Preface: Okay, Doctor, You Win
February 24, 2016. I was distracted during lent service at my grandparent’s church by the onset of a subtle headache and scratch in my throat. Immediately after I asked my grandpa to stop at a convenient store, because with my schedule I could not afford to get sick. I had a final exam to take in the morning, and then would begin a two-month internship cycle four to five days a week, while also waitressing four shifts a week. Do the math, that equals zero days off to rest.
I hate taking medicine and prefer my own remedy – to let my body fight it off with a little time. But I could not shake this headache away. Advil, Ibuprofen, and an entire bottle of Excedrin later, and still no relief. Since moving to Florida just short of three years ago, I have yet to have established a doctor, and thankfully have had no need to, so for days I tossed around the idea of going to a walk-in clinic. “Can I just wait it out a little longer?” “How silly to say I’m here because I have a bad headache.” “I have no free time and then to spend it waiting to be seen at a clinic, and what will a doctor do anyways?”
I gave in. A headache is rare for me, let alone now two weeks of this constant annoyance was even more unusual. There were times I could not even stand the music being on in my car. But, sure enough, I passed the basic check-up. Blood was drawn for the purpose of reassurance and I left with a prescription for a stronger migraine medication. Perhaps I was just too stressed, causing extra tension and pinched nerves that could be the underlying cause. “A massage would do you some good,” I was told.
A week later I heard back with the results that my hemoglobin levels are very low (anemic) and was referred to follow-up with a Hematologist.
Hemoglobin – “The protein molecule in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to the body’s tissues.” Normal reference range: 12.0 – 16.0 My count: 8.1
I Live a Health Centered Lifestyle; How Can I be Unhealthy on the Inside?
March 24, 2016. First meeting with the Hematologist for a full blood draw report. The doctor explained that being anemic is common, especially in females with heavy menstrual cycles or during pregnancy. Well, neither was relevant to me. And my diet is healthier than the average person, so proper nutrition was also of no concern to me. An appointment was scheduled to discuss the blood report once the results were in, and in the meantime, I was to take a provided iron supplement pill once a day on an empty stomach with orange juice to help the absorption.
Iron – “An essential element for blood production. About 70 percent of your body's iron is found in the red blood cells of your blood called hemoglobin.”
When I got to my car, I was overwhelmed with so many emotions and before I had any try in controlling, I was sobbing. With a prayer and deep breaths, I pushed my tears aside and drove away in my own silence. I don’t know if it was being in the doctor’s office setting and the frustration of not having an answer that day, or that on the inside I was pressing through more than I knew, but I felt extra emotional one minute, then nothing at all. My normal spark wasn’t there, though I tried so hard to force it on the outside. Something in me was off, I knew it but couldn’t explain it, but then again we all have ‘off’ days.
I’m Tired of Feeling Tired
Some days became physically harder than others. On the days I had my internship in the morning and worked my waitressing job at night, I found myself stopping in a coffee shop before each shift. Maybe it was all psychological, but when working a serving job in a high tourism destination, the month of spring breaks was non-stop and you needed all energy to be on your game and get through the night. I also found myself needing suckers, sometimes chewing down three a day, because I thought maybe a little sugar kick would help. The biggest hit was in the gym. Working out is my favorite personal time, my escape and enjoyment outside a busy schedule, and even that drive was weakening. I couldn’t get in the zone. My energy, emotions, perspective outlook, were all suffering on the inside. On really bad days I knew if I closed my eyes I would be out cold in a minute, and taking a nap or the desire to was definitely out of character. I was frustrated with myself for not feeling like ‘me.’
But then some days I thought I was feeling better; my spirits were lifted, my drive was there, I was on the go and feeling the life in me. So it was hard to pinpoint any reason as to when, why, or how my state of being would change. But I did as I’ve always known – give each day your best and keep going.
April 7, 2016. “That little girl literally has no iron in her.”
Finally, the day of my follow-up doctor appointment and those were the words I overheard outside my door. Another blood draw was done when I first arrived, so by time the doctor came into my room my current hemoglobin levels were known.
“You must be feeling extra tired today. Have you been taking the iron supplement?” the doctor asked me.
“Religiously. Every morning on an empty stomach with orange juice, as instructed.”
His finger pressed against his pursed lips, “Your hemoglobin level slightly dropped again. It must be an iron absorption issue, but why, I cannot say. Your iron stat percent is 2.6. Normal iron range is 20.0 – 49.0.”
They weren’t kidding, I literally had no iron in me.
“If you don't have enough iron, your body can't make enough healthy oxygen-carrying red blood cells. A lack of red blood cells is called iron deficiency anemia. Without healthy red blood cells, your body can't get enough oxygen. If you're not getting sufficient oxygen in the body, you're going to become fatigued. That exhaustion can affect everything from your brain function to your immune system's ability to fight off infections.”
2.6. How much lower could one get before completely loosing that get-up-and-go ‘oomph’; all inner spark of liveliness? My nurse said it best, "Your body has a way of adapting and you kept going on a new 'normal.'"
Iron deficiency anemia was the diagnosis, and that day began the first of three iron infusions I was to receive; treatments two and three on April 14 and April 21.
My Strange Addiction
Rewind to at least two years back and I remember seeing my family again for the first time in a while (they live in Illinois, me Florida) and my sisters nagging at me to stop chewing my ice. “Sorry, I didn’t even realize.” As time went on I did become aware that there was something I enjoyed about chewing on ice. I wished I didn’t feel the need or desire for it, but I regarded it as a weird habit of enjoyment – everyone has some weird traits or rituals of their own, and I considered ice to be mine. Really, my only concern was for my teeth. I’d worry the dentist would say I’ve permanently chipped or worn down my teeth, and then I would for sure make myself stop. But with each visit, my cleanings were perfect. Phew, other than the annoyance to others (sorry), it really is not so bad then. As most 24 year olds, there are many concerns I have (figuring out a career, finances, where should I live, etc. etc.), and perhaps ice was my way of dealing with stress.
Flash forward to these past few months and I realize what started as a new little habit grew into an obsession, an addiction. I knew what types of ice I preferred and where it was best. I’d come home, fill my tervis cup with all ice and a splash of water, let it sit a few minutes, and then perfection. I had many restless nights where I’d wake up, grab a few ice cubes from the freezer, and go back to bed. I could go on and on with ridiculous stories.
Addicted? No, it was a warning sign I never considered. Overlooked. Disregarded.
“As the body becomes more deficient in iron and anemia worsens, the signs and symptoms intensify. Iron deficiency symptoms may include: unusual cravings for non-nutritive substances, such as ice, dirt, or starch.” (also listed: headaches, extreme fatigue, weakness. Yep, all of those too)
Beans is Back!
April 18, 2016. Fortunately, my parents had planned to vacation to the area this week. We were out to dinner at Sharkey’s and my mom asked for a sip of my water. Suddenly it hit me.
“Oh my gosh! I’ve had two drinks in front of me this entire dinner and haven’t put ice in my mouth once!”
A grin froze on my face. I was speechless. It was a feeling that I cannot put to words. The best feeling. And since that night I still have had no desire, no craving. I fill a glass with only water. I know this sounds silly, but it is by far the coolest, most indescribable feeling I have ever had. And if there was an analogy even somewhat relatable to share I would, but I can’t think of any comparison to help you relate. At this point I had two iron infusions, and what a difference I was beginning to see and feel.
In the days following my third treatment, my whole world brightened. My energized, motivated, positive self was back. In the gym, I felt stronger than ever to push myself. Heck, this may be the most iron I’ve ever had pumping in my body! I would text my mom as the changes were noticed: “I’m jamming out in my car again. I’ve felt great all day with no coffee, no suckers, just my own pure energy. I just ran the bridge back and forth twice, because I felt that good to keep going, etc.” And my favorite response from her…
“Oh that makes me so happy!!! Beans is back!!!!”
Moving Forward for Me
I have follow up blood tests this month, with the obvious hope being that my hemoglobin and iron levels are now within the considered normal range. My only concern is that my body will be able to absorb iron intake and continue to maintain, because I still have no answer yet as to why it stopped doing so. But for now it feels so good to be feeling so good!
Listen to your body and be mindful of any feelings, actions, pains or changes that are out of the ordinary. Nutrient deficiencies alter bodily functions, processes, and all dimensions of wellness, including: physical, emotional, social, environmental, occupational, intellectual, and spiritual. Fatigue, numbness, muscle cramps, lower immunity, and the list goes on, can all be signs of different micronutrient deficiencies. What you are nutritionally deficient in, your body will find a way of compensating for…and sometimes in the strangest of ways. Don’t ignore it.