Holding Fast to My Feminine Dignity

For millions of women, fertility is inextricably linked to pain—painful menses, painful intercourse, and of course, painful childbirth. From a theological perspective, being a woman often comes with ample opportunity to unite our sufferings with Christ, who also suffered to bring new life into the world. Truly we can say, “[In] my flesh I do my share on behalf of His body, which is the church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Colossians 1:24).

For most of my life, I was one of those women. Menses had always been an excruciatingly painful affair since it began at age 11. As a teen, the first few days of my period were debilitating and I would spend days curled into a fetal position on the couch. Going on the Pill at age 17 lightened my periods and took away most of the pain, but other side-effects prompted me to abandon hormonal contraception for natural family planning (NFP) in 2001.

It wasn’t until after the birth of our third child in August 2004, however, that the pain became increasingly worse. The pain initially only came with menses, but soon began occurring mid-cycle, then once a week, and then almost every day. Some days, I was so wracked with pelvic pain that I could not stand up straight. Needless to say, this seriously compromised my ability to care for our three young children.

When I sought help through my general practitioner, she offered the usual treatment—the Pill. I refused (several times), so we tried anti-inflammatory drugs, muscle relaxants, and even high-dose narcotics to help me get through the day. Nothing helped, though the narcotics did inspire me to make a six-decade rosary one evening at church.

It was a conversation with another NFP instructor that finally illuminated my problem. Cycle irregularities had prompted me to work with a Creighton method provider and during one consultation she offhandedly mentioned I might have endometriosis. Endometriosis occurs when tissue similar to the uterine lining is found outside that organ. The misplaced tissue develops into lesions that respond to the menstrual cycle’s hormonal fluctuations. The hormones cause the lesions to act just as they would inside the uterus—they build up and shed. The internal bleeding causes the surrounding tissues to become inflamed, leading to severe pain or no pain, depending on the woman. In extreme cases, recurrent inflammation leads to scar tissue, which can cause infertility if the lesions are on the ovaries or fallopian tubes.

A quiz through an endometriosis website showed I had an alarmingly high number of symptoms for the disease. Armed with a possible name for my pain, I sought medical treatment for it. Our city had been consistently ranked by numerous magazines as one of the top U.S. cities for healthcare, so I had confidence that such resources would afford me access to excellent medical care for my condition.

I soon discovered that the “excellent healthcare” the city was so famous for did not extend to women’s health. Each of the five physicians I saw offered only two choices: birth control pills or a hysterectomy. A little research shows that these treatments would pose serious additional threats to my health. Even more problematic, however is that neither course respects my inherent feminine dignity. A woman’s fertility is a precious gift from God that deserves to be valued and protected, especially by those called to “do no harm.”

As a woman, I’m acutely aware that a great potential resides within me that may one day blossom into a very real and beautiful new person. Even when my husband and I have serious reasons to postpone pregnancy, I treasure the lifegiving capability that Our Lord has so lovingly entrusted to me.

That we are made to give love and life is at the heart of the Church’s teachings on marriage, sexuality, and family planning. The solutions offered by local physicians—to suppress my fertility or to eradicate it altogether as a mere “possible” solution—reveal a profound disregard for the intrinsic value of my womanhood. One doctor epitomized this when he cavalierly said, “If you want more kids, just hurry up and have them. Then we’ll just put you through menopause at 40.”

When I shared my frustration with my Creighton instructor, she recommended I contact Dr. Thomas Hilgers, director of the Pope Paul VI Institute in Omaha, Nebraska. Dr. Hilgers spearheaded a new reproductive science called NaProTechnology, which helps doctors evaluate and manage reproductive and gynecologic health problems in ways that work cooperatively with the female reproductive system. Dr. Hilgers reviewed my charts and history, and concluded that I probably had endometriosis. He invited me to visit the Institute for treatment. Because I would be traveling a long distance, he was willing to schedule all diagnostic tests and reparative surgery over four consecutive days.

The same day I received Dr. Hilgers’ letter, I providentially called the Center for Women’s Health in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. I discovered that all physicians at the center practice medicine in accord with Church teaching; they don’t prescribe contraception or perform procedures that violate the dignity of women. I contacted the center’s new gynecological surgeon, Dr. Mark Stegman, about my situation. In the early 1990s, Dr. Stegman had had a conversion after reading Humanae Vitae. He left his practice in Michigan for a fellowship with Dr. Hilgers at the Pope Paul VI Institute. Learning that Dr. Stegman was trained in NaProTechnology and that he was an approved provider in my insurance network gave me great hope.

Dr. Stegman called me at home two weeks later. He’d read my charts and description of symptoms, and concurred about the likelihood of endometriosis. He offered to schedule outpatient surgery. To reduce the time away from my family, he offered prescriptions for a preoperative sonogram and lab work to be done locally. He also accelerated the date for surgery so that the procedures would be applied to that year’s insurance deductible. This saved my family several thousand dollars.

Although his office was closed when I arrived in Camp Hill on December 26, Dr. Stegman met with me for several hours that evening to explain every aspect of the procedures I was to undergo the next day. At one point he got out a medical textbook and showed me pictures of endometrial lesions. He explained that the majority of laparoscopy training for gynecologists is limited to tubal ligations. Very little time is spent teaching gynecologists to diagnose and treat specific disorders such as endometriosis. Complicating matters is that only about 30-40% of the lesions look similar to the pictures in medical textbooks, Dr. Stegman told me. This explains why doctors trained in NaProTechnology often find endometriosis in women after other gynecologists have performed laparoscopies and declared them free of lesions.

The next day, I arrived at the hospital near Dr. Stegman’s office. Prior to the operation, Dr. Stegman asked to pray with me. He asked the Holy Spirit to guide him in my surgery and then put me in the care of the Blessed Mother. When I awoke, he confirmed that he had found and removed endometrial lesions. I returned home the next day and was back to my regular routine in a week.

It’s been seven years since my surgery and I have remained free of the debilitating menstrual and pelvic pain that plagued me for nearly 20 years. After my surgery, I had several visits with a physical therapist to strengthen my pelvic floor muscles, since most of the lesions had been embedded within the muscles surrounding the cervix. It was gratifying to learn that my resistance to hysterectomy was well-grounded, since no lesions were found in the uterus. Removing my womb would not have helped my condition, but would have unnecessarily robbed me of my fertility.

I was blessed beyond measure to discover NaProTechnology before allowing a doctor to injure or destroy my fertility. I’m currently pregnant with our sixth child and it’s frightening to imagine that these last three children likely would not exist if I had taken a more traditional treatment for my condition.

We must continue to pray for the conversion of physicians who do not practice in accord with Church teaching. Through our prayers, sacrifices, and witness, perhaps in time they will learn that there are better ways to alleviate the suffering of their female patients…ways that are not only healthier for women, but that will respect their God-given feminine dignity, too.

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