I think we all have those moments, when we sit back and think about where we are in life and where we want to be. We look at our current situation and wonder, not only how did we get here, but how are we going to make it through? What can I do to change my situation?
We inevitably have this assessment many times over the course of our lives. We learn to read a situation, think of possible alternatives, make a plan, and move along. Huh, sounds a bit like Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome. I’ve talked about this a couple of times – because it’s been a sound mantra for me throughout my life. It’s a trained response. It’s a way of looking at a situation, knowing what kind of outcome you want, and figuring out how to get there.
So let’s go back to me…1989 heading into 1990. I was 18, newly married, and trying to get a handle on my life. So much had happened to me over the course of a year, and I needed to figure out the “what next” in my life – because clearly what I had planned for my life had not worked out the way I had hoped. I couldn’t really un-do anything, so it was just a matter of figuring out my next steps.
Ultimately I ended up in an Army Recruiter’s office in Everett, Washington. After 4 years in the high school JrROTC program, I knew that the military was a place I felt comfortable. I knew I would be able to pass the necessary testing, but I wasn’t sure how the Army would feel about my diagnosis of MRKH. I figured it would be a positive – a soldier who didn’t have a period. One less hassle to deal with. So I talked to the recruiter, scheduled my testing day, and waited for the follow up conversation. The recruiter was going to check with the doctors and see if MRKH was a disqualifier or not. I had to request copies of my medical records, surgical records, and all that, and send it to the doctors for review. Eventually, they invited me to come down for an initial screening and after their exam they would make their decision.
In the mean time I did all the other things necessary when one wants to join the military. I took tests, filled out questionnaires, talked to friends and family about my decision, and waited for the final decision. The day came for my initial medical screening. There were many other teenage women there that day, so as we all went through the basic assembly line process – height, weight, lungs, blood pressure, etc., I just plodded along with the rest of them. We would all have to go through a pelvic exam too…standard procedure. When it was my turn to go back to the private room, I took a deep breath and headed back. This was what I had been waiting for. This would be when my “other”-ness would be documented and based on the conclusion of the doctors I saw today…well, my fate rested in their hands.
It was fairly routine, as you would expect if you’ve ever been a woman in a doctor’s office. Sit here on the table, just a few questions before we get started. Name, date of birth, when was your last period? Um…I’ve never had a period, they were supposed to have notes about that. “Oh, right, I see that here. We’ve been expecting you, actually. Hang on, let me get the doctor.” She leaves, comes back with the doctor. “Yes, yes, Heidi, so good to meet you. We’ve reviewed your medical records and have a few questions. Do you mind?” Um…no, I guess not. “How old were you when you were diagnosed?” 18. “And you’ve never had a menstrual period?” No, I was born without a uterus, they call it MRKH. “Yes, of course. And have you experienced any side effects?” Side effects? Like what? “Oh, anything really…abdominal pain? Anything like that?” Uh – no. Not that I’ve noticed. “And have you received any treatment for the underdeveloped vaginal canal?” Um, no…everything stretched out through intercourse, it doesn’t seem to be a problem. “Ok, well, are you willing to submit to a pelvic exam? PAP smear? Etc.?” Yes, of course. “Do you mind if I bring in another doctor and nurse team during your exam?” No, I guess not.
He leaves, the nurse hands me a sheet, pulls out the stirrups and gets me situated. She is making small talk, trying to reassure me, make me less nervous. This was the moment of truth I knew. They would do the physical exam and the doctor would “see” what was and wasn’t there, and make an arbitrary decision on if the Army would accept me or not. So there I am, poised, prepped and waiting. Into the small room enters a whole slew of people. Doctors and nurses. “Your case is quite unique, and a few of my colleagues wanted to see as well.” I was silent. What could I say? I knew I had to have this exam if I wanted to join the Army. The nurse patted my shoulder reassuringly and just talked quietly to me as they moved the sheet and the exam began. I blocked out most of it, not wanting to hear their discussion. The doctor poked and prodded and did the full pelvic exam. I tried to ignore it all, knowing it would all be over soon. The nurse stayed by my head the whole time. The sheet went back into place and I was released from the stirrups, and helped to sit up. I don’t remember the exact exchange of words, but generally I was told that all seemed as they expected – no cervix, no external abnormalities. He was impressed by the vaginal depth I had achieved naturally. He asked how I felt about having MRKH. I said something about not having any choice in the matter, it’s how I was born, and eventually if I wanted to have children I would adopt. He was satisfied with my answer apparently, and said to me, “I see no reason to disqualify you from military service.”
I let out a huge sigh of relief as he left the room. I was allowed to enlist in the Army!!!
I was brought back to earth when the nurse said to me, “Wow, that must have seemed like you were the head cheerleader under the bleachers after a big game with the whole football team looking up your skirt.”
I just stared at her…utterly speechless. I mean really, what could I have possibly said to that?