A Jew's Body Anna sitting on stairs.

Anna Olswanger
© Copyright 1999 by Anna Olswanger
"I think you should have a hysterectomy," my doctor said.

"Are you telling me I'll never have children?"

"I'm afraid so."

I hung up the phone. What did I have to show for myself, I wondered. A few books I had written? Some magazine articles? They seemed like nothing now, pieces of paper. I felt diminished, and ashamed. My grandparents and great-grandparents had come to this country to escape anti-Semitism, to survive as Jews. Now they may as well have died in a Russian pogrom.

I went to a specialist in reproductive surgery at Duke University Medical Center, less than an hour away from where I lived. I told him that my previous doctor had tried to cut through scar tissue over my cervix but had failed. The specialist examined me and gave me my options: he could either remove my uterus, or he could go in with a laparoscope, an instrument to see inside my abdomen, and try to dilate my cervix. "But there's a high probability your cervix will reclose later," he said. "You'd have to consider a hysterectomy anyway."

Like the first doctor, this one wasn't Jewish. I could talk to him until I was blue in the face about the Nebuchadnezzars, the Tituses, the Torquemadas, the Hitlers of history, and of how Jews have wanted to say to them, "No, you haven't succeeded. You haven't annihilated us." But he wouldn't have understood how I needed to have a child simply because I was a Jew. For him, a hysterectomy was a simple, elegant solution to a complicated problem. For me, it was unthinkable. I told him I wanted the laparoscopy.

A month later I lay in a recovery room where I hurt up to my shoulder blades from the carbon dioxide pumped into my abdomen during the surgery. I wanted to throw up. The nurse called the specialist to tell him I was awake. When he stood over me, I asked him if he had succeeded at opening my cervix. He said no, not only was it scarred over, it was detached. If he had tried to open it, he would have risked injuring my bladder and colon. "If you want your cervix open," he said, "you'll have to have major abdominal surgery."

Then he told me how he would try to enter the cervical canal from above and place a catheter into my uterus, how he might injure my bladder or colon, how I might get an infection from the catheter and need a hysterectomy anyway. He drew diagrams. "You need to be sure this is what you want," he said. "A hysterectomy now would be a lot easier."

He left. I threw up—repeatedly. In between throwing up, I thought about taking the easy way out. And I thought about Jews who had never been allowed to take the easy way out: Jews who had jumped into the Red Sea before the sea was split; Jews who had fought the Midianites, the Moabites, the Philistines, the Babylonians before the walls of Jericho were shattered; Jews who had revolted under the Maccabees against the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes; who had joined Bar Kochba's rebellion against the Romans; who had taken on the whole Arab world during the '67 Israeli War. God had never handed anything to Jews. So even though I was terrified, I wanted to go into the hospital for major abdominal surgery. I didn't want to be a Jew who took the easy way out.

I tried to put my finger on what terrified me. Years earlier my father spent six weeks in a hospital before his death from a brain tumor. He acted like a caged animal—angry, preoccupied with his body, his medications. And a few years after that, my mother spent ten days in a hospital before her death from heart failure. At times bedridden, she waited for nurses to change her IV, feed her, take away her bedpan.

Perhaps I was terrified of becoming like either of my parents—out of control, dependent. Wasn't that one of the lessons of Jewish history? That whenever Jews were victimized—during the Inquisition or during the Holocaust, for example—whenever they were out of control, dependent, no one came along to save them?

A week after the laparoscopy, I began having uterine cramps. I phoned the specialist at Duke on a Friday morning, but his secretary wasn't sure she'd see him that day.

I called my previous doctor. "Take your temperature," she said. "You need to make sure the pain isn't a sign of infection." When she asked me about the outcome of the surgery at Duke, I told her I was going to have major abdominal surgery in a few months. She couldn't understand why I was going to the trouble. "What do you want to put your body through that for? Why don't you just have a hysterectomy and get it over with?" She didn't think the operation would be a success. "You're going to need a psychiatrist to help you handle your disappointment," she said.

Four months later I woke up in another Duke recovery room. The same specialist stood at the foot of the bed. "I've got a catheter in your uterus," he said. “I'll keep it there for a few days to try to stop the cervix from scarring over. I've also got an antibiotic in your IV to prevent infection."

"Did you injure my bladder or colon?" I asked him.


"So the operation was a success?"

"It went very well."

The specialist checked on me each morning. So did the head resident, an anesthesiologist, numerous nurses. None of them congratulated me on my triumph. That didn't matter. Maybe they wouldn't understand about the Nebuchadnezzars, the Tituses, the Torquemadas, the Hitlers, but somewhere, in some place, my grandparents and great-grandparents would. And that mattered.

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