Inside a tiny room in the back of my gynecologist’s office, there’s a small cork board covered with inspirational quotes. As you’re sitting in that cramped nook having vials of blood drawn, you can crane your neck to the right and absorb the evergreen wisdom of Maya Angelou, Pema Chödrön, Oprah, and 50 Shades of Grey. Scoff at her choices, but my doctor knows her audience.
And that little room is a prime panic attack zone, so the quotes are actually helpful. I imagine that a few women actually did experience panic attacks in there, which prompted my doctor and her staff to grab some scissors and start snipping quips out of O Magazine and Real Simple on their off hours, in an effort to make the space a little more Zen. The combination of needles, blood, rubber gloves, and fertility anxiety is never pleasant. A 50 Shades of Grey quote can feel like a lifeline even if you can’t stand the book.
The first time I visited this gynecologist, I didn’t know she was also considered a fertility specialist. She was referred to me by another doctor for a basic yearly checkup, but when I strolled into her office that first day I was immediately terrified—not because there were posters illustrating declining egg count lining the walls (which, for the record, there weren’t), but because it was the fanciest doctor’s office I’d ever seen. It looked like a W Hotel spa, complete with a chandelier, cushy taupe seats, two flatscreen TVs, an espresso maker, and real orchids. “Are you sure you guys take my insurance?” I asked the receptionist, as I signed in. Visions of two thousand dollar medical bills floated through my head. After a quick check, the receptionist assured me that I was covered, so I sunk into one of the elegant cushioned seats and relaxed.
My name was called within minutes, and I headed to an exam room to strip down and toss on every woman’s favorite outfit: a pink paper “gown” (which looks more like the world’s saddest crop top) and matching pink skirt, which is really just a giant paper towel you drape over your lap to avoid maximum mortification. I spent a few minutes contemplating the barbaric metal stirrups at my feet, and then Dr. Miller—not her real name—breezed in. She was young, energetic, and confident. She asked me a few basic questions, and then, when she asked if I had anything to add, I blurted out my usual disclaimer: “Just so you know, I only have one ovary.” It was something I always felt the need to confess when faced with the dreaded speculum.
Dr. Miller wasn’t thrown by this admission. She didn’t give me one of those pitying, woeful looks I usually get when I’d shared this information with people—previous doctors included. She nodded, settled in for the exam, and said, “OK, of course, that’s something to consider if you want children but I’ve had several patients conceive with one ovary. We can do an ultrasound if you like, to check your egg supply.”
A wave of panic passed through me. My eggs had never been tallied, and since I was over 25 (way over) it didn’t seem like a pleasant way to spend a Tuesday. We’ve all read the articles warning that women over 30 are doomed, reproductively speaking, if they haven’t had kids. I knew the risks, what I was dealing with. I just wasn’t sure I needed them to be drilled even further into my psyche right that second. Knowing I only had one ovary all throughout my twenties, hoping that at least there were a few eggs coming and going, had long been enough anxiety—tinged with an anticipatory resignation—for me.
I’d had it removed in an operation. In junior high school I’d had an ovarian cyst so painful it felt like someone was twisting a dagger, slowly, in the general vicinity of my left ovary. The first doctor said it would dissolve on its own, but two weeks later when the dagger came back, my parents got a second opinion. And that opinion was: If we don’t get this grapefruit-sized thing out of your daughter right now it could rupture and she could die, so… let’s do this. I was so young and inexperienced and free then that my biggest worry wasn’t that I was about to undergo major surgery and have half of my reproductive organs removed. My major concern was that I’d have to miss the rest of the volleyball season.
As I got older, ditched the volleyball, and realized that I might like to try and have kids one day, my long-gone ovary became more important to me. I didn’t spend my college years reading fertility books or anything, but the missing ovary nonetheless became a part of my identity, like a phantom body part. I was lopsided, lacking, less likely to conceive. That was my reality. It was who I was—or so I thought.
At the time of my first visit with Dr. Miller, I had recently ended a long-term relationship. Being single and alone in your thirties is one thing, but being single, alone, and sans ovary in your third decade is a whole other dilemma. That is, if you want kids. And I still did.
So, when she casually asked if I’d like to know how many eggs were hanging out inside my one remaining geriatric ovary, I panicked. I figured, probably incorrectly, her ultrasound probe could go one of two ways: I could have an extraordinary amount of eggs, signifying hope, or I could have very few to no eggs, signifying despair. Did I want to know the truth? What if it ruined the rest of my day, night, and weekend? What if it affected my whole life? It wasn’t as if I was about to be diagnosed with a mild dust mote allergy.
After a few seconds of internal debate, the overwhelming desire to know overpowered the fear of hearing bad news, so I said, “OK,” and made sure to add, “I’m nervous,” in an effort to elicit a little empathy in case I needed a hug afterwards. Dr. Miller assured me that it would all be fine as she readied the equipment. I took a deep breath, and before I knew it my insides were displayed on a fuzzy black and white screen. I had no clue what I was looking at, but she started counting, on the one good side.
“There’s one. Two. That’s three, four. I’m seeing five. That’s good for your age.” It wasn’t a guarantee, but at least there was some life in there. A few bubbles of hope.
A year later, I went in for my next exam, and Dr. Miller cheerily asked if I wanted another ultrasound. I was still riding the confidence based on the news I’d gotten twelve months prior, so I agreed to let her take another peek.
“One, two, that’s six on that side,” she said, as I watched the odd mass that was quivering on the screen. “And then on this side, let’s see…” Just as I was about to blurt out my usual, “But I only have one ovary!” bit, she started counting again.
“I’m seeing one, two… that’s seven, so 13 total,” she said. “That’s good for your age.” I squinted at the screen, trying to figure out if I was actually looking at an ovary, or if Dr. Miller had lost her mind and was hallucinating a second ovary in a mass of emptiness.
“There can’t be anything on that side,” I said. “I only have one ovary.” I wasn’t upset that Dr. Miller had forgotten. She saw dozens of patients with ovary issues every day—what made me so special?
“That looks like an ovary to me,” she said.
“Are you sure?” I asked. I wanted so badly to believe her. She was, after all, a specialist. But she wasn’t a miracle worker.
“That’s definitely an ovary,” she said, with confidence.
And just like that, my present identity, my future identity and the last two decades of my life were thrown into question. How was this possible? Ovaries don’t just regenerate. Do they? “I can send you to radiology if you want a second opinion,” Dr. Miller said. I agreed immediately. I needed to know if a medical miracle had occurred—whether or not my body had magically produced another ovary. I’ll admit that I’d fantasized about that happening over the years, ridiculous as it sounds. Some people pray for long life and health; sometimes, I’d pray for a new ovary. Deep down I knew it was ridiculous, but I was doing it in secret, so no one knew—until now, I guess.
A few days later, the X-ray tech confirmed Dr. Miller’s observation. I did, in fact, appear to have two ovaries. Elated, I called my parents. “So, you guys remember when I had surgery and they took my ovary and Fallopian tube out?”
“Yes, honey. That was awful,” my mom replied.
“Well guess what—I went to the doctor and she said I have two ovaries!”
My parents were just as confused as I was. And, as excited as I felt, though, a little trickle of doubt remained. I obsessively Googled things like “do ovaries regenerate themselves” and “can ovaries grow back,” but the evidence was shaky, obviously. But I still shared the news with all my close girlfriends who I’d made intimately acquainted with the state of my reproductive organs over the years. They were thrilled. I was thrilled.
“Can an ovary work without a Fallopian tube?” my friend Sam asked over cocktails one night. “Maybe they just took out the Fallopian tube.” I like to think that the two of us reasonably well-adjusted women who know the basics when it comes to female reproductive organs, but our conversation was proving otherwise.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “Can the ovary just float there in space?”
I was embarrassed that I still didn’t understand. The mystery could only be solved if I got the medical records from my old doctor in Texas. I needed to know exactly what they’d taken out.
The next day, I called them. They asked me to fax my request, that they would send the records within a few weeks. I wrote down my information, explaining that I was trying to find out what the hell they did to my insides while I was unconscious all those years ago (I tried to write it in nicer prose).
I had everything ready to fax. All I had to do was walk down the block to the copy shop and send the packet off. I stood at my apartment door, papers in hand, ready to learn the facts.
And then I couldn’t do it.
Unlike that day in Dr. Miller’s office, the urge to believe suddenly seemed more important—much more important, a million to one—than the urge to know.
It’s months later now. Those papers are sitting in a folder inside my desk, still waiting to be faxed. I’m about to marry a man I adore, a man I would love to try and have a child with. He knows the situation. We’ve talked about being happy whether we’re able to have a child or whether it’s just the two of us, traveling and hanging out with each other for the rest of our lives.
I know that’s probably easier said than done. I also know that I don’t want to know what those long-ago medical records say. I’d like to believe some sort of miracle or misunderstanding occurred, and that I’ve got two healthy, functioning ovaries working their magic. Maybe I’m deluding myself by not wanting to know the specifics, but I’m OK with that. Fertility is full of unknowns and uncertainties. Getting pregnant isn’t something you can control. And for now I’m hoping I never have to fax those papers to Texas. That whatever accident or miracle happened will happen, in another form, again. For now, those papers will stay inside the desk, a little mystery I’m not ready to solve.
Dina Gachman is the author of Brokenomics, a book of humor essays and tips about money, published by Seal Press this month. She’s on Twitter @TheElf26.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby