On October 3, 2012, Lauren Wasser’s life changed forever. What started as a flu-like virus of aches and chills quickly evolved into a four-month hospital stay that ended with an amputated right leg. Wasser’s near-death experience was discovered as toxic shock syndrome (TSS) and its cause – a tampon.
Yes, you read that correctly. A tampon caused a woman to lose both of her legs.
How a Tampon Led to a Near-Death Experience
The Mayo Clinic defines TSS as a rare, life-threatening bacterial infection most commonly caused by Staphylococcus aureus (staph). Over 90% of recorded TSS cases are menstruating women using tampons, like Wasser. And since nearly 50% of TSS cases result in death, educating yourself and other women in your life about the dangers of TSS could literally save lives.
When Wasser was found face down with a 107° fever, her organs had already begun to fail. Upon being rushed to Santa Monica Hospital, she went into cardiac arrest, and her body puffed up to a whopping 200lbs, leaving doctors confused as to why a healthy young woman was dying before their eyes.
Medical professionals discovered she was on her period, so they searched her body for a forgotten tampon. Once found, the tampon was tested, and when results showed it as TSS1 positive, the 24-year-old was diagnosed with toxic shock syndrome. Immediately, Wasser was put in a medically induced coma and placed on life support. Her family was encouraged to plan her funeral because Lauren Wasser had less than a 1% chance of surviving.
About a week and a half later, Wasser awoke from the coma to find her feet in a pain so excruciating she later compared it to someone “lighting her feet on fire constantly” in her TEDx Tel Aviv talk. In order to save her life, doctors raised her blood pressure to ensure blood was pumping to her vital organs. Unfortunately, this caused her leg tissue to die because the tissue wasn’t getting enough oxygen. Ultimately, doctors decided that the only way to end Wasser’s pain was to amputate her right leg from the knee down. There was simply no other option.
Wasser fought to keep her left leg that day, and she won that battle momentarily. But as a result of that decision, she endured years of pain and continued health complications. Wasser ultimately decided to amputate her left leg in 2018, and ironically enough, having two prosthetic legs has allowed her to become more active.
As a young model whose entire life and career centered around her physical appearance, the loss of her leg was nothing short of devastating. When asked about her emotions in this raw moment, Wasser commented, “I was ashamed of who I was. My whole identity was taken from me.” In a TEDx talk, she opened up about her suicidal thoughts and debilitating depression as she rehabbed from the amputation.
Wasser had to battle her plummeting mental health every single day to keep living and adjust to her new normal. As a coping mechanism, she became heavily involved in period product activism. Wasser has been working alongside New York Representative Carolyn Maloney to pass the Robin Danielson Feminine Hygiene Product Safety Act, legislation that would protect women and provide safer period products. Though the bill was reintroduced to Congress in 2019, there still hasn’t been enough support to pass it. Wasser continues to dedicate her time and energy to sharing her story, educating women on TSS, and advocating for safer menstrual products.
“It is time that we, as consumers, demand safer products and more transparency about what is going into our bodies.” – Lauren Wasser
Toxic Shock Syndrome and Tampons
Toxic shock syndrome was first discovered in the 1970s when tampons were manufactured using highly absorbent materials. This was problematic because absorbent materials are more likely to foster bacterial growth. The primary tampon brand responsible for TSS in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Rely Tampons, was taken off the market. Today, far fewer incidences of TSS occur, but it’s still a possible outcome of leaving a tampon in for too long.
Rely Tampons were made out of carboxymethyl-cellulose and polyester, which proved to be a lethal combination. Today, tampons are predominantly made out of cotton, rayon, or a mixture of both. FDA-approved tampons are required to be bleached in a process free of chlorine or high levels of dioxin. While there have been improvements to period product manufacturing since the late 20th century, we still deserve more transparency for our safety.
Tampon box labels may indicate they’re made from “100% cotton,” but there is no guarantee that they were not sprayed with damaging chemicals. Fortunately, there are verified clean, organic tampon brands that avoid toxins and synthetic fibers available. This list is by no means exhaustive, but if you’re looking to switch to safer feminine products, you’re in the right spot:
Cora The Comfort Fit Tampon
Lola Compact Plastic Applicator Tampon
L. Organic Full Size Tampons
Natracare Organic Cotton Tampons
Seventh Generation Organic Cotton Tampons
The Honey Pot with Bio-Plastic Applicators
o.b. Organic Tampon
Each of these products uses non-toxic, hormone-safe materials and packaging like organic cotton and bio-plastics, ensuring that they’re not only safe for you but also for the planet. With no fragrance, synthetic fibers, chlorine, or chemical additives, you can rest assured that your body will love these tampons. Many of the listed brands also donate a portion of their proceeds to closing the gap in gender health and providing greater health education to underserved girls.
Staying Safe from TSS
In order to stay safe from TSS, gynecologists and women’s health experts recommend changing tampons every 4-8 hours, and if you’re not able to fill them halfway in 6 hours, then reduce the absorbency. Changing your tampon frequently will eliminate the opportunity for bacteria to grow on the used feminine product. It’s also important to avoid using super absorbent tampons. Aside from leaving a tampon in too long, another common way to get TSS is when your flow is light and the tampon is too absorbent. When a tampon is not full, it can stick to your vaginal walls and cause small abrasions when removed. For this reason, try to decrease tampon absorbency when your flow is lighter.
Another best practice is to ensure your space is as sanitary as possible when changing a tampon. To do so, unwrap the product and insert it immediately, wash your hands thoroughly, and be gentle when inserting and removing it. Healthcare professionals suggest using pads overnight to better protect against TSS in case you oversleep. Using pads overnight also allows your body to take a much-needed breather from tampons.
Typically, TSS is found among menstruating women and caused by improper tampon usage. However, toxic shock is also found in surgery wounds, local skin infections, childbirth, miscarriage, or women using a diaphragm or contraceptive sponge.
If you have any combination of the following symptoms, seek medical attention immediately:
Fever over 102°
Flat, red, widespread rash
Shedding of skin
Low blood pressure
Fast heart rate
While a medical miracle, Lauren Wasser suffered the loss of both legs from unsafe period product materials and risky habits. The majority of TSS patients either leave a tampon in for too long or use an overly absorbent tampon, allowing for bacteria to multiply. Her story serves as a reminder to read about the contents of products you’re putting in or using on your body to ensure you can be your healthiest self.
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