When Michelle Robson’s medical team told her at age 42 that she needed to have a complete hysterectomy, she didn’t question it. She had been struggling with GI issues for years and was told by her doctor that there was a possible link between those problems and her reproductive system. “At the time, I trusted what they told me, so I told them to just take it all out,” Michelle told Embr Labs over Zoom this month.
The hysterectomy didn’t solve her problems. In fact, her physical and emotional health almost immediately began to worsen after the procedure had been completed. “You have these incredibly dramatic hormonal changes overnight,” said Michelle. She felt she hadn’t been properly prepared for the sudden shifts her body was making. “You have this huge procedure and aren’t really given much to take afterward,” Michelle explained. “I was given a drug that ultimately I wasn’t able to take. The doctors just didn’t have the information on hormonal therapy to give me the help I needed.”
Michelle began to deal with a host of symptoms related to her hysterectomy and the subsequent early-onset menopause that was a result of the surgery. There were physical symptoms, like night sweats, hot flashes, fatigue, and weight gain. “I had to buy an extra pair of sheets because I’d wake up multiple times in the night with my sheets just soaking wet.”
There were cognitive ones too. “Brain function is a huge issue,” said Michelle. “I would constantly walk into rooms with no idea of why I went in there in the first place. I could watch a movie and 30 minutes later not be able to tell you what happened at the end. ”
As time went on, it became more and more obvious to Michelle that the hysterectomy had been unnecessary. The changes and health difficulties she encountered had huge emotional effects on her, too. She dealt with severe depression, even at points feeling like she no longer wanted to live. “I just didn’t feel like myself,” she explained. “It was like someone I didn’t even know had taken over my body.”
Like many people dealing with “invisible” health issues—particularly women—Michelle felt like she didn’t have any way to express her pain and have that pain validated. She was also angry. She felt that she hadn’t been given the proper resources or knowledge to effectively handle these symptoms. On top of that, Michelle now knew that she had agreed to major surgery without even knowing whether or not it would solve the problems she had been experiencing. She was worried about herself, and other women who might have gone through the same thing. “I was screaming inside, but I wasn't screaming outside.”
Michelle began reading everything she could get her hands on about these issues. She dove headfirst into technical books about hormones and women’s health, searching desperately for more information about how she could move forward. Then, her friend sent her Screaming to be Heard by Dr. Elizabeth Lee Vliet, and things started to click. “I read the first chapter of the book and realized that the woman that they were describing in the book could’ve been me,” she said. “I spent the next full two nights staying up and just reading this book.”
Using what she learned, Michelle was able to get the medical care that she needed to feel better. She found the right mix of treatments that managed her GI issues (the problem that she was told the hysterectomy would fix), as well as the symptoms that arose as a result of the procedure. While Michelle was feeling better, she grew more and more concerned that other women, especially those without the same resources and time as her, were suffering in silence as she had been for so long.
The more digging Michelle did, the more shaken she felt about the misinformation out there about women’s healthcare. So she decided to do something about it. “I realized that the only way that we're going to combat this was for me to start a company where I could get and disseminate great information to women.”
That’s where Michelle started Empowher.com, a news website and peer-to-peer network designed for women to share their own experiences and stories about their own health.
Choosing to start a business wasn’t totally out of the blue for Michelle. “I have always been industrious,” she explained. She had done a wide variety of jobs, from flipping burgers and scooping ice cream to helping organize statewide programs in public schools to part-owning a modeling agency in her late teens.
However, when it came to creating an online platform about women’s health, Michelle felt a little lost. “When I first started EmpowHer, I had no clue what I was doing. Zero. Less than zero.” What she did know, though, was that her personal experiences and vision would create a great place to begin. “I knew if I hired the right people that could stay true to the cause, I would be in a good place.”
Michelle began building the women’s health website, in hopes that it could provide the information and community that she needed when she was dealing with the aftermath of her hysterectomy. She released EmpowHer to the public in 2010 and saw people flock to it. “We had a really high volume of visitors a month, up to ten million at its peak.”
She maintained the website while becoming an influential figure in the world of women’s health advocacy. Michelle’s experiences running the site have been hugely impactful. “It allowed me to go have these amazing conversations with a ton of different women,” said Michelle. “You wouldn’t believe the number of women that came up to me after speaking events to tell me how EmpowHer and the work I’ve done has made them feel less alone.”
Michelle is now working on a separate venture that started with her work with EmpowHer, SkinSafe, that helps people find safe and hypoallergenic skincare products easily. “It all ties back,” she said. “I was having issues with my skin, and I wanted to help others and myself find solutions. It’s what I did after my hysterectomy, I had to start another darn company.”
Getting women access to what they need to feel better, whether it be information about physical products, is at the heart of a lot of what Michelle does. “The Wave is exactly the kind of thing I want to help spread out there,” she said. “I love mine, and it’s a great alternative for women who may not be able to or want to get hormones.”
Perhaps the most important thing she learned through her journey of creating EmpowHer was the value of sharing your story, and speaking out when you need to. “As women, we’re told we are not allowed to feel the things that we do,” she said. “And that’s wrong. We’re allowed to not feel well. We’re allowed to talk about what’s happening with our bodies and not feel guilty about it.”