At age 24, model Lauren Wasser experienced a nightmare no woman should ever endure. Lauren was an L.A. star on the rise; a model building her portfolio, taking improv classes, and living a life about town that many would envy. But in October of 2012, things took a horrific turn when she fell terribly ill while on her period. A few days later, she woke up in a hospital bed and learned she was going to lose her leg due to Toxic Shock Syndrome.
Toxic Shock Syndrome (or TSS) is likely familiar to anyone who uses tampons. But there’s also a good chance you don’t think a whole lot about TSS, aside from every now and then glancing at the warning on your tampon box. TSS is a disease caused by bacterial infections, usually with staph bacteria. Tampons exacerbate existing infections, increasing dryness and creating an environment that allows bacteria to grow and spread. TSS strikes fast, causing rashes, fevers, confusion, and organ failure. It can be fatal within hours.
Although it’s extremely serious, TSS is also extremely rare. There is only about 1 case per 100,000 women per year. After a high number of TSS cases in the 1980s, tampon companies were required to include a warning label and information on how to prevent TSS during use.
But while the threat of TSS is common knowledge, Wasser’s case is an example of how many women think of TSS as something that happens — just not to them. Common myths about TSS include the “fact” that tampons today are different from those that created an increase in prior TSS cases, but it’s not actually true. As a result of this and a generally low impact campaign to make sure women know the dangers of using tampons, women like Wasser often push the boundaries of tampon usage without even realizing it.
Wasser’s story, told at VICE, is harrowing. She shares her experience of feeling ill, falling asleep, and being woken up by the police without knowing how long she had been out, and then waking up again in a hospital bed after being found the next day face down on her kitchen floor. Wasser almost lost her life, and it’s a miracle she’s still alive given the long swaths of time she was alone.
“My belly was huge [due to being pumped with fluids],” she says of waking up in the hospital. “I had tubes everywhere. I couldn’t speak.”
But while her life was saved, her right leg was not, and damage to her left foot is still healing over two years later. Gangrene had set in as toxins flooded her bloodstream. “It’s the most excruciating pain I’ve ever—I don’t know how to describe it to you,” she says.
The loss of her leg was a struggle for Wasser. “I wanted to kill myself when I got home,” she told VICE. “I was this girl — and then all of a sudden I don’t have a leg, I’m in a wheelchair, I have half a foot, I can’t even walk to the bathroom . . . I would cry on a little stool in the shower, with my wheelchair outside waiting for me . . . You live your whole life and thinking, ‘I’m an athlete,’ or, ‘I’m a pretty girl,’ but this was something physical that I had no control over. It took me a while to figure out if I was still worthy, if I was still pretty.”
Today, Wasser is channeling her energy into activism, with a lawsuit in progress against Kimberly-Clark Corporation, the makers of Kotex Natural Balance tampons which are what she was using, and the stores that sell the brand. She’s also lending her support to a new bill introduced by New York Representative Carolyn Maloney called the Robin Danielson Act. It would kickstart research into the dangers of materials used in tampons and other feminine hygiene products.
But perhaps the most powerful work Wasser is doing is sharing her story. Given the rarity of TSS, many women go their entire lives without experiencing either first hand or through a loved one what TSS truly means. By speaking up, Wasser is putting a human face on a disease that is often ignored or misunderstood. With her activism and courage to stand up for women who have been impacted by TSS, Wasser is literally saving lives.
How to Avoid TSS:
-Change your tampon every four to eight hours (even overnight).
-Use the lowest absorbency necessary. I.e. no ‘super’ tampons on a light day.
-Use sanitary napkins.
-Keep your hands very clean to avoid spreading bacteria.