Period awareness is definitely a ‘valuable conversation’ – Pamela Hayden

It was not unusual for Pamela Hayden to wake up with pain at night when she had her period. One Sunday night in January last year, however, the agony was worse than usual. The next morning, she went to make toast before taking more pain relievers but she collapsed in the kitchen. Her husband, John, grabbed her before she fell to the floor and was later taken by ambulance to St. Luke’s General Hospital, Kilkenny.

A few days earlier, Hayden had trained with Old Leighlin Football Club in Carlow. She was 40, feeling fit and flying it in training. She applied to participate in TG4’s Underdogs series for women and after the first screening, she went back to training with the club to be fit for the trials.

Hayden’s talent as a Gaelic footballer was noticed from his teenage years. She made her inter-county debut at the age of 15, was named Carlo Player of the Year in 2004 and spent her college years on a football scholarship at Menuth where she earned a degree in science and a PhD in biochemistry . She stopped playing football with Carlo at the age of 27, as she never discussed it openly.

13 years later, in January 2021, Hayden found herself back in a pattern she’d experienced before—the fitter she became, the worse her endometriosis got.

“I only spent the day there (at St. Luke’s Hospital) because there was nothing they could do other than relieve the pain,” Hayden said. Irish independent, “An ultrasound by my consultant the next day confirmed my abdominal ruptured cyst and extensive bleeding. My endometriosis was extensive and advanced at this stage and I had a hysterectomy in April 2021.”

Hayden suffered from heavy period pain as a teenager and the pain got worse in her 20s and 30s. She had her first exploratory laparoscopy in 2008, and because endometriosis has been difficult to detect, it would take five years for her to get final confirmation from her gynecologist that she had endometriosis.

The World Health Organization (WHO) describes endometriosis as “a chronic disease associated with severe, life-threatening pain during periods” and occurs when tissue similar to the lining of the uterus grows outside the uterus. The WHO says it affects “about 10 percent of women and girls of reproductive age globally” with variable and widespread symptoms.

Hayden knew nothing about endometriosis growing up and believed period pain was something she had to endure.

As a footballer, she was always mindful of when her period was due, especially for championship games, with the added concern of wearing white shorts for fear of bleeding.

She remembers that the day before a championship game against Dublin her period pain was so bad she couldn’t walk and had to be out of the game.

“I know for sure, as a player, I would never have spoken to a coach or a selector, I wouldn’t have. I just felt so bad but I never told anyone why. I just accepted That it’s one of those things. I was more disappointed than not being able to play and letting people down.”

Hayden saw a trend building up as she got older; The fitter she became, the worse the pain.

“I did my cruciate in 2003 so I had a year off and came back in 2004 and it was probably the fittest I’ve ever been. But I think there’s a pattern in my history that the fitter — or when I inter- was reaching the level needed for county football – the endometriosis would get really bad. I would have worse symptoms. It escalated in 2008 and that’s when I had my first surgery. By the way, I still wasn’t aware that it was endometriosis Is.”

Playing football for Carlo meant a lot to Hayden (née Donoghue). She also met her husband John through football.

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Pamela Hayden with her kids Lil and Paudy.

In 2004, Pamela and John both played on the Carlow inter-county teams in Tullamore on the same day, and they met that evening at Carlow’s Night Out.

Three years later, and after winning the Leinster Junior title with Carlo in 2007, Hayden decided she could not continue as her symptoms were worsening.

“I haven’t returned for the 2008 season yet. At this point, I knew I couldn’t live up to my performance and my confidence as a player was gone. It was never for me to talk to the management team about this. Didn’t happen,” Hayden says.

“I took three or four tries to go back and play with Old Leighlin. But every time I got to the level of being really physically strong and really fit, I would get cysts or I would get a bursting cyst. Or I’d have really severe symptoms where you’re off your feet for two weeks.

“You could wake up and you can’t stand because you’re in so much pain. And you’re so dizzy that you can’t put your feet under you and then, because you’re so dizzy, there’s blood loss and Pain – You literally just pass out. You still feel very nauseous.”

Hayden’s family has a history of hysterectomy, but she doesn’t know why. She’s had eight surgeries in total and last year she had a complete hysterectomy involving the complete removal of her right ovary (her left ovary was removed in 2020), her womb, and her cervix.

“I honestly don’t know myself,” says Hayden, who works as a senior quality manager with Boston Scientific. “I never knew I had cysts until they reached a certain size (some of her cysts were 10cm+) and they affected my bladder. I would have been running or I would have been training and I had bladder had no work.

“That was when I knew I had one or was bleeding and then I would have surgery to take it out. Since I had a hysterectomy, my HRT (hormone replacement therapy) is keeping the endo under control. It’s because it still is. I’ll be monitoring it in my 50s, actually. To be honest it’s totally fine. When I’m doing fitness and I’m trying to get strong I’m so sure of it now Is.

“I would love to play longer. At that point, I definitely felt relieved because of the responsibility of my team, teammates and I felt a relief that I didn’t have to worry about it. Would have been able to play in the early 30s because I think without Endo, I certainly could. Even with that I played at a good level.

“I guess it hasn’t held me back in a big way. One thing I love is a greater awareness of what was going on for me.

“Even just for that thought process; ‘Oh, that’s what’s happening.’ I probably didn’t have it in my 30s when it came to fertility and I was starting a family. My two There are kids (daughter, Lil (7) and son, Paudie (5) – I had to help and they are wonderful. I think this awareness would have been so powerful for me.”

Which is why Hayden is telling his story. Two months earlier, she was one of 23 graduates from the Ladies Gaelic Football Association’s Learn to Lead female leadership program.

“Through that course, it’s really helped me find a voice on the subject and just try not to be shy about talking about it because I think it’s a valuable conversation.

“I think if this conversation can raise awareness for a player, but also for your mentors and your coaches. I know we now have female liaison officers in women’s Gaelic football, just this awareness that maybe this player Is something going on or is there an incompatibility.

“LGFA are fantastic, they are such a progressive organization. They have really made a focused effort to keep girls playing and I think this discussion should be an evolution of that.

“Even little things are like dark shorts. A lot of clubs have them now. I think that should just be a no-brainer across the board — it’s for everyone. When I’m in Maynooth We went to college, so we had black shorts and I remember it was a relief.”

Hayden never got a chance to play with Carlo at Croke Park, but she will be there as a back-up lineperson for Sunday’s All-Ireland Junior Finals after becoming a referee in 2018. He is also the coach of his daughter.
Under-10 team. And while her playing days came to an end sooner than she liked, she’s now helping to do her part in trying to make talking about periods more open.

“If you have heavy periods and are experiencing back pain and fatigue, go and have a conversation with your GP or a friend. It is so powerful to know what is happening to your body. Information. And I think we’re getting on a lot better with it. We can’t speak enough about it.”