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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. Sensitivity to other people’s problems did not seem to be uppermost in people’s minds. And personal affairs were mostly kept hidden. As you read this story, you will find many instances of insensitivity that, thankfully, are mostly unheard of today.
As the 1960s unfolded, the role of women in our country began to change. The discovery of the birth control pill allowed many women to stop having children in order to build careers. Feeling empowered over their bodies has encouraged many of them to make their voices heard in a rapidly changing society.
In late 1963, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy first stunned and then empowered both men and women of my generation to jump headfirst into changing the world. As the Vietnam War dragged on throughout the 1960s, men and women protested the war strongly enough to bring down President Lyndon Baines Johnson.
With women’s newfound empowerment, many shunned traditional marriage in favor of establishing communes where men and women could live a life of “free love.” (I recently met a man who was born in a commune and had no idea who his father was!)
It was in these rapidly changing times that I, an undergraduate student at Stern College for Women, took my place in the world as a young married woman. I was 19 years old! My husband, Hershie, age 22, was a graduate student at Yeshiva University. We lived in the Manhattan neighborhood called Washington Heights.
Our world is the Orthodox Jewish World. In the 1960s, neither women’s liberation nor building a great career was on my agenda. I wanted my voice to be heard, but I wanted to do it in the context of my Orthodox Jewish life. Having children was at the top of my list!
At the age of 21, I discovered that I had an infertility problem. Today it is called PCOS. Regular Ob-Gyns in the 60s 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 of the rich !! I timidly arrived for my appointment while I was in total awe of the presence of the doctor who tended to the First Lady!
Jackie’s doctor suggested that I undergo a major surgical procedure called Wedge Resection. They would cut a corner of the cyst in both ovaries in order to make a clean surface for new eggs to appear. I was horrified! The thought of surgery scared me.
I put the thought of surgery out of my mind as we graduated and moved back to our hometown of Pittsburgh, PA. I started teaching kindergarten at Hillel Academy, and spent a lot of time “doctoring.”
I underwent every test available in those days…what I can remember was called Hystero-salpingogram and Coldoscopy. Birth control pills were first used for infertility patients, but researchers were inexperienced in regulating estrogen and progesterone levels in the pills, and I became very sick after just one pill.
Every month brought disappointment. Ovulation was measured daily by taking body temperature. Pregnancy could only be determined by blood test. There were no rapid pregnancy or ovulation tests in those days. The wait for these test results was excruciating and ultimately devastating.
Seeing pregnant women was a nightmare. And sometimes women would make insensitive remarks about me not having produced a child yet. One of my doctors asked, “Why bother with all these tests, etc., you’re never going to have a baby!” After these incidents, I would run home crying. Even today, 45 years later, that remark still stings!
Because I knew that God has a plan for everyone, I never asked, “Why me?”, but, except for the time I spent teaching, I felt very sad and empty. It took my doctor 2 more years to mention Wedge Resection surgery. Then I was 24 and ready for the operation.
Truly, this operation saved my life. One of my ovaries was so full of cysts that it had to be completely removed. The doctor said that he could have, at any moment, the weight of the cysts, twisted in any direction, which could cut off my circulation! But for me, an infertility patient, the worst news is that the other ovary was so polycystic that the doctor was only able to save 1/5 of that ovary. I went into fertility surgery and came out with 1/5 of one ovary! My mother heard the news first and was in shock, although the doctor assured her that a woman can get pregnant even with only a small piece of an ovary.
Another year passed and nothing happened. I began to feel desperate. There were no support groups, there was nowhere to seek comfort from others who were experiencing the same pain. And I was surrounded by babies, babies, babies!
As 1966 dawned, something more amazing happened! A well-known fertility doctor from Wales has taken a position at Magee Hospital in Pittsburgh … the late Dr. David Charles. At that time, Magee, a teaching hospital, began to develop a world-class Fertility Department. The moment I walked into his office, I felt his warmth and optimism. I was especially encouraged when, after examining me, he announced, “young lady, you will have a baby!”
Who would have imagined that Dr. Charles was one of only 12 doctors in the USA conducting clinical trials on a newly discovered drug called Clomephene. (Today it’s called Clomid…which, as far as I know, made Wedge Resection surgery disappear.) Dr. Charles determined that I was a good candidate for success with Clomephene and asked if my husband and I would be okay. and the luck. of multiple births. This question was a no-brainer!
In December 1966, I became pregnant! The first seven months of my pregnancy were uneventful. During my 30th week, I woke up in the morning, looked down and saw blood on the floor. My mind could hardly comprehend what I saw.
When I got to the hospital, I was already in labor with a suspected placenta previa! There were no sonograms in those days, so I prepared for a C-section before Dr. Charles, in front of about 25 medical students, examined me to determine, for sure, if his suspicions were correct.
Yes, it was a placenta previa, but Dr. Charles determined that there was enough space for my baby to slide through. The next step was to try to stop the work. I was immediately connected to intravenous alcohol.
The wait has begun. Since I was the first placenta previa in the Clomephene clinical trial, I immediately became a statistic! But my work would not stop. As I was being wheeled into the delivery room (no delivery rooms in 1966!), a medical resident stopped the gurney and announced that he wanted to try to determine mybaby’s size. The resident continued to push and push my stomach. (remember, there were no sonograms in those days!) He stated, nonsensically, that from the size that he could feel, my baby only had a 50-50 chance of living!
Really? seriously? Are you kidding? Aren’t I under enough stress already? If I had a big mouth then 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 was ready.
Shortly after, my little son slipped (literally) into the world. He weighed 3 pounds and 1 oz. It was June 20, 1967. As Dr. Charles pulled her out, I closed my eyes tightly. Dr. Charles insisted that I watch my baby. I told him that if, God forbid, the baby didn’t come, I couldn’t bear to live with a picture of him in my head. Dr. Charles insisted that I open my eyes…and once again, it was many years before I developed my big mouth, and I looked at the baby. What I saw was terrifying. It was so small. How could he survive? I was traumatized.
The baby went immediately to the incubator in the NICU and I was rolled into the recovery room.
The next thing that happened would absolutely not happen today: In the recovery room, a nurse came in and announced that she was going to give me an injection to make sure I wouldn’t produce milk. I was too shocked by the events of the day to even evaluate what he said. Even though breastfeeding was discouraged during that time and pumping and expressing milk in the hospital was totally unheard of, I absolutely intended to breastfeed my baby. With this shot, all hope of breastfeeding was dashed.
In the late 1960s, no family members were allowed to touch the preemies in the incubator. Day after day, we stood in front of the glass window in the preemie nursery watching our baby feed through a feeding tube attached to what seemed like a zillion 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, agonizing months, our baby tipped the scales at 5lbs, 8oz. That was loose weight. The day before his release, I was invited to the nursery to hold my baby and feed him for the first time. It was surreal. My baby was 2 months old and this was my first physical contact with him. When I think of it now, I could cry.
2015 Update: Our little preemie is almost 47 years old and has a Ph.D in Molecular Genetics! He is the father of two teenagers and likes to tease me that any emotional problems he has… stem from the fact that he wasn’t touched until he was 2 months old! I laugh and thank him for the guilt trip, but I still feel sick as I wonder what the medical community could have been thinking in those days. Better not dwell on it.
During those ten years, Hershie and I were blessed with 3 more sons and a daughter! Child #2 was also a “Clomid” baby. The joke after that is that we have finally found the “on” button … without any help from medicine!
Hershie and I thank God everyday for the amazing blessings He has given us!
Children! Grandson! During the 1960s, could we have ever imagined such blessings?!
We pray that you may all receive the same wonderful blessings!
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