How My Birth Control Pill Almost Killed Me
I'd been on the Pill for a decade and never had any problems. I actually liked being on birth control and figured it was good for me. I never had to worry about acne. I liked being able to time the start of my period so that I was never bothered with it over a weekend. Supposedly I was even decreasing my chances of getting ovarian cancer.
I knew that there were some risks associated with birth control pills. But I was healthy and active and have never smoked, so I didn't think I was in danger. Plus, I'd been on the pill for years, so I assumed any problems would have likely surfaced by then.
My perspective radically changed this May when I ended up in the emergency room with blood clots in both of my lungs. Doctors believe that the birth control pill provoked these clots, which can be fatal.
I took the last birth control pill of my life on May 21st 2012.
While I was looking for some earrings to wear to my sister’s wedding, something felt wrong. I was tired. Really tired. I thought it was because it was the first hot day of the year, and I'd just done a rigorous workout. I chalked it up to dehydration and drank some coconut water.
But I was also short of breath, which alarmed me enough to call my husband to meet me. It was a subtle, shortness of breath when I walked, but it was confusing because I wasn’t exerting myself.
After two coconut waters, I still felt faint and we decided to head home.
Once we'd reached our subway stop, I was still having trouble breathing. Only a steep set of stairs and an escalator stood between me and the street (and air!). I made it up the stairs, but fell down on the escalator. I got back up, panting for air, determined to get out of the subway station so that it would be easier to breathe.
At this point, I was still convinced that I had a really bad case of dehydration.
I had no reason to believe I was at risk for a serious health scare. I'd recently had a physical and, other than some low B-12 levels, I was totally fine. Plus, health scares didn’t happen to healthy 32 year-old women who did yoga six times a week and ate a plant-based diet.
And who sees a busy doctor just because she's dehydrated?
I hoped to sleep it off, but I became a little more alarmed when I took four naps on Sunday. I didn't go to the doctor that weekend, but promised my husband I'd go Monday morning.
On Monday, I felt a tiny bit silly for seeing my doctor about something as innocuous as dehydration. But his reaction to my EKG made me nervous. So did his questions. Had I been on a flight recently? Yup, we'd been to Miami a week earlier. Had my legs been swollen? Yes, they're always that way. Any leg cramps? Actually, I'd had a really bad cramp in my right leg that week. I complained about it to people at work, but it wasn’t anything debilitating. And it went away a few days later. Are you on birth control pills? Yup, I’ve been taking them for a decade.
My doctor suspected that I'd had a pulmonary embolism – blood clots in the legs (hence that cramp) that travel to the lungs. He ordered me to get in a cab to the emergency room asap.
Eight hours later, after a chest x-ray, ultrasound of my leg, a CT Scan and multiple blood tests, the NYU doctors confirmed his diagnosis. Had we not discovered them when we did, it could have been much worse.
Doctors told me that it would take three months until I was functioning like a normal person again.
I looked to Serena Williams, who'd suffered a pulmonary embolism in March 2011--and gone on to win an Olympic Gold Medal, Wimbledon and the US Open in 2012--as my role model. I knew it would get easier to breathe and move.
My husband injected with me blood thinners for 2 weeks until I transitioned to an oral medication. My blood was tested twice a month to ensure the blood thinners were working. I was a little anxious about putting any sort of drug into my body, but I also knew it was a time to embrace Western medicine.
I learned how to be patient. It took me a week to be able to walk-up subway stairs. My relationship with yoga changed. Strong classes were replaced with long, relaxing pigeons and other nurturing poses.
I wore compression socks all summer and was on blood thinners for three months, despite being anxious about putting any sort of drug into my body. I visited my astrologer, who encouraged me to have more fun and be more creative. I spent more time with dear friends, watched more foreign films, and cooked more at home.
Five months later, I've regained my strength, returned to yoga classes, and have shifted my perspective. I’ve discovered acupuncture, which has been an invaluable tool in managing stress and restoring balance to my life.
I feel great, in many ways, better than I have ever felt in my life. As long as I don’t take birth control pills with estrogen, my doctors are not concerned about developing any future clots.
I'm listening to my body more than I ever have, and I'm choosing to nourish and care for myself in every choice I make.
I'm eating warm, nourishing soups, practicing more relaxing yoga classes during the week, and even planning relaxing “vacations” instead of “travel” trips. I thought I had pretty good perspective on life before my pulmonary embolism, but it’s become even more clear that my family, friends and heath are most important.
I know now that birth control pills with estrogen are toxic for my body as they can cause clots. Over the years, doctors have told me many wonderful things they can do for one's health, but we hardly talked about the side effects.
Looking back, I wonder if there were signs that birth control pills might have been toxic for me? In retrospect, I think so. My circulatory system has always been a little off: My legs swell often, especially in heat and after flying in airplanes. I'm always cold and my fingers turn a somewhat scary purple when it's chilly, which is likely Raynoid’s syndrome.
In the future, I’m going to ask a lot of questions about any type of pill that I put in my body. I'm going to listen even more to my body. I know my body did everything it could tell me something was wrong.
I hope that by sharing this story, you'll be inspired to listen a little more intently to your body, too. Pay attention to a cramp. It could be just a cramp. Or, it could be something a lot more serious.
Colleen Wachob is Co-Founder and Co-CEO at mindbodygreen. She graduated from Stanford University with degrees in international relations and Spanish, and spent 10 years working at Fortune 500 companies including Gap, Walmart, and Amazon. Wachob lives in Miami, Florida with her husband, mbg Founder and Co-CEO Jason Wachob and their two daughters, Ellie and Grace. Her first book, which is co-authored with mindbodygreen Founder Jason Wachob, The Joy of Well-Being, is being released on May 23, 2023.