Believe it or not, an update!

I have so much to write about, so much to catch people up on and document, but the longer I go without posting, the harder it feels to break the dry spell. Each month, I think, “Write that in a blog post, you’ll want to remember that,” but I never feel like I can “waste” the time. Especially in the last 6 months. If you’re friends with me on Facebook, you know that I have lost all available energy for months to fighting horrific healthcare battles. Energy that could have been put towards conversations with loved ones, time playing with my dogs, reading or writing…

So here’s a recap: From November, 2015 to around August, 2016 I was slowly getting stronger from my immunoglobulin infusions. I estimated that they brought me up from about 15% of normal functioning to about 20%. That 33% increase was miraculous. It didn’t exactly change the way I lived my life (I still had the same symptoms, was still mostly housebound, still had to manage energy carefully), but it changed my control — things became predictable, which reduced fear and let me branch out. Payback was shorter, not as scary, I could do more and knew I wouldn’t make myself permanently worse. That last point was life-changing for me. For 4 years, it felt like anything I did made me worse, I was desperate to hold on to the functioning I had and couldn’t take many chances without being forced down a notch — and I was always so scared that the new lower notch would be forever.

So, last year we went to the Washington coast for 5 days and I didn’t feel terrible. I had two friends visit me at my house and we talked for hours and I was okay. My family came to Seattle for their annual vacation (2 brothers, sister, mother, spouses and 7 nieces and nephews) and I was able to go to their rental house 4 days in a row for extended visits. This was the turning point, though, I think. I left it all on the stage those 4 days with my family. Friends with chronic illness, you know what I mean — it’s such a difficult act to appear normal and, from what I’m told, I gave a great performance that long weekend. Each day I came home and literally crawled on all fours to my bed. I lost 3 pounds in 4 days because between each visit all I could do is lie in bed and hope for a enough recovery to try it again. There wasn’t a moment that the payback wasn’t worth the incredible time I spent with my family. I’ll have to write a whole blog post on it one day. My nieces and nephews are everything you want kids to be — sweet, kind, honest, inquisitive, funny. No bratty-ness, no meltdowns, no selfishness. My brothers are doing something right.

Right after that visit, in August of last year, I started to nosedive. I had an increase in migraines, sore throats, exhaustion, muscle pain, unstable blood pressure. I was trying out (very expensive) hyperbaric oxygen treatments at the time and thought they were either causing or exacerbating my symptoms, so I stopped those, but continued to go downhill. In November, I started the descent into health insurance hell that lasted about 4 months. I’m not going to get into it right now. There’s too much to tell and it’ll make me shake and cry angry tears as I type, which I’m not up for. Suffice it to say it is an evil, vindictive, nonsensical, black hole of a system and nobody has accurate information about anything when it comes to healthcare for people under 65 on disability. And, even if they do have the knowledge, it seems the vast majority of health-related representatives (or is it all humans? I’m guessing it is) are inept, lazy, selfish and genuinely couldn’t care less about helping someone in need. My friend Michael had one of these phone calls where he wound up saying, “How do you sleep at night?” to the representative who was outright lying to him. Essentially, that’s how I spent 4 months — all available energy every day dedicated to battling my brain symptoms so I could continue to micromanage every person who held my health in their hands, taking copious notes and making enemies, as I waded through the morass of phone transfers, misinformation, hours of stuttering hold muzak, false promises about call backs and looming deadlines… While thinking, how do they live with themselves? Not to mention incompetent, petulant doctors that I need so I can’t I leave them.

When my mother came to visit after Christmas, she said it might have been the sickest she had ever seen me. I wasn’t even close to the sickest I’ve been, but it still says something about the severity of my crash (to be fair, I had allowed myself to have one of those total meltdown, let-it-all-out, “I’m so sick of being sick” sob-fests in front of her — the kind that I usually rein in because they can make me more reactive and wipe me out — which can’t be easy for a mother to witness). My strength started to get marginally better in February. I think it might have been helped by an increase in my thyroid medication, but it was kind of a double-edged sword because I also became horribly hyperthyroid for about 3 weeks before I realised what was happening. I had also stopped going to my weekly appointments (physical therapy, myofacial, counselling etc.) and had stopped my immunoglobulin infusions because I lost insurance to cover them, so perhaps the break from obligations and weekly medications helped me gain strength.

This spring my husband, dogs and I drove to California for an appointment with Dr. Kaufman at the Open Medicine Clinic and we stayed 6 weeks for a holiday and to test how I felt in a different climate. I will write about those big events in another post. What I really came on here to document is how I’m doing now. I want to keep track of what I can manage and how bad the payback is when I indulge in social time. Last November I went out to brunch (out!) with 4 old friends (you can imagine what it meant to me to be invited). I’m pretty sure I appeared normal throughout the 2-hour meal, but payback was vicious. My calendar notes say: “very bad today, body totally shut down, in bed, shaking, crashing, crying, guts feel swollen and full of bricks, heart, muscles, eyes burning.” It lasted days. In early February, my brother was at our house for 7 hours. I spent his visit relaxed on the couch in my pjs, but we talked and laughed like normal people, animatedly, and I didn’t rest once (unheard of a few years ago). I went to bed that night flying high, so happy from our conversation, so grateful to feel fine… And then, 3 hours later, woke up in the middle of the night feeling poisoned, shaking all over. My calendar says: “severe payback, swollen throat, can barely swallow, hard to breathe, every muscle in pain, bad stiff neck and headache, shooting pain in bowels, nose stuffy and runny.” The worst of it only lasted about one and a half days.

Yesterday, we had family over for brunch to celebrate my birthday. Although the whole shindig lasted 3.5 hours, there were only about 2 hours during which everyone was here — 4 adults and a child, not that many people. My friend Z said I looked great, she was so excited by how different it was from other years. She said, “I know you’ll pay, but today was normal.” This is everything I could hope for, BUT… the big but… But, it was hard. I can power through now, I have the ability to put on an excellent performance. If my neurological symptoms stay away, I can do quite a bit physically (although standing for a long time still causes excruciating pain). So, yesterday I showered, dressed, got out plates and cutlery, made some waffles and chatted with my family. That’s about all I did before things got difficult. There’s this weird thing that happens when you’re ill, but you’re putting on the normal act: You lose time. Or at least I do. Do any of you? For example, I remember everything about the first hour yesterday — when I was chatting with my husband and sister-in-law. Then our friends and their daughter arrived and things are a little fuzzier. I remember the conversations, but they’re not in sharp focus. Then my sister and her dog arrived, right around the time I wanted to make the waffles and apparently that’s when my mind went into … not quite “survival” mode, but “keep it together” mode: I was talking to 2 people in the kitchen while trying to focus on cooking and, although I made good waffles and I’m sure I said the appropriate things at the appropriate times during the conversations, I cant remember any of it clearly and couldn’t tell you what we talked about. Same thing while we ate — I clearly remember how delicious the food was (of course I do), but recalling things that were said is akin to trying to remember conversations I had while drunk, it’s murky, and it worries me that I was rude or unresponsive — to my favourite people, who made the effort to visit us, no less.

When I was saying goodbye to them, I could barely see. My vision was tunneled, I had a wicked headache and my brain was a buzzing scream, but being the fastidious person I am, I couldn’t not load the dishwasher. This tipped me over the edge. I was staggering around the kitchen, using immense effort to coordinate my muscles and concentrate enough to lift and place dishes. My eyes weren’t tracking properly, my heart rate was running high and my legs were burning terribly, but I just wanted to come to an end point… Stupendously stupid stupidity. I slid to the kitchen floor, panting, crying, literally unable to walk out of the room. I slurred: “Nothing is worth this. I was trying so hard to be normal, but no social time is worth this.” My husband said, “Why don’t you just be honest?” and I said, “Because THIS is honest.” On the floor, weeping is honest. He helped me to the couch, I was having a hard time sitting up, it was just utter energy depletion, muscles unable to work. I immediately fell asleep in a sort of emergency power-down. I started to feel a bit better about 5 hours later and today I’m okay besides another bad headache and stiff neck. That’s the difference now — when it hits, it hits hard and scares the bejeesus out of me, but it doesn’t last long. So I take it back, it was worth it. I ate decadent food in the warm sun in our beautiful garden with some of my favourite people on the planet (and to Z’s credit, she tried to stop me from over-exerting myself over and over and I bullheadedly kept telling her, “No, I want to do this! I’m fine!”). But of course it was worth it and I’ll keep trying to make this life have more life in it and repeat to myself during the scary times: this, too, shall pass.

Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash.

This is a hard one to talk about. It’ll be more of a rant. And I’d like to preface it with all of the obvious about how grateful I am that we were in the economic position we were in when this illness started, how grateful I am that I had a few years of good earnings and decent savings, how grateful I am that my family is healthy and has never been bankrupted by health woes. I am, I truly am, and I think about–probably too much–what must happen to others with a severe chronic illness (that has no knowledgeable doctors and no decent treatment) who are in worse financial shape than we are, without our resources, who are in countries steeped in poverty, refugees fleeing wars… on and on… I do know how lucky I am. But, I’m scared. Mostly because I don’t know what treatment to spend money on and what to reject.

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Recently, after 6 months of immunoglobulin infusions, I got a slew of bills that I didn’t anticipate. It turns out that for my itsy bitsy dose of 5 grams each week, I pay $164 after insurance. Out-of-pocket. That’s $655 per month. If I had known this before starting, would I have done it? I don’t know. But now that this is the only treatment that has helped me, how can I stop? And I’m in this tricky spot. I have private health insurance because I was too scared Medicare wouldn’t cover these treatments (also because Medicare won’t cover acupuncture, nutritionists or physical/myofascial/craniosacral/massage therapy — some of the only things that have made a difference in my pain levels). After being told IVIG was not an option by so many doctors, knowing that I didn’t have a history of bacterial infections and a vaccine challenge is usually required for approval, and having Coram (the infusion service) tell me that Medicare hardly ever covers treatment, I was just too scared to give up the private health insurance that had already approved my treatment for the whole year. Of course, I have since heard from others that Medicare covers their IVIG or SCIG at 100%, but … how could I risk changing coverage now when my IgG levels have come up and that alone might disqualify me from continued treatment? I’ll have to revisit this next January when I’m eligible for Medicare enrollment again, but, if I’m still improving with my infusions, I don’t know how I’d take that leap of faith.

An aside for those in other countries or for those that don’t know this fucked up aspect of our healthcare system here in the U.S.: Medicare (government health coverage) isn’t free. You pay each month just as you do with private health insurance. It’s usually cheaper, but not always. It can range from $105-$771 a month, depending on your situation (the higher end is reserved for people who have not worked enough in their lifetimes to qualify. So, if you are struck down with a chronic illness as a young adult and you haven’t worked the requisite 30 quarters in a tax-paying job, you’re not married and you undoubtedly have little savings, then you get to pay the highest premium for our national health coverage– oh, but only if you’re lucky enough to be granted full disability, which very few ME/CFS/Lyme sufferers are). And don’t think that Medicare actually covers your healthcare in full, though. You will still have a deductible each year and co-insurance (the patient pays 20%, typically), you’re prescription medications aren’t paid for unless you get extra coverage and hospital stays can still leave you in horrendous debt. You can stay in a hospital for a few months for the low, low price of $1,260 (although skilled nursing facilities will be more because that price doesn’t cover people to care for you), but let’s take a pretty terrible example: 150 days in the hospital. In 2015, that would have cost you $47,565 out-of-pocket. If you had to stay any longer, all additional costs are your problem. The government washes its hands of you. But wait, there’s more! If you choose not to enroll in Medicare when you become eligible, your monthly payment when you do enroll will be higher–forever–usually 10% higher for each year you could have signed up but didn’t. In my case, if I’m covered by Medicare next year, I will be paying an extra $300/year because I didn’t enroll when I first became eligible. If I wait until 2018, I’ll pay a penalty of at least $440 that year, plus more each year as the premiums continue to rise over my lifetime. Lovely.

SO… Last month I finished up weeks of financial slog for our 2015 taxes and was happy to see our (and by our, I mean my because my husband’s medical expenses are only about a quarter of our total and that is solely health insurance premiums because he never needs a doctor, knock on wood, toba toba) out-of-pocket medical costs had come down slightly.

2012: $14,480
2013: $19,032
2014: $19,564
2015: $17,912

That doesn’t allay the fear, however. After utilities (sewer, water, garbage, recycling, gas, electricity) and mortgage payments, we’re left with about $20K a year to live on and medical expenses have been almost $20K a year since I got sick. That means most everything else–food, clothes, toiletries, dogs, phone, internet, gas for cars– comes out of our savings. I’m trying to be healthier, place fewer burdens on my system and subdue my chemical sensitivities by eating organic food, pastured meat and buying less toxic products. All of these things are more expensive. For the last year and a half, I’ve been paying $200/month for compounded medications instead of the cheap, generic, filler-filled ones. It hardly costs anything to get sick, but the system is rigged to bankrupt those that are.

I feel very fortunate that we had saved money before this happened, but it will run out eventually and I don’t want to make all the wrong decisions now because I’m frozen in fear of the future. Our day-to-day living is all-encompassing, so time slips by in survival mode and the big decisions never get discussed. I’m happy that we didn’t sell the house when I first got sick because we’re finally not under water and it might actually be worth what we owe again. But when do we sell? And do I switch back to generic meds? Do I stop supplements (around $100/month)? Do I stop seeing my doctor who doesn’t take health insurance? Do I not try human growth hormone or hyperbaric oxygen or nutritional IVs? Do I stop my immunoglobulin infusions?? Last year, I thought a time would come when we just moved somewhere very small and affordable, maybe a foreign country, and I stopped all medical visits and we tried to exist on pittance and make our money last as long as possible… But now that I’ve found a treatment that helps my functioning, I have renewed hope. Maybe I’ll be able to earn a living again if I keep making progress. How can I give up on that? Or should I accept the fact that this is as good as it’s going to get, income-wise? My husband will get older, he’ll be able to work his manual-labour job less and less and I won’t ever recover to the point of being able to hold a job… I think that’s the reality. I know a lot of people with this illness and many have made improvements, but I’m not sure if I know any that have gone back to full-time work.

So, we beat on, boats against the current, cut costs where we can, shop the deals online, grow some veggies, sell some stuff, and pray that in ten years time, the tides have changed for the better.

Title Credit

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.