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Several weeks ago, on the streets of Chicago, I experienced one of the most heartbreaking interactions of my life.
I had just left the Second City where I had had drinks with some friends after our show had been cancelled due to zero ticket sales. I had followed a friend a few blocks further west because he had a belated birthday present for me. It was a lovely copy of Anne of Green Gables, one of my all-time favorite books.
Once I was alone, I doubled back toward my car. I had parked on a side street to avoid paying for parking. It's something I've done for years, but the solo walk often makes me nervous because comedy-related activities usually end at a late hour, and I am a woman.
I was about to turn down a tree-lined side street, replete with new-construction single-family homes, when I noticed one woman loudly speaking to a stranger who was waiting at the bus stop. She was saying something about a map on the stranger’s phone. The woman had a loud voice and overly active body language, two things that say, “I don’t adhere to social norms and my behavior is highly unpredictable.” I pretended not to notice and kept walking.
Five paces later, the woman had caught up with me. She excused herself and said that she wasn’t a bum. She wasn’t asking for money, but could I look something up on my phone. There was an air of desperation to her request, and I told her that of course I would. Her ask was a simple one: she wanted me to look up the address of her hospital because she had forgotten it.
While I pulled up Google Maps and entered the location, she apologized again and thanked me. She was four months pregnant, she said, and she was bleeding. She thought she was miscarrying. She asked if I could give her a ride to this hospital, which I had just learned was on the far South Side of the city.
That was when I realized I that my keys in my hand. I had pulled them out before I had even left the theater. It was a personal safety trick that had identified me as someone with a car.
I told the woman I could not give her a ride. As much as I wanted to, everything I've been taught about being a woman and keeping safe in the city told me I could not do both of these things: hold on to a one-hundred percent certainty of my safety and help this woman at the same time.
What I could do was offer her cab fare.
I offered her $40, and she thanked me profusely. She said it was not enough to get all the way down there, but it was close. She could get the rest on her own. She then asked if she could use my phone to call her brother, who was driving in from Indiana. I put him on speaker, and she told him to meet her at the hospital.
Through all of this, I was completely shocked. There were things about this woman that reminded me of my uncle’s ex-wife, a habitual drug user who still struggles with addiction. When this woman first asked me for help, I thought it was possible that she was lying, but I thought to myself, If you’re desperate enough to lie about a miscarriage, who am I to judge you?
I could not shake the sense of tragedy as this woman spoke about her anxiety. She talked about how she needed someone there because they were going to “make a decision” between her and the baby and they “usually choose the baby.” Only after I’d left did I realize that this woman was genuinely worried that she was going to die that night. I wished that I could have gone with her or done something more, but society has taught me that in order to avoid bodily harm in a city like Chicago, I must remain both vigilant and cynical.
This interaction is indicative of the many ways that America is failing women, specifically low-income women. This woman had to travel over an hour to get to a hospital when she thought she was miscarrying because that’s where she could afford to go. Broke, she couldn’t afford to get there on her own. Without a phone, she couldn’t call someone to be with her in the face of her trauma. Poor sex education and a lack of information about women’s healthcare left her in fear of the unknown, and there was nothing I could do — not alone as a young woman.
After all of that, I knew that she would be failed again when I left her. Women’s pain is often ignored and misdiagnosed. A recent study out of the University College of London showed that period pain is as bad as a heart attack, and yet, still even our most common pains are dismissed. This woman explained through her terror that she had previously miscarried twins. How would this hospital and healthcare professionals treat her that night during a possible second miscarriage, emotionally and physically?
The next day, I was plagued with regret. I couldn’t stop thinking that I should have gone with her. Friends and family expressed compassion over this woman’s situation but were relieved I had not gone with her, for the sake of my own safety. Who knows what would have happened if I’d let the woman in the car, they told me. Would I have wanted to be stuck at a South Side hospital in the middle of the night? No, probably not.
I do think that it would have been nice for this woman to have an advocate. I have spent more time with doctors than I care to remember, and the best thing to come out of it is that I now know how to push back when doctors take me less seriously or talk down to me because I’m a woman. I wish that I could have leant my experience to this woman, so that she might have been a little less afraid and gotten better care.
I have a good friend who believes that this woman scammed me. He had come across her before on that street and said she was always saying something crazy, looking for money. Maybe he's right. But in the end, I’m not sure that it matters. From where I’m standing, being in a place where you feel compelled to lie about a miscarriage is as worthy of my sympathy and my help as actually having a miscarriage. I’ve thought about it a lot, and I’m not sure that I agree with him. After all, isn’t that just another example of how people are more comfortable believing that women are liars than victims of trauma?