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'I WAS DOING SOMETHING ILLEGAL

Hedria Lunken lay alone in the operating room, awaiting anesthesia. The gynecologist passed by and asked casually, "How are you?"

Lunken burst into tears. Her cries escalated; tears washed her face; sobs convulsed her body.

Lunken -- the dutiful daughter, the good mother, the adoring wife -- was pregnant with what would have been her third child. It was 1964, and she was in a Buffalo hospital about to have an abortion. The German measles that had stricken her early in her pregnancy would have, she was told, caused the infant to be severely disabled in any number of ways.

"Let her sit up," the doctor said to the nurse, who moved Lunken to the edge of the gurney and waited with her while she sobbed.

It wasn't that she didn't want or need the abortion. She was at peace with that choice, made in agreement with her husband and with the advice of her brother, a doctor. They were not prepared to have a child who would probably be born mentally retarded, blind, or with other multiple physical and mental defects -- in an age when many such children were institutionalized or locked away at home, in appalling conditions.

But it was 1964.

In polite company, abortion wasn't even whispered. It was referred to in newspapers as "an illegal operation," usually reported only when those who performed abortions were arrested or women who had abortions turned up in emergency rooms hemorrhaging, with raging infections, or dead.

Lunken's abortion was different. While many of the details of the event are lost, a few pivotal memories remain sharp nearly 40 years later. And her tears in the operating room are one such moment.

"I was hysterical," she says today. "I had never talked about it with anybody; I was doing something illegal; I wasn't emotionally prepared for this at all. All I could do was cry."

Trying to explain her emotions, Lunken starts several sentences.

"It was the accumulation of doing something; it was just like . . .

"I think I was just so . . .

"I think I had a harder time recovering because mentally I was not . . ."

She was not and is not ashamed; that's not the word. It had something to do with the secrecy, the steps the gynecologist had to take to keep the exact circumstances of her operation a secret, even those who would care for her.

It had a lot to do with the fact that Lunken had never done anything even vaguely illegal. The stigma. The fear and deep emotional pain that surrounded the decision.

It was a day when many women, poor women, climbed onto kitchen tables for abortions done by someone they hoped had some medical training, or at least a lot of experience.

But Lunken was on a table in a sterile operating room, in a Buffalo hospital, with a qualified gynecologist. Because she had conceived around the same time the German measles laid her low for days, she had lost track of her periods. By the time her pregnancy was confirmed, she was more than three months pregnant, too late for a dilation and curettage.

So her abortion was the equivalent of a Caesarean section under general anesthesia.

From letters to love

Lunken's father, Samuel Isaac Porrath, was born in Jerusalem and settled in Niagara Falls, where in 1931 he became the rabbi at Temple Beth Israel on Cedar Avenue.

He met and married Tibey, who later operated the Sample Shop on Niagara Street with her mother and her brother. The store was known far and wide for its avant-garde selection and fabulous sales.

Tibey and Sam had two children, a son, Saar, in 1937, and a daughter, Hedria, two years later. In Hebrew, Saar means "prince"; Hedria means "graced by God."

Hedria was a good student, not brilliant like her older brother with his photographic memory, but bright enough, and, as she grew older, pretty and popular.

During the Korean War, people were urged to write to servicemen, so Hedria dutifully penned a few letters to Paul Lunken, her best friend's cousin and the only soldier she knew. Paul, a tall, handsome boy with blue eyes, had taught some of her Sunday school lessons when she was in her early teens.

Even though he was eight years older, Paul took an interest in Hedria. After his return from the war and graduation from the University of Buffalo, Paul worked in the family business, Gene's Shop, a 60-year-old men's clothing store on Main Street in Niagara Falls.

Their first date was to a dance held by Paul's fraternity.

"I was a very mature 16," she says, "and he was a young 24."

After high school, Hedria enrolled in the liberal arts program at Syracuse University. Paul drove the 145 miles almost every weekend to see his sweetheart, staying in the YMCA downtown.

"He kept driving back and forth, so I said, 'This is silly,' and I transferred to UB."

One day Paul told Hedria's father, "You know, Hedria and I are running out of conversation. I think it's time we got married."

A close community

It was an elegant candlelight ceremony in the Terrace Room of the Statler Hotel in Buffalo on a warm evening in late June 1958.

Home was a small two-bedroom apartment. The kitchen was so small that if she and Paul turned around at once in it they'd collide -- but they made full meals for dinner parties in that kitchen.

She returned to her studies at UB, and continued in school when she became pregnant, which "just wasn't done in those days," she said. Hedria and Paul's first child, a daughter, Annetta, called "Nettie," was born in 1960.

The social whirl changed but did not end as young brides became young mothers.

Their lives centered around Temple Beth Israel. She and other women catered their congregation's bar and bat mitzvahs with elaborate luncheons, baking, cooking, setting the tables. Lunken's specialty was the sweets table.

Her canasta and mah-jongg groups met weekly. The young women enjoyed the freedom of leaving the babies with their husbands as much as they did the doughnuts, candy and cigarettes they shared while they played.

It was a very close community. Her friends used to say, "Don't talk to Hedria about anybody; she's probably related to them!"

Between home dinner parties, temple events and an occasional movie, Paul's $60-a-week salary was plenty.

She received her bachelor's degree in education from UB on the same day her brother graduated from the university's medical school.

She worked as a substitute teacher in Maple Avenue School in Niagara Falls, and helped at both family stores during busy periods.

Paul and Hedria welcomed their second child, Eugene, in 1962, and moved from the Eighth Street apartment to a three-bedroom starter house on Garrett Avenue in Deveaux, a more upscale section of Niagara Falls near the Niagara University campus.

A devastating virus

German measles, caused by the rubella virus, starts with a feverish illness and a telltale rash. In children, it's a mild disease and one infection confers lifelong immunity.

In adults, the symptoms are more severe. For a fetus, the rubella virus can be devastating. Effects can include mental retardation, blindness, deafness, and malformation of the eyes, brain or heart.

Today, obstetricians routinely test pregnant women to make sure they are immune to German measles, and children are vaccinated against the disease -- not so much to protect them, but to protect any non-immune pregnant woman they might come into contact with.

In the late winter of 1963, Lunken nursed Nettie through a bout of German measles.

Lunken thought she had already had German measles as a child, so as her daughter's health improved, she was completely unprepared for what happened next.

"I do remember lying on the couch, and I was so sick, the kids were hanging on me. I remember calling my husband at the store and saying, 'You either have to come home or you have to get a baby sitter.' "

This ultimatum proves how desperately ill she was.

"We'd never call on the husbands to come home and do these things. We took care of everything and dinner was made and the table was set when he arrived home."

But that day, "I don't remember who came, but I do remember crawling up the stairs. I am so weak, I'm getting into bed, and I don't know what happened after that.

"Then I remember missing my period, and thinking nothing of it, and saying, 'The German measles must have done this to me.' Then I missed a second period, and I said, 'Oh, I wonder if the measles still did this to me.' We were very naive in those days! Then I missed my third period, then I thought, 'Maybe something's going on here.'

"So I finally went down to the doctor and I said, 'I'm missing my periods, did the measles do something to me or what's going on?' He examined me, and he said, 'No, you're pregnant!' I said, 'Oh!'

After this crystalline moment, Lunken's memory fogs a bit. "I vaguely remember being in his office. I vaguely remember coming home and telling Paul."

They phoned her brother in California, and discussed "all the things that could be happening, and we were almost positive that any way the measles could have affected (a fetus) would certainly have affected this child. We were pretty sure there would be retardation, certainly blindness, certainly one other problem, I don't remember -- I blocked a lot of it out."

The choice seemed clear to Hedria and Paul: An abortion was the logical, loving choice, for what they feared was a severely damaged fetus and for the rest of their family.

"I knew this child would have a lot of difficulties," she says. "We didn't in those years take care of children like we do now. My father-in-law, Eugene Lunken, who had two healthy children, started the Association for Retarded Children in Niagara Falls. He was the founder of it.

"Many retarded children were still ignored, with no education or socialization, when my father-in-law started helping people bring them out. So you also have the picture now of how little they were able to do with retarded children in those years."

A few days later, her doctor called Paul and asked to meet with him -- outside, behind the building where the doctor practiced.

"Men handled these things in those days," Lunken says, smiling.

"Paul came back that night, and we talked about the fact that my doctor said there was a doctor in Buffalo who would take care of me." No specific words were used: The Buffalo doctor would "take care" of her, "help" her.

They called the doctor in Buffalo and were given the last appointment of the night. It was about 10:30 p.m. when the Lunkens sat down to talk with the doctor for the first time.

Lunken was in her fourth month, but the doctor said, "We can take care of you."

The surgery was set. She and Paul told their parents. Only a few other relatives and close friends knew.

Before she left for the hospital, she cooked meals for Paul and the kids to eat while she was away, and got the house in order.

As she was wheeled toward the operating room, Paul held her hand. And then Lunken, 24, was alone.

It was at that moment that she erupted in the gut-wrenching weeping that now forms her most vivid memory of the abortion.

"I can picture myself lying there, the doctor walking down, and I got hysterical, hysterical. I cried, I screamed. . . . He had the nurse sit me up for a little while, calm me down a little bit, before they would even proceed with the surgery.

"They must have started the anesthesia then, because I don't remember anything else."

But Lunken woke up in the recovery room weeping again, distraught and in pain.

"There was this wonderful, wonderful aide or nurse -- I have such a vivid memory of her coming in and cleaning me up, and I was just so appreciative. I couldn't get over that she took care of me -- I was just so needy, and I thought it was just physically. Later I realized it was emotional, too."

Lunken doubts that anybody else in the hospital besides her doctor, the operating room nurse and the anesthesiologist knew why she was really there. She believes the doctor concealed the purpose of the operation on her chart.

A cup of tea

Lunken recovery was slow.

"I truly believe that it was the mental state I was in," she says. One day shortly after the operation, she called a neighbor who lived two doors away and said: "I'm going to walk over to your house. I don't know whether I'm going to be able to walk back or not." She walked to the neighbor's, had a cup of tea, rested for a half-hour, then walked back. "This is the kind of recovery it took. It was just horrible. Just horrible."

And as close as her friends and extended family were, they had no idea how she was suffering, physically and emotionally. "You have to remember: Nobody knows why I went to the hospital, just that I had 'female surgery.' Nobody knows!"

Once the abortion was over, Lunken never talked about it, with two exceptions:

When Paul and Hedria's third child, David, was born in 1966, she had to tell her obstetrician about the abortion, because her scars could have complicated the delivery.

And in the early 1970s, when their children became teenagers, they sat each of them down, separately, and told them the story so they would understand the life-changing potential of sex.

"I remember telling the boys that if they ever got a girl pregnant, they were as pregnant as she was," she says. "It was a lesson that you don't take pregnancy lightly."

The children's reaction? "It was just something Mom told them. Did I talk about the fact that I still was upset about it? Did I know that I'd done the right thing?" She trails off, then adds firmly, "It was a decision that Paul and I made together."

Life changed for the Lunkens. Paul developed heart problems and barely survived open-heart surgery in 1974. After that, Hedria joined Paul's business, and together they updated and revitalized the store, which they renamed Gene's for Jeans. The abortion was buried under the events of everyday life.

Their personal decision stayed secret until a national debate provided another defining moment for Lunken.

A risky admission

On June 26, 1987, Justice Lewis Powell announced that he would retire from the U.S. Supreme Court. Although Powell was considered a moderate, he had voted with the high court's liberal majority on affirmative action and abortion. President Ronald Reagan's nominee was Robert Bork, a District of Columbia federal appeals judge who was an outspoken critic of Roe v. Wade.

The abortion debate again moved to center stage.

Hedria and Paul were visiting her brother and his wife, both doctors, in California. At a dinner party in an elegant home, a group of male doctors began talking about Bork, and then about abortion. She recalls them saying, "Ridiculous! Why should we let people have abortions? Women only use it as a means of contraception, especially in the lower classes."

At first, Lunken listened silently. Hesitant to make a scene, she held in her feelings.

Finally, it was too much. "Excuse me, gentlemen, I have a friend," she said, her voice shaking. Then she changed her mind. "Forget it about the friend. I had an abortion. And you have no idea what you're talking about. I did it for all the right reasons. I had an adoring husband, I had parents that were supportive, it was illegal, I had to find a way to do it. I still think about that child. I still know why I did it. I did not go into that decision easily. When you talk about women doing these things, why would anyone want to have an abortion unless there's a reason? You don't know what you're talking about!"

Lunken doesn't remember the reaction of the men she confronted. "Maybe they just changed the subject. But it changed my life."

She said to her brother's wife: "I am sick. I'm still upset about this because I didn't realize for 25 years I'd blocked it. I never talked about it, never talked about it in public. Never told anybody I'd ever done anything illegal in my life. I never admitted that I might have had another child. When you think about it, it's a huge, huge thing not to talk about. . . . I never questioned that I did the right thing, but I always questioned it. I wonder what would have been, what if, what if, what if, what if?"

If it was the death of the dutiful daughter, it was the birth of an activist. Lunken returned home with one thought: "I have to find Planned Parenthood." She went in and said: "I'm yours. I had an abortion many years ago, I never talked about it, I can't stand the thought that this Bork might get elected, what do I have to do to help? Use me any way you want to; I'm ready."

"You can't not talk about something for 25 years and expect it to go away," she says. "I just had to do something at that point, and that was one of the strongest emotional things I'd done on my own as an adult."

She served on the board of Planned Parenthood, met with legislators in Albany, and attended demonstrations during the Spring of Life protests in Buffalo. She also marched in Washington, D.C., with her daughter and her brother's wife.

"I'm not pro-abortion, because I would never tell anybody to go have an abortion," she says. "I am pro-choice because I want women to have that choice. The important word in Planned Parenthood is 'Planned.' "

Although she never met Dr. Barnett A. Slepian, she was deeply shocked and dismayed when he was shot to death in his Amherst home. Today, she says, "If Bart Slepian could give his life for it, the least I can do is talk about it."

A series of changes

This was a new Hedria Lunken, but many more changes were to come. In the late 1980s, she returned to Buffalo State College, where she earned a master's degree in the innovative Center for Studies in Creativity.

Her father died in 1989 after being in ill health for a year. Lunken received her master's degree in 1990, and was just setting up her business as a creativity consultant when she and Paul took a walk at Artpark one bright February day. Paul suffered a heart attack, collapsed in the car, and was pronounced dead at Mount St. Mary's Hospital.

The struggle to make a new life alone was difficult for Lunken, but she successfully launched her consultant business, and after more than a decade of widowhood, got married again -- to Bob Saltzman, a cousin of Paul's.

Today Hedria and Bob share a beautiful, warm home full of family photos and art. Her children are married and live in other parts of the country, and she has four grandchildren. Her work as a creativity consultant has taken her all over the world.

Hedria Porrath Lunken, the good girl, the dutiful daughter, the loving wife and mother, the devoted grandmother, the successful businesswoman, knows that her story may surprise many people -- especially those who were close to her when she went through it.

"Life doesn't get better," she says with a smile, "it gets different."

e-mail: aneville@buffnews.com

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