I was only 20 years old when I imagined my life ending for the first time. It was my junior year of college, and I had woken up on a Wednesday morning with such a rapid heartbeat that I thought I was going to collapse. After calling my mom in a panic, I found myself in the on-campus student clinic, where a nurse took an EKG (electrocardiogram) in order to check the electrical activity of my heart.
Within 20 minutes I was released from the clinic and told that it was likely nothing more than stress. My heart continued to beat irregularly and quickly, but I thought the nurses were right — and maybe I was just overreacting. I skipped my classes and went home to lie down. Several hours later a doctor, who looked over my paperwork at the clinic after I left, called me and urged me to go to the emergency room. When he mentioned the possibility of blood clots, I could hear a quiet nuance of panic in his voice, so I immediately got myself to the hospital.
Rewind three months and I was choosing my first birth control. I went over all the options with my doctor, talked to friends, and researched online. I landed on the NuvaRing, mostly because it seemed highly convenient and I didn't want the responsibility of remembering to take a pill every single morning (it was hard enough for me to remember to turn off my curling iron). I wasn't loving the mood swings I experienced from the NuvaRing, but it wasn't anything that made me want to quit using it. Besides, my boobs got huge, so there was that.
Nobody told me the potentially deadly side effects of the NuvaRing, though — or of any hormonal birth control, for that matter. My doctor didn't walk me through the fine print, so I entered my first go-around with contraception thinking that nothing could go wrong.
I waited in the ER that day for nearly 12 hours, the whole time with a racing heart and a fear that I was about to die. When I was finally called in to see a doctor, they performed test after test on me until it was 4 a.m. and I was exhausted from the stress. A woman, who I'm pretty sure was in medical school and still in training, entered the room to tell me that I had contracted "abnormally large" blood clots in my lungs, and if I had waited even several more hours to come in, I would have died from a heart attack or a stroke.
I certainly wasn't out of the woods yet, they told me. They had to keep me stable and keep a close eye on me, because the blood clots that had lodged themselves in my lungs' major artery could still potentially travel to my heart or brain . . . and kill me.
None of it made sense to me. I was vibrant, young, and extremely healthy. I didn't smoke, I exercised, and I ate a healthy, well-rounded diet. When I asked why this happened, the young soon-to-be-doctor looked at me and asked, "Do you take hormonal birth control?" And that's when I knew it had something to do with the NuvaRing.
Some studies have shown that women who use the NuvaRing as their main form of contraception have an increased risk of contracting blood clots than women who use other hormonal birth control. When it comes to women who aren't using a birth control with estrogen, one in every 5,000 will form blood clots each year. Women who do use estrogen-based birth control, though, like the NuvaRing, have a one in 1,000 risk of contracting blood clots.
The only problem with this information is that it became available around 2011 or later. I contracted blood clots from the NuvaRing in 2009.
My recovery from the blood clots was long and tiresome. I took blood-thinning medication for 18 months, which made me extremely fatigued and very overweight (I gained 30 pounds in a few months). When I was released from the hospital, I was tested multiple times to see if I was genetically predisposed to forming blood clots. That was the only reasonable explanation, the doctors told me. After giving 18 tubes of my blood in one sitting and not even getting a cookie or a juice box as a reward, a doctor told me I was "disgustingly healthy" and that they couldn't find any reason for my diagnosis other than the hormones in the NuvaRing.
This story is not meant to elicit pity. Rather, I think it's imperative for young women to understand the risks of hormonal birth control before they agree to take it. I'm confident that doctors today are more intentional about laying out the potential side effects of something like the NuvaRing or the pill, but that doesn't erase the many times prior when a medical professional failed to give their patient the full scope.
I was one of the lucky ones. I was right on the cusp, but I caught the blood clots before they proved deadly. There are plenty of women out there who have not been so fortunate, and their lives were ended far too early.
By no means am I claiming that other women will have the same fate as I did if they choose the NuvaRing or the pill, but I do think it's important to understand that it's not just women over 35 or women who smoke who are eligible to contract blood clots. It could be anybody, and there's no such thing as erring too much on the side of caution.