Jennifer Baum: Incarcerated Uterus

“I took a wrong turn and almost drove into the Holland Tunnel. I saw the police pulling people over to interrogate them. I swung out of the lane just in time and almost hit a car. What if they think I’m a terrorist and deport me?”

. . .

“Don’t you think you’re being a bit paranoid?”

 

Mattress Vagina 1

Newly pregnant, I flew home to New York the first summer after 9/11. I didn’t care about the pollution and the heat or the paranoia and despair that enveloped the city. I wanted to be near my mother, family and childhood friends after a lonely first year in Los Angeles. My Canadian husband, Henry, would have preferred to go back to Vancouver, to touch down on gentle Canadian soil and rejuvenate. But I insisted on New York. I needed to observe first hand that the city was functioning, that people woke up every day, went to work, ate, drank, and slept despite fears of another terrorist attack.

One Friday night, I woke up and found I couldn’t pee. Concerned but groggy, I managed to fall back asleep. By the next morning, I suffered from a burning sensation every time I tried (and failed) to urinate.

I’d had UTIs in my adult life, but I knew an infection while pregnant was serious.

I paged the Soho Midwives and was reluctantly prescribed antibiotics over the phone. The next twenty-four hours I climbed in and out of the bathtub in pain, managing to expel only trickles.

Sunday morning, we headed to the emergency room at Mount Sinai. I’d wanted to go to St. Vincent’s, but my husband, Henry, and I had only five dollars between us. We were perennially broke then, living on his Ph.D. fellowship. The furthest we could afford a taxi was crosstown.

I burst into tears in the backseat, trembling from the air conditioning.

“My mother gave birth to me at Mt. Sinai.”

“Maybe they’ll remember you,” Henry said sweetly, and rubbed my shoulders.

The waiting area was bleak and overcrowded. I dashed to check-in and waited for the woman behind the barred, thick-glassed window to acknowledge me.

She didn’t.

“Excuse me,” I said loudly.

“Write down your name and take a seat,” she answered, without turning her head. Henry and I sat and couldn’t help staring at a woman across the aisle whose body contorted in agony.

The clock on the wall said 11 a.m.

I tried again to pee in the rancid lavatory, perched over a filthy toilet. There was no soap. Henry reported that in the men’s room, someone had defecated on the floor.

At 4 p.m., I was called up. Registration was delayed because the computer kept rejecting my insurance information.

“You’re gonna have to pay up front. $490 plus any tests.”

Legs doctor's table

 

At five, we were waved through to an exam room. We navigated past doctors, nurses, and patients, some on cots, some behind curtains, some wandering aimlessly pushing IV’s. Another hour elapsed, before a harried young doctor emerged from the muck. Ghoulish from sleep deprivation, she was quick to inform she’d already been 15 hours on the job.

She dragged the ultrasound machinery over and squirted ointment on my not-yet-swelling belly. “Your bladder is so distended,” she said, “I’m having trouble finding the baby.”

I leaned on my elbows to get a better look at the screen and the three of us searched anxiously.

“I apologize for the terrible image. We don’t have state-of-the-art equipment.”

I thought about my mother giving birth here.

“Look,” Henry said gleefully.

We saw a tiny image of a head and a body squirming.

“You’re able to urinate a little bit, right?”

“Yes. My uterus tilts down. Could that have anything to do with it?”

“No, no…. I’m going off duty now. Another ER doctor will be here soon. In the meantime, we’re going to put in a catheter.”

We waited. Finally, a nurse arrived to stick the tubing into my urethra. Little did I realize that I’d soon become much too familiar with the process. A urologist joined to measure my “output.” A translucent bag the size of a shoebox quickly filled to the brim.

“We generally see this condition in older people.”

“Could it be the way my uterus tilts?”

“I don’t see why…”

He left, promising an ob-gyn would follow. I hadn’t had anything to eat or drink since we hailed the cab, and shook from the chill. An aide entered the room.

“Sorry, the ob-gyn can’t come, we’re so busy, but I spoke with her. We’re going to send you home. The urologist wants to keep the catheter in overnight but the ob-gyn doesn’t agree—there’s an infection risk.”

The nurse returned–an hour later–and gently removed the tube.

We left the hospital at ten o’clock that night, 11 hours after we’d first checked in.

The next morning, Henry drove my mother’s car to the Soho Midwives, dropped me off, then looked for a parking space.

The midwives were mystified by my condition. Their urologist couldn’t see me for another day, but “Drink lots of water.”

Henry hurried into the office an hour later. He was sweating profusely and looking grim.

“Are you okay?”

“I took a wrong turn and almost drove into the Holland Tunnel. I saw the police pulling people over to interrogate them. I swung out of the lane just in time and almost hit a car. What if they think I’m a terrorist and deport me?”

Henry was on a student visa in the U.S. His mother is a Moroccan Jew and he inherited her dark, Semitic features. People often mistook him for an Arab.

“Don’t you think you’re being a bit paranoid?”

“I don’t know. Am I?”

Henry sat vigil all evening over me in the bathtub. My childhood friend Gina rang the buzzer, bearing “provisions.”

“I brought you some water.” She plunked down a big jug on the bathroom floor. ” I have a constant supply. In case they poison the wells.”

“Seriously?”

“You guys should start saving. Everyone I know is doing it.”

I grimaced. “We have to go back to the ER.”

At Mt. Sinai, we repeated a long night. When I was finally treated, an encouraging nurse fit me with a catheter and taught me how to empty the bag. ”See? Nothing to it,” She loosened the little plastic knob, which contained the urine. I watched the healthy flow empty into the bedpan. “You’re going to keep this in overnight.”

In the costly cab to the urologist, I wore a long flowing dress with no underwear, a leaking bag of urine strapped to my leg. This waiting room featured a glossy poster of the doc advertising his radio show. He appeared to be wearing a toupee.

After examining me, Dr. Khan pointed to a diagram of a woman’s reproductive organs.

“Due to your rare, retroverted uterus, the baby is pushing against the bladder, obstructing the urinary tract.”

“Jennifer has two options,” he continued, “She can either leave the catheter in full time or she can self-catheter. Jennifer has to think carefully.”

“Jennifer just wants to get this thing off,” I said to Henry.

At home I squatted in the tub so I could clean my vulva with soap and water and learned to self-catheter. How am I going to do this in a public restroom in NYC, in the heat, with crowds, filth, stench, cockroaches? I’m stuck in this apartment forever. Maybe it’s better this way. We won’t get caught in an attack.

Dr. Khan said it would self-correct. It didn’t. How many rooms did we wait in? How many Kafka-esque calls on hold? My mother insisted we try her doctor, who refused me, fearing I’d sue.  In between, I read about Weapons of Mass Destruction. Bush was pushing war with Iraq. How could I bring a baby into this world?

While waiting at an expensive Park Avenue specialist’s office, I noticed a cable TV station advertisement.

“Are you having an unusual pregnancy? Do you have a story you’re dying to tell? There are plenty of women who are dying to listen. Call us at TV 58 and we will interview you on cable television.”

“Guess we’re in the right place,” Henry said.

The shaky ob-gyn in his 70s diagnosed my “incarcerated uterus.” He offered to dose me with Demerol and manually “liberate it.”

Prison

My hands began to shake along with his.

“You’re Jewish, right?”

Henry and I nodded.

“Then this story may not console you, but I will tell it. The last time I saw a con…di…tion like yours was when the Pope was in town. The woman I was treating started to hall…u…ci…nate he stood in her room praying. It helped her get through the procedure.”

In the end, I found an ob-gyn who fit me with a pessary, and the urine finally flowed. Seven months later, I gave birth to a baby boy. Now, in revisiting this story, the setting of post-9/11 New York seems ripe and relevant. What felt like a bleak period in American history with the rise of xenophobia, fears of terrorism and the invasion of Iraq, has deteriorated into an even graver moment. Today, Muslims are deprived of constitutional rights and hate crimes are on the rise. Though my situation did not require abortion, it raised concerns about what women can control or not about our bodies, controls being threatened under a Trump administration.

 

 

Me at new Whitney

Jennifer Baum has a MFA in Filmmaking from the University of British Columbia, a certificate in Master Novel Writing from University of California Los Angeles, and a MTESOL from Arizona State University. Currently, she teaches composition to international students at Arizona State University. She has been published in The Village Voice, Guernica, Canadian Jewish Outlook, The Jewish Observer, Mutha and NewFound, which nominated her creative nonfiction essay, “A Different Set of Rules,” for a Pushcart. She is working on a full-length memoir about growing up in subsidized housing on the Upper West Side of Manhattan based upon her essay “A Different Set of Rules.” Her short films have screened in Havana, Seattle, Tokyo, San Francisco, Vancouver, New York, Toronto, and Ottawa.

 
Legs on table photo by Henry Sivak.
Vagina mattress photo by Jennifer Baum.

3 Comments

on “Jennifer Baum: Incarcerated Uterus
3 Comments on “Jennifer Baum: Incarcerated Uterus
  1. Our personal experiences always give us ownership of the historical moment we live in. This painful recount of an expectant mother suffering from incarcerated uterus holds close to our hearts the traumatic events of 9/11 and xenophobia that ensued.

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