This year, in addition to a growing appreciation for my body — combined with a growing respect for what my body does and a growing willingness to talk about this — 2018, for me, has also been a year of health advocacy.
And although shame doesn’t hold me back from discussing a lot of bodily things, I’ll be more circumspect here because, alas, I am still a U.S. citizen, and much of the U.S. still doesn’t believe that healthcare is a human right. As such, I don’t want to say anything here that some predatory firm in the future might try to twist into a “justification” for denying me healthcare later.
But I will say this: earlier this year, I noticed something rather alarming, health-wise. I mentioned it at a routine checkup, and the doctor acknowledged that this alarming detail I noticed was real, admitting that she had no idea what it could be — and telling me that I should “just wait.”
“Wait for what?”
She shrugged. She had no plans there; she was willing to let me walk out of her office with a blatantly palpable mystery, despite many serious reasons that it was not wise, in my case, to be blasé about it.
Afraid to “just wait” and shrug it off, I brought the issue up with my GP and told him I was not comfortable with this approach. He agreed. And he urged me to seek a second specialist opinion.
Which turned into a third specialist opinion.
Which resulted in a diagnosis that all was well.
But I’m still thankful that I didn’t give up on finding a definitive answer, especially despite all the figurative headaches of being an immigrant amidst an unfamiliar healthcare system and an unfamiliar language. My decision to pursue further exams and testing might have been inconsequential in the end (given the ultimate diagnosis of no-problem), but the fact that I was unwilling to leave my wellbeing hanging on the cavalier attitude at the limits of a doctor’s knowledge was a very clear sign of a new level of personal commitment to my own wellness. A new level of assertiveness. Assertiveness has not been my lifelong forté. I’m thankful that I’m working the stand-up-for-yourself muscle a little bit more.
Perhaps of even greater consequence this year, however, was the fact that — as per my recent essay on body talk — I was diagnosed in March with a very severe iron deficiency. As in, my ferritin levels were close to the cutoff for emergency hospitalization.
And how did I get my iron deficiency diagnosis?
Because I went and asked my doctor to do specific, less-commonly ordered tests. Including a test for ferritin. And for whatever else he thought might be worth investigating, given that I bleed heavily each month and had spent years as a vegetarian.
Granted, being SO self-directed about one’s health is unfortunately not easy in certain places or under certain circumstances (money, language proficiency, level of education, etc.). But in Germany, where I live right now, healthcare is jaw-droppingly more affordable than it is where I come from, as well as accessible to the English-speaking — and thus these tests were possible for me this year.
But here’s another important detail about iron deficiency, which goes to show just how far I’ve come in advocating for my own health:
Despite the fact that iron deficiency can lead to life-threatening complications, a lot of its more “benign” symptoms — hair loss, dark undereye circles, weirdly persistent patches of dry skin, scary-pale complexion — are cosmetic. And a lot of the non-cosmetic symptoms — such as weakness, lethargy, pounding headaches or blackened vision with physical exertion, etc. — often get chocked up to laziness, neurosis, or the “sin” of not being “disciplined” enough to get/keep yourself “in shape.” (Nevermind that strenuous exercise with an iron deficiency can be extremely taxing to the heart and potentially do serious damage; society is eager to tell you that you need to fight through your own inner “resistance” to wellness. Bullshit.)
(Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional. Please don’t treat this essay as qualified medical advice. You can read a little more about symptoms for yourself here.)
All of that given, to dare to insist that you want a doctor to look into these things instead of just “accepting” that you’re simply out of shape and that it must be the fault of your own apathy — or just “accepting” the idea that your appearance has lost its vitality and you must only care because you’re vain — is pretty fucking radical in today’s healthcare (and especially our gendered healthcare) landscape.
The primary reason I found answers was because I didn’t put the questions down.
In the case of my iron deficiency, I didn’t let my cultural conditioning shame me into thinking that I was lazy or vain, and just chastising myself for my concerns. As such, I discovered what I sensed all along: something was legitimately “off” with my health.
And only because I dared to pursue that question, even after a history of doctors not bothering to test my ferritin, did I find the answer I needed to shed light on how to correct the problems.
Sadly, I have learned that sometimes you have to insist on better care. I am extremely thankful that I’ve found excellent providers this year who support my interests in staying healthy, even when what I want to investigate might conflict with another professional’s lack of concern. Thanks to them — and to my own self-assertion this year — I am on the road to correcting what could have become a very dangerous problem. And I have much more peace of mind for having been able to confirm, through due diligence, that something else that worried me earlier in 2018 was not a problem.
Here’s some excellent reading by Eileen Pollack on the need to advocate for your own health — particularly for women:
This post is part of a larger series on the ways in which I’m taking stock of my own growth in 2018. The series is introduced here: