Bowel Answers Finally

I finally had most of the colon testing done that I needed and I think I will put off or ignore the other proposed GI tests because I have one big anatomical* problem that is at the root of all of my bowel troubles and it needs surgical intervention.

*My surgeon always says ‘anatomic,’ but the internet tells me there’s no difference between anatomical and anatomic, so I’m sticking with the former (unless I need to write about ‘an anatomic bomb’ because that just sounds cooler). 

This week, I had four back-to-back appointments at the hospital and – for anyone in my area – every aspect of this visit to Virginia Mason was so much better than the last decade of overall experiences at Swedish or the University of Washington. Everything was streamlined and on time (even when I was late to my first appointment–total calm kindness greeted me); every clinic was in the same building; everyone I asked to wear an N95 did so with no issues; nobody read my lengthy records and insinuated anything negative or dismissed me for being too complicated or too young; everyone knew what Ehlers-Danlos was and they weren’t scared of it; and, most importantly, everyone was kind and didn’t rush me and answered all my questions. 

I had a barium fluoroscopic defecography, an anorectal manometry and internal exams plus consults with both the colorectal and urogynaecological surgeons, separately. 

The results from these appointments, along with the info gathered from my own daily hellish routine and other testing from this past year (colonoscopy, MRI defecography, abdominal CT, two mesenteric vascular duplex ultrasounds (one with breathing protocols), Genova Diagnostics stool test, urodynamic (bladder) testing, pessary trial, splinting trial, pelvic floor physical therapy, exams by a prolapse specialist and another colorectal surgeon, diet changes) have finally given us a very good idea of what is happening. And–shocker!–fiber, papaya and probiotics aren’t the answers to my problems. Neither are Miralax, Linzess, Motegrity and all the other medications that have been thrown at me (although, I’ll have to continue to use them for life). 

In the interest of transparency, education and destigmatization, I’d like to tell you exactly what I go through every day in order to defecate, but I’m going to save that for another time (you’re welcome). Instead, I’m going to tell you exactly what is happening to me anatomically because everyone has an asshole, so this shouldn’t be taboo.

My big, bad problem is an enterocele. An enterocele is a prolapse or hernia of the small intestine. The back of the vaginal wall and the front of the rectal wall should be fused, but mine have separated and my intestines–probably the small bowel, but it’s not quite clear which part–have dropped into that space, obstructing defecation. I also have a severe rectocele and less important sigmoidocele, cystocele and uterine prolapse. Everything is collapsing and falling. I also have intussusception of the rectum, which means it is telescoping into itself when I bear down. If you google this, it says it is very rare and life-threatening, but mine is happening every day, whenever I have a bowel movement and, so far, hasn’t caused a complete blockage and hasn’t telescoped itself outside my body. However, that is the normal course of things – it is probable that one day my small bowel will fall out of my anus and that will be a surgical emergency. Or my uterus or bladder might fall out of my vagina. These things have been happening to women forever and no one talks about it. Thank dog for online support groups – I can’t hate facebook when it has connected me to others going through this craziness.

Prolapses, both internal and external, are almost always caused by childbirth – usually in women who have had multiple pregnancies. Mine is caused by the poop babies I’ve carried around my whole life (chronic constipation) coupled with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), a disorder which affects the integrity and strength of the connective tissue throughout the body. In other words, the walls of my intestines aren’t strong, so they herniated under the pressure of poop. My pelvic muscles are affected, too, and have become lax and atrophied, so they’re not holding anything up and in place. 

I have found all of my testing incredibly fascinating (although, brutal because of the way my body pays me back for any intervention). The other day, I got to watch the barium defecography on the screen–I got to see how my anatomy moved as I pooped and ask the radiologist questions in real time. There was a huge pouch of barium mash (they literally squirt instant mashed potatoes up your bum) that descended anteriorly across the base of my pelvic floor when I bore down. I asked if it was my rectum and the doctor said no, it wasn’t meant to be there at all – that was the rectocele (or maybe enterocele–I need to get the imaging disc and look more closely). I couldn’t believe it – I wish I’d had the foresight to take a photo. It was upright and vertical and, when I pushed, it just splooged forward into a horizontal cavity that shouldn’t be there. By “it” I mean my intestine, which was outlined by the barium.

I told the tech that if she ever had another nervous patient (I had never had barium before and didn’t know if my body would react to it), tell them they get to watch the x-rays and talk to the radiologist as the test is performed. I would have been sprinting into the exam room, if I had known that!

The surgeon said this is not a functional problem with digestion and motility and there was no point in doing a Sitz Marker Study (or Smart Pill) because it would give false information. It measures how long it takes for markers to move through your GI tract, but they wouldn’t move due to the enterocele and rectocele clogging up the pass, rather than a problem with the migrating motor complex.

He said an upper barium study and/or endoscopy (my GI doctor wanted both) might be warranted if I had reflux or problems with swallowing, but I don’t. I was diagnosed with “gastroparesis” (food won’t leave my stomach), but it’s only a problem when my bowels are backed up. He thought I might have a hiatal hernia because they often go along with pelvic prolapses, but since the symptoms aren’t bad, he’s not concerned.

The other tests that I found fascinating and informative were:

  • The anorectal manometry was mostly normal: No evidence of nerve damage or Hirschsprung’s disease. No dyssynergia, meaning the muscles work as they should and in the correct order (rectum contracts first and then the anus relaxes). No pain, pressures were normal and sensations were okay-ish. The two abnormal findings were my anal sphincter is tight (cue the tightass jokes) and it took quite a high volume (a balloon being inflated inside my rectum) for me to have the urge to defecate. This could be because I’ve become desensitized from daily large-volume enemas for so many years or it could be because the rectocele creates more space in that area for the balloon to expand into. 
  • The abdominal CT, which showed an “enormous bladder,” four times the size it should be, and a distended sigmoid colon that was “pushed up the wazoo” (quotes by my neurosurgeon, Bolo, which his other patients will appreciate). 
  • The stool test, which I assumed would show dysbiosis, infections and metabolic imbalances, but it didn’t. It was pretty okay. 
  • The Duplex ultrasound that showed my duodenum was being compressed, which could explain the pain in a certain high-up place after I eat.
  • The colonoscopy, which showed the inside of my large bowel is lovely, with no issues. I’ve had constipation my whole life, my mother and aunt have diverticulosis and my grandmother had bowel cancer, so I assumed I’d have something wrong, but she didn’t even find a polyp. Even more interesting to me was that my cleanout in preparation for the colonoscopy was easy. I didn’t even need the second prep. I assumed I had loads of backed up stool. I thought I’d be one of those horror stories: It was found during the autopsy that she had 10 pounds of fermenting meat in her gut!

The main issue found during the colonoscopy was that it was difficult to get the scope around the bends in my colon, even using a pediatric scope, which means it is difficult for poop to get around the bends, too. My GI doctor said things were tweaked and compressed within my abdominal cavity because I am such a small person and it’s further complicated by not having a lot of fat around my organs – my colon bends at acute angles rather than soft curves because there isn’t enough fat to act as a buffer to smooth out the turns.

This is exactly how it feels, subjectively, when I’m sitting on the loo. I know I said I’d spare you this part, but one of the things I have to do is squeeze my intestines with my hands like a toothpaste tube. I have to physically push stool around those sharp angles with my fingers. 

The lack of organ fat contributes to the issue they saw on the ultrasound, too. My duodenum is compressed in between vasculature (the aorta and the superior mesenteric artery*) and the first-line treatment is to gain weight to try to bulk up the mesenteric fat pad, which will help separate the arteries enough that food can pass freely through the duodenum. 

*This is called Superior Mesenteric Artery Syndrome (SMAS), which can be very serious and life-threatening when it lets nothing pass (mine isn’t, thankfully, and we’re not even sure if the measurement was accurate, so this may not be my diagnosis). It can occur with other abdominal compression conditions, such as Median Arcuate Ligament Syndrome, Nutcracker Syndrome or May Thurner Syndrome, and seems to be more prevalent in people with EDS, mast cell disease and dysautonomia.

I didn’t believe my EDS diagnosis for years. I’m not the typical bendy person who did body-contortion party tricks as a kid and suffered subluxations my whole life. After being schooled by numerous doctors, I now believe this might be the root of all of my issues. My rheumatologist showed me what my joints aren’t meant to do, my physical therapist told me I had the most hypermobile neck she’d ever worked on, my neurosurgeon explained how a tethered spinal cord, which happens more often with connective tissue disorders, is damaging nerves and pulling my brainstem down, blocking the normal flow of cerebral spinal fluid. And, the other day in the hospital, every doctor I spoke with said, yes, the reason for all of my poop woes (and digestive, bladder and uterine woes) is shitty connective tissue that has weakened the walls of everything: fascia, vasculature, intestines. 

The bad news is these conditions will only get worse and the only thing that will help is major surgery. The colorectal and urogynecological surgeons perform the operation together to fix the prolapses, lift everything back where it should be, suture organs to the tailbone and add mesh, so your body creates scar tissue to strengthen the vaginal and rectal walls.

The really bad news is that I can’t risk mesh. Not just because of the scary outcomes you hear about in “normal” people (those mesh class action lawsuits advertised on TV), but because my immunologist warned unequivocally that with mast cell activation, my body would react to and reject the mesh, causing complications. Not to mention the much higher probability of surgical failure because of EDS – my tissues would probably just sag and drop again, sutures would fall out. I’d have to be careful with coughing, sneezing, bearing down, lifting even a light amount of weight for evermore and there would be repeated repair surgeries. I can’t imagine a life where I don’t bear down. I even have to push to pee lots of the time.

And it’s not like I would miraculously be able to have normal, formed stools and easy bowel movements. I will still be taking daily medications, I will still have the acute intestinal angles and will I be able to toothpaste tube-squeeze my guts after surgery or will that be too risky? It’s a scary proposition.

The colorectal surgeon said, without mesh, it would be a “placebo surgery.” He said there was absolutely no point. I asked about the ACE surgery that allows you to flush water from a stoma created by your appendix – kind of like an enema from above – and he said it wouldn’t help because the enterocele would still be there.

I asked about a sacral nerve stimulator and he said they are usually used for nerve damage that causes incontinence issues, which I don’t have. He said the only real alternative to a mesh repair is a colectomy (with a colostomy bag). He said he wouldn’t do an ileostomy, but I can’t remember why. My immunologist suggested the same thing – go straight for the ostomy.

Mind you, removing my colon and getting a bag — even if I had a perfect surgical experience and recovery — won’t make all of my problems go away. There might still be complications with the mesh they put around the stoma to try to reduce the likelihood of a parastomal hernia (which is quite common). And I would probably have issues with scar tissue and reactions to the adhesive coverings and deodorant smells and bag emptying (which involves body positions that my spine doesn’t like to do), and your rectum still generates mucus after you get a stoma and there is leakage, both rectal and around the bag etc etc… It can still involve hours in the loo and pain and regular medical interventions. It is definitely not a cure-all or an easy road. You can’t believe the difficulties until you read patient stories. Some people’s quality of life is drastically improved – they can travel and exercise again, for example – but, of course, this wouldn’t be my case because ME/cfs is still very much the specter that keeps me mostly housebound. 

So, how long can I limp along like this and when will I have to get surgery? My doctor said, one day my small intestine will probably prolapse out of my body and I will have no choice. It could be in 7 days or 7 years, he couldn’t predict. And my daily interventions will eventually not work – more medications, more enemas with larger volumes of water, more pain, more dietary restrictions.

My quality of life from this one issue is very compromised, though my fear of surgery overrides this. I think I could probably manage to continue with my current routine for years if it weren’t for one thing: The vasovagal collapses. 

Those who know me know that these have been happening for 20 years. They started with dysmenorrhea (period pain would trigger prolonged blood pressure drops and my body would go into a sort of shock), then they started happening with bowel pain. I controlled these (or tried to) by taking nightly progesterone, so I never menstruate, and not taking any laxatives that cause cramping, like Senna or Dulcolax.

Then they started happening with pelvic floor spasms – once while using a vibrating device on my lower abdomen to try to stimulate stool/gas movement and twice from orgasms. I can stop doing those things, too (not happily), but, recently, my pelvic muscles go into spasm for no reason other than gravity dragging them down or pressure building up in my colon.

It’s not the spasms that are the problem – I can handle quite a bit of pain – it’s the subsequent collapses. They aren’t “faints” – I don’t recover by lying down and getting oxygen to my brain. In fact, they often start in the morning, after I’ve been lying down all night. My husband describes them as “catastrophic system failures.” Pale pallor, cold sweat, breathing difficulty, tunneled vision, unable to speak, bradycardia, prolonged hypotension, sometimes loss of consciousness, and often a call to 911. When an abdominal spasm occurs, if it goes on long enough and is painful enough, I will feel my body start to shake and then all the other symptoms encroach. I usually call my husband and have him on the phone until we know whether it will stop or if I will fall off the edge and need medical intervention (paramedics can’t do much besides make sure I recover, check my heart, give me IV fluids). 

I’m trying to describe this clearly, without hyperbole, but these episodes are terrifying. They are unpredictable and it feels like I’m going to die because I’m so weak and my blood pressure is so low and I can’t get a breath and everything is fading out… My specialist says it feels that way because, physiologically, it is the closest I come to death. Yikes.

Point being, if I thought these collapses could be curtailed by excising my colon, then I would be much more eager for the surgery. But nobody has ever heard of this issue. Is it vagus nerve damage? Part of dysautonomia? To do with spinal cord and brain stem? These episodes are still more frequent with hormonal fluctuations, so I’m praying that after menopause they will get better.

Maybe that’s my decision. Maybe I can hold out until after menopause – hope my organs stay inside my body and don’t rupture, hope I can keep getting food in and out with all of my exhausting interventions – and see what gets better and what gets worse after menstruation isn’t playing a part. Maybe then I’ll be able to stop taking progesterone, which might help the overall picture because it can cause constipation (in some people I’ve talked to, it paralyses the gut or stops motility entirely). I’m currently not willing to come off it and risk the angry mast cells that come with periods.

I held out a smidgen of hope that having my tethered spinal cord fixed would also solve my bowel problems and everything would get better, but it looks like there’s no getting out of this one and I have to face multiple future surgeries. Time to find some safe painkillers that don’t cause reactions! 

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Damn Your Eyes

A note about my eye exam today:

I need to update my blog more often — for myself, more than anyone else. This morning, I had my first eye exam in 7 years and I looked back here to see if I’d said anything about the last time and saw I’d had a reaction to the yellow eye drops. I had no memory of this and it saved me from possibly having another reaction today for a not-really-needed test. So, I’m going to make a note about today’s experience to remind myself in the future not to bother going to an ophthalmologist again!

My vision was 20/15 the last time I had my eyes checked. I never needed glasses at all until July of 2020, when I realised I couldn’t see my vein very well when putting in a peripheral IV catheter to do IVIG. Since then–not even 2 years–I’ve gone up 3 magnification strengths and my right eye has significantly worse vision than the left. My distance vision is a little worse, too, which I realised when my husband (who is 12 years older than I am) could make out signs on the highway that I couldn’t.

July, 2020: The first day of the rest of my farsighted life: I had to borrow my husband’s glasses to put in my IV.

Of course, this is totally normal for people my age, but my brother started to need glasses after spending time on a submarine and had a theory that it was because he didn’t focus on anything more than about 8 feet away for so many months. I think this might hold some truth for those of us who spend so little time outside, looking at horizons and focusing on long distances.

I have a ton of eye symptoms, which bother me much more than the need for readers, but I’ve been told there is no remedy for any of it (except dry eyes). I was told in the past: “When your overall health is poor, your eye health is poor, too.” The ophthalmologist today actually said that my eye health was good, but my symptoms are probably neurological (migraines, dysautonomia etc).

Some of my eye symptoms are: floaters; blurriness; pain in orbital muscles when moving my eyes; itchy eyelashes; dry eye to the point that when I blink in the mornings, my tears feel like acid hitting my eyeballs; right eyelid spasms; light sensitivity; trouble tracking when scrolling on my phone or reading blocks of text; migraines that feel like my right eye is going to explode out of its socket (it’s silly, but I often push my eye back in with the palm of my hand because it really feels like it might pop out). I used to say that my eyes felt like I’d put grit into Vaseline and then smeared it over my eyes.

I have had radioiodine ablation on my thyroid for Graves disease (or some sort of autoimmune presentation of hyperthyroidism–endocrinologists have disagreed on whether it’s actually Graves) and was told to pay attention to eye symptoms, but the doctor today didn’t see any evidence of that being a problem. I am also positive for one of the Sjogren’s markers (carbonic anhydrase VI IgG antibodies), which ophthalmologists treat no differently than dry eye. He rattled off a bunch of things that I’ve tried in the past that have done nothing (eye drops, eye scrubs) and some I haven’t (take omega 3s, humidifier in bedroom).

He said my optic nerves, blood vessels, maculae etc were all normal. During the visual acuity test, none of the letters were sharp, but I could guess most, even though they were blurry. The doctor said my vision was considered 20/20 because I could guess 3 out of 5 of the bottom line, adding he wouldn’t be able to see any of them at all. This is the thing when you’ve had great vision your whole life–you don’t really know what is “normal” or acceptable.” I hate not being able to see the letters clearly, but being able to guess them at all, even though I was straining and it was very blurry, is still considered 20/20.

They said I am doing no damage to my eyes using the cheapo 3-pack of Costco reading glasses. It doesn’t matter what strength I use or whether I use different magnifications (I have various glasses scattered in different rooms) or whether I’m using the lenses that work for one eye, but not the other. Essentially, if you can move the phone/book closer or further away and make it work, then everything’s fine. They said I could get prescription glasses, but, if I’m getting by, there is no need. I don’t want any more energy expenditure on anything, so I’m sticking with what I’m doing. My husband was mildly alarmed by this: But if you can get prescription glasses that correct for the differences in your eyes and it makes your life better, why not? Energy is why not. It all comes down to having nothing extra to give.

For anyone with MCAS, I have had the yellow eye drops 3 times and, the last time, I had a reaction. A friend told me I could ask for a retinal scan in lieu of dilation, which I did and it was easy and only took a few minutes. Once in the past, I was told that one of my eyes had high pressure (intraocular fluid pressure) and this can be a warning for glaucoma and I should keep an eye on it (I just caught that totally unintended pun when I did a reread 🙂 ). The gold standard for checking eye pressure is the use of yellow numbing eye drops, which are used with a slit lamp and blue light. A step down from that is a handheld tonometer, which still needs numbing drops, but they don’t have the yellow dye. Lastly, there is a device called an Icare, which doesn’t need drops at all. The latter would have been my preference since I don’t know what caused the previous reaction (the dye, the numbing medication or the preservatives), but they didn’t have one at the location where I had my appointment today, so I decided to skip the pressure check, thinking/hoping I probably don’t have a problem.

Lastly, I want to note that this was BY FAR the most risky covid exposure I’ve had (or, really, just human germ exposure, in general). The rooms are tiny with no windows or ventilation and the doctor and his assistant both had to get very close to my face. Also, they cancelled my appointment last week because the ophthalmologist was out sick and I wonder — out sick with what? Even a head cold would be a deal-breaker for me. All in all, I regret the appointment because the risk of contracting a virus was very much outweighed by the chances that I have eye problems that can be remedied (I now know). But I didn’t know what was normal or should be treated and I certainly would want to know if intracranial hyper/hypotension was causing any eye damage (as seen on a CINE MRI, I have blocked cerebral spinal fluid flow in my brain because of low-lying cerebellar tonsils, which can cause intracranial pressure issues). I didn’t know if wearing shitty readers could damage my eyesight further (they can’t) and I didn’t know if having worse vision in one eye was a concern (it’s not) and I didn’t know if I could brush off all of my eye symptoms as neurological (I can). Now I know and you do, too. 🙂 Title Credit

In Amber

A DECADE

A decade since I felt well.

A decade since my body and health were not on my mind. 

A decade since my last cold, flu or bronchitis.

A decade since my last vaccination.

A decade since I enjoyed Halloween, my favourite holiday.

A decade since I was in a lake or ocean.

A decade since I was on a train.

A decade since I stood up at a concert.

A decade since I didn’t wear a mask on a plane.

A decade since I went to a wedding.

A decade since I went to a barbecue.

A decade since seeing so many friends.

A decade since I married my longtime boyfriend because “I feel like something is going to happen to me and I want you to be able to legally speak for me, if I can’t speak for myself.”

A decade since I was in Ireland, in my childhood home, walking the streets of my heart.

I thought about this anniversary so many times in the past. For a long time, I thought there was no way it would come–I couldn’t possibly stay sick this long. Every other illness had a beginning and an end, so, surely, one day my body would recover and this spectre would leave, it was just taking a little longer than the usual virus.

Once I realised it was lifelong, I thought the 10-year mark would be a momentous and heavy occasion. It turns out, it’s not. 2 years seemed much harder to accept. Back when isolation was still harrowing and loneliness still suffocated. You get used to both. It helps if you can develop a deep disdain for humans, so you can trick yourself into believing you’re not missing out on anything. And the 5-year mark was hard. I’d felt small, but miraculous changes from IVIG and then had an epic autumn backslide that year. The dowsing of that little flame of hope was devastating and it was inconceivable that I would be physically or mentally resilient enough to continue the maybe-I’m-getting-better!-Oh-no-what-fresh-hell-is-this? cycle for years to come.

But, then, suddenly, 10 years have passed. I could almost believe the rest of the world is trapped in amber, frozen in time, awaiting my return. As soon as I kick this thing, I’ll drive back down to the office–each street scene melting and returning into motion as my car passes by–and get back to work. Thanks for waiting, guys.

INFECTIONS

What’s far more unbelievable to me is that I haven’t had a muggle illness in a decade. [Please don’t let this jinx me.] No head cold, no flu, no stomach bug, no chest/ear/sinus/bladder/any-other-part-of-the-body infection. The more time that went by, the more ominous was the thought of contracting an acute virus. For years, I had relentless flu-y symptoms–headaches, sore throats, muscle pain, weakness, chills (and still do, sporadically)–and I have many high out-of-range infection titers*, so the thought of another malady compounding the daily slog was harrowing.

*HHV6 IgG; HSV IgM; EBV IgG; M Pneumoniae IgG; S. Cerevisiae IgG; Varicella IgG and IgM; Coxsackie A7, A9, A16, A24, B1, B2, B5 and B6; Anti Streptolysin O Titer, and Candida IgM and IgA. Yes, really.

Three years into my illness, Dr. Chia told us unequivocally that a run-of-the-mill cold could make me permanently worse, so we have always taken great precautions to avoid exposure, which have only intensified during this pandemic. I honestly wonder if I’ll ever be indoors and maskless with anyone besides my husband again. Even worse, will my husband ever be indoors and maskless with anyone besides me? It’s one thing to choose this life for myself–I’ve made peace with only having remote communication with friends and family; I have a partner and a dog to keep me sane–but my healthy husband’s life has shriveled to keep me safe and the guilt from that is indescribable. I imagine if he weren’t yoked to someone at such risk for serious complications from viruses, he might be out gallivanting and socialising, as well he should be.

VACCINES

One of the first doctors I saw after falling ill said, “You are very sick. We don’t know what’s wrong with you, but you should never get another vaccination as long as you live.” I was confused because, until that moment, I hadn’t linked whatever this sickness was to the flu shot I’d gotten a week before Halloween. I was also confused because, in my healthy ignorance, I thought vaccines only bolstered your immune system. I really didn’t understand, in certain unique circumstances, that they could break it. I used to get every immunization available in an effort to protect myself.

Before I traveled to Central America, I was vaccinated for polio, live typhoid, hepatitis A and B, tetanus, diphtheria and gammastan–all on the same day. In the years after, I got the live varicella vaccine, the 3-shot hepatitis B series, measles, mumps, and rubella and, of course, the flu shot every year, along with a pandemic flu vaccine (H1N1) when they were offered. I didn’t get majorly sick while traveling, I didn’t get chicken pox when I tended to my horrifically poxy husband and I never got the flu despite working very long hours in restaurants, among infectious people (note to the public: restaurant staff work when they’re sick; you have to be on death’s door to ask someone to cover a shift), so I guess the vaccines helped… until they harmed.

COVID

There’s such polarization these days when it comes to covid vaccines. There’s a lot of hatred directed at those who are trying to protect themselves and others by getting vaccinated and wearing masks and there is an equal amount of contempt directed at anti-vaxers. I have yet to see a single news story talk about those of us who want to get vaccinated, but cannot. Or those of us who have to make the agonizing decision to live a life of extreme isolation or risk very serious repercussions from a vaccine–any vaccine. I wish individuals would always take the collective into consideration and try to protect those that are vulnerable, but that’s not human nature, unfortunately. People will refuse vaccinations or not wear masks or not get tested because they don’t want to quarantine. And, all the while, those of us with weakened, damaged or overactive immune systems–be it from chemo or old age or autoimmunity or ME/cfs or steroids or stress or another condition–will have to choose seclusion over risk.

Against one of my doctor’s advice, I will be getting the first covid vaccine next month–but I’m getting a pediatric dose. We will see how I do and then I’ll get a second dose and test antibodies. They will be keeping me for observation in the clinic for an hour because of my history of anaphylaxis, but that’s not what I’m worried about.

I’m worried about being bedbound again. I’m worried about volunteering for an injection that could further damage my autonomic nervous system and intensify dysautonomia and hyperadrenergic symptoms. I’m worried about triggering more vasovagal collapses or making myself more hemodynamically unstable. I’m worried about a cytokine storm and/or a mast cell meltdown that creates a permanent worsening of reactivity when I’m already so limited in medication options and trying so hard to keep on weight. I’m worried about a blood clot causing sudden death because IVIG, oral hormones and inactivity already put me in a high-risk category. I’m worried about losing the limited amount of independence and mobility I have now (but it’s enough for a happy life) and becoming too weak to even wash my hair again. I’m worried about being that burden to my husband again, especially now that it takes so much work to make my GI tract function–it would be a monstrous task for him to take on. Mostly, I’m worried about once again losing the small joys, like taking Penny on our scooter walks, being able to talk on the phone for hours and laughing. I spent years without those gifts and I’m not sure I can claw my way back over another decade. 

It feels good to write out those fears. There are very few people with whom I can have these discussions because not many healthy friends understand the risks involved when dealing with such complex conditions. Everyone in my family has had at least 2 covid vaccinations with no side effects, but, in my support groups, it’s a different story. Even there, though, I am careful–I want everyone to get vaccinated, if they can safely, and I never want to dissuade others by voicing my concerns. And doctors aren’t much help because the vast majority take the practical stance that, statistically, the chances of negative repercussions are low and that the risks outweigh the benefits. That’s absolutely true for the typical bell curve of the typical population. Not true for me.

Let’s just hope it’s all smooth sailing. I’d like the next decade to be different.

Update: My doctor pretty much talked me out of getting the C vaccine. I’m too high-risk for long-term reactions. I’m going to have to get surgery next year, so not being vaccinated in a hospital setting adds another layer of fear, but I won’t be stable enough for surgery if the vaccine caused damage. So I will be remaining in strict isolation and putting my life in other people’s hands.

Title Credit

Halloween Update Litany

I’m going to try to write something. An update of sorts. Not necessarily because today is exactly nine years since this illness stepped into my body and started controlling the trajectory of my life, but more because it is a quiet Saturday and I can’t call any clinics and I don’t have any medical appointments. It’s Halloween, but we’re completely ignoring it this year. It’s a beautiful day, but I woke up after five hours sleep with bad brain symptoms, so I’m not up for going outside or calling a family member or washing my bed clothes, which are in dire need. And I’m just so tapped out on research right now. Endless, endless research into treatments and specialists and ways to bankrupt ourselves on nifty devices that might miraculously give a reprieve from symptoms or plateau my decline in functioning.

I often don’t write — even if I have the time and energy — because I feel like I want to express something meaningful and express it beautifully, or at least express it well. Express it in a way that others might identify with it or even be moved by it. Or, if not meaningful or moving, I’d like to be able to write something informative. But that takes more mental energy and creativity. I always find a reason not to tap into the emotions that are necessary to write deeply and thoughtfully. I stay sane with distraction, coasting along a wave of TV shows and dog cuddles, trying not to look into the depths below. I’m finding distraction harder this year.

After five years of a slow, but fairly steady increase in functioning, I’ve gone downhill. Not because my dog died or because wildfire smoke was choking us for weeks or because I can’t see my family and my one friend who kept me sane by visiting regularly. And not because of the emotional toll of the pandemic and the rage and heartbreak caused by the political strife in the world. That’s all just icing on the distress cake. The actual bulk of my cake is made of pain, exhaustion, reactions, and failing organs and bones, with thin, bitter layers of isolation and future worries between the tiers of sponge. It’s a really unpalatable cake.

When I first met my friend Jak over at Mast Cells & Collagen Behaving Badly, she had been through ME, then she was dealing with mast cell disease and her body had started to have problems from EDS (Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a connective tissue disorder). Most people I’ve met with this illness trifecta started having mast cell reactions after ME hit them. I was the other way around. I’d been dealing with angioedema since I was teenager and I first went into anaphylaxis in 2001. ME hit a decade later. When I met Jak, I didn’t have an EDS diagnosis and, when I first got it, I ignored it and decided it wasn’t true. I remembered, though, that Jak had said, “I could have told you that. With some of your symptoms, it seems obvious.” Her pain and subluxations didn’t start in earnest until she was in her 40s and dealing with peri-menapause, so she cautioned me that EDS could raise its head in the future. No, no, I’m not hypermobile, I said and I ignored it. Well, there’s no ignoring it now.

Last year, I went back to the top EDS doctor here in Seattle and told him I hadn’t believed his diagnosis and could we start from scratch, work me up again, see if he truly thought I had EDS? He smiled (good doctor), he agreed (did another physical exam), he reiterated that I had EDS and showed me what my body is not meant to do. He also diagnosed thoracic outlet syndrome (TOS). For all my research, there are so many odd things about my body that I barely notice. It’s like whack-a-mole — I’m just trying to push down whatever the most concerning thing is on any given day. What do I care if I can’t hang my clothes up or hold my phone to my face without losing circulation through my arms and having my hands go numb? It’s really not important in the grand scheme of this illness. You adapt. So when the doctor asked me if I felt anything as he manipulated my arm, I said, “Nothing. Except there’s no blood flowing and I have pins and needles.” He smiled gently again. “That’s not nothing. That’s what I’m looking for.” It took a very long time for blood to come back into my forearm and hand after whatever he did and I had electric zaps for hours. That was a year ago and I still haven’t read about TOS or whether those symptoms are normal or what to do about them. I don’t really care right now because I’m too busy trying to whack bigger, louder moles.

My leg pain has gotten much worse. I can’t stand in the kitchen to cook as long as I could before and, anytime I do, I have to wear compression stockings and a back brace, but still need to go to the couch and lie down with my feet up after a short while, groaning with the effort. My neck and back have gotten worse. Something in my thoracic spine keeps going out and my lower back and tailbone have a constant steady ache. My neck always feels unstable, so I move it very gingerly, but it also always feels like rebar, so I try not to immobilize it. I pull a different shoulder or neck muscle seemingly every day, usually from thrashing around in bed (unfortunately, not in a fun way, not when I’m conscious). I’m currently ignoring a jaw ache and maybe a cracked tooth from clamping in my sleep and the fact that my eyes never stop burning and are sore when I move them. My left patella keeps shifting out of place and it’s agony when it happens, so I’ve been doing a deep-dive into knee braces and kinesiology taping. I broke my wrist and finger this summer when Penny lunged at an off-leash dog and snapped my hand behind my mobility scooter seat. I’m still wearing a cast or a brace a full three months later and my right hand, which picked up the slack when I couldn’t use my left, has developed instability in the wrist and a subluxing thumb. When my endocrinologist heard about my fractures, she said we needed an appointment asap because she is very concerned that my osteoporosis has progressed. She’ll probably suggest I take more drugs. 🙄

And really none of this is that important because it all pales in comparison to my bowel hell. Bowhell.

Warning: lots of talk about poop and toilets ahead. Enemas barely work anymore. To have a bowel movement, I have to use a liter of water and massage my abdomen for sometimes hours each day. And “massage” sounds delicate. It’s not. I often worry I’m going to rupture something with my squeezing. With my broken wrist and finger, I couldn’t manage to press my abdomen properly for weeks and my bowels suffered. I couldn’t evacuate effectively, which meant I couldn’t eat enough and I didn’t sleep properly. Everything has a cascade effect.

Compounding my bathroom issues is how difficult it is to sit on a toilet. I lose circulation in my legs very quickly (even with a Squatty Potty) and it is incredibly painful on my neck and back. My doctor asked me when my neck was the most painful and I realised it is sitting on the toilet because I have no support for my spine and nothing to lean back on. I’ve resorted to using a hard neck brace (only sometimes — sometimes it makes it worse) and putting a chair in front of me to lean my forehead against, but, even so, after I’m done, I have to lie flat on the floor and, if I have the energy, use heat, traction and ice to help the spinal pain. I was never conscious of just how much I need to support my neck until two years ago when my mother was visiting and I’d made enough improvements energy-wise to go to the opera. Wow, three hours sitting in a short-backed chair was excruciating. I was almost in tears. I was dizzy, my heart rate was high, my legs were losing circulation (I’m short, so I was using my backpack as a foot stool) and I could not hold my head up.

So, sitting is an ordeal. And shitting is an ordeal.

I have a long history of vasovagal collapse from abdominal pain. In my twenties, it happened with the onset of my period because of severe dysmenorrhea. Shockingly, when I got sick, my cramps virtually disappeared. But they’re baaacck! And my period often likes to come three times in one month, so this cramping and inflammation, coupled with random pelvic floor spasms, coupled with colon pain has been a lot. Last June, I sat up in bed one morning and some deep part of my lower abdomen spasmed and I immediately went into a vasovagal episode. My heart rate went so low, that I was having trouble breathing. My blood pressure dropped, too, but the main problem was the bradycardia. I was shaking all over and trying not to black out, but after about 20 minutes, I had to call the paramedics. Before they even got here, the pain abruptly ended and, instantly, my heart rate came up and I could breathe again. (I told them not to come inside because of covid and I gave myself IV fluids at home. I’ve dealt with this before, emergency rooms really can’t help.)

From that day forward, every day for six weeks, I was in an acute bowel pain crisis. I couldn’t seem to eat anything that didn’t contribute to the pain across my transverse colon, I lost weight, I wept each evening, I slept poorly, my attention was never not on this organ that was constantly yelling at me that something was wrong. I wound up getting a CT scan (a big deal during covid and when I’ve had so much radiation in my life) and blood tests because I thought: what if this is life-threatening? I was spooked by a fellow EDSer’s emergency surgery for a ruptured bowel and resulting colostomy bag, but I was even more concerned about the possibility of an elemental liquid diet or a feeding tube. I’ve gone to great lengths to keep a varied diet, not only because food is my one joy besides dogs, but also because I know so many people who never got foods back after strict and prolonged eliminations. And feeding tubes — I never want tubes of any sort stuck in my body, too many complications. It’s the reason I’m still doing weekly peripheral IVs after five years, rather than getting a port or PICC (I don’t know anyone else who has come close to tapping veins for this length of time).

The CT scan showed nothing except my big lunch and tampon (a mortifying radiology report: unremarkable, TAMPON, unremarkable, unremarkable, COPIOUS AMOUNT OF INGESTED MATERIAL IN STOMACH, unremarkable etc…) and the acute bowel pain eventually faded back to my regular constant ache with periodic stabbing knives and electric zaps. But it sure got my attention.

I started Motegrity, a selective serotonin type 4 (5-HT4) receptor agonist, which cost $265 for one box (bought online from Canada because my insurance balked) and then caused possibly the worst medication reaction I’ve ever had. I started Linzess, which cost $350 for one bottle and either causes nothing to happen or a full day of sharts. I’m still taking Iberogast, Miralax, BPC-157, SBI Protect, Thorne SF722, oregano oil, berberine, magnesium, digestive enzymes, betaine HCl, and probiotics… all for my bowels. I’m about to try Mestinon, LDN and Cromolyn again (okay, I take it back, the latter was actually the worst medication reaction I’ve ever had — and I’m going to try it again, which has to show my level of desperation); these are all medications that can help motility. Plus, I have a Xifaxan prescription at the ready (which I’ve already taken twice) when I’ve exhausted all of these options.

It’s a next level problem. What I mean is, there were four years in the beginning of this chronic illness when I was “just” dealing with ME and MCAS — when I could still poop! When it was “just” muscle pain, but my joints were fine and my bones felt sturdy. Unbelievably, there were years when I didn’t have brain symptoms. I had the low-level kind of brain fog that made you forget things or not be able to find words, but, in the beginning, I didn’t have the buzzing brain and eye pressure, slurring and screaming tinnitus that makes bed the only possibility, even if my body is feeling strong. These new additions take illness management to the next level.

I’m on my third gastrointestinal doctor. The first said: Miralax, papaya, probiotics. Huh? Did you even hear the part about dead colon? On a return visit, she said: Daily enemas for life. Are you fucking joking? I asked her when she would recommend a colonoscopy (back before I realised it would need anesthesia in my case). When you have bloody diarrhea, she said. Right. Okay.

The second GI doctor said: Colonoscopy and endoscopy. On a return visit, she said: COLONOSCOPY AND ENDOSCOPY. She would not talk about any other tests or interventions. I don’t want to go through that. I don’t think those procedures will show anything and, with my medication reactions, there are legitimate risks to full anesthesia, not to mention the clean out having risks because of my hypotension and hypoglycemia. I thought (and still think) that it was prudent to exhaust less invasive options first.

These two doctors were young women at the University of Washington, one touted as The Motility Expert and the other as being EDS-knowledgeable. I mention this because I would assume I would be most comfortable or have the best experience with them instead of the third GI doctor, who is an old man that made a slightly misogynist comment right out of the gates and doesn’t make much eye contact. But he has been the only one to think outside the box and marginally help me. He ran tests that nobody has ever run since I’ve been sick (I’d never had a stool sample done or celiac test!) and spent 40 minutes discussing my mast cell history before even broaching the subject of my bowels. He dismissed a colonoscopy and it felt like he’d lifted a 100-pound weight from my shoulders because I was crippled with guilt after rescheduling the procedures over and over for a year and a half.

So, because of the progression of bowhell symptoms and structural issues the last few years, I have been pursuing MRIs and neurosurgical consultations. A cine CSF (cerebral spinal fluid) flow study showed a lack of CSF in my hind brain, caused by low-lying cerebellar tonsils (LLCT). My neurosurgeon (who is experienced in dealing with EDS/MCAS/ME patients) also suspected craniocervical instability (CCI), but couldn’t recommend surgery from my MRI measurements and symptoms without first performing more tests (invasive cervical traction (ICT), where they lift up your skull with a pulley system to see if there is an improvement in symptoms, and intracranial pressure monitoring (ICP ), which is a bolt in the skull that holds a probe that measures pressure in your head while concurrently preforming a lumbar puncture). I decided not to do either of those because, as you might have guessed, I don’t like rocking the boat (with, say, a new soap, let alone invasive tests that involve holes in my skull) (oh, and travel across the country) (and covid). But I have wondered if the blocked CSF flow is contributing to or entirely causing my brain symptoms. That’s a big deal. I used to feel smart and effective.

But the biggest deal of all came from the neurosurgeon looking at my pelvic MRI defecography from five years ago (which I didn’t even send to him because I was only consulting him about my neck; he must have gotten it from my specialist, who was the referring physician).

“You have a large bowel,” he said.

“I’m not surprised.”

“And what have you been told about your enormous bladder?”

“My what?” He has a thick Italian accent straight out of central casting and I didn’t know there was anything abnormal about my bladder.

“Your enormous bladder. Your ENORMOUS BLADDER!”

He had to repeat it four times before I could understand what he was saying. It was pretty comical. Nobody had ever mentioned my bladder. He recommended a renal ultrasound to rule out hydronephrosis, urodynamic testing for neurogenic bladder, and a lumbar MRI to look for tethered cord. I’m sure you’ll be shocked to know, I ignored it all… until I watched online presentations by Petra Klinge, probably the top tethered cord specialist in the country, and a Q&A with Dr. Klinge and Jeffrey Greenfield where they mentioned that, although bladder symptoms are the hallmark of pediatric tethered cord, in adults it’s often bowel problems, usually constipation. Ah.

I sent my lumbar MRI (both prone and supine) to my neurosurgeon and he diagnosed “tethered cord, classic variant,” which is notoriously hard to see. In other words, as my complex disease specialist emphasized to me repeatedly, it is rare for this neurosurgeon to diagnose tethered cord before CCI from a lumbar MRI. This is the case even though they have both actively been trying to identify it early since so many of their patients have to return for a second “detethering” surgery after undergoing craniocervical fusion.

“Elizabeth, why aren’t you on a plane to New York for SFT [sectioning of the filum terminale]?” my specialist asked me.

Friends, I DON’T WANT SURGERY. EVER. No surgery, but ESPECIALLY NOT SPINAL SURGERY.

I will leave you there. We have much to discuss. This is now my focus. I need to do everything I can to manage these symptoms and to halt their progression. Meds, exercises, physical therapy, prolotherapy, I don’t know what. Right now, my plan is to plan. I’m not willing to see any healthcare practitioners in person, so it’s tricky, but it’ll be a winter of research and putting some ducks in a row.

I also have to start preparing for a what might be an inevitable surgical eventuality. I need a pain management protocol with bigger guns than paracetamol, I need to strengthen my core and my bones, I need to find muscle relaxants to which I don’t react, I need to get my blood pressure up and control my MCAS as much as possible. I need to save money. No more ignoring.

Happy Samhain, everyone. And my 9th “sickiversary” — not a happy day, but one that should be acknowledged, nonetheless.

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.