This is my school photo from my junior year of high school. The year was 1984. What you can’t tell from this photo is that I was six months pregnant. I was planning on placing my child for adoption. Prior to the mid-1980s, almost all unwed pregnant girls planning on placing their child for adoption went to live for the last few months of pregnancy away from their home and family. It was thought that the girls would have an easier time transitioning back into their community if they hadn’t been seen enormously pregnant. That way, if the girl and her family chose to keep it a secret, they could do so. I was anything but secretive, but I agreed to be in foster care for the last three months of my pregnancy. Adoptions were also closed then. In each part of this series, I will share an experience during and after my pregnancy and my adoption decision that will, hopefully, shed some light on how birth moms have been treated in the past, which only added to the sorrow of placing a child.
I was terrified. I was embarrassed. I was alone. I was sitting in the waiting room of my new OB/GYN. I was six months pregnant, and I was 16 years old.
I hadn’t told my parents I was pregnant until I was three months along, so I had not received early pregnancy care. My mom had me in the doctor’s office two days after I told her and was there for me as I had my first pelvic and breast exam and answered a bunch of questions that were really embarrassing for a teenager. The doctor was professional and kind and was supportive of my decision to place my baby for adoption. He talked with me, even said he recognized how afraid I must be, and took an extra appointment time to talk with me as a real human being. He was kind and understanding of my mom and knew that this was hard for her, too. He didn’t judge—just helped. I was so grateful and felt comfortable with him.
I had my first appointment with my new doctor shortly after moving in with my foster family. My mom had done her research to find the best doctor she could for me and had set up the appointment. My own doctor had recommended him, so I thought that he would be kind, too.
As I walked up to the receptionist, I had my records from my previous doctor and paperwork for insurance. I didn’t even say my name before the woman at the front desk said, “Oh. You must be the 11 o’clock—the pregnant, teenage girl. I need to see your Medicaid information…you know, welfare insurance?”
I told her I didn’t have Medicaid and gave her the name of my insurance carrier.
“Whatever. You probably just don’t understand that you are on welfare. Anyway, do you have insurance papers?”
“I will take them.”
I gave them to her. As she looked at them, she was surprised to find out that I was not a Medicaid patient and had regular insurance. She didn’t apologize or say anything. She just typed in the information she needed and made her copies. I had to ask her to give me the originals back. She then told me to take a seat to wait for the nurse.
I watched as several people who came in after me were admitted back to the doctor. Each time as the nurse came to the door, she looked to see if I was still there. I was there for over an hour before my name was called.
I was escorted to a room and a nurse came in. She seemed nice enough at first and asked the usual questions. She then asked to see my arm (I wondered what that had to do with someone being pregnant). She turned my arm over to the inside and felt my veins. “Hmmmm. I don’t see any drug tracks. Are you smoking them or snorting them?”
I was dumbfounded. “What?”
“What kind of drugs are you using and how are you using them?”
I expected them to ask me if I drank, smoke, or did illegal drugs and what kind of medications I was taking, but I did not expect them to simply assume I was a drug user because I was a pregnant teenager.
“I have never used drugs.”
“Alcohol, then. Cigarettes?”
“I have never used them.”
Wow, my second “whatever” of the day. She did the blood pressure test, listened to my heart, and told me the doctor would be in.
I wanted to run away and was almost in tears. I wanted my mom.
The doctor came in, eventually. He was brusque to the point of being rude, and he just looked at the chart and not at my face. He asked me to lie down and he measured and then gently probed my belly. He told me I could sit up. Then, still looking at my chart said, “Well, I guess you’re okay. You just had an appointment before you came, so I’m not going to do any more. I’m going to let my physician’s assistant see you from now on. You won’t have another visit from me until right before you deliver unless there are complications. Good luck and make an appointment with the front desk for three weeks.”
As I stood at the receptionist desk to make the appointment, my doctor greeted another patient with a smile, a handshake, and a friendly look in the eye. I overheard the other patient say, “Wow. She is a young girl—how sad.”
The doctor replied, “Yes. We take on a few of these cases pro bono each year. It’s a tax write-off.”
I left with my appointment card in hand and sat and cried in my car for a few minutes. As I got to my foster home, my foster mom said, “How did it go?”
“Fine. Everything looks good.” I refused to say more than that.
My mom called a little while later. She knew I had an appointment and wanted to know how it went. I told her that it went fine, but my mom’s magic-momma intuition knew there was something wrong.
“Lisa. What’s the matter? Is the baby okay? Are you okay? What did the doctor say? What happened?”
“The doctor says I’m okay and the baby’s okay….Mom, what does ‘pro bono’ mean?”
“It means for free. If someone does something ‘pro bono’ it means that they don’t charge for their services. Why?”
I told mom what the doctor had said about me being one of the cases that he did for a tax write-off. I also told her about the receptionist not believing that I had insurance and how the nurse thought I must do drugs. Mom was upset with how I was treated. She did the very best she could through the phone to help me feel better.
The next day after school, I received a phone call from my doctor himself. “Lisa, this is Dr. _________. I just want to apologize for what happened yesterday. Your father spoke with me today and clarified that you are not a welfare patient and that we are being paid to take care of you. He was also very thorough in explaining the tax law [my dad was an accountant]. I also apologize that my nurse assumed you took drugs and that my receptionist was rude. After I got off the phone with your father, I also received a phone call from your doctor at home. He further explained your situation. Please accept my apology. It won’t happen again.”
That was the first time in my life that an adult had apologized to me in person. I smiled and called my dad to tell him and Mom what had happened. Before my dad had called my current doctor, he had called my home doctor and chewed him out for referring an “incompetent, so-called-doctor” to us for me to see. I was so grateful to have parents who loved me and took care of me and did the very best that they could.
Since that time, I have thought about the other pregnant, teenage girls who have been humiliated, embarrassed, and had to deal with verbal abuse at the hands of medical professionals simply because they did not have the parental support that I did. Obviously, that office had treated girls that way before. I just hope that they changed and were kinder to other girls after me.