After painful fibroids resulted in heavy periods, bladder leaks, cramping, and more, Yolanda Rhodes, 52, feared her only option was a hysterectomy. But then she discovered the simple outpatient procedure that healed her pain — without major surgery!
“What in the world?” Yolanda Rhodes said aloud as she walked into the bathroom. It felt like something inside her lower abdomen had dropped and fallen into her vagina. It didn’t hurt, but as a nurse, she knew something was very wrong. She grabbed a mirror and saw tissue protruding from her vagina, as icy terror washed over her.
Bracing for the Worst
“While waiting for my OB-GYN to open, I did some research online and thought I’d likely had a uterine prolapse, which happens when the muscles that support the uterus give out and it sags out of position. I suddenly remembered once having a patient with a rectal prolapse; I literally pushed it back in his body, which is called reducing the prolapse. I used the same process to gently push my uterus back in place with my fingers.
“When I finally saw my doctor, she did an ultrasound. While I’d previously been diagnosed with small, non-symptomatic uterine fibroids in the late 1990s, the scan showed these had grown significantly, weighing down my uterus and causing the prolapse.
“During the year before, I had started having very heavy, irregular and longer periods. I would get severe cramps and back pain. I was also leaking urine and losing my hair. Because I was 49, we thought it was the approach of menopause. But we now discovered that my symptoms were the result of the fibroids growing. I was terrified that I’d have to have a hysterectomy — like other women I know had.
“I was elated when my doctor said, ‘We have three options.’ A hysterectomy was just one. I was a single mom with my youngest still in high school and I could only imagine the devastating toll taking a month off to recover from surgery would take on our lives. My doctor also said that I could wear a birth control patch in the hopes of skipping all of my periods until menopause, though that might not alleviate all of my symptoms.
“The third option was uterine fibroid embolization (UFE) — a minimally invasive procedure during which the doctor makes a very small incision in the wrist and inserts a catheter into the radial artery. This is guided by imaging to the uterus, where a safe clotting agent is delivered to the arteries supplying the fibroids with blood. Over a short time, the lack of blood makes the fibroids shrink.
“I spent two weeks deciding what to do. That whole time, my uterus would drop several times a day and I would have to push it back up. I finally called my doctor, crying, and asked for the name of a specialist who did UFE.
“She referred me to Dr. Eric Hardee at Houston Fibroids. In June of 2019, I had the procedure, which thankfully was covered by insurance. I went home a few hours later with just a Band-Aid on my wrist. I was a little nauseous and uncomfortable for a few days, but back to work in less than a week.
“Within a month, I had fewer prolapses each day. Within two months, all of my symptoms were gone. At six months, my OB-GYN confirmed my fibroids had shrunk back into the uterine wall, ending my prolapses. I’ve since learned that African American women develop fibroids two to three times more frequently and at younger ages. Many are only offered hysterectomy. I was fortunate my doctor recommended UFE. Two years later, no complications. The fear, pain, and embarrassment is gone. I have my life back!”
How This Simple Outpatient Procedure Heals Fibroids
When fibroids — benign tumors that grow on uterine walls — lead to symptoms like heavy bleeding and pain, many doctors recommend hysterectomy. In fact, 33 percent of the 600,000 hysterectomies performed in the U.S. each year are done to resolve fibroids.
But hysterectomy is major surgery that comes with risks (from blood clots to pneumonia) and a four- to six-week recovery period. “The beauty of being a patient in 2021 is that there are other options,” says gynecologic surgeon Linda Bradley, M.D., vice chair of the Cleveland Clinic’s Women’s Health Institute. One of these is uterine fibroid embolization (UFE), a minimally invasive outpatient procedure where small, safe clotting particles are injected into the uterine arteries that supply blood to the fibroids. When they’re starved of blood, the fibroids shrivel and shrink, explains Dr. Bradley. It’s 90 percent effective, and recovery is typically a few days.
Gynecologists aren’t trained to do UFE (it’s done by an interventional radiologist), so some don’t know to suggest it and will jump straight to hysterectomy. “If your doctor says you need a hysterectomy, unless it’s cancer, it’s never an emergency,” says Dr. Bradley, who encourages getting a second opinion. “Women need to know what UFE is and ask, ‘Why am I not a candidate?’”
This article originally appeared in our print magazine, First For Women.