Early Saturday morning, I turn into the parking lot of the Planned Parenthood. If I go too fast my car will bottom out and hit the sidewalk, but if I drive too slowly, there will be a swarm of protestors shoving their pamphlets up to the window of my car and shouting to me about babies. As I park and walk towards the clinic, their shouts get louder. Often there is a woman with a megaphone who, for some reason, believes that harassing the patients is a fantastic way for her to bond with her pre-adolescent children. There are posters propped up against the cars that line the street alongside the clinic. In bold black letters, one reads: “WE WILL HELP YOU.”
I’m waiting for the follow up to that poster where they elaborate on exactly how they will help, but it never comes.
As I walk in, I make small talk with the volunteer escorts and wait to get buzzed in through the two security doors that lead to the clinic. The staff always greets me warmly and I know almost everyone that works there. I’ve been an abortion doula for four years now and sometimes the most I can say about it is that it has changed my life. Often the patients I see ask me if I like my job. I always laugh and tell them that I am a volunteer. “I do this for fun!”, I say.
It is an odd hobby to have, I suppose. While birth doulas are becoming more common, the concept of an abortion doula is foreign to most.
Obviously, abortion is a loaded topic in politics, but when I am in this role it is purely personal. I am there for the patients. Because security must be a priority in the clinics, patients cannot have family or friends with them during their procedure—at least in most clinics—so I take on the role of providing emotional and physical support. Each person we see has their own distinct story that has led them to us. For that reason, I hate when abortion is spoken of as only a matter of politics. The world has and will always have abortion. It is only political in how our laws and culture choose to treat those who need them. I reside in a typical New England blue state. The abortion laws in our state are among the most lax. Abortion is covered by Medicaid, there are no mandatory ultrasounds, and minors have autonomy over their reproductive health so no parental consent is required. The atmosphere at our clinic is medical yet welcoming. It is only because of the protestors outside that one would be able to single out our clinic as an abortion clinic. It just looks like a regular, old doctor’s office. The reason for that is because it IS a regular, old doctor’s office.
Except our doctors occasionally get death threats. Still.
On a typical Saturday, we have about 15 patients. As I bring the first patient into the procedure room, I show them where to put their belongings and ask them to sit on the edge of the exam table on their bare bottom. This is the only time in my life where I use the word “bottom” to refer to someone’s ass, and it feels weird.
Normally, I like to meet the patient where they are and mirror their tone. Sometimes our conversation is quiet and serious, other times we laugh and joke. Sometimes they feel like they want to curse. I never let them apologize for it because sometimes I do, too. Especially when protesters come up in conversation. Because I fucking hate the protesters. They are the least helpful people in the goddamn world. After introductions, the Nurse Anesthetist listens to their heart and lungs, and then I help the patient into the position they will be in for the procedure. As I do this, I make sure to keep as much covered as possible. It is an awkward position to be in, so I do whatever I can to help them feel less vulnerable. Once the procedure starts, my only job is to be a hand-holder, tear-wiper, or distract-er. Usually patients choose to have moderate sedation and much of the sensation is relieved, but as the uterus is emptied it contracts down quickly which can cause mild to heavy cramping. During this time, if it is necessary, I will help with breathing. “In through your nose… out through your mouth . . . like you are blowing out a birthday candle . . . ” I instruct them.
If there are tears, I dab their eyes. Nobody likes the feeling of tears falling into their ears while they are lying down.
There is no magic formula to knowing how to set someone at ease. Often patients talk right through the procedure. Many times, when the doctor is through, we will hear, “That was it?”. On average a surgical abortion will take between 3 and 8 minutes, so I will only have about 15 minutes with each person. I have seen almost every emotion and have heard hundreds of stories while standing beside that exam table. From teenagers to grandmothers alike. After four years in my role as a doula, I can honestly say that there is no “typical patient”. No “type of person” is exempt.
Because we all process stress in different ways the emotions in that room can range from relief to devastation.
I do my best to make sure each person knows that however they are feeling is the right way to feel. Often the exam table acts as a confessional, except instead of doling out penance, I just stand there holding their hand and listening. I hear their stories and assure them that everyone in that room understands how hard of a decision it was for them, if it was. I often find myself saying, “Only YOU know what choice is best for YOUR life.” Countless times I am asked, “Do you think I am selfish?” My response will always be “No.” Plain and simple. I remind them who they have actually made this decision for. That is what the abortion decision is all about. It is about real people wanting to offer everything they can to those who depend on them in their lives already. The decision should not be a political one, because it is purely a personal one.
Jessy Lori is a former preschool teacher turned nanny, full-spectrum doula, and future nursing student from New Haven, Connecticut. When she’s not doing of any of those other things, she’s running a punk house and chasing her rescue pitbull as he runs around the house trying to eat any object that can fit in his mouth. Occasionally she gets to write as well.