The HERS conference last Saturday delivered a mountain of information in an atmosphere charged with sadness. Much of the audience was in tears listening to women tell about how they had become victims of doctors who continue to ignore the facts about avoidable hysterectomies.
In this first report on the conference, I'm focusing on Dr. Mitchell Levine, a remarkable, Boston-based gynecologist whom we would clone if we could. Here's my report:
Dr. Mitchell Levine, who teaches at the Tufts and Harvard Schools of Medicine, doesn't look much different from other tanned and fit 57-year old male doctors. But when he talks about women and their fate as victims of hysterectomy and removal of their ovaries, his tone because so respectful, even reverential, that it is unexpected, almost shocking.
"It's too sacred, it's too complex, to just take things out," he is saying as he sweeps a laser pointer over a full-color diagram of a woman's internal organs. But, he continues, taking a uterus out is so easy to do: "Clamp, clamp, clamp, clamp. Done." He demonstrates with four quick clenches of his hands.
Levine is speaking at the 28th conference of the HERS Foundation in a Manhattan hotel. He's telling the truth about the consequences of this surgery and why he believes that "at least" 90 percent of the 600,000 done each year could be avoided with other treatments, some as simple and cost-free as waiting.
It's a huge contrast to the paternalistic advice most women get: Your uterus is just a cradle. Done having children? Then you don't need it any more. But you'll still have the playpen! Wink. Wink.
And: You'll love life after your hysterectomy. No more periods!
And: If I end up taking out your ovaries, just think, no more risk of ovarian cancer!
"It's part of their training," Dr. Levine explains to me. "That these (the ovaries) are ticking time bombs. Instead, you end up shortening (a woman's) life because you've increased her risk of heart disease." Yes, that's right, a woman 40 to 44 whose ovaries are removed or which stop functioning as a result of a hysterectomy (that happens in better than one in 10 cases) faces twice the risk of heart disease as a woman with intact ovaries. This added risk more than outweighs the possibility of ovarian cancer, according to medical studies.
"Can you imagine if a man went to a doctor for a benign condition and the doctor said, 'I can fix that by cutting your nuts off?'" Levine asked with a laugh.
"He'd turn right around and walk away."
Indeed. Men would never voluntarily give up their virility, their joy in sex, to cure a non-life-threatening problem. They have no confusion about the fact that their organs are sex organs, not just baby-makers. Yet, women's organs have been labeled by the medical profession as "reproductive" instead of sexual, and the medical professions is more interested in us as baby factories than as sexual beings. So they talk us into castration for non-life-threatening fibroids and bleeding that can be managed in other ways. And we enjoy sex less as a result, some of us losing most if not all of our libido and some or most of our ability to feel sexual stimulation.
The situation has become more perilous for women as new surgical techniques make it possible to do hysterectomies on an outpatient basis.
Levine goes into detail about this. There's the traditional way, via a long abdominal incision; and then there are the newer ways, via the vagina or laparoscopically through small, abdominal incisions. For the small percentage of women who truly need their organs removed, these techniques are better, shortening recovery time from the surgery.
But regardless of how the surgery is done, there are the same consequences for women who could have avoided it. No matter how it's done, says Levine, removing the uterus "is still cutting the ligaments and the blood supply" to not just the uterus but to other organs as well.
As a result, 10 to 15 percent of women who have only their uterus removed lose the function of their ovaries anyway, apparently because of the loss of blood supply. This plunges them, whether they are 25 or 45, into an immediate and crushing menopause.
Furthermore, the ligaments that are cut are critical to the support of the bladder and bowel. When the uterus is removed, it leaves an empty space, and lacking their previous support, the other organs can sag and lean on each other. Urinary and bowel problems become much more likely.
The most common reason for hysterectomy is fibroids. But when Dr. Levine sees women with fibroids, hysterectomy is the last thing on his mind.
"For example, if a routine exam shows a fibroid, but the woman has no symptoms, I reassure her and say, 'See me in a year.'
"Or, if she's bleeding a lot but it's manageable, I just tell her to take some iron and wait" if she is near menopause. Estrogen, he explained, makes fibroids grow, and because estrogen levels drop at menopause, fibroids will then shrink.
If the bleeding is severe and menopause too far off, Dr. Levine may do surgery to remove them, leaving the uterus and ovaries intact.
Women at the conference asked what Dr. Levine would do if a woman had multiple fibroids--30 or even 50--or if some of them were very large. He answered that it didn't matter. He could still remove them, explaining that they are usually in a sort of capsule, like a hard boiled egg, and pop out when the capsule is cut.
But here's the kicker: Even though it takes longer to cut out fibroids and stitch the uterus back together than to do a hysterectomy--clamp, clamp, clamp, clamp--Dr. Levine gets paid less money to do the conserving surgery than to hollow out a woman's insides.
As U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney said at the conference, "Where is the outrage?"