In Their Own Words: Patient Stories

Women and doctors around the state have come forward to tell us about their experiences with religious health systems – here are their stories.  If you have a story to share about your experiences with religious health systems, please tell us about it.  

Jane (a pseudonym) was pregnant and had been in and out of the emergency room at a Catholic health system for almost a week.  Her symptoms included on-and-off profuse bleeding and a tremendous amount of pain.  Once she was finally admitted to the hospital, her OBGYN explained to her that she had an infection and that the fetus would not survive.  The OBGYN advised Jane that if the infection continued for too long, it would threaten her reproductive system and her life.

The OBGYN made it clear to Jane that terminating her pregnancy was her best option, and that the decision to terminate had to be made soon.  Jane desperately wanted the fetus to survive; she had even refused all pain medication as she was worried it might harm the pregnancy.  However, finally, with the hope of saving her life and reproductive system, she made the difficult decision to terminate.
It was at this point, when Jane’s life was at risk and her medically trained OBGYN had advised her that she should terminate, she was informed by her OBGYN that because she was at a Catholic hospital, an ethics committee would have to be consulted before the pregnancy could be terminated.  She was also told that if the hospital would not allow the pregnancy to be terminated, she would have to be taken to a secular hospital.  Due to construction that was occurring at the time, it could have taken up to four hours for Jane to get to a secular hospital.  The OBGYN was visibly worried about requiring Jane to take a four-hour journey in her condition.
Jane thankfully survived this experience.  The ethics committee ended up approving the procedure; but before Jane could be wheeled into surgery, she miscarried naturally in the hospital.  Based on the timing of the miscarriage, if Jane had been forced to go to a secular hospital, she would have miscarried in transit. 

Jane shared this story because she cannot understand why religious doctrine should delay or prevent a woman from receiving potentially life-saving medical assistance.  Jane hopes that public awareness will help prevent other woman from experiencing the same thing.
Maria (a pseudonym), a health care professional and mother of two in Washington State, was six to seven weeks along in her second pregnancy when she began experiencing heavy vaginal bleeding. She knew she was miscarrying and sought emergency care at the Catholic hospital where she was then working. Although she was aware of the hospital’s religious affiliation, her insurance coverage extended only to that hospital, and she could not afford thousands of dollars in out-of-network costs to go elsewhere.

Maria’s physician explained that the pregnancy was no longer viable and that her uterus needed to be evacuated in order to stop the bleeding. But, because the Directives prohibit an abortion if the fetus still has cardiac activity, her physician advised “expectant management,” i.e., waiting to see if Maria’s body would complete the miscarriage on its own.

The hospital staff delayed performing an abortion for hours while they attempted to verify through ultrasound that the fetus did not have a heartbeat, as required by the Directives. Finally, after seven hours, the hospital completed the miscarriage. By then, Maria’s iron levels were so low that she needed a blood transfusion.
It was not without consequence.
All blood transfusions carry risks, such as blood-borne infections and allergic reactions. But what happened to Maria was particularly dangerous. She was transfused with blood carrying Kell antigens and developed anti-Kell antibodies. Because her husband was Kell positive, this meant that their next pregnancy would be at risk for sudden fetal demise. When Maria became pregnant again several years later, she and her husband were terrified throughout that she would suddenly lose the pregnancy. Thankfully, their baby survived. But Maria and her family could have avoided significant emotional trauma if the Catholic hospital had provided her with the care she needed without hours of needless delay. 

Sarah (a pseudonym) was around 21 weeks pregnant when she experienced severe cramping and bleeding.  Her cramping was so severe that she could barely walk.  Due to the pain and blood she went to a clinic to find out what was wrong. 

At the clinic an OB GYN did a consult and ultrasound and found that Sarah was miscarrying (Sarah was several centimeters dilated, bleeding, with membranes hour glassing through her cervix and into her vagina).  The OB contacted Sarah’s primary doctor and recommended that Sarah be hospitalized immediately for inevitable miscarriage.  As the miscarriage was inevitable the OB recommended that labor be induced to prevent a prolonged miscarriage which would increase Sarah’s risk of infection, sepsis and even death.

Sarah’s primary doctor agreed with the OB’s assessment and contacted labor and delivery at the nearest hospital to arrange for Sarah to be admitted. The nearest hospital happened to be a Catholic health system.

Sarah and her husband arrived to labor and delivery at the hospital but the charge nurse refused to admit Sarah because there was a fetal heartbeat.  Sarah’s primary doctor pled with the labor and delivery staff, explaining to them that this was appropriate care for an inevitable miscarriage, but the staff refused – citing the policy of their Catholic health system that they do not participate in abortion.

By this point Sarah was in tremendous pain and it became clear that she needed immediate medical attention that this Catholic health institution would not provide.  The primary doctor and the OB from the clinic explained to Sarah that prolonging the miscarriage would put her own health at significant risk, that there was no medical intervention that could save her pregnancy, and that as this hospital would not treat her, it was necessary to get her to another hospital. 

Sarah and her husband then managed to drive 45 minutes to the next closest hospital where she was finally admitted and treated.

One of the OB GYN’s that saw Sarah shared this story with the ACLU as she was concerned that a hospital in Washington state would put patients at risk by refusing to provide safe and appropriate care.