Close Call

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In 1970 I was on what later would be called the mommy track. I'd gone to law school, but I'd followed the conventional wisdom of the time: get educated, get married, have your children. Don't let your skills get rusty, but don't put your whole self into your work either. When the kids are older, then you get to be "you."

My son was 4, and I gave birth to an adorable baby girl. I took her home, and everything was fine. Then, suddenly, a few days later, on my 30th birthday, I started hemorrhaging — big time. I couldn't reach my husband. I called my parents to meet me at the hospital. Then I was all alone with the doctors in the emergency room. The bleeding went on and on, and they hadn't a clue about the cause. I lost consciousness and woke up to see, through a woozy haze, a priest delivering last rites over my bed. I was, like, "Whoa, time out!" I would have been terrified if I hadn't been so angry. I wasn't even a Catholic.

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Jan. 17, 2004

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The doctors gave me transfusions, but the hemorrhaging still didn't stop. They decided I was too weak to operate on. So they stuffed me with about a hundred yards of gauze. It felt surreal, so gross and invasive. Eventually, the bleeding subsided. They pulled all this stuff out of me, and when I felt stronger, I went home.

I had been changed in an essential way. What stuck in my mind was how fragile life is, and I thought, If I see something I want to do, I'm gonna jump on it.

I went back to my many part-time jobs — teaching, being a Colorado state hearing officer on personnel issues, working pro bono for Planned Parenthood of the Rockies and the Metro Denver Fair Housing Center. When my husband suggested I run for Congress in 1972, I didn't just laugh it off as I once might have done. The winner of the primary would run against an enormously popular Republican incumbent. No one wanted that job in the year McGovern was running against Nixon. McGovern not only had no coattails; he was wearing a bikini.

If not for that business in the hospital, I would have been much more uptight about the consequences — to my kids, to my marriage. I'd have said, "Sure, guys, try me again in 10 years." But now I knew that you might never have another chance. Anyway, I thought I'd have fun during the campaign, I'd air issues I cared about, I'd lose, and then I'd go home.

It didn't turn out that way. All those pro bono causes I'd worked for — women, labor, students — they all came out of the woodwork and elected me, and in a district that Nixon took overwhelmingly. My husband, who like everyone else never expected me to win, even asked the election commission if there'd been an error. "This is going to ruin our life" ran through both of our minds. But we figured it out — for that session and for the 11 others during which I served in the House of Representatives.

That close call on my 30th birthday — and the memory of how baffled my doctors were — also inspired my fight for women's health research. In the late 1980s, my colleague Olympia Snow and I looked up how much NIH funding was devoted to women's health research. Would you believe zero? So I organized the women — and some men — in the House to fight for funding. I argued that in the biggest federal study on aging, only men were included, so they'd learned nothing about menopause, osteoporosis or bladder incontinence in women. I told them half our tax money comes from women but all the research was for men. Doctors knew so little about women that we might as well go to a veterinarian.

We finally got the Women's Health Initiative passed, which is now yielding results like the latest research on hormone replacement therapy. Currently, there's also a bill in the Senate to fund research into pregnancy-related issues. Maybe someday they'll even understand why I nearly hemorrhaged to death in 1970. --As told to Francine Russo