The Retrievals – A Discussion of Women’s Pain
by Gillian Feinglass
For over five months, as many as 200 patients at the Yale University Fertility Clinic underwent excruciating egg retrieval procedures without any painkillers, but their pain was dismissed and minimized by doctors. The doctors thought the patients were receiving fentanyl, only to find out that a nurse had been stealing at least 75 percent of the clinic’s fentanyl for herself and replacing the empty vials with saline. During the routine procedure, the women were assured they would feel mild pain, if anything. Instead, countless women encountered what they described as unbearable, nightmarish pain that was traumatizing. When their pain was not taken seriously, patients told themselves elaborate stories to try to make sense of their harrowing experience, convincing themselves that they were resistant to fentanyl or overly sensitive to pain. Even after Yale had become aware of what the nurse had done, the university continued to invalidate the women’s experience, assuring patients in a letter that there were no negative effects on their health or care outcomes. This saga is explored in The Retrievals, a thought-provoking five-part podcast produced by The New York Times and Serial Productions, released in June 2023.
Like many this summer, I was captivated by The Retrievals. I was utterly shocked by how such an event, especially of its magnitude, could unfold at such a trusted institution as Yale University. I enjoyed how Susan Burton, the podcast’s host, pieces together interviews with 12 victims and some of the clinic’s staff members. This allows patients to take ownership of their stories and listeners to hear the pain and strength in their voices. The podcast highlighted a set of diverse perspectives, enhancing the richness of the storytelling. It featured interviews with people of different identities and backgrounds, including a patient who studied addiction and opioid use disorder and a nurse who was complacent in Yale’s actions at the time.
The podcast’s structure and diverse perspectives create a thorough account of how such a disturbing event could have taken place for so long. Each episode focuses on a different key aspect of the story, from the patient’s perspective, the implicated nurse’s story and her battle with addiction, the details of the nurse’s sentence and the patient’s subsequent reaction to it, what happened at the clinic and the many ways in which Yale failed its patients, and the outcome of the nurses’ trial.
Moreover, Burton remains compassionate for everyone affected by the situation, even the nurse who stole the fentanyl, pushing me to adopt a more comprehensive and nuanced perspective on the situation. At the center of The Retrievals is a compelling discussion about how society views, tolerates, and minimizes women’s pain, shedding light on the importance of empathy in healthcare, patient advocacy, and cultivating trusting relationships between doctors and patients.
Listen to the series on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, or anywhere else you get your podcasts.