Features

Life of the mother

Abortion | A gymnastics star is testimony to a mom who never saw saving her son or herself as a "choice" when illness threatened

Issue: "Fixing Islam," June 16, 2007

Gold, gold, silver, gold. At the Junior Olympics National Championship in Oklahoma City last month, 18-year-old gymnast Thomas Kelley ascended the podium again and again. The Libertyville, Ill., teen captured the national title for 16- to 18-year-old male gymnasts and also received the Mas Watanabe Award, an honor awarded to the highest all-round Class 1 gymnast in the country.

As usual, his mom, Susan, cheered from the stands. But had a certain day 19 years ago unfolded differently, Thomas might not be here at all.

When Susan was six weeks pregnant with Thomas, a medical emergency placed legitimate interests-an unborn child, the life of a mother, and a doctor's medical priorities-in conflict.

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In March 1988, on the day her family was supposed to head out for a Florida vacation, severe abdominal pain sent Susan to her obstetrician instead. "I'm pretty sure it's your appendix," Sarah Wong told Susan after examining her. "I want to take you to the hospital right away."

Wong put Susan in her own car and drove her there. An ultrasound confirmed that Susan's appendix had burst and the presiding doctor ordered an emergency appendectomy. "What does this mean for the baby?" Susan asked Wong.

Wong said that general anesthesia-then standard protocol for an appendectomy-would likely kill the growing child. Stricken, Susan asked if there was an alternative. Could doctors remove her appendix without putting her to sleep? Wong asked the surgeon. Too risky, the surgeon replied. Susan overheard him say, "She's only six weeks pregnant. She can get pregnant again."

"I've been through labor with this patient before," Wong argued. "I am 100 percent certain she can handle this with just a spinal [block]."

Reluctantly, the surgeon agreed to do it, but only if the hospital approved it-and if a willing anesthesiologist could be found. That took hours. Susan said she and her husband, Michael, were surprised that there was no plan: "I thought, 'Am I the first person who's ever been pregnant with appendicitis?'"

When the hospital finally located an anesthesiologist who would even consider participating in abdominal surgery on a fully conscious patient, "he was very stern with me," Susan said. "He said, 'I am very reluctant to be a part of this. It is not standard procedure and there are reasons why doctors and hospitals do things a certain way.'"

He prepared her for general anesthesia, anyway; if she so much as flinched during the surgery he was going to put her out. Then he required her to sign a form releasing him from liability if that happened. Nearly 18 hours after entering the hospital, medical personnel wheeled Susan into surgery. While the anesthesiologist administered a spinal block that numbed the lower half of her body, nurses erected a small vertical drape so that she couldn't see her abdominal area.

Finally, the surgeon made the first cut, and the anesthesiologist who had been so stern with her was very kind during the procedure, Susan said, reassuring her along the way. She remembers tugging and a cold sensation as the surgical team moved her intestines aside, removed the burst appendix, and rinsed the poison away. The out-of-protocol procedure saved both mother and son.

"I understand that saving my life was the hospital's priority at the time," Susan said. But for her and her husband, two lives were at stake: "It wasn't that the medical community was totally against saving my unborn baby. It's more that it wasn't a priority for them, that they were somewhat nonchalant about saying, 'You're only six weeks pregnant. What's the big deal?' I think the legalization of abortion made for a whole mindset of not recognizing unborn children as children, as lives."

The achievements of a gymnastics champ may underscore the horrific cost of the abortion culture, but Susan is uncomfortable linking Thomas' medals to her decision to protect him in the womb. "It is almost offensive to me to suggest that his life is somehow more valuable because of that," she said. "He's valuable because he is a child of God and made in His image and for His eternal purposes and glory, and to me because he's my son and I love him, whether he ever accomplished anything or not. . . . What stands out to me is how easily my story could have ended differently."

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