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What happens when women’s pain is dismissed

The Retrievals, a new podcast from Serial, tells the disturbing story of widespread patients’ suffering at the hands of a US fertility clinic.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

Over a period of five months in 2020, as many as 200 women who were patients at a Yale fertility clinic underwent what should have been a straightforward procedure: egg retrieval. The patients knew this crucial step in their fertility treatment programme would be an invasive process, but as they would be sedated and drugged, they were not prepared for what happened next: sudden, excruciating pain.

“I felt everything,” one patient explained. “It felt like someone was ripping something from the inside of your body,” another said. Many told the nurses and doctors in the room at the time of their procedure that something was horribly wrong, but were repeatedly told they had already been given the maximum legal dose of pain medication.

[See also: Oppenheimer’s tormented soul]

Those concerned by lingering pain in subsequent days were dismissed. One doctor told a patient he was “not alarmed – but surprised and perplexed” by her complaints. Until – many months later – a letter from the clinic appeared in the post, containing a startling admission that sparked feelings of betrayal and outrage, and a controversial legal case.

This is the premise of the five-part documentary series The Retrievals, the new podcast from Serial and the New York Times. Reported and told by Susan Burton (This American Life), it is a forensic and gripping story of a medical scandal and its consequences, foregrounding the experiences of the women themselves – a dozen of them – who give thoughtful and moving testimony.

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But Burton uses this disturbing incident as a route into questions of motherhood, institutional responsibility, and the myriad ways in which women’s pain – physical, emotional – is minimised and disbelieved. Even after admitting a terrible abuse of trust that led to hundreds of procedures taking place without any pain relief, the fertility clinic maintained to patients that there was “no reason to believe that this event has had any negative effect on your health” – a further insult to those involved. “We were reporting pain – so many of us over so much time,” one woman says. “Why were we ignored?”  

The Retrievals
Serial/New York Times

[See also: The Crossbow Killer attempts to fathom an unfathomable act]

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This article appears in the 19 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How Saudi Arabia is buying the world