Note: This post discusses menstrual bleeding and blood donation. It also contains a brief mention of miscarriage.
I saved three lives today. At least, that’s what the sticker from the American Red Cross blood drive tells me.
My donation experience today was surprisingly easy. I mean less in terms of wait time or needle sticks and more in terms of how my body reacts. For example, my blood pressure was normal, even as I anticipated them checking my iron. More than that, my hemoglobin was well into the healthy range — something I’ve not seen in a good long while. The donation itself — from needle in to needle out — took under five minutes. When it was over, I could promptly sit up, stand up, and walk myself over to the canteen — all without feeling flushed, lightheaded, or like I was on the verge of passing out. At the canteen, I did stay the required minimum of ten minutes, but I felt physically well enough to go long before I finished my water and Cheez Its.
All of this is a far cry from the last several times I gave blood. I used to do it in my late teens and early twenties. While my iron was technically high enough to qualify, blood donation left me feeling fatigued, dizzy, and nauseated for the next day or two. For a number of years in between then and now, I was altogether too anemic to donate, to the extent of being far more likely to need blood than to be able to safely give it.
See, among other idiosyncrasies, I have a menstrual history of chronic pain and gushing [explicit menstruation/bleeding talk at that link too]. It had always happened — and my iron had always been borderline — but after a miscarriage in my mid twenties, my hemoglobin levels plummeted and never really recovered. I mean, to the extent that being only “moderately” instead of “severely” anemic is not really recovering. Because it involved constant — not just period-long — symptoms, it was easy to feel like a lot of my physical life limits stemmed from my menstrual flooding. Limits which, now that I am healthy enough to give blood easily, are vastly reduced in scope and severity.
It’s difficult to explain why this is important to me. While giving blood is a nice and helpful thing to do for other people, it’s not like choosing to do it renders one morally or socially superior. And yet, when I couldn’t give blood**, I often felt inferior — like there was something wrong with me that made me not good enough to donate blood. Regardless of what, if anything, can be done about it, it’s uncomfortable and disheartening to repeatedly bump up against feelings of not good enough.
Ironically, the thing that made me healthy enough to donate comfortably is something others think may not be good for me in the long run. I started a new birth control pill over the summer. Though my periods have not become what I would term “light,” they have lost their, “Dear God, how is there any blood left on the inside?” feeling. With the iron rich eating habits I’ve adopted over the years (kale + me = BFF), my hemoglobin has soared to record levels. There’s still the pain issue to deal with, but not being so draggy all the time makes even that easier to manage.
Generally, I just feel better.
Until such a time that someone hears that I’m on birth control pills — let alone my particular brand of pill*** — and starts getting all concerned, as one “someone” also did today.
“The estrogen in birth control pills can increase your risk for heart attack and stroke.”
“Which pill? Isn’t that the one with all the lawsuits?”
“That’s the one where one of the ingredients carries, like, double the risk of blood clots.”
“And your doctor is okay with you taking that? At your age and weight?”
You know what? All these things? Technically supported by evidence. I do not dispute that this medication increases my risk for some adverse health outcomes. That said, it improves my quality of life. And also? All these things? Asked and answered, multiple prior times in my life.
I’m never going to please every person who’d like to weigh in on my health. But I’m also getting to the point where I’m comfortable articulating the believe that I never have been under any social or moral obligation to do so (though I would suggest that social pressure is another matter entirely). As long as I’m not harming others with my decisions — and I think it would be pretty difficult to harm others with my personal health choices — then I get to prioritize my health as I see fit. I get to be the boss of my body.
I get this one shot at being alive and having a body. It’s hard enough to learn how to cope when my body doesn’t behave as I’d like it to. Other people’s hangups about my body and my health are going to have to remain just that — the concerns of other people.
** I’m a faculty advisor to a student organization that organizes multiple blood drives each year, so there’s ample opportunity for me to come across “Give Blood Today!” messages.
*** I participate in some online discussion spaces devoted to my same health issues, so this isn’t necessarily a matter of random folk on the street asking about what I’m doing to secure the state of my uterus.