A Miscarrying Woman Nearly Died After a Catholic Hospital Sent Her Home Three Times
Read the original story in Rewire.News
September 25, 2019
There’s a single hospital in Bellingham, a picturesque coastal city 20 miles from the Canadian border in Washington. So when a Bellingham mental health counselor named Alison started bleeding three months into her pregnancy in 2013, PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center was her only option.
Alison had first gone to her OB-GYN’s private practice, where her doctor, C. Shayne Mora, diagnosed her with a possible case of placenta previa, a serious condition where the placenta blocks the cervix. He told her to go to the hospital if she started bleeding again. When that happened the next day, Alison went to the St. Joseph emergency room. After an ultrasound showed the fetus was viable, the hospital discharged her. Providers recorded a clinical impression of “threatened abortion,” meaning Alison was at risk of miscarrying. They told her to return if she bled more heavily or ran a fever.
Alison, who asked us to withhold her last name for professional reasons, had never thought much about the fact that St. Joseph is part of PeaceHealth, a Catholic system that runs ten hospitals across Washington, Oregon, and Alaska. Catholic facilities, which make up a growing swath of the health-care landscape, follow rules written by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that ban sterilization, abortion, most contraception, and in vitro fertilization. Washington is one of five states where more than 40 percent of acute-care hospital beds are Catholic. That leaves many patients like Alison with one option: a hospital where care may be restricted by religion without their knowledge.
The next day, Alison started soaking through a menstrual pad an hour and returned to the ER. Her medical records show she was again discharged with plans to see Dr. Mora in his office. Three days later, she woke up in the middle of the night bleeding. Around noon, she passed a blood clot the size of a jawbreaker. In the ER for a third time, she described her pain as a seven out of ten. She was running a fever of 100.4 with an elevated white blood cell count, a classic sign of infection. “Appears anxious,” staff noted in her medical records. But the hospital discharged Alison again, this time telling her that her pain might be the result of appendicitis.
Alison and her husband, Richard Bennett, clung to that idea, because it meant the pregnancy might be safe. At no point, they said, did anyone at the hospital mention that Alison had the option of ending her pregnancy with surgery to address the brewing infection that would end up putting her life at risk. Alison’s records at the time of her third discharge still show a working diagnosis of threatened abortion.
By the next morning, Alison was in significant pain and her fever wasn’t responding to medication. She and Bennett returned to the ER. There, records show, a doctor ordered an abdominal MRI to rule out appendicitis and a chest X-ray to rule out pneumonia.
Then Mora arrived. He did a vaginal exam, and Alison arched off the bed in agony.
“It felt like something from the Exorcist, just like flailing from the pain,” she said. Bennett remembers Alison screaming when the doctor pressed on her abdomen. Alison, who recalls having refused pain medication out of fear it might harm the pregnancy, told Rewire.News that the agony radiating from her infected uterus was worse than non-medicated childbirth. Medical records show her fever had spiked to 101.1. One of Alison’s mothers, Lin Skavdahl, clung to Alison’s hand. Overcome, watching her daughter writhe, Skavdahl stepped away and fainted, sliding toward the floor and putting her hands over her head.
Mora moved quickly. He explained to Alison that she had an infection and needed surgery to end the pregnancy. Bennett asked whether there was any way to save the baby. Mora was firm: No. In fact, Alison’s life might be in danger.
Records show Alison had sepsis, a potentially deadly condition caused by the body’s response to infection. But Mora explained that he couldn’t proceed until the hospital’s ethics committee approved the surgery. Citing Catholic policy, PeaceHealth bans abortion unless its “direct purpose” is the “cure of a proportionately serious pathological condition of a pregnant woman” and it “cannot be safely postponed until the unborn child is viable.” In other words, the hospital would permit the life-saving surgery only if the committee considered Alison sick enough.
Skavdahl remembers Mora saying that if he couldn’t secure the approval, he planned to send Alison in an ambulance 90 miles south to Seattle, a drive that can take well over two hours on the congested highway. “And I’m just thinking, ‘What? You have to get a bunch of people together?’” Skavdahl recalled. “And he goes, ‘Well, it’s not quite as bad as it sounds. I can get them on the phone, it’s not like they all have to get here, but I don’t know how long it will take.’”
It’s unclear from the records how long the committee deliberated, but Alison said it felt like around an hour. “I remember being scared about that,” Alison said. “You’re telling me this is really serious and that my life is in danger, and we have to wait, and these people have to say it’s OK for you to have this procedure you absolutely need.”
Mora’s notes show that the ethics committee approved the surgery because of the risk to Alison’s health. At some point, records indicate she was given misoprostol to soften her cervix. But before she made it to the operating room, Alison miscarried into the toilet. She felt so sick that she thought she might be hallucinating when she saw the white form in the water. She sobs recalling it, six years later.
“I didn’t have to suffer like that,” Alison said through tears during an interview in June. “Everyone deserves adequate medical attention, and information, and choices.”
Alison and her husband said that besides Mora, no one at St. Joseph mentioned the possibility of surgery to end Alison’s pregnancy. She said providers “ignored that whole area,” and neglected to do a vaginal exam, even as they ran tests on her abdomen and chest. During her final visit to the ER, Alison, having searched online for possible causes of her pain, said she asked a doctor if it might be a uterine infection; she said the doctor wouldn’t make eye contact and told her to talk with her OB-GYN. Mora and PeaceHealth declined to comment on Alison’s case. The Catholic health system directed Rewire.News to its statement of common values, which says it “strives to promote the sanctity of all human life.”
“Our care embraces women and their children both during and after pregnancy,” the statement reads. “Because we believe in the sacredness of life’s journey from conception until natural death, direct abortion is not performed in any PeaceHealth-owned, operated or leased facilities.”
But Alison believes her life was put at risk.
“If I had been in an ambulance in traffic for hours, I really could have died,” Alison said. “I feel lucky that I didn’t die.”