In the years leading up to my hysterectomy at 47, I had yet to enter menopause. I was generally very fit and healthy, but had experienced several ovarian cysts. These were aspirated under general anesthetic using keyhole surgery. The time came when an unusually large cyst formed on each ovary. I sought an opinion from a different gynecologist, a decision I later regretted. The cysts were the size of oranges and caused pain when I moved a great deal, which is why I sought treatment.
The new specialist insisted I needed bilateral surgery so the cysts could be completely removed. This meant a complete cut opening my abdomen instead of the keyhole surgery I had previously experienced. Instead of being back at work in ten days, it would mean a recovery time of four weeks. This daunted me. I am a special educator. People in my field are difficult to replace and I was concerned that my students wouldn’t generalize their behavior with a substitute teacher.
He Said, He Did Me a Favor: Hysterectomy without Consent
I agreed to the surgery. When given the consent papers to sign, I read them carefully. The operation I was consenting to was for bilateral surgery to remove large ovarian cysts. No where did the papers mention any other procedure. For some reason, I hesitated and told him that I never had any intention to have a hysterectomy. I stated that it was my intention to keep my organs. He barely acknowledged me, but he seemed to be paying attention.
My employer understood that I would be away for a month’s sick leave. I organised a month of work for my students, wrote detailed information about each student’s needs and felt confident they would receive proper care.
The day before my surgery, I painted a room for my mother-in-law. The cysts caused some discomfort but didn’t hamper my activity.
The surgeon saw me briefly before the operation. I restated my intention to keep my organs to him then. Before the anesthetic took effect, I looked at the other team members in the theater and again said, “Don’t remove my uterus and other organs.”
The pain upon waking was unbelievable. I couldn’t understand why it was excruciating. It wasn’t until the next morning that the surgeon told me that I’d had a hysterectomy. I assumed he’d found cancer. No, he just thought he’d do me a favor. I wouldn’t need those organs anyway as I’d ‘already gone through menopause’.
My husband was there the next morning at 7 when the surgeon arrived. I wanted a witness. Although I was still in great pain, I forced him to admit that there was nothing dangerously wrong with my organs, and if I’d been younger or on IVF he wouldn’t have removed them. He looked at my husband and said, “You had a tilted womb; I did YOU a favor!” I told him I never wanted to see him again. He was shocked. He also gave no serious consideration to a decline in sexual sensation or any future difficulties this might have on my health (bone strength, other abdominal organs and heart). I suggested that I would be glad to remove his organs as he had grey hair and probably was finished reproducing anyway. He found this response absurd as ‘males and females are so different.’
The surgeon did not see me as a whole person, someone who had a responsibility to their clients; he seemed to dismiss the impact such an extensive recovery time (and therefore, sick leave) would have on my vulnerable students.
Many months later after countless correspondences, emails and phone calls, the surgeon was brought before his peers in a meeting organised by the Health Care Complaints Commission. He was told not to do this again. To make certain others got the message, I submitted an article detailing the incident to the journal read by obstetricians and gynecologists in Australia and New Zealand. The article was published.
The hospital representative stated that the surgeon made this decision for me based on ramifications of cysts on my future health. The rep said that is what surgeons do. I think everyone was running for cover, afraid that I was going to sue.
Where I Stand Now
I can still do my work. I am still married, still love my family members and have good friends. I no longer trust doctors. It took years for me to not be filled with anger and resentment when I saw a white coat. I often still boil with anger when I remember my quality of life before the operation when my organs were intact.
There is nothing else I could have done. This is something that I’ve forced myself to believe. If stating my determination not to have my organs removed wasn’t a prompt to discuss things going ‘wrong’, what else could I have said? It seems that when a person is unconscious, the surgeon is in complete control of your body.
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