I was 20 years old when I thought I was having a heart attack.
I woke up on a weekday morning and turned on the lamp on my bedside table. As I stood up and walked to my closet, which was only several feet away from my bed, I felt my heart rate rapidly increase. By the time I reached my closet, I felt the sudden urge to lie down. I felt light-headed. My messy bedroom started to spin. I imagined myself collapsing and dying, right there, in a pile of my dirty clothes that had been lying there for a few days.
I lay back down in bed and skipped my morning class (I was a junior in college), innocently thinking I was simply coming down with the flu or something. When I woke up a couple of hours later, my heart started racing again as I stood up. I had a bad feeling, and I remember thinking to myself, I might die today. Immediately I called my mom, who urged me to waste no more time and get myself to the student clinic.
The Wrong Diagnosis
The next few hours were a whirlwind. The nurses at the clinic gave me an EKG and nonchalantly brushed off my symptoms. I was sent home shortly afterward. I lay down in bed for another nap for fear that if I tried to move around again my heart would just stop working.
I lay down in bed for fear that if I tried to move around again my heart would just stop working.
Suddenly my cell phone rang. I rarely answer a number I don’t recognize, but something made me pick up the call that day.
“I think you need to go to the ER immediately,” a doctor from the clinic said to me clearly, sternly. I felt a chill go down my spine. Apparently, the nurses had overlooked something important in my charts, and he suspected I was experiencing a pulmonary embolism.
After a Trip to the ER, I Was Admitted to the Hospital
I didn’t know what those words meant but they sounded positively terrifying. Next thing I know, I’m sitting in a bustling emergency room with my then-boyfriend. I waited for eight long, grueling hours, watching a variety of disgruntled patients passing by. I was close to hysterical by the time the nurses ran their tests. It was 3am and I was beyond exhausted.
A woman came into the room and told me that there were “abnormally large” blood clots lodged in my lungs. I was indeed having a pulmonary embolism, which is a dangerous blockage of an artery in the lungs. The blood clot can sometimes travel from the leg up to the lungs, but the doctors weren’t sure where my blood clots had originated as I had no recollection of seeing or feeling any clots in my legs.
I was indeed having a pulmonary embolism, which is a dangerous blockage of an artery in the lungs.
To add insult to injury, the woman who was delivering this devastating news to me wasn’t even officially a doctor yet — she was a medical school student who was doing hospital rounds for the first time ever. Her eyes were so wide and empty and painfully awkward, and she was talking to me like she had been rehearsing the same speech in the mirror for the last few minutes. At best she was robotic. It was scary enough to be a 20-year-old in the ER in the middle of the night who was being told that her body was failing her. The last thing I needed was an insensitive, nervous doctor-in-training who was using my chart as a way to impress her professor.
Before I could process anything, I was matter-of-factly told that the only explanation for the pulmonary embolism was the birth control I had been taking. I started using the NuvaRing three months prior, and I thought this result from birth control only happened to women over the age of 35 who were smokers. I was so shocked that I couldn't even muster up the words to ask questions. I just nodded my head and barely hung on to their words.
The only explanation for the pulmonary embolism was the birth control I had been taking.
I was swiftly admitted into the hospital, but my naive college self asked the nurses if I could leave for a couple of days and come back because I had a mock trial tournament I had been preparing for. They gave me that “oh bless your heart” look and wheeled me into a tiny room, where I was left to sit in the darkness by myself with tubes coming out of my arms.
I Felt Like My Body Betrayed Me
The next few weeks of my life are a dark, painful blur. The blood thinning medication I was given made me feel fatigued and put on extra weight. My mom had to stay with me in my apartment so she could administer a shot into my belly twice a day. I was essentially on bed rest for two weeks, and trust me, being stuck in bed 24 hours a day as a 20-year-old college student is torture, especially when you’re suffering from the side effects of the medication.
I couldn’t understand why this had happened to me. I was a healthy young woman, there’s no history of blood clots or heart disease in my family, and I ate a conscious diet while most of my friends were surviving on fast food. What was the point of being healthy and taking care of myself if my body was going to turn on me like this?
I was a healthy young woman, with no history of blood clots in my family, so why did this happen to me?
I even had 16 little tubes of my blood tested with a hematologist to see if I had any genetic predispositions to developing blood clots. They didn’t find anything in my genes that would indicate I’m more prone to a pulmonary embolism than anybody else.
I started researching more and more about the scary side effects of birth control. What happened to me was a rare incident — so rare, in fact, that a doctor once told me that I was literally “one in a million.” For some reason, this made me even more upset. Why did it have to be me?
It’s Not As Rare As They Say
As time went on, though, I heard more and more stories online from women who had experiences similar to what I had. Young women who had no other health issues in the past were being hospitalized for pulmonary embolisms. Even worse, there were young women dying from the birth control they took.
It turns out, I was one of the lucky ones.
Today, I’m simply grateful that I survived. I haven’t and will never take another hormonal form of birth control, and I encourage many young women today to think twice before they put a foreign hormonal method of birth control into their body. Even if you don’t end up with a pulmonary embolism, you could suffer from any of the debilitating side effects that many women deal with on the regular. Until the pharmaceutical companies are honest about the effect that their products have on young women, I will always approach the common prescription medications with a healthy dose of skepticism.