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.

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.