopause.
And then, under the reading lights, seated in the heavy wooden library chair, I read it. An article about fibroid removal. Yes, the uterus remained and the nasty little intruders were snipped away.
I began a probe for a doctor in Seattle who performed this surgery, but couldn’t find one. It’s unnecessary I was told. “Look, you’re already forty years old. You’re going to start the process of menopause soon anyway. If you were twenty-five and wanted to have babies, well, that would be another story, but…”
It was always the same story.
And then I heard about one doctor in Portland, Oregon who did this surgery. I scheduled an appointment and made the three-and-a-half hour drive down from Seattle to meet him and discuss my options.
My partner of ten years drove through the rain with me, listening to tapes of Dave Matthews, the windshield wipers keeping their own rhythm, the “slosh slosh slosh” of tires spinning along the wet ground of I-5, while I wondered why I couldn’t accept what most women seemed to agree to without a flinch.
But I guess I wasn’t like them. It just didn’t seem right to cut out something inside me that didn’t have to be cut out. And I liked my periods. My ovulation. My cycle. My womenness.
“Yes, of course, I can just remove the fibroids if that’s what you want,” the Portland gynecologist said in soft empathetic tones. He carefully elucidated all aspects of the surgery, answered all my questions. He looked directly into my eyes.
“Many doctors say that it’s senseless to remove the fibroids, because they’ll grow back. But I think that’s only because doctors fail to remove the tiny ones that just continue to grow.”
The lighting was soft and low in the doctor’s office. A lamp with an amber bulb cast a warmth over his desk and the patient’s soft leather armchair. He was listening to me and offering exactly what I wanted.
“How is it you do this surgery and other doctors don’t?” I asked.
“My wife had fibroids,” he said. “It somehow seemed wrong to remove the entire uterus. I felt that if it were a man’s problem, there would be alternatives. We eventually found a doctor who performed the fibroidectomy, and I went on to specialize in the removal of fibroids.”
How miraculous. I had found a feminist male doctor after suffering the insensitivity of a female doctor. I found a doctor who was willing and proficient at doing exactly what I wanted.
And so it was decided. I would come down to Portland and have surgery to remove my fibroids.
Sixteen fibroids were removed from my womb and he presented me with a glossy photo post-op.
My uterus remained.
It’s now twenty-seven years later. The fibroids never returned. I never suffered another painful period. I’ve lived for ten years after the surgery reveling in the natural tidal flows of my body. And my lovely uterus still holds its precious space inside my body.
Thirteen years ago, stifling sobs, Diane Caldwell boarded a plane to Greece. She hasn’t lived in the US since. She has danced with gypsies, taught English, chatted with monks beneath the shadows of ancient temples, and writes when the muse sits on her shoulder and whispers. Her stories have appeared in eight anthologies, and she is fortunate to have won three awards for her writing. She currently makes her home in Istanbul and volunteers with Syrian refugees.