Feeling My Body Fail

This has been a rough six months on top of a weird twenty years.  I’d learned to deal with diabetes, fibromyalgia, chronic pain, degenerative disc disease, nocturnal seizures (left temporal), degenerative joint disease, GERD, and the temporary effects of acute disorders like multiple pulmonary emboli (all three lobes of my right lung and right pulmonary artery), and acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL), or acute myelocytic leukemia- subtype M-3.   The longterm effects of chemo have been rough and more noticeable  in the last few months, and the thought at this time is that much (not all)  of what has been going on recently is a combination of chemo effects, and  the progressive nature of diabetes (even with good control, though chemo totally ripped my blood sugars to shreds).  I had chemo DAILY for 20 months (ATRA – all trans retinoic acid, M6 mercaptopurine, arsenic, methotrexate, and initially daunarubicin, ara-C, and assorted meds for nausea, fluid retention, and protective eye drops.  I was also on gentamicin and vancomycin for most of six weeks.  I think that things are just catching up.

This summer, a lot started to happen at once.  The GERD (reflux) got really bad, so I was sent to a gastroenterologist (GI) for some testing.  Most of those tests turned out relatively OK (to a cancer survivor, that means nothing malignant… something could be rotting and ready to fall off of my body, but if it’s not cancer, it’s pretty much OK).  I have chronic gastritis (so no more NSAIDs – or ibuprofen type meds which is a bummer for pain management), and some irritation in my esophagus, and I was supposed to have a gastric emptying test (related to gastroparesis- a diabetes complication, but because of pain, I can’t lie on my back as long as is required…. and if I burp yesterday’s lunch in the morning, that tells me something isn’t moving).  I tried to have the esophageal manometry test done last week, but SURPRISE !!!  I couldn’t swallow the tube !   I’m being tested for swallowing problems.  Now, I have to be knocked out, and have the tube put in under anesthesia, woken up, then swallow water 10-12 times, then have the tube pulled out).   I’ve had to eliminate a few foods/food groups, but that’s OK.   Marinara sauce, chili, fried foods, ‘high volume’ foods (like full meals), and some other things are out of the picture for the GERD. I cheat once in a while, but have to have Tums and Gas-X available.   For the swallowing issues, dry foods, meat without ‘lube’ (sauce, gravy, stewed), celery, hard breads, rice without some type of moisture, etc are out.  I literally have to pull the food out of my throat before inhaling when something gets stuck.  I keep 8-inch curved hemostats next to where I eat. It’s rather scary.

The pain.  Oy.  I don’t remember ‘pain free’.  I’d gotten used to just dealing with it, but this summer, the neuropathic pain got very noticeable, and the burning pain along my right outer thigh got really bad at night.  Now both of my feet burn at night- though neither of them are every night.  The sensation during the day along my right leg is weird.  If I stand too long, I feel like my leg will give out.  I got a wheelchair last week, and the one time I have used it so far (only need it away from home at this point) has been very helpful.  I’m going to have to use the scooter at the grocery store from now on, and not have a three-day recovery period every month when I go to do my main shopping. I’ve got a few volunteers who have agreed/offered to come with me to push the larger cart.  It’s just too much now to do monthly shopping.  The pain management  doctor (board certified in pain management, and ‘legit’… no lines around the block, no shady characters in the waiting room, and lots of rules about how he does things that I respect) said that if the methadone doesn’t work, then the next step is a peripheral nerve stimulator… kind of like  a pacemaker device implanted under my skin that sends out little zings to trick how my body perceives pain. (BTW, methadone is a legitimate pain med, not just used for exchanging it for heroin in drug addicts).    I am usually pretty tough during diagnostic tests, and have had many, many MRIs over the years, but this summer I had to bail before the “with” contrast part was done.  I was in tears just getting the “without” part done.

I did get through the EMG (done at my neurologist’s office, by her), which clarified that it’s a progressive sensory peripheral neuropathy… it’s gonna get worse.  The implications are kind of scary. I’m already noticing some altered sensation in my hands- so being in the kitchen is a little dicey (pun intended).  And, if I lose sensation in my right foot, driving will be out of the question.  Right now, I have enough sensation- and I don’t drive much, so it’s OK for now.   A couple of weeks ago, I was opening a box of stuff I’d ordered (monthly Amazon or Walmart supplies) and I didn’t feel the inner angle of the scissors ‘catching’ part of the ‘pad’ of  my right thumb… and it got cut off (about the size of a pencil eraser- and completely cut off about 1mm deep).  :/   That was pretty sore for a while.  It’s still not completely healed, but much better.  I’m going to have to pay much more attention to hands and feet.  The decrease in sensation means that I could whack something off, get an infection, and end up with an amputation (pretty common in diabetics).   ‘Help’ aids for opening jars, buying pre-cut veggies at the store, etc are going to be things to consider.  I got one jar opening thingie, and it was useless…. it fit around the tops of many sized jars, but without the strength to hold the jar in my left hand, it’s pointless.   I can still do the vacuum release move with an old cheesy can opener, and then get the lids off- at least for now.

My blood sugars were also getting wonky again so it was back to the endocrinologist. She wanted me to try a new type of long-acting insulin- but as usual, I had to check my Medicare plan D formulary to see if it was covered, and at what ‘tier’ for copay purposes… this year, it’s not good; next year I can get it !!  I’m so excited to be able to get a type of insulin that wasn’t popular in the 70s !!  She got me enough samples to get through until January 1st, which brought me to tears.  The short acting insulin is also going to be doable next year- and she got me samples of those as well !!    It requires me to pay three times more for my monthly premium next year, but it’s SO worth it for no deductible, full donut-hole coverage, and good monthly copays for each medication (I’m on something like 15 prescription meds and many over the counter meds that are always out of pocket).

Then there are the changes in the symptoms with the autonomic neuropathy /dysautonomia.  I was sent to a cardiologist (I’ve been trying to cut down on the number of docs I see, and that plan isn’t working well).  Because of multiple medication changes for my blood pressure meds (which is actually used to keep my blood pressure UP in a paradoxical way), and my blood pressure going down far enough for long enough to decrease blood flow to my kidneys ( that was ‘fixed’ with medication changes and more deliberate fluid intake), I needed someone to take a look at what is going on.  Dialysis has always been ‘the’ diabetic complication that I’m not sure I’d get treatment for; a machine 3 times a week indefinitely doesn’t sound like quality of life to me.  Anyway, the cardiologist sent me for a simple ultrasound of my heart (ECHO) and did a simple EKG.  No results on the ECHO yet.  She adjusted a couple of meds, and the next step is to add another med, which I do NOT want.   I’ve had a LOT of episodes of near syncope and increased heart rate (not necessarily at the same time, but if my heart rate stays up, I generally pass out because it will suddenly drop; I have to get home and get my feet up or just go to bed – which usually takes care of it).

So, I’ve seen my primary care doc, gastroenterologist, pain management doc, neurologist, endocrinologist, and cardiologist since this summer.  I do not like doctors’ appointments.  Leaving home is painful.  They usually want to order tests, which means more time away from home.   I appreciate their help (though the GI situation is horrible to get anything done; right now, I’m waiting to get the anesthesia assisted tube placement to measure esophageal spasms -achalasia is suspected-, and they have a very blasé attitude, even when I’m pulling food out of my throat because it won’t go down).   I need to get things treated to the point of maintaining independence as much as possible.  And, I’m going to have to suck it up and ask for help when needed.   That is hard, since most of my friends are 1200 miles away… or have lives/families/jobs/etc.   And I don’t like to be ‘dependent’.

I know I have a lot to be thankful for.  I’m still in my own apartment.  I still have my dog.  My dad is around (he’s 83, and has a full life; he’d help but the ongoing commentary at the grocery store for a full month’s shopping would be too much- he doesn’t shop for more than a few days since he eats out a lot), and he is a huge part of my life.  I have a lot of online friends and family.   I’ve got family in other states that I’m in contact with.  There’s a lot of good.   But it’s hard to see things changing.  Fortunately, as an RN- disabled, but still have my license- I know what to look for, and know what types of ‘help’ devices are out there.   I know when to ask my doc for things like the wheelchair.    I’ve got some word-finding issues, but my brain seems to be mostly intact- LOL.  😀   Always stuff to be thankful for 🙂

 

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I’m SO Sick of Pink Cancer Ribbons… Hear Me Out, Please !!

We’re all pretty well aware of cancer.  The pink ribbons are really marketing tools- and that’s fine.  But it really chaps my hide to see the pink ones so prominently.  Like it’s the “most important” cancer… what about prostate, lung, thyroid, pancreatic, liver, bone, colon, testicular, brain, pediatric, blood, skin, and other cancers?  Any cell in the body can become cancerous.   We need PLAID ribbons.  (The rainbow has been taken).  Let everybody have equal showing in the cancer awareness campaigns.  I’d wear a ribbon that represented all cancer struggles.

I don’t have anything “against” breast cancer (my mom had bilateral mastectomies, along with lung and brain metastasis).  But what about all of the other folks out there?  Just last year, my cousin Kathy died after a 10 month hellish fight with neuroendocrine colon cancer, my dad’s friend Marilyn died after a 9 month horrible battle with ovarian cancer, and my uncle Lee died from esophageal cancer just weeks after diagnosis.  In the past, my biological father (Phil) died from brain cancer (metastasized from his kidney, dead at age 49; we never met because of cancer), a cousin’s wife (Pat) had kidney cancer that went to her liver (was also in her bladder), my dad  (adoptive guy I grew up with from the time I was 10 days old) had thyroid cancer 3 years ago, two cousins’ wives had blood cancers , I’ve had leukemia, another cousin’s husband  had prostate cancer, another aunt with breast cancer,  another one who had to deal with knowing she had genetic predisposition to breast cancer,  and there are many other relatives that I’m forgetting (or can’t remember the actual site) that matter.   Then there are the friends – several with stage 4 cancers (lung, colon, and colon going to lung and liver) who are still fighting or have done well .  And some who lost that fight.  They all deserve to be recognized for their battles.  I’m just one person who knows this many people who have or had cancer.  I’m not naming the ones who are still alive.

I have been an RN for 30 years.  While I’m disabled now, I took care of a LOT of cancer patients (mostly on a surgical floor- and we also did ‘end of life’ palliative care; we couldn’t fix them, just ease their last weeks and days).  Four stand out.  One was a Holocaust survivor with terminal colon cancer (the sweetest lady, who had more than her share of hell on earth).  Then there was the 40 year old construction worker who had just had a melanoma removed (still had sutures) when he started having headaches.  After 3 trips to the ER, they did a CT scan of his brain, and found multiple sites. He was admitted (I was the admitting nurse), and found that he had lung, bone, and liver metastasis as well…. he lived for a month. I pronounced him dead and watched the funeral home take him away.  There was the lady who had just had a baby and was having trouble breast feeding; ends up that stage 4 breast cancer was blocking her milk ducts.  She’d never see that baby grow up.  There was the lady with pancreatic cancer, who was ‘Big Bird yellow’ and looked like someone had strapped a basketball to her belly because of fluid accumulation; she had a miserable last few weeks.  There were dozens, if not hundreds, besides those four that I took care of (mostly as a charge nurse- so not direct care in some cases).   When I worked neuro, as a direct bedside care nurse, there were a LOT of brain tumor patients.  The malignant ones never ended well.  Glioblastoma multiformae (GBM) – stage 4 = grim prognosis.  The tumor has ‘tendrils’ that bore into the surrounding brain tissue to never be fully removable.  Though stage 4 in some sites is more and more treatable- much more than when I was still working- it is still generally felt that stage 4 means that is what the person will die from.  But there are never any accurate timelines; more people are living longer WITH  stage 4 cancer than ever before.

Then there are  the two little relatives of a friend of mine, just a couple of years ago-Cole and Sadie (nephew and niece) – diagnosed within weeks of each other, who both died… an 11 year old and 8 year old.  One had the same type of leukemia I had, and went to the ER on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, not feeling well since the day before; he went into a coma on the helicopter transport to a larger hospital, and was gone the next morning.  Never saw it coming.  No symptoms that were red flags.   The 8 year old survived less than a year after a diagnosis of  GBM Stage 4… St. Jude’s did what they could… but glios are notoriously tough to treat.  Then there were the kids when I was a kid- one who had brain cancer when I was in 3rd grade (he was in 4th grade- his name was Mark), a friend’s 8 year old ‘big’  brother (I was in first grade when he died- I still remember hearing about him dying.  His name was Thor.)…  Facebook is full of kids with cancer.  I can’t handle that type of grief, even if I don’t know them… what their families and friends go through is just heartbreaking.  I’ve heard parents make that guttural, primal  scream of that ultimate loss when I worked pediatrics (our PICU was connected by a narrow hall, and those sounds travelled).  The pain they feel is palpable.

I had acute promyelocytic leukemia- the most lethal leukemia if not treated (many folks diagnosed at autopsy after some type of ‘bleed’ or hemorrhage ), and the best outcome if treated- per  my oncologist.  The average survival without treatment after onset is ONE month.   I was very lucky (or more like God was looking out for me).  I had no specific symptoms- I’m disabled with a bunch of diagnoses, so I never feel “good”.  I just happened to get my annual lab work for my diabetes, and it showed a BAD ‘complete blood count’ (CBC).  Like really bad.  It took 2 weeks to get an appointment with the oncologist, and he scheduled a bone marrow biopsy for the next week.  That was 3 1/2 weeks of my month ( I didn’t know that then).  The weekend before that, I felt bad. I went to the ER, and stayed for 6 weeks, starting induction chemo.  I then had 50 dose (2 25-dose cycles of Monday-Friday for 5 weeks x 2 cycles) of ARSENIC (Trisenox- look it up 😉 ).  Then another year of maintenance chemo.  My body has never been the same.  No eyebrows or eyelashes aren’t that big of a deal- but the increasing neuropathy and weird weight gain has been rough.

So, I’m not cold or indifferent to cancer.   I’m just tired of the boobs getting the press above the others.  This month, the NFL will have their players in pink shoes and other accessories (they look ridiculous).  Go figure… the boobs win out as to who gets their public support.   It’s kind of a kick in the face for those with other cancer struggles, wins, and losses.  They are ALL important.  All of the survivors and lost fighters are important.  They all deserve some undeniable recognition.  If someone sees an orange ribbon (leukemia) or yellow ribbon (pediatric cancer), do they know what those are for?   So, I suggest plaid.  Get everybody in there.  Weave them all together, since so many cancers spread.  Maybe finish them with the color of the cancer a specific person has.  But acknowledge them all.  They all matter.  Nobody struggles more than anyone else.  Everybody needs funding for research.

I will very rarely ‘share’ Facebook posts about any cancer.   I feel for those struggling with it, and for those who have lost family and friends to cancer.  It’s not because I don’t care.  It’s because I’m sick of SO many being affected.  And only the pink ribbons being ‘iconic’. Everybody with cancer matters, and deserves to have money funded into research for their type of cancer… not just the boobs.

Does It Ever End?

I’m sure the dysautonomics out there will totally ‘get’ this.   Even as an RN for 30 years (the last 11 on disability, but I keep my license active to deal with myself !), I’m constantly learning about things I never bothered with much before.  It all ‘worked’, so no need to pay attention to some stuff.  Like the low blood pressure issues.  I’ve pretty much lived by the motto that if it doesn’t cause symptoms, don’t focus on it.  Well, that’s not a good philosophy.    I found out that my blood pressure had been low enough for long enough to decrease blood flow through my kidneys, leaving abnormal renal function tests.   I’d had a few ‘foggy’ episodes that correlate with hypotension, but I’ve got dysautonomia !  I always have some vital sign parameter that is off kilter.   Anyway, some medication changes have helped, which is a huge relief.  Dialysis has always been something I would seriously have to consider if I did it or not… and if not, that means life would be short.  If I could do the nighttime dialysis at home, I’d do that.  But going out three days a week, every week, indefinitely…. uh, no.   Especially when it’s 20 below zero windchill.  Fortunately, the last set of tests were better- so a definite scare, but not a disaster.

For the last few months, I’ve also had horrific right thing burning pain at night.  I only lasted through the “without” contrast MRI (lying on my back ‘in the tube’ had me in tears…. I’ve joked during bone marrow biopsies.  The MRI pain was worse; I’ve had many MRIs in the past, and they are no big deal… I left this one in tears).  The burning comes and goes- so it’s not like it’s every night, which is good.  My right thigh is also visibly ‘shrinking’.  So, with the pain and atrophy, I’m scheduled for another EMG in a few weeks.  It scares me that I won’t be fully ambulatory for as long as I’d hoped for…  I’ve been walking more, the further out from chemo I get.  I hope it’s enough to keep me vertical and independent.

I’ve also been having some GI tests done because my GERD/reflux has been bad.   The endoscopy just showed chronic gastritis, so nothing that’s going to kill me.  That’s good 🙂   I’m postponing two tests at this point until the leg thing gets taken care of, since the gastric emptying test requires me to be on my back for FOUR HOURS.   Not likely to happen at this point.  Nausea is pretty much a routine symptom.   I’m not sure that swallowing the manometry thingie would work all that well.  I also need a break from some of this stuff.

In the middle of all of this, my dog needed to have a toe amputated.   It has been about a  5 week ordeal, with trying antibiotics in case the swelling was an infection, then the surgery and sutures in for two weeks.  Now, she’s getting back to normal, and will go for a much-needed haircut at a good salon this week. The toe issues started (maybe coincidence ) after going to a chain store groomer. They lied on the ‘report’ that the nails had been done… they had not.  I have little tolerance for lying.   Anyway, she’s going to be OK.

I haven’t written a lot lately.  I’m tired.

The Weird Thing About PTSD

I was raped, sodomized, and beaten for six hours back in January 1987.  Twenty-eight years ago.  Initially, I knew what I “should” feel like, but didn’t really register much.  But that wasn’t really anything new- I’d been pretty good about not registering specific feelings for a long time.  As I’ve gotten older, and had more life experiences, the specific emotions have become much more identifiable.  And unpleasant.  I’ve been through enough therapy to recognize specific feelings, as well as have a greater understanding of what others go through who have been in similar situations.  And sometimes, not so similar situations.  Those can be triggers as well.

I had never been much of a crier.  I’d boo hoo once in a while, but for the most part, I could suck things up and move on.  That has changed.  Some of that is from a good thing: I’ve been able to understand how other people feel with both good and bad events.   That has been a huge ‘plus’ in so many ways, but it also makes my own memories and reactions that much more intense.  I’m a regular faucet now whenever there’s anything that remotely sets off my own memories.  Doesn’t even have to be all that similar.  Just has to trigger a feeling of some sort.

With another parole protest going on, I’m even more on edge.  For the most part, my daily functioning is ‘normal’.  Movies and TV shows can be really tough.  The news stories can be absolutely grueling.  I feel SO badly for those who are violated and/or lose a significant part of their life.   I have to ‘pace’ my exposure to the news.  With TV and movies, I generally have seen most of the episodes before from several series, so know to ‘brace’ myself during specific scenes… but sometimes even that doesn’t work so well.   In one episode of “Law & Order: SVU”, ‘Olivia’ walks out into the squad room after having been held hostage by a serial rapist/stalker who takes her out of the city to a seasonal house (that doesn’t belong to him).  She beats the snot out of him, and has to make a statement.  When she walks out into the squad room, it brings up all sorts of feelings of when I had to walk out of the apartment of my neighbor, after being raped.  There were news stations/cameras and people lining the sidewalk, and looking at me.  One of them lowered her camera, and looked down- giving me the first bit of dignity after that life-changing event.  When ‘Olivia’ walks through that group of people, it stirs up so much.

Some would argue that watching such shows as “Law & Order: SVU” and “Criminal Minds” are poor choices given my background, but I disagree.   In those shows, they show as much as they can about the impact that crime has on the survivors (I hate the term ‘victim’) and, they get the bad guy in 48 minutes.  The good guys win.  There are characters that include the ‘collateral damage’ of crimes against individuals.  And sometimes, the shows are hard to watch.  But it was much harder to live through an event that would be a plausible story line for those shows.

I’ve been much more ‘tender’ this time around with the parole protest.  I’m getting so tired of them, but at the same time, I feel responsible to keep fighting to keep him locked up.   He doesn’t deserve to be out. He agreed to a 60 year sentence in a plea bargain.    He offends EVERY time he’s on parole. Since he was 18 years old, parole is just another opportunity to rack up more ‘victims’.  I’m angry that the woman he attacked prior to attacking me just blew off sentencing.  Had she made sure he got as much time as possible, I wouldn’t have been raped.   I don’t want that same burden on my shoulders.  I may not be able to control the decisions of the parole board, but I am involved.  If they let him out, it’s on them.

In the meantime, I have to talk myself down now and then.  And sometimes, I have to just let myself cry and feel whatever is going on.  On good days, I write.  And every day, I have to remember how much I have to be thankful for.   PTSD isn’t something that gradually resolves in a predictable manner.  It comes and goes when the triggers set something off that is associated with some memory or feeling.  It doesn’t have to make sense.  It just is.

 

Brain Dump… or Just Getting Weird

OK, for those who know me, the ‘getting weird’ part might be nothing newsworthy.  I go through times when I’m skating along fairly well with the medical stuff, and then something happens, which freaks me out because of the cancer history and neurological issues, and I get in a funk.  I’ve been having trouble swallowing consistently, and have finally asked for a referral to the ENT (should hear about an appointment time soon).  Raw carrots and medications get stuck regularly, and things like rice or dry chicken are sometimes downright scary.   I guess I’ll find out about that when I finally get to the appointment.

The continued atrophying of my thigh muscles is still an issue.  I do what I can to stretch, walk around the apartment, take out the trash, and do my own grocery shopping (very painful).  The days after my monthly grocery store trip are generally miserable- but I’m also not good at taking the pain meds.   I try to make them last, and since hydrocodone is now a Schedule II (and requires a paper prescription for each refill- no faxing from the pharmacy), it’s inconvenient and painful to go get them. But, I’m going to have to give up and just go get them.  My doc can give me two refills per trip- just all dated for different months – so have to be filled at spaced intervals.  And, I have to take them.  I’m meticulous with other meds- but the pain meds hit me the wrong way- like I just need to buck up and get a grip.  That doesn’t work well when I’m lightheaded from the pain.

My blood pressure is also shifting (going low), so that is a problem.  I’m adjusting the meds for that.   I’m requiring less insulin, which is good- but sort of trial and error as I readjust the dose.  None of these things are any big deal… but sometimes the pile-up of several things is exhausting.  I’ve also lost a little weight (about 25 pounds from highest chemo weight; 14 since March 1st )- so that’s good, but still trying to shed more.  But I bailed out of Nutrisystem.  It was getting too focused on numbers, and my history doesn’t bode well with compulsive number calculations.  I get back into thinking about how much easier it is to lose weight when I’m NOT following some relatively rigid rules.  I think it’s a good program, but NOT for someone with a history of eating disorders.  I could feel those old patterns swinging from the rafters of my brain.

Then I look at the world at large, and the horrible things people do to each other.  I’m not going to go into specifics, since I’ll just get upset.   When I see tragedy on TV, I just want to reach through the screen and wrap my arms around those who are suffering.  SO, I pick and choose what I watch anymore. Tonight I had the weather on, as we were having severe storms again, and more tornadoes hit the area.  We had an EF-4 come through on April 9th that really tore up one whole town, and heavily damaged another subdivision.  Tonight, a 6,200 ‘lot’ camping ground was hit.  They’re still looking for people as I write this.  The other towns hit in April haven’t got their lives back together, and now some folks 10-12 miles away are looking for their lives, that are scattered around the neighborhood.  As of now, they know of 5 who are injured, and trapped  by flood waters.  But they haven’t accounted for everyone yet.

The shooting in South Carolina was an abhorrent act- and the congregation of that church are amazing examples of how NOT to hate back.  Truly inspirational people, and all before a week has gone by since nine of their friends and family were mowed down.

My brain is tired.  My limited ability to DO anything to help is so frustrating  (I can’t be outside in this weather because of the heat intolerance).    And yet, I have SO MUCH to be thankful for- and I do realize that.  I’m very blessed in so many ways.    Today, I got something I’d wanted to try for a while – Mexican street tacos- they were outstanding, and a real treat since I don’t leave home more than 2-3 times a month for groceries and MD appointments.  This did make me happy today 🙂  They were so good.

Street Tacos with steak, pork, and beef tongue (which was like pot roast)

Street Tacos with steak, pork, and beef tongue (which was like pot roast)

Sometimes, I just need to blow off steam 🙂

Sometimes Being Homebound and Isolated is Really Hard

Considering what has gone on with three people who have been very important in my life this year (they died), I have to know that I’m very fortunate.  Two had battles with horrible cancers between 9 and 10 months long, and one had a sudden collapse with an aortic dissection, but lived two more days…. she had been over a few weeks earlier talking about limited time. Maybe she know something was up, or was just being realistic that at 89 years old, she wanted to get things in order.   We had a really nice visit that I’m so thankful for.  The one who had the 9 month battle with colon cancer is a cousin I had a lot of  phone and e-mail contact with during her horrific struggle.  The other was my dad’s lady friend from church;she and  his first cousin (with the aortic dissection) had services last week.  I wasn’t able to go to either, but did at least meet the lady friend’s family, who I’d heard about for years, and felt a need to pay respects to them; we’d all heard about each other for years. I couldn’t stay long, but at least I popped in after the service for a few minutes.  I will miss them especially during the holidays, but also in general, as they were either family, or just about, as she and dad were buddies for church dinners, going out with friends, etc.

Overall, I really do realize how fortunate I am, but I don’t have many perky days when all is sunny and wonderful. There are some times when I just get overwhelmed when I think about what I used to be like.  Other days, I do my best to get by, and I do still have a lot that I enjoy from home. I still get to help out family and friends with medical  questions/translations- and I’m very glad to do that.  It helps me feel useful in some way.  And I get rather nostalgic about the days when I was working 3 12-hour shifts a week as a charge nurse in some sort of facility (hospital, drug/alcohol rehab, adolescent psych), or the Monday-Friday desk jobs entering assessment data into the computer for Medicare reimbursement and/or care planning for skilled nursing facilities.  I also did some stints on neuro floors, head injury rehab, and pediatrics- so a greatly varied career that I miss.  A great thing about nursing, especially in Central, rural Texas between 1985 – 2002, is that when I’d get bored with something, I had no problem finding another job within days.  Sometimes the offers were waiting for me on my answering machine when I got home from the interview.  Being an ADN, and not having a 4-year degree was never an issue, either as a staff nurse, charge nurse, weekend supervisor (only RN in the building/facility), or department head.  I was lucky to graduate from nursing school in 1985 when we were expected to know how to do procedures and skills, or we didn’t graduate.

Then came disability in 2004.  I fought through 8 years (starting in Texas) of trying different medications to regulate the fainting and weird episodes where I turn beet red, then a bluish red, before becoming pale and cold like a corpse. For eight years, I muddled through, and even had several decent years after the neurologist down there wanted to try an off-label medication.  By the time I was told I was no longer OK to work (by my boss in IL in 2004), it crushed me.  My identity had always been as an RN.  I didn’t have a husband or kids, so no other roles.  My relationships were all with co-workers in Texas ( even though I’d moved back to Illinois, where I was basically thrown away- nobody returned calls, and one former coworker went out of her way to avoid me at the grocery store).  I’d gotten sick- I hadn’t embezzled anything !  I guess it’s a Yankee thing. :/

That started some very chaotic years of figuring out what meds would help with the worsening symptoms (fainting more often, with some injuries including a concussion, and torn meniscus on my right knee requiring a knee replacement, some very strange medication interactions that caused a small stroke, many blood clots in my right lung, and ultimately leukemia (AML, subtype 3, or APL) which required chemo that worsened the autonomic disorder with thigh atrophy and increased sensitivity to heat).  I was a ‘regular’ at one of the ERs early on, and they treated me like trash.  Had I not gone to a decent ER with the blood clots in my lungs, I likely would have died – they were numerous in all three lobes of my right lung and pulmonary artery, and in various acute, subacute, and chronic stages.  The apex of my heart had pressure against it from my lung pushing into it.  It was bad. I only went to the hospital because I thought I was having a heart attack.

I’ve been essentially homebound for ten years.  I’m not sure that many people really understand what that means when “friends” here (coworkers) disappeared as soon as I left the parking lot on my last day.  I do have my dad, and a couple of friends here- one in particular makes an effort to come over periodically, and has done a LOT of work helping me get things organized so that I can get “stuff” minimized around here. She has been incredibly helpful once we found each other again on FB a few years ago.  I have been invited to family holiday parties- which I can attend one of, after everyone eats, since hot food in close proximity to body heat of other people is a problem- so I go when I’m less likely to stick out as being totally weird.  I really like that family bunch, and I hope I don’t come across as not liking them.  I just can’t tolerate a room over 66 degrees.

There are days when I don’t hear another human voice other than my dad (who is 82 and healthy, so I’m very thankful for that). We try to do daily “attendance” checks with each other, and he is really a huge asset in my life for many reasons… he always has my back.  I know he will never give me bad advice.   I might not see another human more than once a week (again, dad) for a few weeks at a time.  The phone rarely rings… usually it’s dad, my birth mom, or a reminder for  a doctors’ appointment or test (this week it’s an abdominal/pelvic CT for some intense bloating likely related to the autonomic problem).  Facebook is my primary form of contact, and I’m incredibly grateful for that; prior to getting this laptop from my birth mom and cousin, I was even more alone… now I can at least keep up with people I’ve known for years, whether from work, family, or childhood.   I challenge anyone to unplug the phone, have nobody show up at their door, and not hear another live voice in person for days (and occasionally weeks) at a time. It takes getting used to- and even now, it’s still hard.

I miss seeing co-workers and patients.  I miss being able to just go out and do something social without having to deal with the logistics of cooling vest equipment, distance from home, how I’m going to get there, can I leave if I need to, etc.  There are no ‘going out to lunch’ days (who would I go with?).  My dad is the one I go places with on the days when I can go (and I know I’m the most undependable ‘date’ with frequent last minute cancellations because of symptoms of some sort).  He knows that when my cheeks turn a deep bluish-red that it’s time to go.  And he’s always willing to take me anywhere.

People don’t understand that I can’t unload the dishwasher and fold laundry in the same day, or I end up with spasms from the base of my skull to my lower back, and am useless for a day or two.  Chronic pain isn’t ‘seen’.  Fibromyalgia and degenerative disc disease are chronic and  the DDD, will get worse (degenerative is a clue)- so I pace what I do as much as possible.  I miss the days when I’d set my mind to doing something around my apartment, and not stop until it was done.  That’s long gone.  I ‘look OK’, so I’m not sure people understand that I really am doing the best I can.  I live independently (getting many things delivered to my apartment from Schwan’s- frozen foods, Amazon, and Walmart).  I go to the store about once a month… maybe twice if it’s a good week about halfway between disability checks.   I still want to do as much as I can myself, so I don’t lose any more muscle mass.  The initial chemo took up about 20 pounds of muscle, and then the neuropathy in my thighs took much more – while I gained weight on chemo (not easy for my head to deal with, or to get rid of the poundage).

I’ve written about the expenses of Medicare and medications not covered in other posts. Buying insulin from a part D plan guarantees that anyone on it will go into the dreaded ‘donut hole’ where meds are NOT covered by the Medicare drug plans.  Most diabetics are on several medications.  The donut hole is dangerous.   The ‘good’ insulin is upwards of $200 per vial….between the two types of insulin I use , if I got it from the part D company, that would be $600 a month just for that- minimum… Thank God for the  cheap stuff from Walmart; I’d be sunk without it.  I don’t understand why insulin (the better stuff ) – a drug that is absolutely necessary for many diabetics- is so  unattainable.   I worry about this sort of stuff…

But mostly, I miss the things that I used to take for granted… seeing coworkers, having daily contact with other humans, having a purpose that felt like ‘me’ (being an RN), and not having to plan for every contingency every time I leave the apartment, even if it’s only for an hour.   My short term memory and word-finding are still not back to normal after chemo.   Going to the store for fresh produce every week has been long gone.  I might figure out something with dad, to go with him a couple of times  a week to get fresh fruit and veggies.

I really do have a LOT to be thankful for.  I have survived a lot.  During my 55 year old cousin’s final weeks, she weakly asked why I was allowed to live and she wasn’t- not in a nasty way, but in a tone that just sounded like she was trying to make sense of things.   I don’t know.  I know I must have some reason to still be here.  I hope I can make a difference somehow.  The blog helps… I keep track of my stats, and more than 100 countries have hit more than 16, 000 times.  At least people know I’m still here… that and Facebook. And my dad and a couple of people I see every month or two.  That they take time out of their busy lives (and they are busy !!) means a lot.

I’ve got God, my dad, my birth mom, folks on FB, and my dog- who is my main companion and pretty good at it 🙂   So, even though I miss what my life was, I’m at least alive, and still able to live alone, and figure out how to get things I need.   I truly am thankful for that. I know that there are others out there who struggle a lot more.  I remember those people I used to take care of that were never going to live on their own again.  I don’t know where the dysautonomia, diabetes, degenerative disc disease, degenerative  joint disease, or lung scars from the clots are going to lead me… but I’m sure I’ll figure it out.  I always seem to land on my feet 😉

Dysautonomia Awareness Month…. I’m Very ‘Aware’ All Year, Every Year

OK.  October is Dysautonomia Awareness Month… With Breast Cancer Awareness Month at the same time, nobody will care about dysautonomia.  Men are more than likely behind the sanctity of boobs, so along with being a rare disorder that people really are NOT aware of, there is the whole ta ta thing that people go all pink for, and dysautonomia remains a mystery to most, if they ever hear about it at all.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not ‘against’ cancer awareness, but who on the planet with a pulse and working brainstem isn’t aware of  breast cancer?  I’ve known and do know many women with breast cancer (including my mom, who died in 2003 after surviving multiple cancer sites for 17 years, dying from something unrelated). I understand that any cancer diagnosis is a nightmare (I’ve been there, with leukemia).  (And why is there no blue ribbon with balls on it for testicular cancer awareness? Ladies? ).   Anyway, dysautonomia is something that I’ve lived with for decades- probably longer than it was diagnosed.  It didn’t flatten me until 2004.  And most doctors are clueless.  The general population can’t even pronounce it.  Dis-auto-gnome-ee-ah.

Every morning, I wake up not knowing if I’ll be able to actually get out of bed and begin my day without my head spinning as my blood pressure tanks.  Will my peripheral vision begin to narrow, and will my hearing get muffled?  Or will I actually be able to get up and not have to lie down again?  When I get in the shower, will I get that ‘sweet spot’ in the temperature of the water where I get a nice hot shower, or will it be too hot, and once again start the process of passing out?  My heat intolerance isn’t about temperature preference or comfort, it’s about staying conscious.   My thermostat must stay around or below 64 degrees, or I start to have symptoms.  Fifty degrees is much better if I’m outside.  I wear a light snap-front sweatshirt, left open,  when it’s in the 40s.  If I leave home to go into another building where I have no control over the thermostat, I have to wear 5 pounds of cooling vest inserts.  To stay conscious.  I’ll start to ‘burn up’ for no good reason (and this is NOT hot flashes- I’ve had those, and they are totally different).  Or I’ll get so tired, that doing anything is overwhelming.

I ‘look OK’… aside from being overweight, and having very few eyebrows post chemo (which at this point has to be permanent), I look fine.  That’s all well and good- but it can also be very frustrating when trying to explain why I can’t do something.  I also have multiple ‘other’ medical and orthopedic problems (discs, knees, spine, epilepsy, diabetes, yadda, yadda, yadda…), so when I’m walking I look a bit gimpy, but the dysautonomia is totally invisible if I’m not lit up like a red stop light from severe flushing when the dysautonomia spells kick in.  My thigh muscles have atrophied (probably from diabetes and chemo), which looks weird, and makes walking quite tiresome.  But people really don’t ‘get’ the whole dysautonomia thing.

The autonomic nervous system controls involuntary body functions- blood pressure, heart rate, breathing, flushing, muscle/brain signals, etc.  There are many ways this can all go wrong.  Initially, I had problems with passing out, as well as my right pupil dilating.  Then my gait would get wonky, and eventually I’d keel over and sleep hard for hours.  Temperature dysregulation hadn’t shown up yet.  I was in Texas when this all started, and I did fairly well at first.  When it was first a ‘thing’, I was living in a house (with no central AC- just room units for at night) with a coworker to share expenses (perfect situation; we had opposite schedules, so it was basically like living alone).  My housemate would hear me hit the floor from her room at the other end of the house, and find me passed out on the wood floor.  I thought I was just ‘nervous’ after a recent hospitalization for eating disorders, but she said that there was nothing  ‘nervous’ about me that she’d seen, and she really thought I had some type of medical issue.  One  night I couldn’t get up off the floor like usual, and I agreed that she could call 911.  That started the whole testing process.

I was lucky that I had a neurologist who thought I had dysautonomia. She sent me to see an electrophysiologist (EKG specialist) in San Antonio, who ended up doing a tilt table test.  My blood pressure dropped to 44/16, and heart rate dropped into the 50s (heart rate should go up, and compensate for a low BP, though a BP that low isn’t usually associated with ‘coming back’).  I was put on the first of several meds, and sent home (driving myself 60 miles after nearly passing out).

I continued to have issues with work, but eventually meds were sorted out, and I was doing well enough to get my work done. Additional disorders were ruled out (MS, myasthenia gravis, pheochromocytoma, brain tumor, stroke, etc).   The nursing home I went to work at had some very accommodating supervisors, which made a huge difference in not being panicky when I felt something coming on (the prior place did a lot of ‘threatening’, and since I was the only RN on campus at a drug/alcohol detox center on weekends, I understood the need for a conscious employee :p – but I didn’t want to stop working; being a nurse is who I AM).  I had a mattress overlay in my office at the nursing home,  to put on the floor if I needed to lie down.  I also had a fan from home, as temperature had begun to be something I had to keep ‘moderate’.  If an episode hit, I lied down; when it was over, I finished my work.

Fast forward, and I’m back in Illinois in my hometown, trying to keep things together at work, and it just started falling more and  more apart. I was hauled out by ambulance 10-12 times in a month or so at another nursing home (office job), and it was clear that I wasn’t able to keep working. I’d left a pediatric hospital job since I was terrified I’d get dizzy/lightheaded when handling very tiny babies (or larger, heavy ones), and that just wasn’t something I was willing to risk (along with some other issues with the job itself).  I had to deal with a new neurologist on my insurance plan at the hospital, who seemed clueless.  Once on disability (and Medicare two years after that), I found a neurologist who did know about dysautonomia, as well as a internal medicine doc who was quite familiar with the disorder.  With multiple medications (roughly 25 pills/day on a good day; more if not- and 3-4 shots of insulin) and total control over my thermostat, I’m able to sit up for several hours, but  I have to get up every few minutes to avoid any ‘pooling’ of blood in my legs, or I’ll enter the ‘pre-syncope zone’ when I stand up.

Now, my ‘normal’ consists of having the air conditioner on when it’s 30 degrees Fahrenheit outside.  When there is snow piled up outside, my AC unit is the only one with space around it where the snow has melted from the heat generated by the AC.  I leave home about 2-3 times a month– monthly grocery shopping, a doctor’s appointment here and there, and maybe a short trip to the grocery store about half-way between disability checks, for milk and/or bread.  Everything has to be ‘paced’.  If I do laundry, I can’t unload the dishwasher.  If I take trash to the dumpster, I can’t vacuum in the same day.  And I struggle to maintain any muscle tone, to avoid getting worse… but the chemo I had to have to survive the leukemia has caused deterioration.  I guess there are tradeoffs with everything.  Nothing is taken for granted.

Being on Medicare has been a horrific eye-opener.  I used to do the assessments that determined reimbursement for Medicare patients at the nursing home I worked at in Texas.  I was superficially familiar with Medicare.  Then I was on it.  Medicare is expensive.  There is the part B (doctors’ office and equipment/supply part) monthly premium (about $110).  There is the supplement plan since Medicare doesn’t cover huge portions of hospitalizations and tests (so add another $325 per month).  The part D (prescription plan) is about $75 per month, and between over the counter medications I MUST have, as well as paying out of pocket for insulin, that adds about $125/month (I’ll get into insulin in another post).  SO if all goes well, $635/month goes out the door for medical expenses.   That pretty much ensures no out of pocket expenses for doctor’s office visits, tests, and (knock on wood) hospital costs.  When I was in for 6 weeks for leukemia in 2010, the bill was $300K…. nearly 1/3 of a million dollars.  I will make my last payment on what they didn’t write off this month.  Four and a  half years later.  That’s not included in the $635.

Dysautonomia can be mild or fatal.  With the chemo causing deterioration, and knowing what I was like beforehand, I don’t think I have the fatal type (Johnny Cash did).  I have the invisible, life-altering, disabling, survivable kind.  Some symptoms may be worse than others on different days.  I can have one cheek very hot, and flushed to almost a blue-red, while the other is cool and has normal coloring.  I can have blue fingernails, not from lack of oxygen, but because of constricted blood flow.   My heart rate has dropped into the 30’s for no good reason (that bought me 5 days on a cardiac floor with nurses who were very nervous about the epilepsy- padding the side rails and putting a bed alarm on my mattress that went off if I got up to go to the bathroom- and GADS, they panicked when I got up to walk in the halls for some type of activity one night…. how did they think I lived at home?  Alarmed, padded bed?).  Sometimes one arm is flushed and hot, and the other cool and pale.  I’ve looked ‘dead’ per one former supervisor, with breathing so shallow and extreme paleness, it scared her many times.  I live alone, so have had to learn what sets me off… sometimes it’s as simple as a ‘scare’ on a TV show that wasn’t expected.  But heat and pain are my main triggers.  I’m in constant, chronic pain- that’s harder to control than the temperature.

Some people have POTS (postural orthostatic tachycardic syndrome), which causes symptoms if someone is standing. At all.   Their heart rate goes out of control simply by being vertical. Lots of folks with that need wheelchairs for safety.  There is neurocardiogenic syncope- which is actually a simple faint, until it’s a pattern.  There is pure autonomic failure – where nothing works right most of the time.  Shy-Drager syndrome is one of those total failure syndromes, and even saliva production is involved.  Dysautonomia isn’t one thing.  It’s a combination of symptoms that are generated by an abnormality of the autonomic nervous system.  Some are relatively minor, and others require feeding tubes, and other external measures to make it survivable.  More people have dysautonomia than are diagnosed, per research estimates. It can affect any age group or gender, though females tend to be diagnosed more often.  It can be seen as a conversion disorder or other emotionally based problem, which causes improper diagnoses, and completely inappropriate medications.  I encourage anyone who finds their symptoms listed in the informational links to talk to their doctor.  There isn’t a cure, but it’s generally not fatal, and can be treated.  Getting used to the new normal is the hardest part, as is not being understood.

See the following for more information:

www.ndrf.org 

www.dysautonomiainternational.org

www.dinet.org