Feeling My Body Fail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Why Handicapped Parking Spaces Matter… Even If I “Look” OK

To look at me, I probably don’t look ‘disabled’- or ‘that bad’.  I have all of my limbs, don’t use a cane because of vision issues, am not in a wheelchair all of the time (though I will have a wheelchair by the end of the month for longer distances), etc.  I don’t have contracted or withered limbs, use braces to support my legs, or any other visible disability.  And yet handicapped parking spaces make it possible for me to go to the store on my own. Period.

My disabilities include peripheral neuropathy (my right leg is deteriorating and both feet burn at times), autonomic neuropathy (if I stand up for a period of time my heart rate accelerates and my blood pressure drops, or if I get overheated, I pass out), degenerative disc disease (my spine is ‘collapsing’ from the discs deteriorating- lots of pain), degenerative joint disease (have had one knee replacement, should have had another, but leukemia got in the way, and both hips have bone spurs), and at times my chronic pain is really bad.  (Did I mention fibromyalgia?)  It’s always there, but some days are worse than others.  I’m a gimp.  Who might keel over if I’m not careful and prepared.  I am also very intolerant of temperatures over about 65 degrees for any length of time.

Having handicapped parking makes going out at all possible.  That along with my cooling vest.  Those two things (and soon the wheelchair) make it possible to be ‘normal’- or at least take a stab at doing normal things.   I already look weird from leftover chemotherapy side effects: my eyebrows never grew back right, and I’m much heavier than I was prior to cancer.  I keep my head shaved because of how my hair affects severe heat intolerance.  But having a closer parking space gives me some freedom on the days when I am able to leave home.  It’s a big deal !

When I see someone park in a handicapped parking place, but leave someone IN the car in that place, and walk in to the store with no indication of disability, I get annoyed.  Now there are a lot of disabilities where the person is able to move around relatively normally.  Some folks have handicapped parking for emotional disabilities.  Those are valid.  But I’ve heard people talk (or read) about using their friend/spouse/partner’s disability placard to get good parking.  That is illegal, and morally reprehensible to me. Then there are those with no placard or handicapped license plate at all.  On a day when I can leave home, those closer parking places are crucial !  They’re not just a convenience.  I can’t leave home just any old day.   Walking an extra 20 feet can be incredibly painful.  More pain can cause unstable blood pressure and heart rate, and that can lead to losing consciousness.

I know which stores I can go to and be safe, because of the proximity of the handicapped places (one hospital here has the handicapped places down a flight of stairs or a lengthy ramp… great planning; they do have valet parking until 5 p.m., so I have to schedule any tests prior to then).  I know how far I can walk before getting a grocery cart to hold on to.  I haven’t been to a mall in about ten years, except for once when I was waiting for a new battery to be installed in my car- I gimped to the food court for a soda while waiting, then gimped back.   I’m hoping the wheelchair will allow me to ‘chair walk’ (use my feet to propel myself as a form of exercise and general mobility) in the mall.  I’m not a huge fan of shopping, so it’s more of an issue of seeing other human beings and being more mobile. As it is now, I shop about once a month, and aside from my dad, I might not see other people for weeks. It’s been like this for 11 1/2 years.  I have joined a Bible study recently, which has been great.  It’s hard to walk from the parking lot  (with handicapped parking) to the room we use, but I’m getting there. It takes about 36-48 hours to recover.

But without handicapped parking, leaving home is not even an option for me and millions of others.   Staying as independent as possible is really important- not only to maintain whatever physical mobility is left or do ‘routine’ chores,  but to interact with others.  For those who need handicapped parking, it is not a convenience.  It’s a necessity.

It’s Been A Bad Few Months…

I’m so frustrated with the increase in limitations over the last few months, especially with my grandma not doing well (and wanting to see her).  I haven’t said a lot recently, but it’s not because things are better.  More things are falling apart.  My aunt called this morning to offer to come and get me to go see grandma (about 50 miles round-trip), and I can’t do it.  I hate this.  I really want to see her.  I had a cousin offer as well (and an uncle volunteered my aunt)- so several offers.  I feel SO badly for declining.  But it’s just not physically safe at this time.  😦

It kind of started with the reflux/GERD getting really bad.  I have had an endoscopy and barium swallow.  Those showed chronic gastritis and some esophageal spasms.  I still have two tests I need to get done (gastric emptying and pressure of esophageal spasms), but haven’t been able to because my spine/back and leg pain being too bad to get through the tests.  I had one test a few days ago (EMG) that showed peripheral sensory neuropathy, that is progressive.   What that means is that my limbs (mostly legs at this point) are subject to strange pain and sensations, or lack of sensation.  At some time, this will lead to not feeling my feet on the floor when walking.   That’s a safety issue.  I also drop a lot of stuff, and have more trouble opening jars, even when ‘unlocking’ the vacuum with an old fashioned bottle opener.  I’m sending for one of those gimp things for opening jars soon.

The pain in my legs has been a burning pain unlike anything I’ve ever felt.  Fortunately, it’s not constant, and mostly at night (which makes sleeping unpleasant, if not impossible). I wake up frequently to that ‘what IS that?’ until I can fully become aware that it’s the neuropathy pain.  Now, both feet are beginning to burn at night, though not every night.  It seems like it’s progressing fairly quickly.  My neurologist did the EMG (pins into legs with electricity run through them, to measure muscle and nerve responses; sounds bad- isn’t that big of a deal).  The MRI was horrifically painful, which normally isn’t the case.  I couldn’t finish the “with” contrast part, as the “without” contrast part took about 1.5 hours, and by the end of that, I was in tears.  I joke around during bone marrow biopsies- so I’m not a wimp. I was just in too much pain this time around.

Over the last several months, I’ve been having more trouble with my blood pressure and heart rate.  The first time I was really aware of my BP being low was at an oncology follow-up appointment when it was 80/50.  I’d been really tired- but I’m  disabled with autonomic dysfunction- I’m tired a lot anyway.  BUT, at that visit, my kidney  function was moderately impaired (at the levels it was at, it would have been considered Stage 3 out of 5, of chronic kidney disease).  Thankfully, with some additional fluids, I was able to get it to the vague acceptable range (normal levels are 90-100; the standard lab values only measure >60, or the specific numbers if <60).  I’d prefer to know the actual number no matter what they are.  Even 60 is stage 2.   But anyway, I dodged a bullet with that.

At that same oncology appointment, I noticed that my A1C had gone up, so got myself off to my endocrinologist to have my insulin adjusted.  With my 2016 Medicare part D drug plan, I will be able to get the “good” insulin, instead of the half-assed stuff I’ve been able to afford over the past 3 years.  Insulin is ridiculously expensive- yet until next year, Medicare has been more wiling to pay for dialysis, amputations, blindness, heart attacks, and strokes before making good, up-to-date insulin a realistic possibility.

My blood pressure meds, which paradoxically maintain my blood pressure (or are supposed to) have been adjusted three times since this summer.  I’ve noticed some orthostatic intolerance on several occasions, but once the meds were adjusted, things would get better for a while.  But it seems that no matter what the dose,  after a couple of weeks, I get symptomatic again.  When driving to my dad’s friend’s house for dinner one night, I started getting lightheaded; that is a bad situation in the car.  I got home OK, but it shook me up. I’m being referred to a cardiologist/electrophysiologist for ANOTHER work-up on this.   I’ve looked up the name of the guy I’m being referred to- and he’s a specialist in heart rhythm and orthostatic issues… perfect for what is (and has been) going on.

I need to see my pain doc, now that there are some answers as to what type of pain is going on.   All pain isn’t  equal.  What is going on is more neuropathic pain, as well as the pain from degenerating discs in my spine (neck to tail).  I’m not sure what is going to be done about that. I don’t like the spine injections.  They aren’t painful, but just don’t last all that long.  I’m not a big fan of being on “routine” pain meds, either (instead of just “as needed”), but I may have to suck it up and just take them.

So, there’s my internal med doc (primary doc), gastroenterologist, oncologist (just follow-up at this point), endocrinologist, neurologist, pain doc, and cardiologist (to come).  Seven doctors in about four months.  I loathe adding doctors to an already complicated mess, but at least until things stabilize, I just have to see them.  Fortunately, my pulmonologist (sleep apnea), plastic surgeon (scalp cysts), and dermatologist (psoriasis) get a break for now.

But the timing on any of this is horrible.  My grandma is dying (as in actively).  I want to see her, and don’t feel it’s safe to go 25 miles each way to see her.  It’s not because I don’t want to.  She was my best friend during those early years on disability when I knew nobody here (and had no access to Facebook or other online social connections and reconnections).  We’d talk about so many things and laugh about stuff in the past.  We’d also reminisce about my mom (who died in 2003).  She’s almost 101 years old, and has been the glue holding our family together.  All get-togethers and gatherings centered around her.   I have called her care-taker who tells her I called, and that I love her.   I know she knows that I do, but it’s still hard not to be able to go down and hold her hand one last time.

Frustration and Unpredictability of Dysautonomia

I’m supposed to be over at my dad’s  friend’s home, eating tacos with them.  I’d looked forward to it since getting the invitation this morning.  I took a shower (not a simple task when temperature changes are risky) and got my extra ice vest inserts packed into the insulated bag, and the ‘full’ ice vest ready to go.   I got in the car, and headed over there.  By the time I got to the first stop sign, I could already feel things changing.  I hoped that some cool air, and ‘thigh squeezes’ would change my heart rate and blood pressure (I couldn’t measure it in the car while driving, obviously, but anybody with dysautonomia knows when it’s changing).   No such luck.

I got to her street, and since I wasn’t feeling any better, decided it was better to circle around and go home.   I’ve had a mental plan for years for what to do if I get symptomatic in the car.   The air conditioner (which is usually on anyway), talking to myself, thigh squeezes, and knowing where the side streets are in case I need to pull out of traffic are at the top of the list.  There is no scarier place to have symptoms than when I’m in the car, driving.  If I have symptoms before leaving home, obviously I don’t drive- but tonight, it hit kind of fast. Fortunately, I do have enough warning before I pass out to safely pull over, but  I feel badly for being such an unpredictable guest.

During the last few months, I’ve had a lot of stuff going on that has made the dysautonomia (POTS and some neurocardiogenic syncope- not quite to the point of syncope) labile.  I’ve had a scare with my kidneys (that turned out to be just a scare, so dodged a bullet there).  I’ve had to change the dose of my primary dysautonomia beta blocker to HALF of what it was a few months ago- my blood pressure got low enough to cause the decrease in kidney blood flow and change my lab values, which is not a good thing.  I’ve had a lot of neck and lower back pain that has required some tests that didn’t show anything new (degenerative disc disease, and some bulging discs in my neck).  I still have another  test in a couple of weeks (EMG- needles in my thighs with electricity pulsed through them; I’ve had it before- it’s no big deal; nerve damage is already known- just have to see how fast it’s changing).  My right thigh is visibly shrinking in a weird, not normal way (like maybe if I were losing weight…. then both thighs should ‘shrink’ the same).  Diabetic neuropathy is getting worse with burning leg/thigh pain, as is gastric reflux.   The reflux issue has some other tests pending as well, but the ones that have been done show esophageal spasms as well as chronic gastritis.  Toast is my friend. The diabetic nerve pain is a burning like I’ve never felt before.  I have been awakened by it, and it feels like what I’d imagine if someone put some type of accelerant on the outer part of my entire right thigh, and lit it on fire- yet when I touch it, it’s numb.   I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that the dysautonomia is going through some “out of whackness”.   A lot of other stuff is out of whack.

I hate these fluctuations and changes in the status quo.   I get used to one way of my “normal” and how to adjust my life accordingly, and then something else happens.  The whole thing gets weird again, and it’s another ‘normal’ to get used to.  I don’t like being undependable.   I’ve always been punctual and if I said I’d be somewhere, I showed up (aside from the dysautonomia and disability stuff that ended my working career as an RN). My dad is used to my 50-50 chance of showing up.  Not everybody knows this about me, and I feel bad when I bail out.

The shower could have made things less stable.   I have horrible heat intolerance, and showers can be a problem.  I generally don’t take a shower and go somewhere in the same day- I need some time for things to get back to ‘normal’ after being exposed to the warm/hot water (I like hot showers… my blood vessels don’t).   I didn’t feel bad after getting out of the shower (a bit winded, which is ‘normal’, but nothing weird).  I allowed time to rest (about an hour), so thought that would be enough.  Guess not. 😦

Anyway, my head still feels a bit loopy when I stand up.   I just got done with a plate of food my dad’s friend sent over- which tasted really good, and had some salty stuff which probably helped.  I just feel bad that I couldn’t be over there with them, as we’ve had fun the other times we got together.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See the following for more information:

www.ndrf.org 

www.dysautonomiainternational.org

www.dinet.org

 

 

 

 

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 !

Another Season of Dysautonomia

It’s so frustrating to be at home watching a movie, and begin to feel the familiar feeling of one side of my face being on fire, my heart rate being erratic, and then the general ‘unwell’ feeling.  I’m at home !  I’m in charge of the thermostat (at 64 degrees).  I’m not moving around when watching the movie.  The film (‘Flight’ – great film about addiction- NOT primarily an airplane suspense film) had to be the trigger.  The autonomic reactions to the various ‘adrenaline’ kicks in the film set me off… and there’s nothing I can do about it now.  A quick glance in the mirror to confirm that the left side of my face is nearly purple-red, while the right side stayed the ‘Midwest winter pale’, and I know what’s going on. The dysautonomia is acting up. Again.  But, I’m not going to stop watching movies or just ‘living’.

In the beginning of the dysautonomia, medication bought me eight years of manageable and employable life.  It took some time to get the right ‘cocktail’ of beta blocker, anticonvulsants, and benzodiazepine, but they worked. It was great! That was a long time ago. But the last few years I worked were pretty dang good.  I’d have occasional ‘spells’, and they were annoying- but my ‘good days’ far outnumbered my ‘bad days’.  I’ve been disabled for nearly 9 years now.  And things have been getting progressively worse.

I’ve had to shave my head to eliminate the source of heat from having thick hair. I’m not kidding. I get the #1 blade on the clippers at the hair cutting place.  The next move is to go to a barber for a straight razor shave.  Losing the hair has helped somewhat, but I’ve got to face facts. I’m getting worse.  I’ve talked about the ice vest before- and it has been extremely helpful.  Without it, there are MD offices that I couldn’t tolerate; their thermostats are set for tropical birds, not humans, in my thermo-biased opinion.  My next option was to be calling ahead to see how things were running as far as delay time in the waiting room, and then sitting in my car in the parking lot (with the AC on), and have the receptionist call me on my cell phone when it was actually time to see the doctor.  The ice vest has helped with that.  I’ve also got ice ‘bandanas’ – one type has actual ice packs in it, and the other is essentially  getting a bandana wet and letting it evaporate.  The ice pack ones do help, but don’t last long, so I have to keep changing out the ice inserts.  I haven’t tried the evaporation one yet… it is visually unimpressive.

People think that winter would be easier. Well, if people didn’t turn their heat on, it’d be wonderful !  But ironically, it’s worse.  I can’t depend on different places keeping the temperatures the same, so it’s a crapshoot as far as how I’ll tolerate being indoors away from home from one place to the next.  I wear the lightest weight coat possible, and remove it immediately when I get somewhere. The ice vest is with me unless I’m going to be in the car the whole time.  I’m only away from home for more than an hour about once a month, to do my main grocery shopping when I get my check.  That finishes me off for the day.  If I’m going somewhere for more than 2-3 hours (once or twice a year- usually Christmas, and maybe one other time), I have to pack the extra bag of ice vest inserts, the cooling ‘reusable dry ice’ packs to keep the inserts activated, and the ice bandana refills. It weighs about 25 pounds or so when it’s fully packed, which then requires the rolling walker since I can’t maintain my balance carrying the ice ‘chest’ and my purse.  Then there are the ‘as needed’ medications to regulate my heart rate and/or blood pressure, water to take meds and stay hydrated, stuff for blood sugar (glucose source and insulin), other diabetic supplies and meters, and my battery operated hand held fan with extra batteries.   Nothing is simple.

I recently found out that the ice vest inserts aren’t allowed in airplane cabins, since they are actually liquid when they ‘thaw’.  The company had enough experience with various airlines to know the TSA issues. I’d need the full pack for pre-boarding time in the terminal, as well as any time in the air. I didn’t have anywhere I needed to be; I just wanted to know the options.  Flying isn’t one of them.

When I’m at home, I can maintain the temperature fairly well, unless my autonomic system is given a swift kick from something I see in a movie, on TV, or even read online. If ‘fight or flight’ is triggered, I’m going to have problems with my heart rate. If I don’t get that under control fast enough, my blood pressure will tank, and I’ll pass out.  It’s a slow dance with everyday life.  And no two days are the same. Triggers are similar, and there is some consistency- but if I’m also tired and/or in pain, stuff gets dicey faster.

But I’m fortunate.  I’m in a safe apartment, and I’m still able to live independently.  I’m not the best housekeeper in the world, since any activity affects heart rate, but I’m slowly getting some things done that had been mucked up by the fatigue of chemotherapy (for leukemia; I’m in remission).  A friend is helping me get stuff taken out of here that I want to donate to a thrift store (and get OUT of my space), and that’s helping a lot.  I’m working on some sort of ‘paced’ vacuuming and dusting.  I’ve got a network of cobwebs that look like miniature ziplines going from corners of rooms to bookcases. I wonder what travels on them…. eek !

So, another season means shifting how I do things and getting used to another aspect of dysautonomia as things get less stable.  Something else becomes another thing to work around. There’s another cooling gizmo to try.  And a list to take to the neurologist for the next visit, to see if more medication adjustments are needed (not fun).  In the twenty years I worked as an RN, I never heard of dysautonomia. I’d heard of autonomic dysreflexia (which is a type of dysautonomia), but nothing along the lines of POTS, neurocardiogenic syncope, or other forms.  Whatever it takes to stay conscious and out of the ER and/or hospital is worth trying. Staying educated is extremely important since most ER docs and nurses aren’t all that familiar with the forms of dysautonomia, if they’ve heard of it at all.

I miss my old life. I miss being a working RN. I keep my license active and do my CEUs for license renewal; I don’t  ever want to have to say I was an RN…. I am an RN.  I just have to keep myself from totally falling apart as best as I can.  With changes in how my body functions, and different medications I’m on, I have to stay fairly up to date with drug interactions and functional adaptive equipment.  I miss being useful.  But, I have to focus on what still works.  I also am thankful that I’ve got the ability to blog, and meet others who, unfortunately, know exactly what I’m talking about when I describe something.