My Life Before And After Fibroids
In 2018, my theme was new year, new me. My 2017, however, began and ended in the hospital. As last year started off, I was anxious with the knowledge that I would finally be getting rid of fibroids that had been such a pain for the majority of my life, but I could not have anticipated the bumps that I would hit along the way.
Growing up, I would run for the Midol or Pamprin at the first sign of a cramp because I refused to be uncomfortable and in pain during my cycle when modern medicine had worked miracles in pain management. I remember my mother telling me that sometimes I would just have to learn to deal with the pain and keep it moving. It wasn’t the best advice, but it’s what she knew. My mother told me that women in our family always had a difficult time with our cycles. Why would I be any different? I was taught to dismiss the extreme pain as a natural part of my body’s monthly process. I was very upset with my mother for a long time about that. If I’m being fair, how could I have expected her to know any different? It’s what she was taught and she was passing it along to me, and I internalized it wholeheartedly.
Years went by as I continued to deal with these difficulties. However, it didn’t get really bad until I left home to start work in a different state. The symptoms of my cycles got so bad that I occasionally had to stay home from work. There were times when I was absolutely crippled by the pain. Most of the time, though, I would take some medicine and just deal with it because I didn’t believe I had other options. My body had become accustomed to functioning in dysfunction.
Finally, it got so bad that I sought out help. I had been to an OBGYN for checkups before, but it hadn’t been part of my regular care since leaving home. Work was more important and there wasn’t much time for me to take care of myself. The major shift in that department came when I got a new full-time job. The hours were much more structured and the location of my office meant that I had much more convenient access to an OBGYN. This meant I needed to get a new doctor, which means I had the opportunity to select a Black female gynecologist (this made me a lot more comfortable during my visits). That’s when I was officially diagnosed with uterine fibroids.
It came as a real shock, although it probably shouldn’t have. After the diagnosis, I looked up the symptoms: heavy menstrual cycles, frequent spotting, pain in the abdomen and back; the list goes on. I had many of the telltale symptoms, and I had been dealing with them for decades because I thought it was normal to experience these things–at least for the women in my family. While there are no known causes for uterine fibroids, I hit all the major risk factors: heredity, race, weight, and early onset of puberty (which is often linked to weight). In short, there was almost no way I wasn’t going to be afflicted with fibroids.
After some time with my OBGYN, she suggested that I have a hysteroscopic myomectomy, which would only require a few days off of work to recover. That sounded like the best of all possible options, so we scheduled some preliminary tests. An ultrasound went as expected at first, but on closer examination, my gynecologist found that we needed to find a different method of treatment for my fibroids–one that would require much longer for recovery. Although my OBGYN does perform surgeries, she referred me to a male specialist so that I could have a robotic-assisted laparoscopic myomectomy. This would be the least invasive option that would require the least amount of recovery time. I was apprehensive about seeing a man for something like this, but he really was the best person for the job. With my health on the line, I had to get over those reservations. As I would come to find out, his gender would be the least of my concerns.
During my first consultation with the specialist, there were some serious questions for me to consider–mostly having to do with my fertility. It was important for him to know that I still want to be a mother because that changes some of the options for treatment that he could suggest. He was also honest about the fact that although I was getting my fibroids removed, a myomectomy was not necessarily a permanent solution. The fibroids could begin to grow back in as little as two years, so I was encouraged to strongly consider having a baby inside within that time frame. This added some new layers of complication to my plan of care. Should I delay this treatment until I was ready to have kids? Should I get the surgery now and hope for the best when I was finally ready to be a mom? Should my fiancé and I think about changing our timeline for starting a family? It was a lot. This surgery was putting me in a place where I would potentially need to change my entire life plan.
Eventually, I chose to move forward with having the robotic-assisted myomectomy. I simply could not continue dealing with the symptoms anymore. The rest would just have to fall into place. At first I felt a bit selfish for risking my future fertility, but this is what was best for me at the time. This situation had to be fixed now, or I might not be able to carry my own babies later anyway.
A month after beginning diagnostic work in preparation for a myomectomy, I hit another wall: I had a pulmonary embolism. During a road trip, I developed a blood clot in a my leg that broke apart and traveled up to my lungs. At first, I didn’t know what was wrong with me because clot started out as leg pain. A trip to Urgent Care directed me to the nearest emergency room, where I was promptly sent home with instructions to take pain relief medication and elevate my leg. I had a feeling the doctor I saw wasn’t taking my concern seriously, but I went home anyway. Just four days later, I was back with more identifiable symptoms of a pulmonary embolism. I was swiftly admitted for treatment, which required me to take blood thinners. While I was in the hospital I was diagnosed with anemia. These two things meant that I had to wait even longer to have a myomectomy because it would be unsafe for me to have surgery under those conditions.
I spent the better part of a year recovering from my pulmonary embolism and getting ferrous infusions to boost my iron to acceptable levels for surgery. Between treatment for that and preparation for my myomectomy, there was a lot time spent in hospitals, but life went on much as it had before. There were times that I was absolutely sick of having to go to treatment facilities, but this had been become my new normal. Whole days would be spent in the hospital. Other times, I was going for follow-up visits with my specialist and getting injections of Lupron. It became routine until I had been fully treated for my pulmonary embolism, but I would never be truly done dealing with this condition; it’s a lifetime struggle, as my hematologist informed me. As such, I made it a point to educate myself about the symptoms, treatments, and methods to reduce the risk. I had to listen to my body much more carefully now. Once I was done with treatment, I still had to wait another two-three months before I could think about surgery. After months of prep work, the day came that I was finally able to schedule my surgery just after Thanksgiving. There was finally going to be an end date to my suffering.
The morning of my surgery went much like any other normal morning. The only difference was that instead of going to work, my fiancé and I headed to the hospital. There was a strange feeling because I wasn’t sure what to expect. This day had been years in the making, but I had never had surgery before so it was still a bit scary. My parents arrived as I was getting ready in the pre-op room; they wanted to see me off along with my fiancé. I don’t remember a thing after getting my anesthesia–not even making it out of the pre-op room. There were some slight complications to the surgery as I learned when I woke up after the procedure. Doctors removed 10 more fibroids than I knew I had and I lost more blood than my specialist had anticipated, but not so much that it would require a transfusion. While a robotic-assisted laparoscopic myomectomy is usually an outpatient procedure that would allow me to go home the same day, I was held overnight for observation. In a weird way, I was grateful to be getting the extra care because the first night was really rough.
One might expect that the area which had been operated on would hurt the most, but it didn’t. Surprisingly, my shoulders hurt more than anything. As it was explained to me, the gas used to pump up my stomach during the procedure had touched a nerve in my diaphragm that was connected to my shoulders.For the rest of the day after surgery, I drifted in and out of consciousness and caught the day in clips. Whenever I opened my eyes, my mother was at my bedside looking at me with concern. My fiancé and my father sat on the other side of the bed. All of them had gotten to spend a lot of time with one another that day.
Some time before midnight, my family was ushered out of the room as visiting hours came to an end. I slept sitting up the whole night because it was too hard to lay down, but other than that my recovery was going better than had been expected given the complications. I was able to stand up and walk a few steps on my own in the moments I was awake during the night. The next day, I was able to walk to the end of the hall and back. That was all my care team needed to feel comfortable with sending me home that afternoon.
My first day at home went a lot like the previous night did. The anesthesia was still working its way out of my system and the cocktail of medications I was prescribed made me drowsy. Once again, I was catching the day in clips with my mother at my bedside as my father and my fiancé ran errands. In the moments I was awake, my mom insisted on doing some wedding planning. That was probably to give her something to focus on other than worrying about me. I was grateful for the distraction, but I would turn on episodes of “Say Yes To The Dress” to keep mom occupied when I began getting sleepy again.
The third day when I was slightly more awake, we had an early Christmas and exchanged gifts. Mom and I also got some time to bond and watch “Girls Trip,” before we all sat down for one last dinner before my parents headed home and my fiancé went back to work that Monday.
Monday morning life was back to normal for everyone but me. It was my first day completely on my own and I was not sure what to expect. While I was able to move around, I was apprehensive about being on my own for the first time since surgery. I wasn’t sure if I would need anyone’s help and I needed to be completely self-reliant. There were so many things to remember: Be careful of the stitches when you’re showering (I found a convenient workaround), don’t overexert yourself (something I had to figure out on my own), don’t lift anything heavier than 15 pounds (harder than I thought it would be), take your pain medication at the prescribed intervals or as needed (I spent at least an hour poring over information about drug interactions and how to begin weaning myself off of Percocet because I didn’t like the way it made me feel).
At first, I had no clue how to fill all of the free time, and I wanted to find something constructive to do with it. In between mini-“Real Housewives” marathons, I made my way over to YouTube via Roku and got into makeup tutorials. I would spend time catching up on reading. I found new shows to watch on Netflix. I researched what lifestyle changes I needed to be making now to decrease my risk of fibroids coming back (e.g., no more red meat–or at least a lot less of it). I Pinterest’d the hell out of some ideas for bouquets and wedding decorations. In short, I found things to do.
My body had a funny way of tricking me into thinking that I was further along in my recovery than I actually was. I was off of Percocet less than a week after surgery but still taking prescription-strength Tylenol. I was more mobile and alert. I could finally sleep laying down! By that Friday I was feeling so much better than I had the first night after surgery, I fooled myself into thinking I could go to the grocery store and cook. I was wrong. While walking was good for me, a quick trip to the store that evening resulted in some discomfort at the surgical site and extreme fatigue. When I got home, I got back in bed and didn’t get out until the next morning. It was all the warning I needed to remember that I was still very much in recovery.
I spent the rest of my time off taking it easy and enjoying the extended Christmas vacation. My body was forcing me to take a break. Every day, it healed a little more. Things fell back into place and it reshaped itself. One evening, I realized that my stomach felt a lot softer than it was a month ago. The hard knot in my stomach was completely gone. Although my stomach is supposed to be soft there, it was a new feeling. It was invigorating.
My time off couldn’t last forever, and I was determined to get back to my usual level of activity. By the time my recuperation period was done, I was chomping at the bit to get back to the gym and I threw myself into a fitness challenge the moment I was cleared for vigorous exercise. I couldn’t go all out at first, but it felt amazing to be operating in a body free from dysfunction for the first time in years.