After returning from Morocco, I brought the kids and myself to our regular doctor for a routine check-up. It’s something I have tried to be on top of in recent years, especially as health care professionals used to give me anxiety but avoiding them led to major health concerns. Our doctor’s clinic is located in the hip University neighbourhood of Garneau in Edmonton and sits on the main road, Whyte Avenue, alongside cool teahouses and local vegan eateries. We lived in a high rise across the street for the first half of my graduate studies program at the University and had become patients at the clinic when it opened shortly after we moved to the neighbourhood. The clinic is owned by our doctor, a quiet Libyan man with short curly hair and a skin tone that shouts of the Mediterranean sun.
Appointments have always been a bit awkward with him as a Muslim convert – something about being in a room alone with a brother who has to listen to your heartbeat and take your health history will do that. But I felt better that he was Muslim, in general, and North African in particular because he would know the context of certain things as they pertain to our health – from diet to culture, travel and more.
I remember, at the end of my masters in 2017, in the final push to complete and then defend my thesis, I had spent six weeks writing for 18 hours a day and sleeping on the hardwood floor next to my desk. I was completely exhausted and worn out, hacking away with bronchitis and feeling so run down I could barely keep my head up. I remember being in the defence committee and expressing to the examiners that academia had nearly wiped me out. I went on to pass the defence and celebrated that weekend despite being in poor health.
Three days later, I would enter my doctor’s office on Whyte Avenue and complain of the same issues, asking him to figure out what was wrong with me.
“I just feel a level of exhaustion I have never felt before. Is it possible that this level of work could have done this to me?” I asked him.
He had a knowing look behind his eyes but I didn’t exactly know why in that moment. He ordered a urine test on the spot and after I had gone to the bathroom to get him the sample, he left the room to go analyze it. I sat in the room, swinging my legs as I sat in the chair next to the examination bed, staring at a poster of a man with heart disease. My eyes fixated on the diagram of a clogged artery and the strange manner in which the artist had rendered the man’s face, making him look exaggerated and deformed.
When my doctor entered the room again, he gave a short knock and came in with a small smile on his face.
“Congratulations,” he said.
I paused, confused. “About my passing my defence?” I asked.
“No…” he scanned my face for recognition. “You’re pregnant!” he announced when he didn’t find it.
I sat there in silence, looking back at the image of the clogged artery.
He looked at the side of my face and I heard him calling me as if from far away, “Sister? Sister – are you ok?”
I turned and looked back at him like I was in a dream. “Subhana Allah,” I said because that’s what he wanted to hear.
He nodded uncertainly, scanning my face for clues about my mental state, “Yes, Subhana Allah.”
I left his office with a requisition in my hand to get a blood test for confirmation.
The story goes that I would go on to have an exceedingly challenging pregnancy and a spectacular birth, following which I admitted myself to the hospital for anxiety. While there, they ordered a blood test and discovered that my blood levels were half of what they should be and it was no surprise that I had had to stave off a panic attack immediately post-partum: I was actually experiencing a bodily flashback to when my first daughter was born and I was left to hemorrhage before being sent for surgery. After that discovery, I worked hard to eat more iron-rich foods and take large amounts of supplements to build my blood up.
But sure enough, life creeps in and takes over and suddenly, I was across the world in Morocco, not really focusing on my health all that much. When we returned and I entered my doctor’s office, he ordered a blood test right away and when I came back to hear the results, my jaw dropped.
“Sister, your blood levels are lower than the day after your baby’s birth,” he said.
“Yes, I don’t understand how you have been working out and doing everything you are doing. How do you have the energy for any of this?”
I just sat there, going into my body like my therapist had taught me. I suddenly felt the weight of the fatigue I had been pushing through and ignoring. It came at me like a freight train. I recalled all of the difficulties I was having remembering simple things and how it sometimes felt like people were talking to me through a fog. My mind flashed to the restless sleeps I had been having. The moments of near-blackouts during yoga. The cravings for ice. The overeating. The suicidal rollercoaster that seemed to follow the trajectory of my monthly cycle. I had thought it was all hormonal but realized in that moment that it was all tied to low blood.
I thanked him for his help and left his office with an armload of pharmaceutical iron pill samples that he had given me to try before we took the next step to a transfusion. In a way, I am grateful to now know what is going on but also feel the weight of needing to focus on my health in a more pronounced way precisely when I lack the energy to do so. As I stood in the snow, waiting for my husband to pick me up, cars zooming back and forth down the busy avenue, I thanked myself for making the appointment that would show me what I needed to know about myself. I had been feeling this insurmountable hurdle with so many areas of my health, despite pushing hard to feel better mentally and physically. It was now time to focus on solutions and rest.
Nakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada.