By Jennifer Gray
If someone would have told me a year ago that my birth control pills were killing me, I would have laughed. At 25 years old, I was on the top of my game. Professionally, I had just started my dream job six weeks prior as a meteorologist at NBC 6 in Miami. Physically, I was in the best shape of my life, even researching where I was going to race my next 5K. I was excited about my new life and job, and thought I had finally found the challenges I had been looking for in my career. Unfortunately, those challenges were only a drop in the bucket for what was slowly surfacing.
Less than 2 months after moving from Louisiana to Miami, I began to experience fever and body aches. I didn’t think too much of it, especially considering the crazy hours and long days I was working. The only issue was it didn’t seem like the symptoms were improving.
After a run of four different antibiotics, I continued to work during the next few weeks. My doctors kept telling me it was a Urinary Track Infection (UTI). Then, one Sunday morning, when I could barely stand in front of the camera, I finally went to the ER. I had shortness of breath, severe pain in my lungs, and it was all getting worse. The ER doctors said it was mono, but the chest pains were unbearable. When I asked about the pain, they blamed it on the mono and/or anxiety, but I demanded more tests. Only then did the doctors find pulmonary emboli (PE) in both lungs – the largest measuring 9.9mm. With a pale face, the doctor told me I would have died within hours if I had not been so persistent.
As I lay there alone in a strange new city – I had no idea how this would change my life. My physicians were shocked, especially since I was in incredible shape and wasn’t a “candidate.” After three days in the hospital and countless blood tests, they found I genetically carry factor V Leiden. I also tested positive for several other anticoagulant antibodies that make me more prone to clotting by 50-fold. The biggest surprise to me was that it was my birth control pills that triggered the clot. I guess I never really knew the potential risks involved with taking birth control pills, and I had only been taking them for a couple of years. A few weeks later, my sister found out she also carries factor V Leiden and was immediately taken off birth control.
Since that day, I’ve spent many hours before and after work in doctors’ offices undergoing tests. I’ve been on Coumadin® ever since. My doctors at the Cleveland Clinic are still debating whether I should stay on Coumadin® for the rest of my life. My family and friends quickly became my source of strength and support when I couldn’t find any within myself.
NBC was my family 1,300 miles away from home. Everyone urged me to take as much time off as I needed, but I refused and returned to work less than two weeks after my hospital release. I tried to hide the magnitude of what happened, because I didn’t want to appear “weak” in a business that’s so demanding of your strength. Even though I struggled with the denial of something so traumatic happening to me in my prime, I just wanted everything to appear normal.
Five months later, I’ve developed the strength and courage to face these challenges. I know now that life will never be normal, but it can be managed. I learned to not look at Coumadin® as my enemy, but as my saving grace. I thank God every day for giving me a second chance. I have more energy now than ever before and have even completed my first 5K run since the incident.
Needless to say, I’m looking forward to my second run. I now look at my obstacles as opportunities to speak out about PE, especially birth control pills risks. Statistics show that one out of roughly every 20 people have factor V Leiden, and PE is amongst the three top causes of death in the US. The next person does not have to be you. I often wondered about my purpose in life. How would I be able to change the world, even if it were one person at a time?
My mission is now crystal clear – raising awareness about birth control risks and blood disorders, so no one else’s daughter, sister, mother or best friend will have to experience what I did. I will continue to challenge my doctors, nurses, and educators when it comes to the risks of taking birth control pills. My new mission reminds me of an old spiritual song – “If I can help somebody as I travel along; if I can cheer somebody with a word or song; if I can show somebody that she’s traveling wrong… then my living will not be in vain.”
Remember, my story doesn’t have to be yours.
Posted October 5, 2008