CHARLESTON, West Virginia (AP) — Danielle Maness squeezed the hands of hundreds of anxious patients lying on the operating room table, now empty. She recorded countless vital signs and sent dozens of snacks to the recovery area, which is now silent.
Looking at every darkened room in West Virginia’s only abortion clinic, the head nurse wondered if she would still be here to provide abortion care to patients.
“It just makes me sick, we don’t know what their future holds,” Manes said of the residents who depend on the West Virginia Women’s Health Center. “It’s an unspeakable heartbreak. There are all these ‘what ifs’.”
On two days last week, the waiting room was supposed to be packed with patients, as the clinic reserved all seats for abortion appointments. But since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade a few days ago and ruled that states can ban abortions, clinics were forced to suspend procedures because of state law in the 1800s that prohibited abortions. The ACLU of West Virginia filed a lawsuit on behalf of the clinic to declare the law unenforceable so staff could resume abortions immediately. Other states are in various stages of legal voids.
Across the country, staff at clinics that have shuttered abortion services are feeling fear and pressure as they try to pick up the pieces and chart a path forward. At the center of West Virginia, in the days following the historic court ruling, as the new reality sets in, staff are feeling a different kind of grief that Manes said will come after the initial trauma of the ruling long-term existence.
The first day of conversations with the mad patient inevitably looped in her head.
“I don’t think any of us can block it,” she said. “It’s always on our minds.”
Like many clinics that perform abortions, the facility doesn’t offer the procedure every day. Several days a week are dedicated to routine gynecological care — cervical exams, cancer screenings — primarily for low-income Medicaid patients who have nowhere to go. The determination to continue this work excites the employees.
After the decision was released, Manes was one of the few staff members tasked with calling patients to cancel abortion appointments. On the other end of the phone, she had never heard people speak so terrified.
The entire staff found themselves in crisis mode for several days, even though they and others across the country had been anticipating the ruling for months. “You think you’re ready for this moment, but you’re never really ready until it becomes a reality,” said executive director Katie Quiñonez.
She watched her staff collapse and sob. Some call or answer the patient’s phone. Employees on vacation showed up, some in pajamas, to help and support colleagues. Quiñonez encouraged everyone to take breaks and often manage the phone calls in person.
he will always remember that Friday as one of the worst days of her life. On weekends, she turns off her phone, lies on the couch under a weighted blanket, eats junk food, and watches TV. It was the only way she could escape and deal with it.
When she and her staff returned to work, she held off on filling vacancies that arose from canceled abortion appointments. Some patients still need other services, but she wants to give staff a breather. She told them to come later if needed. The clinic room is basically empty, dark and quiet.
However, the phone is still ringing.
Beth Fiedler sat at a desk behind a glass reception window in the clinic waiting room. She has no patients to register, no Medicaid data to scan onto charts, no information packs to distribute.
Instead, she found herself answering the same questions over and over again, directing callers to hotlines or websites that help them find the nearest out-of-state abortion provider.
“You guys are closing soon, right?” No, the clinic will be open for other services.
“Can I get Plan B — the ‘after-the-fact’ pill? IUD, or other birth control?” I can make an appointment for you.
“Are you sure I can’t book an abortion? Is there a loophole, an exception?” This clinic does not have abortion services.
Some callers are in denial. Some remained silent, others cried. Several reacted with hostility, insisting that Fiedler was wrong. She tried to be polite and compassionate — but the conversations cost her.
“It frustrates me,” she said. “I’m already stressed and restless. I understand wanting to find a way, but there’s no way.”