I Thought This Much Bleeding Was Normal. WTF?
"I really feel like I might die,” I thought. And like, that wasn’t really hyperbole.
On a hot summer day in 2021, I walked behind my two youngest- “the boys” as we call them. We were on our way to go fishing at a local park. This was me really trying to show up as a present mother who took an interest in the things they enjoyed.
I felt like I was dying.
No for real. Yeah, it was stupid hot, and yeah, I don’t love or even like to fish. I could barely tolerate the noise of the boys fighting over how to cast a line or tie a hook. I fought back intrusive visions of them hooking each other in the eyeballs repeatedly. But all of that is survivable.
It was easily 99 degrees and felt like well over 100 outside. I gulped down water, wiped the sweat off my brow under my hat. My face was pale. Pale even for me with my fair skin and freckles. I tried to keep up with the boys, but if I moved too fast, I would black out momentarily. I was dizzy, unsteady on my feet, and exhausted. By the time we reached the dock, I was winded- out of breath like I just ran a brisk mile, not like I just walked 100 yards. My heart was pounding.
Just then, I felt the dreaded gush between my legs, the inside of my shorts getting warm and… yup, wet. Fuck. I JUST emptied my menstrual cup before we drove there. Like maybe 20 minutes ago?? I specifically used a menstrual cup that could hold a lot of fluid because of my heavy periods.
I made the boys walk back from the dock and wait for me in a pavilion at a picnic table while I tried to run to the park bathroom without blacking out. They were frustrated and impatient. I was choking back tears. “This can not possibly be normal… right?” I pondered.
I remember pushing through the exhaustion and dizziness, getting their bait onto their hooks, trying so hard to look like I was having a good time, and getting to a point that I really started to feel scared. My heart racing, my breath shallow, blacking out anytime I moved up or down too quickly.
“Shit, I really feel like I might die,” I thought. And like, that wasn’t really hyperbole.
I wish I could say that was some kind of turning point, but it would take a couple more months of cycles like that- 7 to 8 days long with 1-2 days so heavy I couldn’t even leave my apartment- before I finally called my OBGYN’s office and talked to a nurse.
To give you a better idea of the amount of blood I was losing, the Super Jennie cup, size large, holds 1.4 ounces, or more than 41 milliliters. A soaked super pad holds 10-15 milliliters. A fully saturated super tampon holds 12 milliliters. For months, I was spilling out of my cup 1-3x an hour for 6-8 hours on 1-2 days of each cycle.
And yes, the cup was overflowing, it wasn’t a leak from improper insertion. I know because the murder scene that exploded from me each time I removed the cup to empty it.
(I guess I should have put a trigger warning or something at the top of this? But I kinda feel like fuck that, please normalize talking about periods and reading and hearing about periods.)
I know the specific math because the nurse on call asked me over the phone to describe how much I thought I was losing. She wasn’t familiar with menstrual cups, so when I told her how much the cup held and how often I was over-filling it, she thought I had to be mistaken. I assured her I was not, and then she seemed shocked and a little upset with me.
“Honey, you should have gone to the ER about this!”
I sat there in silent side-eye disbelief. EL OH EL R U SERIOUS?
Oh sure, let me just roll up to the ER and tell them I’m having an emergency because my period is too heavy. I’m sure they’ll will be just as eager to help me as they were the other times I went in there because my period, as a teenager, was so painful I was vomiting and blacking out. They’ll definitely take me seriously when I tell them I’m prescribed meds for anxiety and they put the dots together that I’m likely overreacting. I’ve been here enough to know it’s a waste of a copay.
Y’all. I really thought this was just how I have to live. That since I’m 41 now, this is my new reality- those dreadful perimenopause periods that everyone says are a lot heavier. I assumed I’d just be bleeding out every month until I finally ran out of eggs in me. I figured I was being a real baby about it and needed to learn to cope better. Never mind not being able to leave home, blacking out, extreme exhaustion. No way could that all actually add up to something someone would ever take me seriously enough to try to fix.
This is the reality of being a woman who’s been gaslit, shamed, mocked, and dismissed by the medical system. I am hardly special, and I’d put money on this being more the norm than the exception. And, of course, it’s much worse for plus size women and women of color.
So I felt a little annoyed that the nurse seemed so shocked I’d not gone to the ER. Hello? Do you live here? Is this not the world you work in?
She immediately called in a prescription for me- Northindrone. It was supposed to slow the bleeding significantly, and I would see my regular gynecologist in the office the next day.
(Northindrone did work at slowing things down, but that lead to 3 weeks of not-scary-but-fucking-never-ending bleeding.)
I’d had an exam earlier in the year that included all my blood work, I thought. Nothing was off. The tests they ran to measure my iron levels all looked on the low side of normal, but not terrible. My gyn looked at them again when I got in for that emergency appointment, and re-ordered them. She also suggested iron supplements, and I did the thing where I explain that I know I need to take them, but they make me super sick, and she did the thing where she empathized but asked me to keep trying.
Before I left, I remembered something I meant to ask. “Do you check ferritin levels when you check my blood?” fully expecting her to say, “Of course, that’s a standard thing to check.” Instead, she said no, it’s usually not needed because they can tell if you’re anemic using the other tests, but she would order it for me if I wanted her to. I did.
Earlier in the summer, I happened upon a post on Instagram by a distance runner who trains women. I wasn’t following her- @itsamarython (I am now). I don’t know how it got into my orbit, but I’m so glad it did. She mentioned ferritin, and specifically how low ferritin affects female distance runners. I had given up trying to run even a mile for months, and that was after two years of consistently running 3-4 miles 2-3x a week. Every symptom she described was me. So I was very curious if I was imagining this being my issue or if I actually found something worth investigating.
The next day my test results popped up on my MyChart app with red ! marks next to both the CBCW panel and the ferritin results. My HGB & MCH were both just low of normal, but my ferritin?
My ferritin was at a 4. The “normal” range is 30-300, with 12 being considered low.
Validation felt SO good and lit a fire under me to advocate as hard as I could for myself, which was saying a lot because I was NOT well- not physically or mentally. I spent most of that summer napping, to be quite honest.
The easiest place for me to start was to crowdsource in my IG stories. Had anyone had low ferritin before? Could supplements even touch this in a reasonable amount of time?
Over the next 24 hours I got so many incredible, helpful responses from women who were able to get their ferritin levels up with iron infusions, and they were all evangelical about how life-changing they could be.
Say what you will about the internet, I am forever grateful for the power of sharing our individual health experiences. Not a single medical professional seemed to grasp the severity of what I was living with enough to look for the cause or to help me actually fix it without me coming to them armed with info other women gave me.
And knowing what it was and what I needed was only half the battle. More on iron infusions here:
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“This is the reality of being a woman who’s been gaslit, shamed, mocked, and dismissed by the medical system. I am hardly special, and I’d put money on this being more the norm than the exception. And, of course, it’s much worse for plus size women and women of color.” - Jill Krause
I am obese. And, of course, a woman. But, I don’t even believe that is why I was gaslit for so many years.
I also have Bipolar Disease.
And, that’s probably not even it either.
In 2018 my husband finally convinced me to switch from Caromont Health to Novant Health. In our back woods County the doctors are just burnt the fuck out from so much “whatever, whatever I’ll do what I want!” from the patients. They’ve kinda just thrown up their hands and given up.
But, I finally switched. And, Oh My Word!!! It’s been a whole new world. A beautiful world.
But, the health care traumas added to all my church traumas and rape traumas add up to a beautiful, hot mess.
I have to fight hard for my sanity and health.
And, it is worth it.
Thank you, Jill. I remember when you were going through this, but until this post I had no idea the severity. I hate you had to advocate so hard for yourself. But, damn, good for you for GETTING THE SHIT DONE!
Recommend seeing a Naturopath or Functional Medicine Doctor. I had a similar problem (my ferritin was at 7) 6 years ago and managed to completely reset my cycle to 3-4 days with much lighter flow. We did this through a combination of herbs to support the liver and blood (the liver also regulates oestrogen levels!) and a a series of target acupuncture sessions. Within 4 months I had shorter and lighter periods and ferritin started to rise. I now sit at 21! And I do not need iron supplements.