First For Women
New at-home test to catch the fatigue-causing mineral overload 80 percent of doctors miss
Doctors told Marianne Morningstar, 53, her fatigue was normal. But she kept digging until she discovered the often-missed culprit and the simple fixes that restored her energy
Oh my!” Marianne mumbled, jolted awake by the sound of another driver honking his horn. “I had been driving home from work, the same trip I made daily for 28 years, but I was having a hard time keeping my eyes open,” Marianne recalls. “Next thing I knew, I had nodded off at a red light. As reality set in, I started to shake. I was grateful not only to be alive but also that I didn’t cause anyone else to get hurt. I pulled myself together and started to drive home, praying it wouldn’t happen again.
Tired all the time
“For years fatigue ruled my life, making it impossible for me to keep up as an office manager of a busy doctor’s office. I often used my vacation days to rest, and because I couldn’t handle multiple projects at once, I ended up delegating a lot to my colleague. Then at home I’d have nothing more to give to my husband and five children.
“After my daughter had major surgery, I wanted to be by her side, but I was so tired that I only went to the hospital for a few hours a day during the four weeks she was there. My husband stayed with her around the clock. As a mother, I felt I should be the one to take care of her but I couldn’t. I felt so helpless.
“My daughter wasn’t the only child I let down. When my son would ask me to watch my grandsons so he could have a date night with his wife, I always declined. I just couldn’t muster up the energy to do it.
“The fatigue also affected my marriage. My husband would often ask me to go out to dinner or meet up with friends on the weekends, but all I’d wanted to do was sleep. I became so irritable and I took it out on him. It definitely hurt our marriage.
“The fatigue wasn’t the only thing I was dealing with. I also had frequent headaches, brain fog and pain in my legs, shoulders and neck. And I had weakness throughout my legs—I always felt like I was going to collapse.
“I talked to my primary-care provider about my symptoms on several occasions, but he had no answers for me. He referred me to a cardiologist, but he didn’t find anything either. I made so many appointments with my doctor trying to figure out what was going on that one day when I called, I overheard the nurse say, ‘Tell her she needs to see a psychiatrist!’ It was so
frustrating that he wouldn’t listen and no one understood. I knew it wasn’t in my head, but I needed someone who would give me
the time of day.
Relief at last
“Thankfully, a friend referred me to a new doctor. At my first visit, after taking a health history, she suspected I had too much iron in my blood, which she explained could be causing my symptoms. The doctor ran blood tests that confirmed her suspicions: My ferritin, a measure of iron stores, was 768 nanograms per milliliter—a normal level is 20 to 200 nanograms per milliliter. She explained that I had hemochromatosis, a genetic condition that causes iron to build up. She said that although I’d had it all my life, the condition can get ‘activated’ by factors such as being over 50. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe that too much iron was causing me to feel so poorly! And when I looked more closely at my diet, I learned that many of the processed foods I ate were fortified with iron. My doctor suggested I see a hematologist. I ran it by my boss,
Nathan Wei, M.D., a rheumatologist, for his opinion, and he agreed.
“When I saw the hematologist, he confirmed that I had iron overload and recommended I have phlebotomies, or blood draws, to reduce the iron in my blood. He said I should go every other week at first, then I could cut back to once a month.
“He also suggested I change my diet, so I started to cook more healthy meals, eat more lean protein like chicken and fish and add plenty of fruit and veggies like broccoli, cauliflower and leafy greens. I also started a regular walking routine to improve my energy. It worked! With these changes, I was able to bring my ferritin level down to 30 nanograms per milliliter in 18 months.
“Now that I’m no longer struggling with fatigue, I don’t have to miss out on life. Instead of sitting on the couch while my husband has all the fun, we’re enjoying life together—at dinner, going to the movies or helping all three of our sons plan their weddings. And when my grandchildren ask, ‘Can we come over?’ I say, ‘Yes, I can’t wait!’” —as told to Julie Revelant