I recently was diagnosed with anemia. I didn’t think it was a big deal. I knew I had been tired for a long time, but I also knew I had a brutal schedule. I teach 12th grade English, am an adjunct instructor two nights a week, I freelance for a technical writing firm, and I also work as a server at a hotel downtown. Top that off with a thirty minute commute from my house to any of those places.
I am often tired.
One night I had an epiphany that all of my friends were doing things after work that I just didn’t have the energy for. I forced myself to do a lot of it. I have forced myself to get to work a lot of the time. My motivation rests in being independent and reliable, but I wasn’t doing anything well. It’s no surprise, considering how busy all of my minutes in life were. But I felt like there was something else missing.
At my annual physical, I requested a blood workup to see if there was something wrong. I considered that it could be my thyroid because that is something that most of my siblings have dealt with, but the doctor wasn’t concerned with that. She thought maybe anemia, and I thought maybe anemia too. I mean, I hadn’t been able to donate blood recently because they called me “iron deficient,” which simply meant that I was just a bit low on hemoglobins.
My bloodwork came back with a count of 9 hemoglobins per unit of blood. Two years prior, I had changed my birth control method to a copper IUD, which was pretty great, except that I was on my period every 26-28 days for 5-7 full, heavy days. I went through boxes of tampons. It was awful. In the last few months before my anemia diagnosis, I was starting to skip work activities, and I would stay in sweats for the first three days and sleep. I’d get up, go to the bathroom, walk to the living room and turn around and go back to the bathroom. I rejected dates, I skipped dinner events, and for the first time in adulthood, I bled through my jeans while I was at work.
Fortunately for me, my new doctor was caring and efficient. She went to work for me. She put me on an iron regimen, suggested I change my birth control, and asked me to slow down. Nobody ever looks at me in the eye and tells me, “Elizabeth, you need to slow down.” Instead, they look at me like I’m crazy and they shake their head. They might tell me to chill out, but they don’t scare me into it, that’s for sure. It appears I need the fear of death to make it real.
That’s the problem with anemia. Many, many women, and men too, have had it. And they’ve been successful at continuing to do things. I was still relatively successful at doing things. But when I told Dr. Friedman that I was still playing outfield on top of all of my work, she had to work at steeling her face when she looked at me. “You are very close to critical, and you need to slow down.” I’ll never forget that. It did scare me. She was the sweetest thing ever, but she was worried.
My brother is a Colo-Rectal Surgeon. He wasn’t worried. “Oh, 9 hemoglobins? No problem. You’ll be fine. That’s not so bad.”
I told Dr. Friedman that he said that. “He probably sees far worse in his line of work, and so he’s right. You will be fine, but for right now, you are not in the best shape. Your body is only able to create juvenile red blood cells before it expels them during your monthly cycle. It needs time to let those cells grow.”
She encouraged me to consider not only changing birth control, but having an iron infusion, taking time off from work, and maybe even taking a season away from softball. What? Unheard of.
I kept doing all of the things I was doing, only now, I was taking about ten different vitamin and mineral pills a day. Then, Jessica called and asked me to dinner. Jessica is one of my closest friends and has been since high school, but we go months, and sometimes, even years without speaking, only because we both are so busy in life raising children, working, navigating this thing we call life. But we met, and when I said anemia, her face dropped. She had experienced it too, and she knew first hand the gravity of the situation. She understood my desire to just sit down on the sofa and fall asleep in front of the tv, half dressed, if I must. She understood my lack of desire to feed myself, to even shower sometimes. She got it that I pushed myself in the outfield, but that more and more, I was almost willing to sit on the bench and let someone else play. What she also understood was how emotionally devastating all of that was to me, partly because she has known me forever, but partly because she understands my drive to be the best, and the most, and the powerful. But she also understood that anemia is actually a silent killer and it kills all of the best things in life, if you survive it. Most people do survive it. But what most other people don’t understand, is how it destroys the quality of life in its host.
It's been a couple of months since my doctor let me off the iron regimen and I am a different woman. I can look back and see how low my quality of life was. I think about how other women deal with this and don't understand what they are experiencing, maybe because they don't have good health care, or maybe they don't know to look. I know that I didn't really care much about living or dying anymore. Things didn't hold the color that they do now. I was existing on this plane of neglect and fatigue, and all I wanted was a big fat steak and a bottle of red wine. Every single day. Anemia is no joke. It will destroy you if you don't know it's there, and that is the problem. It's silent, patient, and toxic.
If someone you love is iron deficient, help them figure out a way to take their pills, eat their spinach, and rest when they need it. They can't help it, and they probably don't want to take the iron. It makes you feel nauseous if you don't do it right. Research it, support their health, and by all means, check in on them. Anemia will destroy everyone around an anemic if we don't pay attention.
Get your blood checked, homies. Love you, and, I'm back.
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