Fighting for menstrual health awareness in the fire service

Endometriosis is a condition where tissue similar to the lining of the womb starts to grow in other places, such as the ovaries and fallopian tubes. It affects approximately 1 in 10 women in the UK, yet many women suffer in silence.1 For Endometriosis Awareness Week, one of our members shares her experience of being a firefighter while struggling with this condition.

The shrill ringing of my alarm permeates through my brain. I blindly reach out and silence it. I have eight minutes before it attacks my senses again. I’ve had a grand total of three hours’ sleep. My night, as standard for this time of the month, was spent attempting to find a comfortable position, which is usually the foetal position or lying face-down and curling into a ball.

After eight minutes of silent anticipation, it’s time for work. I slowly drag myself to the edge of the bed. I sit for a moment deciding what level of pain I can expect today. Is it the normal chronic pain that I’ve learned to function with, or is this going to be a particularly bad day?

My legs, lower back and lower stomach ache more than usual. The forecast isn’t looking good. This doesn’t change anything, I can’t afford to take another sick day. I’ve already been sent home this year because of my endometriosis. I’ll have to persevere, although all I want to do is adopt my favourite foetal position and cry like I’m a toddler in the middle of my terrible twos.

I manage to throw myself together. I’m not exactly in the mood to make an effort, so I settle with a face wash and a quick brush of my hair.

Into the station I go. My watch commander saunters in behind me, carrying on and joking around as usual. I tease him like I normally would and walk into the rec room. At this stage I’m envisioning the famous scene from Alien where the creature bursts out of the man’s chest. That’s how my endometriosis feels – like I have a small demon inside of me, trying to burst out through my lower abdomen.

As the day goes on, the paracetamol I’ve been taking becomes less useful at numbing the pain. We have to go out and do a home fire safety visit. At this point I’m nauseated and standing straight feels like an impossibility, but the smoke alarm has to go up one way or another, and I’m holding the drill.

The truth is, I feel too awkward to tell my watch commander or anyone else on the watch how I’m feeling. The stigma attached to ‘women’s problems’ is undeniable. I’m already ‘different’, and I don’t want to emphasise that even more. Even though my watch are great, I know it’ll still be awkward.

I’ve been through surgery and was pain free for about four months, then it came back with a vengeance. The time I was off for surgery was recorded as ‘sick’ days. I’m probably going to have to have more surgeries, which will also go down on my attendance as ‘sick days’.

Endometriosis is an ongoing condition that can significantly impact your life – it shouldn’t be documented on your sickness record like a standard short-term illness. This illness needs to be acknowledged in our work place to ensure that our women firefighters are not left feeling undervalued, misunderstood, rejected, inadequate or fighting with their mental health.

Endometriosis affects 1 in 10 women of reproductive age in the UK according to the charity Endometriosis UK. For more information on endometriosis, visit their website here.

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