From Chapter One
What happened in Sedalia was not a thing that Robert Duemler talked about: not the place, or the smell, or the low sick feeling that came to his stomach when he thought about it afterward. Doctors see things they wish they had not seen, he understood that about being a doctor, and Robert Duemler was a quiet man who delivered babies for a living at a big Catholic hospital where they were cordial to him even though he belonged to the United Church of Christ. The hospital was outside St. Louis, which people liked to call a Catholic city, as though the great domed cathedral somehow spanned the length and breadth of the city limits, and when Duemler was at work there were nurses in nuns' habits who bustled briskly down the corridors and nodded to him in their deferential nurses' way: Good morning, doctor.
Among the obstetrical nurses in this hospital was a big smart opinionated woman named Judith Widdicombe, and sometimes after deliveries Duemler and Widdicombe would lean against a wall in their scrubs and watch the commotion around them and talk. Duemler was in his thirties then, but he was older than she was, and it amused him to see Judy Widdicombe irritate the senior physicians by pointing out when and where she thought they had bungled their work. She was not deferential. She had no concept of deference. She thought some of the older nurses had used themselves up and should be let go, and she thought the hospital cheated its nurses by forcing them to take unpaid after-shift time to prepare the next crew, and she would say these things in a resonant contralto that carried through the halls of the hospital. There was some undiplomatic clarity of vision to Judy Widdicombe that Duemler admired, as though she didn't care what she clipped as she swung the machete before her, and he thought she saw as he did the full and splendid sweep of obstetrical practice: they might be attending the birth of a patient's sixth or seventh child and know, without exactly saying it to each other, that sometimes this felt like bringing forth the miracle of life and sometimes it just felt like handing a small squalling package to a tired woman who was not visibly interested in receiving it.
Judy Widdicombe would say casually to Duemler, not looking at him: "I bet she doesn't really want that kid."
Maybe not, Duemler would say. And they would talk about something else. But he understood that Widdicombe, who was not a nun, and who apparently was not a Roman Catholic either, was signaling him. There was a code at work, and Duemler was not sure what it was, but he knew that he was in on it somehow, and that it had to do with ideas that might be dangerous even for the undiplomatic to discuss in a public place.
After a while, when no one else was listening, he told her what had happened in Sedalia.
He was in the Air Force, a young Air Force doctor, and in 1962 he was dispatched to central Missouri to serve on the base at Sedalia. He was the first obstetrician the base had ever had, and every morning he would get up in his military housing and go over to the little Air Force hospital to examine patients. Sometimes they would call him in the middle of the night and he would switch on the light and fumble into his trousers and go out the door in the unsteady gait of a man working hard to mimic alertness. That was when this call came, in the middle of the night, and when Duemler walked into the emergency room what he saw, in more places than he would have thought possible, was blood. There was blood on the walls. There was blood on the floor. There was blood on the gurney and on the towels and on the hands and arms of the emergency crew, who were silent now, and no longer moving rapidly. Beneath them lay a woman whose skin had gone pallid and slack, and when Duemler lifted her legs into the stirrups and cleaned some of the blood away, he saw that someone had pushed inside her vagina with a sharp instrument and aimed it toward the cervix and thrust straight up. The blood vessels to either side of the cervix had emptied all over the Air Force emergency room and the car in which this woman's husband had driven her twenty miles, which was the distance between the hospital and the abortionist.
The husband told Duemler they had five children already.
Five children already: Duemler remembered that for a long time afterward, when he was no longer able to summon up the husband's height or the color of his hair or anything except the flat bewildered look on his face as his wife was pronounced dead on the examining table. Expired was what Duemler wrote, in his precise physician's notation; nobody ever told him why they could not have six children or what kind of person she might have been when she was alive in the house with the five they had. He had learned in medical school that you pull down the shade when you have to, that you cannot climb into the life of every patient and still show up for work in the morning; but after it was over he would think about Sedalia and the words stupid, stupid would press up inside him. It was a stupid death. When he was a resident, two years before the Air Force, an older doctor had asked him to assist at a dilation and curettage, and Duemler had stood there and handed over the cervical dilators while the older doctor cleaned out a woman's uterus under general anesthesia in the sterile operating room of a fine St. Louis hospital. The older doctor told him that the patient was a nice young woman whose boyfriend had come from a family of high social standing and that they had all invented a plausible diagnosis requiring termination of pregnancy to save her life. Duemler understood that his job was to hold the dilators and shut up, but when he thought about Sedalia he always thought about this other woman also, the one with the fancy boyfriend.
So he told Judy Widdicombe that story, too.
Then she knew she had been right about Bob Duemler, and she came to him one day and said: Listen. There is a group of us, and we are doing something illegal. We need your help.
Copyright © 1998 by Cynthia Gorney