Russian healthcare on the rocks


Henri Rosseau, Boy on the Rocks

By Mariana Olenko

I was in my early 30s when I was diagnosed with Secondary Infertility, which made me feel like a huge failure because although I had been a lifelong hypochondriac, I didn’t know that Secondary Infertility was a thing.

If you also didn’t know about it, secondary Infertility means that you have had a successful non-IVF pregnancy but then for mysterious reasons, you can’t get pregnant a second time.

The mysterious reasons part of the equation is important because it meant that I had to have many tests ranging from unpleasant to UNPLEASANT and medical interventions ranging from co-payment to wouldn’t-it-be-great-if-insurance-covered-it?

All tests came back normal which is good news in most circumstances except when you are hoping that they find some minor glitch and prescribe a diet of Haagen-Dasz chocolate ice cream with peanut butter swirls and TV watching as a cure.  But they did not find any glitches, minor or otherwise, so the mystery remained, ice cream-less, and like many unsolved mysteries, deepened.

For the medical professionals, that is. Because I knew full well what was going on.

See, I was born in Leningrad in 1967 and lived there until my parents and I immigrated when I was nine years old. And although I was an otherwise obedient child, I had a terrible habit.

I liked to sit on rocks. Not as a hobby, or anything, I mean, nothing beats standing on a bread line for hobbies; but if we were at the dacha and there was a rock in the middle of the grassy knoll or under a birch tree in the forest, I would sit on it. Why was I sitting down so much at such a tender age?

Who knows. Maybe it’s because Russian parents are constantly worried that their children will be cold and make them wear tights in the summer, robbing them of comfort and a general will to live. Maybe the severity of Soviet life had settled on my underdeveloped childhood shoulders. Maybe the memories of sitting on rocks are particularly vivid because every time I did, either one of my parents or grandparents would be aghast, and warn me that sitting on a rock causes “organs inside” to get cold and “problems with having children” later. They admonished me relentlessly and seemed genuinely surprised that as a six-year-old I did not fear for my future fertility.

“Do you want to have children?” They would ask, and even I knew that there was only once acceptable answer.

As I got older and we moved to America, the admonitions continued. Whenever I rested on a rock, mama or papa, each a doctor, although neither a practitioner in the gynecological arts,  would just say, “Don’t sit there” and although I knew why, I took my reproductive organs into my own hands and ignored their advice at my own peril.

So I was pretty sure I knew what was behind Secondary Infertility.  But what I did not know was how to mention it to a medical professional in New York City.

“Does my uterus look cold?” I imagined myself asking.

“Do the fallopian tubes show signs of frostbite?”

“Ovaries! Are they toasty?”

So I said nothing. And neither did my parents. Until the day that I learned that I was pregnant with my second child. Due to my parents’ rock-sitting intervention, no doubt.

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