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Why uterus is not just another organ

A woman is unable to conceive once the uterus is removed. file photo | nmg
A woman is unable to conceive once the uterus is removed. file photo | nmg 

I identified with the article you had recently on post-surgery depression. I had my uterus removed due to constant pain I had some time back. These days I sometimes wonder what this means for my life. I don’t really feel depressed because the pain is what used to depress me before the operation. But there is still that lingering feeling that I am missing something. Could it be that I have not accepted my situation?

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Many years ago as a young doctor, I made an error in judgment that haunted me for many years. I later forgave myself because at the time of the error I was, like my peers, blessed with much medical knowledge but without wisdom. The enthusiasm of youth led to much regret and self pity.

A 42-year-old woman came to hospital with symptoms of irregular, heavy periods. My view was as simple as it was clear. I argued that because she had two children, then she must get rid of the uterus that caused her the trouble every month without any potential benefit.

My view was that at her age, the uterus was like an appendix and could be removed easily, quickly and without any further thought. Strictly speaking I was right from a medical point of view, but as I was to find out later, the uterus belonged to a human being who had feelings (strong feelings, it turned out) about her uterus. In this respect she must have been like you.

A senior female doctor put me in my place when she explained the fact that the uterus is NOT like the appendix and has a role, beyond being an organ of reproduction. It is indeed, the organ that every month reminds the woman of her womanhood. Without it, some women (like you perhaps) experience a hollow feeling that is difficult to describe. This lesson led me to look back at the organ (uterus) and the role it has played in medical history.

As I was to find out, there are other equally interesting facts about the uterus. It was for example, believed that hysterical behaviour was caused by the wondering of the womb within the body.

If, for example, the womb moved to the mouth, then the woman would be unable to talk. If it went to the ear, then she could not hear. If it went to the legs, then she could not walk, and so on.

Although many believe that Sigmund Freud was the initiator of the theory of the movement of the womb to cause ill health, the ancient Greeks had already established that a wondering womb causes suffocation.

As a medical student, we were taught how to treat hysteria. When girls (the condition is more common in women) presented with paralysis of one or other limb, and when we determined that this was indeed a case of hysteria, the teaching was that we soak cotton wool in ammonia, and cause the patient to take a breath of the ammonia.

Almost without fail, the paralysis would be “cured”; the girl would get up and amid the applause of parents, teachers and other bystanders, we the medical students would bask in the glory of major achievement. This was bad medical practice. It treated the symptom without addressing the real cause of the hysteria. Our teacher got it wrong on this one.

This type of treatment for hysteria (now called Conversion disorder) is simply wrong and could lead to serious harm to the patient as it fails to address the true cause of the hysteria.

The truth is that, what for the last 2,000 years was thought to be a movement of the uterus in the body is in fact a way of expressing distress. Hysterical behaviour is simply a statement of distress by the patient. It is NOT a way of manipulating parents or teachers as was thought in my days as a medical student. A few examples will make this point clear.

A girl asked for sexual favours by a teacher will lose her voice in fear of telling her mother about the trauma. The girl is unable to talk about her experience because of fear of the consequences she might face.

A person doing badly in class will claim inability to hear just as a person afraid of dogs on the way to work will be unable to walk. It is the fear of exams or the dogs that is converted to the “paralysis” that is then seen by the doctor.

Freud and the Greeks before him gave the uterus this very special status in the human body, perhaps in recognition of its primacy and significance to women in general.

As you can see, the uterus is not a simple organ of reproduction. Its true meaning and significance to the woman is both deep and personal.

Yours is not a simple case of “imagining to be missing something”. It is a real feeling of loss, which you may wish to discuss with an expert.

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