Infertility In the 1960’s, Horrors and Miracles

I was a teenager during the middle of the last century. Those were the days before support groups. Sensitivity towards other people’s problems did not seem to be uppermost in people’s minds. And personal matters were mostly kept hidden. As you read this story, you will find many instances of insensitivity that are, thankfully, mostly unheard of today.

As the 1960s opened, the role of women in our country began to change. The discovery of the birth control pill allowed many women to put off child-bearing in order to build careers. The feeling of empowerment over their bodies spurred many of them to make their voices heard in a rapidly changing society.

At the end of 1963, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy first stunned and then energized both men and women in my generation to jump head first into changing the world. As the Vietnam War dragged on throughout the 1960s, men and women protested the war loud enough to bring down President Lyndon Baines Johnson.

With women’s new-found empowerment, many shunned traditional marriage in favor of establishing communes where men and women could live a “free love” lifestyle. (I recently met a man who was born in a commune and had no idea who his dad was!)

It was during these rapidly changing times that I, an undergraduate student at Stern College for Women, took my place in the world as a young married woman. I was 19 years old! My husband, Hershie, age 22, was a graduate student at Yeshiva University. We lived in the Manhattan neighborhood called Washington Heights.

Our world is The Orthodox Jewish World. In the 1960’s, neither women’s liberation nor building a major career were on my agenda. I wanted my voice to be heard, but I wanted to do it in the context of my Orthodox Jewish life. Childbearing was at the top of my list!

By the age of 21, I discovered that I had an infertility problem. Today it is called PCOS. Regular Ob-Gyns in the 60’s were not used to dealing with the new field of “infertility,” so it was suggested that I see the physician who had delivered Jackie Kennedy’s babies… a physician to the rich!! I timidly arrived for my appointment during which I was in total awe in the presence of the doctor who had tended to the First Lady!

Jackie’s doctor suggested that I undergo a major surgical procedure called Wedge Resection. They would cut a wedge of cysts off both ovaries in order to make a clean surface for new eggs to emerge. I was horrified! The thought of surgery terrified me.

I put thoughts of surgery out of my mind as we graduated and moved back to our home town, Pittsburgh, PA. I began teaching Kindergarten at Hillel Academy, and spent a great deal of time “doctoring.”

I underwent every test that was available in those days… the ones I can remember were called Hystero-salpingogram and Coldoscopy. Birth control pills began to be used for infertility patients, but researchers were inexperienced in regulating the estrogen and progesterone levels in the pills, and I became very ill after only one pill.

Every month brought disappointment. Ovulation was measured daily by taking body temperature. Pregnancy could only be determined by blood tests. There were no Rapid Pregnancy or Ovulation Tests in those days. Waiting for those test results was excruciating and ultimately devastating.

Seeing pregnant women was a nightmare. And sometimes women would make insensitive remarks about my not having produced a child yet. One of my physicians asked, “Why are you bothering with all these tests, etc, you’re never going to have a child!” After such incidents, I would run home crying. Even today, 45 years later, that remark still stings!

Because I knew that G-d has a plan for everyone, I never asked, “Why Me?”, but, except for the time I spent teaching, I felt very sad and empty. It took my physicians 2 more years to mention Wedge Resection surgery. By that time I was 24 and ready for the surgery.

Truth be told, this surgery saved my life. One of my ovaries was so laden with cysts that it had to be removed completely. The Dr. said that it could have, at any moment, from the weight of the cysts, twisted in any direction, which could have cut off my circulation! But to me, an infertility patient, the worst news was that the other ovary was also so polycystic that the doctor was only able to save 1/5 of that ovary. I went into surgery to be able to have children and came out with 1/5 of one ovary! My Mom heard the news first and was in shock, although the doctor did assure her that a woman can conceive even with only a small piece of an ovary.

Another year passed and nothing happened. I was beginning to feel desperate. With no support groups, there was nowhere to seek the comfort of others who were experiencing the same pain. And I was surrounded by babies, babies, babies!

As 1966 dawned, something most amazing happened! A well-known fertility physician from Wales took a position at Magee Hospital in Pittsburgh… the late Dr. David Charles. At that time, Magee, a teaching hospital, was beginning to develop a world-class Fertilty Department. The moment I entered his office, I felt his warmth and optimism. I was especially encouraged when, after examining me, he announced, “young lady, you WILL have a baby!”

Who would have imagined that Dr. Charles was one of only 12 physicians in the USA who were doing clinical trials on a newly discovered drug called Clomephene. (Today it is called Clomid… which, to my knowledge, has made Wedge Resection surgeries extinct.) Dr. Charles determined that I was a good candidate for success with Clomephene and asked if my husband and I would be okay with the chance of multiple births. That question was a no-brainer!

In December, 1966, I became pregnant! The first seven months of my pregnancy were blissfully uneventful. During my 30th week, I got out of bed in the morning, looked down and saw blood on the floor. My mind could hardly comprehend what I saw.

By the time I got to the hospital, I was already in labor with a suspected placenta previa! There were no sonograms in those days, so I was prepped for a C-section before Dr. Charles, in front of about 25 medical students, examined me to determine, for sure, if his suspicion was correct.

Yes, it was a placenta previa, but Dr. Charles determined that there was enough space for my tiny baby to slip through. The next step was to try to stop the labor. I was immediately hooked up to intravenous alcohol.

The waiting began. Since I was the first placenta previa in the Clomephene Clinical Trials, I instantly became a statistic! But my labor would not stop. As I was being bumpily wheeled to the delivery room (no birthing rooms in 1966!), a medical resident stopped the gurney and announced that he wanted to try to determine the size of mybaby. The resident proceeded to prod and push my abdomen. (remember, there were no sonograms in those days!) He declared, insensitively, that from the size that he could feel, my baby only had a 50-50 chance to live!

Really? Seriously? Are you kidding? Am I not already under enough stress? If I would have had the big mouth then that I have today, what I would have said to him would be unprintable!

The delivery room was prepared with an incubator and a pediatrician. The team was ready.

A short while later, my tiny son slid (literally) into the world. He weighed 3lbs and 1 oz. It was June 20, 1967. As Dr. Charles pulled him out, I closed my eyes tightly. Dr. Charles insisted that I look at my baby. I told him that if, G-d forbid, the baby didn’t make it, I couldn’t bear going through my whole life with a picture of him in my mind. Dr. Charles insisted that I open my eyes… and since, once again, this was many years before I developed my big mouth, I looked at the baby. What I saw was terrifying. He was so tiny. How could he survive? I was traumatized.

The baby was instantly whisked away in the incubator to the NICU and I was wheeled into the recovery room.

The next thing that happened would absolutely NOT happen today: In the recovery room a nurse came in, announced that she was giving me a shot to make sure that I would not produce milk. I was too shocked from the events of the day to even evaluate what she was saying. Even though breast feeding was discouraged during that era and pumping and taking milk to the hospital was totally unheard of, I had absolutely intended to breast feed my baby. With that injection, all hopes of breastfeeding were dashed.

In the late 1960s, no family members were allowed to touch their preemie in the incubator. Day by day, we stood in front of the glass window of the preemie nursery watching our tiny baby being fed through a feeding tube and attached to what seemed like zillions of tubes and wires. Believe it or not, I was afraid to take pictures of him in the incubator because I was afraid that the flash from the camera would affect his eyes!

After 2 long, agonizing months, our baby tipped the scales at 5lbs, 8oz. That was the release weight. The day before his release, I was invited into the nursery to hold and feed my baby for the first time. It was surreal. My baby was 2 months old and this wasmy first physical contact with him. When I think of it now, I could cry.

2015 Update: Our tiny preemie is almost 47 years old and has a Ph.D in Molecular Genetics! He is the father of two teenagers and loves to tease me by saying that any emotional issues he has… comes from the fact that he wasn’t touched until he was 2 months old! I laughingly thank him for the guilt trip, but I still feel sick as I wonder what the medical community could have been thinking in those days. Better not to dwell on it.

During the following ten years, Hershie and I were blessed with 3 more sons and a daughter! Child #2 was also a “Clomid” baby. The joke after that was that we had finally found the “on” button… with no help from medication!

Hershie and I thank G-d every day for the amazing Blessings that He has given us!

Children! Grandchildren! During the 1960’s, could we ever have imagined such Blessings?!

We pray that all of you will be recipients of these same wonderful Blessings!


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