Remembering Dr. Tiller’s Kindness

Mar 9, 2015 | Congenital Heart Defects, Hydrocephalus, Termination after 24 weeks

I can’t imagine where I would have been without Dr. Tiller and Women’s Health Care Services. He saved my family. He saved my life.

M. K.

My story takes place in the year 2000. I was 32 years old and had two older boys from a previous relationship. Jason and I had been married three years and I was pregnant. We were excited and ready to be parents together for the first time. We had selected furniture, car seats, and other items to help us keep our baby comfortable, warm, protected and loved.

I took prenatal vitamins, didn’t drink, had never smoked, and avoided sushi, artificial sweeteners, deli meats and cheeses. I had all the usual prenatal tests and everything was normal.

Twenty-nine weeks into my pregnancy my OB said I was “carrying large” and suggested one last sonogram “just to make sure” things were OK. I assumed that this sonogram would be another joyous look at the baby, and insisted that Jason come to share in the excitement and happiness of seeing our baby together.

The sonogram technician stopped the sonogram almost immediately and said, “There’s a problem.”

The OB was called in at once to tell us that our baby’s condition was extremely grave. In the space of seconds we went from happily expectant parents to devastated and panicked people in crisis. Our need for medical advice, opinions and options was urgent.  We were rushed to a variety of hospitals where I was examined by several doctors, including a perinatalogist and a radiologist. We were told that our baby had major brain abnormalities, including severe hydrocephalus and a malformed Vein of Galen, and that these problems had affected the baby’s heart and lungs, as well. We were told our precious baby boy would die at some point in utero or immediately after birth.

It was clear that there was no medical miracle to correct the baby’s condition. Worse still, our doctors informed us that abortion was not an option because I was 29 weeks pregnant: far past the legal limit for termination. They said I had no choice but to wait and deliver our baby full term as if the pregnancy were proceeding normally. Third trimester abortions, they explained, are just not done.

Desperate, we begged the head of our O.B. practice for other options. He calmly explained that there were none—that I had no choice but to carry the baby more than two more months until delivery, unless the baby died in utero before that. We directly asked him about the possibility of termination. Our doctor glared at us said, ‘‘We call that murder.’’

We made the dreaded phone calls to inform our parents that their long-awaited grandchild would not survive. My husband is from a medical family—his father is a surgeon and his sister is a pediatrician, and they have a network of colleagues. My in-laws called back within the hour to tell us they had learned of an option, in Wichita, Kansas. In a daze, we wrote down Dr. Tiller’s name.

The next morning, hanging onto our last shreds of hope, we went to yet another D.C. hospital for third and fourth opinions. Another radiologist repeated the grim prognosis: The baby would die in utero, or within hours or days of birth.

My husband turned to him and asked, ‘‘if this were your wife, what would you do?’’

‘‘I’d find any way possible to terminate the pregnancy.’’

We then met with a leading neonatologist to see if there was anything that could be done in utero to correct the abnormalities or repair the heart and lungs. She had reviewed our file, and told us the damage was too severe. Nothing could be done. She asked if we had any questions. I said that we wanted to terminate the pregnancy, and asked if she knew of any way to do so.

She stared at us in shock. “You just found out. How can you make such a decision?”

We said that we had thought of nothing other than our child’s prognosis since the sonogram the morning before. We hadn’t slept, or read the paper, or watched TV. We hadn’t done anything but cry and think of our precious son.

We shared that if we did nothing, we would be on a “death watch,” merely waiting for our baby to die, and this would be unbearable state to endure over the next two months until his due date. I said I was prepared to go anywhere, at any expense and at medical risk, to end our anguish. We loved our baby too much to suffer the misery of waking up every morning awaiting his impending death.

She listened, then excused herself from the room. We waited. And waited. Finally she returned with a torn scrap of paper. There was nothing printed on it to indicate her name or that of the hospital. On it were scrawled just four words: Doctor Tiller, Wichita, Kansas.

We left for Kansas two days later. We were treated with kindness, warmth, and respect by everyone we met at Women’s Health Care Services. I was again examined, and my file was again reviewed. We were given counseling and support. The procedure was explained, and we were consulted at each step of the process. I have never met kinder or more caring people.

After the delivery, my husband and I, along with both of our mothers, held our intact baby, said a blessing, and bid him goodbye. He is buried at a cemetery near our home and we visit often.

We feel a strong obligation to tell our story to inform others of why it is necessary to preserve the right to choose. I can’t stress strongly enough that we did not “change our minds’’ about being parents. This was a desperately wanted child, one who had been planned for, dreamed of, read and sung to, and long hoped for.

The hardest part for us to convey is how much we did then and continue to love our son, how we remember him and mourn his loss, but how we made the decision that we thought was most humane. Even in retrospect, years later, we know we made the right choice.

Losing our baby was the hardest thing that we have ever experienced. But I am grateful that we were able to make this difficult decision ourselves and that we had a safe medical option in our time of crisis.

While I hope and pray that no one has to go through what my husband and I have, I know there are people who will. It can happen to anyone—to you, your wife, your sister, your daughter, your friends. There will be families in the future faced with this tragedy, and they deserve the protection, the guidance and the access that modern medicine allows.

This procedure is not about murder. It’s about finding way to go on. In the end, it’s about life. A good life. A healthy life. The life I see every day in the eyes of my living sons.

I can’t imagine where I would have been without Dr. Tiller and Women’s Health Care Services. He saved my family. He saved my life. I couldn’t have made it through this without him, and I know there are a great many women and families out there who feel the same way.

I’m horrified and shocked at the extreme politicization of this issue, and the demonization of the doctors and staff at Women’s Health Care Services in Wichita. In actuality, Dr. Tiller and his staff were among the kindest, most caring and compassionate people I have ever encountered, and we are truly grateful to them for giving us the chance to say goodbye to our precious son with dignity and respect.


Editor’s note:

On May 31st, 2009, Dr. George Tiller was assassinated by an anti-abortion zealot. Dr. Tiller’s family, friends and co-workers have our deepest condolences, as do the many women associated with our web site who he personally helped. He was a caring and compassionate soul who helped so many through the crisis of ending a wanted pregnancy. We are grateful.

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