Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name is Melissa, and I’m 24 years old. I currently live in Philadelphia, which is where I was born and raised. I graduated from college a few years ago with a BA in Gender Studies and Sociology. In my free time I like to visit flea markets, bake scones, crochet, and cuddle my two adorable cats.
I think most of us associate doulas with the birth process. What does an abortion doula do?
The job of an abortion doula is to provide physical and emotional support to women terminating their pregnancies. Although doulas are more commonly associated with birth, there is also a need for empathetic supporters during abortion procedures.
How did you get into this?
I’d already been volunteering as a patient escort at the same clinic for a few years when I signed up for the abortion doula training class- I’d heard about the program and was interested, but I didn’t know if I’d be cut out for that kind of work.I signed up for the training class knowing that if it wasn’t for me, I could just not continue with the program. The main training class is about nine hours and covers everything relevant to abortions including the legislature in our state, the specifics of the procedure, and how to be a compassionate support person.
After we completed the training class (and passed the required background check/child abuse clearance), we were required to shadow another hand holder to get the full experience (it’s much different than reading about it or even watching a video). After a few shadowing shifts, when we feel comfortable, we are able to start working alone.
Can you give us an example of a normal interaction with a patient that you’re working with?
Depending on the day and how many patients the clinic has, I might see each woman for anywhere from a few minutes to upwards of 20 before the doctor actually walks in the room to begin the procedure.Usually, the doctor’s medical assistant will let me know that there’s a patient waiting in one of the procedure rooms. I walk in and introduce myself, and let her know that I’ll be with her during the procedure if that’s something she wants- most patients are open to having a support person (the patient is not allowed to bring their own support person into the procedure room; everyone besides the patient has to sit in the waiting room), but some want to be alone before the procedure.
I generally start by asking if she has any questions about the procedure, how she’s feeling, if there’s anything I can do to relieve some of her nervousness, and so on. Sometimes the patient is chatty and the conversation just carries on from there; sometimes I have to think of new topics, especially if we’re sitting for a long time waiting for the doctor. Small talk can be surprisingly difficult! Pretty much everyone likes to talk about food, since they haven’t eaten in a long time (to prep for the procedure) and are hungry.
I’ll ask about their jobs, school, holiday or vacation plans, their children if they have any, anything they want to talk about; or, if they want me there but want don’t want to talk, that’s fine, too. Once the doctor and medical assistant come in the room, the procedure starts pretty much right away and is over in just a few minutes. During that time, I will hold the patient’s hand if she’s comfortable with that, talk her through the procedure, let her know how much of the procedure is done and how much is left to go, try to make sure that’s she’s taking slow, deep breaths and doesn’t feel lightheaded.
Afterward, the medical assistant and I help the patient get dressed and walk her to the recovery room, where she’ll sit for about 15 minutes with a nurse monitoring her, until she is ready to go home. Some patients ask that I find their friend/partner/mom in the waiting room, and I’ll try and track down the person to let them know that the procedure went fine, but that’s usually the end of my interaction with the patient.
How have your patients benefited from your work?
Patients tell me that they’re glad that I was there with them during the procedure to support them. So much of the public discussion about abortion leaves out women’s experiences- it’s validating and comforting to have someone to talk to about your experience that won’t judge you for your decisions about your own body. Some women are grateful to just have someone to take their mind off things for a few minutes when they’re nervous about the procedure. Any medical procedure can be scary if you have to go through it alone, and just being able to hold someone’s hand can really help alleviate some of that anxiety.
Obviously, abortion can be an extremely emotional experience and I’m sure working in this environment can be very trying for you. How do you take care of yourself?
It can be emotionally difficult to work in this type of environment. Usually, each volunteer only works one shift per month to avoid becoming overwhelmed or burnt out. The importance of self-care was emphasized in our training, and we know that it’s okay to take a break after a particularly difficult case.I like to walk around the city for awhile and spend some time outside after a shift to clear my head. Sometimes it can be helpful to talk to friends or other volunteers about our feelings as long as no identifying information is revealed (patient confidentiality is obviously very important).
If we know someone who is having an abortion, how can we best help them work through their experience? What are some things we SHOULDN’T say or do?
I think the most important thing is to not assume how they’re feeling about the situation. Abortion is a controversial and emotional issue in our culture and it can be hard to not project our own feelings about it onto others. For some women, it is a sad, emotional experience, but many others only feel relief when it’s over. It’s best to let the person tell you how she feels. You can be supportive by listening if she wants to talk about it, offering to drive her to her appointment or to sit in the waiting room with her, make her soup afterwards, just keep her company, etc. Ask her what she needs and how you can help if she needs it.
Thanks so much for sharing your story, Melissa. Do you guys have any questions for her?
Note: I realize that abortion is an extremely controversial subject. Polite, articulate disagreement is always allowed, inflammatory comments will be deleted.photo: simon cocks // cc