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What A Bloody Circus

, , , , , , | Healthy | October 5, 2022

CONTENT WARNING: This story contains content of a medical nature. It is not intended as medical advice.


I go to donate blood for the first time in a few years, but I am turned down since my iron is too low. I spend the next two days loading up on iron-rich foods and go back to try again. My iron levels are lower. This continues every other day for three weeks. It’s become a personal quest to donate at this point. No amount of meat, spinach, tofu, beans, or supplements can get my iron within the acceptable range.

Finally, one of the phlebotomists looks at my levels for the last three weeks and tells me I should really probably talk to my general practitioner. My general practitioner left the state two years ago, so I go to someone else in the same practice. She sends me off to get a full blood panel done. When the results come in, she calls me to her office.

Doctor: “I can see some abnormalities, but I’m not really qualified to state conclusively what I think is going on. I’m going to call in for a referral to a specialist for you.”

I’m a bit worried at this point, but not overly so. I’m a twenty-eight-year-old woman with no real history of health issues aside from a bout of MRSA when I was a teen.

A few hours go by, and I get a phone call that I recognize as being from the hospital my doctor practices out of. I answer.

Receptionist: “Hello, this is [Major Oncology Office] calling for [My Name]?”

I feel numb. I hadn’t expected a referral to an oncology — cancer — clinic. 

Me: “That’s me.”

Receptionist: “We got a referral for you to come in and meet with [Doctor #2]. We can fit you in [lists several times two weeks out].”

I pick the best time, hang up, and remind myself that nothing is certain at this point.

I’m naturally a very (overly) emotional person and decide I need someone to talk me down. I go to my mother, who has absolutely zero patience for anyone being sick other than herself. You could be bleeding out of your eyes and ears and she’d lecture you on why it was neither a big deal nor worse than anything she had to deal with. I figure she’ll slap some sense into me.

When I go to her house, I sit her down, and tell her what’s been going on the past few weeks and about my upcoming appointment with an oncologist. The color drains from her face and she very uncharacteristically hugs me. She spends the next half-hour listing off all the relatives — whom I never knew about — who died of cancer at about my age. Needless to say, I am far from comforted.

Two weeks go by, and I meet with my oncologist. He turns out NOT to be an oncologist, but rather a hematologist — a blood doctor. He looks over my referral paperwork and then asks me why I’m there. I explain the problems with my iron levels and blood tests. He cuts me off.

Hematologist: “It’s actually your hemoglobin levels. Women naturally have lower hemoglobin levels than men do.”

Me: “That’s why women use a different scale than men for measuring ‘normal’ ranges for hemoglobin, and I’m well below normal by any standards. A woman should have levels just above 12 g/dl. I’m regularly measuring in between 8.5-9.5 g/dl.”

I later learn that blood transfusions are recommended when the level gets to 8.0 g/dl.

He attempts to discreetly roll his eyes.

Hematologist: “Women bleed for a week every month. Of course, they’re going to have low hemoglobin levels.”

Me: “But there is absolutely no correlation between my hemoglobin levels and my menstrual cycle, both of which I have been graphing on a calendar on my phone.”

He sends me for another blood panel. When those results come back, he recommends I take a stool test to check for internal bleeding.

When the results from THAT come back, he says it appears that I probably have an upper GI bleed and need to get a colonoscopy and endoscopy done.

Neither reveals anything out of the ordinary.

By now, nearly six months have gone by. I’m tired all the time, I get dizzy very easily, I have very low blood pressure, and I get frequent muscle cramps.

One day, I’m scrolling through Facebook when a pregnant friend mentions that her pregnancy is causing bad acid reflux and asks for advice. I used to have bad acid reflux myself and a stomach ulcer years ago, so I look at the comments to see if anyone has recommended the extremely common proton-pump inhibitor my original general practitioner put me on years ago before leaving the state.

Several people have recommended it, but one comment thread sticks out: a nurse practitioner friend argues against the proton-pump inhibitor, pointing out several studies showing that it blocks the body’s ability to absorb iron and B12.

I do some more digging online and find out that you’re only supposed to take this medication for up to two weeks. My original doctor told me I would need to take it for the rest of my life and had set up recurrent mail delivery as a result.

I immediately get myself a new doctor with a different practice. I don’t mention my suspicions about the proton-pump inhibitor, but I show him all my blood tests and history regarding my hemoglobin levels. He looks at my general patient files listing the medicines I’m on and immediately tells me my problems are all being caused by the proton-pump inhibitor and I should have been taken off it years ago.

Because not one doctor up to this point had bothered looking at what medications I was on — which their nurses updated in my files every time I visited — I spent nearly eight months of my life getting ridiculous, unnecessary procedures and tests at the cost of well over $3,000 and fearing something was deathly wrong with me.

I filed complaints against the hematologist and my original doctor, but I never heard anything back.

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