SIBO Antibiotic Failure in Half a Milliliter.

Referring to my last post:

I am devastated. But allow me to give you some backstory, so you understand my emotional reaction to a failed drug trial. It took me a year to try the SIBO protocol, but, during that year, I wasn’t just sitting around, waiting to get the nerve up — there was so much time, energy and money invested in procuring the safest and smartest medications for me.

Initially, Dr. K wanted me to take the two gut antibiotics without having the SIBO test, but I asked if I could do the test first ($180) because I had been negative for SIBO a few years ago. The preparatory diet was brutal for me this time (when I did it in 2014, I don’t remember it being a big deal). I had to eat only meat, eggs and rice for two full days because of my chronic constipation and it made me very sick and weak, nauseous, hungry and shaky. During the test, I had a massive blood sugar crash, but you’re not meant to eat or drink while collecting breath samples, so I waited too long and got more and more hypoglycemic, finally giving in to apple juice, but the whole experience took a toll. So, there was that.

Then there was the energy involved getting the Rifaximin: Asking my doctor to send in a pre-authorization, getting refused, sending in an appeal, getting refused, a third party appeal and refusal — all of this taking so much time in between each step. Calling around to pharmacies to see if there was anywhere that sold it for less than $1,500. Not wanting to buy the generic for $200 because it has colourings that I avoid. Asking my doctor to send a sample of the tablets, so I could try them before buying them. Waiting on that sample to arrive. Waiting for a good day to try it — a day I felt strong enough with no other conflicting variables like a migraine or a day I was doing my infusion. Calling a pharmacist to see if I could cut the tablet (they said no because it’s enteric coated to stay in tact until it reaches your gut), but cutting it anyway because I have to start with a sliver and the worst that can happen is it’s not effective and who cares? — this is just a test. Taking bigger and bigger slivers over the course of a week. Deciding it’s okay and safe to order from the online pharmacy in Singapore and, because so much time has gone by and it takes another 2-4 weeks for delivery from the time of order, having it sent to our California address.

In the meantime, once I knew I wouldn’t react to the Rifaximin, I started calling around about the Vancomycin (because I’m meant to take them concurrently). I called so many compounding pharmacies, so much time invested, taking notes on brands, ingredients, prices, my options for liquids or capsules. Then, when I had found the cheapest ($200) and most competent-sounding pharmacy, I consulted with the pharmacist over and over about the details: first, about ingredients (no flavourings, no preservatives, compounded only in sterile water). Then about the timeline, explaining that I couldn’t start at full dose, that it would take me a few weeks to titrate up and is there a way to prolong the 2-week shelf life? He said he could freeze it, extending the “discard by” date from 14 to 90 days. Then we brainstormed some more and decided to freeze it in 4 bottles, so I only needed to defrost one at a time, keeping the others preserved. Then he said he should make it at the last minute, to keep it fresh as long as possible. My husband drove across town on the day we were leaving for California to pick it up. I kept it in a cooler with ice packs during our road trip and managed it like a bird on a nest: tending to it, moving it out of the sun, re-freezing the ice packs each night. And then, once we were here, I just waited for the Rifaximin delivery so I could start them both together.

So much goes into this sort of thing, aside from the $580. Not to mention my hopes. For all my fear of repercussions, once I decide to do something, I put nothing but a positive and excited spin on things. Taking antibiotics for the first time could be a game changer — like antivirals have been for so many. I’ve never addressed my gut and I certainly don’t have a strict diet, so there’s hope for positive change there. What if my brain symptoms are better and my sleep is better and I don’t have to do enemas anymore? I am an expert at swallowing something and forgetting about it, so I’m not nervous or over-analyzing my body. Down the hatch and that’s it. Don’t pay attention. But last night the Vanco got my attention.

My prescribed dosage is 30 ml a day. THIRTY. Last night, I took 0.5 ml. HALF A MILLILITER. Soon after, something started happening in my throat on the left-hand side. Then my tongue started swelling on the left. Then a headache on the left. And, finally, heart palpitations. My tongue got bigger and bigger. I was dumbfounded. If I were going to react to anything, I thought it would be the Sunset Yellow generic Singaporean Rifaximin, not the sterile water vanco that Kyle the pharmacist put so much care into!

Dumbfounded and devastated. For me, tongue swelling is as scary as it gets because it is the precursor to full-blown anaphylaxis — especially tongue swelling with head and heart involvement. The mast cell meltdowns that I experience in the night, with sweats and chills and poisoned feelings, are much worse physically, but not as serious as tongue swelling. Not as scary. All of my anaphylaxis ER visits involved tongue swelling. It’s something that can get worse quickly. So, how do I get the nerve up to try the Vanco again? Are all those frozen bottles of medication a loss? That’s what made me start crying. Not the time or money or hopes dashed, but the thought that I can’t try it again. It’s not like my hydrocortisone success story; I can’t push through. Next time, it could be much worse, like your second bee sting. My control is taken away. Even if I wanted to try again tomorrow… I can’t risk anything even akin to anaphylaxis. It’s the trauma I will always carry. If I spontaneously recovered from ME today, I would still carry the fear of anaphylaxis with me for the rest of my life, like a brown recluse spider, hiding in plain sight, threatening sickness and death when you least expect it. Damn.

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Update: A Google search shows me that people take Rifaximin without the second antibiotic. I inferred from my doctor that they had to be taken together, but maybe not. Maybe all is not lost for treatment.

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Another update: One long bath, one meditation and a good conversation with my husband later… Feel much better about the whole thing. He’s so good at saying, “don’t think about the money, let it go” and “it’s just a drop in the bucket of the last 6 years” and “move on to the next thing” and “you’re doing okay, you’re not bedbound, you’ve made improvements without this treatment.” And then I look at the vast desert sky and envision the stars and universe beyond and think about how small I am. And how lucky I am. My tongue swelling resolved with Benadryl last night and today I’m eating ice cream next to my dogs in the sun, listening to a cacophony of birds nearby and coyotes howling in the distance. 

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Medication Wars: Treating SIBO and Low Cortisol

13 months after my California doctor wrote the prescriptions for two gut antibiotics to treat SIBO, today is the day I have to face the music. I’ve put it off for this long out of fear: Fear of a mast cell reaction (Rifaximin ingredients: Sunset Yellow FCF, ffs); fear of no reaction, but feeling terrible from die-off (we just arrived in the Cali desert for a month, so it’s really fear of destroying my idyllic get-away); fear of altering my microbiome for the worse, rather than the better (causing more of a candida flare, causing C. diff etc); fear of spending the money, but not not being able to take the medicine (each one was $200!). Also, although the SIBO test was “off the charts” (in my doctor’s words), I don’t have the symptoms, so fear of messing with the gut I know and creating new issues. I haven’t taken an antibiotic in almost a decade–well before I got sick–so, there’s fear there, too.

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But I see my doctor later this month and I’m determined to do the treatment before I see him. I now have both medications in front of me, money is spent, no excuses. One of them is compounded in sterile water and needs to be thrown out in a few weeks, so I’m starting now, with one drop, as soon as I stop typing… which, of course, makes me want to keep typing, keep putting it off, what else can I tell you…?
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Okay, I’ll quickly tell you a good drug story, which will bolster my confidence. The first medication I was ever prescribed after getting sick was hydrocortisone. The pharmacist said, “If it gives you a headache, let me know.” It gave me a whopping headache and, back then, I didn’t understand my reactions and how I have to start at micro-doses–I didn’t even know you could cut a tablet or open a capsule–so, I just stopped taking it after two days. The ND said she presented my case to her colleagues and everyone said, “Yes, hydrocortisone!” but it was my first experience with an ND and perhaps I didn’t fully trust her, but, more so, I didn’t want any worsening symptoms, so I just stopped going to her. That has been my MO thus far: try not to rock the boat, except very gently, over a very long period of time (and, by the way, for the most part, I have improved over the years (knock on wood, toba, toba), which has reinforced my careful tendencies).

Last year, my California MD Rxed hydrocortisone again. I tried an 1/8 of a tablet in August and felt short of breath, so didn’t take it again until 3 months later. Then I was spurred on by a receptionist at a doctor’s office who started crying (!) on the phone to me while talking about her daughter who needs hydrocortisone all day long, so I tried it again. It went okay for a few months. Then one day it made me feel gittery, spacey and short of breath again. Then, a few weeks after that, it hit me like a freight train. I wrote in my calender: “Shaky, drugged, agitated, buzzy muscles, feel like I’m on speed, then possible blood sugar crash (or maybe just still shakes from hydrocortisone). Then, after hours, a dull obvious-reaction headache and stuffed ears.”

This is what used to happen to me with antihistamines: I’d handle them for days and then, without warning, the same dose would send me into a scary cascade of anticholinergic symptoms (I still mourn the loss of Unisom, which helped a lot with sleep for a while).

But, I persevered with the hydrocortisone (yay, me!) and, last month, something clicked, I could feel it help my body. I can feel the uptick in energy and the decrease in brain symptoms. I give hydrocortisone full credit for getting me through the weeks of packing for this trip and those back-to-back high-step count days. Each morning, I marveled: I’m not bedbound, I think I can do it again. I have no side effects now and I might even try more than a 1/4 tablet. 😉

Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Title Credit

Finally getting the first immunoglobulin infusion…

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The IgG infusion didn’t happen. They called me and said they were missing some small tube or something that was needed for my pediatric dose. It’s a little frustrating since they had literally months notice, but they have been excellent through this entire process–communicative, understanding, informative–so, I’m not annoyed. They asked if I’d like to do last Thursday instead, but I didn’t want to risk any reaction with my period, which came early last month. All I know for sure about anaphylaxis and angioedema is that they happen during a perfect storm of triggers (food, mood, hormones, hydration, pain) that is very hard to predict or control, but almost always involves my menstrual cycle and that is the one thing I can avoid. In the end, my period did come early, so I’m glad I made the choice to wait on the SCIG.

Today is the day. The nurse gets here in a few hours. I’m not out of bed yet. I’m in a lot of pain today and I was awake in the night with terrible vertigo. Every time I turned my head and changed position, the room lurched and woke me. I think it’s probably from the full dose of Zyrtec and Zantac I took yesterday, which I’ve never done before, but it could very well be payback from the 4+ hour journey to the dysautonomia specialist two days ago (more on that anon).

Anyway, the ball is rolling, the die has been cast, the airplane doors are closed (that’s what I used to tell myself when I was nervous about flying–once the doors are closed, it’s out of your hands, so no point in fretting anymore), so it’s happening and I am focusing all my attention on how incredible it will be to have a treatment that might help me feel better. Honestly, I’m dreading the premedications (Benadryl, Prednisone, Zantac, Tylenol) more than the IgG. I already know they do a number on my sensitive, unable-to-detox body.

Please wish me luck and send good juju this way. It makes a difference, I know it does. Thank you for holding me up. As Clarence said, “Remember, no [wo]man is a failure who has friends. Thanks for the wings.” ❤

Addendum: it just occurred to me that I didn’t specifically tell the infusion company to tell the nurse not to wear perfume, so I called her and she said, “Oh, I do wear body spray because I hit menopause and I can smell myself.” OMG. Body spray? She kindly said she would stop by her house and take a quick shower.
“I buy whatever shampoo is on sale, so I hope it’s not too smelly,” she said.
Gulp.
“No, I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
She then said, “I understand about sensitive patients. Remind me to tell you about the lady who was severely allergic to cats.”
Oh, for fuck’s sake.
“I’m very allergic to cats,” I told her.
“Oh, I have cats, so I’ll change my clothes, too.”
This is a nightmare.
She ended with (I kid you not): “I’ll tell you some horror stories when I get there.”

I’m vacillating between guilt at putting someone out (she was SO nice and sweet), frustration at my ridiculous body and total disbelief that a home-care nurse would wear body spray to visit patients and that the office didn’t explain my sensitives to her (they also didn’t tell her about my history of idiopathic anaphylaxis or that I have two big dogs. She said she just got a name and address). Please please please let this go okay.

Second addendum: the nurse is incredibly nice and lives very close to me, so the shower wasn’t a big deal and she doesn’t have a heavy smell at all. We’re half way through the IgG and the saline fluids. All good so far. 💪

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That's my abdomen--just one site for such a small dose.