Pumping Iron – Living with Anemia

On November 1, 2004, I went to the doctor for a routine check-up. It was my first visit to a doctor since I moved from Texas to Florida the year before. They weighed me, took blood, the whole nine.

I was tired and worn out most of the time, but I was working the graveyard shift with tons of overtime. Of course I would be tired.

I was so tired that night that I called in sick. Around four Tuesday afternoon, my boss called to tell me I was no longer employed. That wasn’t too bad at the time, but an hour later, my doctor called. Apparently, she was concerned because the iron count in my blood was low. She wanted me to go to the ER to get it checked again.

I wasn’t worried, though. “My iron has always been borderline low,” I said.

“Honey this is borderline dead. You need to get to the hospital and get a blood transfusion. If your iron drops any lower, you’ll slip into a coma.”

I yelled for my girlfriend, Diva, to get on the phone, and had my doctor repeat everything. Within ten minutes, we were on our way to the local emergency room.

I spent that night and half the next day getting three pints of blood pumped into me.

I wasn’t allowed to return to work until December, and I was at the doctor every week to check my blood. There was an ongoing hunt to find out how my iron got so low. I always eat plenty of red meats and green vegetables. Thanks to Diva, I even started eating Brussels sprouts, a veggie I avoided my entire life. I started taking iron pills and eventually I was able to get back to full time work.

I went to the doctor again this past Wednesday. My iron in March was at 10.2, once again, borderline low. In March, the tests also looked at arthritis and diabetes markers. Because of anomalies in that test, they took more blood Wednesday. Friday morning the doctor called back to let me know my iron was down to 8.0. If it drops under 6.0, I’ll need another transfusion.
On that Tuesday in November 04, my iron was at 5.5. Half a point lower, and my children would’ve been orphaned.

The human body has about 8 pints of blood. Anemia happens when the blood doesn’t have enough hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is the protein in red blood cells that carries oxygen to the rest of the body. Low iron is a common cause of anemia because the body needs iron to make hemoglobin.

Iron in the blood should be at 12.0 for women and 13.0 for men. My iron, as long as I can remember, was never higher than 11.0, even as a child. During my four pregnancies, my iron bounced between 9.0 and 11.5, even though I was taking prenatal vitamins and iron. During one pregnancy, I even took calcium and magnesium supplements.

Anemia can be difficult to detect, because the symptoms can be contributed to the stresses of everyday life. These symptoms include fatigue, weakness, shortness of breath, and pallor. Sometimes, there are no physical indications of anemia, which makes diagnosis even more difficult. Testing for low iron in the blood can range from a simple blood smear under a microscope, to an extensive work-up designed to compare and calculate baseline iron levels. These tests even adjust the numbers according to age and gender.

Treating anemia also covers a wide range of options. Low iron can be contributed to diet. In this case, doctors recommend increasing intake of iron-rich foods. Liver, red meat, seafood and leafy green vegetables -spinach, for example-fall into this category. In many cases, iron supplements are prescribed. In extreme cases, like my own, blood transfusions are necessary.

Like many blood conditions, anemia takes many forms. In the 60s and 70s, sickle cell anemia was a prominent condition, especially for Africa Americans. Sickle cell anemia occurs when the red blood cells fail to take their optimum shape, that being round with a concave center. Instead, the cells are shaped like hooks. This causes blood clots that can be painful. Many times, hospitalization is required for treatment. Thankfully, research had made living with the condition easier.

Anemia affects 20% of pregnant woman in the United States. Women in the family way should be especially conscious of anemia, because on any given day, women lose about 2 milligrams of iron a day. For each pregnancy, women can lose about 500 milligrams of iron. During the menstrual cycle, only 4 to 100 milligrams is lost.

Adjusting your diet and taking iron supplements are two ways to prevent anemia. Knowing is at least half the battle. If you’ve had problems with energy levels, muscle pain or weakness, please see your doctor. Relief can be a blood test away. Ignorance of anemia can lead to cardiac complications, which can lead to death. A little blood is a small price to pay for peace of mind, and the treatments are in line with the severity of the condition.

My doctor is calling in a prescription for iron for me, as well as another medication to help tone down the nausea. Combined with changes in my diet, I expect to have this problem at least partially under control in just a few months.

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