Plan B in 'Bama

This is a true story.


What follows is an actual conversation with a registered nurse. A medical provider. Someone who is paid to dispense medical assistance and possess a more-than-average knowledge of basic medical information.

Yesterday afternoon I called my doctor's office to find out if she prescribes emergency contraceptives. I didn't need any -- but it occurred to me that I ought to check, based on a couple of recent events.

Some background: At our local NOW meeting last month, someone passed around a flyer encouraging people to call their doctors and ask if they prescribed Plan B. If the doctor said yes, the flyer suggested we get a prescription in advance (it can be hard to access in case of a real emergency; and besides, with conservatives in control, who knows how long it'll be legal). If the doctor said no, we should think about getting a new doctor.

Then, earlier this week, I read this washington post article, about a woman in northern Virginia who had unprotected sex with her husband and was refused emergency contraceptives by her two doctors. She got pregnant and, for a host of reasons, decided to have an abortion. If her doctor had prescribed Plan B, none of this would have happened.

So yesterday, I decided to follow up on the advice from the flyer at the NOW meeting. To the best of my memory, this is how it happened.

I call Dr. F's office around 2:30. A receptionist answers the phone. I tell her my name and say something like, “Hi, I was calling to see if Dr. F prescribes emergency contraceptives.”

The receptionist: “Emergency contraceptives?”

Me: “Uh-huh.”

The receptionist, sounding very stumped: “Hmm.” Then a pause. Then, “What do you mean by that?”

Me: “It’s, like, a really strong version of the regular birth control pill. It’s sometimes called Plan B? Maybe you've heard of that?

The receptionist: “Hold on a minute. I’m gonna let you talk to the nurse.”

After a very long wait, another woman comes to the phone. She has a thick Southern accent. I immediately recognize her as the same nurse who took my blood pressure the first time I visited the office. She was sweet as pie as she asked where I was from and why I had moved to Alabama. (My lack of a strong Southern accent is like an invisible billboard.) As soon as I told her where I worked -- at a rabble-rousing civil rights law firm -- she recoiled. Her face turned to stone, and she said in barely controlled anger, “Seems like none of you people is from here.”

So I am thrilled, of course, when she’s the one who picks up the line.

The nurse: “Okay, exactly what are you looking for?”

Me: “Emergency contraceptives. Um, Plan B?”

The nurse: “Who are you?”

I give her my name. I tell her I'm a patient. I tell her I've been there several times before.

The nurse, sounding increasingly skeptical: “Let me pull your chart.”

She comes back after a couple of minutes.

The nurse: “Now, okay. What exactly is this medicine? What does it do?”

Me: “Um. Well. It prevents a woman from getting pregnant if she takes the medicine within 72 hours of having unprotected sex.”

The nurse: “Really?!”

Me: “Really.”

The nurse: “Huh.”

Another long pause follows, during which time she’s either thinking to herself, ‘damn, that’s cool!’ or looking up the number for the Christian Coalition to report a traitor. I decide to clear my throat to remind her that I’m still here.

The nurse: “So, 72 hours, huh?”

Me: “Yep, 72 hours.”

The nurse: “So you take it 72 hours after you... ahem. After you have sex?”

Me: “No, no, you have to take it within 72 of having unprotected sex.” (I kind of want to say the word “sex” a little more slowly and loudly, just to make her squirm a little. But I don’t. Because deep down, I really am a decent person.)

The nurse, incredulously: “And that keeps you from getting pregnant?”

Me: “Exactly.”

The nurse: “Huh. So, do you need this now?”

Me: “No, no, I just want to know if Dr. F provides it.”

The nurse, silent again, and perhaps a little confused.

Me, clarifying: “Not all doctors prescribe it.”

The nurse: “Oh.”

Me: “You know, I want to make sure that, if I did need it, like in the future, that I’d be able to get it from my doctor.”

The nurse, still sounding like she doesn’t understand what, exactly, I’m talking about: “Oh, of course. I mean, of course!”

But it turns out the doctor is seeing a patient. So the nurse takes my name and number and says she’ll be happy to find out for me and call me back.

The phone rings 15 minutes later.

The nurse: “Yeah, Dr. F said she’d prescribe that if, you know, the circumstances were right. But you’d have to come in first.”

Now, it takes many, many weeks to get an appointment with my doctor. And the comment about circumstances being right sounds a little ominous. Or at least a little weird. And then -- and I hate that I think this next thought, but I do -- then, with a sinking feeling, I think: “But Dr. F is Catholic.” Which means an “appointment” could really mean a counseling session. Or a chance for her to badger me and try to make me feel small and shameful for wanting a piece paper with her signature on it that I could then take to the CVS and exchange for a couple of little pills.

I sigh into the phone.

“Thanks,” I say.

Then I go online and make a donation to Planned Parenthood.

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