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Doe Eyes

Andrea Gordon

She burst into tears when I asked if she wanted to get pregnant.

Eman, a beautiful young woman from Jordan, sat in my family-practice office with her husband, Ali, and two adorable children about one and two years old. With her scarf and dark clothing covering all but her pale face and enormous sable-brown eyes, Eman looked closer to fourteen than twenty-four, and scarcely old enough to have any children.

“How can I help you?” I started.

“We wish to remove her IUD, so we can have another baby,” Ali answered.

I don’t think he expected me to address Eman directly.

“Do you want to get pregnant?” I asked, since she seemed so tense and unhappy. That was when the tears started.

“Why are you upset?” I continued gently.

Ali began to speak.

“Can you please let her speak, and translate for her?” I said.

He nodded, and she murmured something in Arabic.

“She says she may want to get pregnant again, but not yet,” Ali said. “For myself, I want to have children while I’m still young.” He was twenty-nine, he said.

“Perhaps she’s just afraid,” he added.

He and Eman talked in Arabic for a bit. As they finished, Eman looked at me wide-eyed for a moment, then gazed at the floor again.

“She does not want to do it right now,” Ali told me. “But out of respect for me, she will do it.”

“Hmm,” I said. “This presents me with a dilemma, since I’m being asked to do something that my patient seems not to want me to do.”

“I have a solution,” Ali responded easily. “You can take out the IUD, and we will use some other kind of contraception while we talk this over, and until she is ready.” I had an uneasy feeling that he was just trying to appease me.

“Who helps at home with the children?” I asked.

“I do,” said Ali proudly. Before I could figure out a way to tactfully ask how, as a graduate student, he had time for this, he added, “Anyway, we are planning to move back to Jordan in another year or so. We will have lots of family to help us there.”

As well-behaved and adorable as the children were, I could imagine how much work they were–and how much more a newborn would add.

Eman spoke again.

“She says that she is afraid,” Ali translated. “Not of the pregnancy or childbirth, but mostly about whether she can handle three children.” They talked some more. Eventually, Eman said that she might want to get pregnant in a year or so–but still, she looked stricken, and her body drooped with resignation.

“May I speak with Eman alone?” I asked Ali. After a moment’s hesitation, he took the children out into the hall.

I spent the next half-hour, with the help of an extraordinarily patient telephone interpreter, teaching Eman how not to get pregnant.

I asked her all the standard questions related to abuse: Had Ali ever harmed her? Did her force her to have sex? Was she afraid of him?

She denied all of those, and I believed her. Her husband’s power over her was not physical but cultural. When I asked again if she wanted the IUD out, she said, “I have no choice.”

She looked worriedly at the door. I stuck my head out and asked Ali to take the children to the waiting room. While not hovering immediately outside, he was still close enough that he might hear what was being said over the speakerphone.

Realizing how little Eman understood of her body’s functioning, I told her about ovulation and about the times when she was most likely to get pregnant. In a bizarre reversal of the usual fertility counseling, I explained how to use cervical mucus and timing to try to avoid conception.

Then I suggested that she have a Depo-Provera shot, which would prevent pregnancy for three months.

“Yes,” she said. “But no one can know.”

“It might show up on the insurance bill,” I warned. She felt that she couldn’t risk it.

Finally, Eman told me to take out the IUD. “That is what I came here for, so I will do it.”

We decided to tell Ali that Depo-Provera was the birth-control method she’d chosen. Secretly I hoped that the shot’s effects might last for up to a year, as they sometimes do.

I invited Ali and the children back into the room.

“Three months?” Ali said. “No, we don’t need that. She can just take a pill for a week or two, while we decide.”

“It sounds like you’ve already decided,” I wanted to say–but I bit my tongue. Alienating Ali wouldn’t help Eman, especially since I was still hoping to find a way to convince him to delay a future pregnancy.

I escorted Eman to the exam room, and, at Ali’s request, he and the children came along. When Eman was ready, I drew a privacy curtain to shield the two of us.

Eman’s legs shook as I put in the speculum. I went as slowly as I could, mindful of her sighs of pain, and stopping to let her rest. At first I didn’t see the IUD strings and considered leaving it at that. But then she’d need an ultrasound–possibly even a transvaginal probe–and then another speculum exam. All of that would mean even more trauma. So I used a tiny brush to bring the strings into view and pulled the IUD reluctantly but quickly, feeling brutish as she yelped.

“We should talk about what you’ll use for contraception,” I said. The children, feeling the tension in the room, began to pull at the curtain and chatter, so I asked Ali to leave again.

I helped Eman sit up and left the room to let her get dressed. On the table, with her scarf off, she had looked like any other young woman–her mascara slightly smeared, her hair tousled. Now, as I came back in, she’d replaced her dutiful wifely garb.

We decided on birth-control pills, and I taught her how to use them–and that they could also be used as a morning-after pill. I prescribed a six-month supply, hoping that her insurance would allow it and that Ali might not notice.

With the kind interpreter’s help, I told Eman, “I know that my beliefs might not be yours, but I think that no one else should tell you what to do with your body.”

“You are a beautiful person,” she replied.

I felt at first touched, then ashamed. My words reflected my basic reality–that vast numbers of women enjoy the right to control their own bodies. But it was a reality, and a right, that Eman couldn’t share; she could scarcely even imagine it. And she could not see any way to claim it for herself.

Fiercely, I wished there were some way to put Eman in touch with women who would support her in making choices that honored her wishes, not just those of her husband or her culture.

I gave her my cell-phone number. “All you need to do is to call and say ‘I need an interpreter,’ and we’ll figure out how to speak.”

Finally, I ran out of things to say. I wished Eman safe travels, and she touched her fingers to her lips and extended them to me. We stood up.

“Can I hug you?” I asked.

She grabbed me and held on tightly, began to let go, then clung for another moment.

I walked her to the waiting room, feeling frustrated, helpless and defeated. Even at the end of a long day, it’s good to know that you’ve spent the time necessary to do the right thing, I reflected wearily. But what if, despite all your best efforts, doing the right thing isn’t enough to make a real difference?

When I met Eman, over a year ago, I saw her dilemma from the outside, with the smugness of a person who feels that her world has transcended an old way of thinking. Now, with changes in my own nation, I see my rights and those of other women here being threatened by powers who wish to remove our control over our bodies. It turns out that Eman and I may not live in such different worlds after all.

About the author:

Andrea Gordon is on the faculty of the Tufts Family Medicine Residency Program at Cambridge Health Alliance in Malden, MA. “Although I wrote poetry in high school, I had stopped until my advisor in residency told me, ‘You should write poetry.’ That was enough to start me writing again. I feel privileged to be invited into people’s lives and to hear their stories.”

Story editor:

Diane Guernsey


19 thoughts on “Doe Eyes”

  1. Catching up on Pulse this morning… We don’t usually see many differences of opinion in the comments section. This essay elicited some. What’s really wonderful is that the exchanges were polite, thoughtful, and respectful. This is how it’s supposed to be done. I believe that stems from the fact that Pulse has created a safe place and trusting community. For that I am grateful.

    PS I’m 1/4 of the way through the audiobook of Jonathan Haidt’s 2012 book “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.” (Recommended by a physician in response to a comment I made on his blog.) I’m learning so much, but it’s a difficult book…feels like a—very readable—text for a graduate class. Well worth it though. I think this testimonial fits here: “Haidt’s real contribution, in my judgment, is inviting us all to sit at the table.” ~ The Washington Times

  2. A Time and Place for Everything

    Submission Guidelines
    Pulse seeks high-quality, unpublished nonfiction, first-person stories, poetry, artwork, photographs and haiku by patients, caregivers, all health and mental health professionals, students and anyone else who wants to share his or her experiences of giving or receiving health care. We would love to pay authors/creative artists handsomely for accepted work; alas, we’re not yet able to. We are grateful for each and every submission and appreciate the effort that creators have put into their works

  3. A interesting story. I actually, thought it might even be a true one.
    There is a time and place for all things, under heaven. You shifted the focus of the plight of caregivers, providing care, respectful of all cultures, by ending it with a political statement. What’s with that?
    In nursing, it was protocol, not insight that had us call for an interpreter.
    I cringe to think of how you may end patient office visits, with those of opposing political beliefs.
    Maybe Politics is your true calling 🙁

    1. It concerns me that you rely on “protocol, not insight” to treat patients. I would think one would combine the two since optimal care is driven by careful consideration of patients’ unique circumstances.

      Also, you seem to imply that physicians are just physicians and that they should not be allowed to reflect on their experiences.

      The author believes that her government is disrespectful of women’s rights regarding contraception and pregnancy. By virtue of her being concerned about the rights of ALL women, she would be respectful towards any patient regardless of their political beliefs.

      Rather than being upset that she has “opposing political beliefs” to yours, why not explore the real question – does our current government threaten to “remove our control over our bodies?” Present facts, analyze, make an argument – we’re here to learn.

      1. Thank you for your understanding Samima. This is a true story (with enough elements changed to de-identify it) and it expressed my reflections about the experience. I would never share my political beliefs with patients – we focus on their concerns, thoughts and needs. I did my best to do what this patient requested i at every step. I did not agree with her choice to remove her IUD, but it was not my place to argue or make that decision since she came to it after having all of the necessary information.
        On reflection I realized that freedoms I have taken for granted may not always be so- which makes me further commit to listening well and not making assumptions about what is possible or appropriate for anyone. I appreciate the thoughtful comments offered here.

  4. Ronald S. Banner, M.

    Dear Andrea,

    Thank you for your touching story, allowing us to enter into a world with which many of us are not familiar, and reminding us of the dangers posed by the current political /cultural views of a minority of citizens of the U S A.

  5. Loved the way you gently moved us through the experience and I connected with the, About the author: sections that read,

    ” I feel privileged to be invited into people’s lives and to hear their stories.”

  6. Thank you so much for your candor and sensitivity in presenting this piece. This would have been an important message at any time, but especially, as you said, right now!

  7. This was a most powerful and revealing essay. The conditions of which you describe are all too common. Conceiving should be a planned desire, not an obligation due to culture or religion and certainly not up to the partner who does not conceive. Your compassion and wisdom of necessity to acquire an interpreter was prudent. Your wisdom to separate the husband, clearly controlling of her choices to reproduce, from Eman so that she could answer a question honestly and without duress, no matter how subtle, was insightful. So glad this article was printed in PULSE.

  8. I found this to be a well -written compassionate article. I have a dear friend in Cairo with grown chikdren who live under similar expectations from their husbands, though my friend’s wife, now dead, had worked as an accountant. It’s difficult to change those expectations. Impossible, really

  9. Thank you for writing this piece. Your concern for your patient and your frustration at your helplessness in being able to help her comes through very well. It is painful to see the incredibly self-centered, selfish behavior of the husband as he overrules her in the most intimate area of her life, putting you in an impossible dilemma. And of course, this situation has even greater resonance today.

  10. “When I met Eman, over a year ago, I saw her dilemma from the outside, with the smugness of a person who feels that her world has transcended an old way of thinking…”

    When I read this I thought you were going to say something along the lines of: “but maybe things aren’t so black and white as I thought they were then. I still wonder if I did the right thing for Eman.”

    But instead you chose to add a thinly-veiled jab at Trump. Boo. What rights of women are being threatened exactly? Do you really think that family planning in the US is on the verge of becoming equivalent with the Middle East? This is hyperbolic and silly. Until now, I thought Pulse was better than that.

    Personally, I would have refused to remove the IUD if this were my patient instead of just giving hugs.

  11. This is a lovely essay, but the phrase “she’d replaced her dutiful wifely garb” is offensive to the millions of Muslim women who choose to wear the headscarf as a practice of their faith. Such language only promotes cultural stereotypes.

    1. You are right and I apologize. I was seeing it through the lens of my frustration with her situation and not considering her own reasons for wearing it.

    2. I agree that this phrase (dutiful wifely garb) is offensive to anyone wearing a hijab, but am truly appreciative of your response. It’s wonderful to be in an atmosphere where people take steps back to reevaluate biases.

      But I did have another question since it was not addressed in the essay- what made you assume that Eman and Ali’s situation was due to culture and not this particular couple’s struggle? Would you have made the same conclusion if it was “Emma” and “Alan’s” story? You may have supporting evidence, but since it was not explained in the essay, I could not help but feel “Eman,” “Ali,” “Arabic” and “Jordan” were tools to reinforce the Middle Eastern stereotypes that have dominated our understanding of that part of the world.

      1. Thank you for asking. There were several comments about “This is what we do” and Eman did comment that she has to do what he wants out of respect. The names and places were chosen to be close to the originals without breaking confidence. I would have been similarly disturbed had this dynamic occurred with any couple, but did take some of both of their comments to mean that Ali’s wishes were naturally exeected to take precedence. This occurs in other cultures as well (and I have seen it)- these patients were from the Middle East so I presented them as such.

  12. Your essay is beautifully written and moving, and I agree that the interpretation of the events changes in the current political climate.

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