Finally Starting IgG Infusions.

After 13 months of buildup, I’m finally scheduled for my first IgG infusion. Dr. Chia recommended I get IVIG (intravenous immunoglobulin) in August, 2014. When I came back to Seattle, I asked my GP about it and she said my total IgG wasn’t low enough (allopathic guidelines say total IgG < 400mg/dL) to warrant therapy. I asked my rheumatologist about it and he said because I have no evidence of persistent infections, I’d have to get an antibody vaccine provocation. I’m sure there’s a name for this, but, essentially, you are given a vaccine and then they look for an appropriate rise in antibody titers to that vaccine. If your body doesn’t mount a response, they can approve IVIG. Well, of course, I’m never getting a vaccination again, so that’s out of the question. I asked my main ND, Dr. W, and she said she didn’t have the ability to order it, but suggested oral IgG, which I never started because… another supplement, ugh. So, I’d given up on it when I went to a new ND, Dr. I, and I didn’t even think to mention it. After reviewing all my labs, the first thing she recommended was IVIG and, just like that, she got it approved. But… not so fast. That was 10 months ago and there was a lot of work to be done.

(As an aside, I do wonder if I’ve had low immunoglobulins my whole life and nobody looked into it. Or maybe it waxed and waned. I had chronic bronchitis, pneumonia and asthma as a child and, as an adult, got a chest infection pretty much once a year–probably more when I was smoking–but never thought this was unusual. Here’s a short article about one girl’s SCIG from infancy. It has some photos of infusions.)

Before trying IVIG, we decided I should try SCIG (sub-cutaneous IgG) because there are fewer side effects for most people. Before SCIG, I needed to test out the medications necessary to stave off anaphylaxis, aseptic meningitis, migraines and a host of other issues that can develop. Before testing the pre-meds, I had to make sure I could handle IV saline infusions since the last one I had caused a leaky anaphylactoid reaction. Before trying IV fluids, she wanted me to be on bioidentical progesterone, pregnenolone and DHEA, not only because my hormones are low, but also because there is evidence that hormone therapy can calm reactivity. And all of this has to be danced around my menstrual cycle because I’m somewhat reactive during ovulation and extremely reactive during my period. We also had to wait for me to get my nerve up because so much of this is dependent on my comfort level and, when anaphylaxis could be involved, I’m never comfortable.

I have friends in mast cell groups who “anaphylax” often, repeatedly, sometimes daily. I can’t imagine this. There are different levels of anaphylaxis, so I suppose these could be lower level reactions, but my episodes of anaphylaxis were full-blown and very scary, mostly because of the difficulty breathing. I really thought I would die and I probably have some PTSD from those experiences. No amount of sickness scares me as much as having a sudden anaphylactic reaction that kills me. I don’t want to get meningitis or be saddled with chronic migraines like my friend Jackie, but those are not at the top of my list of fears.

Having said that, I pay attention to comments like this since I, too, once had a CSF leak from a lumbar puncture and it was the 10 on my pain scale to which I now compare everything else. IVIG can mess you up:

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(FYI, I found this website with tons of allergy information and graphics that might be interesting.)

So, I’ve been on topical, compounded hormones for almost a year and they haven’t raised my serum levels much, but I think they’ve helped with sleep (they also cause greasy skin and hair, like I’m going through puberty, but I’m willing to put up with that). At the beginning of this year, I was reeling from the terrible nocturnal reactions and tongue swelling I had been having, so I wasn’t willing to try anything new. Finally, in May, I got around to testing a tiny bag of IV saline (it went fine, although the whole appointment and clinic visit was a total shitshow which lead me to write two long emails to my doctor. I came very close to not going back, but I really want this treatment). Then in July, I had a full liter infused over 6 hours (a very long time for 2 bags of saline). Everything went fine, no problems (but no boost in blood pressure or energy, either), which meant it was time to schedule SCIG, but, once I started researching in earnest, I realised that there were so many questions I needed answered.

IVIG is often done in a hospital setting if the person is high-risk. I would prefer to have more than just a nurse present if I went into shock (and, by all accounts, nurses’ competency levels are highly variable). My doctor didn’t know how to get this done because the company with which she works does home infusions; she recommended I ask one of my MDs for help. More time ticked by while I emailed my GP (who has only met me once), my endocrinologist and my rheumatologist (both of whom have only met me a few times) for help with this. They all said no. I talked to the infusion company (who have been incredibly helpful thus far) and they offered to do it in their “infusion suite”, but there are no doctors present and their protocol is to call 911 if there is an emergency. Well, I live a few minutes from a fire house and an emergency room, so home seems just as safe as the infusion suite, if not more so since my husband, who is far-too-intimately acquainted with my history, can be there.

Scrolling through Facebook groups, I realise I have to learn how many injection sites I’ll have and whether to use my belly or thighs and the needle size and how many ml you can put in any one area and leakage, hardness, weals etc. etc. My good friend, who is braving his way through gruelling IVIG treatment, has been giving me advice every step of the way, which is invaluable when your doctor doesn’t tell you exactly what the process is or the importance of hydrating or the effects of IgA.

Different brands of IgG have varying amounts of IgA in them. In general, lower IgA equals fewer reactions and, if blood tests show that you have very low IgA or anti-IgA antibodies, you will qualify for the IgA-depleted IgG brands. Isn’t this something my doctor should have mentioned? She wrote the prescription for Gamunex and I asked her if she would consider Gammagard or Hyqvia, both of which have lower IgA. but she said it wasn’t necessary. And she may be right, but wouldn’t you want to use every tool available to keep your highly-reactive patient as safe as possible? My IgA has been slightly low in the past, so, right before I was meant to schedule my first infusion, I asked my doctor, “Can you test me to see if I have anti-IgA antibodies?” and she said yes. Doesn’t this seem like something that should have been done originally without my asking, considering my history?? Maddening.

The IgA test was meant to take a week to come back and I didn’t get the results for 3 weeks, so here we are in September. One of the IgA subclasses was low out of range, but I didn’t have anti-IgA antibodies, so I couldn’t really make a case for changing from Gamunex. And I wanted to do it as soon as possible rather than wait until after my next period, which would put us in October, so I scheduled it for this coming Tuesday.

My doctor wants me to take 2 Tylenol (Paracetamol), 2 Benadryl and 3mg of Prednisone (Prednisolone) before my treatment. I needed to test these premeds because last year when I took Prednisone, I worked up very slowly to 3mg, I only ever take 1 Tylenol at a time and I have been VERY sensitive to Benadryl since having M.E.–plus I’ve never taken the combo. I realised my EpiPens were expired and so were my two boxes of Benadryl and my emergency Prednisone. It took more waiting time for new prescriptions to be called in and finding a good day for my husband to pick them up. When he did, I realised they had given me 10mg pills of Prednisone rather than 1mg (always carefully inspect your pills!) and he had to go back to the pharmacy for a fourth time in a week. Poor guy.

Last week I tried 1 Tylenol, 1 Benadryl and 1.5mg of Prednisone (using my expired stash). About half an hour later, I got a tight chest. Not enough to scare me, but enough to put me off trying more Benadryl. Then I got very shaky and drowsy and had low blood pressure. After I slept for about an hour, I was incredibly thirsty and hungry and then, about 4 hours after taking them, I felt better than I have in a while and was chatty and good-humoured. Success.

Last night I tried again, this time with 2 Tylenol, 1 Benadryl and 3mg of (fresh) Prednisone. I couldn’t bring myself to take 2 Benadryl. The good news is, I didn’t get the tight chest and shakes this time, I just fell asleep for an hour. The bad news is, I didn’t feel good afterwards at all. I had a headache, my eyes and lips felt swollen, I was completely parched and felt really out of it and hungover. But, this is HUGE for me. It is so incredibly exciting to take a bunch of medications and come out unscathed. I’ve been wanting to test this for ages so I have some confidence that, if I’m given IV Benadryl and/or steroids in the event of an emergency, I’ll be okay.

A few final hurdles: I’m scrambling to get two blood draws on Monday before starting SCIG. Dr. W has been trying to get me to do regular “hydrotherapy” for a year and a half. It’s basically hot and cold towels over my torso and back, coupled with electrical stimulation (instructions for doing it at home can be found here). I never wanted to expend the energy until she told me about a patient of hers with hypogammaglobulinemia whose IgG levels came into the normal range after 6 weeks of hydro constitutionals. She was willing to test my total IgG before and after if I did this experiment. I love quantifiable evidence! So I started in August and, even though it’s only been 5 weeks, I want to get my levels tested again before starting SCIG.

The second thing is a babesia test. I’ve been asking my ND about this since June–in person during appointments, in email to her and also to her assistant, who keeps saying she has to get the doctor to sign the form–and can’t seem to get anywhere. They say yes, but it never happens. How hard could it be to sign a requisition form?? Her last message to me said I could get my blood drawn if I make another follow-up appointment. Are you kidding me? That seems downright cruel when we’ve discussed this at my last 3 appointments and she only works two days a week. I talked to the director of Igenex, the lab that does the testing, and he said I should definitely get it done before SCIG, so I finally just ordered the test kit myself and I’m going to bring it to my other doctor, Dr. W, on Monday and beg her to do the blood draw along with the total IgG. I don’t understand why everything has to be such a battle. It’s exhausting and infuriating.

I’m trying to not be annoyed at the difficult communication with my SCIG doctor because, not only is she the only one getting me this treatment, but she was willing to start me at 1 gram the first week (unheard of), building up to 5 grams over 5 weeks. She was also willing to prescribe saline infusions along with the treatment. Only 500ml each time, but every little bit of hydration helps mitigate side effects. I’m deeply grateful to have someone willing to do that when an immunologist wouldn’t even have a conversation about it.

Wish me luck. I’m going to receive all the supplies by courier on Monday and then Tuesday afternoon a nurse will come over, start the drip and show me how to do the sub-cutaneous injections. I believe after that, I’m on my own. Or, maybe because I’m getting IV fluids each week, a nurse will have to come, I don’t know. I will take Zyrtec and hydrate like mad the days before and after… But, friends and family, I am very scared. Even though it’s SCIG and not IVIG and even though I’m starting at a laughably low dose, I’m still scared. I will eat fairly low-histamine in the next few days and do my breathing exercises and meditations before, during and after treatment, but still… I want this to be the beginning not the end. Are my affairs in order? Do you all know how much I love you? Remember: when I first got sick and thought I was dying, I wrote down directives and requests. Husband, remember: the notebook in my bedside table.

Now everyone knock on wood for me and spit over your shoulders. Toba toba.

November Update

[Written Sunday morning:] Every morning I get up and vow to write some of the things crawling around my head and gnawing at my brain and then every day disappears into other things: cooking, feeling like crap, interacting with friends in my facebook group, reading, researching, tv… Today, I’m sequestered in one room while the cleaning lady tackles the rest of the house and I want to do a wee catch up.

Two months after the horrific Cromolyn-induced crash, I’m feeling much better. Not as good as I was beforehand, but so much better than I anticipated I would. If it takes 3 or 4 months to get back to where I was, that will be great–much better than the years I thought it would take (or the never I feared might happen). When I got home from the AirBnB rentals, my husband had cleaned out my bedroom: no furniture besides the bed and bedside table, no more clothes or books, everything hoovered and wiped down with ammonia. He put a vapor barrier up at the top of the stairs–one of those plastic doorways used in construction sites or the house in the film E.T.–and the upstairs is strictly a dog-free zone. Oh, it breaks my heart not to be able to snuggle with my kids and it crushes me when they hear me moving around and whine at the gate we have across the stairs. Another downside is, I’m doing far fewer preemptive rests and meditations because I don’t want to leave them and go upstairs. It used to be our routine to head upstairs a few times a day and lie down. My Little Guy had the times programmed in his brain and would bark to come in from outside and look at me like, “Let’s go, Mama! You need to meditate.” That doesn’t happen anymore and my brain and body are feeling the effects. However, I will begrudgingly admit that it is really reassuring to know that I am spending 12 to 15 hours a day in minimal dander and dog hair. I wake up feeling cleaner internally. That has got to help my poor struggling body, so I’m very grateful for all the hard work my husband put into dedogifying the upstairs.

What it used to be like:

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What I see now from the top of the stairs:

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I haven’t been sleeping very well. Much better than when I was horribly sick, of course, but not as well as I was in the last two rentals. My sleep in that last rental was amazing– I would close my eyes at 11pm and open them at 7am. A few nights that I was there, I woke up after 8am! Never, ever, ever have I slept straight through for over 8 hours without waking up from crazy dreams or painful bones and muscles. It was glorious… besides the fact that I felt poisoned by the new Ikea wardrobes. I wonder if the off-gassing from the new furniture was somehow drugging me into a stupour? Also part of the problem is my apnea devices. I continue to avoid the CPAP because it wakes me up constantly, but the new oral appliance has its own issues. I got the Narval by Resmed, made by a 3D printer.

The white one is the bendy, light Narval. The pink one is the heavy, rigid nightmare I was trying to use before.

The white one is the bendy, light Narval. The pink one is the heavy, rigid nightmare I was trying to use before.

It is incredibly thin and light and bendy, which is everything I wanted and I’m able to fall asleep while wearing it… BUT. … I have worse TMJ issues than I realised and it causes so much pain. Every day, my jaw hurts, my temples ache, my head hurts and then, about once a week, I have a really rough, tense grinding night and I wake up feeling like my jaw is dislocated. It is painful to move and chew and clicks alarmingly. This can’t be good. So, I keep sleeping with no oral appliance or CPAP and I can definitely feel the difference in how I feel in the morning–less rested, more pain, but my jaw in tact. So, what am I to do?

I’ve started seeing my “physical therapist” again. Aka Magic Fingers. He is so wonderful for me. After a 3-month hiatus, the day I returned happened to be the day after he finished a course on strain-counterstrain for the nervous system. The teacher of whatever magic he does flew out to Seattle from the East Coast and trained a group of 30 practitioners. He said, “I’m one of only 30 in the world that have been trained to do this and you are the number one person I want to work on because your nervous system is a mess.” I keep my appointments with him no matter what. I even went last week when he was getting over a cold.

Speaking of colds, it has been 3 years and 19 weeks since I last had a cold. I’m amazed by that. I still live in fear of the day I catch a cold, especially since Dr. Chia said one virus could wipe me out and set back my recovery significantly, if not permanently. You may remember that he recommended I get IVIG to bolster my immune system and protect myself from all you sickies out there. Well, my MD referred me to University of Washington Immunology and they turned me down because my total IgG wasn’t low enough. So, I talked to my ND, Dr. W, and their clinic isn’t licensed to do it. On a whim, I went to see another ND, Dr. I, at a different clinic–mainly because they take insurance and I wanted to have a back-up doctor if I had to stop seeing Dr. W (who does not take insurance and, even with discounts for being unemployed, costs me too much money). The first thing Dr. I said when I came in was, “I think you need IgG.” Oh, bless her. There is hope for this treatment! But let me back up…

So, this new clinic requested all my test results in advance, they photocopied the entire binder and the doctor had reviewed it before I got there. They asked me to run my 23andMe results through MTHFRsupport.com and send them the results (so far, I’ve had 3 doctors tell me they know about methylation and nutrigenomics, but not a single one actually has addressed it. See some of my MTHFRsupport.com Genetic Variance Report here). The clinic has an IV infusion room, looking all dim and cozy, with plush recliners and blankets. They have a hyperbaric oxygen chamber! Something I have been curious about trying for over a year since I read Dr. Deckoff-Jones’s blog. And the clinic is 4 minutes from my house. Score. Dr. I ordered a load more tests and is willing to consider sub-cutaneous immunoglobulin first since I’m a scardy-cat about jumping right into IVIG (assuming we can get either of them approved by insurance, that is). A few days after our appointment, I went to the lab for a blood draw because she wanted to get updated tests and I see her again next week.

It'd be nice if they left some blood in my body.

It’d be nice if they left some blood in my body.

Speaking of test results (which can all be found here), I never mentioned the hormone panel and blood test results ordered by Dr. W in the last few months [bold type is for my benefit, so I can access this info easily when I look back). My varicella zoster IgG, IgM and HSV IgM were all positive. All coxsackie A viruses were high and all coxsackie B except for 3 and 4 (although 4 was high in Dr. Chia’s tests). EBV IgG was high indicating a reactivated infection. My total IgG was even lower than when Dr. Chia tested and, as I mentioned before, my thyroid was tanked: TSH, T3 and T4 all low. But the hormone panel was slightly alarming: almost everything was low: DHEA, progesterone, testosterone, estrone, aldosterone, androsterone, pregnanediol, tetrahydrocortisol and on and on. Not sure how concerned I should be, but Dr. W put me on topical DHEA (about 5mg rubbed into my abdomen in the mornings) and supposedly that should help something. It’s been a month now and the only difference that I’ve noticed is my period was 3 weeks late after I started it. My period has pretty much been every 28-29 days for 25 years. I just descovered today that it has MSM in it, which I’m not meant to have because of my sulfur issue. I’ll ask her about it when I see her on Wednesday.

So here’s what I’m taking currently:
Topical DHEA
Probiotics
Riboflavin-5-phosphate
Trace Minerals
Vitamin C
Vitamin D3
Vitamin K2
Fish oil
1/3 of a capsule of B complex #6
Magnesium
Biotin sporadically
Zinc sporadically
Charcoal sporadically
Quercetin sporadically
Gentian/Wormwood sporadically

I also started oil pulling a few times a week (when I remember) against my better judgement, but my nutritionist thought I should give it a try, so, why not?

I try to use my dry skin brush about once a week.

I am in my third month of Restasis and my eyes are worse than ever. They are never not bothering me. Swollen, itchy, tingly, burning, blurry, gritty. Always.

I have a new pillow, which is a god-send for my bursitits in my shoulders, but I had to let it off-gas outside for over a month. It still slightly concerns me, so I emailed Dr. Bob and here’s what he said: “We do not use flame retardants or any other harmful chemicals. On the Amazon site you can see our product obtained the Oeko-Tex Standard 100 Certification. This is a difficult certification to receive and shows this testing lab certifies the pillow is free of harmful chemicals. Oeko is the best know lab and certification for products to be free of harmful chemicals.” Hmmm… well, this thing stinks and I hope it isn’t off-gassing into my brain.

I love love LOVE having short hair. Can’t believe I didn’t do it sooner. Hair is such a nightmare when you’re sick and the cut disguises all the hair loss in the front.

Grainy photo, but you get the gist.

Grainy photo, but you get the gist.

What else?

I’m still on a modified AIP (autoimmune paleo) plus low-histamine-ish diet. I am not strict on AIP or low-histamine becasue I’m always trying to reintroduce foods back into my diet so I can have as many nutrients as possible and don’t develop even more sesntivities. I constantly warn everyone on my Facebook group not to take an elimination diet lightly and add back as many foods as possible as quickly as possible. It becomes a trap. Eating fewer foods causes a host of new issues (in my case, gastroparesis, worsening constipation and odd reactions that I never had before embarking on AIP). Also, the longer you don’t eat them, the harder they are to get back — both physically and mentally. Hence the reason I never eliminated ice cream, chocolate and packaged chips. God forbid I lose my unhealthy addictions. I need the soul food (although, I do really think one of these days I have to see if I feel better without sugar in my life. It’s just that it was easier to quit gluten, dairy, drinking alcohol and smoking than it seems to be to even contemplate eliminating sugar for a few weeks). One of these days I’ll write a post on what I eat on this diet, but, in the meantime, you can see photos on my Instagram account, if you’re interested (minus all the crap I eat–I’m trying to inspire people, after all, not cause them inflammation).

We ordered a free-range, organic, recently-harvested, fresh (not frozen) turkey for pick up today for Thanksgiving, but, to keep histamines low, we have to roast it right away (and then my husband freezes the leftover meat for me and makes bone broth from the carcass), so we are celebrating Thanksgiving today. We were going to have a get-together with our friends, Z and J, and my sister and her boyfriend (hence the cleaning lady), but it fell through, so the two of us are going to sit down to a 12-pound turkey alone. It’s ok. I’m thankful that I was feeling almost well enough to have some people over for the first time in 2.5 years. I’m thankful that I still have some people in my life to invite over. I’m thankful that I will have a yummy dinner and I don’t even mind that almost every meal I eat looks like Thanksgiving dinner and there really won’t be any different fun stuff. At least I’ll have turkey instead of chicken. And maybe the tryptophan will help me sleep!

Speaking of food, I’m starving and the cleaning lady is in the kitchen. I don’t want to get in her way or have to chat, so I’m trying to think of what else I can tell you all.

I made it to the freezing cold cemetery on the scooter for about 40 minutes a few weeks ago, wearing about 5 layers and carrying a hot water bottle. It was literally my first time spending some time outside in a month. The winter is hard that way. It really feels unhealthy to be trapped inside 24 hours a day. I have to make an effort to put on my coat and hat and go out into the garden. Please remind me!

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We bought a proper comfy dog bed for the kids seeing as they are arthritic and bony (it was on sale, has no fire retardants and is returnable at any time, even if used). It’s the size of a small country. 110-pound Bowie is thrilled when he can actually lie in it and Little Guy doesn’t relegate him to the crappy small bed.

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I found ants in my room one morning. They were running in droves all over the floor. It took days and days to kill them and there are still carcasses strewn about. It was pretty gross.

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I’m still going to therapy. It’s been great recently. He’s very interested in cultural history as a jumping-off point and that is helpful for someone who mourns the loss of Ireland and regularly starts blubbering over how powerfully I miss it.
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I have a lot of issues to work out there– An American by birth who never questioned that I was Irish, but wound up back in America and then felt rejected by the country I love… Marrying a man with an identical upbringing and thinking, “how perfect! We can relocate back home,” but it’s not home to him anymore… staying in America by default, year after year, but always wishing I was in Ireland and planning the eventual return… and then getting a disease that stops me from returning, so I have no choice, anyway. My therapist asked me if I’d be able to manage my illness better if I were living in Dublin and I said yes because my mother, aunt and best friend live there. And so does my heart. But it’s a difficult place to live and we’d have no money, so that’s not the answer.

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Ok, I can’t avoid it any longer, I have to eat. And that was really dredging the bottle of the barrel for stuff to tell you about.

I’m thankful for all of you, too, dear readers. You have no idea. Love and thanks and nom nom nom gobble gobble to everyone this week. X

My Visit to Dr. Chia

Okay, okay, stop begging, I’ll tell you about my appointment with Dr. Chia. I can’t believe this took me so long to write, but I’ve been plugging away a little bit, day by day. I can save you some time and tell you straight away that it was not worth the trip. I don’t really feel like I learned anything new or found access to treatments I couldn’t have tried without him. That doesn’t mean I regret the trip, it just means, if someone else in my position asked my advice, I would say, “Save your money and your energy.” The journey, for me, became the challenge early on. I wanted to know if I could do it. I wanted to test my boundaries, I wanted to see if I could leave these four walls and find out just how bad the payback would be. It was also about testing a different location, spending time with my mother and giving my husband a break. So, I had a lot of different fuels feeding the engine, if you know what I mean and, without even one, I might not have made the trip. In the end, because I left early and Dr. Chia didn’t really give me anything, it was purely the challenge. And I’ve decided that is enough. It bolstered my confidence and reinforced how resilient I am — we are.

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With my mother outside Dr. Chia’s office.

Here’s what I thought about Dr. Chia before seeing him: I knew his son was sick with ME and recovered. I knew that Dr. Chia believes that enteroviruses are the root cause of this illness and that he has conducted studies that supported his theory, but the rest of the ME research community hasn’t taken up that torch and done bigger, better studies to replicate. I thought he would offer Equilibrant, his Chinese herb formula with which many people have had some success, and he might consider antivirals. My main impetus for seeing him was to get the testing that none of the other 40 doctors I’ve seen has done and also to see whether he thought I was a candidate for antivirals. Of course, I forgot to ask him about antivirals because I forget everything when I’m in a doctor’s office.

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My mother holding the massive binder of test results that we carted down to California and then never opened.

My appointment was at 4:15pm on a Friday, so I was worried about rush hour and LA craziness, but Google maps was accurate and it only took us half an hour to get there. His office is in a nondescript brick building in a sort of strip mall in Torrance, CA. I’m a big fan of Stephen King and liked that the office was in an area named after the possessed protagonist of The Shining. 😉 The waiting room was barren. We (my mother and I) waited about 20 minutes and then went in and had the normal nurse stuff done. I noticed she wrote on my file that I was there about “chronic fatigue” and I mentioned that it was actually ME ~ or even write “CFS”. She said, “Well, it doesn’t matter because he only sees patients with your condition.” Sigh.

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We waited probably about another 15 minutes for Dr. Chia and, when he came in, he was off like a rocket. He did not stop talking for an hour and 15 minutes. After about 10 minutes, he said I could record him, thank god, because I didn’t remember to ask and I have no memory of anything he said in those first few minutes. Dr. Chia was kind and pleasant. Not in any way intimidating or arrogant. I guess I would call him dogmatic without the ego. He seems slightly frustrated that nobody else realises enteroviruses are the root cause of so many chronic illnesses and told us many stories of other patients and studies that support his contention.

A few weeks before my appointment, I sent him a letter, a chronology of my health history and a list of my symptoms. He said that was extremely helpful and asked me very little in person about my illness, instead, he just ran down the list and discussed how my immune system had collapsed. I couldn’t help thinking none of this needed to be done in person since I was basically just a set of ears, but I know the law says I had to be there in the flesh. He also did a quick physical exam and neurological work up.

Here were his main points about my history:

  • As an infant, my immune system shifted into Th2 dominance with pneumonia and ear infections and asthma, which is an inflammatory disease. Instead of just fighting off infections with an increase in the Th1 branch of the immune system and then resetting back to equilibrium, mine shifted into Th2 and has been continually off kilter my whole life as it got hit by different viruses (bronchitis, ill while traveling in Central America, viral gastroenteritis from lake in Virginia etc. etc.). He gave an example of people who encounter the polio virus: just like the lake in Virginia, only a few out of hundreds exposed to polio will become crippled and the difference is the amount of gammaglobulin I (and others) have and my compromised immune system. He said enteroviruses are the second most common infection after the common cold and that viruses are often transmitted through water. He gave the example of Joseph Melnick at Baylor University who studied viruses that live in water from sewage contamination and spread to humans through shellfish, showers, colds and swimming. He also said the Russians wrote a paper that concluded the most common risk factors for contracting meningitis are swimming (30%), camping (20%), contact with sick people, and drinking well water.
  • Doctors repeatedly prescribed antibiotics for viruses and worsened my situation. The dark circles under my eyes are typical of this.
  • With Th2 dominance, comes allergies.
  • Night sweats are a classic sign of Th2 dominance ~ along with pain and sore throats, they are my immune system trying to fight off the viruses. But, “viruses are like weeds” and replicate exponentially. He said post-exertional malaise happens because activity causes viruses in the muscles to become metabolically active and replicate, causing pain. “The more activity you do, the more viruses replicate.”
  • Tonsillectomies are very common in ME because the body is fighting off the viruses and causing chronic sore throats (my early teenage years).
  • Vaccinations commonly cause ME and relapses (I took every vaccination I could get my hands on because I thought they were protecting me and didn’t realise they’re not for everyone).
  • He suspects a brain stem issue because of vasovagal syncope history, neck problems and dysautonomia symptoms.
  • He said that he has seen cases of ME caused by invasive dental work alone, so he thinks my history predisposed me, but having acute bronchitis, viral gastroenteritis, lots of dental work and then the flu shot all in the space of 3 months definitively tipped my immune system to ME. He said, “The flu vaccination is what did you in.”
  • My tender abdomen he said was my terminal ilium and that was typical with enteroviruses living in the wall of the small intestine.
    He said I might have contracted new infectious illnesses in the past 3 years, but, whereas healthy people fight off viruses locally (i.e: facial symptoms with a cold), I fight it off systemically and all my ME symptoms flare. My mother and I heard loud and clear that contracting another virus would be incredibly dangerous for my recovery and my future health.
  • He said that there was a sewage leak into the lake at Incline Village in 1984, before the initial ME/CFS outbreak and that everyone got sick in the summer when they jumped in the lake. He said he is the only person in the US working on enterovirus research and he has found the virus in the blood and stomach lining of patients and has also done studies (injecting mice with enteroviruses and those that were initially immune deficient died). He said the CDC will soon be reproducing his work, he hopes.

Blood test results:

  • My T-lymphocytes are okay. CD4 is a little low.
  • Echoviruses, chlamydia pneumoniae, CMV, Creatine Kinase, IgA and CRP are all negative or within range.
  • Coxsackie B 4 and 5 are high. Type 4 is very high.
  • IgG (gammaglobulin) is low. All 4 subclasses. These are the most important antibodies to neutralise enteroviruses and maintain a healthy immune system.
  • HHV 6 IgG antibodies are very high.

Treatments:

  • He mentioned interferon, but said it is a very difficult treatment and short-lived.
  • He mentioned Epivir, an HIV drug that helps about 30% of the time, but didn’t want me to consider it now.
  • He told me to watch out for lakes, rivers, shellfish and not to drink the LA tap water.
  • He said I could try sublingual vitamin B12, coQ10, magnesium and vitamin D (all of which I take except B12).
  • The most important treatment he thought I needed was 5 – 15 grams of intravenous gammaglobulin to replace what I don’t have and modulate my immune system. He kept reiterating how much sicker I would be if I caught another virus, so he thought I should get IVIG twice a year and again whenever I travel anywhere (although, he said I probably shouldn’t travel). He wanted me to see an immunologist to get it, but it’s very expensive and the immunologist would want to inject me with a pneumonia vaccine to determine whether IVIG was necessary by my immune response two weeks later (I find this all very frustrating and wish that Dr. Chia could just give me a requisition form to take to a Seattle hospital so I don’t have to go through the rigmaroll of finding another specialist to determine that I need a treatment that this specialist says I need! It’s also frustrating because I won’t let a vaccine near me for the rest of my life and some random immunologist probably won’t take Dr. Chia’s word for it). If I can’t get IVIG, he said I should get 2 mililiters of intramuscular gammaglobulin, which will last for a few months.
  • He also gave me Equilibrant, his own proprietary blend of vitamins, minerals and herbs, and told us the story of his son’s recovery once he was taking 9 pills a day. He wants me to start on ¼ pill for a month, then move up to ½ for another month. I should expect an increase in my symptoms for 7-10 days. My problem with Equilibrant is that it has a bunch of fillers and crap in it: Dextrose, titanium dioxide, Yellow #5, Blue #2, Carnuba Wax etc. I still think I’ll try it, but I haven’t gotten the nerve up yet.

Honestly, the best thing he said to me during this whole appointment was, “You’ll get there.” He said since I’m so much better now than I was last year, my body is recovering and I just have to try to avoid getting another virus. After hearing Dr. Peterson say that he has never had a patient recover, it was nice to hear Dr. Chia say that I would get there…. I know “there” will not be where I was pre-ME, but I’ll take pretty much any there over here.

May 12: My 20 years with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis

Tomorrow is International M.E. Awareness Day. Everyone should read this post by Mary Schweitzer on her blog, Slightly Alive. It is informative and moving and should light a fire in everyone’s souls to raise awareness and find justice for so many patients and their family members who suffer from this disease.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

May 12: My 20 years with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis

I have had Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, or M.E, for 20 years.  The CDC does not recognize this.  They insist that I have a condition called “Chronic Fatigue Syndrome,” or CFS.  I have M.E.

At the age of 44 I led a charmed life.  I had been married to the love of my life for 20 years, and we had two lovely children.  We were both college professors – a deliberate choice that allowed us to do what we enjoyed – researching and teaching subjects that deeply interested us – while having the income to live comfortably (because we both worked) and plenty of time to spend with the children (because of the nature of academic life).  I had tenure at a good university, although my sights were set higher than that.  I had a working relationship as an associate fellow with a research institute at an Ivy League school, which enabled me the luxury of being around the best and the brightest in my field.  We traveled all around the country going to each other’s conferences, often taking one of the kids along.  We also went to four Olympics, two final fours (NCAA basketball championships) and countless playoff games, several World Series, and, eventually, twenty years of baseball AllStar games.  We skied in the winter and went to the beach in the summer.  It was a charmed life.

On October 24, 1994, I went to my office to grade exams and suffered a blackout.  When I came to, I could not understand one word in the Bluebooks in my lap – they might as well have been written in Cyrillic alphabet.  It took time – and concentration – to be able to stand.  I had fallen down the rabbit hole; my life would never be the same.

Over the next four years I suffered from severe pain in the back of my neck and behind my eyes, 24/7. My muscles ached, and I had migraine-level headaches.  I had ataxia, dyslexia, sensitivity to light and sound (to the point I had to wear sunglasses all the time), tinnitus, partial paralysis, memory loss, disorientation, expressive dysphasia, and massive confusion.  My family took care of me.  Obviously, I could not drive, and by 1996 I was using a wheelchair when I left the house (which someone else had to push).

I was lucky to have a family to take care of me, because I could not take care of myself.  I also soon discovered an Internet discussion list of fellow sufferers, and was referred to a very good specialist in Washington, Marsha Wallace (who unfortunately hasn’t practiced since 2000).  Dr. Wallace taught me to live within my energy envelope and helped with sleep disruption and NMH/POTS, but I continued to deteriorate.

In the fall of 1998, Dr. Wallace introduced me to Dharam Ablashi, a researcher who had just retired from the National Cancer Institute at NIH.  Dr. Ablashi had been the co-discoverer of HHV-6 and it’s two variants, A and B, while working with AIDS.  I had the version the AIDS patients did – Variant A – and my viral load was ten times the amount used to diagnose an active infection.

I would also test positive for active EBV or mono (which I had more than once – most notably in 1990, four years before my collapse, during an outbreak on my college campus), CMV (cytomegalovirus), HHV-7, and three strains of Coxsackie B.

My immune system was severely compromised: My natural killer cell function was less than 3%, I had the defective 37kDa Rnase-L, and I had an abnormal cytokine pattern.  But no one knows how all this happened.  All we know is that this disease can occur in cluster outbreaks, and it can pop up in individuals.  No one in my family got it from me, but I believe the outbreak of EBV in 1990 marked the beginning of my illness – the beginning of the cycle of immune defect-virus-damage that characterizes this disease for many of us.  I had to continue to teach through my infection with EBV, including an hour’s commute and back, and while I recovered from mono at the end of the fall semester, my health began to deteriorate in seemingly disparate ways, until the ultimate collapse in 1994.

Years later I would have a spinal tap that revealed both HHV-6 and Cytomegalovirus were active in my spinal fluid.  No wonder I had the symptoms of encephalitis, and with the stiff neck, meningitis.  Along with the muscle pain, that meant literally that I had Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, or M.E., a disease that had been diagnosed in the UK since the mid-1950s.  In the United States, however, all I was given was a diagnosis of “chronic fatigue syndrome,” a name chosen by committee and adopted by CDC in 1988 to replace the name given a number of cluster outbreaks occurring in the USA at the time, Chronic EBV.  They did not mention M.E. – though there were specialists at the meeting who insisted that was the correct diagnosis for these outbreaks.  They did not ask anyone in the disease community what they thought of this name.  They simply adopted it, and having done so, consigned the disease to the backwaters of medicine where neither research nor treatment could be found.

There could not have been a worse choice of a name for this disease if CDC had hired a focus group,  Chronic (as in chronic whiner) Fatigue (as in “yeah, I’ve been feeling tired lately myself”) Syndrome (as in syndrome of the month) – applied to upper middle class white women “trying to have it all” (as the late Bill Reeves of CDC once phrased it) – how inconsequential, silly even.  Twenty-five years later, 85% of patients – over one million Americans – have no idea what is wrong with them, because, according to both CDC and private demographic evidence, only 15% have a diagnosis.  25 years later only 15% have a diagnosis.  That is a mighty admission of failure.

The infectious disease specialists in northern Delaware dismissed my illness as minor.  “You’ll be back to normal in two years,” they assured me. Oh good, I responded – I won’t have to miss more than two seasons before I can go back to skiing.  “Oh no,” was the response.  “You’ll never ski again.”  How was that “normal?” I asked.  They got angry at that.  That’s when I was referred to Dr. Wallace and, thankfully, only had to deal with these people once more, when I was on the antiviral Vistide for my cytomegalovirus infection.  Dan Peterson, my new specialist, had asked them to let me get the infusions at their center, and they had agreed.  But when I showed up at their office, one of the doctors took me aside and said that they could not let me have Vistide because my medical records showed I “only had CFS – nothing serious, like AIDS or cancer.”  They said they could not justify using the drug on someone with a diagnosis of CFS – even though it was an FDA-approved drug for the virus CMV, which was active in both my blood serum and my spinal fluid.

Let me repeat that:  once given the label Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I would meet disrespect from many doctors and people at NIH and CDC. None of my extensive testing mattered.

Although the progressive version of M.E. that I suffered from was unusually severe, I turned out to be lucky.  I was given the opportunity to go on the experimental Phase III drug Ampligen, in what is called a cost-recovery (I pay cash), compassionate care (I am allowed to do this because I was so very sick), open label (I know I am on the drug so FDA ignores me) study.  I have to get Ampligen at the study site by IV infusion twice a week.  And FDA can take the drug away from me whenever they want.

I have been on Ampligen for eleven of the past fifteen years.  Again, I am unusual in that my illness erupts again within a year of going off the drug (which I did once voluntarily, and once because FDA did take the drug away).  FDA has admitted, in writing, that the drug is not toxic.  But they are not “convinced” it is effective.  My experiences do not count because I was not in a placebo trial; I knew I was on the drug.  There is no other drug in the FDA pipeline for either CFS or M.E. (Although there are immune boosters and antivirals available for patients, and an anti-cancer drug called Rituximab is showing some promise).  This is the only one expressly targeted to M.E. or CFS.  Over one million Americans suffer from my disease.  FDA, CDC, NIH – none of them cares – though in fairness, there are individuals within those agencies who do.  It is those who make decisions who do not care.

[Side note about the obsession with placebo trials – If just knowing you are on a drug can make your immune markers return to normal, your active viruses return to a dormant stage, and change tests such as SPECT scans and CPET scores, we should all be cured of anything by happy thoughts.  Does FDA really believe this?]

So here I am today.  I would not have written this were I not on Ampligen.  On Ampligen, I can drive, take care of myself (mostly), read a book, work on my own writing, spend time with my children and grandchildren.  Off Ampligen I am an invalid in bed in severe pain, curled up in the dark because light is too painful, listening to a favorite movie over and over again.

So twice a week I leave my house at 8:15 and commute by train 100 miles north to Dr. Derek Enlander’s office in New York City, the closest site where I can get Ampligen.  I usually get home around 7 pm.  It is grueling, but at least I am getting the drug that keeps me from being a bedridden invalid.

Myalgic Encephalomyelitis is a serious disease.

CDC betrayed us by giving it a silly-sounding name in 1988 – CFS.  NIH allocates less than $5 per patient per year to study this disease – a pathetic amount.  We came back with private research initiatives, funded by cash-strapped patients and their families, and more good biomedical research is being published than ever before.  The whole concept of what “CFS” is, silly sounding name and all, is undergoing a transformation. And for the first time in my memory, clinicians and researchers have agreed on a definition – the Canadian Consensus Criteria, updated with current research.

So how is our government responding?  Suddenly there are three different initiatives within the U.S. department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to redefine the disease and rename it – done behind closed doors.  At CDC there is the Multi-site clinical assessment – which brought in respected clinics, but is now being polluted with research from a poorly conceived and run study by CDC in Georgia that used a different definition entirely.  HHS has once again turned to the IOM – Institute of Open Medicine – with a committee of whom the majority are not experts in either CFS or M.E.  IOM already weighed in with the opinion that both CFS and Gulf War Syndrome be renamed “Multi-Symptom Disorder,” provoking anger within the larger veteran community.  And NIH as a whole has given the “problem” of the name and definition to their  “pathways to prevention” program, or P2P.  In this case a committee was explicitly created consisting of individuals with NO experience -either medical of personal – with the disease, “like the jury system,” a spokesman explained cheerfully.  “Stakeholders” with different viewpoints testify to the committee, and then this committee of amateurs will recess and vote on the choice of what to do next.  Precisely when did the jury system replace scientific method in determining medical policy?

They are going against the expressed wishes of 60 specialists who signed a letter asking that the U.S. adopt the Canadian Consensus Criteria (CCC), and the public members of the CFS Advisory Committee to HHS asking that the government adopt the CCC, and hold an open workshop of specialists to update it (it is ten years old) with current research results.  Why are those of us within the world of M.E. ignored?  Why is 60 years of biomedical research into M.E. ignored internationally?

Perhaps more important, why don’t people outside our community – people in the media, in government, our doctors, our neighbors, our employers – why don’t they know that there is a growing epidemic of a severe, life-altering and in some cases life-taking disease that CDC and NIH are keeping under wraps?  I have friends who were teenagers when they got sick, and are now in their 40s. They did not get to marry their soulmate like I did.  They did not go to college or have a career.  They did not have children or grandchildren (I have two grandchildren now).  I was lucky compared to them.

They can barely afford to live from day to day.  They cannot afford the testing I have had, and they most certainly cannot afford the treatment I am on.

I have lost friends to this disease; we have lost young people to this disease.  The viruses can get into your heart muscle; they can get into your liver.  Patients die of rare cancers as well.  And then there are the suicides.

There has been a new series of outbreaks in the past five years.  Look at those you love, and if you care for them – whether or not you care about us – do something.  Because they could be the next victims.

Thank you for reading.

Bonfire of the Vanities

I haven’t had the balls to write too much about this because it is all tied up in feelings of self-worth, obsessive perfectionism and long-dormant insecurities. This illness has taken a ruthless toll on my body and the changes on the outside have, surprisingly, been some of the hardest to accept. I say surprisingly because, if you are housebound and never see anybody, who cares what you look like? But the visible manifestations of youthful vitality disappearing have really saddened me and hit it home that I’m a different person now- in every respect. Even if I came out of this tomorrow, I am changed physically as well as spiritually.

I always looked, felt and, undoubtedly, acted younger than my age. About a year after becoming sick, that abruptly changed. Obviously, I don’t have a spring in my step anymore and I’m not as chirpy, lighthearted and energetic as I was, but my looks have also changed and it was a blow to my ego. I stopped cutting and dyeing my hair and its texture changed — it is dry and fluffy, rather than smooth and shiny. It becomes greasy very quickly. The hair loss on the top and sides of my head makes me feel old and sickly. My eyes are no longer bright; the whites are a dull grey and I’ve lost eyebrows and eyelashes that were already sparse. Last year, I saw an ophthalmologist for the first time with a list of grievances: gritty eyes, dry eyes, vibrating eyes, styes, blurry vision, floaters, difficulty focusing, difficulty reading… It was a long appointment and he did a battery of tests. My vision, remarkably, is still 20/20. I thought, considering I rarely focus beyond my four walls, that it would have deteriorated. But, the health of my eyes was a different story. He told me to hold a warm cloth over my lids for a few minutes every day to open the pores and treat blepharitis and, also, to use preservative-free dry eye drops four times a day (I was very impressed with his “preservative-free” recommendation based on my reactions to drugs. I’m happy to know they exist since I was using Bausch & Lomb eye wash and it would leave red track marks down my cheeks). He also found that my eyes had two different pressures, which he said was not normal and made me a glaucoma suspect. I return next month to have a check-up.

Dilated pupils to see the optic nerve.

Dilated pupils to see the optic nerve.

I went off the birth control pill 16 months ago and, immediately afterwards, my skin began to break out. But this was no normal acne. I’ve dealt with skin issues my whole life, but I was familiar with them and I knew where spots would pop up (chin, nose), why they were there (hormones, smoking, picking), and how long they would last. For the past year, I’ve had acne along my hairline and jawline. My forehead, which was always pristine, became rough and braille-like. This really took a toll on my self-esteem. Even if I could have visitors, I didn’t want anyone to see me. I went from feeling not pretty to feeling downright ugly.

My visit to the dermatologist has given me renewed hope and a plan of attack. She wanted me to take antibiotics, but I refused based on my gut dysbiosis. She wanted to try a drug that is used to lower blood pressure, but also has the side effect of clearing skin, but I can’t because my low BP is a constant challenge. She wanted to use some sulfa Rx, but I’m possibly allergic. So, I have a glycolic acid face wash, a new moisturizer, Finacea in the morning and clindamycin in the evening. It is already making a difference. The braille turned out to be eczema, which I’ve never had in my life, but Desonide cream cleared it up in 4 days. I can’t tell you how nice it is to have my smooth forehead back. I keep petting it (which will probably cause more spots).

New this year is weight loss. I spent my teen years wanting to be tall and thin, worrying about my body, and now I weigh less than I did when I was 15. It’s partly to do with my elimination diet – nuts and oats might have been the bulk of my calories – but I am eating as much as I can every day. I lather on the butter and rely too much on Terra chips for added calories.

I started experiencing what I now know is called gastroparesis. My food sits high in my stomach and doesn’t digest. I want to eat more, but physically can’t. The food I do eat, I don’t think is being absorbed properly because I’m eating more than enough for a 5 foot-nothing, mostly-bedbound lady. Muscle wasting is now more evident. I have chicken legs. One of my greatest wishes would be to bulk up my legs. I never thought I’d say that. I want muscular thighs. I want my calves back. I want to have faith in my strength like I did my whole life. My height never made me feel like I was weaker than anyone else. I tried bench-pressing with my brothers, I was good at arm wrestling, I hoisted kegs of beer around at work and ran up and down stairs with heavy plates and large trays of food and cocktails, held over my head. I was proud of my strength and now feel like every movement might injure me. My chicken legs won’t reliably carry me and my muscles feel taut and brittle.

The good news is digestive enzymes and HCl are helping me to move food on down so I can eat more. I don’t necessarily want to add fat on top of bone, so my goal is to continue to absorb nutrients and increase activity.

Vanity always seems worthless and trivial, but, in the face of chronic illness, it seems almost sinful. Tall? Thin? Nice clothes? Pretty hair? Perfect skin? All I want is strong bones, muscles and cellular energy. Who cares about the rest? Well, I still do, but it’s a work in progress. M.E. holds a mirror up and exposes your bare bones… burns away the affectation and demands you be okay with the foundation and framework, without the superficies and facade. Be okay with the soul, alone. There is a bigger lesson here for me to learn.

I won’t suffer for this day.

I wake up and get straight out of bed without spending two hours “gathering my strength”. I lift my shower chair into position, lower the shower head and wash, condition and rinse my hair. This is something I manage to do about once a week on a day with no other obligations, but today I got a last minute appointment with my nutritionist. I don’t rest after my shower as I normally do- I towel off, pull on my compression stockings, put on jeans, boots and a sweater. I wash my face, brush my teeth and sit on the toilet to dry my hair, resting my elbows on my knees and hanging my head low. My husband usually helps me with this, but he is at work. I clip on my pedometer, strap on my heart rate monitor, drink a glass of salt water and make tea in a to-go cup. I move deliberately, like a sloth, conserving energy in every moment. I lock the back door, make sure I have my blood sugar tester and glucose tablets, scoop up my binder of test results and go out the front door, pulling it and locking it behind me, while juggling the folder, my bag and tea. I make a point not to say goodbye to my dogs, which I normally do. I am tallying every exertion — stiff door, weighty purse — since I don’t have my husband’s help and don’t want to needlessly lean, reach or speak.

I walk slowly to my car, get carefully in and raise the seat at a snail’s pace with the manual pump handle that always cranks up my pulse. And I drive to the clinic — the first time I have driven in about 6 months. I breathe rhythmically, hold the steering wheel lightly, casually turn the corners as if this is no big deal.

I remember myself as I used to be, hopping in and out of my car all the time, driving with confidence and speed all over the city. Multitasking, running errands, getting things done without a thought. Being housebound does strange things to your brain. The first thing I thought when I got into my car was, Will I be living in here one day? Could we trade it for something bigger? I turn off the radio so no extra energy goes to processing auditory signals than is absolutely necessary. The world going by is foreign and in stark relief. I notice everything; things that meant nothing now mean something. That fence is beautiful. Those people can afford a boat. I used to run with Bowie down that path. That person is strong enough to lift their kid. Their smiles are radiant.

I drive past the cemetery and first wonder if that’s where I’ll be buried and then see the cherry blossoms and want to pull over to drink them in a little longer. I drive past the hospital and make a mental note about how long it took to get there and feel confident that I could drive myself, if needed. I look at the people in the cars beside me and can’t believe that they are probably not thinking about how miraculous it is to have freedom and independence. Everything seems to represent our precarious position in this glorious life: nothing is important, but, also, nothing can be taken for granted.

I get to the clinic early so I can wait for the closest disabled parking spot to vacate. The last spot, six cars down, is open but I can’t fathom walking that far. I think about my rushed morning, my shower, the drive… I think about my appointment, the drive home, having to get undressed… six car lengths is a million miles. I wait for the first one to open up.

There are five stairs up to the clinic and I have to go through two sets of doors. Neither of them automatically open with a disabled button. They’re heavy doors. I hold the first one open for a man with a cane, he zooms by me quicker than I could ever move. Inside, I put all my things down on a chair before checking in at the reception desk — standing while holding that weight is not an option. My nutritionist’s office is in the furthest northwest corner of the building; we stroll slowly, she asks me if she can carry anything and I answer, “it would be more energy for me to raise my arm and hand you my purse or binder than to just keep them down at my side.”

We talk for over an hour. At one stage, I get very dizzy and my vision blurs out, I think I’ll have to abort our meeting, lie on her floor, call my husband … but adrenalin kicks in and I push through it. The shuffle back to the exit doesn’t feel as long — I’m not winded from stairs this time. As I walk by the front desk, the receptionist asks if I need to make another appointment and I wish she hadn’t noticed me so I don’t have to speak again. I stop and say, “I’ll call from home so I can look at my…” I can’t find the word for calendar. As I stand there, scouring my mind, an elderly woman with a 3-wheeled walking frame motors by me and flings open the door, thrusting out a hip to keep it open while she exits. I get distracted thinking about how I would give anything to trade this illness for another. Hobble me, but give me the ability to throw open a door. I want to barter my body: I’ll give you an arm if you’ll give me energy. I’ll give an arm, both legs and my hearing, in return I just want my body to be able to recharge. Take half my remaining years away, just give me ATP while I’m still here.

I give up trying to find the word for calendar, shrug, smile and leave. Back in my car, I leave the disabled spot and pull around the bend and park. I recline my seat all the way back and do a mini-meditation, tell myself that the world is not spinning, my throat is not sore, my ears aren’t ringing, my head doesn’t hurt, and I can do this. I breathe and talk to my cells, encouraging them to rebuild, refuel, recover. When I get home, I’ll have to find the energy to cook myself food before I get into bed. We have some frozen broth and frozen turkey, it’ll be easy. I’ll need to write down everything that my nutritionist said so I don’t forget; I want to share it with my low-histamine Facebook group. I envision exactly what I’ll do, watch myself standing in the kitchen with a low heart rate, eyes focused and clear head. You are strong, you won’t suffer for this day. The universe will carry you through and there won’t be retribution. You deserve a victory.

I sit up, push in the tough clutch and drive home.

image
“If a dog will not come to you after having looked you in the face, you should go home and examine your conscience. ” — Woodrow Wilson.

What She Said…

Sarah over at Dead Men Don’t Snore wrote the following excellent post. I thought I’d share:

The Importance of Names

The illness I have is known by many names: Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), Low Natural Killer Cell Disease and Post Viral Fatigue Syndrome (PVFS) to name but a few. In the UK, the terms ME and CFS are widely considered synonymous while in the United States the term ME is rarely used at all.

It is often said that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, so when I first heard of a campaign to abolish the term CFS I assumed this was simply dislike of the word ‘fatigue’ which is by no means the predominant symptom of ME. Although I disliked the name CFS as much as anyone I couldn’t help but wonder if it really mattered; surely my symptoms would remain the same regardless what name they were given. The more I learn about the issue however, the more convinced I become that names really are important.

In 1969, Myalgic Encephalomyelitis was formally recognised by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a neurological disease. The diagnostic criteria required certain neurological features and specifically excluded psychiatric explanations for a patients symptoms. At the time, research carried out by prominent physicians in the field was highly regarded.

In 1970, McEvedy and Beard published articles in the British Medical Journal dismissing outbreaks of ME as mass hysteria due to the predominance of female patients; the same argument once used to dismiss Multiple Sclerosis. Ignoring physical abnormalities found in more than two hundred patients at the Royal Free Hospital, they planted the first seed of doubt in the minds of some clinicians.

The name ME was used throughout the commonwealth, but the illness remained unnamed in the States until 1988 when a cluster of outbreaks and subsequent insurance claims prompted the Centers for Disease Control to introduce the name Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Three ME specialists present at the meeting refused to sign the new working case definition with its focus on fatigue as it bore so little resemblance to neurological ME. The new name was a gift to medical-insurance companies as it implied the illness was nothing more than perpetual tiredness, a symptom so vague that insurance claims could be easily denied.

Since the 1990s the name CFS has gradually superseded ME in the UK. Many doctors reject the term Encephalomyelitis (meaning inflammation of the brain/spinal cord) even though evidence of such inflammation has been found in patients with ME.

In 2001 it was discovered that CFS/ME had been wrongly reclassified as psychiatric in a UK adaptation of a WHO publication regarding mental health disorders. Despite confirmation from the WHO that this was a mistake, the NICE guidelines continue to offer an almost entirely psychiatric approach to treating the disease.

The psychiatric lobby in the UK ignore well-documented evidence of brain lesions, reduced blood volume and cellular, immunological and cardiovascular abnormalities to insist that ME is simply deconditioning, exercise avoidance and false illness beliefs. Specialist testing (SPECT scans, mitochondrial analysis and tilt-table testing) to confirm physical abnormalities is rarely available on the NHS as doctors cannot justify the expense of tests that don’t lead to any subsequent treatment.

Prominent psychiatrist, Sir Simon Wessely, claims that ME can be successfully treated with Graded Exercise and Cognitive Behavioural therapies (GET/CBT). The government, while failing to fund biomedical research, has spent millions of pounds funding the PACE trials to test this theory. Full data from these trials remains unpublished despite widespread calls for its release.

The selection criteria for PACE excluded the severely affected and those with neurological symptoms but included patients with other conditions such as fibromyalgia or psychiatric disorders. This means few if any of the participants met the criteria for ME, yet the results are being treated as universally applicable. Claims of Wessely’s ‘cure’ for CFS have flooded the media when his trials at best show only moderate improvement in a small number of patients.

Measurable deterioration after even minimal exertion is one of the defining characteristics of ME, making graded exercise potentially harmful. Like many ME patients, CBT made no difference to my symptoms while graded exercise made me substantially worse. Every book or article I have read of CFS patients being cured by GET or CBT described a set of symptoms and a disease process so different to my own that it was hard to reconcile them as the same disease. Put simply, CBT and GET can be very helpful for patients suffering from general fatigue states such as mental health disorders or post-illness deconditioning but if these are the cause of a patient’s fatigue they do not have ME.

Unlike ME, CFS has no internationally agreed definition. The catch-all term encompasses everything from fatal neurological disease to any persistent fatigue of undetermined origin. Definitions of CFS rarely require (and often preclude) physical or neurological abnormalities but may allow for psychiatric causes, making the terms CFS and ME mutually exclusive in such cases.

Chronic fatigue can be a symptom of almost any illness but a single normal blood test is often all that is required for a diagnosis of CFS. It is estimated that only 40-60% of CFS patients meet the criteria for ME. Following diagnosis it is rare for further tests to be carried out and patients receive little support or intervention. This is akin to diagnosing frequent headaches as Chronic Headache Syndrome with no further tests to determine if they are caused by stress, depression, migraines or a brain tumour. It is common for conditions like MS, LYMES Disease and even cancer to be misdiagnosed as CFS, often with irreversable or fatal consequences.

So long as no distinction is made between the many different causes of chronic fatigue, patients around the world will be denied the proper recognition and treatments that their illnesses deserve.

So long as the ill-defined category of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome exists, patients with severe neurological disease, post-viral fatigue states and psychiatric disorders will remain grouped under the same broad umbrella and subjected to one-size-fits-all policies that are useless to some and harmful to others.

So do names really matter?

When patients with serious neurological symptoms are treated as having psychosomatic disorders and end up dying through medical neglect, forced into inappropriate treatments that make them worse, or taken from their families and placed into locked psychiatric wards, than yes, it really does matter.

So I’ll continue to refer to my illness as ME and not CFS in the hope that one day the different pathologies grouped under one vague name will finally be recognised as the disparate conditions many patients and specialists already know them to be.

Over to you:

If you have a diagnosis of ME or CFS (or know someone who does) which name do you prefer to use, and do you think it matters?
What are your own experiences of GET and CBT?
What tests were done to diagnose your condition and have you been offered further tests or treatment since diagnosis?