By Mike Gaskins, Author of In the Name of the Pill
It’s not easy to dive into the endless stories of young women whose lives have been put on hold by an unnecessary injury from birth control, or worse, to hear their stories from the survivors they left behind. A while back Sara Harris had me on her Follow Your Flow podcast to discuss my “Top 10 Least Favorite Things Doctors Say About Birth Control.” I think we naturally tried to make it as light and listenable as possible because, if you truly contemplate the subject, it could become unbearably heavy – both in life and on the podcast.
Unfortunately, a less-than-truthful phrase from a doctor often plays a key role in these stories, and each time I see it play out, I just want to scream out, “Stop the lies!”
Perhaps that sounds dramatic, until you meet a father who lost his daughter to blood clots from birth control or meet a woman who’s trying to get her life back together after a birth control injury.
The thought of the suffering they’ve endured makes the cavalier attitude of some doctors all the more unsavory.
Hormones as Homebodies
Sometimes women are misled by false assurances. Such is the case with newer devices like NuvaRing. Doctors often tell the patient she has nothing to worry about because the hormones are “localized,” and that they will stay in her uterus.
This would be almost comical, if it weren’t clouded by the thought of women like Tiffany and the fateful night that left a scar on her entire family just a few weeks after she started birth control.
Last June, this young mother decided to get NuvaRing for a year just to make sure she didn’t get pregnant again until her son was a little older.
On the morning of August 9, she awoke to chest pains and felt like she couldn’t breathe. She recalls what happened next, “I told my husband that something was wrong and that we needed to go to the hospital. We got to the hospital, and I completely blacked out.”
In fact, Tiffany has no recollection of the hours she sat in the waiting room. All that she and her husband knew after those 7 hours was that she had tachycardia. She is told that she went outside and sat on a bench to continue her wait. That’s where she went into cardiac arrest, collapsed, and died.
The Journey Begins Again
If she had been anywhere other than a hospital, that would have been the final page of her story. Fortunately, she and her husband didn’t fall into the trap of feeling exasperated by the long wait, nor did they convince themselves that the situation must not be too urgent since the hospital wasn’t in any hurry to get her in front of a doctor.
The unfortunate reality is that those exact doubts have sealed the fate of many women who lived this same experience, and whose stories did conclude shortly thereafter.
Despite the ridiculously long wait, Tiffany had chosen a good place to die. The medical staff rushed outside, and with two shocks from the defibrillator, brought her back to life – though barely. She remained in the ICU clinging to life for the next 9 days.
Not So Localized Hormones
Two large blood clots caused by birth control had moved to her lungs, which led to the heart attack that nearly took her away from her husband and young son. So, how can a birth control device that promises localized hormones in the uterus cause blood clots in the lungs?
First, hormone receptors reside on virtually every cell in our body. Natural hormones and the synthetic steroids in birth control attach to these receptors and are transported through every system and consequently to every nook and cranny of our bodies. So, it would be impossible for any hormone, natural or synthetic, to remain “local.” Then, there is an additional problem that differentiates it from the steroids in birth control pills. As with any drug taken orally, The Pill passes through the digestive system, which reduces the drug’s concentration before it begins circulating through the body. This is known as first-pass metabolism.
Devices like NuvaRing bypass the digestive system and have a much more direct path to circulating the body. Studies have demonstrated that hormonal birth control in general contributes to an increase in coagulation and inflammation, both of which play crucial roles in blood clots, strokes, and heart attacks.
And, there is evidence that NuvaRing’s higher concentration and direct path to the circulatory system could ramp up the risks. A Danish study of more than 1.5 million women found that women on NuvaRing were twice as likely to suffer a blood clot as women on other forms of contraceptives, and over six times more likely than women taking no birth control.
After 9 days in the ICU, Tiffany finally regained consciousness. She awoke to a new life. The young mother now has a cardiologist and a hematologist and will be on blood thinners and beta-blockers for the rest of her life.
She describes her new normal this way:“I can’t walk. I can barely stand. I have tremors. I still have issues with my heart rate at times. I’m not able to take a shower so I have to take a warm bath, and if it’s too warm, I will pass out.
“I have to take a handful of pills in the morning, some pills in the afternoon, and another handful in the evening. I can’t really be a mother to my son, except reading to him in bed or watching TV together.”
She’s slowly relearning how to do everything. Her husband has become her caregiver. He is an active-duty submariner, which would normally mean he could be deployed for up to 6 months at a time. But, thanks to a humanitarian assignment, he will be able to stay with her until December. It’s another blessing they would rather not need but a blessing nonetheless. She’s hopeful that she will be walking again before he has to leave.
It’s a struggle for her not to feel angry that this all resulted from just wanting to delay any more pregnancies. It would be easy to become bitter, but Tiffany knows she’s blessed to be building these less-than-ideal memories with her son. She knows how close he came to having no memory of her.
Stop the Lies
But, who could blame her if she did get angry?
When women are contemplating their birth control choices, they hear cute little phrases like “the hormones are localized,” that no trained doctor believes, and it’s only after they fall victim that they begin to comprehend the extent of true damage being done to women injured by birth control.
With all the cute little lies, we rob women of the chance to make a truly informed decision.
Please, for the next generation of Tiffany’s, can we just stop the lies?