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Sunday, January 26, 2014

Call Me Iron-Woman

INFeD doesn't look like Dr. Pepper being
pumped into my veins, but it's still thick
enough to cause a noticeable burn.
I'm not the average pregnant woman. My version of morning sickness is low-level nausea that lasts for about two weeks, peaks on one day where I can't stand the thought of eating anything and then goes away never to return again.

What hits me like a ton of bricks in my first trimester is fatigue -- extreme fatigue. I'm in bed by 8 p.m. and my body feels leaden when the alarm goes off at 6 a.m. Once I found out that my state of exhaustion was related to pregnancy and not just my post-35 self having a hard time adjusting to the time change, I didn't give my fatigue much thought.

Then it got worse. Not only was I constantly exhausted but I was having a hard time making it through the day. I had a difficult time concentrating on what normally would have been the simplest of conversations. I had difficulty standing for moderate periods of time and would get winded walking short distances. Even talking would take my breath away and leave me gasping for air as if I had just gone for a run.

I mentioned it to my doctor and a quick set of labs showed that what I was experiencing was more than just first-trimester fatigue. I was anemic -- again. But true to form, I wasn't just a little anemic. I never do anything just half-way. In one month, my total iron count had gone from 27 to -1, and my hemoglobin dropped from 11.8 to 9.4. Though 9.4 isn't quite in the danger zone (that's below 9), 11.7 is the lowest of the normal range so dropping that far that fast isn't a good thing.
This is Kim, my infusion nurse. My teeny-tiny
veins still intimidate her after four years, but
we've become friends through the adversity.

Thinking I could get ahead of the curve, I started taking a double dose of Floradix (40 mg iron), which is a food-based liquid iron supplement. It's not cheap and it tastes dreadful, sort of like rust-covered beets with a hint of berry. Oh...and it didn't work well enough to make it worth the investment. After two weeks, my iron went up to 4 and my hemoglobin to 9.5. At that rate, I'd be anemic until my third trimester.

The thing with anemia is that most people think it's no big deal. They tell you to eat steak and spinach or switch to cast-iron pans for cooking. I'm sure those things work for some people but not for me. The reality is that absorbing and storing iron has been a challenge for me every since my bowel obstruction in 2007.  And true anemia (i.e. hemoglobin level below 11.7) is not something to mess with. Anemia robs your blood cells of oxygen, causing them to shrink in size. That means your vital organs are also robbed of oxygen.

As an expectant mom, if I'm not getting the oxygen I need, guess who else isn't? Many anemics suffer heart damage and cardiac disease at a young age. Some suffer neurological disorders from having their brains starved of oxygen. And to add to the fun, there is no cure -- only treatments.

If you think Benadryl knocks you out in pill form, you
should try it in an IV. Instant spinning room and lights
out. Unfortunately, drugged sleep is not quality sleep. The
hoodie helps with the shivers/chills caused by the other meds.
Luckily, iron-deficiency anemia is fairly easy to treat. For most of the population, a diet rich in iron (eggs, beans, dark-green vegetables, etc.) and an oral iron supplement with Vitamin C and B-12 is all that's needed to boost hemoglobin once again.

And then there is me.

The best course of action when I am anemic is iron infusions. My routine of green juices and green smoothies kept me away from iron treatments for almost two years -- a record for me -- but even drinking the equivalent of pounds of greens each day wasn't enough to offset the deficit caused by growing another person in this body.

So back to the infusion center, I have gone. To date, I've had four treatments in what is likely to be a 10-week series. It's not fun, but it beats a sharp stick in the eye. This time, we're using INFeD, which only takes about two hours to administer. I still need the anti-nausea, anti-allergy, anti-rejection companion medications, which turn me into a zombie. The INFeD burns, but not as bad as Venofer did. The side effects of the iron itself are marginal. Some weeks, the night sweats are so bad, I have to change my clothes two or three times. Other weeks, I don't sweat at all. I get nighttime leg cramps, chills, odd nerve/skin sensations and weird short-term bouts of depression after the infusions. The upside is that all of that seems to be gone within 24 hours and I can resume normal life and normal activities.

As a result, I get a little stronger each week and so does the baby.

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