I can vividly remember gripping the rail of our upstairs track, my stomach was on fire. My team ran out wondering what was wrong, all I could come up with was that I had been feeling constipated the last few days and my stomach was in fits. After a few minutes of their giggling and tough love, my pain subsided and would go unnoticed for a few weeks. Running was a big part of my life in high school. I also played volleyball year-round and ran track to stay in shape. Every few weeks, one random jog could send me to my knees from the pain. My mom tried to ease my frustrations by explaining that most women have bad periods when they are my age. “Your older sister has bad periods too. They have eased up some as she’s gotten older,” my mother would say. My unknown symptoms made me question my mental toughness, there was nothing wrong with me, I was just more sensitive to my period than others. The first two days of my period were always the worst. I rarely left the fetal position and my school attendance added unneeded stress. I was proud to say I attended one of the best high schools in the country for academic excellence, but it also meant scholarships were competitive and classes were hard. My makeup work would pile on when I missed school for my period and my peers figured I was just good at playing hooky.
Since I decided against collegiate sports, the painful outbursts that came from running rarely happened. My pain was tolerable my first year of college and I often forgot it was there. My periods were still excruciatingly painful, so I tried the recommended birth control solutions. Instead of helping the pain, I had my period for two months and I decided to stop taking it. Into my sophomore year, I started to experience new symptoms. I started to feel very fatigued and moody. For the first time in my life, I suffered from severe anxiety and my issues with insomnia deepened. My left leg started to burn like my stomach, so it stayed wrapped in a heating pad the majority of the day. Some days I would sleep all day until 8 p.m., I felt groggy and unmotivated. I lost sight of the healthy lifestyle and was 25 pounds heavier within a year.
During my junior year of college, I decided to change things up. I found myself motivated towards the arts and won 1st runner up as actress of the year at the IMTA awards in Los Angeles. After receiving a contract offer, I was eager to move out to the big city, but my symptoms seemed to be worsening day by day. I canceled my plans a month before moving, knowing that my body just couldn’t handle it at the time. I kept my mind off my disappointment by filling my schedule with full-time school and a full-time job in marketing. I had an urge to revamp my perspective on life and leave my unhealthy lifestyle in the past. One day, I was working on a project and felt an overwhelming burst of cramps. The pain was unlike any that I had experienced before. Each cramp started as a light pain that would slowly build into an unbearable burning. This burning lasted about 30 seconds and would subside for a few minutes before coming back. I was sure my appendix had burst. I decided to drive myself to the emergency clinic in town, pulling over frequently when the burning hit.
Countdown to the 2020 Minnesota Endo March
I waited at the clinic for two hours, I could barely walk without a hurling cry, but the doctors were stumped. They told me they weren’t sure what was going on, but since my white blood cell count was alarming, the primary physician sent me to the Emergency room. After waiting in the hospital for five hours, the doctors had concluded that my appendix was fine. “Sometimes, stress and anxiety can lead our bodies to freak out, with some pain meds you should be fine to go home tonight, ” he explained.
For years I had walked out of doctors’ offices with no answers for my pain, but the thought of going home with these burning cramps brought me to screaming tears. I started to beg the doctor to run more tests, I explained that I was terrified to be home alone and have another episode. His team didn’t seem to understand my frustrations and offered high dosages of pain meds to help me calm down. Once I had myself together, the doctor came back in to reiterate that all tests came back normal and I had nothing to worry about, I just needed to sleep it off. Finally the doctor said it, “There is a disorder called endometriosis that lives in women and could be causing the cramps. I’m not doing a pelvic exam tonight because I’m fairly positive it would come back fine.” My tears started to creep back up, why wasn’t it worth checking? What did he mean by “lives in women?” I begged him to check just to be safe and then I would feel comfortable leaving. The exam lasted a painful ten minutes and even though it was obvious how uncomfortable I was, he had no conclusions. “You are sore, but I’m still not certain, let’s get you home and tomorrow I would head over to the women’s health clinic for a second opinion,” he said. I decided to leave and experienced one of the worst nights of cramps yet.
Naming My Pain
The gynecologist I visited that following morning was fairly certain that my pain was in fact, endometriosis. He explained that the right birth control would solve the majority of my issues whether I had the disorder or not. I decided to schedule a diagnostic laparoscopy (surgery) instead, I was ready to leave endo in my past.
The following week, I woke up in the recovery room to my mom handing me some water and explaining that the doctor had in fact found endometriosis. My mother came to comfort me, but the bad news actually brought me a wave of relief. Finally, I knew what was wrong and that it wasn’t all in my head. My diagnosis verified that my pain was real all of these years. Little did I know, my battle wasn’t over.
The doctor came in and confirmed that he was able to diagnose endometriosis but he could not remove it because it was in a tricky location in my lower pelvis. He suggested that I stay on continuous birth control for the rest of my life and my pain would be tolerable. I tried his suggestion for a few weeks, but I knew this was only a band-aid. Became very aggressive in finding answers, if these doctors weren’t going to help me, I was going to find someone who would. My mother helped me change my diet to avoid inflammatory foods but was adamant that I couldn’t stay on birth control forever. She knew women that had suffered with infertility from years of taking birth control and refused, like I did, to believe that the diseased tissue couldn’t be removed. During her hunt for the right surgeon, she found SLU care in Saint Louis, Mo. After reviewing my pictures, Dr. Eugenio-Colon was almost positive that he could remove my endo. They had a deep waiting list for surgery so I had to wait six months, but I was willing to make the 7-hour road trip from South Dakota.
Over the next six months, in preparation for my surgery, I took birth control to help control my pain and continued to eat healthy anti-inflammatory foods. After losing 30 pounds, I had a new confidence I was eager to show it off. I watched my friend Madison Nipe, Miss South Dakota USA 2018, compete at the nationally televised Miss USA pageant on Fox and decided to sign-up for my first beauty pageant. On September 23rd, 2018, with my new found confidence and personal mission to raise awareness about this disease affecting 1 in 10 women around the world, I won the judges hearts and the title of Miss SD USA 2019.
Surgery with a Specialist
Before I knew it, I was in Saint Louis for surgery with the Miss South Dakota USA sash and crown. I met with Dr. Eugenio-Colon and my consultation lasted four hours. I was surprised that a surgeon would spend this much time just talking and listening to my history of symptoms. He explained endometriosis to my mother and I, from top to bottom and asked, in detail all about my symptoms. Endometriosis research and awareness were important to him, but helping those with the disease find answers was his main priority. When I asked him how many women their clinic helped he began to cry. “We see so many women who come to us in tears after learning their prior surgeries made their endo worse or even infertile. This is such a large issue, that no one knows much about,” he said.
That day, I was finally able to make sense of it all. My endometriosis had always been a burden but for once, I saw the silver lining. At that moment, I knew what message God wanted me to deliver as Miss South Dakota USA. Dr. Eugenio-Colon was able to successfully remove my endometriosis through excision surgery, and while I still experience some symptoms, my health has done a complete 180. Endometriosis tends to run in families and just two days ago my sister returned home from her very own laparoscopic excision endometriosis surgery in Saint Louis and is on the road to recovery. I may not have plans of moving to Los Angeles, but I know I’m where I’m supposed to be. As I prepare for Miss USA, I not only will represent the beautiful state of South Dakota but millions of women who are suffering from endometriosis today. I am excited to partner with the Minnesota Endo Warriors and attend the 3rd Annual Minnesota Endo March coming up on Saturday, March 30th, for Endometriosis Awareness Month. I hope to use my story to show others the importance advocating for your health and shed light on the need for more endometriosis research at Miss USA.