My Earthly Rock…. Part Two

This is the hard part… it’s hard to write these memories, that are so fresh.

Dad was transferred to the rehab hospital on March 24, 2016,  three weeks after being admitted to the hospital.   He was very nervous about the rehab hospital not wanting to take him because of various symptoms associated with the spinal cord pressure from the lesion that was still not identified after several biopsies (the spinal cord lesions, bone marrow biopsy- nothing was ever identified as cancer).  I reassured him (or tried to) that those issues were why they were in business.   Dad was willing to give it all he had.  He was weak after three weeks in bed.  During his time in acute care, all transfers were done with lifts or passive movement (mostly to avoid the hospital staff getting back injuries).  He hadn’t been up on his feet for those three weeks.  For each day in bed, %3 of muscle strength is lost.  That’s why it’s so important to be up as much as possible when someone is sick and/or in the hospital.  But sometimes, it’s unavoidable.

The first day dad had physical therapy at the rehab  hospital,  I wanted to be there to get an idea of how he was starting out.   With two therapy staff, putting their shoes in front and back of dad’s shoed feet, and him pushing up from the elevated therapy mat, he was able to stand up absolutely perfectly… but he couldn’t tell he was vertical, and he felt like he was falling.  He knew he was up, but had no idea where he was in space (proprioception issue).   He had a look of terror in his eyes, but he was doing everything they asked him to do.  Everything.   I was actually very encouraged by what I saw, and it brought tears to my eyes.  It really looked like he had a good chance at getting strong enough to go home.  He had to be able to transfer with one assist (one person) in order to go home, and if the first day had him ‘up’, I was thinking that a few weeks would have him that much stronger.  I  kept telling him “you’re doing SO good!”.  And I meant it.

During the initial acute care hospitalization, and continuing in varying degrees, dad had been having stomach pain (he’d also been hospitalized in Florida for stomach issues that were thought to be food poisoning).  It was thought to be from the way the nerves worked coming from the area of the spinal cord with the most pressure on it.   I questioned why nobody was trying to figure out how to help that, and I was sort of dismissed as just not understanding that it was from the spinal cord pressure.   I had worked neuro when I got out of nursing school, as well as various types of rehab during the 20 years I was able to work as an RN.  I understood the obvious symptoms, but knowing my DAD, I also knew that nobody was even considering that something else could be causing a problem.   Being out of an acute hospital sort of narrows focus.  Nobody was looking for any other problem.   And that was a huge omission.  I don’t know if anything could have been done, but nobody was looking.

The stomach pain continued to be a problem in regards to general comfort (progressing to suffering), ability to eat, and his general feeling of not going to be OK.   Come to find out, dad was right.  There was something going on that nobody knew about.  He’d been telling me specific things he wanted done if he died.  He had me write them down.  There were four things he wanted done specifically with three paintings and a  small Steiff teddy bear.  I wrote them down, but never thought that he was not going to get through rehab.

On April 3, at 5:20  that Sunday morning, I got a call from the rehab hospital to tell me that dad was having more intense abdominal pain, and his blood pressure had dropped when they got him up to use the bedside commode; he needed to go to the ER.  I jumped out of bed and grabbed what I might need (my medications) for the day, and took off to try to catch the ambulance to make sure we got to the hospital where dad had been prior to rehab.  I understood that they HAVE to go to the closest one if someone’s vital signs are too unstable, but thankfully they went to the hospital with his more current records about the current situation.  I wasn’t prepared for what I saw when I got back to the room to see dad.

He was delirious from pain as well as sepsis (which was discovered through the ER blood testing).   He was unable to give the right year, and wasn’t cooperating with the nurses as they tried to get an IV in to give him pain medications.   Normally, dad would joke around with those trying to help him, but he kept telling us all to “shut up” (not a phrase he used), “get my overcoat”, and “goodnight, goodnight, goodnight”  (wanted to be left alone). He was also doing these weird biting gestures towards his female friend when she got there.  I got  up near his head to talk to him (and wiping his mouth after he vomited), and explaining that everything that was going on was to help him.  He’d acknowledge that he’d heard me, but was still erratic and ‘not right’.  Eventually, the nurses got an IV in to give him pain meds (and nausea meds), which did help him settle down.   I’d never seen dad like he was that morning, and it scared me, but I had to stay in ‘nurse mode’.   I knew that I’d just become responsible for decisions regarding his care.  He was no longer capable of making rational decisions about his health.  The POAH (Power of Attorney for Healthcare) had just kicked in.  That made me so sad.  Dad had always been able to make good decisions, and his mind had always been so sharp, with a great sense of humor.

Dad was sent for an abdominal CT scan, to find a source for the pain.   When the ER doc pulled me out of the room to tell me what was going on, I was completely caught off guard.  Even the ER docs and radiologist weren’t expecting what they found on that scan. There was a ‘diverticula’ (small pocket that extends from the intestinal wall) that had ruptured.  Dad had never been diagnosed with diverticulosis (the outpouchings) or diverticulitis (inflammation of the outpouchings).  The contents of dad’s bowel had been spilling into his abdominal cavity, causing extreme infection to the point that his system wasn’t able to fight it off (peritonitis with sepsis/septic shock).  The bacteria had also spilled into his bloodstream causing the sepsis and septic shock (what  made his blood pressure drop).  The sepsis was so severe that it was producing gas in his abdominal cavity and bladder.   Four specialists that were contacted, and nobody could fix it. Only one came in to see him (urology guy), and he said that the catheter was the only fix for gas in the bladder (which had already been inserted when he got there).  A general surgeon, urologist, infectious disease doc, and internal medicine doc- and the ER folks- all said that dad was going to die, more by what they didn’t do than what they said.   I knew what they were saying, and yet it didn’t seem possible that this vibrant man who had driven home from south Florida just weeks earlier was going to die very soon.  And that I was responsible for any decisions until that happened.

Dad and I had discussed end of life care many times, and I knew what he wanted.  He didn’t want anything heroic or that would prolong the inevitable.  The disease process was making all of the decisions for him for the most part, I just had to sign off on not doing anything active, other than whatever it took for comfort.   I knew that he didn’t want to be a full code- he had made himself a “no code” when he was initially hospitalized in March.  But signing that “Do Not Resuscitate” paper broke my heart.  I felt like I was giving up on him, and yet I knew that keeping him in a state of intense suffering would have been cruel and selfish. The ER doctor and nurse practitioner made sure I understood what was going on, as well as the inability to offer any hope besides comfort care.  When  I told them that I’d been an RN since 1985,  they sort of relaxed a bit.

I had gone back in to talk to dad, telling him that they knew why he was so sick, and that they couldn’t fix it.  He nodded enough to let me know that he heard me.  When I asked him if he was ready for comfort care only, he nodded (not that we really had a choice).  When I asked if he was ready to see mom, he nodded again.   I had promised him that first day he was in the hospital (March 3) that I’d be honest with him about anything I knew, and I felt that I needed to keep my end of things regarding what the CT scan had shown.  That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.  He had a right to know.  He almost seemed relieved.  He’d been in so much pain, and was facing dependency in a nursing home if he couldn’t transfer with only one person.  That wasn’t my dad.  My dad was the guy who got up at 7:00 a.m. to go stand in line at estate sales, or drive crazy distances while traveling.  He wanted to live as long as possible, so when he nodded that he was ‘ready’, I knew that he needed the ultimate relief of being healed by the Great Physician.  He was ready to see God.

They offered a bed in ICU, which would have driven dad nuts with all of the bells and alarms, and it wouldn’t have fixed anything.  Dad hated any extraneous noises, so I knew he just wanted a private room where it was quiet.  With any admission, he’d beg me (literally) to make sure he got a private room.  I had to tell him those times that I’d do what I could, but hospitals have to reserve some private rooms for people who are admitted with infections that would put others at risk.  But with palliative care (end of life), private rooms are generally available.  So that’s where we went… to a room on the cancer floor where they were used to handling patients who were there for comfort care only, until the inevitable happened.

I had called one of dad’s close friends earlier that day while dad was in the ER, and let him know what was going on.  He had been able to get to dad’s Sunday School class and let them know  en masse, which was incredibly helpful (one of dad’s lifelong friends was also in that class, and he came up when dad was still in the ER).  Those two friends were able to come and visit, and another friend had dad’s brother’s phone number (he was in Florida) so I could let him know as soon as I got it.  My uncle called dad’s local cousins, who were able to see dad later that afternoon, after dad had lost consciousness.  But they were there, and able to spend time with dad once he got to the room.  I firmly believe that it’s important to let people know that they aren’t alone, even if they can’t respond.  It was important that those friends and family be able to see dad before he died.   The friend that I first called (I had his phone number, as he was my ‘go to’ guy while dad was in Florida) arrived after dad was in the room, and I went out to tell him that dad was dying… I’ll never forget the look on his face. Nobody was expecting things to change so drastically.  Both of those friends had seen dad the day before, when he seemed to be doing better.  Looking back, it’s likely that the diverticula had already ruptured, and the pressure was relieved, so he felt better- but that started the cascade of toxins in his system, that ultimately caused the septic shock which is what killed him.

During the time in the room, the nurses were fantastic about watching dad’s comfort level. Even when someone can’t verbalize how they feel, it’s easy to watch restlessness, picking at blankets or clothing (dad kept trying to remove his gown, so I just took it off and kept him covered with the sheet and blanket),  moans, etc.   I was there from the time he got to the ER that morning, and  alone with him after 9:00 p.m. or so, when the others went home.   I wanted that time alone with him, knowing that those were going to be the last hours I’d ever have with my dad.

The nurses would come in periodically, and ask if I wanted certain things done (blood pressure, blood sugar, catheter, etc).  I agreed to anything that was for comfort (the catheter helped decompress the gas that had built up in his bladder, but there was already no urine being produced).  Nothing was going to be fixed by having his arm squeezed for a blood pressure reading (but I did agree to them doing it if they needed it for paperwork; they didn’t).  His blood sugar wasn’t going to get better (he’d been on steroids for the spinal cord pressure, which are known to elevate blood sugar, as can infection).   I’d had to make the same decisions when my mom died.  Dad had deferred to me once he knew that mom wasn’t going to recover from her sepsis caused by a urinary tract infection that was blown off at a hospital in Sun City West, AZ (not Mayo).  It was a horrible repeat of her death in many ways.

For almost four hours, I was alone with dad.  I’d sort of flip flop between ‘daughter’ and ‘nurse’ mode.   Sometimes, I’d sit in the recliner by his bed and just listen to his breathing, never wanting it to stop, but knowing that he needed to get some perfect peace.  Other times, I’d  sit on the bed, and hold his hand or stroke his cheek with the back of my hand, telling him how lucky I’d been to have him for a dad.   I reassured him that I’d be OK, but that I’d miss him.  I let him know that I knew he’d been working so hard to go home, but if he was ready to rest, it was OK  (it’s important to let people know that if they die, loved ones will be OK).  The nurse medicated him a couple of times when his breathing indicated that he was likely uncomfortable.  And, I’d  cry, knowing that ‘it’ was going to ‘happen’ soon.  Those hours were both precious and excruciating.

Finally, his breathing eased into a gentle rhythm.  There was no struggle.  He just slowed somewhat, and then his breathing gradually and gently slowed to a stop.  I was sitting on the bed with him when he went to be with the Lord.  There was a single facial ‘contortion’, and then ultimate peace and healing.  He was reunited with mom (they’d been together for 46 years), and his love after mom had died (Marilyn- 8 years).  He got to see his two sons who had died as newborns, within a couple of weeks after their separate births.  He was reunited with many friends and family.  And, most importantly, he was finally free of the pain and fear that had gripped him for many weeks.

It’s only been a little over a month since dad left this earth.  I will always be so thankful for the 52 years I had him.  He was my biggest ‘cheerleader’, and always had my best interests in mind.   I miss him.  A lot.  But with hope in the promises of the God I believe in, I know I’ll see him again.

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My Earthly Rock… Part One

The last couple of months have been heart wrenching.  My dad died.  He was 83 years young, and until the end, he was very active.  A couple of weeks before he went to the hospital, he drove from south Florida to northern Illinois in two days, covering the distance from south Georgia to home in one day to outrun a snow/ice storm.   He had always been my biggest ‘cheerleader’ from the time he and mom got me at 10 days old until he died.  But let me back up a bit.

My dad had always been pretty healthy.  He had the standard appendectomy and gallbladder surgeries.  He did have a bout with thyroid cancer a few years ago, that required surgery and radiation, but he was considered to be cancer free with the scans monitoring his situation.   This is a guy who didn’t even own a bottle of Tylenol for a long time, and when he started having some unexplained back pain several months ago, he finally gave in and got some Aleve.   When he called his primary doc about the back pain in November 2015, the doc ordered muscle relaxants over the phone- for a guy who had no history of chronic back pain, and did have a history of cancer.  I wasn’t (and still am not) very happy about that.  I feel he should have been seen in person.  Just as a matter of good care for something that wasn’t part of dad’s history.  Dad just sucked it up and dealt with it.

He felt good enough to go to Florida after Christmas with his female acquaintance, whose daughter and son-in-law have a condo overlooking the ocean.  During his time there, he had what was felt to be food poisoning, and did a two night stint in the hospital down there, staying an extra night when he got too dizzy in the elevator when leaving the first time for them to actually let him go.  He felt bad enough after that to want to get home as soon as possible,  to see his own doctor who finally ordered an x-ray when he got back.  X-rays really aren’t that great for back pain unless there is a fracture of some sort, or the discs are showing degenerative changes (which is the very basic place to start with diagnostic testing).  The x-ray didn’t show much besides some normal aging changes.  The doc also gave dad some pain meds, which did help a bit.  But dad got worse.

On March 1 (a Tuesday), dad asked me to go to see his doctor with him (being the family RN, dad liked it when I could explain things to him after appointments in language that made more sense to someone not in the medical field).  He was able to walk into the office and perform all of the tests with no difficulty aside from some pain with specific movements.  The pain was mostly to the left of his spinal column in the chest portion of his spine (in the back).   The doc ordered an MRI, which dad did NOT like, because of claustrophobia, but it was the best thing he could have ordered…. and would have been much more useful a few months earlier.

The next day, dad called me to say that he woke up with his legs feeling weird, like he couldn’t feel them very well, but it had eased over the course of the day.  He chalked it up to the muscle relaxant he’d taken before bed the night before, and decided not to take any more of them.  The next day, Thursday March 3, dad called me at 8:00 a.m.  Anybody who knows me knows that I’m a night owl normally, and getting up around noon was my usual routine.  Dad always respected that, so I knew that if he was calling, something was really wrong.   He said he couldn’t walk right.  He’d gotten to the bathroom, but needed me to get over there as soon as I could.  I asked him if I had time for a shower, and he said yes.  I had already figured that going to the ER was the only logical thing to do at that point, and was getting ready for a day at the hospital, minimum.  When I got there, dad was sitting on the bed.  He stood up, and it was like watching someone try to stand on an inner tube in a swimming pool.   I told him to sit down, and just let me know what he needed to get ready to go to the ER via 911- it was going to be the safest way to transport him, as well as avoid the waiting room.   After he shaved and had a bowl of cereal, we got a few things put into a bag in case they kept him (I couldn’t imagine them not keeping him since he lived alone, I’m disabled enough that caring for him would be not very logical no matter how much I wanted to, and he needed to know why this was all happening… he needed tests).  Then EMS came for him, and I followed the ambulance to the hospital.

The usual ER things were done (IV, labs, x-rays), and then they ordered an MRI.  Dad was not amused, and was very anxious about the whole thing.  He’d gotten some pain meds, anxiety meds, and nausea meds, along with a washcloth over his eyes, and by the time he went to the MRI I don’t think he would have cared if they put him in a coal mine shaft.  He said it wasn’t so bad.  The results weren’t so good.  They’d only done the lower spine in the ER, as they can only test for emergent problems- and there were some ‘suspicious’ lesions in his lower spine.  It was enough to admit him.   And enough to scare him.

His oncologist (he requested) has been a family friend for decades, as well as my mom’s and my oncologist at times (mom died in 2003 after 17 years cancer free).   The good doc came up that evening, and suspected that dad had multiple myeloma based on the type of tumor he’d had in his thyroid gland a few years earlier, and the looks of the initial MRI.  He also said that they needed to get an MRI of the rest of his spine, since the area where dad had the most pain was higher up.  Dad has always been terrified of hearing ‘multiple myeloma’ since his mom died from that (with amyloidosis complicating things the most) in 1979.  SO much has changed in treating MM since then, and “Bob” (oncologist- not real name) said that if it was MM, that dad could have a good quality of life with chemotherapy pills.   But first,  more testing with the MRI being the one dad was most nervous about.

It took a couple of days to get dad through the MRI, but when they got it, they saw a lesion pressing ON dad’s spinal cord at T-7, causing the pain, as well as inability to feel where his feet were when he was trying to walk.  He could move his legs, and had good strength when pressing or pulling against the doc’s (or my) hands.  The pain at this point was the worst, but only really bad if he had to move.  I’d never seen him in so much pain, and in 20 years of working as an RN, I don’t know if I’d seen too many other people with that level of pain.  Even my chronic pain (which is a different beast altogether) paled in comparison (and I don’t condone comparing pain, as everybody feels it differently in accordance with their own very personal frame of reference).  But dad turned pale, and grimaced to the point of not recognizing him if I hadn’t been there when it happened.  He was immediately scheduled to start radiation to shrink the mass within a couple of hours of the MRI being done and read.   Biopsies were done of various areas in the spine and bone marrow, and the hope was still that dad was going to be able to go to the rehab hospital, and eventually return home.   At least that was what we were aiming for, and “Bob” was optimistic at that point.

Dad was in the hospital for about three weeks before being sent to the rehab hospital (NOT a nursing home with physical and occupational therapy, which are fine for many things, but not intensive rehab).   He was still very understandably terrified, but gave it his all once he knew that the rehab hospital would  only work with him if he could do three hours of therapy a day (broken up into four sessions between PT and OT).   He didn’t believe he’d be OK, but knew he had to work as if he believed if he wanted any chance at going home (with help if needed), and not a nursing home.   So, he worked as hard as he could, and was transferred to Van Matre Rehab Hospital for the next stage in his excruciating journey.

…. on to Part Two.

Pain Management for the Non-addicted

Hydrocodone (Norco, Lortab, and Vicodin’s main ingredient) has been in the news a lot in the last few months.  People are dying from overdoses.  While that is very sad, it has created mayhem for those who take meds as directed.  Those who follow the rules are being ‘punished’ because of the actions of those who don’t (yes, I believe addiction is a disease, but there is a point in the beginning where using chemicals is a choice; genetics is said to load the gun, circumstance pulls the trigger, and the addict *at first* has their finger on the trigger… addiction doesn’t happen at literal gunpoint).

Hydrocodone has been moved from a schedule III to a schedule II.  That means that any refills must have a paper prescription- no getting phoned in refills.  Those with chronic pain must now go to the MD office and get the piece of paper to take to the pharmacy, then wait for the prescription to be filled, and then go back home.  That is ludicrous when someone hurts so much that leaving home for anything is painful.  My spine is collapsing, my discs are degrading, my thighs are shrinking from neuropathy, and I’ve got fibromyalgia.  I also have chronic headaches.  I’m in a lot of pain, more days than not. I don’t remember ‘pain-free’.   And now, I have to deal with the actions of people I have never met who have emotional issues that they use drugs I need to squelch.  Those people are now dictating my medical care.

Less than %6 of those who are prescribed opiates who TAKE THEM AS PRESCRIBED ever become addicted (Google it).  So, %94+ of those who need pain meds for chronic conditions are now subject to stricter rules because of those who use them for psychological reasons/pain.  I’ve had a prescription for one form of narcotic or another for almost 20 years.  I might take the meds for a few days and then take none for a couple of weeks.   I might take one pill on those days, or I might take two or three across the 24-hour period.  Depending on the type of pain I’m having, an extra gabapentin (seizure med also used in pain control) or even Excedrin will work better than the opiate.  Depending on the headache type, a triptan works much better than an opiate.  But on those days when narcotics are the only thing that will make it worth taking another breath so I can remind myself that it will ease up at some point, I shouldn’t have to pay for what an addict is doing.

Addicts are going to get their opiates (if that’s their drug of choice) no matter what.  I see this change in ‘rules’ driving more people to use herion or other illegally obtained drugs, and anticipate notable jumps in heroin deaths and overdoses over the next few years.  I already know of an entire medical group’s practice (for one entire hospital system here) that no longer allows primary care docs to prescribe pain meds because of this new change in the law (doctors already are monitored for how many prescriptions they write for narcotics, how many pills they give at a time, etc).  So the doc who knows the patient the best isn’t allowed to determine what is best for him/her.

My primary care doc  initially wasn’t comfortable in prescribing stronger  opiates when regular Vicodin (hydrocodone 5mg w/ acetaminophen 500mg) wasn’t working (after the discontinuation of Darvocet, which was effective), so I went to see a board certified pain management doctor.  Once I had a ‘system’ of what med to use when, she was then OK with prescribing, so I could have one doctor prescribing the vast majority of my prescriptions (my neurologist is the only other one), using one local pharmacy, and one mail-order pharmacy.

I have worked as a detox RN in a treatment center.  I ‘get’ that drug addiction is a disease.  I have a great deal of empathy for those who are in treatment and making positive changes in their lives.  But their inability to handle meds should not determine my medical care.  What someone else can’t control shouldn’t create issues for MY doctor when I am able to take meds as prescribed, and have for two decades (for chronic pain).  Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is the leading cause of liver failure in this country…. why isn’t that scheduled (or withdrawn from the market)?  Alcohol-related deaths can take out entire families at a time w/drunk driving- should we have licenses for buying booze?  Why are those with legitimate, documented medical disorders that cause pain made to ‘pay’ for those who don’t use the meds as directed?

My primary care doc and pain management doc (who I only see sporadically at this point) know me better than the DEA does.  My pharmacist can vouch for no hinky requests for refills.  I’ve never shown up in an ER asking for pain meds.  I don’t crave narcotics.  I don’t take larger doses, or more frequent doses than are prescribed.  I follow the rules.  And now, especially with winter approaching, I will have to go pick up a piece of paper (getting in and out of the car is painful in the summer, let alone the cold) which, until October 6,2014, was done by phone between pharmacy and the doc’s office.  I had to go every three months to be re-evaluated (which still stands), which isn’t a bad thing.  I don’t think pain meds should be thrown around as if they are insignificant… but  addiction isn’t my problem.  Pain is.  There is a huge difference.  I don’t even let myself get to the point of physical tolerance (when someone takes something as prescribed, and the body becomes used to it being there… withdrawal symptoms can happen if the med is abruptly stopped- and that is not the same as addiction).  There is a gross lack of awareness between addiction, dependence, abuse, and tolerance- and I think that applies to policy-makers as well.

No law is going to save people from themselves if they either don’t want to be saved, or don’t see that they have a problem.  They might not ‘get it’ on the first run through rehab or 12-step meetings… but those who keep at recovery will eventually get there, and be clean.

 

For those who are now in a position of not having a physician who will prescribe pain meds (whether from fear, ignorance, or restrictions from his/her employer- you may not know why they have changed their policies), here are some tips from an RN of nearly 30 years, who has taken care of addicts, chronic pain patients, and lives with chronic pain:

1.  See ONLY a board certified pain management doctor for pain control.  They often have ‘rules’ such as random drug screens, no dosage change over the phone, limits as to how many months before actually making an in-person appointment (vs. picking up the prescription from the desk), etc. Do NOT see a doc who asks how you will pay, writes a prescription, and has a line around the block…. Do. Not. Go. There.   😮

2.  Use only one pharmacy (two ONLY if you also get meds from a mail-order pharmacy for other chronic conditions).  Let your doctors know which pharmacy you use, and offer to get copies of records if they want them.  Pharmacies are bound by HIPAA (privacy laws), and might not be able to tell the doc asking what other docs have prescribed (if someone from the same practice is on call, they probably can, since they are acting on your regular doc’s behalf for you).

3.  Don’t dramatize pain.  Tell the doctor where the pain is, how bad it is, when it is better, when it is worse, what helps, and what makes it escalate.  You may have pain for the rest of your life- don’t wear out the extreme descriptions when you have 30-65 or more years to describe it.  Sometimes letting your doctor know what the pain keeps you from doing is helpful…. those pain scales are kind of useless for chronic pain.  But, if you tell your doctor that when it’s moderate, you have to postpone laundry, or if it’s moderately severe, you have to cancel appointments, that can give better information for chronic pain.  It’s way different than acute pain.

4.  Agree to get tests done to more clearly identify what is causing pain.  If you refuse to get diagnostic tests done, that can indicate that you know that nothing is going to show up.  Not all disorders show up on tests, but working with your doctor when they want more information via testing will go a long way.

5.  NEVER change doses or frequency without talking to the doctor who prescribed the pain meds (or any meds, for that matter), unless you have been given specific instructions.   There are some pain meds that have a very narrow window between effective dose and the dose that will cause you to stop breathing.

6.   Don’t ever forget the good parts of your life.  You are not defined by your pain or any other medical conditions.  You decide if you are happy or not.  You decide if you focus on nothing else.  I know that there are days (and sometimes weeks) when you really can’t focus on anything else for much of the time… but when you can, take advantage of those days and be thankful for your pets, family, friends, the ability  to still work (I’d give just about anything to still be working as an RN), your interests, etc.  Your attitude is completely in your control, even if nothing else seems to be.   😉  ❤

Triggered ER Memories…

I got a canned e-mail from my dad’s medical provider, asking for one of those Press-Ganey surveys to be filled out.   I don’t do those.   They’re a colossal waste of time, and the results are used ‘against’ nurses in ways that are demeaning of the job. They’re a popularity contest for healthcare. Nurses aren’t concierge staff… they’re there primarily to give medical care.  Not have to be subjected to some very fortunate person complaining about not getting coffee ‘sooner’, totally oblivious to the reason it was ‘late’ was that the nurse was doing CPR on someone two doors down.   Anyway, it got me all stirred up, and I wrote the following before seeing that it was a ‘no-reply’ e-mail.  Sneaky them :p

–I’m xxxxx’s DPOAH, and deal with all of his e-mail (I’m his daughter- and a disabled RN). He is pleased with his care w/Dr. Kxxx- no issues whatsoever. I go to some appointments with dad, and also have Dr. Kxxx as an oncologist- great folks in the office area, lab draw folks, and Dr. Kxxx himself. Couldn’t get much better.

As an RN (I still keep my license), I have a general loathing for Press-Ganey, since it doesn’t consider all factors in someone’s care (especially inpatient- like if someone complains about their coffee request being slow to be delivered, while the nurse is tending to someone who is either trying to die, or has coded somewhere down the hall). Totally bogus complaint in the GRAND SCHEME of things… our society is too much about “me”, and not about the entire picture.

IF there are issues, I have no problem contacting the hospital directly. It’s really none of Press-Ganey’s business in my opinion. If you can tell me why their butting in is so important, I’m teachable !

I do have some compliments regarding a couple of tests I had a week or two ago. I had a abdominal and pelvic CT w/contrast and a CXR. The nurse and techs in both departments were outstanding. Lisa and Shannon were in the CT department- both very personable, friendly, and gave great instructions. They had the perfect balance between respecting my knowledge as an RN since 1985, as well as informing me of what was going on (and what needed to happen since I’m on metformin- and getting a follow-up creatinine done 2 days later). Lynette was in x-ray, and came SO quickly to get me for the CXR- very professional as well, and also kind. They made the inconvenience of having to drag my ratty body away from home much less unpleasant. My overall experiences in the outpatient/testing departments have always been good- every last person has been pleasant and professional. I didn’t feel like they were trying to suck up, so that Press-Ganey would be happy… they were genuinely doing a nice job.

I have had my share of nightmares in the ER there…

I haven’t been to that ER in a several years- so this might be outdated (wanna be fair). My experiences there in the early to mid-2000s were horrific. I was considered a ‘frequent flyer’, though many times, someone else called 911 because I’d lost consciousness (I have dysautonomia and documented epilepsy among other things). I could give you a laundry list of abuses and negligence in that place. Maybe it’s better now- I hope so. When I got there because I had actually been awake enough to call for help, I was following my MD’s instructions for when to get help (my blood pressure would drop into the 50s systolically- and it wasn’t safe to NOT get help when just lying down wouldn’t do anything). I still was verbally demeaned- for following my doctor’s instructions.  It’s so important for those in the ER to know that just because THEY aren’t familiar with a diagnosis doesn’t mean that it’s automatically some psych disorder, and they don’t know everything about the person, just because they have some vague medical info on them.  I never asked for pain meds, never had a squadron of unruly family around (never had ANYONE around), never even asked for help to the bathroom- which was partly because the call-light was nowhere to be seen, etc. I was told I was a “wasted bed”, and that “seizure patients never follow up”; (I actually had monthly appointments with my doctor at that time because things were so unstable). It got so bad that I learned to put in my own small gauge NG tube and put in 1/2 strength Gatorade by gravity, to increase my fluids- and take my chances at home. My doc  wasn’t thrilled with that (but I know how to manage an NG safely)- yet she knew what had gone on in the ER from what another doc had told her (he was one of the few nice docs). It’s amazing what medical equipment was available on eBay back then.

On April 1, 2007, I was brought in (BP dropped again), and by the time I got there, with the jostling around, it was better, but I still didn’t feel right… I had had a few weeks of weird symptoms that weren’t quite my ‘normal’ weird. The doc on that night actually refused to examine me. He wouldn’t repeat the BP (meant pushing a button- and he didn’t even have to do that; a nurse was near the monitor). I continued to have odd symptoms after being sent home, and eventually had substernal chest pain radiating into my neck. On April 11, I called my doc’s office and was told to go to a different hospital,  and tell them about the chest pain; THEY would take care of me. Tests showed that  I had multiple chronic, sub-acute, and acute PEs in all three lobes of my right lung and R PA (pulmonary artery). I spent 17 days in the hospital getting regulated on warfarin. The chest pain was from my lung pushing into the apex of my heart. That ER doc’s personal ASSUMPTIONS  at St. Xxxx’s could have cost me my life. As it turned out, it was ‘just’ another blow to my feelings as a sub-human. I didn’t have the typical PE symptoms until the 11th (actually the night before- but I wanted to talk to my doc about what to do since going to St. Xxxx’s ER was just a set-up to be blown off and humiliated).  And the doc didn’t bother to see WHY I’d been there “too much” (his words) in the prior couple of weeks.

Being considered a psych case, I was sent home unable to walk one time- crawled into the cab, then crawled to my front door. Another time, I was put in a wheelchair van, and sent home- if I needed a wheelchair to go home, how was I supposed to manage at home. Alone. ?  One doc began to intubate me without checking to see if I was even awake (I was- I’d just regained consciousness, and saw him walk in the room- alone, no help for suctioning, no meds for a genuine intubation, no indication of what he was going to do)…. he knicked a tonsil going in, cutting it, and setting off my gag reflex- so then I was vomiting blood. A nurse came in, and he eventually pulled the laryngoscope out. He asked me if I’d OD’d (a common assumption- though no drug tests were ever positive), and I said no. He told me that’s all I had to say… he never asked me anything!  I didn’t know what he was going to do (he was behind my head- my eyes back there don’t work well). Then left the room. I was so embarrassed to have vomited- but I guess they call it a gag reflex for a reason.  That nurse was very kind as she helped me get cleaned up… she must have been new.

A nurse put a Foley in one time (I’d lost consciousness at a neighbor’s home, and she’d called 911… I’d had no presyncopal feeling -which I generally did- just awake one minute, and about 3 hours later waking up in the ER). The nurse blew up the catheter balloon up ON my internal sphincter. I said it hurt, and was trying to tell her it hurt WAY more than it should- and she turned around and walked out of the room. She just left.  Absolutely no acknowledgment of what I was saying, yet she was looking at me; she heard me, and saw me trying to move the catheter.  I managed to push it in far enough to actually be in my bladder.  It took 4 liters of fluid to get my systolic BP to hit 80…. I was sent to ICU, and just managed to avoid dopamine (which could have been a disaster for someone with dysautonomia).  I was admitted as an OD– yet NO drug screens  EVER showed any type of drugs.  Really?  Even with evidence, I was still some loathed OD patient?  My doc came to see me the next morning, and told me she’d see if she could enter a note to negate the OD diagnosis.

These are a few things that I will probably never forget… and the ER at St. Xxxx’s still scares me. I sent a few letters to the customer service person (whatever they’re called) at the time, and got the canned letter of ‘we strive for excellence in patient care’, blah, blah, blah. Nothing ever changed, because I was seen as a nut job. NO psych history, no drug abuse, no ODs, nothing psych related at all. Just judgmental nurses and docs who saw me too often for their liking. I (me, myself- no doctor) eventually figured out a medication interaction that was contributing to some of the BP issues (the dysautonomia won’t ever go away- but it helps to not have interactions messing with it). I also started going to another ER if I had stuff going on that required an ER (after the PEs, there were some other incidents of chest discomfort/SOB, as well as hematuria one time, requiring some IM vitamin K, and an overnight stay for a couple of tests and IV antibiotics for a UTI). I’m lucky I went there when I was having symptoms that were eventually diagnosed as AML- subtype M3 (APL). I was there for 6 weeks in isolation, induction chemo, and started 19 months of daily chemo of some type (except for ‘scheduled breaks’ and when I had shingles on my butt). I don’t have confidence that St. Xxxx ER docs would have bothered to check things out. And, I could have ended up like Jeannie Hayes- the WREX anchor who died 2 days after officially being diagnosed, after a brain bleed.

As an RN, I know that some patients are annoying, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t some genuine medical issue going on as well. I did my best to not bother the ER staff. I did anything they asked of me while I was there. Most of the time, I didn’t make the call to be sent there, and when I did, it was because of my personal doc’s parameters. Nobody deserves to be treated like they’re a crazy HUMAN being, and waste of time. I think some of it is the age of many of the newer nurses, and the overall mentality that ‘work’ is a destination, not a verb. I don’t remember a single nasty tech, lab person, etc… it was always the docs and nurses…. very sad.  And even if I HAD been someone with some psychiatric issues, does that mean that subhuman care is justified?   People ask why those who do have mental health issues don’t get help… I can guess part of the reason.  The humiliation isn’t worth it. 

Anyway, I’m sure this is more than you wanted to hear. I don’t do Press-Ganey, since they don’t address issues I’ve had. They run a popularity contest, and I’m not interested in those.

Have an enjoyable week, and maybe remind the ER staff that they know nothing of the patients’ entire lives… they see a snapshot of a bad time. And regardless, they still don’t deserve to be belittled, or even physically injured because of their prejudice and assumptions.—-  (end of ‘note’)

ER staff gets very little information about a patient’s entire life- or even enough to make a true assessment (or judgement) about the person.  They see symptoms and test results, and whether or not they like the ‘diagnosis’ of patient who is before them.  It’s unprofessional and abusive to not treat someone with compassion.  If it was their family member being talked to in the same manner, they’d be outraged- yet they feel it’s OK to do it to strangers.   I realize that there are some amazing, compassionate emergency rooms out there, with incredibly kind and patient staff nurses and doctors.  I commend them.  They have to deal with whatever walks in the door- and that has to be difficult.

IF it becomes so easy to judge an entire person on a diagnosis (and be less than humane), it’s time to find a new job, or another area of medicine to work in… maybe the morgue.   😉

Sorting Through The Symptoms…

 I’m whining.  *** Warning *** I’m not chipper and smiley right now…

Read at your own risk 😉

This has been a weird few weeks.  Actually, things started to get worse with the dysautonomia during chemo for leukemia, which was fairly expected, but it’s getting worse.  Chemo messes with autonomic dysfunction, especially with diabetics, or those with previously diagnosed dysautonomia.  Add in some menopause, and changes in some medications/insulin- and the party just keeps getting better.  I’m tired of trying to figure out what is from what (fibromyalgia/chronic pain, chronic migraines, chronic headaches, reactions to foods, etc).

This past weekend (a few days after two epidural injections- one in my thoracic spine, and one in the lumbar spine), I had some horrific nights with severe leg spasms and cramping. Normally, I don’t have any type of reaction to the steroid injections, other than a day or so of higher than usual blood sugars, so I didn’t really think that was the cause.   I’ve had these  spasms before, but usually getting up once and forcing my feet into a ‘flat’ position, then walking around for a few minutes generally helps.  Friday night was like that.  Saturday night was a nightmare.  I was up every 45-60 minutes, with spasms that actually made the calf muscle (the ‘drumstick’ one) have an indentation in it (like a shallow dish) until I could get the muscle relaxed.  These types of muscle spasms are incredibly painful, and I find myself doing  sort of breathing that reminds me of someone giving birth on TV. Or acting like it.

I finally gave in and called my pain doc early Sunday morning – around 7:30 a.m.  He was very prompt in calling back, and heard me out when I  asked about serotonin syndrome- which he didn’t think was likely. That was good news (no need to go to the ER).   He did  tell me to not take the tramadol anymore, just in case.  I’ve been on methadone for pain for several months now, and had noticed that it wasn’t working as well with that original dose (which spooks me after watching people detox from methadone when I worked drug/alcohol detox.  It’s THE worst type of detox that I’ve ever seen -and I’ve seen lots of alcoholics, cocaine/speed addicts, heroin/opiate addicts, and benzodiazepine addicts- they have a ‘bonus’ 10-15 days after they stop taking the benzos, with another round of acute symptoms, etc).  I’ve been chicken about even taking methadone- but it’s a legit pain med, not expensive- AND, when used as prescribed, it’s safe. I use it as prescribed, and it still gives me the creeps.  I’m lucky to have found a pain doc who doesn’t just write prescriptions right and left.  There are ‘rules’ for being one of his patients.  I respect that.  At any rate, he told me to take a bit more methadone then and another muscle relaxant, and try to get some rest.   I did as I was told, and did get some sleep.  During the worst part of the spasms, it feels like the muscle is being torn from the bone- that has stopped, thank God.   Today has been one of fatigue- but no more spasms.

Trying to figure out what is going on when I start having symptoms can be tricky.  I had e-mailed my primary doc about the symptoms on Friday evening, and she wants me to have some lab work done, which is a good thing.  As a diabetic, I’m a little on the paranoid side about my kidneys.  The chemo was hard on my blood sugars, and I’ve got them MUCH better- but still some wacky ones here and there.  I’ve had a lot of peripheral and autonomic neuropathy symptoms- so that’s sort of my ‘default’ assumption when something is weird.  I get flushed, my skin is hot- but I can feel cold (strange for me), I get blotchy areas on my chest, and in general don’t look OK….

Dysautonomia episode w/ chest blotching, severe flushing, lightheadedness, and other symptoms that come and go with various intensities.

Dysautonomia episode w/ chest blotching, severe flushing, lightheadedness, and other symptoms that come and go with various intensities.

It’s hard to know if muscle cramps could be from potassium, sodium, calcium, or magnesium deficiencies (and those can get really bad- as in don’t make plans for next weekend, since you could be six-foot under by then).  Bulimics are very prone to those- and electrolyte deficiencies are big in sudden deaths from eating disordered patients.  But I’m not in that category any longer, thank God.  The peripheral neuropathy (likely diabetes related) in my legs doesn’t help.  My thighs have deteriorated, and actually shrunk (posterior thighs)- so they tend to hurt faster than before, after doing anything.

My blood pressure has been crazy again (directly from dysautonomia changes), and I’m going to have to start a different form of propranolol (Inderal), as every Medicare part D (drug plan) formulary I checked has cut out the extended release from the generic list.  It’s been generic for a LONG time- but now it’s priced in the ‘preferred BRAND’ category.  I have too many meds to spend a $42 co-pay for 90 days for one med (well, actually two- they cut the extended release seizure meds as well- but I do OK on the regular release form of that).  I already have to pay out of pocket for insulin and syringes, since getting them would push me into the ‘coverage gap’ (donut hole) requiring ALL meds to be out of pocket- which is a map for going straight to non-compliance.  And a non-compliant patient is loathed by medical professionals.  Doesn’t matter WHY someone doesn’t take their meds. There are a LOT of us out here who have to juggle medical expenses to be sure there are funds for the entire year.   Medicare is not free.   Anyway, the symptoms are acting weird, and some days, it’s hard to get much of anything done.  BUT, I still have so much to be thankful for.  I can still think, and put together what I think is going on so I can tell my docs the information they need to know.

Menopause is a special little treat that makes the dysautonomia worse. I have had a few hot flashes- and thank GOD that they aren’t the same as my general heat intolerance.  They are brief, and feel like fire from inside… I adjust the air conditioner (had it on when it was 17 degrees Fahrenheit this winter), and ride it out.  I hadn’t expected the ‘morning sickness’ from the hormonal mayhem, so Phenergan and Zofran have become good friends.

Oh well, done venting 😉   It’s been unpleasant.  But, I’m still living indoors, and have the blog and other online interactions (though the public comments on most sites aren’t worth the nastiness).   I’ll get the blood test done this week.  Onward !

UPDATE:  The Propranolol LA 120mg (generic for many, many years) is actually $77 per MONTH out of pocket.  And I have to have it.  I tried the regular release and all I did was sleep, get up to take meds, and sleep some more.  My life is limited, but being awake is one of the perks I do look forward to.

When There’s a Death In The Family

On March 2, 2014, my fifty-five year old cousin died. She would have turned fifty-six in May.  She was only five and half years older than I am, and my closest cousin on that side of the family since we reconnected as adults.  While she lived about 80 miles away, we stayed in contact by e-mail, phone calls, and the yearly family Swedish Christmas Eve party.  I’m still sort of numb, though her death didn’t come out of the blue.  She had a particularly evil form of cancer.  But it’s hard to really accept that she’s gone. She’s the first in our generation of cousins to die, who lived past infancy or early childhood; there were some tragic deaths of infants and children in the family, including my cousin’s older brother at age seven, when she was eleven months old .   If anybody could have beaten this, it would have been her.  For a while, she seemed to be handling chemo relatively well (it’s NEVER easy).  The complications  from the cancer and chemo were another story.  My brain isn’t working that well in writing this, so I apologize ahead of time if it’s scattered.  It’s disjointed, and it’s really, really long…  (for my cousin, the textbook editor… always succinct and grammatically proper… oy).

Our grandmothers were sisters who came to the US via Ellis Island from Nordmaling, Sweden (WAY up on the northeast coastal area, Lapland, reindeer, midnight sun) in the 1920s. They came over on the ship called the ‘Drottningholm’, leaving from Göteborg, Sweden when they were in their late teens and early 20s.  There were 13 siblings in all, and most of them came here, settling in the same general area in the Midwest, in and around Chicago. Nobody spoke English before they got here. They left everything they knew to start a new life .  Eventually, many moved all over the country as their families grew, and jobs took them away from the Chicago area.  Our parents are first cousins (at 81 and 89 years old)- both still very much alive and running around.

When we were kids, that five and a half year difference in age was huge, and I was in the ‘little kids’ group of cousins when we got together for family parties.  The big  yearly family  party was the Swedish Christmas Eve  shindig , and it was THE family party to look forward to  (crazy, crazy fun party !!). There is still a smaller version, that is equally anticipated and keeps that Swedish heritage alive, which is such a treasure.  Whenever possible, family came from all over to attend that party.  I’ve blogged about that elsewhere 🙂   I adored my cousin. She was ‘cool’, and always nice to us younger kids.  I was also the recipient of some of her outgrown toys when I was a little kid, which I still remember (really nice doll buggy, and a whole set of ‘Little Kiddles’ – little 3″ tall child dolls who had their own house that doubled as a carrying case !!).  We lived in the same city for many years, which not all of the cousins did, so I’d see her more often than many of the others of that generation. It was still only a few times a year, yet it was often enough to really like her and enjoy the times I did see her ( there were two of the boy cousins closer to my age that I saw regularly throughout the time I lived at home, before moving to Texas after nursing school in late 1985).  This cousin was someone I looked up to as a kid, and was so glad to reconnect with her when I moved back to my childhood hometown in late 2002.  I moved back a few weeks before Christmas Eve, so we saw each other  for the first time in many years at the now smaller Swedish family party.  We quickly became as much friends as  we are cousins.

When this all started last June 2013 (thereabouts), she called me a few times about some troubling symptoms, and her intense feeling of being discounted by the first gastroenterologist she saw (I later suggested she send her first full colostomy bag to his office).   I’ve been an RN since 1985, and she had some questions, and wanted to know what I thought about this guy saying  she was fine except for a minor problem (for which she was given some topical medication), and did that sounded ‘right’. Though disabled, I still keep my license, and need the 29 years of knowledge and experience to deal with my own medical issues- and am always more than willing to be a sounding board or ‘medical translator’ for family and friends.  This is a cousin who called me in the past for some of her family and  own questions when medical issues came up, and I knew that she knew her own ‘normal’ very well; she needed to listen to her ‘gut, in my opinion.  She’d been in France a few  weeks earlier, and had some vague symptoms there, and they were getting worse.   I told her that if she felt that something wasn’t being addressed, she might contact her primary doctor for a referral to another specialist.  And she did.  She was able to take a scheduled ‘fun’ trip to California after the initial specialist appointment, before seeing the new specialist.  While I was glad she was able to travel at the time, I’m even more thankful now that she was able to have two great vacations before her 9 months of hell began. 

She had an appointment for additional testing, but before she got there had a severe episode of rectal bleeding while at work, and was immediately driven to the ER at a nearby hospital.  She got the preliminary diagnosis (from a tactless ER doc) that she had a rectal mass.  She had known something wasn’t right.  She was admitted for more tests, and long story short, she was diagnosed with a neuroendocrine colon cancer after surgery and the full biopsy, which surrounded her rectum about %75 the way around it (basically like a fist around the end of her colon), and needed a permanent colostomy.  Surgery  took a little over week to actually get done, and in the meantime, she was in intense, constant pain.  She had a moderately ‘normal’ recovery from the surgery, and had to get used to the colostomy, and some decent pain management.  From there, she spent some time in a rehab facility to regain her strength before going home. I remember there was more going on (I still have some brain fog post-chemo), but she was looking forward to getting on with treatment. At that time, the plan was to treat it, and her plan was to do what was needed to  recover, and keep the part of the tumor that couldn’t’ be removed in check.

Now, I get mixed up as to what happened when, but over the next 9 months (give or take a week or two), she had non-stop hospitalizations and  complications with chemo and the cancer.   They were unable to completely remove the tumor because of how it was positioned and the nearby blood vessels, so lymph nodes in that area and additional tumors (spread from the main one) in her liver began to be an issue, growing and causing pressure.  She was given  various types of chemo (including a clinical trial ‘cocktail’ of already approved meds used for a different type of cancer, that was being looked at for neuroendocrine tumors), and I really felt that if anybody would be in the ‘survivor’ percentages, it would be her.  She was in otherwise  good health, and she was young, especially for this type of cancer.  But, neuroendocrine tumors are absolute bastards in the tumor world.  When I was looking up information when she was first diagnosed, I was horrified at the statistics… but I still thought that she had a chance.  It’s never over until it’s over. (Valerie Harper was diagnosed with a brain tumor and given three months to live; that was fifteen months ago, and she has said “Don’t go to your funeral until you’re dead”, and did ‘Dancing With The Stars’.  I love that. 🙂  )  And those statistics never differentiate between ages, other health issues, or actual cause of death. If someone dies crossing the street on the way to their appointment, they are included in the deaths from whatever disease is being studied and reported.  SO, someone who is 85 years old, with multiple chronic diseases, who is hit by a bus going to the store is still included in the cancer death rate because they died during some particular study.  So statistics are iffy- they are a reference point worth considering, but not the be-all, end-all ‘rules’ of survival/death.  I was looking at the possibility that a 55 year old female in otherwise good health could be in the small percentage of survivors- why NOT her?.  I couldn’t see it any other way… but I knew it would be a hard battle.

In the months she was being actively treated, she had a kidney stent (she called me about some nagging and increasing flank pain- and she was right; something was wrong– there was pressure on her ureter from the mass of lymph nodes, cutting off the flow to the bladder from the kidney- so her kidney couldn’t empty out, causing a lot of pressure and pain), low potassium and magnesium, constant vomiting (which can be a cause AND symptom of low potassium- ‘nice’ vicious cycle there),  an infection that I’m foggy about,  multiple fractures in her sacrum, blood clots in her legs, fluid around her lungs, a LOT of pain, multiple adjustments in her medications, a port placed (for giving chemo and drawing blood to avoid multiple IV sticks), medications to deal with medications, a new kidney stent, a lump in her neck from lymph nodes-which caused arm pain from the lump pressing on nerves, and on and on. And during it all, she was mentally going on as if she was sure she would be fine in the end.

I have over 700 e-mails between the two of us from the time just before she was diagnosed until January 2014, when I noticed things were changing because of the change in communication.  She wasn’t answering e-mails or posting as much on the support site for friends and family.  That was different. Something wasn’t right.  I didn’t call her much.  I knew she needed rest (and she had friends who were visiting her, which was SO wonderful), and if she didn’t answer e-mails, she wasn’t online, or up to ‘talking’/communicating. I understood that, and we had  an  arrangement that if she wanted to call, she could- and if she were at a facility, I’d call her back on the room phone so she didn’t have to use her cellphone minutes.  If she was home, she called from her landline.  I waited to hear what was going on from the site set up for family and friends as well.

I saw her at Christmas, and she was in ‘new’ pain (I was SO glad to finally SEE her after all of the  e-mails and phone calls !).  That would turn out to be the fractures in her sacrum, which she had to have glued back together.  She had her bones glued. Back. Together.    She never got a break during the entire 9 months.  There was always something else she had to deal with and/or get treated.    I cried a lot, as I knew that each time she called with something ‘not right’, it meant that the cancer was not giving up to the chemo.  In February, it became official.  The clinical trial meds weren’t working (and those aren’t given when there are ‘known’ medications that work) so that was already a sign that things weren’t going well at all… but someone has to make it, right?  There was nothing left to do. It was a matter of time, and not that much of it.

She called me in mid-February after being discharged from another rehab facility to help her get stronger after the hospitalization for blood clots, fluid around her lungs, neck nodes,  and getting her bones glued.  She  told me the doctors had no more  options for additional treatment. I’d already been told that her prognosis wasn’t good (from dad, via uncle, then e-mailing her mom, who called me back) , but I asked her if she’d been given any time frame and she said she didn’t want to think about time limits. She also said she didn’t feel like she was dying.  I’d learned a long time ago that patients do have some feeling of when their body is not going to recover.  My answer was  “then don’t” !  (Real clinical and technical, I know…).  I didn’t say anything about the time prognosis I’d talked about with her mom.  She didn’t need me to have some sort of mental countdown going on… so I blew that off as best I could.   She said she wanted to check out some alternative healing options and knew of a Chinese medicine doctor  nearby, and I told her she had nothing to lose, and who knows?  Something might help her at least feel better.  So much of Western medicine comes from natural sources (plants, animals, etc).  Why not?  I encouraged her to do whatever she felt was right for her.  She didn’t have anything to lose, and only something to gain.   She wasn’t ever able to find alternatives… she ended up on Hospice shortly after that phone call.

That was the last conversation we had about getting well.  She called me  a few more times, and each time she sounded weaker and more tired, sometimes a little foggy.  She wanted to know about how hospice decides when to do things, and when not to, and if palliative care was better (she wanted to be at home, so that pretty much answered that).  The last time we talked was within a few days of her death, and by then she sounded almost deflated and she told me she was tired of ‘all of it’. She was still denying any feeling of  ‘actively dying’, yet also sort of saying she was ready for it to be done.  She also asked me why I was able to get well (from the leukemia I had diagnosed in late March 2010, and had 19 months of daily chemo to treat, including 50 infusions of arsenic trioxide).  It wasn’t in an angry way, or in any way ‘upset’ with me  for surviving… it was almost a childlike tone, just wanting to understand the incomprehensible. I really didn’t have an answer, except that she got a meaner cancer than I did.    I told her I had just gotten extremely lucky to have been diagnosed while there was time to treat it.  Many people with what I had are diagnosed at autopsy; I know of two people, one a child, who were gone within two days of diagnosis.  I also told her to do this next phase of her life (the last days) however she needed to do them.  I guess it was how we said good-bye.  I didn’t know how soon ‘it’ would be, until I got word from the support site posts that she was sleeping most of the time, and rarely woke up…then I read she had a brief period of awareness and drank some juice.  That is common very close to ‘the end’, and I knew any calls I got from family would be to tell me she had died.   And that’s what happened.

Cancer is a mean, nasty disease, and there are various forms of cruelty that it can throw out to torment people.  She got one of the worst I’ve ever seen in the 20+ years I was working in various areas of nursing, and with other friends and family (my mom had breast cancer, second breast with suspicious cells, lung cancer, and brain cancer and all of the treatments and surgeries with those… and then dementia from the brain radiation, and lived for another 17 years cancer free).  My cousin never got a moment’s reprieve from agonizing pain, or if the pain was doing better something else would go wrong.  It was SO unfair.  It’s never ‘fair’, but she went through more in nine months than most people go through in a lifetime.  It’s not really fair to compare people’s diseases , since whoever is going through something like cancer is feeling pretty scared, and having their own journey with their disease, but from an objective standpoint with nurse eyes, she had it really, really bad.

One thing that she was so consistent with (even before the cancer)… she always knew when something wasn’t right.  She knew when there was something brewing or just outright wrong .  She knew her body- even with all of the ‘new normals’ she had to get used to- and she got things taken care of when she knew things weren’t right.  Everyone needs to do that.  She’d call me and ask what something might mean… and if she should call her doctor then, go to the ER, or wait until office hours (depending on what was going on).  Sometimes she needed an explanation about something, and sometimes I encouraged her to call one of her doctors (we’d figure out which one to start with since she ended up with several).  Other times, I encouraged her to get checked out as soon as she could.

I will miss her so much.  I already do.  And yet I’m glad she isn’t being tormented by that nasty tumor and it’s offshoots and chaos any longer.  She went through all of this with such grace and dignity, and never gave up the idea that she was going to be OK, until the very end.  And then, she went peacefully in her sleep with her mother and housemate at her side.   I’m not going to be able to go to her Life Celebration because of my own medical issues (and the logistics of getting there with various equipment).  I’m upset that I can’t be there.  I know she’d understand, since she knew I couldn’t attend but a couple of hours of the Christmas parties, after dinner was over.  I’m just really sad.  I wish I could hear more about her from the people who are going to be there.   I’d like to be there for her mom, and her  brothers (who have had to say goodbye to two children/siblings now) and their families.  So instead, I write to clear my own head, and in some very small way, pay tribute to my cousin.  There are a lot of things I’ve thought about during this past nine months, and how my cousin made my life better just by being herself.  As adults, we had a great relationship, and I found her to be   a kind, compassionate woman, with a great sense of humor and an amazing work ethic.  She was never judgmental.  She looked for the good in everything we ever discussed.  She was loyal, and able to help me out with her own perspective on a difficult situation. She knew how to have a conversation without injecting drama.  She let me be there for her, when I often feel like I’m not useful for a whole lot anymore.  I just wish it had been for something that left her here (I’ve never had a ‘nurse call’  be for anything good 😦  ).  It’s always hard to say goodbye to someone, and someone in my generation in the family is just plain scary.   Especially someone I really cared about, not just because we’re related, but because she was a person who added so much good simply by being.

I will love you always, K.P.A.

Turning 50… and Already On Medicare For Six Years

I turned 50 years old today.  I can’t figure out where the time went !  I certainly don’t feel ‘old’, and think that 50 is the new 30, even with the physical limitations I’ve had for years.  I’ve never been one to get all depressed or stressed by ‘big’ birthdays- 21, 30, 40…. but I’m not so sure I like this one.  I started falling apart physically quite a while ago.  It makes me a bit nervous that things could slide downhill more quickly now.  😦   Mortality gets much more real.

I’ve heard (and said) that a lot of how old someone ‘really’ is depends a lot on how old they feel mentally, and how old they ‘think’.  My head still feels like I’m in my late 20s.  My body has felt older than dirt since the mid-90s, before I turned 40.  But I don’t ‘think’ old.  I’ve had to deal with chronic health issues and Medicare since my early 40s. The list of medical issues still hasn’t changed how old I ‘think’.  I have started thinking more about how I’ll manage if my body falls ‘more’ apart.  But my mental outlook is still pretty youngish.

My dad and I went out for lunch the other day (I rarely go out to eat because of the thermostats at most restaurants being set too high for me to be able to stay conscious, even with the ice vest).  I was really excited, as we went to a favorite Swedish restaurant that I’ve been quite fond of since I was a kid.  I mentioned to the waitress that it was the first stop in my 50th birthday celebration, and she was surprised that I was going to be 50… said I looked MUCH younger (quite nice of her).  I don’t have any wrinkles, and my hair is kept short on purpose to avoid being overheated, so the gray at my temples isn’t all that noticeable (though it is definitely there !).  That felt good- at least I don’t look ‘older’.

I’ve already gone through several life-threatening events/diseases (6-hour rape and beating when I was 23, leukemia and 19 months of chemo at 46, etc, blood clots in my right lung – all three lobes and right pulmonary artery), and have chronic illnesses that have required life adjustments or are disabling: diabetes at 31, dysautonomia diagnosed at age 32, epilepsy diagnosed at age 22, degenerative joint disease at 43, chronic pain/fibromyalgia at 32, chronic headaches since I was in high school, osteoarthritis at age 43,  degenerative disc disease at 43, yadda, yadda, yadda.  I’ve been disabled since early 2004. The chemo for the leukemia has made several of the pre-cancer disorders worse.  It sometimes gets a bit scary to think that I could become more of a train wreck with ‘normal’ aging.  I’ve recently been diagnosed with neuropathy in my legs (they’re literally losing muscle mass that is now visible).  They have been getting progressively weaker for a couple of years- since/during the chemo.  If I don’t have a shopping cart at the grocery store, I can’t  get through the building on my own.  Standing in line means increasing leg pain, and feeling like they’re turning to jello in terms of strength.

I’ve been on Medicare since I was nearly 44.  Though I’d dealt with Medicare as a nurse before becoming disabled, being ON Medicare is a totally different kind of circus.

Medicare costs a LOT to have.  People get the idea that it’s a free government program.  That is wrong.  First, working people pay into Medicare every paycheck in the form of Medicare taxes. For some people, it does cost to get Medicare part A  ($441/month in 2013) if specific situations apply. Those who paid into ‘the system’ while working don’t have to pay a part A premium.  Part A pays for a large portion of hospitalization charges  and rehab in a skilled nursing facility, home health care,  hospice, and inpatient care in a religious non medical health care institution.  If someone is admitted to a  hospital for ‘observation’, that doesn’t count as a hospital ‘admission’, so the charges come out of pocket !  In either case, Medicare doesn’t cover %100 of the costs.

Then there is a part B premium (around $110 per month), and covers outpatient doctor visits, various health screenings, ambulance charges, ambulatory surgical centers, diabetes education and blood sugar testing supplies, some chiropractor services, durable medical equipment (like walkers, wheelchairs, prosthetic items), emergency department visits, flu shots, and several other services- generally at %80 coverage.  That leaves %20 to be covered by the patient.  That can add up quickly.

The part D (prescription drug plan, or PDP) can cost a varying amounts. Because of my cancer history and extensive medication list, I get the highest level of benefit plan I can- so about $80/month.  It really pays to shop around.  One of my chemo drugs for the leukemia (that had no alternate option) was about $10,000 per MONTH.  With the PDP I had at the time, my co-pay was over $450 per month.  I’m on many, many other medications including insulin which doesn’t have a generic option.  When the social worker at the oncologist’s office helped me find a different PDP company, all generics- including that $10K drug- had a $0 copay when ordered through the mail-order pharmacy. But I couldn’t change to the new plan until open enrollment that begins in October… I left the hospital in May. Fortunately, a pharmacy agreed to help me after the Lymphoma and Leukemia Society agreed to help (which they later reneged on).  That pharmacy ended up ‘eating’ the cost, as I had no way to pay for it.

Part C refers to Medicare advantage plans.  Medicare contracts with private insurance companies to deal with the paperwork.  They are often very reasonable in terms of premiums, and often include the PDPs.  I’ve been on advantage plans, and while they look great on paper, with a 6 week hospital stay for the beginning of the leukemia treatment, the copays added up in a hurry.  I’m still paying off one hospital bill, 3 1/2 years later.  The cost for that inpatient stay was over $300K.  The plan paid a LOT.  But it still left a lot of out of pocket expenses… nobody plans on having something bad happening.   I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to plan for the worst and hope for the best.  I’ve had to file bankruptcy in the past (before the leukemia)  because of medical bills.  No credit card shopping sprees, no trips to wonderful places…. ‘just’ medical bills.  Getting extra disability insurance is also a huge help when it’s needed.  I have always insured myself to the hilt when I was working, and until my last job, never needed it.  But it’s literally keeping me living on my own at this point; disability from Social Security isn’t enough to live on with medical expenses.

Then there is the Medicare supplement plan (or Medigap) to cover the costs Medicare doesn’t pay for.  The first few days of any inpatient hospitalization generally cost the patient at least $200 per day (and there may be a several thousand dollar deductible).  There are also portions of physician charges, lab/x-ray/test costs, pharmacy costs, etc.  The supplement helps pay some or all of those charges, depending on what  level of  benefits someone decides to get in a supplement.  I go all out with my supplement plan (Plan F- all companies have the same coverage for each level of supplement insurance, so it comes down to premium cost and deductibles). I have NO co-pays for any inpatient or outpatient medical situation.  That will cost $325/month this coming year (2014)…and my insulin is about $50/month (not including syringes/supplies).  The MONTHLY total to be on Medicare (for me) is over $515.  On disability income. But, I know that I’m not going to have ‘extra’ medical costs.  That’s a sort of peace of mind that really doesn’t have a price tag.

Plan as if you will someday lose your job for medical reasons (and pray you won’t !).  If the time comes (and nobody ever knows if a car wreck, disease, or other medical problem will creep up on them), you will NOT regret having paid the premiums for all of those years.  And shop around with Medicare supplements and drug plans.  It makes a huge difference as well.