The End of Life As I Knew It

Nine years ago, on April 6, 2004, life as I knew it stopped.  It was my last day working as a full time registered nurse because of medical disability. I tried to go back to work a few months later, but it was a total failure, even though I was working back into full time hours slowly. My body was broken.  There was nothing to do to fix it.  I entered a world I didn’t really  understand- that of being useless and having no obvious purpose. My life since the age of 21 had been about being an RN (I graduated from nursing school in May 1985).  I had worked so many overtime hours and holidays because I enjoyed working.  And then it was gone.

I’m not sure when the medical problems ‘officially’ started, but I know when they got bad.  About 5 months after moving back to the midwest from Texas, and being subjected to indoor heat, the symptoms of my dysautonomia became severe enough to cause me to start having heart rate and blood pressure episodes that made working impossible at times. Then, over the next 10-11 months, it got to the point  of being totally unable to work.  I’d pass out if I got overheated, and that didn’t have to be all that warm- most people found themselves comfortable when I was turning beet red and feeling like I was going to faint.  Then there were the seizures.  Later, it was discovered that they are more likely to start at the beginning of sleep cycles…but that could be at the beginning of blood sugar fatigue, as well as the deep sleep I’d end up in after one of the dysautonomia episodes. It was a mess to sort out.  My boss and co-workers told me what they’d seen, which helped the doctors at the time.

My employer had started sending me to the emergency room by ambulance when I was found unconscious or seen seizing or collapsing. I was a liability.  It got to be a routine occurrence.  I was sent out more than the elderly residents at the nursing home where I worked (like a dozen times in the last 2 months I was there).  I remember none of the ambulance trips, but I do remember a lot of abusive ER nurses and docs when I would ‘come to’, who thought I was a low-life ‘frequent flyer’. They never stopped to realize that I hadn’t sent myself to the ER- I’d been sent.  ER personnel like to fix things. I couldn’t be fixed, so they took it out on me with name calling and general ‘disgust’ when they interacted with me. There was a rare ‘nice’ doctor or nurse, but I began to dread waking up in the ER.  It got worse before it got better (I found a different ER).

Those initial months and then years of not working were really difficult. In addition to the neurological disorders, I was having drug interactions that dropped my blood pressure low enough to cause small strokes.  It wasn’t uncommon to have a blood pressure in the 40-50/20-30 range.  I was usually still conscious but definitely feeling very unwell.  It was scary.  I eventually figured out a way to put a thin feeding tube in my own nose to put Gatorade through, in order to increase my blood pressure with fluid volume.  It beat going to the ER.  There were also the times when the dysautonomia kicked in and my pulse and blood pressure would go nuts on their own.  I was so frustrated that I couldn’t just ‘make myself’ do things that used to be so normal.  Like work.  Or go out in public, where the thermostats were out of my control. Now, I’m pretty much homebound, aside from monthly trips to the grocery store or MD appointments. I have as much as possible delivered.  It’s just too painful and risky to do much away from home.

It took many years to work through the shock of being unable to work.  I kept thinking I just had to ‘make’ myself well enough.  But I was having trouble doing basic things around home.  My world shrunk to that of my apartment and the monthly trip to the grocery store, or doctors’ appointments.  At the time, I had nobody to socialize with; I had no friends here.  I also didn’t have online access to most people I’d known in Texas, and none with people here.  I had my dog- and she was so important. I also had regular contact with my dad. But nothing with anybody who understood being a nurse, or being disabled.

Things are getting progressively worse when it comes to ‘normal’ activities. I just took the trash to the dumpster (about 12-15 yards away), and am now in considerable pain.  Pain is a trigger for the dysautonomia (along with heat), so I need to get more comfortable to prevent my blood pressure from crashing.  It’s very frustrating to feel like such a ‘wimp’  with normal activities.  Making lunch is also painful.  I have ‘grab and go’ foods as much as possible.   When I have ‘good’ days, I’ll make tuna salad- and then hurt.  I keep trying to do things, and it’s harder and harder.  I don’t know what sort of future I’ll have.  I am trying to find ways just to  make things work here, so I don’t end up needing assisted living anytime soon.  I want to be independent. It’s hard to accept help.  I don’t want to be a ‘whiner’ or not do as much as I can… but when I do, I always end up in a lot of pain, and often pre-syncopal.  I turned the air conditioner on about a week ago, when the night temps were in the 20s, but daytime temps were over 40.  It’s a matter of just being able to survive being at home.

I think about my old life a lot.  I miss working as a nurse. I keep my license active so I don’t have to say I ‘was’ a nurse.  I still am a nurse- unable to work as one, but I’m still a ‘real’ nurse.  Many things have changed in the nine years I’ve been disabled. But there are core nursing things that I still remember. I remember some of the patients  I took care of, and many of the other nurses and personnel I worked with. Those are good memories.  I’m glad I have them.

To those who think it can never happen to them…. you never know what life is going to hand you, or what challenges may come  your way.  Get disability insurance whenever you can.  It can make the difference between living in a decent place, or barely making it at all.  Take time to enjoy things, and don’t work ALL the time.  Jump on all opportunities to experience all you can.  Don’t create regrets.  Do make time to nurture friendships that will last.  Don’t let horrible experiences create limitations that don’t have to be there.  Live as much as you can !

Dysautonomia and Disability- Social Security and Medicare

According to some, I’m nothing but a leech on society.  Here in the US, needing help is seen as being nothing more than a parasitic slug that simply doesn’t want to work. There is no distinction made between those who are lazy (a minority of the people on government assistance), and those who have worked for many years, only to become physically ill and unable to work, by those who ridicule the ‘entitlement’ help out there.  It’s so disheartening to be lumped in the category of those who want handouts. I’d give anything to have my health back.

I spent 20 years working as an RN- in staff, charge, supervisory, and department head positions. Who knows, I may have put an IV in you, or wiped your butt.  I may have been the nurse who called your elderly mom’s doctor 8 times in two days to get an order for her to be seen by a specialist.  I may have spent an hour getting your preemie to drink two ounces of formula. You don’t know. To you, I’m worthless now, and just want ‘entitlements’.  You see me as someone who just wants free stuff… such a cruel and uneducated view.

Well, let me tell you about the ‘free’ stuff. I paid into Medicare during the 25 years I worked (I worked prior to and during nursing school as well as my years as a nurse). I paid into Social Security during those 25 years as well.  I’ve never been on food stamps.  To get Medicaid assistance, I had to meet requirements I didn’t qualify for until a horrendous couple of years of life-threatening blood clots in my lung, and then an aggressive form of leukemia. Those aren’t even the reasons I’m on disability (autonomic dysfunction/dysautonomia and seizures are the culprits there).

To get coverage that meets my medical condition needs, I pay around $500 per MONTH in premiums for Medicare Part B, Medicare Part D, a Medicare supplement that covers what Medicare doesn’t, and prescription co-pays for medications that don’t come in a generic form (insulin is the big one).  That’s not free.  That’s $6000/year (Obamacare or not- it’s BEEN this way for years).   So tell me how I’m living some life on the dole, and just sucking the government dry…

I’m not able to walk more than 100-150 feet without pain that is intense enough to change my plans.  Even with my walker.  To make a sandwich means I’ll hurt. Doing a load of laundry cause intense back and leg spasms.  Bringing my groceries in from the car means a LOT more pain.  I live alone. There is no help for the mundane- I simply have to get it done…or not.  I do the best I can.  And then I see so many hateful comments that don’t differentiate between those who can’t and those who won’t.  And the difference is huge.

To qualify for Social Security Disability isn’t an easy thing.  I had more than 1000 (one thousand- not a typo) pages of medical documentation, so I was approved on the first application. Some people have to appeal several times before they get approved.  People with obvious disorders have more stress by not getting the help that they need.  Do I think that there are people who abuse ‘the system’ ?  Yep.  But I don’t think they are the majority, by a long shot. People become homeless waiting for help- people don’t fake that.  And, I don’t think I’m the only one who feels hated for needing help.  I have a disability policy from the last place I worked- before being sent out by ambulance from work roughly a dozen times during the last 2 months I worked there.  That  private policy allows me to have %66 of my last monthly salary for my total monthly income (with Social Security paying the first part, and the private disability policy paying the balance of the %66). I lost a lot of money by being disabled.  If I didn’t have that policy, I would be living in some pit, in some trashy neighborhood, hoping everyday that nobody shot my windows out.  Do I deserve that simply because my body fell apart?

I never know when my body is going to poop out on me for something as mundane as the thermostat being warmer than I can tolerate. (One former co-worker RN refused to allow me to have a small space on the pediatric floor where I worked to set the thermostat to a temperature I could handle, so I could do my charting- and she was the boss’s pet, so I was screwed… the area I wanted to cool off would not have affected her or the patients in the least….she was simply a cold-hearted bitch with no consideration for what was going on with me; I could have done a big ADA scene, but it really wasn’t worth it for working with Goldilocks… she wasn’t worth it. I’d worked enough different types of nursing to get another job, and keep trying to make it work ).  I don’t even know how stable my internal thermostat will be when I’m at home.  Not working.  I tried to make it work at another job, with fans in my office, and trying to cool off when I felt I was getting overheated, but it simply didn’t work.

The many times I was sent to the ER before, and the first few years after, ending up on disability were a nightmare. I was labelled a ‘frequent flyer’- which is about the most hated label someone can get at an ER.  I was treated like some psycho-drug seeker.  I never asked for anything.  Most of the time, I never remembered getting there via the ambulances.  I wasn’t the one who ‘sent me’ there. My employer had, and I had no say in the matter. I understand they were covering their butts when I was unconscious, because something horrible could be happening- even though most of the time, cooler air and being horizontal were the only things to help.  It sucked.  The ER nurses, and a couple of the doctors, were nasty.  Just plain cruel sometimes.  One of the nice doctors even let my regular doctor know that he’d seen some inappropriate nastiness… but nobody did anything.  I had to just go to a different ER when I knew something was wrong, so I wasn’t blown off.

Real people with real disorders need Social Security (Disability) and Medicare, even though they haven’t hit retirement age.  It’s not a choice… it’s survival.  Without those ‘entitlements’ (that I paid into from the time I was able to work at 16 years old until literally falling over at work repeatedly at age 40), I’d be homeless or dead.  I hate needing these things, since the stereotype by people who don’t know people on disability is that of some bum, mooching off of the government.  I’d love to be working as a nurse again.  I loved being a working RN.  I still keep my license current, even though I’ll never be well enough to use it… but I still want to BE a nurse- not  ‘been’ a nurse.  I worked for that license.  And I loved what I did.

I may be on government assistance, but it’s not free.  It changed my income drastically, and allows me nothing ‘extra’.  I’m doing the best I can, and would encourage everyone to get disability insurance where they work. You never know when something will happen to you.  Nobody plans on becoming disabled.

And You People WORK In The Emergency Room?

Early on when I was starting insulin I had some learning curves in the area of low blood sugars (hypoglycemia). I’d been given the diabetic teaching about what to do, and I’d been an RN for 22 years by the time I started on insulin.  Generally, I did well at home getting my blood sugars back up with regular soda or glucose tablets/gel.  One day, nothing was working. I had to call 911 when I hit 37mg/dl, and couldn’t get it to go up no matter what I did.

The paramedics got there, and I was still in the upper 30s.  They gave me more gel, and got an IV going in the ambulance.  I was still conscious and able to talk to them, but I felt BAD. They  radioed ahead that I was coming, and unfortunately I had to go to the closest ER which was notoriously horrible. En route, they gave me an amp of IV dextrose (D50). I had my purse with me that had my backup glucose meter and change for the vending machines. That proved to be incredibly important.

I was given another amp of D50 , and my blood sugar went up to 128mg/dl.  The nurse  (who rarely made eye contact, and just muttered as if I were the most ridiculous thing she’d seen come through the door all day) said she’d called a cab for me; they’d be there in 45 minutes.  I knew that I had to have some source of protein and/or fat to keep my blood sugar from tanking again. The basic information for hypoglycemia says that a snack is needed if the next meal is more than 30  minutes away.  Evidently the EMERGENCY room people didn’t know that basic information.  Straight glucose will spike and then drop. That’s just how it works.  I was sent to the lobby to wait.

Within about 10 minutes, I could feel my blood sugar drop.  I checked it, and it was in the 70s. I got a Coke and some Starburst candy from the vending machines. It wasn’t helping. I got some peanuts to help my blood sugar stay put.  The peanuts didn’t help.  My blood sugar was in the 50s by then.  I went to the triage desk and told them what was going on. I was told I’d already been seen, and a nurse might be able to get out and check on me in a while. Really?  I’d been brought in by ambulance for hypoglycemia, I was bottoming out again, and I was thrown to the whim of some nurse who might get to me?  I was safer in the cab.

I managed to stay in the 50s until the cab got there, and got home where I could work on evening out my blood sugar on my own.  The ER obviously wasn’t going to complete the process with protein/fat sources.  I got some peanut butter, and that helped.  Now when I go anywhere I take glucose tablets or gel and portable peanut butter.  I make sure my blood sugar is in a range that lets me function before I eat the peanut butter, or it will slow down the glucose’s ability to work. The duration of action of D50 is dependent on the degree of hypoglycemia (and the symptoms of low blood sugar are different for everyone at different levels of hypoglycemia).  One person can be unconscious at 40 mg/dl, while someone else can be talking at 30 mg/dl…both are in severe hypoglycemia and need immediate treatment.

I learned a lesson about the emergency personnel’s lack of comprehension on how fully to deal with hypoglycemia.  I have to take care of myself even IN the emergency department at a hospital. At least the shoddy one.  I can’t depend on anyone to help me; I have to be prepared and advocate for myself.