In Amber

A DECADE

A decade since I felt well.

A decade since my body and health were not on my mind. 

A decade since my last cold, flu or bronchitis.

A decade since my last vaccination.

A decade since I enjoyed Halloween, my favourite holiday.

A decade since I was in a lake or ocean.

A decade since I was on a train.

A decade since I stood up at a concert.

A decade since I didn’t wear a mask on a plane.

A decade since I went to a wedding.

A decade since I went to a barbecue.

A decade since seeing so many friends.

A decade since I married my longtime boyfriend because “I feel like something is going to happen to me and I want you to be able to legally speak for me, if I can’t speak for myself.”

A decade since I was in Ireland, in my childhood home, walking the streets of my heart.

I thought about this anniversary so many times in the past. For a long time, I thought there was no way it would come–I couldn’t possibly stay sick this long. Every other illness had a beginning and an end, so, surely, one day my body would recover and this spectre would leave, it was just taking a little longer than the usual virus.

Once I realised it was lifelong, I thought the 10-year mark would be a momentous and heavy occasion. It turns out, it’s not. 2 years seemed much harder to accept. Back when isolation was still harrowing and loneliness still suffocated. You get used to both. It helps if you can develop a deep disdain for humans, so you can trick yourself into believing you’re not missing out on anything. And the 5-year mark was hard. I’d felt small, but miraculous changes from IVIG and then had an epic autumn backslide that year. The dowsing of that little flame of hope was devastating and it was inconceivable that I would be physically or mentally resilient enough to continue the maybe-I’m-getting-better!-Oh-no-what-fresh-hell-is-this? cycle for years to come.

But, then, suddenly, 10 years have passed. I could almost believe the rest of the world is trapped in amber, frozen in time, awaiting my return. As soon as I kick this thing, I’ll drive back down to the office–each street scene melting and returning into motion as my car passes by–and get back to work. Thanks for waiting, guys.

INFECTIONS

What’s far more unbelievable to me is that I haven’t had a muggle illness in a decade. [Please don’t let this jinx me.] No head cold, no flu, no stomach bug, no chest/ear/sinus/bladder/any-other-part-of-the-body infection. The more time that went by, the more ominous was the thought of contracting an acute virus. For years, I had relentless flu-y symptoms–headaches, sore throats, muscle pain, weakness, chills (and still do, sporadically)–and I have many high out-of-range infection titers*, so the thought of another malady compounding the daily slog was harrowing.

*HHV6 IgG; HSV IgM; EBV IgG; M Pneumoniae IgG; S. Cerevisiae IgG; Varicella IgG and IgM; Coxsackie A7, A9, A16, A24, B1, B2, B5 and B6; Anti Streptolysin O Titer, and Candida IgM and IgA. Yes, really.

Three years into my illness, Dr. Chia told us unequivocally that a run-of-the-mill cold could make me permanently worse, so we have always taken great precautions to avoid exposure, which have only intensified during this pandemic. I honestly wonder if I’ll ever be indoors and maskless with anyone besides my husband again. Even worse, will my husband ever be indoors and maskless with anyone besides me? It’s one thing to choose this life for myself–I’ve made peace with only having remote communication with friends and family; I have a partner and a dog to keep me sane–but my healthy husband’s life has shriveled to keep me safe and the guilt from that is indescribable. I imagine if he weren’t yoked to someone at such risk for serious complications from viruses, he might be out gallivanting and socialising, as well he should be.

VACCINES

One of the first doctors I saw after falling ill said, “You are very sick. We don’t know what’s wrong with you, but you should never get another vaccination as long as you live.” I was confused because, until that moment, I hadn’t linked whatever this sickness was to the flu shot I’d gotten a week before Halloween. I was also confused because, in my healthy ignorance, I thought vaccines only bolstered your immune system. I really didn’t understand, in certain unique circumstances, that they could break it. I used to get every immunization available in an effort to protect myself.

Before I traveled to Central America, I was vaccinated for polio, live typhoid, hepatitis A and B, tetanus, diphtheria and gammastan–all on the same day. In the years after, I got the live varicella vaccine, the 3-shot hepatitis B series, measles, mumps, and rubella and, of course, the flu shot every year, along with a pandemic flu vaccine (H1N1) when they were offered. I didn’t get majorly sick while traveling, I didn’t get chicken pox when I tended to my horrifically poxy husband and I never got the flu despite working very long hours in restaurants, among infectious people (note to the public: restaurant staff work when they’re sick; you have to be on death’s door to ask someone to cover a shift), so I guess the vaccines helped… until they harmed.

COVID

There’s such polarization these days when it comes to covid vaccines. There’s a lot of hatred directed at those who are trying to protect themselves and others by getting vaccinated and wearing masks and there is an equal amount of contempt directed at anti-vaxers. I have yet to see a single news story talk about those of us who want to get vaccinated, but cannot. Or those of us who have to make the agonizing decision to live a life of extreme isolation or risk very serious repercussions from a vaccine–any vaccine. I wish individuals would always take the collective into consideration and try to protect those that are vulnerable, but that’s not human nature, unfortunately. People will refuse vaccinations or not wear masks or not get tested because they don’t want to quarantine. And, all the while, those of us with weakened, damaged or overactive immune systems–be it from chemo or old age or autoimmunity or ME/cfs or steroids or stress or another condition–will have to choose seclusion over risk.

Against one of my doctor’s advice, I will be getting the first covid vaccine next month–but I’m getting a pediatric dose. We will see how I do and then I’ll get a second dose and test antibodies. They will be keeping me for observation in the clinic for an hour because of my history of anaphylaxis, but that’s not what I’m worried about.

I’m worried about being bedbound again. I’m worried about volunteering for an injection that could further damage my autonomic nervous system and intensify dysautonomia and hyperadrenergic symptoms. I’m worried about triggering more vasovagal collapses or making myself more hemodynamically unstable. I’m worried about a cytokine storm and/or a mast cell meltdown that creates a permanent worsening of reactivity when I’m already so limited in medication options and trying so hard to keep on weight. I’m worried about a blood clot causing sudden death because IVIG, oral hormones and inactivity already put me in a high-risk category. I’m worried about losing the limited amount of independence and mobility I have now (but it’s enough for a happy life) and becoming too weak to even wash my hair again. I’m worried about being that burden to my husband again, especially now that it takes so much work to make my GI tract function–it would be a monstrous task for him to take on. Mostly, I’m worried about once again losing the small joys, like taking Penny on our scooter walks, being able to talk on the phone for hours and laughing. I spent years without those gifts and I’m not sure I can claw my way back over another decade. 

It feels good to write out those fears. There are very few people with whom I can have these discussions because not many healthy friends understand the risks involved when dealing with such complex conditions. Everyone in my family has had at least 2 covid vaccinations with no side effects, but, in my support groups, it’s a different story. Even there, though, I am careful–I want everyone to get vaccinated, if they can safely, and I never want to dissuade others by voicing my concerns. And doctors aren’t much help because the vast majority take the practical stance that, statistically, the chances of negative repercussions are low and that the risks outweigh the benefits. That’s absolutely true for the typical bell curve of the typical population. Not true for me.

Let’s just hope it’s all smooth sailing. I’d like the next decade to be different.

Update: My doctor pretty much talked me out of getting the C vaccine. I’m too high-risk for long-term reactions. I’m going to have to get surgery next year, so not being vaccinated in a hospital setting adds another layer of fear, but I won’t be stable enough for surgery if the vaccine caused damage. So I will be remaining in strict isolation and putting my life in other people’s hands.

Title Credit

what is and what should never be

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.

Title Credit

20-year An(aphylaxis)iversary

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.

Reblog: The reluctant patient

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.

The reluctant patient

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.

Continue reading here….

Autonomic Testing Payback

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…

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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.