Yesterday, I was in a very dark place. I was (and am) beaten down by relentless bowel symptoms that eclipse all others and continue to monopolize every day.
What food to buy, how to prepare it, when to eat and * whether to eat it, how much to eat and how much to blend it, what digestive aids to use — bitters, ginger, HCl, enzymes, castor oil, Digest Zen, massage — how to move it through, what medications to take and in what combinations, at what times, how to ameliorate the side effects, how to improve my bathroom situation — padded toilet seat, squatty potty, head rest, neck brace, lubricant, pillow — worried that I’ll be an 80-year old trying to get up and down off the floor to give myself enemas, worried that my husband will be giving me enemas, scouring support groups, researching surgeries, praying for someone to cut out my colon and replace it with a bag… Fearing that this will kill me. Or that it won’t and I’m trapped in this body with no easy exit.
Today, I saw this memory and it immediately brought tears to my eyes. At this point, I’d been sick for almost 3 years and mostly bedbound for almost 2. I was so, so sick. I shudder to think of it. Sure, I could still eat solid food and poop, but only if I managed to get up and leave my room. They were the most terrifying years of my life. A privileged “terrifying,” I realised even then — I had family, a home, resources — but gratitude didn’t quash the symptoms, fear and confusion about what was happening to me.
It took Herculean efforts on the part of my mother, husband and friends to get me to California to see Dr. Chia (where I took this photo) and it felt like the effort might kill me. But the emotion from seeing the ocean when I truly thought I never would again (shit, even the feeling of seeing Seattle as we drove to the airport) was completely overwhelming and magical. And, also, very sad because I didn’t know how or if it could happen again.
Anyway, I needed this slap in the face today to remind me of what was and what is no longer my situation. My illness now is structural and neurological. It’s just as scary and uncertain, but I can take my dog for a walk with my mobility scooter and cook some soup and talk on the phone and watch a movie. Without a pandemic and if my gut behaved, I could even have a social outing.
From 2012 through 2015, I white-knuckled-it through every single minute of every single day, concentrating on taking the next breath and making it to the next hour. I still find it exhausting trying to keep my body functioning, but it did get better, just like my Mom told me it could. I’d once had a rare better day with less poisoned pain, fewer flu symptoms, an uptick in energy and she said, “If it happened once, it can happen again. And for longer.” I clung to those words like a drowning person, trying to swim up towards the light.
For everyone in this situation, for people with severe ME, for all the long covid patients, it does get better. Or, at least, things will shift and change. Grab hold. Hang on.
Wednesday night, I spent 3 hours in an MRI tube getting brutal imaging done of my brain and cervical spine. In general, I actually enjoy MRIs — I find them soothing and almost always fall asleep (the keys to making it relaxing are really good earplugs and eye shades that you never take off) — but the majority of the scans I had done the other night were in extreme flexion and extension of my neck, so it was very uncomfortable. I didn’t get home until 10:30pm.
I’ve already seen the radiology reports and they’re not great, unfortunately. I hoped things would be stable, but there are further degenerative changes to my cervical vertebrae with herniations impacting my spinal cord. More concerning to me is the lack of CSF flow in my cerebellum (posterior foramen magnum) is still noted (was first seen in a previous CINE MRI two years ago) and now there also is restricted CSF flow in the cerebral aqueduct. This is probably being caused by low-lying cerebellar tonsils, which is probably being caused by my tethered spinal cord pulling down on my brain stem. It’s overwhelming. But more on all that some other time.
I had some thoughts about managing these sorts of tests, especially with covid concerns. I’m unvaccinated (inching closer and closer every day to taking that gamble, though), so it was especially nerve-wracking as I pictured Delta shedding off the MRI techs in thick clouds (during those 3 hours, they probably spent a total of about 20 minutes standing a foot or less from my face as they had to add and remove bolsters and adjust me in different ways. They were both wearing very flimsy surgical masks, like limp paper towels. No well-fitting N95s here. Shudder).
I should have asked the techs to back up because they really didn’t need to be so close, but… well, it’s complicated. It comes down to the really embarrassing fact that I think I’m trying to be liked. A people pleaser. I expend an enormous amount of energy during appointments because I always wind up chatting and making jokes and acting normally due to adrenaline surges. And, in this case, because I am so bloody complicated, I tried to be easy and low-maintenance when I was in the hospital.
The lead tech went to unbelievable lengths to help get these MRIs approved and executed properly. He talked to my neurologist, he got the appointment moved to the Northwest campus, he emailed me updates, he let me fax the orders and doctor’s notes to him since they were having such a hard time getting my doctor’s clinic to do it. He left his shift at the UW Medical Center and drove across town to do my scans (at night) to make sure they were done properly (which was good because the other tech had never seen anything like them — we did a dynamic motion series, which involved moving my neck/head fractionally from full flexion into full extension, stopping 16 times to hold still for an image to be taken).
The imaging orders took over a month to be written properly and get approved (one of the schedulers was almost in tears talking with me. She said, “I told my supervisor: ‘We need to get this done! Our motto is patients first. Help this woman!’ I was shaking!”), so the upshot is, I didn’t want to cause waves or be a pain in the ass by asking him to step way back. Really hope that decision doesn’t give me covid. But I’d already told him my immune system was compromised and I was unvaccinated, so I guess he must have been pretty confident that he was not asymptomatically infected. I’m feeling weak-willed, though. I advocate for myself at every turn and then I don’t make sure we’re distanced? Ridiculous.
Back to the reason for this post:
Oh, wait! I had the craziest thing happen. The tech stopped the imaging at one point and said, “There’s something metallic in your armpit area. Can you see what it is?” HUH?
I have my eyeshades on, so I can’t see and I’m fishing around in my armpit and I find a little metal stick. “What is this??”
The tech has come into the room and he says, “It’s a bobby pin!”
“But I don’t wear bobby pins, I swear!”
And he says: “Oh, you know what, there’s a chest pocket inside the scrubs we gave you because they’re reversible, I bet it came through the laundry.” WTF?
Sure enough, there’s a little pocket and I guess the bobby pin was sucked out of it and into the armpit of the scrubs by the giant MRI magnet.
And then what do I do? I drop it, thinking it’ll just fall on my stomach. Not sure why I did that, but I hear him say, “OH NO, DON’T” and, in a flash, the bobby pin has bulleted straight into my face. It stuck to my chin by one end, the length of it horizontal to the floor, like a teeny arrow. WTAF?!
It didn’t hurt because I had a mask on, which cushioned it, but I had no idea everything was so magnetized when the machine wasn’t taking images. I couldn’t help thinking: What if my eye shades were off and it had torpedoed into my eyeball?! Jeesh. Luckily, we all got to laugh about it.
Here are my top tips for getting an MRI during a pandemic when you’re unvaccinated and your immune and autonomic nervous systems are haywire:
* You can’t have metal in an MRI machine, which means removing the nose piece from most masks. I didn’t want to wear my Cambridge or Airinum masks because I wanted something disposable (albeit an N95 rather than the equivalent of an N99 in the case of the cloth masks). I taped the mask all around my face with paper tape because, without the nose piece, it didn’t fit well. The paper tape was a bitch to get off and stretched my skin off my face alarmingly, but, hey, better than covid. I had a face shield, but didn’t wind up wearing it since I had to take it off as soon I got in there. I also put a surgical mask over the N95, which was undoubtedly useless, but I felt better “double masking.” These N95s are legit (I called the company, Kimberly-Clark and they gave me the Amazon link) and even though the duck bills look silly, they are much easier to breathe in. After being in the MRI tube for so long, I was really happy not to have one of my heavier reusable masks on.
* These are the other precaution suggestions I’ve collected over the past year: Some ME doctor (Klimas?) said xylitol nasal sprays can help in a protective sense before possible exposure and saline nasal rinses might help afterwards. I also bought Nasal Guard (a gel that you put around your nostrils and mouth that might catch allergens/germs before they enter your airways) and Nasal Screens (little sticky “filters” that cover your nostrils). You could also use WoodyKnows filters, but I can’t seem to get them to stay in my nose. So, during my MRI, underneath the taped-on paper N95 mask, I used the nasal screens and gel.
* Make sure to bring good earplugs. They have some for patients, but a) who wants to use the hospital ones? and b) they are never good enough. I like these chunky foam ones that expand to totally seal my ear canals. They don’t cost much for a huge box (I wear them to sleep) and I cut the ends off of them, so it’s not sore sleeping on my sides. Make sure you know how to insert earplugs. I literally needed a lesson: roll them in between your fingers until they’re as skinny as possible and then put them into your ear (you can pull down on your earlobes to get them further in) and then gently press the outside to keep them in place as they expand. These changed my sleeping life. After hours, the pressure inside the ear canal can get sore, but your ear toughens up pretty quickly if you stick with it. Anyway, they are a necessity in an MRI because the headphones do sweet FA. Plus, in my case, I couldn’t wear the headphones in any position except neutral.
* I usually bring my own eye shades, but because of covid, I used theirs, which are in a plastic bag and disposable. They smell new-plasticy/nylony, but, with my mask on, I didn’t notice. Like I said, put them on before you’re moved into the MRI tube and then DON’T TAKE THEM OFF. You don’t want to see how close the antenna (face cage) or the walls of the tube are to your nose. It breaks the “I’m fine” spell and can freak you out. MRI machines these days are pretty roomy and they have cool air blowing, so you really wouldn’t know you’re in a restricted space as long as you don’t look. (Another tip: you can ask them to turn the blowy air up or down.) I had to move the padding under my head and shoulders over and over again for the different positions and my elbows kept hitting the walls of the tube, which is a sure way to break the spell that you’re lying on the beach, just fine. Luckily, I don’t have claustrophobia. For the dynamic scans, the tech asked me to just leave my arms above my head, which was the only time I felt slightly unnerved because it was so cramped (back arched, neck in extension, arms above head, but not too bent because he didn’t want me to touch the tube and create some sort of looped current or some shit. Yikes).
* If you’re getting an MRI, ask for it to be done on a 3T machine, so you have the best quality images and don’t have to redo them.
* If you’re getting a supine cervical MRI ask to add in flexion, extension and rotation, so you (hopefully) don’t have to do an upright MRI (agony), which the tech called “garbage” since they are done with a 0.6 Tesla magnet (most neurosurgeons prefer 1.5T or higher).
* Find out the location of the 3T machine. In my case, I could get them done at a company called CDI, which is right by my house and it’s inside a small imaging clinic versus a hospital (less covid risk). But, it turned out, the 3T machine was in Bellevue (much further away from me) and would involve my husband taking the day off of work and sitting in a lot of traffic etc. I was switched to the University of Washington Medical Center, but the radiology suite is a long walk through a big hospital and would, again, necessitate my husband leaving work (and expose himself to covid risk) because, although I could probably drive there myself and walk to the MRI, I didn’t know how the flexion and extension would hurt my neck or exacerbate my symptoms and there was a chance I wouldn’t be able to walk back to my car and would need a stranger and a strange wheelchair. Or I might not be able to drive myself home and would be forced to get an Uber. Hell no. Ubers were bad before covid.
More importantly, the other location option — UW Northwest — is a few minutes from my house and I already know that the 3T machine is in a quiet building, separated from the hospital and that the MRI room is literally a few steps down from disabled parking, which is always empty. It’s a small suite and it’s always been just me and the tech every time I’ve been there. Last time I had an MRI at the big UW Medical Center, there were dozens of people teeming around and I had to wait for over two hours because of a backlog of scans.
* Ask for an appointment on a weekend and/or the first appointment of the day and/or the last appointment of the night to avoid humans.
* After you check in, wait outside, if you can. For those in my area, this is really easy at Northwest Hospital. They just pop their head out the door when they’re ready and I’m right there at my car.
* Wear hardly anything. I left everything I possibly could at home. Jewellery, purse etc. I only brought my phone, hand sanitizer and my emergency MCAS stuff that I bring everywhere. I wore nothing but underwear, a long skirt pulled up to be a “sun dress” and shoes.
* If you are getting any imaging done that involves different positions, bring something for support and bolstering of your skull and neck. I brought a big pile of washcloths from my house so I wouldn’t be using the hospital’s foam wedges. I rolled them under my head and neck to help with the flexion and extension images and under the sides of my face to give support when my head was in rotation.
* Ask the MRI tech to let you know in advance how long each sequence will take and whether you can move and adjust yourself. It can get sore staying so still, but every time you move off of the mid-line, they have to recalibrate the machine with a “scouting series.”
* Pretend you’re in a medical pod and the MRI is healing you. I usually drift off to some sci fi place, imagining all the blerp blerp blerp gramma gramma gramma patel patel patel noises are curing my disease.
* I bagged the washcloths and my clothes when I got home so I could wash them later and took a shower. I also sprayed alcohol on my shoes and backpack. Oh and I used mouthwash for the first time in a decade and just hoped that I didn’t have some weird reaction to the alcohol/flavourings/colourings (I didn’t).
What I did wrong: I didn’t eat and drink enough before leaving. Everything takes longer than you think it will, it seems, and with a taped-on mask, there was no sneaking a lozenge or anything. I was parched and ravenous and wound up eating dinner at 11:30pm.
20 years ago today (I started writing this on May 27th), I stopped taking health for granted. It would be another decade before life as I knew it abruptly disappeared with the collapse of my immune system and the descent into severe ME/CFS, but this day in 2001 was the beginning of the end of health ignorance and body confidence.
My husband and I were at my friend’s birthday party, sitting at an outdoor table in the dark, chatting, drinking beers, smoking cigarettes. My breathing started bothering me to the point that I mentioned it to my boyfriend (at the time). He put his ear on my chest and said he didn’t hear anything abnormal. But that’s why it got my attention — I’d had many, many chest infections and asthma issues in my life, but this was different, this was like a vice around my lungs. I was smoking, though, so it was easy to explain away. And I was drinking, so I didn’t want the party to stop.
A while later, I went to the bathroom and, when I looked in the mirror, I saw a huge defined rash on the bottom of my face, down my neck and onto my chest. It looked like I’d drawn a distinct outline and colored it in with a bright red marker. I’d never, ever dealt with hives or rashes and I always thought they were blotchy and maybe raised, maybe itchy. This was nothing like that; this looked like a slab of raw steak.
We decided to go home and, on the way, I called the consulting nurse service at my doctor’s clinic. The nurse asked me if my tongue was swollen and I replied: “Yeah, actually, it’s so big, I’m chewing on it. “ She very calmly said: “Hang up the phone and call an ambulance.” When my boyfriend heard this, he turned around and drove through every red light to get to the emergency room. It was such a weird experience — the triage nurse took one look at me and brought me straight back to get hooked up to an IV. I was drunk, totally oblivious to the seriousness of the situation and then quickly doped up on diphenhydramine and mellow. Before we went home, the nurse said it was the worst case of anaphylaxis she’d ever seen.
But when you’re young and healthy, it’s easy to ignore these things. It happened twice more before I went to see a specialist and all the RAST and typical allergy blood tests came back negative. I told the doctor that every time it happened, I was at an event or party (after the first birthday party, it happened at another birthday party, an Oktoberfest gathering and an Easter celebration), I had been drinking alcohol and it was the start of my period. Those were the common denominators. I was dismissed by the allergist at the University of Washington Medical Center — he actually threw the Pub Med articles that I had printed out at the library into the trash can in front of me with a flourish — and so I dismissed it, too. They know best, right?
The last time I went into full-blown, classic-presenting anaphylaxis, I almost died. I was a rag doll, carried down the stairs on a stretcher by the paramedics. They kept asking what drugs I had taken, not believing that this was an “anaphylactic reaction to alcohol.” It traumatised my boyfriend and mother. It was the last time I had a drop of booze.
My body, my health, and our lives have never been the same. 20 years of collapses and tests, specialists, diagnoses, treatments and medications, pain, reactions, research, fear, loss of career, social life and hopes for the future.
I haven’t gone into grade III anaphylaxis (bordering on grade IV that last time) since 2002, but the spectre is always there. Hypotension, heart arrhythmias, angioedema — they’re barely managed and always providing a low-level thrum of unease in my days. I could escalate at any time if you’re not hypervigilant, they say. But I’m not very careful and I like to test the boundaries. I found over the years that the negative effects from hypervigilance just slightly outweigh the fear that is borne of risk-taking, especially when each time I throw caution to the wind and come out unscathed, I gain a little bit of confidence and hope that I’m safe now and it won’t happen again.
I don’t do parties, though, and I try to keep menstruation at bay with prescription hormones. And I’ll never have another drink as long as I live, even if I woke up healthy tomorrow. My mast cells will continue to find new and creative ways to wreak havoc on my body without my help.
I started writing a blog post months ago about my current decline, new symptoms, new diagnoses, horrible and risky testing that I’m trying hard to avoid, and even more horrible and risky procedures and treatments. I never seem to be able to conclude an entire post, but, luckily, my friend Caroline is in exactly the same position. It’s almost unbelievable how closely aligned our current situations are, including the same doctors (we first met for a quick coffee while we were both in California from out of state to go to the same clinic), the same offers for testing and surgery and the same reluctant mind sets (the latter feels most important because I have one person who gets me).
Caroline has written such a clear and astute account of the mental gymnastics we go through when coming to terms with structural diagnoses and the agonizing decisions that need to be made when weighing the devil you know against the one you don’t.
So, thank you Caroline for writing this update for both of us! And for my friends and family: If you’d like to know what’s happening with me, just read this and everywhere she has written “urinate,” replace it with “poop” and you’ll get the gist of my life.
I am exhausted from being a patient. In the early days of my illness, I kept a journal, tracked symptoms, and made schedules. Now, I cannot be bothered on most days, but recently I have had to re-engage with my medical care due to declining health.
For years, I actively pursued tests that might shed light on why I feel so poorly. One of the most annoying aspects of having ME/CFS is that we look so normal on paper until you start digging into advanced testing. It is a strange place to be, to want positive test results that point to new treatment directions while at the same time hoping that nothing is seriously wrong. If a test comes back positive, I remind myself that knowledge is power. If it comes back negative, I can rule out a condition. Each investigation brings me closer to the truth behind my illness, regardless if it is negative or positive.
Over the years, my strategy has changed. Rather than pursuing medical explanations for each new symptom, I put my head in the sand, hoping it will all go away. Yet new symptoms are usually a harbinger of decline, especially when they settle in permanently. Ignoring symptoms when it gets to this point is rarely a winning prospect.
I didn’t get away with it and what’s happening is scaring me. I have been incredibly sick for the past 8 hours. I got home from the autonomic testing yesterday afternoon and I felt at my normal baseline all night. Went to sleep at my normal time and, two hours later, I woke up with violent chills. I couldn’t adjust my position without shaking all over. This is a reaction I have that I’ve never been able to work out — mast cell? autonomic? It feels very viral. It’s so systemic, I can’t sleep. For 4 hours, I was clothed, with my electric blanket on high, unable to stick my head or even a finger outside of the duvet, holding as still as possible to not cause the shakes. Then I started to burn up, my body like a furnace, had to lie naked outside of the covers, waiting for the bed to burst into flames. My temperature through the whole night stayed at 97.5. It seems inconceivable given what I was feeling internally.
But here’s what’s scaring me: My heart rate lying completely flat, before I even got out of bed, was in the high 80s. I am typically in the high 50s to mid-60s while at rest. I don’t think my supine heart rate has ever been that high, even at my sickest. I looked at the graph from my smart watch and — well, here:
I KNOW many of my friends have heart rates much higher than this (and I can only imagine how awful it is), it’s just scary when it was totally normal until I’d been asleep for a few hours and then — bam. Skyrockets. Also, that it’s staying there today when I’m lying here, holding still.
What happened during the testing yesterday? Is this just payback? How can I feel so okay during the appointment and afterwards and then have all hell break loose in the middle of the night? I know this is what has always happened with me — the nighttime reactions — but it would be from Christmas excitement or socialising and I’d be feeling the toll throughout the day. I just wonder — what happened to my heart in the aftermath of the tests yesterday?
Mostly, I’ve just had the wind knocked out of my sails. I was on such a high, feeling like I was strong enough to come through the testing, off my meds, with no issues. Loving my body’s resiliency…
Serendipitously, I had an appointment this morning with a cardiac electrophysiologist to ask his opinion about my vasovagal collapses. I had another one a few weeks ago and it was one of the worst yet (these are different from the nighttime chills/shakes — much more serious and have been happening since 2005, long before I was sick). This last episode was from a pelvic floor spasm and happened very quickly. My husband called the paramedics because I looked like I was dying and couldn’t talk, bradycardia making it hard to breath, hypotension. I was shaking all over, drenched in cold sweat, pooped the bed. It scared both of us.
I was able to chat with the EP this morning over video from my bed, thank you, covid. The bad news is, though, that he can’t help me. He said there’s no point in doing a heart monitor because my episodes are so sporadic and there’s no point in implanting a loop recorded (as a consideration for a pacemaker) if my heart rate isn’t going into the 30s or 20s. I can’t even imagine that. The dragging feeling of my heart in the 40s during one of these collapses is utterly horrific. He suggested a tilt table test and I said, “why, I just happened to have one yesterday.” He wasn’t really convinced that I have hyperadrenergic POTS. He wasn’t really interested in what happened to me in the night. Ultimately, he said I have no good choices — to avoid the collapses, I would have to avoid triggers, which means not having periods, not having bowel movements and not having sex. I’m wondering how to be okay with the stripping down of layers of life. The mourning of each loss is so immense. For all of us.