June Update

It’s been a while since I’ve had the energy to write an update. As usual, I have a lot to document in terms of doctors and tests, but, overall, not much to report on my life and illness. My mother was here from Ireland this past week and that was, by far, the highlight of the last 4 months. 6 days seemed like 6 hours, though, and I’m left feeling a bit barren after her departure, like there are tumbleweeds blowing around inside my chest and hollow silence echoing against the inside of my skull.

I’m still housebound besides healthcare appointments and the odd dog walk on the scooter. I do think I’m marginally better than this time last year, though, which is heartening considering the horrendous ordeal of last autumn. Mostly, I think this because I’m walking more steps than I have since 2012. I regularly hit 2,000 on my pedometer, which does wonders for my mental well-being to think there is forward momentum. However, the flip-side is I have had more severe muscle pain and out-of-character joint aches. I am stiff in the morning and try to make myself put on compression stockings and a back brace if I’m going to stand in the kitchen for any length of time. I know I should scale back movement because, when I do, the muscle pain is better, but I’m really grasping onto that measurable progress for dear life.

There are other slight improvements. My sleep is still better than it was the first 3 years I was sick (although, I still don’t get much and it is plagued with fitfulness, nightmares and pain). My headaches, although they have resurfaced somewhat in the last month, were gone for a few months earlier this year, which is utterly life-changing. My resting face goes from this :twisted: to this :? .

There are still, always, a lot of daily debilitating symptoms. For 3 full weeks after my birthday outing, I was not doing well. My flu symptoms came back and that always alarms me — chills, sore throat, extremely heavy muscles, pain. I also had a few bouts of the worst vertigo I’ve experienced since my tilt table test payback. One night it came on so quickly and viciously, I fell over and hit the floor on my way to the loo from bed. I was moaning out loud from the queasy out-of-bodiness, which is unlike me, and I was reminded again of Laura Hillenbrand and how unrelenting vertigo could possibly be the worst imaginable symptom.

Hair loss hasn’t stopped, but is better than last year. Or the short, choppy cut disguises it more. My eyes are their usual nightmare of blurriness and sore extraocular muscles, even though I am regimented about (gently) scrubbing the lashes and using preservative-free tears throughout the day. Tinnitus and skin are still bad, my neck is still banjaxed. I am still spending about 14-17 hours in bed each day. I guess that’s a bit better than last year.

Finally, there is no real change in my worst symptom: Brain Drain. Which doesn’t describe it. I’ve been trying to articulate this symptom for years — to doctors, to my husband, my mother. It’s not brain fog. What I call brain fog feels tired and cloudy, causes effort to recall and calculate things. My Buzzy Brain is like Stephen King’s The Long Walk: if you can imagine being made to walk until you physically drop, but then transfer that body feeling to the brain. The same way muscle exhaustion is physical, my brain exhaustion feels physical. My brain can’t take one more step to do anything. Can’t read, write, speak, hear. It comes on gradually, so I usually find myself wading through the quicksand of a conversation or article, slurring or rereading the same thing over and over. I get testy, dizzy, weighted down by head pain and then realise, Oh, duh, time to go to bed and stop everything. Not being able to push through the brain problems (just finish this sentence, this tv show, this meal) is much more depressing than not being able to push through the physical limitations. Take my body, just, please, leave my mind.

The outcome of this is nothing ever gets done. I never finish tasks and months slip by. I also never seem to get going on any plan of attack to conquer the myriad of abnormal test findings: candida, low immunoglobulins, high cholesterol, reactivations of viruses, methylation problems, high mycotoxins. There’s always a bigger fire to put out — the poisoned nocturnal reactions, the crashing blood pressure, the death of my bowel — before I can carefully address less acute problems, while tip-toeing through the minefield of menstruation mast cell instability. Although, given my track record, maybe the best treatment for my body is no invasive treatment at all, just lots of pacing, meditation, good food and the pursuit of laughter.

The few things on which I am actively working are my hormone deficiencies and my tanked thyroid (as per usual). Since last September, I have now quintupled my levothyroxine (T4) and tripled my liothyronine (T3) and nothing has changed. I’m spending an absolute fortune on compounded meds, hoping my body will absorb them better than the generic, affordable ones, but, so far, no dice. I will update soon about my new, wonderful endocrinologist and her thoughts (as well as my other doctor visits).

So, almost 3 years and 8 months sick and that’s where I’m at. If I could find relief from the social isolation and financial instability, there could be some sort of life here.

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But, as it stands, I take my joy from the incredibly beautiful spring we’ve had here in Seattle and every opportunity to lie outside in the garden oasis my husband has created and see my dogs run in the park.

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My Visit to Dr. Chia

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

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With my mother outside Dr. Chia’s office.

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

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

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

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

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

Here were his main points about my history:

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

Blood test results:

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

Treatments:

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

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