Warning: This blog post may be graphic.
I found myself lying in an emergency room bed, again, on a Friday evening. I’m only 33 years old, but this was my third trip to the hospital. This time, however, I literally thought I was having a heart attack. I didn’t think it was related to my digestive problems. It turns out that your belly can play tricks on you. Evil, evil tricks.
It all started about a week before. I had a cold. A simple, common cold virus. I drank some kryptonite flavored cough syrup and continued my life. Digested blood can come in two flavors – bright red and obviously blood, or dark black and presenting uncertainty. On Monday, I had a large dose of the latter. I thought nothing of it for two reasons. First, this wasn’t that abnormal for me. Second, I thought it was probably the dye from the aforementioned kryptonite. Tuesday was a repeat performance that again I didn’t think much about.
Wednesday is where the real trouble began. I was working in my yard with my wife, and I found myself struggling to swing a pickaxe. I’m no body builder, but I’ve got solid muscles where they’re needed and this is normally an easy task for me. I was so winded I was physically forced to sit down. My heart was racing. My head was spinning. A tingling sensation on the left side of my body worked its way from my fingers to my chest. I sat down and relaxed for a few minutes, then I tried again. The symptoms returned. I decided that the cold was still keeping me out of the game and I gave up for the day.
On Thursday, I found it difficult to walk up the stairs to my office. I pushed through extreme dizziness and a headache and did the best I could into Friday afternoon.
Friday afternoon came, and I decided to see a doctor. I though to myself “maybe it’s the flu, I should get checked out.” Shortly after making the decision to head to an urgent care center, my symptoms came back in full force, leaving me crumpled in a chair with my head pounding, heart racing, and shooting pain down my left arm. I felt like I couldn’t breath. I lost and regained consciousness rapidly a couple times. There was a deafening ringing in my ears. I stumbled to the truck and my wife rushed me to the emergency room.
Pro tip: To skip the wait in the ER, just tell them you’re having a heart attack.
Within a matter of minutes of arriving at the hospital, I had an IV in, an EKG, and attention from multiple doctors. They drew and tested my blood. They took my personal and family history. I was struggling to formulate coherent sentences but got through it. After some time, they told me my heart was fine. They still seemed concerned, so they did a few more less-comfortable tests and found the aforementioned digestive blood. A few more blood tests were ordered. At this time, I estimate they had removed at least a pint of blood from my body. When the lab results came back, I was shocked to find out that my hemoglobin and hematocrit were in the toilet (no pun intended).
Hemoglobin is the measure of iron carrying capacity of red blood cells. Hematocrit is the ratio of red blood cells to whole blood. In a nut shell, my blood had lost the ability to carry oxygen to my cells. This was causing all the symptoms which are collectively known as “syncope”. The diagnosis was severe Anemia.
The first order of business was getting those numbers closer to normal. Both were dangerously low and I felt like I was on the verge of actually dying. After 24 hours of constant blood testing with the results only worsening, I signed my name on a consent form for a blood transfusion. They pumped a single unit of blood into my arm and within a few hours I felt better, albeit only slightly.
They make a big deal out of blood transfusions for obvious reasons. The clinical risks are minimal and it’s easy to gloss over the details in lieu of statistics – but I will share that it’s a bit strange having someone else’s blood put into your body. It feels a little bit like an organ transplant. They don’t mention the psychological effects in the consent. That said, I feel very fortunate that someone donated blood to help me <3
Next on the agenda were the fishing rods. And by that I mean for the second time in my 30s, I had a colonoscopy and upper endoscopy. To everyone’s amazement, they both came back crystal clear. After a couple more days in the hospital, feeling a little better, I went home and started a daily regimen of iron, vitamin b12, and protonix.
But the blood came from somewhere. They didn’t find the source in my upper digestive system, and they didn’t find it in the large intestine. That leaves only one place – the small intestine. So I was instructed to schedule a capsule endoscopy with my gastroenterologist.
I went into his office at 9AM a week later. I donned a sash-shaped antenna that connected to a fanny-pack-like belt with an electronic receiver. Then, I swallowed a large capsule with a camera on one end. I left the office and went about my day, while the camera sent two pictures per second to the receiver on my hip. At 4PM, I returned to the doctor and they downloaded the images. It was an easy, painless procedure that was over in less than a day, and it hopefully provided great HD images of the inside of my small intestine.
The jury is still out – I meet with my doctor next week for the results. It has been a slow recovery from the extreme anemia, but I’m slowly feeling normal again. Some days are harder than others, but I’m now able to handle light exercise again. The anemia “fog” has returned twice since leaving the hospital, but has not been bad enough to worry about.
I have changed my diet again and am eating only alkaline foods and drinking only water. I’ve given up all coffee, alcohol, and fatty foods. I’ve quit taking my allergy meds and all other pills. I’ve lost over ten pounds since my stay at the hospital, and continue to shed a few ounces each day. Sadly, I still don’t feel cured, but I am optimistic that the doctor will finally find the source of all this pain and anxiety that I’ve experienced for nearly a decade.
I can’t thank my lovely wife and sister-in-law for helping care for me and for the children while I’ve been down. I hope to never have to repay this particular favor, but you know I’ll always be there for you when needed.
To be continued.