End of Year On a High.

I have to memorialise what happened yesterday because I am astounded and grateful and I bitch so much about the healthcare in this country making so many of us go broke, but this was truly amazing.

On Monday, December 30th, for the hell of it (and prompted by something my friend, Rachel, posted), I decided to ask my brand new doctor (who doesn’t even know me; I was just dumped on her plate when my phenomenal primary care provider left the clinic) if there was any chance we could squeeze in an MRI before the end of the year because I had met my insurance’s out-of-pocket maximum expenditure for 2019 (meaning, in theory, I wouldn’t have to pay for anything else — and wouldn’t it be nice to get the MRI that one of my specialists requested for free?).

Astonishingly, she answered me the same day and said she had put in the order for the MRI, but she doubted it could happen because it needs a prior authorisation (PA) from insurance and that usually takes 8 days or more. I never expected her to read the message during this very busy time of the year, let alone answer it, let alone put in an order without seeing me in person. I was shocked — she trusted what I said in my email! Maybe I should stay with this doctor, after all.

So, yesterday, the LAST DAY OF THE YEAR, at 7:30am, I call my insurance to ask how long it would take to get the PA. They say to call another company, AIM.

I call AIM and they say the PA can only be expedited if the order is marked urgent and mine isn’t (and it definitely doesn’t warrant an urgent request, so I’m not going to pursue that). But they tell me there is a way to get it approved immediately — if the doctor calls them and answers questions over the phone.

I email my doctor to tell her this, making it clear that I understand she probably won’t see the email and wouldn’t have time to call AIM, regardless.

Then I call radiology to see if I can grab a same day appointment, just in case. Radiology Ryan tells me they have one opening left, but I can’t have it unless they have a PA in place.

Then my doctor’s medical assistant emails to say she can’t get a PA without my having an MRI appointment. Well, that’s a catch 22. And she needs a CPT code.

Meanwhile, throughout all of this, I am going to two big doctor appointments — end of year endocrinology and a 2-hour allergy testing for anesthetic agents — sending emails and making calls in between talking to doctors.

As soon as I’m back in the car, around 11:30am, I call Radiology Ryan and tell him my conundrum — that I need an appointment to get a PA. He says their rule only excludes same day appointments, so I can make one for the future just to secure the PA and, if it comes through, call back to reschedule for today. If the spot is still available. Ryan gives me a random January appointment, but tells me the doctor should provide the CPT code. Then, hearing my whimpering, he takes pity and looks up the code for a “lumbar MRI without contrast.”

I email the MA, tell her the code and my appointment date, and cross my fingers.

Soon after I get home, there’s a message from the MA saying she called AIM and got the PA. It’s a miracle!

I call Radiology Ryan. It’s now 1:30pm. He looks for the PA in his system, sees everything is in place, and tells me there’s still a 1:45pm MRI opening. And it’s on a 3T machine, which is what I need. Another miracle!

I shove some food in my face and dash over to the third hospital of the day, which is only 5 minutes away.

The woman behind the desk tells me I have beautiful eyes and my day just couldn’t get much better.

I fall asleep in the MRI (even a few minutes can help!) and then walk over to the medical records office and get copies of my imaging within 15 minutes.

All in all, it was 26.5 hours between my doctor’s MRI order and having my imaging discs in hand.

Mind blown. All of the people who contributed to getting this done deserve wine and chocolates, including the eye flatterer.

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Also, after being completely debilitated by head, neck and eye pain for three days, yesterday it completely eased up.

Also, it was a beautiful 7:40am drive downtown, a time that I’m rarely out of bed.

 

Also, my thyroid levels are dialed in.

Also, all of the skin prick and intradermal tests for medications were negative.

Also, I walked around the hospital by myself for the first time since I used to volunteer there 12 years ago. My husband usually pushes me in a wheelchair.

Also, we stopped briefly at a grocery store and I walked around like no big deal.

Also, the grocery store had tons of good salads in the deli, so I didn’t have to cook.

Also, I succeeded again in inserting my peripheral IV in a hard-to-access forearm vein and it is so much better to be able to move normally throughout the day without worrying about kinking something in the elbow or wrist.

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Also, although Penn kept me up most of the night with her fireworks panic, Riley has decided that he’s too old to give a shit and one terrified dog is definitely easier to deal with than two.

Also, I had the best Christmas health-wise since before I was sick. <– This last point is so exciting, it will get its own blog post.

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Happy new year, everyone!

Our Old Man Riley

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Like Lassie, our Riley communicates quite skillfully with a range of different barks. A few months ago, he came to me at the dining table with his stern, urgent bark. I looked around for Penny, knowing he was tattling on his sister. He used to do this with Bowie, too. “Is she downstairs getting into treats?” I asked him. That’s where I’d found her one day, head buried in a Greenies bag. As I went down the stairs, Riley’s barks got more insistent: Mama, wrong way. I looked back up the stairs at him. He stamped his feet with intent, faced the back door, barked more urgently. He might as well have pointed. I went back up, looked outside, and there was Penny on the porch, standing amidst scattered recycling, snout-deep in an empty dog food can.

He has another bark for person at the gate and another for stinging insect in the house and for dinner is late and for I’m too arthritic to play with these dogs, so I’m just going to yell at them for an hour.

Riley is the house manager. He likes to lie in the open front door, where he can keep an eye on the street, the garden and inside the house, too. In the winter, when I insist on a closed door, he’ll lie on the porch outside, but only if he can see me through the window. If I go out of sight, he’ll nose his way inside to make sure I’m okay, first looking upstairs, then the basement, staying with me until I am back by the window so he can return to the porch and continue his vigil.

He gets up in the morning with my husband, the early bird, sees him off to work and then, by 9am, he comes carefully clicking through the dark bedroom to rouse me for breakfast. I listen to his slow ricochet off of walls and furniture corners, as he navigates to the far side of the room, where his nose finds my face. At night, he puts my husband to bed, too, and then re-emerges a few hours later to escort me upstairs.

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He protects his siblings, protesting loudly if anyone picks up Penny’s paws for clipping or cleaning or threatens her with a coat. He shoves his way in between us, offers up himself, instead. Take me. He did the same thing with Bowie, yelling at me if I tried to brush Bowie’s teeth or perform a rectal grass extraction. Except when Bowie was dying – Riley didn’t make a peep as I changed doggy diapers and forced endless pills down Bowie’s throat.

Riley is my self-appointed emotional support animal. When I’m talking to someone, he lies beside me on the couch, one paw on my arm, and if he hears emotion of any kind — annoyance, laughter, sadness — he’ll repeatedly claw at me. Stay cool, Mama. If I become more animated or raise my voice, he will clamber on top of me, put his weight on me, shield me, distract me. And, if all else fails, he turns into the court jester in the middle of the living room, the dancing frog from those cartoons: Look over here! See what I’m doing? 🎶 Hello, my baby…🎶

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Yesterday was his 11th adoptiversary. My husband ran into a woman at the park who said Rally (his name at the time) needed a foster family. We took him in and, after 3 other forever-homes fell through and we were gutted each time he left, we copped on that he was meant to be ours. We were meant to be his. He’s about 12 or 13 years old now. He came to us emaciated, with half a tail, already arthritic, even as a kid. He almost died from giardia, swelled up from wasp stings, lost a toe and a bunch of teeth – and none of it ever slowed him down.

But this year, he’s suddenly old. Cataract-y eyes, rickety bones, staring at walls… And I’m thinking of what it’ll be like to not have him taking naps with me or lying outside my shower… How quiet it’ll be with no warnings of stranger danger or bad insects or Penny mischief. I’m reminding him more than ever how much he’s loved, how, even with the endless lint rolling and daily hoovering, we have cherished every hour of the last 4,016 days with him. And how incredibly fortunate we are to be the ones who get to accompany him through however many days remain.

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The future might be the past…

I’m going through a rough(er) patch. My body is scaring me because I can’t find any cause for recent episodes. One of the good things these past few years, is that I can usually pinpoint a reason for reactions and downturns. Even after the last horrific night I suffered with apparently no reason (it was last November, during my Dad’s very short visit and I couldn’t blame it on overdoing it because I didn’t), I started spotting late the next day and–light bulb!–it was my period coming a week early (I can have terrible reactions on the day before or the first day of menstruation).

When my husband called 911 on the first day of my last period (both my MD and ND said that my body had gone into shock), it was the first time I’d had such a bad collapse with vitals bottoming out since 2010 — since before I was sick! Then, 5 days later, I got a tingly tongue and lip during IVIG and then a hive on the base of my throat. I realise it was a tiny reaction compared to what so many mast cell patients go through (a week later, a friend of mine went into full-blown anaphylaxis during her IVIG infusion and then somehow got the guts to try again the next day with the same batch –that put my experience into perspective), but the thing is, except for one small hive when I tried Xanax in 2013, I hadn’t had any hives since being in full-blown anaphylaxis 17 years ago! And that place–a hive in the suprasternal notch– was always the position for a systemic red alert, for something I ingested, as opposed to benign contact dermatitis.

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Then Saturday evening, my tongue swelled up for the first time in 7 months for no reason that I can figure out. I had tongue swelling a few times last year, but I could always explain it (dental work, sauna, vancomycin). Even more concerning, it’s still swollen now, 45 hours later and that’s very unusual. I took Benadryl the last 2 nights, squirting it onto the affected area of my tongue, as I’ve been told to do (this is also unusual for me–I am extremely judicious with Benadryl, only taking it when absolutely necessary) and the swelling still hasn’t resolved. I can’t remember another time it lasted this long — maybe, again, 17 years ago during anaphylaxis.

Then yesterday afternoon, I was hit with vertigo after spending too much time on my feet, preparing food. Vertigo is rare for me and is a big red flag. It’s very different from dizziness and I don’t think it has anything to do with blood pressure. I went to bed for a while, hoping it would resolve, but, when I got up, I was still slamming into walls, as if I were walking the hallway on a lurching boat. The last 2 times I experienced vertigo were 5 months ago during–shocker–my period and a year ago on the morning we were leaving for California, after killing myself the day before to finish packing. I thought it might be something to do with my neck, which always has issues, so I used heat, then my cervical traction device, then an ice pack. I think it helped; the vertigo had mostly abated by the time I went to bed.

But…

A few hours after I went to sleep, I woke up with horrible shakes and chills and drenching sweats. My BP was low (but low-normal for me: 80/50), HR was a little high, temperature was 96 degrees, and O2 was 95%. It was 7 terrible hours that felt viral, like when I first got sick, but was probably mast cells, what with the swollen tongue and all. I finally got up to do that thing that other chronically ill people might understand: put on clothes in case I had to go to the hospital. On a normal day, I might sit around in my dressing gown with unbrushed hair all day, but when there could be a chance I’m going to the hospital, I try to make sure I’m not naked. I also make sure I’m not wearing anything I care about — I’ve lost clothes in the hospital before.

Strangely, I had almost an identical episode on this exact day last year. Here’s a screenshot from my calendar:

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After the most stable autumn and winter I’ve had since being sick, this downturn–this piling on of relatively rare, red-flag symptoms–scares me. My sleep has gone to hell in the last few weeks, which compounds everything by stealing energy and increasing pain. Plus, I’m exacerbating things by holding tight to my “best winter yet” narrative and by fighting so hard to maintain the level of functioning I’ve had this past year, rather than pulling way back and resting aggressively.

My ND says the naturopathic philosophy is that you will go back through previous stages of health and experience earlier symptoms as you travel the healing journey back to where you once were. I’ve latched onto this theory to anchor myself and dispel some fear. The resurgence of all these old symptoms means there has been a shift in my system — but maybe it’s a positive shift, even though it doesn’t feel that way. I’ve gained weight since starting IVIG, over 8% of my norm, which is not insignificant, especially on someone as small as I am. I’m at my heaviest since being sick and, although I’m not overweight, I’ve lost muscle tone the last 7 years and I don’t have the physical ability to burn fat and build muscle, so I hope this trajectory doesn’t continue. My doctor thought this, also, pointed towards a shift in my body: maybe I’ve started absorbing nutrients better. Acne is coming back a little, too. Maybe my hair will grow back! Or the next thing will be that I’ll catch a cold for the first time in 8 years… (And because I really don’t want this to happen, no matter what it might indicate about a calming immune system: knock on wood, toba, toba, spit over shoulder: patuey.)

But, as I lie here, shaky, with my swollen tongue, chronicling these last few weeks (minus the osteoporosis diagnosis and extremely elevated post-antibiotics SIBO test results, both of which I’ll have to write about at a different time), none of it feels like a positive shift and I worry about what I should eat so as not to add to mast cell reactivity and whether I should stay in bed and lie still, even though longed-for Seattle sun is streaming through the windows and I’d love to make some breakfast and sit at my table watching Riley lounge in the grass, soaking up the rays, and the hummingbirds diving around our feeders.

First 911 call since being sick.

We had to call an ambulance this morning for — are you ready for this unbelievable fact? — THE FIRST TIME SINCE I’VE BEEN SICK (absolutely sick and disabled by M.E.; I was fully functional with MCAS for a decade beforehand). And I need the help of all you big brains to figure out the mechanism behind what happened. This is a long post because I want to track exactly what happened. I appreciate your reading this and your thoughts.

My main question is: What can cause sudden bradycardia and loss of consciousness, but not significant hypotension (nor hypertension)? Here’s the back story:

I have a history of anaphylaxis and it almost always happened during my period, usually on the first day, usually after drinking alcohol. I also have a history of collapsing at the start of menstruation, this happened many more times than the full-blown anaphylaxis and often seemed to be triggered by a bowel movement in the morning. The collapsing we’ve called vasovagal syncope, the theory being: vagus nerve triggered by bowel pressure + very reactive day = collapse. I sometimes lost consciousness, but I always was immobile, grey pallor, yellow lips, glazed-over, unfocused eyes, covered in sweat, heavy breathing, hypotensive, bradycardic. What was NOT typical of vasovagal syncope, according to doctors, was that my body didn’t bounce back: my HR did not rise to compensate for the low BP and my BP didn’t come up once I was supine. It usually resulted in ambulance trips to the ER for fluids and at least once I got IV morphine for severe dysmenorhhea (I can’t have any morphine-derived meds anymore).

These were my main health issues before M.E., I felt normal otherwise and pretty much blew them off. Incredibly, they haven’t happened since becoming sick in 2011. My dysmenorhhea actually got much better. Since being sick, I’ve often had bad mast cell reactions and worsening of ME symptoms on the first day of my period, but no collapsing with my husband terrified, calling 911. I thought it was because I’m more conscientious about hydrating and salt-loading.

I was spotting yesterday. My period came on in earnest in the middle of the night, but what disturbed my sleep repeatedly was a viral feeling of sick chills every time I changed positions. Chills and shakes enough to wake me. Then the period cramps started, much, much worse than normal, incredibly painful on the left side. The only thing I could think was maybe it was a ruptured ovarian cyst. I was moaning and crying out with the cyclical cramps, trying to find a position that eased it, my dog Riley clawing at me and burrowing under my body to help. My husband got me a hot water bottle, 2 acetaminophen and a benadryl. Then I took a turn for the worse: I was shaking badly, became nauseous, very weak, drenched in sweat (all the symptoms listed above). We took my vitals: BP was 86/49 (low, but normal for me), temperature was 97 (low, but normal for me), oxygen 96, but my HR was 48 — very abnormal for me. I’m usually 68ish at rest.

My husband got me apple juice in case I was hypoglycemic (it was too much of an emergency situation to check my blood sugar), salt water for my blood pressure, and started to call 911, but I said no. What could they do? Besides charge us thousands of dollars that we don’t have. I’d taken the 2 medications I could take, I could give myself fluids at home with my safe saline, and I didn’t want the two of us sitting around in a building full of flu and measles for hours on end, waiting for blood work and a vaginal ultrasound that would show nothing. But I kept getting worse and knew I was about to lose consciousness (even though I was still in bed and hadn’t even tried to stand up). I was starting to be unresponsive, so my husband called the paramedics.

By the time they got there (3 emergency response vehicles, 6 EMTs!), I’d come back from the edge a bit and was able to talk. They were concerned with my low BP, but I assured them it was normal for me. They did a cursory check of my heart and were concerned about the bradycardia, but said they didn’t see any rhythm issues. They tried to persuade me to go to the hospital, but I said no and signed a waiver. They didn’t want to speculate beyond dehydration (they pointed out that people aren’t realising how dehydrated they are in the current very dry Seattle Snowpocalypse) and possibly needing tests of my reproductive organs. She said, “It’s alarming to lose consciousness while lying down, it’s alarming how low your blood pressure is and it’s alarming that your heart rate isn’t responding to your low blood pressure.” <– That’s what I want to brainstorm.

It was definitely caused by the first day of my period, as usual, but what is the physiological mechanism? What might typically cause sudden bradycardia? What can cause a low HR + low BP (if you take the paramedic’s position)? Or what can cause a low HR + normal BP (if you consider my BP is normally low)? How does a reaction to my period explain this? Could it be 100% pain-induced? If it’s a mast cell reaction, I would expect a high HR and an abnormal BP. Why would I pass out when I’d been lying down the last 9 hours? Why would I pass out with my BP around my normal? Can a low HR cause loss of consciousness without BP dropping significantly? Is this cardiac syncope? Could I have cardiac syncope without knowing I have heart issues? Or autoimmune autonomic dysfunction? Or, once again, adrenal insufficiency? Does losing consciousness usually make breathing labored?

By the time the paramedics left, I was very shaky, but I knew I wouldn’t pass out and my husband helped me get up and hook up my own fluids. I went to bed freezing, with 2 hot water bottles, all my clothes on, under covers in a warm room and it took hours to stop being chilled to the bone (why was I freezing?). When I woke up, finally warm, my HR was 76 — almost 30 bpm higher! I’m still shaky, have a very bad headache, and my heart is jumpy with some palpitations, but completely different from the half-dead, exsanguinated feeling of the bradycardia.

Any ideas are appreciated. I have a routine follow-up appointment with my GP on Tuesday and I’d like to ask her for any tests that might be important. Cardiac work up?

Lastly, I want to mention that it’s REALLY hard not to believe in retaliatory chronic illness gods — yesterday I started writing my first blog update in almost 5 months, it is incredibly positive (“my baseline is higher! I’m able to do more!” etc.) and I stopped myself from writing my usual “gods, cover your ears” and “knock on wood, toba toba” because I’m stable, I’m not as fearful of being knocked down, it’s superstitious nonsense… and then this happens… the first time in 8 years… It just seems a little coincidental. And makes me sad.

Long Overdue Update

I think it’s time to write an update. I haven’t wanted to neglect my blog — in fact, I wake up daily thinking about things I’d like to document and share — but I’ve somehow been very busy for what feels like years. My energy is still so limited and, with each incremental increase in functioning, I want to take some of the burden off my husband by cooking my own food, getting myself to appointments or taking care of our dog. It leaves no space for writing. I hesitate to say “no time for writing” because, even as a sick person — even as the person in question — I think, “you have nothing but time!” But I don’t, my window of functionality is still so small. There were months in the past when I worked 70 hours a week and I somehow still had the time to accomplish more than I do now — because my internal engine worked efficiently and my tank held much more gas and was easily refilled overnight. I can imagine my healthy friends reading this and wondering how someone with no job, no kids and no social engagements can possibly feel like they don’t have time to write an update. Maybe, if I manage to complete this blog post, it’ll be clearer.

These last few years, I have put great effort into trying to be an easier human to be around, trying to act like my old self for my husband and when I see people — you know, trying to be one of those “it’s great the way she stays positive and keeps fighting while dealing with such suffering” kind of people. But when you only post the good moments on Facebook and you draw from deep reserves while talking to people to appear perky and mildly engaging, it can cause… confusion, for lack of a better word. Even my closest friends and family obviously can’t see on the outside of me what I assume must be alarmingly salient and sometimes I get concerned that maybe, deep down, they think I’m just living the good life while my husband slogs away at his very physically-demanding job. They have made comments that make me think I’ve never done a good job of explaining this disease and, in fact, sometimes their loving and well-meaning encouragement sounds like they think I need the courage to get out into the world.

There are certain things that take courage in my life– they are all mast cell threats. It takes courage for me to go to places where there are no easily-accessible emergency rooms, like Vashon Island, where our friends live, or in an airplane. It takes courage to try a new medication, knowing I could have a reaction. My experiences with full-blown anaphylaxis and nocturnal mast cell meltdowns have made me fearful of a lot in life — not only of things I’ve reacted to, but typical triggers that have never caused me problems because I always wonder if they’re filling my “bucket” and the reaction is looming behind a blind bend in the road. For example, I may think I can eat just about anything and I love hot weather, but most mast cell patients can’t and don’t. So, maybe a few family members come over on the 4th of July and my period is due (“events” can cause reactions for me, as does menstruation). I’m basking in the sun and I’ve eaten a banana, some cheese, some chocolate that day (typical foods that cause reactions for others). Then the fireworks start and my dogs go into paroxysms of panic, which causes me distress (emotions can degranulate mast cells) and, just like that, the bucket overflows and my tongue swells up and I’m in for a very scary, sleepless night. I think it’s just from hormones and excitement, but maybe without the sunbathing or the chocolate, it wouldn’t have happened, who knows? I’ve been blindsided by this sort of thing too often and it seems, no matter how much time goes by, there will always be a tad bit of trepidation lurking in the back of my mind when navigating the minefield of mast cell degranulation.

So, some things do take courage, yes, but living, doing, experiencing, independence — all the things that ME/cfs took from me — they take no courage at all, they just need a functioning body. My greatest desire is to be traveling or socialising or hiking with my dog. If I was suddenly healed tomorrow, all of your phones would be ringing off their hooks and I’d be asking to crash on your couches as I hopped from Seattle to Oregon to California to Wisconsin to Tennessee to New York to Connecticut to Ireland to England to Germany and hugged you all close and talked your ears off for months on end. If anything, I need to be urged to pull back and conserve my energy because I am my own worst enemy, suffering payback on a daily basis from some reckless endeavor like cutting a thick-skinned squash or shaving my legs. Yesterday, I took Riley and my sister-in-law’s dog on a walk, using my mobility scooter. When I used to take Bowie out, it took very little strength and energy: He could be off-leash, I’d sit on the scooter and watch him eat grass or motor beside him as he ambled along. But these two pups are runners, pullers, criss-crossers and leash-tanglers. Not only did our hour walk sap the majority of my energy yesterday, today I am in pain from head to coccyx from using muscles that I usually don’t. But it brings me such joy, of course, so I’ll do it again.

For about four months this year — mid-April to mid-August — I was probably better than I’ve been since getting sick. But, when my Mum visited last March she said it was the sickest she’d ever seen me. It wasn’t — I think she has forgotten some of the horrors of the early years — but that illustrates just how changeable my health can be in a 6-month period. In general, if I keep my activity steady, I can predict how my days will go. That doesn’t mean I can control how severe my symptoms are, it just means that the worse I get, the less I do each day and vice versa and, if I’m careful, this will usually even out to a higher or lower baseline. In the beginning of my chronic illness, the freefall didn’t slow until I stopped working, then stopped going out of the house and eventually spent most of my time in bed. Slowly, slowly thereafter, my days became more predictable and then, even slower than that, my limits expanded, millimeter by millimeter.

Besides managing my activity, I think the only other thing that has contributed to my improvements are immunoglobulin infusions, which I’ve been doing for three years. But, like I said, I was much sicker last winter while still doing infusions, so you can always assume that those two steps forward will be followed by one step back. Just as long as there is a net profit at the end of the year, I’m content. Not happy or at peace, but I’ll take it.

Anyway, on to the actual update. But I’m wiped now, so to be continued…