Sinead O’Connor saved my life. Yes, that Sinead O’Connor. We were close friends and lovers at the time. She was dropping her daughter off at school and stopped at a shop to pick up a copy of the Irish Times, on her way home.
There was an article on the front page about a medical conference happening in Dublin and how the keynote speaker, Professor John Crowe, had read a paper about a blood disorder that came close to wiping out the Celtic race, a millennium before.
She read on and began to realise the symptoms of this disorder were manifested by her boyfriend: arthritic pains in my fingers, particularly the left index; bouts of fatigue and diabetes. So she called me and I called my doctor. I explained to her what Sinead told me. My doctor asked me to come in.
There’s too much iron in my blood. It’s called hereditary haemochromatosis and it’s caused by a faulty gene. The body absorbs too much iron from the diet and then it deposits in the liver and other organs, particularly the pancreas. It also deposits itself in the joints.
Globally, one person in twelve has a chance of having that faulty gene but if you’re Irish, you have one chance in six. That’s why it’s called the Celtic Curse. It has other names, like Bronze Diabetes or Blood Rust.
Twenty five years ago, I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Ten years later, I began to experience pain in my joints, particularly the index finger of my left hand. As a journalist, who had to meet numerous daily deadlines, that was painful. Think, while you’re typing, how many times your index finger hits the keyboard.
Back then, I was experiencing frequent bouts of fatigue which, considering my work schedule, didn’t surprise but it did frustrate me.
My doctor performed, what I now know as, a ferritin blood test and, since she worked, as a sideline, in the blood testing laboratory of a local hospital, asked me to come back the following day for the result.
As suspected, my blood showed an inordinately high level of iron. It read 1450 units, she told me and what, I asked, is the normal level of iron? Anywhere between 15 and 50, she answered. An appointment was made with an endocrinologist and two days later, I began my first treatment for haemochromotosis.
Since then I’ve got two artificial hips and no, they don’t cause panic in airport metal detectors because they’re made of a chromium alloy, which doesn’t set off alarms. That said, whenever I travel, I carry a letter from the surgeon who performed the arthroplasty (hip replacement), because it is better to be sure, than sorry.
But that’s for another blog…