“This book is about the uterus and the ovaries. What they are, where they’re located, and their many important life-long functions. The common reasons women are told they need treatment, including surgery, as well as alternatives in treatment and the ways that hysterectomy (removal of the uterus) and oophorectomy (removal of the ovaries, castration) impacts a woman’s body, her health, and every aspect of her life…”
Thus begins The H Word: The diagnostic studies to evaluate symptoms, alternatives in treatment, and coping with the aftereffects of hysterectomy. Co-authored by Nora W. Coffey, the founder of the Hysterectomy Educational Resources and Services (HERS) Foundation and playwright Rick Schweikert, the book details the HERS Foundation’s 2005-2006 nationwide protest against the lack of “informed consent” for this life-altering surgery.
Coffey and Schweikert organized a protest in front of a major hospital in a large city in each state of the country each week for an entire year to deliver information to educate women and their families. Schweikert, author of un becoming, a play about the effects of hysterectomy on a doctor’s wife and, consequently, her family, directed performances of the play with local actors in 23 cities. Each performance was followed by a talkback discussion. Women were remarkably candid and courageous with their statements, the play providing a venue for truth.
Beginning in Birmingham, Alabama, the birthplace of the Civil Rights movement, and culminating in Washington, D.C., the protest inspired a legislative initiative to establish the HERS Foundation’s educational video Female Anatomy: the Functions of the Female Organs as required information for informed consent prior to the removal of their female organs.
Informed consent means that you have been told and that you understand your female anatomy and the changes that will take place after the uterus is removed. Not only that you won’t menstruate or be able to have children, but that the uterus is a reproductive sex organ with functions that affect every cell in a woman’s body. To remove the uterus, all the nerves, muscles, ligaments, and blood supply that support these organs must be severed. Informed consent means that you understand these facts, the aftereffects hysterectomized women experience, and that you have been presented with alternative treatments.
As a retired nurse, I found The H Word to be a remarkable and revealing look at the circumstances of “women’s healthcare” in this country.
Alternating between Coffey’s and Schweikert’s viewpoints, the chapters are devoted to the events of the protest in each city, the reactions of the people to the protest and the play unbecoming, and the logistics and challenges of disseminating their information via educational pamphlets. This data is interwoven with Coffey’s experiences, having counseled women about hysterectomy throughout the last 25 years, as well as her own experiences and intimate revelation of an “unconsented and uniformed” surgery. The loss of the vital woman she was inspired Coffey to find ways of getting this information to women prior to surgery, as well as helping women to try to cope with the adverse effects they experience after the surgery.
I was astounded to read that the protestors were harassed by police and hospital staff, despite having permits to protest. Some of the women who joined them were at first tentative, but then clearly relieved to be able to speak, often for the first time, about how the surgery had diminished their lives. For too long, silence has been the way women deal with the physical and emotional pain, but this protest and this book ends the whispering of the H word.
The authors encountered women in every state who were told by doctors that “they would be a new woman” after their reproductive and sexual organs were removed and then were silenced by the doctors who denied that the problems they experienced had anything to do with the surgery. These women speak about how they were twice victimized—first with the surgery, when other less invasive treatments would have sufficed, and then by the denial of the consequences.
According to The H Word, women experience “a diminished or total loss of sexual feeling, vitality, short-term memory, maternal feeling, an increase in heart disease, osteoporosis, difficulty socializing, and a host of other problems they didn’t have before the surgery… They’re told it’s a routine operation, but there is nothing routine about it.”
The protest gave a voice to the 22 million living women in the U.S. who have been hysterectomized, and the 73% of them who were castrated at the time of the surgery. The CDC reports that one out of three women is hysterectomized by the age of 60. According to Coffey’s research and the counseling of nearly one million women over the last 25 years, the surgery is lifesaving for only 2% of the women for whom it is recommended.
The purpose of The H Word is clearly to deliver this message: the travesty of this life-altering surgery will only be stopped with the education of women, so they can understand the consequences and alternatives. Each page is an education.
I recommend that you get a copy and let at least two friends know about it…so they can tell two friends and so on.
At the end of Schweikert’s play un becoming, Halley, the central character, delivers a monologue to the audience:
“Every morning I wake up, I look out the window and I’m amazed that women aren’t screaming in the streets. Every life split in two should be an atomic explosion; instead it just results in more silence. Every story is too unbelievable to be true. And yet, there’s another one, every minute of every hour of every day. Something must be done. I’m through watching. This thing must stop. This thing must stop!”
The H Word is the beginning of the end… the silence is over!