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This is a pro-life story.
In March 2006, I was sitting on a return flight to Chicago, leafing through a copy of Jane magazine, my usual airport purchase. I came across an article titled “I Hate Tumors.” It was by a woman named Sara Lyle, about her friend’s losing battle with cervical cancer. The story was told in harrowing detail, from the moment her friend’s tumors were first discovered to her final days. As I read, one thought was going through my head.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
I’d been sexually active since I was 16, but I’d only been to an OB/GYN once. It’d been four years since my last exam.
I’d recently graduated from college, working as a dog walker and hostess while I figured out my next steps. Of course, I was uninsured, and up until that point, no one had really impressed upon me the importance of getting a regular exam. But I couldn’t stop thinking about that article. Soon after, I made an appointment with Planned Parenthood.
I chose Planned Parenthood for several reasons: my church-going Ohioan grandmother had been a vocal supporter my entire life; the organization’s reputation for providing affordable care; there was a clinic within walking distance to my apartment in Wicker Park. I did research other options, but there simply weren’t any with the same resources. When time and money were of the essence, Planned Parenthood felt like a no brainer.
The day of my appointment, I walked up to the non-descript line of retail space where the clinic was located. Its windows were papered over and the entrance was locked behind double security doors. A voice through a loudspeaker asked for my name and appointment time before buzzing me in. Through the doors, I showed my ID and took the requisite new patient paperwork. The inside waiting room was clean and calm. Other women, mostly around my age, sat alone or with partners, looking at magazines or speaking in whispers. It was hard to believe that behind all the security, there was nothing more than a typical doctor’s office.
In the exam room with posters detailing various types of birth control offered at the clinic, the registered nurse ran through my sexual and medical history.
“It’s great that you decided to get your annual exam,” she said, commending me for taking the initiative. “Now let’s get you sorted out.”
After performing the pelvic exam and pap test, she assured me that the office would call within a couple of weeks. Her calm, no-nonsense approach almost convinced me that this would all be chalked up to an overreaction to my fears from the article.
A couple weeks later, I received a call from an anonymous number. I was at my boyfriend John’s place, sitting on his bed when I answered the phone, my heart racing.
“Hello, Jenna, I’m calling from Planned Parenthood to discuss your test results.” I could tell already by the tone of her voice that this wouldn’t be a quick call.
“The results showed moderate dysplasia in several areas…” She continued to explain the results and appointments I would need to make, but I couldn’t hear her through my uncontrollable sobs.
She paused. “I know...this is very difficult news. I’m so sorry. But we’re going to do everything we can to help. The important thing is that you’re taking steps now to get better.”
I could hear the weight in her voice from telling similar bad news. I imagined the list of calls she would have to make that day, how many other women she would hear crying on the other end of the phone. The enormity of her task briefly distracted me from the grief and shame of putting myself in this situation.
I was scheduled for a colposcopy, or colpo, a procedure where a biopsy of the affected cervical tissue is taken and analyzed. She explained that I wouldn’t be able to have the procedure done at my neighborhood clinic, but at the branch that handled all surgical procedures, including abortions.
I knew that clinic was a gathering place for anti-choice protestors, and a new fear gripped me. On the day of my procedure, would I need to walk through a line of shouting nutjobs waving posters of mangled fetuses in my face? The possibility dogged me as my appointment drew near.
On the day of my appointment, the outside of the clinic was mercifully quiet. The building stood in the upscale River North neighborhood, a giant cement fortress amongst luxury gyms and million-dollar homes. I again confirmed my appointment and ID via intercom to gain entrance, and wound my way through a series of stairs and hallways to the clinic’s waiting area. A larger version of my neighborhood clinic, I saw more young women, but also older ones waiting with friends and family, including children.
Since this was the surgical center, I expected to see tear-stained faces of women wrestling with the biggest decisions of their lives. Instead I was confronted with the utter banality of waiting for your name to be called, much like at the DMV, but with better magazines.
The colpo was uncomfortable—my legs were up in the stirrups for a significant amount of time—and frightening—the instrument used to remove the tissue resembles a whaling harpoon—but the women who treated me did everything they could to ease my fears. The procedure coordinator explained what would happen every step of the way and acknowledged the parts that would be unnerving.
And despite being splayed out like a Thanksgiving turkey, whaling harpoon suspended over me, I actually felt... okay. Like, at least things were finally (and literally) out in the open. Everyone there treated my situation like it wasn’t anything to be ashamed of. I felt incredibly supported at a time I needed it most.
I rode the bus home with a phonebook-thick menstrual pad and a handful of Motrin, again told to wait for a phone call. Although I’d told my roommates and boyfriend about my appointment, I assured them that I would get myself to and from the clinic on my own. It was my way of controlling the uncontrollable, limiting the amount of people who saw me in my vulnerable state.
Unfortunately, the extent of my dysplasia was significant enough that further treatment was needed. I would need to have a LEEP (loop electrosurgical excision procedure) where a low-voltage electrified wire loop is used to cut out abnormal tissue. I would have to wait longer this time for an appointment, because there were a limited number of doctors who volunteered to perform that procedure.
When the day finally came, I was more nervous to go through with my LEEP. The coordinator could sense my hesitation as I did my intake interview, pausing when she asked if I was pregnant and I couldn’t give her a straight answer. I knew I wasn’t pregnant, but my head was swimming. If I said, “Maybe,” would I get a pass and not have to go through the procedure? If I waited a while longer, maybe I could get another pap done and the dysplasia would resolve itself?
I only entertained these thoughts for a brief moment before realizing what I needed to do. I’d waited years to even get my exam. If I waited any longer, it would only get worse. I completed the forms and undressed for the procedure.
The anesthesia they gave me caused me to shake uncontrollably, so much so that the overworked doctor performing the procedure told me he wouldn’t be able to finish if I couldn’t stop trembling.
“She’ll stop,” the coordinator told him firmly. She put a hand on my shoulder. “Take all the time you need. We won’t stop until everything is taken care of.” I took a few deep breaths, felt my body still and was able to finish.
The LEEP did not remove all of the dysplasia. There would be another colpo and pap until I was clear. For nearly two years, my life was dictated by clinic visits and waiting for test results. And throughout it all, I always felt that I was in the best possible hands with Planned Parenthood. Even though I could sense how difficult their jobs were, I also felt the passion with which they performed their work. Their professionalism was a blessing.
I’ve been clear of dysplasia since 2008. John and I were married in 2010, and five years after that, I became pregnant and gave birth to our son. The compassionate, effective and affordable care that I received from Planned Parenthood made all of this possible.
I was hesitant to share my story publicly, but I’m tired of the shame and secrecy that surrounds women’s bodies. The stigma leaves us vulnerable to political attacks and allows for the ownership over our own bodies to be questioned. Our bodies are not inherently immoral, nor is their care the result of wantonness or any sort of failing.
Planned Parenthood saved my life. If that’s not a pro-life organization, I don’t know what is.