I Thought Weight-Loss Drugs Were the Answer — Until They Sent Me to the ER

Fitness

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“You’ll be happier when you’re skinnier.”

These words lingered in my head as I sat on my couch at home, staring blankly at the waiting room screen on the telemedicine call. It was a lie I had believed my entire life. Soon, a physician assistant from the virtual primary care clinic joined the meeting and asked a few questions about my health history, why I wanted to lose weight, and my height and weight to calculate my BMI. Although I was fully aware that BMI is an archaic system based on white male bodies, I was still ecstatic to hear that I was considered overweight by medical standards, thus a strong candidate for a revolutionary, new weight-loss drug called tirzepatide. Sold under the brand name Mounjaro, the medication was initially used to address type 2 diabetes until it was approved for weight-loss purposes last year. After debating for months whether to sign up for another costly “medically supervised weight-loss plan,” I began my treatment in February.

When I first heard about Ozempic in 2021 and Mounjaro two years later, I was completely seduced by their promises.

When I first heard about Ozempic in 2021 and Mounjaro two years later, I was completely seduced by their promises — that they would suppress my appetite by slowing down my metabolism, which would silence the persistent “food noise” in my head, as well as eliminate my tendency to overeat and give in to my intense cravings. I saw these medications blowing up on social media with celebrity success stories; they were all over the news, which framed them as “the end of obesity..” I noticed medspas and plastic surgeons around me advertising these options as miracle weight-loss drugs. Before long, consumers were able to conveniently get a prescription online.

I truly believed these medications would stop my lifelong, toxic cycle of binge eating, extreme dieting, and weight cycling. As a Korean American actor, I was always told by industry professionals, friends, and family that I’d be so much prettier and more successful as a performer if I just lost some weight. Unfortunately, fatphobia is deeply ingrained in Asian culture, and it is acceptable to openly comment on others’ bodies under the pretense of genuine concern and care. But the reality is that I was constantly judged, criticized, and humiliated, and somehow that always led me right back to binge eating, followed by food restrictions, calorie counting, obsessive scale monitoring, and rigorous fitness routines.

So this time, I’d become thin for good, with the help of GLP-1 agonists. I was naive enough to think all medical providers cared about me and would treat my mental and physical health holistically. During the seven-minute consultation call, my PA and I briefly discussed my intake form, and I brought up my previous experience with Ozempic — four months of relentless nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, heartburn, panic attacks, and misery — as well as my concerns about the benign nodules in my thyroid my doctor discovered during an ultrasound a few years ago (I was apprehensive after seeing the FDA warnings about GLP-1 agonists causing thyroid cancer in rodents). After hearing my history, the PA recommended Mounjaro over Ozempic, the more well-known weight-loss drug. I asked the PA how bad the side effects would be on Mounjaro and if I should worry about regaining weight once I stopped the protocol. (Two years prior, I had lost 25 pounds on Ozempic, but gained 30 within two months of discontinuing the treatment.) She convinced me that it was completely safe and said that most patients had little to no side effects. She added some may experience a bit of nausea or constipation, but assured me it wouldn’t be as severe as what I had experienced on Ozempic.

Because the treatment was not covered by my insurance, I paid $607 for the initial consultation and a six-week supply of tirzepatide, plus lab fees for a comprehensive metabolic panel. When I received the medication in the mail a few days later, I immediately tore through the insulated pouch and removed the seal from the vial. I felt the cooling sensation of an alcohol wipe as I cleaned a portion of my upper thigh, then administered the first injection into my leg.

Little did I know I would end up in the emergency room four weeks later.

As soon as I started on the lowest dosage of Mounjaro, the nausea hit me. Then, more gastrointestinal issues quickly ensued, including diarrhea, constipation, painful bloating and discomfort from gas, and incessant burping. (When I say burping, I mean foul, rotten-egg burping. Yes, that’s a thing.) I did not have a single bowel movement for four to five days at a time, accompanied by severe stomach cramps, lower back pain, and sleepless nights. I felt lightheaded and weak because I could barely stomach two bites of my meals without feeling incredibly stuffed. Some days, I’d realize that I had only half a banana in 24 hours, but I wouldn’t feel hunger or hear my stomach growl. Still, my PA told me these symptoms were normal and would go away with time. Plus, I saw the numbers dropping on my scale, which affirmed my decision to continue my weekly injections. Just like Ozempic, Mounjaro was making me lose weight so rapidly — but by making me so ill I could barely function.

After four weeks of toughing it out, I woke up on a Sunday morning feeling dizzy and unable to stand up without assistance. It was hard for me to even speak without feeling winded. My husband pointed out that my blood sugar was likely low from essentially starving myself, so he brought me a glass of orange juice. When I got up to use the restroom, my legs gave out and I fell to the ground. After that terrifying moment of losing consciousness, I was quickly rushed to the ER, where the doctor told me to quit taking Mounjaro immediately. He explained that I wasn’t obese and should not have been prescribed it in the first place. He also mentioned the alarming influx of patients coming to the ER with similar side effects on Ozempic and Mounjaro.

I was upset at myself for falling into yet another fad diet trap without carefully considering its effects on my body, and I felt taken advantage of by medical providers who had not informed me of these dangers. I nearly cried with frustration as I discarded what was remaining in my tiny bottle of Mounjaro.

Looking back, it was way too easy for me to get my hands on such a powerful drug.

Looking back, it was way too easy for me to get my hands on such a powerful drug. I was never asked any relevant questions about mental health, body image, or eating disorders. I could have simply lied about my weight just to get access to the medication. I remember how thorough and strict my doctors were when I took Accutane for my acne — the grueling monthly contracts I had to sign requiring contraception and regular blood work. The process for getting semaglutide or tirzepatide seems less regulated, and yet they have the potential to wreak so much havoc on your body. (It’s also important to note that you should not get pregnant, drink alcohol, or undergo general anesthesia while on any GLP-1 agonist.) I also wonder if, like fen-phen, the “miracle” obesity treatment that was popular in the ’90s, these weight-loss drugs that are trendy now will be pulled from the market eventually for some horrendous long-term side effects that we’re not fully aware of yet.

In today’s society, I’m constantly being told I’m not good enough. I willingly put myself through all this agony because I was fixated on fitting an unattainable and unsustainable standard of beauty. It’s so not worth it. It took an expensive ER bill and a major health scare for me to learn how to be kinder to myself and appreciate my body. Now, I’m focusing on redefining what beauty and wellness is for me. I choose to love myself as I am now, not some distant future self when I’m 30 pounds thinner. It might take years to unlearn all of this internalized fatphobia, heal my relationship with food, and stop judging myself so harshly. But I vow to be patient, compassionate, and gentle with myself, while empowering others to do the same.

Helen Hyunbin Han is a South Korean immigrant and owner of two small businesses, Elevate: Modern Massage and Elevate: Pet Boutique. These ventures combine her love for guiding others in their self-care and wellness journey and elevating their furry companions’ quality of life. She is passionate about AAPI issues, mental health awareness, music, movies, theater, and food.

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