Lately I’ve had to give this explanation to a lot of people in my life, so I figured I might as well write it down. If you’ve spoken to me at all recently, you know that I’ve been caught up in a medical whirlwind for the past few months.
The last time I wrote about it, parts of my body were just going numb at random, and I had no idea why. I still have no idea why (but if you pre-meds want a side project, I’m already confusing a bunch of doctors, so you might as well join in). But along the way to figuring out my diagnosis, they found that my iron levels are really, really low.
I don’t mean take-a-few-supplements low. I mean my body has so little iron that it’s been failing to make enough hemoglobin, so my red blood cells are apparently “pale and tiny” (doctor’s words, not mine). That in turn means my blood hasn’t been carrying enough oxygen around to my body.
Common symptoms include fatigue, dizziness, light-headedness, shortness of breath and a weird craving for ice. When the doctor asked me if I was experiencing any of those symptoms, I said yes immediately. And then came the big question: “For it to get this bad, you have to have noticed these symptoms, because they have to have been pretty severe for a decently long amount of time — why didn’t you?”
I didn’t know how to answer her then, but later I went home and just thought about it. For a while I’ve been noticing that it’s hard for me to focus (which makes sense, knowing that my brain is literally not getting enough oxygen). I’m always tired. I’m dizzy very often. Sometimes when I stand up, I black out a little bit.
Now this isn’t normal, and I’ve known that all along. But as any self-respecting Hopkins student would do, I persisted. If I couldn’t focus, or if I was too tired, I just took a break to drink more caffeine. When my brain was telling me I couldn’t do it anymore, I told it to shut up.
For months I’ve told myself, “What the fuck is wrong with you? Get your shit together. Everyone else in your classes can understand this stuff; just focus for real this time and figure it out.” It just felt like no matter how hard I tried, there were some things my brain just wasn’t processing. And my thoughts went straight to “How did you even get in? Everyone here is so much smarter than you, and you need to get it together so they don’t find out.”
Persistence has always been a quality I viewed as positive. I even have a clock with “Nevertheless, she persisted” written on it in my bedroom. But persistence was my downfall. And when my doctor followed up with me, my answer to why I didn’t notice was “I thought it was just Hopkins.”
We push ourselves all the time here. We go all the way to our mental and physical limits, and then we go further. Black out three times a day? It’s probably just the lack of sleep. Tired even though I slept eight hours? It’s probably just my body catching up on sleep. Can’t focus? It’s probably just that I’m too stupid for this.
For every single symptom I experienced, I had an answer waiting and ready to go. And more often than not, the answer was always that I wasn’t good enough or that I wasn’t strong enough and that I needed to keep pushing through. I never considered that it was my body trying to tell me something (mainly that it wasn’t getting nearly enough of the thing humans need to stay alive).
And that, that is the Hopkins way. I’ve heard this story before — not the exact same circumstances but the same pattern. Whether it’s a physical or mental illness, we just keep pushing ourselves. Because that’s how we made it here in the first place. That’s all we know.
I know I’m not someone who should be giving anyone advice, because I now have to spend the next eight weeks getting a weekly IV of iron in order to get myself back to kind-of-normal. But if there’s anything you do learn from this, learn not to follow my example.
Don’t shut yourself down so you can keep doing the 50 things you planned on doing this semester. Listen to what your brain and your body are trying to tell you. And if any of this sounds a little too familiar, do me a favor and get your damn iron levels checked.