[In recognition of Natural Family Planning National Awareness Week, July 22 - 29, CCWF republishes this piece from the CANFP newsletter by CCWF board member Suzanne Summers Spence, R.N., B.A]
As the mother of five beautiful and healthy daughters, I'm grateful for the wisdom I've picked up along the way of raising them. One such idea was to mark the commencement of their fertility (first menses) with a unique "coming of age" ceremony: letting them get their ears pierced! We did this at a special "girls day out," all of us going to the mall for the event, with a little treat or lunch afterward. Besides giving me a DISTINCT answer to the question "When can I get my ears pierced?" I like to think that the tradition formed a positive memory in each girl's heart towards her fertility; an important, though counter-cultural, concept.
As a registered nurse and life-long user of natural family planning, I'm also grateful for another good idea. Given to me by a young woman just learning NFP in her twenties, she struggled to come to terms with past (negative) attitudes toward her fertility and mourned that she had not learned NFP earlier, "say, when I was 16." Learning from this, I treated each of my daughters to the full series of natural family planning instruction around their "sweet sixteenth." Sixteen seemed the right age physically and psychologically; their periods have usually regularized, and their maturity level is just the age when a new discipline can be mastered. And so I began with my first daughter, R.
Making it Real
R. attended the introductory session with my own instructor, just the two of them. I believed it was important for R. to have that privacy, and I had no fear of what they would share behind "closed doors," unlike those teen visits with her pediatrician (who was, albeit, an excellent medical practitioner). In fact, I rejoiced during that first appointment (spending the hour in prayer at the hospital chapel across the street) in the thought that my daughter would receive more positive reinforcement regarding her sexuality. The wonder of the female cycle, the mysterious distinguishing qualities of fertile and infertile mucous, the ebb and flow of hormones; all pointed to an awesome creator who has made us "fearfully and wonderfully."
Armed with that first session and several follow-up appointments R. left to attend college on the east coast at age 17, just shy of two years after she had started charting. I made sure that she had ample charts, and opportunities to visit with her instructor on every visit home. At one of these appointments, R.'s instructor mentioned she might consider the possibility that she had developed ovarian cysts. Apparently, her symptoms of painful periods along with some irregular cycles moved her instructor to give her literature explaining self-help (dietary) suggestions for PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome), along with a suggestion to have it checked out by her physician.
As every mother knows, even in the best of relationships, parent-teen communication is not always reliable! If R. did tell me about her NFP teacher's concerns, I do not recall; what I do know is that she hardly ever complained about her periods, preferring to resort to Motrin instead of "Mom" and we never did follow up on this wise advice. As I look back now, I wish I had taken advantage of that "advance warning," and the preventative health signals that are a benefit of natural family planning. But overall, things seemed to being going very well with R.; she graduated with honors, obtaining a degree in anthropology, and began dating a classmate of her older brother's. The future looked sweet!
It was around the time of the summer after R.'s graduation that something went terribly wrong. I received a frantic call at home in California from her Washington D.C. apartment; she was experiencing excruciating abdominal pain, and not even able to drive herself to the hospital. Agonizing at my inability to help from such a distance, I spoke with her friends to arrange a ride, and insisted that they stay with her until I could call back. Then I went on-line. It's a blur to me now, but I remember sweating through Fertility Care websites, and diocesan contact lists. Like a mother she-wolf, I was on the hunt for an NFP-trained physician, because I knew if this acute illness had anything to do with her fertility, I must find someone who would preserve it in every way possible. She had the rest of her fertile life ahead of her!
After various twists and turns, I discovered the Tepeyac Family Center in Fairfax, Virginia. I dialed their number and spoke with a Dr. John Bruchalski, who I later learned is something of a hero in the NFP medical community. He immediately put me in touch with one of his Creighton model–trained physicians, who took on R.'s case as her own. I can't explain the relief I felt at that moment, except to say that I knew R. was in the best of hands. That fertility-positive NFP attitude on the part of her doctor was all the consolation I needed. Now I could focus on getting ticketed on a red-eye to D.C.!
R. did indeed have PCOS; and she had developed an "ovarian torsion" which meant that her ovary had grown so big with unruptured follicles (or cysts) it had become ungainly and unbalanced, twisting on itself to the point of cutting off all blood supply. Emergency surgery was performed that very night, to remove the dying ovary, and I arrived at her bedside the following morning as she awoke. We spent several days in the hospital, and had frequent contact with the surgeon who first gave us the sad news that she had lost 80% of her left ovary, and then the good news that this should not adversely affect her fertility. We were also relieved to hear that the pathology report was normal (meaning no cancer) and R. and I returned home to her apartment to recover.
I've had a lot to think about since that July four years ago. Of course I questioned whether something could have been done sooner to spare R. the emergency surgery and loss of an ovary. As it turns out, at a follow-up appointment, she was put on a drug (Metformin) which controls the amount of glucose (sugar) in the blood. So the NFP teacher's advice about watching carbohydrate (sugar) intake as one strategy to help control cysts made sense after all! Could we have treated this in a more holistic, preventative way? I believe we could have, and that was the missed opportunity of NFP. It is such a gold mine of health information, a gift worth passing on and using.
The story ends well. R. did go on to marry her brother's classmate, and within a short time, they blessed me with the birth of a beautiful, healthy baby girl. So far, R.'s fertility has not been affected by her experience and I am hopeful that, by working with her NFP physician and maintaining a commitment to charting and follow-ups, she will continue to enjoy a woman's most prized blessings, children! Of course, that baby had a mind of her own from the very start. Scheduled to be delivered by R.'s NFP physician an hour away from home, she decided to arrive in a hurry, and R. was taken to the nearest hospital (by ambulance!) and delivered by the local obstetrician instead. I'll have to have a talk with my granddaughter about choosing NFP-only doctors when she turns sixteen!
Suzanne Summers Spence R.N., B.A. Originally written for the Summer 2011 edition of California Association of Natural Family Planning newsletter, www.canfp.org/. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 877-33CANFP
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