On September 27, 2018, a 20-year-old woman named Alexandra Williams died at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. The days prior had been normal for Alexandra, until she spontaneously collapsed in her driveway on September 26. In the months prior, she had experienced some back pains, which doctors did not understand were the setup of what ultimately became fatal blood clots in her lungs.
What no major media covered in the year since her death is that Alexandra Williams lost her life due to her birth control.
Alex, as her family calls her, was a college junior at North Carolina Central University. She loved to travel, had career ambitions, and showed a dedication to women’s empowerment.
Just nine months before her death, Alex received a birth-control prescription from a local Planned Parenthood clinic. The generic combination pill, Levora, is marketed as one of the “safer” birth control pills available. Like many women, Alex was not fully aware of the health risks associated with her birth control, as she and doctors struggled to identify health complications that resulted just months later.
Alex’s father Anthony Williams shared with Natural Womanhood that Alex’s visit to an Urgent Care center resulted in a muscle-strain diagnosis, and an ER visit later resulted in a diagnosis of a lung infection and prescribed antibiotics. “However, at various times up until her death,” Williams said, “Alex still mentioned occasional discomfort in her back and her overall energy level fluctuated more than normal.”
No medical professional identified the real problem—not even the Duke Medical Center doctors who tried to revive her on September 26. Then, on September 27, 2018, a brain scan revealed no brain activity, and Anthony and Lisa Williams let their daughter go.
The Least-Discussed Killer of Women Today
Not until the autopsy of their daughter did the Williamses learn it was blood clots in Alex’s lungs—a pulmonary embolism—that led to Alex’s sudden death.
Pulmonary embolisms, strokes, and such cardiovascular events used to be rare in people Alex’s age. But those numbers have increased since birth control has become the most mass-prescribed drug on the market. A systematic review published this year found 300 to 400 U.S. women die yearly of birth-control related health complications like those Alex faced.
Researcher Lynn Keenan, MD, and Natural Womanhood CEO Gerard Migeon cowrote an article expounding that, “comparing users of HC [hormonal contraception] to nonusers, and including more than seventeen million woman-years of observation, we found that using HC increases a woman’s risk of being diagnosed with VTE by three to nine times. For women under thirty, the risk is increased thirteen-fold during the first year of use, when the risk for clot formation is highest.”
While we might not hear much about this in news headlines, pharmaceutical companies are highly aware. After a major lawsuit, Bayer settled more than 10,000 claims between 2009 and 2016 from patients who took the drug Yaz and suffered venous thromboembolism. The Yaz label suggested a risk of “cardiovascular events” with “cigarette smoking,” misleading many women into believing they were safe if they weren’t smokers.
Poor labeling and inadequate informed consent for highly prescribed birth control drugs have recently led a group of researchers to launch an FDA Citizen’s Petition on birth control to seek more accurate black box warnings on these drugs, as well as other safety information. In addition to sharing more than 100 pages of research on the health risks caused by birth control, the Citizen’s Petition has gathered more than 130 comments, including stories of women who say they suffered blood clots and strokes due to birth control. Many comments also come from doctors, loved ones, and parents whose daughters died of blood clots and didn’t live to tell about it.
In one such comment, Laura Bonnet shares, “2 years ago, my daughter died from a blood clot in her brain caused by the birth control, Yasmin. It was prescribed to her for acne and she believed it was safe. She had no risk factors, no clotting disorders. In the hospital, the doctors told us they see 3-5 patients EVERY WEEK with blood clots from birth control. That’s one hospital in a small metropolitan area in Wisconsin. I can’t imagine what other hospitals are experiencing…”
In another comment, Carol Pepin explains, “My 19 year old daughter Shelby Pepin had died. Shelby was very athletic, did not smoke and had no history of a blood disorder. The coroner’s report confirmed that Shelby had died from a pulmonary embolism. She had a DVT behind her left knee that traveled to her lungs causing her bilateral embolism. The coroner also confirmed that her DVT was caused by her birth control the NuvaRing…”
Deaths Like Alex’s Can Be Prevented
One other comment in the recent FDA Citizen’s Petition on birth control health risks is from a woman whose symptoms sounded remarkably like those of Alex Williams.
Amanda Jean Beaulieu shared in a comment that she nearly died five days before her 27th birthday due to a “massive pulmonary embolism” that caused her to collapse in the arms of a security guard while literally running toward the hospital. “When I came to I was told a heart attack was ruled out and the doctor explained it could be an infection in my lungs. As he left the room and paused and asked me are you on birth control?” When Amanda said she was on the Nuvaring, “he explained that he was going to run a d-dimer test to rule out blood clots.”
Scans revealed “a clot the size of a ten cent gum ball was stuck in the valve between my left lung and heart. If it moved to my heart I would die… I had a stroke right in the ER and my life was forever changed. When I arrived to the ER my O2 level was below 40% and I should have been dead. . . . I was the one out of five who got to walk away…”
What bothers Amanda the most is knowing that the health risks she experienced were “100% preventable.” She says, “If I had never used the Nuvaring none of this would have happened to me. My pulmonary embolism with infarction and stroke were a direct result of my Nuvaring usage.”
Just like Amanda, Alex’s doctors at one point thought her symptoms indicated a lung infection. Tragically, no one made the connection between her birth control and blood clot possibility until it was too late.
It’s time that birth control side effects and health risks receive greater attention both in the medical community and the media at large. It’s time birth control receives the same treatment as every other drug with adverse health effects—with accurate black-box warnings, product recalls, and even the discontinuation of particularly dangerous drugs from the market.
Today, Alex would have just celebrated her 21st birthday. We owe it to her to do better.