• Mon, Apr 23 2012

Frida Kahlo’s Haunting Miscarriages Solved Thanks To A Very Sympathetic Doctor

Frida KahloAnyone who knows anything about Frida Kahlo knows that her miscarriages were a prominent theme in her work. The artist’s struggles with pregnancy and the deaths of her unborn are captured in some of her most haunting autobiographical portrayals. Her personal meditation on loss and birth are grim, but make no pretenses about the emotionally wrenching experience of losing a baby. And yet her troubled reproductive system reportedly left the doctors of her era puzzled, until some 50 years later, when a modern doctor claims to have her exact diagnosis.

Dr. Fernando Antelo, a surgical pathologist at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, took it upon himself to investigate why one of modern art’s most gifted painters could not carry a child to term. The sympathetic doctor looked to her paintings for clues, citing an obligation to determine her diagnosis:

“I think it’s one of those things where we owe it to Frida,” says Antelo, noting that many of Kahlo’s paintings contain images related to reproduction and fertility, but only historians, not doctors, have delved into why the artist was unable to have a baby.

Dr. Antelo diagnosed the late Frida with Asherman’s syndrome, first noted in 1894. Msnbc reports that the rare condition is caused by scar tissue lining the uterus, now usually in response to dilatation and curettage (D&C). But in the case of Frida, the doctor posits that her uterine scar tissue developed due to her notorious streetcar accident in which a metal rail pierced her abdomen damaging several internal organs, including her uterus.

As much as Dr. Antelo’s investigation into Frida’s fertility problems is heartfelt given how much the artist truly wanted to bear children, his findings wouldn’t have done much good in her era. Had Frida even been diagnosed correctly, the 1930s didn’t exactly accommodate the technology or science necessary to treat such a condition. Even more tragic, Dr. Antelo says, is that her many miscarriages and therapeutic abortions worsened her condition over the years.

Nevertheless, the doctor’s dedication to understanding one renowned woman’s fertility struggle further illuminates many of her most powerful and noted pieces.

(photo: peacefullychaotic.blogspot.com)

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  • K.

    I find this article…weird.

    I’m not sure that the diagnosis (which is simply a finer point on the overall statement that I relay to my students every year–she was in a streetcar accident and her injuries are likely to have affected her fertility) “further illuminates many of her most powerful and noted pieces.” How?? We already knew that she was unable to have a child and that this was devastating to her, but does the detail of scar tissue really contribute much to that understanding? Kahlo’s work overall deals with the frailty of the human body which yes, includes fertility, but it’s interesting that it’s her infertility that receives this much attention from the medical community. She also did really amazing pictures of her feet–should we call a podiatrist to “explain” those works?

    (Personally, I think that had doctors back then said, “we owe it to you, Frida, to give you a diagnosis of Asherman’s Syndrome,” Frida would have been pissed at the presumption that giving the ailment a name was somehow beneficial to her).

    • E

      K,
      as a woman who has suffered with infertility and very painful miscarriages and a seemingly never ending parade from hospital to hospital and extremely painful and at times debilitating surgeries, I can tell you, one of the worst parts is when you are not given answers as to why things aren’t happening or why you can’t bear the baby you so desperately love and want.

      I actually lived a block away from Frida Kahlo’s home as a child, I have seen her paintings, her home (just as she left her way back), and members of my family actually knew her and worked for her. She was deeply affected by her inability to bear children and troubled because there wasn’t a reasonable explanation why. She held onto hope that one day she could have a child and it was a very constant theme on her art.
      I am an artist too and over the course of my life and my own struggles I have felt closer and closer to her pieces and understood her angst, frustration and pain.
      The fact that a doctor felt touched and compelled to figure this out exactly and not on nebulous terms for her even after her death is actually something that, to me, was very caring, sweet and that I wish more doctors would be like.

      When you are given a definite diagnosis and they tell you that either:
      a) We can make this work, we know what is wrong and you can have a baby
      or
      b) We are very sorry, but now that we figured out was wrong, you won’t be able to bring a baby to term, and trying to do it would prove to be fatal for any babies you conceive.

      You can make peace with yourself to a point, you don’t have to keep on trying in vain feeling the repeated loss, over and over along with the physical and psychological strain and hurt that comes along with it.

      The diagnosis can also give further insight on how she chose to illustrate her symptoms, her pain, even her surgeries.

      I guess it is just as helpful as when people figured out the painter El Greco might have had astigmatism and other vision problems due to the elongated figures on his paintings, or how loosing his hearing affected the later paintings of Goya.

  • AC

    I have suffered 2 yrs of unexplained infertility and the lack of an explanation was the hardest part. It was such a relief to finally get a diagnosis – and it turned out to be Asherman’s. Even if the treatment fails to return my fertility, I am grateful for an answer. So I can imagine that Kahlo would have experienced some relief as well to at least have had a specific reason even if they couldn’t treat her. The lack of a clear diagnosis can really mess with people’s minds when they are already in pain. Thank you so much to Dr. Antelo for putting this condition in the spotlight. While an accident may have caused this for Kahlo, in my case, it was just ONE poorly performed D&C by a board-certified ob/gyn at a major metropolitan university hospital where she trained medical students and residents. Don’t believe the medical community when they claim this condition is rare. It is a real risk from any gynecological surgery.