Planned Parenthood and my decision to go to medical school

As my co-workers and I peered out the window of the Planned Parenthood in Philadelphia, we saw over 200 protestors chanting the name of a man who had killed 2 people and injured several others at reproductive health centers the day before. They kept coming closer and padlocked the entrance gate so that we were trapped. We worried they might have weapons. The stand-off lasted for three terrifying hours. As my heart raced, I considered whether or not I wanted to become a doctor.

In May of 1994,  I applied for a job at Planned Parenthood because I admired their mission to support women’s rights to comprehensive reproductive healthcare.  I also hoped that it would help me decide whether to apply to medical school. I first worked as an abortion and birth control counselor. I had one basket of props to show patients what would happen during the abortion procedure, called dilation and curettage (including cervical dilators and suction tubes). I used the second basket to demonstrate various types of birth control (condoms, replicas of genitalia, intrauterine devices, and birth control pills).  I was twenty-one years old, White, and looked seventeen.  The mostly African American patients — especially the older ones — would often look me up and down and say something like “You ever BEEN pregnant?” Their initial mistrust usually subsided once they realized that my intent was to support them.

Every day there were 10 or 20 protesters outside of the clinic. On weekends, there could be up to 100. They would wave signs with pictures of bloody fetuses. They would yell at women going into the clinic that they should go to hell for killing their babies. They would try to intimidate women from entering. Yet most women came for birth control and sexually transmitted disease testing rather than abortions.  Protesters would triumphantly report to the local newspaper when they “saved” an unborn baby. There were several times where the mother of the “saved” baby would come back to us the very next day traumatized but still determined that having an abortion was the best decision for her and her family.

For the first month, the protesters thought I was a client and would treat me the same. Later they started to recognize me and yell “I know you, you work here” and “you can run but you can’t hide from God.” When I entered the building, a supportive family of counselors, doctors, and staff surrounded me. We knew we were helping women with no other place to go.

On July 29, 1994, Paul Jennings killed an abortion doctor named John Britton and his bodyguard in Pensacola, Florida. For the next few weeks, the clinic staff and I were on edge as the number of protesters increased, but things went back to normal pretty quickly. Anyway, Florida was far away and in “the south.” We did not think that anything like that could happen at our clinic.

After the summer, Planned Parenthood trained me to be a surgical assistant. I would set up the room for the patient and make sure that the doctor had everything that he needed. The doctor — whom I will call Dr. Jones — was a tall quiet African-American man in his early 40s with a mustache. He rarely conversed with the nursing staff, and I did not think he knew my name. He spoke few words to the patients unless they had questions. He sometimes trained residents who seemed friendlier. Rarely, another doctor would substitute.  However, I noticed that the patients screamed louder when anyone but Dr. Jones was doing the procedure.

During the procedure, my jobs were to hand the instruments to the doctor and calm the patient. The patients were awake the entire time. Dilation and curettage causes a lot of cramping — especially if it is the patient’s first pregnancy — and they often screamed as I held their hands and practiced breathing exercises to get them through it.  I was told that it was safer to do the procedure without general anesthesia and less expensive for patients. I was also told that it allowed them to go home without an escort, which was important because many of the women could not tell anyone. Later in my medical training, I rotated at clinics that provided sedation, and this seemed much more humane.  But the women were usually thankful that we were there to help them. I always left work feeling that I had supported women on one of the worst days of their lives.

On Friday, December 30, 1994, John Salvi walked into the Planned Parenthood in Brookline, Massachusetts. He killed one receptionist and wounded three others after opening fire in a crowded waiting room.  He then drove a mile and a half to the Preterm Health Services office with his semi-automatic rifle, killed a second receptionist, and injured two more.

I went to work the next morning — New Year’s Eve — more nervous than usual. I was relieved to see what appeared to be a “normal” Saturday (with several protesters yelling at me to stop killing babies). But soon many more showed up, chanting John Salvi’s name, and locking us in the building. The police showed up quickly, but it took them 3 hours to diffuse the situation. We resumed caring for patients thankful that our worst fears did not materialize.

Later, after we had performed our last procedure, it was dark and quiet at the clinic. Most of the staff had left, and I was racing to clean up the room so that I could meet friends to celebrate the New Year.  I desperately wanted to get out before Dr. Jones so that I would not be a casualty if a lone gunman were waiting for him. Yet right as I was leaving, Dr. Jones came up to me and said: “Melanie, it’s spooky here, isn’t it?”  That night, we walked out of Planned Parenthood together, and my New Year’s resolution was to go to medical school.

Melanie Jay is an internal medicine physician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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