In mid-2020, my friend had a minor health crisis. After a routine blood test, her primary care doctor called to let her know that her hemoglobin was dangerously low – and that she needed to get herself to the hospital. Hemoglobin allows oxygen to travel through the blood stream, and when it is low, it can cause fainting spells and hypoxia. Often, a low hemoglobin level indicates some type of internal bleeding. My friend, scared but feeling quite normal, followed the doctor’s orders and went to the emergency room.
After a battery of blood tests, the doctors confirmed that she did have very low hemoglobin levels, but that internal bleeding was not the cause. Instead, the scary numbers were caused by iron deficiency anemia, an extremely common condition for women.
While the doctors agreed she was not in immediate danger, her hemoglobin levels needed to come up – fast. They also needed to figure out what was causing the anemia. To get some answers, they referred her to one of the scariest specialists you can see: an oncologist.
She called me just after this happened, confused and crying, to ask what was happening. I was taken aback when I heard the word “oncologist,” but after thinking for a second, I remembered something from medical school. In most places in the United States, oncologists and hematologists have the same specialization. In other words, there were too few of either of them in the 1990’s, and the fields are very similar. The solution was to combine specializations, producing a new generation of oncologists/hematologists. For those who don’t know, hematologists deal with blood disorders and illnesses, like iron deficiency anemia.
I asked my friend to look at the referral the E.R. doctor provided her. And what would you know, there it was: the doctor’s name, their extension, and the title “HEMATOLOGIST/ONCOLOGIST.”
She had her scheduled appointment and was prescribed five rounds of the intravenous iron treatment Venofer. While still scared at the appointment, she asked the doctor straight out whether she saw cancer patients, or what the likelihood was that she had cancer. The doctor laughed and told my friend that, while she is trained as an oncologist, she only sees hematology patients – in fact, most of them have lifestyle-induced anemia.