The patient was in a private room. I even remember the room number, 724. That was one of the gold coast rooms. The woman, in her early or mid-thirties, was married to someone really important, with a lot of connections. She came in with severe pelvic sepsis and she died. I remember her so vividly because she was one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen. She was also one of the sickest. She was ashen. When I first saw her, she was still conscious and lucid. I think she suspected she might die. She had kidney failure. Then all her other systems failed as well. She got ecchymosis-red blotches all over her skin. Her blood vessels were just breaking underneath her skin, sort of like what happens when you bruise yourself, but this was happening all over her body without anyone even touching her. It was due to a disturbance of her coagulating mechanism as a result of the overwhelming sepsis. She died two or three days after she was admitted.
I remember thinking, “My God! How could anyone do that to this beautiful woman?” But I completely misunderstood what I was looking at. In those days (1948) the tendency was to treat the woman as the helpless victim of this monster called the abortionist. I completely missed the fact that she had obviously sought it out, and with her connections, it would have been one of the better ones that money could buy. I was so shocked by what had happened to her and the way she died that I actually was physically ill.
My political ideas in those days were pretty primitive. Like most medical students, I was just trying to survive it all. However, primitive though I was, she did touch something at some level in me. I was angry that she had died, and I was angry at the system that let her die. As I said, in those days I thought the solution was to jail the abortionist. It took me another twenty years to fully understand that it was the system and not the abortionist who killed her. The system forced her away from the medical community and into the shadowy world of the illegal abortionist.
By the time she got to a doctor, it was too late. The system, and especially the lawmakers who left her with no choice, killed her just as surely as if they had held the catheter or coat hanger or whatever. I’m still angry. It was all so unnecessary. -Dr. Bert