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Infertility In the 1960’s, Horrors and Miracles – My Personal Story
I was a teenager in the middle of the last century. Those were the days before support groups. Being sensitive to other people’s problems didn’t seem to be uppermost in people’s minds. And private matters were kept secret. As you read this story, you will come across many instances of insensitivity, which, unfortunately, is unheard of today.
When the 1960s began, the role of women in our country began to change. The discovery of the birth control pill allowed many women to put off childbearing in order to start a career. Feeling empowered by their bodies has motivated many of them to make their voices heard in a rapidly changing society.
At the end of 1963, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy first shocked and then empowered the men and women of my generation to take the first leap to change the world. As the war in Vietnam continued throughout the 1960s, men and women strongly opposed the war to bring down President Lyndon Baines Johnson.
With the new empowerment of women, many have moved away from traditional marriage to build communes where men and women can live “free love”. (I recently met a man who was born in a commune and didn’t know who his dad was!)
It was in these rapidly changing times that I, a graduate student at Stern College for Women, took my place in the world as a young married woman. I’m 19 years old! My husband, Hershie, 22, is a graduate student at Yeshiva University. We lived in a neighborhood in Manhattan called Washington Heights.
Our world is the Orthodox Jewish World. In the 1960s, neither women’s emancipation nor great work were on my agenda. I want my voice to be heard, but I want to do so within the context of my Orthodox Jewish life. Giving birth was at the top of my list!
At the age of 21, I discovered that I had infertility problems. Today it is called PCOS. The normal Ob-Gyns of the 60’s were not used to dealing with the new field of “infertility”, so it was suggested that I see the doctor who delivered Jackie Kennedy’s baby… a doctor for rich man !! I arrived shyly at my appointment in complete awe of the doctor treating the First Lady!
Jackie’s doctor advised me to have a major surgery called a Wedge Resection. They cut open the cysts on both ovaries to create a clean space for the new eggs to hatch. I was terrified! The thought of surgery scared me.
I put the thought of surgery out of my mind after we graduated and moved back to our hometown, Pittsburgh, PA. I started teaching Kindergarten at Hillel Academy, and spent a lot of time in “treatment”.
I went through all the tests available in those days…the ones I remember were called Hystero-salpingogram and Coldoscopy. The birth control pill began to be used for infertile patients, but researchers were inexperienced in regulating the levels of estrogen and progesterone in the pill, and I became very ill after just one pill.
Each month brought disappointment. Ovulation was measured daily by taking body temperature. Pregnancy can only be determined by a blood test. There were no early pregnancy or ovulation tests in those days. Waiting for those test results was frustrating and ultimately devastating.
It was a nightmare to see a pregnant woman. And sometimes women make offhand comments about how I haven’t had children yet. One of my doctors asked, “Why bother with all these tests, etc., you’ll never have a baby!” I ran home crying after such an incident. Even today, 45 years later, it still stings!
Because I know that Gd has a plan for everyone, I never asked, “Why me?”, but, except for the time I spent teaching, I was very sad and empty. It took 2 more years for my doctor to mention Wedge Resection surgery. I was 24 years old and ready for surgery.
In fact, this surgery saved my life. One ovary was full of cysts, so it had to be completely removed. Said Dr. but there may be, at any time, from the weight of the cyst, rolling in all directions, which may cut off the flow of my blood! But for me, an infertility patient, the worst news is that the other ovary is also polycystic, so the doctor can only treat 1/5 of that ovary. I went into surgery before I could have a baby and came out with 1/5 of one ovary! Mom heard the news first and was shocked, even though the doctor assured her that women can conceive even with a small part of the ovary.
Another year passed and nothing happened. I was starting to get frustrated. Without a support group, there was no place to find comfort for others who were suffering the same pain. And I was surrounded by babies, babies, babies!
As 1966 dawned, something amazing happened! A well-known fertility doctor from Wales has taken up a position at Magee Hospital in Pittsburgh…Dr. David Charles passed away. At that time, Magee, a teaching hospital, began developing a world-class fertility service. The moment I walked into his office I felt his warmth and optimism. I was most encouraged when he examined me and said, “Woman, you are going to have a baby!”
Who would have thought that Dr. Charles is one of only 12 doctors in the United States who have conducted clinical trials of a newly discovered drug called Clomephene. (Today it’s called Clomid… which, as far as I know, made Wedge Resection surgery obsolete.) Dr. Charles said I was a good candidate for success on Clomephene and asked if my husband and I would be in with a chance. the many births. That question makes no sense!
I was pregnant in December 1966! The first seven months of my pregnancy were uneventful. During the 30th week, I got out of bed in the morning, looked down and saw blood on the floor. I could barely comprehend what I was seeing.
By the time I got to the hospital I was already in labor with suspected placenta previa! Sonograms weren’t available that day, so I was prepped for a C-section before Dr. Charles, in front of about 25 medical students, to determine if his suspicions were true.
Yes, it was placenta previa, but Dr. Charles decided there was enough room for my little one to fit in. The next step is to try to stop the work. I was immediately hooked on alcohol.
The wait began. Because I was the first placenta previa in the Clomephene Clinical Trials, I immediately became a statistic! But my work did not stop. As I was being wheeled into the delivery room (there were no delivery rooms in 1966!), a doctor stopped the floor and announced that I wanted to try to determine the size of the baby. The resident pushed and shoved my stomach. (remember, there were no sonograms in those days!) He said, no nonsense, that from the size he could feel, my baby only had a 50-50 chance of survival!
Really? seriously? Are you kidding me? Am I not stressed enough? If I had the big mouth that I have today, what I would say to him would be unprintable!
The delivery room was prepared with an incubator and a pediatrician. The team is ready.
Soon after, my little boy came crashing (literally) into the world. He weighed 3 lbs and 1 oz. It was June 20, 1967. When Dr. It was Charles, and I closed my eyes. Dr. Charles insisted that I see my baby. I told him that if the child didn’t make it, I couldn’t bear to go through my whole life with his image in my mind. Dr. insisted. Charles that I will open my eyes … and because, once, many years before I opened my big mouth, I looked at the child. What I saw was frightening. He is very tiny. How did he survive? I was traumatized.
The baby was taken straight from the incubator to the NICU and I was admitted to the treatment room.
The next thing that happened today will NEVER happen: In the recovery room a nurse came in, announcing that she was giving me a shot to make sure I wouldn’t produce milk. I was so shocked by the events of that day that I couldn’t even process what he was saying. Although breastfeeding was discouraged during this period and it was unheard of to breastfeed and bring milk to the hospital, I always planned to breastfeed my baby. Because of this injection, all hope of breastfeeding is cut off.
In the late 1960s, no one in the family was allowed to touch the newborn in the incubator. We stood in front of the nursery window every day watching our little one being fed through a feeding tube and attached to millions of tubes and wires. Believe it or not I was afraid to take pictures of him in the incubator because I was afraid that the flash from the camera would affect his eyes!
After 2 long, painful months, I tipped the scales at 5lbs, 8oz. This is the value of publishing. The day before he was released, I was invited to the nursery to hold and feed my first child. It’s surreal. My baby is 2 months old and this is my first interaction with him. When I think about it now, I could cry.
2015 Update: Our little preemie is almost 47 and has a Ph.D in Molecular Genetics! He is a father of two and likes to tease me that all of his emotional issues…are from the fact that he wasn’t touched until he was 2 months old! I laughingly thanked him for his guilt trip, but I still feel sick when I wonder what the doctors of that day must have been thinking. Let’s not think about it.
Over the next ten years, Hershie and I had 3 more sons and a daughter! Baby #2 is also a “Clomid” baby. The joke after that was that we finally found the “on” button … without the help of medicine!
Hershie and I thank God everyday for the amazing Blessings He has given us!
Children! Grandchildren! During the 1960s, could we think of that Blessing?!
We pray that all of you will receive these wonderful Blessings!
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