Anemia Relief: Iron Infusion Changed My Life
By Lisa Batten Kunkleman
Anemia is my enemy. Finally, after decades of fighting, I found an ally. I had an iron infusion. Whoever heard of such? Not many people. I know because I asked around, hoping somebody knew anybody who had this procedure and thought it was wonderful. I never found such a person until after my infusion. Then a friend said to me, “Just wait about three months and you’ll feel like jumping fences. It helped me feel so much better.” Oh, how I wish I had spoken to her sooner. What I found beforehand were chat rooms where people shared their horror stories. Perhaps when all goes well, people don’t have time to write success stories. They are too busy out living to tell how fabulous the treatment was and how thankful they are for going through with the very scary infusion.
I finally called the doctor’s office where my procedure was scheduled and had a one-to-one, phone-line chat with an infusion nurse. She said, “Don’t go back on the internet. It will scare the crap out of you! Most of our patients who experience problems have stomach cramps or headaches and need Phenergan for nausea and to help sleep through it. We’ll give you Benadryl and Pepcid to prevent allergic reaction and help with stomach problems and do a pretest to see how you tolerate the iron before we proceed. Now stay off the internet!”
Good to know. But all the scary stories were spreading like weeds in the garden of my mind. I couldn’t forget the woman who had nausea and aching joints for two weeks even though she felt fine throughout the procedure and the reaction hit her two days later. And there was another woman who couldn’t control her bowels or leave her house for days after her infusion and even experienced migraines when none had existed before.
In my mind, I wouldn’t be out of the woods until a week had gone by after the infusion and I was still myself with no new ailments. My husband Dan even tried to talk me out of having the procedure because I shared some of the on-line stories with him. It was like a gamble: trade one medical situation, anemia, for another mystery ailment behind door number one, two, or three.
I needed to go through with the infusion. My ferritin level, or iron stores, constantly stayed too low for me to walk without chest pain and other symptoms that interfered with daily life. My hemoglobin was low the first time I tried to give blood at age eighteen and remained that way consistently through the years. Before that, who knows? Taking iron helped a little but for some reason I just don’t absorb iron properly through my digestive system. Doctors have explored other reasons for my chest pain, shortness of breath, occasional weakness of limbs, rapid heartbeat, ringing ears, hair loss, headaches, lack of energy…. I even went through complete heart studies twice, as well as pulmonary, gastric, and neurological studies. Blood tests found Lyme Disease among other disorders and in 2011, I spent three weeks at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota to find answers. The first answer the Mayo doctors found immediately was my ferritin level was three and the doctors there like it to be at a minimum of one hundred. My best average level in several years was a whopping eleven. Woo Hoo. I came back to North Carolina with treatments for IBS, Lyme Disease related issues and new kinder, gentler iron tablets.
Even gentle iron can be rough on digestion. In total frustration, at my physical exam in 2013, I asked my general practitioner to give me a shot of iron because with my IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) I could not tolerate oral iron. All these years he’d told me, “Please, take the iron,” and I forced it down just to function. That’s the only way I could keep going but still my ferritin level would hardly rise at all for some unknown reason. My doctor referred me to a hematologist for blood work and to discuss the possibility of an infusion. The hematologist and I agreed that I should try an infusion and hopefully it would help with the problems I’d dealt with for the last few decades. He was very encouraging and thought I’d feel much more energetic and get rid of many of my anemia symptoms. If so, it would be miraculous.
So, at 8:15 am, six months ago, Dan and I met with the medical practice insurance woman who was delighted to see we had an easy insurance policy. We jumped hurdle number one and moved on to number two. The large, open room held fifteen recliners flanked by upright padded chairs and an IV pole for each patient. I was the first patient of the day and could have my pick of the chairs. That was too big a decision for me so I deferred to my nurse Casey. She said, “I’d take this one so I could look outside. You’re going to be here for quite awhile. And it’s close to the snacks and the bathroom.”
At 8:30, Nurse Casey had a little trouble fishing around for a vein and finally gave up on the one on the top side of my wrist after I sang Rollin’ rollin’ rollin’ catch that vein it’s rollin’ (parody of the theme song from an old TV show, Rawhide). So other than having to switch to the top of my hand for the IV, everything went fine. Dan even watched the great vein expedition and didn’t get dizzy as he used to during our fertility clinic years, four kids ago.
They gave me oral Tylenol, then IV Benadryl and Pepcid to ward off an allergic reaction and stomach cramps. I felt a warm flush from head to groin immediately as IV-administered meds tend to do before MRI’s, CT’s, and such. A familiar feeling. Then woozie-headed and thick-tongued, I asked Dan to take my notebook and continue journaling, as I would likely be sleeping soon. I was right. This was my prep before they ran a test dose to see if I would have an allergic reaction to the iron. Handling the IV iron well, they allowed me to move on to the Big Bag.
Nurse Casey said, “This should take about four hours.”
Starting slowly, Nurse Casey came back two more times and sped up the drip each time since I was tolerating the iron so well. No nausea or urge to run to the bathroom as some people experience. Yay!
I got home at 1:30pm and took a nap. I was tired and my stomach felt peculiar. Supposedly one can have effects for several days after but I suffered very little discomfort. At bedtime, my head hurt and my back seemed a little funky and it felt like there was a squirrel nibbling on my left ovary or one part of my small intestine. But all in all I felt really good. My head hurt some and I needed more rest than usual for a few days.
Fast forward three months and my iron and ferritin levels were slightly above normal, which was terrific especially if it would hold. Six months later, my levels held steady and I feel better than I have in at least twelve years. I’m able to walk without the crushing chest pain and wooziness in my head. I am working on the deconditioning that came from not being able to exercise properly for so long. My skin and nails are healthier. My head feels oxygenated, I have more energy, and perhaps even think better. I may have found my fountain of youth and health. I only regret not finding it years ago. There are no guarantees that it will last forever but for now, I am thankful. An infusion may not be the right choice for many with chronic anemia but after reading only negative information on-line, I felt duty-bound to at least share my success story and get the word out to those people who may benefit as I have. Iron infusion is worth discussing with your health professional if you or a loved one live with chronic anemia.