ALL ABOUT IVIG

I want to talk about my success with IVIG (intravenous immune globulin) since this is something that I am frequently asked about by other patients. I’m in a very unusual situation where I administer my own IVIG and fluids through peripheral venous lines (not using a port or PICC) at home without a nurse. I feel extraordinarily fortunate to have been able to get this treatment at all, but it feels particularly fortifying during this pandemic. Not only because I am receiving a protective, difficult-to-access medication, but also because, when covid hit, I was in a position to continue treatment uninterrupted in my home without needing nursing visits that would increase my risk of exposure to the virus.

It’s also unusual that my IVIG is prescribed by a naturopath, rather than an MD (let alone an immunologist), and that I do infusions once a week rather than every 3 or 4 weeks, and that I was approved for a high ‘immunomodulatory’ dose without having one of the autoimmune diagnoses that is typically needed and without having to do a vaccine challenge. Also, I don’t have side effects from IVIG, which I find miraculous, but I think it is because of how careful (and controlling) I’ve been throughout the whole journey. I researched and advocated for myself at every turn — undoubtedly more than was really needed — but I have no regrets since it has been such a godsend and I’ve had no bad reactions.

The story starts when I went to see Dr. Chia in 2014 (almost 3 years after getting sick) and he ran a bunch of blood tests that no other doctor had bothered to explore up until that point, such as HHV6 and Coxsackie antibodies, T-cell counts, and total IgG with subclasses.

For anyone navigating the newly-sick morass, I want to point out that I had seen over 30 doctors in those first 3 years, trying desperately to find one big brain that might have some insight. Infectious disease, endocrinology, neurology, allergy, cardiology, rheumatology, sleep doctors, ENT, gastroenterology, functional medicine MDs — you are shunted from one specialty to another to another with no one willing to dig deeper. I am even including appointments with my OBGYN, ophthalmologist and acupuncturist in that count because I was chasing down every lead I could (maybe it’s all hormonal, maybe my eye pain will lead to a brain discovery, maybe ‘dark yin’ is my problem after all). The big issues were missed until I was able to see Dr. Chia and Dr. Kaufman (ME/cfs specialists in California) and — this is the part for anyone who might be overwhelmed with where to start — a local naturopath (ND). In fact, the best help I got in Seattle was from two different NDs: they thought outside of the box and dug a little deeper, like the specialists. And I don’t mean woowoo shit, I mean things like checking for an immune deficiency DUH since I keep telling you it feels like my immune system just broke one day. Soon after I traveled to California to see Dr. Chia, I found an ND who ran almost the same battery of tests which revealed the same abnormal results. The first ND, who agreed I needed IVIG, but couldn’t get it for me, tried a bag of different tricks aimed at increasing my IgG levels. They didn’t work, but I was very grateful to have someone try something. Point being, if you can’t see a specialist, I would advise finding an ND who will look at your immune system health and infections and who is willing to walk the long road with you, being patient while you try (and, in my case, most often fail) different treatments.

But, I got ahead of myself. Dr. Chia saw that my total IgG was low and so were some of the IgG subclasses. He said I needed IVIG, but he didn’t offer to get it for me (I thought at the time it was because he was in California, but I now know Seattle patients that get IVIG through Cali doctors, so I’m not sure why he couldn’t have ordered it). Once I was back home, I asked my 4 doctors if they could help me get IVIG (primary care doctor, rheumatologist, endocrinologist, ND) and they all said no. My PCP did go a little further by asking an immunologist colleague, but he said my IgG would need to be lower or I’d have to do a vaccine challenge, which I refused.

I had given up and stopped asking when I found my second ND (who was very different from my first; both have been helpful in separate ways). The very first thing she said after entering the room on our first meeting was: “You need IVIG.”  She had reviewed my lab work (she had reviewed my lab work!! I don’t think any other doctors had actually looked at anything ahead of time) and seen that my IgG was continuing to decrease over the months. I had hypogammaglobulinemia and fit the diagnosis for common variable immune deficiency (CVID) and she was confident insurance would approve immune globulin therapy.

Between that day and my first infusion, 11 months went by. I delayed until I felt I had thoroughly prepared in every way to keep myself safe. Anaphylactic or anaphylactoid reactions can occur in any patient receiving IVIG therapy, but I had a history of both (plus intractable migraines), so I was nervous and wanted to control every aspect of treatment. My doctor was patient and accommodating. I don’t think any other doctor would have let me take the time to tackle each concern and build up the confidence to take the plunge. I think of it a little like a lost year when I could have been feeling better, but, like I said, I really can’t have regrets when things went so well.

First off was figuring out how to safely take pre-medications for potential reactions to the immunoglobulin and how to get IV fluids (which would be administered before IVIG) without side effects. I was extremely reactive back then because of out-of-control mast cells and I had no safe rescue medications or pre-medication protocol. IV fluids had caused angioedema and breathing issues; I was so sensitive to Benadryl, I couldn’t even take drops without feeling anticholinergic-type symptoms; tiny crumbs of steroids made me feel like was hit by a truck, running on a treadmill and sedated all at once. I didn’t feel comfortable doing IVIG without having a rescue protocol, so, during that year, I worked on my tolerance and put together a safe plan.

First, my doctor put me on bioidentical hormones because there is some evidence that they can help with mast cell reactivity. Then, we tried IV fluids, but only 250 mls, warmed up and run at a snail’s pace (my previous reactions were from 2,000 mls of cold fluids run very quickly on the day my period was due (when I’m highly reactive); I didn’t know any better). I even found out I was fine with two types of normal saline bags, but not another. I slowly gained tolerance to Benadryl (dye-free capsules, only) and Prednisone (finding manufacturers with the cleanest excipients), taking bigger and bigger slivers until I knew I could safely premedicate before infusions. Those that know me understand that the symptoms that have scarred me the most are my mast cell reactions. They are unpredictable and violent. Full-blown anaphylaxis almost killed me. I can’t adequately express how jubilant I was to have a safety net, to have protection, to be able to put a protocol on paper that anybody could follow in case of an emergency and to have tools with which to arm myself before a procedure. Having intolerable side effects from the things that are meant to counteract intolerable side effects was a scary place to be.

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Next, I talked to my doctor about starting with subcutaneous infusions (SCIG), rather than intravenous because all of my research indicated that the former was safer. She agreed, thankfully, although she gently pushed for IV for years after that.  I also asked if I could start with 1 gram at a very slow rate of delivery and she acquiesced to that, too. NO allopathic immunologist would have agreed to that EVER.

Then I looked into a hospital infusion versus an ambulatory infusion suite (AIS) versus at-home infusions. I was told a hospital wasn’t an option and the AIS was staffed only with a nurse, no physician. If I had a reaction, the protocol was for the nurse to administer supportive meds and call 911, if needed. Well, staying at home was a no-brainer. I would have a nurse in my house, but, more importantly, I feel much safer with my husband there as an advocate. Plus, we live very close to an emergency room and he could whisk me there if calling an ambulance didn’t feel like the appropriate move. In the past, we have sat in our car in the ER parking lot, waiting to see how reactions progressed. The high price of healthcare in this country is a great deterrent.

Then I wanted to look into IgA deficiency. There is some research that low serum IgA and anti-IgA antibodies increase the risk of anaphylaxis and the remedy would be to use a very low-IgA brand of immune globulin for my infusion (says my Labcorp test result: “Patients with IgG antibodies against IgA may suffer from anaphylactoid reactions when given IVIG that contains small quantities of IgA. In one study (Clinical Immunology 2007;122:156) five out of eight patients with IgG anti-IgA antibodies developed anaphylactoid reactions when IVIG was administered.”). My total IgA and one IgA subclass had been low in the past, but neither my doctor nor the infusion pharmacist suggested that this should be a consideration — I had to get the info from other patients and insist (nicely) that we test my anti-IgA antibodies. Gamunex-C was the brand that had already been approved by insurance and I knew that I was very lucky to have it and might lose it if we had to resubmit an authorisation, but safety first. Gammagard could have been a safer choice since it has extremely low IgA content. It took an excruciatingly long time to get those results but, ultimately, I did not show anti-IgA  antibodies, so we pressed ahead with Gamunex. And I’m glad we did! One of my nurses commented that it is the “top shelf” immune globulin and it’s been good to me.

The final hurdle was scheduling. Back then, I was much sicker in the mornings — shaky and very low blood pressure — but that is the time of day when nurses typically arrive for long appointments. I always thought, if I became a home infusion nurse, I would offer nights and weekends, just like my preferred shifts in the restaurants. There must be more patients like I am whose vitals stabilize as the day goes on. Also, my period was looming, a time of the month when I am highly reactive, so I wanted to avoid that whole week (although this wasn’t as easy as it sounds because my cycle wasn’t/isn’t regular). The day came when things eventually fell into place and my wonderful nurse, Marie, came to my house to hook up the IV fluids and teach me how to infuse subcutaneously. She showered beforehand and changed her clothes because she and some of her other patients have cats. She understood my nervousness and didn’t rush me or complain even though she had to sit in one room with me in a straight-backed chair for 8 hours. Marie came every week for 16 months to hook up my IV, but, once we knew I was doing well on this treatment, she was able to leave quickly and I would disconnect my IV fluids and do the SCIG myself.

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We started with 1 gram infused through a 2-needle set and F30 tubing. That probably made anyone knowledgeable with immunoglobulin infusions laugh because it is SO SLOW. Like, unheard of. My nurse had to do a special order for the supplies because they are normally only used for infants. Over the weeks, we slowly worked up to 5 grams (eventually using a 3-needle set and F45 tubing — only slightly faster), which is a typical ‘replacement’ dose for a primary immune deficiency patient of my weight. I stayed there for a year and a half, not pushing my luck in any way. Slow and steady.

In 2017, a miracle: I switched infusion companies from Coram to Accredo (with nothing to which to compare Coram, I thought they were fine, but things have been much better with Accredo) and they suggested I learn to insert my own IV catheter for fluids. Uuh, yes, please! Actually, they suggested my husband do it, but he’s not good at these things and I am, so a nurse came over and gave me a tutorial and that was that. I was only “allowed” one training session, so I wound up watching a ton of YouTube videos, which is why I’ve now made my own, in case they can be helpful for anyone.

For over 3 years, I’ve been placing my own peripheral IVs each week. It gets easier and easier and, honestly, I feel so much safer. Although Marie was very careful, I am more careful because I have a bigger stake in the game. I do not want to ruin any veins or get an infection, so I am vigilant (and superstitious) about my aseptic technique and I rotate veins to give them a break. Every single week, for the entire 16 months that Marie was my nurse, she used the left median cubital vein (antecubital or, as my nurses called it, the “AC vein”). I never questioned it because it held up well, but that’s about 60 catheters inserted in the same place (what a trooper my vein was!). As soon as I was doing it myself (and discovered I was ambidextrous when it comes to IV placement), I started using a different vein each week. I have 6 sites that I use, but 2 of them (on the outside of my forearms) are difficult — the veins roll and there’s always more of a risk of having to do multiple pokes — so I use the cephalic and AC veins more often than not, even though it means having to keep my arm straighter. I don’t use my hands or wrists, partly because I wash my hands so often, it’s an inconvenience and partly because I want to save those sites for easy access if I’m ever in the hospital with a nurse that needs fat veins for larger gauge needles.

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Holy roller

Then in 2018, another miracle: I switched from SCIG to IVIG and was able to continue to do it myself at home. Not only that, but I was allowed to continue infusing once a week, which kept my levels more consistent with fewer peaks and troughs, which in turn kept my energy more stable. IVIG is typically given every 3 or 4 weeks for multiple days in a row, necessitating a peripheral IV be left in place for 3 or 4 days (I can’t even imagine; 12 hours feels like an eternity). This is one of the reasons so many people get PICCs or ports.

I am regularly asked how I managed to get self-infusion approved at home. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t even know it was something that was allowed. I lucked into it with a good doctor, a good infusion company and a good nurse.

The first year I was with Accredo, I had increased my SCIG dose from 5 grams to 10 grams. My legs (my preferred place for the subcutaneous needles) weren’t happy, though. They weren’t absorbing the medication as well as they used to and they were swollen and sore for longer afterwards. I was using 6-needle sets to try to stop leaking and I felt like a pin cushion. I also wanted the option of trying high-dose IgG (my specialist had said for years that I needed 20 grams/week) in the remote chance that insurance would approve it. So I talked to my doctor about changing brands to one with a higher concentration, which would mean less fluid infused into my tissue. I was still adamant that I didn’t want to try IVIG. I didn’t want to tempt fate and I was scared of medications going directly into my veins and causing an instant reaction. My doctor pointed out that my body liked Gamunex, so I could either stick with what we knew didn’t cause a reaction (because Gamunex can be infused by either route) or stick with SCIG and change brands. I decided that it felt safer to stick with the brand I knew and loved, so IVIG it was.

They sent a home health nurse to do the first IVIG infusion. I had already placed my IV catheter and run my fluids when she arrived and she said it was perfect. Once again, we started at a low dose (2.5 grams) and ran it very slowly. We worked back up to 10 grams a week over a few months. During this time, I changed from the first awful, bullying nurse to one I adored (we could be friends in a different life). Jennifer showed me how to run the IVIG after the fluids and made sure I did everything right, but one week she said, “I’m just a fly on the wall. You place the IV, you run the fluids and medication, you disconnect. There’s no point in my being here.” So she recommended to my doctor that I do it alone under the condition that I have a responsible adult available at all times during an infusion in the case of anaphylaxis. That’s how I wound up doing it without a nurse and I’ve never met anyone else who is in this same situation.

The final miracle happened this year: My insurance approved the high dose IVIG (20 grams a week, which works out to almost 2g/kg/month, what is considered autoimmune or immunomodulatory dosing). I’m not sure which of my ridiculously high titers got it authorised and I’m not going to question it, I just thank the universe each week and try to keep finding the money (my 20% copay is $1,400/month). I increased slowly over months and had some headaches in the beginning, but nothing now. I am energised the day after. It’s like liquid life-force. I only premedicate with 25mg Benadryl, 20mg Pepcid and 4mg of Prednisone and I could probably do less. The number one benefit to doing it solo is that I’m able to program the flow rate as slowly as I like, which ameliorates side effects. If I had medical oversight, I’m sure they would insist I increase the rate, if for no other reason than to get the nurse out of here quicker. Talking to friends who have dealt with aseptic meningitis or incapacitating migraines, it seems to me that flow rate being too high is the major precipitating factor.

IVIG changed my life. I started the first wee tiny dose on October 2nd, 2015 and improvements in ME symptoms happened very quickly. By January 2016, I felt confident enough to write about them. They marked the end of 4 years of a steep and terrifying downhill trajectory and the beginning of a very slow, but steady uphill trajectory for the past 5 years. There have been lots of setbacks, plateaus and crashes (scary ones and months-long), but, overall, I’m stronger and more able-bodied each year over the last.

There are so many things I’ve learned along the way that I want to share like: try to get shelf-stable bags of fluids. My first pharmacy removed the air from the bags of saline before sending them and I didn’t know that there was another option. Once the bags have been accessed to remove air, they have to be refrigerated and thrown out after 14 days. They take up a lot of room in the fridge, it take ages for them to come to room (or body) temperature and you can’t have extras on hand when they’re considered unsafe after a few weeks. My bags now can be stored at room temperature in my closet and their expiration dates are years away, which means I have them for emergencies and don’t need to go to the hospital if all I think they can do for me is administer fluids (which is what has happened so many times in the past with my vasovagal collapses).

This took on even greater importance when covid hit. I feel so lucky to have extra supplies and the ability to give myself IV fluids without going near healthcare facilities. When I’m doing the clean-out for an upcoming colonoscopy, my doctor wants me to give myself IV fluids, which I wouldn’t have been able to do without this lucky situation. And when I imagine the big earthquake or an end-of-world emergency, it gives me solace to know that I am trained and my home is so well equipped.

I’ve also learned that I never want to use gravity tubing and an IV pole when a pump and carrier bag is so much easier, safer and more precise. I don’t have to keep my fluids vertical and elevated, dragging a pole around the house; I can walk around with the bag holding the saline and pump on my shoulder like a purse. I’ve even gone to doctor appointments and run fluids in the car during our California road trip last year after a big blood draw.

I learned from other patients to prime the air out of the bags through the tubing before priming the saline (fill the tubing with saline), which seemed slightly safer than the way a nurse showed me using a syringe, which requires accessing the rubber stopper. Uses fewer supplies, too. Less plastic waste.

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Medical waste

I called B. Braun, the company that makes my normal saline, and learned how to safely warm the bags before administration, so I don’t react to the room temperature (which is chilly!) fluids. I figured out that running fluids at a slower rate (150ml/hour) cut down on post-infusion headaches and it was even more effective to bookend the Gamunex with 500ml of saline before and after, rather than running the entire liter beforehand.

I learned that I can keep using the pump for 12 hours after it beeps that the battery is low. Again, less waste. (Although, I wouldn’t sleep with a low battery, just in case.) And I learned that the Bodyguard pump’s beeps terrified my dogs because they were too similar to our fire detector, but the CADD Prism’s beeps go unnoticed.

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Bad beeper

Wonderful nurse Jennifer gave me a fabric one-handed tourniquet which has made such a difference to my independence and the comfort of my skin. She also taught me that if the ultrasite on the saline lock is going to be unattached for any length of time and I don’t have a cap for it, an old nursing trick is to stick it inside an alcohol prep pad (leaving the wrapper on) and secure it with tape.

Wonderful nurse Marie taught me how to use gauze to support the catheter if it doesn’t lie flush with the skin and how to tape a loop of tubing to your arm, which has stopped my IV from being yanked out many times when I snag it on something. She also always used alcohol prep pads and iodine to clean the insertion site, something which many find overkill, but makes me feel more confident in my infection control.

I learned the catheters with wings are much easier for me to insert than the ones without and that you can ask for sterile gloves rather than relying on the box of non-sterile gloves that they send by default. I learned that you can order sterile pads on which to lay your supplies and IV3000 adhesive dressing that doesn’t tear up your skin like the Tegaderm that comes inside IV start kits.

I figured out by trial and error that some veins need to be stretched taut and stabilised and, if you are inserting your own IV and don’t have two hands, there are ways to do this by twisting your forearm and flexing your hand. I also found out that some veins are close to nerves and your thumb might have pins and needles for weeks afterwards, but they will, thankfully, eventually go away.

During SCIG, I learned that there are handy rate and time calculators for subcutaneous infusions and that if you are having trouble with leaking, swelling, hitting blood vessels etc., that you can try different needle lengths and different needle brands and — the key for me for whatever reason — different needle tops (the soft adhesive ones worked best for me rather than the hard plastic ones that needed to be covered with Tegaderm). I also learned that fat is key to comfort — the medication was much better absorbed if I put the needles in the back of my hips/ top of my butt (saddlebags??).

The most important thing I’ve learned is that although most patients in online support groups ARE NOT MEDICAL PROFESSIONALS AND YOU SHOULD ALWAYS CONSULT YOUR DOCTOR ABOUT EVERYTHING, they are a wealth of information. Doctors and pharmacies didn’t tell me anything about how to manage infusions safely. The majority of my home health care nurses didn’t verbally educate me — it was up to me to observe, ask questions and do my research.

I can’t even.

I’m in a bad headspace. Feeling overwhelmed and hopeless, like I just need to give up. I know what sparked it. I got a bunch of blood tests done — things I haven’t had tested in 1 to 3 years — and they’re all still a mess. I’m still a mess. I haven’t made any headway in years. I just feel defeated. There are so many things my body is fighting and either I’m not helping or nothing I do helps. But mainly I feel useless and inept because I can’t manage to research something thoroughly, plan an attack and implement it. I can’t commit to anything because I have no faith that anything will work. So many pills. So much money. So much effort. So much information to process. So many competing theories. So much time scrambling in one place, getting nowhere. I do nothing but read how to help myself — hours everyday for years — and I just wind up feeling like I’m drowning more and more because there is too much.

I can’t seem to manage a methylation protocol, or a detox protocol, or brain retraining like everyone else can. Or a liver cleanse or lymph drainage or help my leaky gut or what about parasites? I can’t seem to manage any diet changes: watch out for histamine, salicylates, oxalates, sulphur, tyramine, too much/too little protein, too much/too little fiber, too many carbs, not the right kinds of fat, dairy, sugar, mycotoxins, pesticides, chlorine/lead/chloramine in water, your tupperware is plastic, your pots and pans are killing you… it never bloody ends! And why does everyone do so well with physical therapy, acupuncture, myofacial release, Bowenwork, craniosacral, reiki, feckin Feldenkrais and nothing seems to work for me? I’m thinking about NAET and muscle testing, frequency machines, homeopathy and EMF sensitivity because what if?? But I know they’re all just black holes. Everyone has a magic pill or a serious warning: Don’t sleep on foam! Don’t go in a hot tub! Your milk must be raw! Your dogs are killing you! Don’t stretch if you have EDS, don’t spend too much time lying down if you have dysautonomia, enemas are wiping out your good bacteria, you probably have Lyme–go on antibiotics, the longer you wait, the worse it is! You definitely have mold because you live in Seattle–leave your house and possessions behind and get clear! I’m so over all of it. There’s no point in giving me advice to just tackle one thing at a time because I can’t. It doesn’t work that way. Time is slipping by; I’m getting older just sitting in one spot. Everything is connected and as soon as I decide to do one thing, I read how that can tip another thing out of balance and I freeze… and wind up doing nothing. My brain does not work like it used to. This is most frustrating of all.

Imagine you’re suspended halfway up a cliff face, trying to get to the top. You’ve spent months researching the best path to take and you have some energy, you’re ready. As you start to climb, people abseil past you, screaming, “Don’t go that way! There are perils up ahead!”
Then others beside you say, “Nah, this is definitely the best way, they don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Then other people all around start chiming in and you listen–while clinging on to the crumbling rock for dear life–because so many have made this climb before you: “If you want to get to the top, go left.” So, you start researching that path.
“No, go right.” Better check out that option.
“It doesn’t matter which way you go if you don’t eat this meal first.” Oh shit, glad I didn’t start climbing yet.
“No, doesn’t matter what you eat or where you climb, you’re fucked if you’re not wearing the right gear.” Energy is draining out of you and the fear is creeping in.
“Don’t be silly, you just need to spend all day every day telling yourself you can get to the top and you will.”
“Nope, actually this mountain is insurmountable when you’re as weak as you are. Just hold on as long as you can and hope that you get stronger before your grip gives out.”
And… I literally can’t even.

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Anyway, I pretty much want to burn every book I own, cancel all my appointments, throw out all the supplements and extricate myself from every group and forum, go to bed and give up… and, if I’m truthful, it’s all sugar’s fault. I have a grade A, deep-seated, fully-in-denial addiction and my candida blood test came back twice as high as the high result from a year ago that I ignored. Or at least candida IgM did and that’s the antibody that shows active/acute infection, right? I don’t want to go on another elimination diet. I don’t want to deal with something that will apparently keep rearing its fungal head forevermore every time I eat some ice cream. I don’t want to take prescriptions for months and deal with die-off and herxing for weeks. I just don’t. Even my husband is clanging a warning bell about candida, gently encouraging me to just try to quit eating sugar temporarily and I’m like a petulant child. I hardly eat any compared to the old days! I’ve given up so much! And then I ate a bag of kettle corn while pouting. This is waaaaaaayyy harder than booze and cigarettes. Way harder than gluten, dairy, nuts or anything I’ve tried before.

So there’s that. And then there’s these:
Cholesterol and LDL are higher than they were 8 months ago.
CMV IgG, which has been negative 4 times in the past, is now high out of range.
HHV6 IgG is still high out of range.
Mycoplasma Pneumoniae IgG is higher than it was (out of range).
EBV IgG is much higher than it was (out of range).
Sex Horm Binding Glob and Estradiol are high, whatever that means.
Total IgA and one IgG subclass are low.
VItamin D and Vitamin B12 are both low.

I’ll be talking to my doctor about all this in a fortnight, stay tuned.

Best Endocrinologist Ever.

Every time I have an appointment with my endocrinologist, I hem and haw about whether I should cancel it. It’s on the other side of town, $50 round-trip in an Uber, it only ever lasts about 20 minutes and couldn’t she just look at my thyroid lab results and email me about whether to stick with my current hormone dosages? Well, each time I go, I am so grateful for this doctor (last week I told her nurse I would walk on hot coals for Dr. B) and I vow to come straight home and write an update so I can remember everything she said. I never have managed to do this and the visit summaries hardly mention anything at all, so today I’m going to write a general update of her treatment.

I’ve seen a lot of endocrinologists in the last six years and they have all, without exception, been kind of odd, stoic and monosyllabic. Until Dr. B. She’s vibrant and engaged (after seeing her, I always mourn my lack of brain energy a little more), listens closely, talks about her ideas out loud, thinks outside of the box and is interested in conditions not typically related to the endocrine system. Imagine that: a big hospital allopathic endocrinologist taking the whole body into account!

The first time I saw her a year ago, I told her my basic story (anaphylaxis 2001-2002, vasovagal collapse 2005-2011, thyroid goiters 2009, radioiodine ablation 2010, SICK 2011), assuming she’d check my thyroid and update my prescription as per usual — and she did, but she also ordered pituitary blood tests, a Cortrosyn stimulation test (CST) (otherwise known as an ACTH stimulation test — it measures how well the adrenal glands respond to ACTH), referred me to two neurologists — one that specialises in headaches and one that specialises in dysautonomia — and said we would consider placing a continuous glucose monitoring device to assess the drops in my blood sugar (good news is, my blood sugar crashes got much better, possibly because I am eating all foods again and have put on weight). No other endocrinologist had ever suggested any of these things.

I was dreading the CST because of my reactivity and intravenous injections of anything don’t allow me to start low and slow, but it was fine. I did my research beforehand (yes, they were they only using 1mcg of Cortrosyn; no, I didn’t need to fast; no, it didn’t need to be timed according to the follicular phase of my menstrual cycle; no, I didn’t need to be off bioidentical hormones; and, yes, my husband could be with me), so I felt comfortable about the procedure and the results were normal.

The pituitary testing showed low LH (luteinizing hormone), DHEA and IGF-1. Because of the latter, at our next appointment Dr. B ordered a pituitary MRI to “leave no stone unturned” (LOVE her). The MRI was normal, but she emphasised that it was less reliable because of my unwillingness to use contrast (I didn’t think the risks of a reaction outweighed the benefits of a better MRI — and she was ok with that). She also gave me a prescription for Florinef to see if it would help with my hypotension (blood pressure was 80/60 at this appointment). I trialed it for a month (starting at 0.0125mg (!!), working up to 0.1mg) and thought it might be increasing my headaches (but not my blood pressure, of course), so I stopped, but it’s still on my list to retry.

My thyroid levels have consistently been tanked for the last 6 years and at every appointment Dr. B would tweak my meds. I’ve gone from 50mcg/day of levothyroxine to 100 to 125 and from 5mcg/liothyronine to 10 and — this is exciting — when I told her my naturopath suggested much higher T3 and lower T4, Dr. B said, “I’m totally open to that, let’s try it.” 😮 Typically allopathic endocrinologists and NDs do not see eye to eye on treatment and optimal thyroid levels and often one doctor will be resistant to another doctor’s suggestions, especially when the suggestion comes from someone who isn’t a specialist. Dr. B has no ego getting in the way. So, we increased my T3 to 15mcg twice/day and lowered T4 to 100mcg. I really don’t know if it has helped, but she seems more satisfied with my thyroid levels. She told me to watch out for tremors, heart palpitations and insomnia, but they are all within my normal constellation of symptoms, so who knows (although, as I’m typing this, I realise that my quite-vicious nightly palpitations haven’t happened in a while– maybe weeks). She diagnosed me with “euthyroid sick syndrome” which essentially means your thyroid will stay sick until the underlying chronic illness gets better.

I saw a headache neurologist and a dysautonomia specialist (more on both of those in separate posts), but neither of them were the ones to which Dr. B referred me. And — another reason to love her — she had no problem with that and was still interested in what they had to say. Even better, when I told her the dysautonomia specialist didn’t have much to offer and essentially told me just to make sure I don’t decondition any further, Dr. B raised her eyebrows in surprise and kind of dismissed this, still interested in helping me fix this piece of the puzzle (those of you that haven’t done the doctor rounds might not realise that almost all of them tell you to simply exercise more (or gain/lose weight) (or take antidepressants), so I expected Dr. B to take the specialist’s assessment as bible and agree that I was just deconditioned). She suggested I do a growth hormone challenge (it involves a 17-hour fast, an 8am check-in and a 5-hour test where they give intravenous glucagon and then measure human growth hormone (HGH) response through blood draws) and said the worst side effect she’d seen was vomiting. I wanted to vomit at the thought of getting to a hospital at 8 in the morning. I went home to do some research; that was in July of last year.

When I saw her again at the end of September, I hadn’t done the HGH challenge and she didn’t give me a hard time at all. Three months after that appointment I still hadn’t found the nerve, so I emailed her a long message about my glucagon fears (those of you with mast cell/anaphylaxis/medication sensitivity issues can read my email* below for the reasons it gave me pause) which any other specialist would either not answer or reply that I should come in for an appointment to discuss. Instead, she sent me a very thoughtful, validating reply (not “For fuck sake, stop being such a scaredy-cat and do the bloody test since I’m the one doctor who is investigating all these things!”) and offered an alternative to glucagon — an insulin challenge test — which I agreed to … and then never did. They give you intravenous insulin, drop your blood sugar to 40 and then test HGH. I told her I was more comfortable with the devil I knew (hypoglycemia) then the one I didn’t. But, it turns out I’m not really comfortable with voluntarily meeting any devil. I’ve had my blood sugar drop into the 40s. It was absolutely horrific — one of the worst feelings I’ve ever felt. And, although they give you intravenous glucose right afterwards, I still couldn’t bring myself to do this test and subject myself to the crash when I thought they probably wouldn’t find anything.

So, I waited until my appointment this month — 8 months after she first wanted to investigate this avenue — and told her of my fears about the insulin challenge test as well. I expected her to just give up, to say there’s probably nothing wrong there, anyway, but she didn’t. She said there was an additional reason to do the insulin challenge (other than for HGH output) and that was that it can pick up a hypothalamus issue that the glucagon stimulation test can’t. Ok, I can get on board since it’s a two-fer. However, in another display of out-of-the-box-ness and medical generosity, she suggested I just try HGH injections without doing the challenge test. She said she had two other patients with the dyautonomia-mast cell-EDS trifecta (more on my EDS diagnosis at another time) and, even though neither one flunked the stimulation test, they tried HGH and had really good results. A friend of my sister-in-law’s had a lot of success with HGH and it has always been in the back of my head as something to try when I win the lotto. I read it cost thousands of dollars, but Dr. B’s prescription is “only” $138/month, so I’m on board. If/when I get the nerve, I can stop the HGH for a week and do the challenge test and, if I fail, insurance will pay for my prescription. An added bonus is my nurse who comes to my home every week (to give me intravenous fluids with my immunoglobulin infusions) can show me how to subcutaneously inject the HGH and I don’t need to go across town for a tutorial appointment.

Gratitude for good doctors! Wish me luck with the HGH.

“Bad harvest, bad harvest!”

I’ve been hijacked by head pain. I’ve lost 10 days. I really would like to believe that superstition is meaningless, but it is quite astounding how every time I take a chance on sharing good news, I get walloped. I waited 5 weeks to write my last post — until I was sure this small uptick was lasting — and I was so excited to share a positive update with my family and readers for a change…. And don’t tell me it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy because it’s not. I didn’t fear jinxing myself so much that I manifested this pain. Once I wrote the post, I got on with my life with renewed hope.

Friday the 29th, I was dragging and it felt like I was coming down with something. Saturday the migraine hit in earnest and I’ve been crippled ever since besides a random afternoon of respite this past Saturday when my friend Z and her daughter were visiting (and Z commented on how much more I was able to engage since the last time she visited (there I go broadcasting improvement again)).

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Bowie loves baby A (who isn’t really a baby anymore).

I heedlessly declared “It’s gone! It’s gone!” and, that night at 4 in the morning, I started to get a migraine aura — those jagged, moving silver lines that blot out your vision in certain spots. It was like the migraine slept, regained some energy and came back with renewed determination. Yesterday and today, I’ve been in tears.

I’ve tried all my tricks (caffeine, feverfew tea, cervical spine stretcher, ice, heat, acupressure, extreme hydration, fresh air etc.), but this isn’t one of my normal chronic headaches. I feel it moving around in the morning, when I bend over the pain explodes, my neck hurts, I’m sleeping more, but it’s not helping and I have horrific nightmares every night. I thought it was hormonal, but my period came and went and the head pain got worse, if anything. I thought it was because I increased my probiotic or was eating a lot of cottage cheese, but I’ve stopped both for days. I finally risked buying a mattress topper: it’s natural Dunlop latex and had hardly any smell at all, but it seems the most obvious culprit. I took it out of my bedroom a week ago, though.

I’m starting my Monday immunoglobulin infusion in about an hour. I have this hope that the Prednisone, Benadryl and Tylenol will kick the pain away, but I have this fear that the Gamunex will make the headache worse. After all, that is the most common side effect and I suppose this could be some reaction to the IG that I’m about to double-down on by infusing again.

Anyway, a few days after my last post where I told the gods to cover their ears (which they obviously didn’t do), we were watching Downton Abbey and Anna says to Mr. Bates, “Bad harvest, bad harvest!” and explains that this is what the farmers would yell so the gods wouldn’t be jealous of their bountiful crops and take them away. A timely reminder that my superstitions have been shared by our ancestors for hundreds of years and it’s okay that I’ll be yelling bad harvest! at the sky like a crazy person, spitting over my shoulder, pulling on my earlobes and knocking on wood the next time I dare to tell you something good. Feel free to join in.

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This is what I miss on all that days I don’t go outside for fresh air.

Oh, I’ll be free… (immunoglobulin infusion success)

The first time I ever passed out was in a blood plasma donation clinic in Madison, Wisconsin. My brother, who had attended the University of Wisconsin before I did, tipped me off that they paid quite well for plasma, so every so often I would go spend a few hours in a big comfy chair with my vein tapped. On this particular day, I suddenly got very dizzy, nauseous and clammy and the next thing I knew I was coming to with ice packs under my neck and the chair tipped all the way back so my feet were in the air. I was sweaty and shaky, but I stayed until the plasmapheresis was over and got my cash. I didn’t think twice about it and continued to donate plasma until one day, during the prescreening tests, I came up positive for heroin. It turns out it was because of the poppy seed muffin I had for breakfast, but it didn’t matter, I was not allowed to give plasma again. One abnormal test and you were no longer a candidate. I never asked what plasma was used for and it certainly never crossed my mind that I, myself, may need a medication made from thousands of people’s plasma donations.

I’ve been getting weekly immunoglobulin infusions for 4 months now and it’s become routine (prior posts about this treatment can be found here and here). Not only routine, but to keep the success going, my superstition causes me to keep everything identical each time. I drink 4 liters of water the day before, the day of and the day after my infusions. Every Monday, I tidy up, run the Roomba and take a shower. I drink electrolytes, make my chicken and vegetable soup and don’t take any supplements. I take 3mg Prednisone, remove the saline bag and Gamunex from the fridge and wrap the fluids in my heating pad. When my nurse arrives, I get into bed and she hooks up the IV and sets the pump. Half an hour later, I take 650mg Tylenol, 25mg Benadryl and 10mg Zantac and then, before the Benadryl kicks in, I prep the Gamunex (I have to suck it from the vial into a fat syringe, which is surprisingly hard to do and painful on the hands). After the saline has been running for an hour, I insert 4 subcutaneous needles into my thighs. I could use wider tubing (for a faster infusion rate) or fewer needles, but, again, I’m sticking with what works, even if it’s not the norm for other patients. For the first few months, I did change where I inserted the needles, trying different areas on my belly and legs, but now I stick with the inner thighs which proved the least painful for me. I then fall into an antihistamine-stupour sleep and my (wonderful) nurse leaves once my husband gets home. In theory, she could leave as soon as she has inserted the IV catheter, which would be a half hour max, but because of my history of reactions and anaphylaxis, she’s extra cautious. By 8pm, I can disconnect the IV, remove the infusion needles and go downstairs to make dinner (this treatment makes me ravenous).

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When I first started infusions, I would have to take more Tylenol and Benadryl at around 9pm, my sleep would be horrid for a few nights from the steroids and I’d be dragging and headachy for at least a day afterwards. Recently, besides sleep, which will be my nightly nemesis forevermore, it seems, I haven’t had any problems. No need for extra meds, no dragging, no headache (except later in the week, which could be because I drastically drop off my hydration). In fact, it almost feels like my body is eagerly drinking up the infusions each week. In fact… the last 5 or 6 weeks have been… so nervous to say it (cover your ears, gods!)… good. Some of the best weeks I can remember. I feel freer — less restricted by pain, less confined by finite energy reserves, able to push boundaries without fear. My headaches have been more infrequent, my skin is better, my debilitating neuro symptoms have been more intermittent. I’ve been driving to nearby appointments again and I’ve been able to talk to the point of being hoarse, but without a weak voice. This last thing is very exciting to me.

My pilot brother was here on a layover and I was able to talk and laugh with him for almost 6 hours. My voice was tired, as if it were an unused-muscle, but it wasn’t weak in that way it’s been for years where I could barely contract the muscles to get the air past my vocal cords (or something). I was most definitely dizzy and deflated from the energy expenditure (my brother is a bottomless well of entertainment and conversation), but I didn’t have payback. Before he came, my brother texted me and said, “I’d love to see you, if only for an hour” and I realised how much worse I’d been the last time he visited in 2014: I remember wilting weakly an hour into our animated discussion. What glorious freedom to ignore the lightheadedness and tightening muscles, ignore the raised heart rate and blurring vision (because I’m still very far from normal), and not be terrified of repercussions. To have the option to push through! In the past, I’ve crawled to my room mid-visit — not out of cautiousness, but because there was no other choice and I always feared becoming permanently worse if I strained too much against the restraints.

This uptick could be because of a liter of IV fluids each week — it would explain why I’ve been having bad days later in the week — but I don’t think so. I usually feel kind of puffy and swollen afterwards and my blood pressure hasn’t increased at all; it stays steadily around 85/45. We’re considering experimentally doing some infusions without fluids and see how I get on, but I’m hesitant because, like I said, I like to keep everything consistent. Also, in the past I’ve asked so many doctors to help me with a trial of weekly IV fluids to see if it would help dysautonomia symptoms, now that I have them, I don’t want to give them up.

I want to mention one small thing that I’m incredibly excited about, which will sound so insignificant to most people. About a year into this illness, a few things happened to my body seemingly overnight and they always make me quite sad. The whites of my eyes changed colour, vertical ridges appeared on my once-smooth nails and I became allergic to my platinum engagement ring, which had been my grandmother’s and I’d worn 24 hours a day for years. Every so often over the past 3 years, I would put my ring on and, after a few days, I’d develop big itchy, sore bumps and discoloured skin and have to take it off again. I tried again just after Christmas and, 4 weeks later, I’m still wearing it with no problems. I want to add loads of exclamation points to this!!!!!! For me, that is so much more encouraging than IgG blood tests in the normal range or being able to walk more steps each day. My body has stopped rejecting something — a precious thing — that swiftly angered it over and over for so long. Rejoice. 🙂

Feeling emboldened, I asked my doctor if we could increase the dose or the frequency of my infusions or if I could add in a new treatment (antifungals, antivirals etc.). She said no — and I quote: “You are exactly where I want you to be.” That is so great to hear and such a reversal from my usual position of moving much more slowly than my doctors would like. She wants to continue my treatment indefinitely, raise my IgG levels as much as possible and then retest for infections in about 6 months to get a new baseline.

Insurance coverage always scares me; I’ve heard such horror stories of the battles to get treatment approved and, even after approval, actually paid for. My infusion bills were $943 for the first 3 months and I feel very fortunate that it’s so low. SCIG is the only thing that I can definitely say has helped in 4.5 years of being sick and, after 6 doctors refused to help me get the treatment, I feel immeasurably grateful to Dr. I for not only suggesting IVIG herself (I didn’t bother to ask because I’d given up at that stage), but allowing me to start on such a low dosage and increase slowly. No immunologist would have agreed to this. Yesterday I got this letter and almost wept (with joy). Thank you to the good doctors and nurses, to everyone that donates plasma (especially the broke college students) and even (in this case) to the all-powerful insurance companies who help perpetuate this dysfunctional healthcare system.

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I wrote this post on Thursday, the day after I’d driven to the dog park by myself, feeling victorious, and delighted my Bowie by walking further around the path than I have since being sick. I was still doing okay the next day and wanted to finally update everyone on my exciting progress.

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I’m not saying the chronic illness gods read my blog post draft and decided to tip the scales in the other direction because that’s just crazy nonsense, everyone knows that. But I did wake up not very good yesterday and I’m even worse today, with a bad migraine. Don’t get me wrong, I constantly remind myself that my husband used to have to wash my hair, but it’s still difficult to let yourself get a little bit excited (and in reality, “get a little bit excited” in my world means I’m thinking, “I’M GETTING BETTER! THIS IS THE YEAR! I’M GOING TO LEAVE THIS DISEASE BEHIND! I’LL BE FREE!”) and then have such a harsh reminder. Maybe the difference now is… I’m not scared.

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