Carrie Denny, 41, was raised in a small, conservative town in Tennessee, and she always considered herself pro-life. She dreamed of becoming a nurse but worked in the corporate world until she was laid off in 2011. That's when she decided to pursue her passion. She graduated from Eastern Tennessee State University with a degree in nursing and began working full-time on the orthopedic surgical floor, with the goal of moving to labor and delivery. However, a few months into the job, she was diagnosed with cancer and has spent most of the past two years in treatment. She recently began volunteering at a private nursing facility, where she eventually plans to work full-time. A conversation with an instructor in nursing school made Denny completely rethink her views on abortion.
I was born and raised in this little town in Johnson City, Tennessee. I am an only child. My dad had a successful career as an attorney, and my mom was a homemaker. I remember saying, "When I grow up, I want to be a secretary." And when I think of that now, I just cringe. My parents are very, very traditional in what they think of as gender roles. We were always compared to the Cleavers from Leave It to Beaver. We were a close-knit family, wholesome I guess. You go to Sunday school and church every week, and that's what you do here in the South. You don't have sex before you get married, homosexuality is wrong, abortion is murder, friends are good, God is great. That was normal. I didn't know I was sheltered. I never questioned it, because that was all I had really been exposed to. It took me moving four hours away when I first went to college to even know that there were people who even thought differently.
I believe it was Thanksgiving break of our freshman year of college [when my friend] told me she thought she was pregnant. We went to the store and got a pregnancy test, and she took it in the bathroom, and when it turned positive, she panicked. She didn't know what she was going to do. And I remember telling her how I would support her and she needed to have the baby and you can't abort this baby because it's a life. I was very, very, very pro-life at that point. When she finally told her parents a couple days later, it was not up for discussion. She would have an abortion.
In this area in the South, [having an abortion] doesn't say anything good [about the woman]—at least it didn't at that time. It was, "Clearly she's a tramp. Clearly she makes poor choices." There is so much judgment. Even for people who don't have abortions, just unwed mothers. At the time, I felt that she was forced into it against her will and I thought that she maybe should've been stronger; if she wanted the baby, that she should've fought for that. And so we just stopped talking for a while.
I had always wanted to be a nurse. I had worked toward that in high school but then went to college the first time around, didn't think I had to study, so I didn't pass the required science. So I picked an easier major, education. Went through, worked in corporate America, ended up getting a master's degree in organizational management in 2002. I worked in human resources and I was in operations management for 15 years, but the desire to help people and be involved in science and make a difference and help birth babies never left. In 2011, my job in corporate America was eliminated and I panicked. Three days later, I was enrolled in a certified nursing assistant course, found a job in the hospital the next month, and finished nursing school two years later. I graduated when I was 38.
My teacher's story in nursing school was really the very thing that made me realize that I needed to reevaluate my line in the sand. We had an assignment on biases that we would be encountering in nursing and one of the questions was: "How would you treat somebody who had just had or contemplated abortion?" and I was just full of myself and said, "Oh, I would never be in that situation because I don't believe in it." That was very naive. [My teacher] put a note on my assignment to talk to her about her experience.
[When] she was a new nurse herself, very pro-life, she was working at a pediatric in-patient psychiatric hospital and she had a 15-year-old girl who was admitted for suicidal ideation. [The patient] wanted to kill herself because her parents had gotten a court order to make her terminate her pregnancy, which blows my mind. My instructor said that this girl was stressed because not only had her parents gotten a court order, they also disowned her. They were not going to be there to support her through this. They just wanted their good name cleared before they tossed her out on the street. So everybody in this girl's life had abandoned her and they were taking her baby. My psych teacher was in the position of "Do I go with my patient—who has to have a nurse with her to this procedure—and support her, or do I become one more adult in her life who turns their back, potentially triggering her actions on these suicidal thoughts?" She made the decision. She said, "I have to go support my patient." She rode with her in the ambulance, she sat at her bedside while they did the procedure, took her back to the facility, and nursed her for two days and got her through it.
And the level of compassion that I saw in my nursing teacher's face as tears fell down her cheeks was, I don't know, it just drove home the point that you can never judge somebody for their circumstances because you don't know what got them there. Your only job as a nurse is to be supportive and to heal. You cannot judge, because it wasn't this girl's fault at all. If this girl had had her way, she wouldn't have had an abortion, but it was forced on her. And you know what? There are going be patients that do choose to have an abortion that still need you to be there for them, because abortion, it's never an easy decision, I don't think, but it's a legal one. It's absolutely a right that women have and you need to be prepared to give them the emotional support that they need.
Her story touched me on such a level, I left in tears that night. That was when I knew that nursing was not black-and-white. I don't get to pick and choose what comes across the bed, and I need to be OK with that. [I realized] that there's more to being a nurse than selecting and choosing which patients you will help and which ones you won't, because at the end of the day, all patients deserve the most excellent care you can provide and you have to put your own stuff aside. That got me to thinking: How can you empower women to make better choices for themselves that wouldn't lead to certain things like abortion? Or how can we teach them to be OK with their decision to abort, and move forward with their lives and have a family later? How can we keep the abortion procedure safe and done correctly by providers to protect the fertility of American women for the future?
During my clinical rotation for OB, we had a patient who, this was her fourth pregnancy, and she had miscarried when the fetus was 14 weeks, and she was absolutely devastated. There was no chance for the fetus to live outside the womb, it was not compatible with life. She kept going on and on about how she wished she had known that this would happen so she could have terminated the pregnancy on her own terms and have that sense of closure and started the grief process in her own way. But she was never told that that was really an option. They knew the baby wouldn't be compatible with life, that they would have to let nature take its course. Somebody dropped the ball on really counseling her on all of her options and that is just not OK. I don't think that as medical providers, we get to pick and choose what we present to patients based on our biases. Around here, we don't talk about abortion, we don't. You can't even get an abortion in the city where I live. You can't get one unless you travel about 45 minutes away. And I felt for her because I can understand wanting to be in control of that grief process and what physical toll that took on the mother.
I was talking to one of my nurse friends and I said, "I feel like I'm almost the third argument for abortion." You have pro-life, you have pro-choice, and you have me, who believes that abortion should be legal for the women to make their own decisions but not routinely used for birth control. It's kind of hard to walk that line. I don't believe in late-term abortion. But I do think that if a woman knows she cannot physically, financially, emotionally take care of the child, then she absolutely has a right to terminate that pregnancy, and who are we to judge her? If somebody is going to be responsible enough to say I am not going to tax the system anymore and I can terminate this pregnancy, I think that's a brave choice and we should support that.
Here in the South, it takes a lot of courage to say that you're pro-choice. Most of the people in this area are pro-life, I would say. Most people don't know I'm pro-choice, that's the sad truth. I think that when people read this, they're going to be really surprised. People who have known me my whole life have known me as quiet, conservative.
I really don't identify with [the GOP] anymore. I am so Team Bernie it is not funny. I think that the GOP candidates have made a mockery of our political system. I think Donald Trump is a farce. Is it Ted Cruz that wants to make it illegal again to have abortions? I think that's just such a step backward. People have fought and died for this for decades, and I just don't understand why people need to go backward.
I was diagnosed [with cancer] on April 18 of 2014 and lost my insurance on April 30. It took me having to go on Obamacare to accept the diagnosis of cancer, and having to go on food stamps because cancer made me poor. I was very anti-Obama when he was elected, but I give him full credit for saving my life because of Obamacare. Seeing the whole other side of how things work really opened—maybe that's what shifted it for me—it's easy to sit in judgment if it's never happened to you. Once things happen to you, your perception changes completely—all of a sudden, it begins to make sense as to why people make the choices they do.
[Abortion] is a reality, and we need to support others in that situation and not condemn them, not criminalize them. As a nurse, my sole job is to support my patient.
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