Our Little Guy, Riley

Riley is sick. Really sick. He’s going to die soon.

I’ve been dealing with excruciating abdominal pain — mostly bowel hell and random pelvic floor muscle spasms that cause scary vasovagal HR and BP issues.

Yesterday, I was so beat down from the untreatable and unpredictable and relentless abdominal pain, I said to my husband that I just wanted it all excised: hysterectomy, oophorectomy, proctocolectomy, cystectomy… just take it all… And then I had new deep, low cramping start on top of the usual; I was sitting silently in pain and fear, unable to identify the organ, not knowing how it would progress. It felt remotely like menstrual aches, but I haven’t had proper cramps in years and haven’t had my period in months.

After I went to the loo and saw some spotting, relief hit me like a tsunami. I came out and sat at the top of the stairs and sobbed with happiness that there was a REASON for this pain. The emotion was so raw and honest, I couldn’t control it. Just utter relief that I knew why and what it was and I knew it would leave.

Riley, hardly able to walk, one foot out life’s door, somehow through his deafness heard me crying and staggered up the stairs to lean his full emaciated weight against me. As he’s done for 12 years, but especially the last 9 years of my illness. Tuned in to my every emotion, pawing at me, licking my face, barking and playing with toys to distract me, and lying on the end of my bed day after day for the years when I didn’t have the ability to leave it much.

Even as we try to save his life, he is still trying to save mine.

Need medical detectives to help with my collapses!

I need help from all the smart people here. Any brainstorming and all ideas welcomed.

This morning I had to call the paramedics because I had another “collapsing episode.” Severe abdominal pain triggered low blood pressure and a very low heart rate. I was shaking violently and having trouble breathing, the latter seemed to be caused by the discomfort in my heart. I fought very hard not to lose consciousness. I was covered in cold sweat and my vision was blacking out. But the bradycardia and trouble breathing were the worst. It felt like my heart might just slow to a stop and I would be gone. It lasted for over half an hour — an eternity while panting with my HR in the low 40s when it should have been twice as fast.

The last time this happened, my doctor ordered a heart workup, which showed nothing, really (I’ve put the results below; I don’t really know how to interpret them). What I’m trying to figure out is if there is anything I should look into besides making sure my heart is okay. I’m on BP medication (to raise it), I don’t have POTS (as in, high heart rate)… I am so wiped out today and I can’t believe I just have to ignore these episodes, shrug and move on. What my heart did today was terrifying!

If anyone wants to help me play medical detective, here is the history of these episodes (no other health history included and there was a lot, obviously).

My episodes, as best as I can describe them, are vasovagal syncope. But they’re more complicated than that. It’s not a faint and then BP recovery once I’m supine. Abdominal pain/pressure/inflammation/cramping/spasm = BP and HR crash.

The first one I remember was in 2005 on the first day of my period. I used to have excruciating dysmenorrhea and one month it caused a collapse — on the bathroom floor, cold sweats, shakes, vision blacking out, very low BP. Went to the emergency room, got IV fluids.

This continued to happen once or twice a year until 2011 — and I can’t predict which months or why. It has happened when my period had nothing to do with it, but it was triggered by my bowels. I have had constipation my whole life, the last time I ever took a laxative was in 2008. The pressure/cramping caused the same low blood pressure, near-loss of consciousness result. My best friend held me up on the toilet while firemen filled my bathroom. As soon as my bowels moved and the pressure released, I recovered.

The only time I remember it not having anything to do with abdominal pain was one of the worst times. I spiked a fever and then collapsed on the front steps to my house and the medics couldn’t get a blood pressure reading at all. Went to the ER, got IV fluids.

I need to mention that all of this was pre-ME. An odd thing happened after ME destroyed my life in 2011– the dysmenorrhea stopped. I went 3 years without a collapsing episode, then had a random one in 2014 and not again until last year, once in February from random severe period cramps on the first day of menstruation (I think it might have been a burst ovarian cyst since it was so out of the norm) and once in July from a massive acute bowel spasm that was about a 9 on my pain scale.

(I should also mention that every time I went into full-blown anaphylaxis was at the start of my period. That started in 2001, four years before the collapses.)

The difference between these recent episodes (last year’s and today’s) and the pre-ME ones is it seems to be more about my heart and less about my BP. Both are low, but my BP isn’t scary-low (scary to EMTs, maybe, but not to me). I used to be able to not talk or move because I was so hypotensive, today I made it downstairs to open the door and had more awareness — was monitoring my HR and O2.

The past few days, I had a deep ache in the very bottom of my abdomen. I cannot have bowel movements and am completely enema-dependent with chronic pain and bloating, so I only noticed this pain because it was so low in my belly and deep-feeling. I kept looking for my period, thinking maybe it wasn’t my bowels, but was instead a heavy, achy uterus. When I went to sit up in bed, the pain skyrocketed, maybe my bowel spasmed like last year. I immediately started shaking and sweating, the vagal reaction happened right away. That’s my best guess — trapped gas in my very dysfunctional, SIBO-ridden bowel created pressure, pain and spasm that triggered a vasovagal response. The pain and bradycardia resolved at the same time and so did the shakes and panting, but I’ve been completely wiped out all day. I’m still in a lot of bowel pain now, 12 hours later, but it has moved up to its normal position in the upper abdominal quadrants.

So, any thoughts? With no period involvement, no actual bowel movement, and symptoms so severe that I called 911 (that is literally the SECOND since being sick — 9 years), I can’t believe I just have to ignore it and go on as usual, without answers. I mean, besides the obvious remove my bowel and remove my uterus, but I’m just not there yet.

*****

Echocardiogram:
There is mild aortic insufficiency. Mild aortic regurgitation is present. There is an eccentric jet of aortic insufficiency directed towards the septum. There is trace mitral regurgitation. Trace tricuspid regurgitation present.

30-day heart monitor:
The vast majority of episodes show normal sinus rhythm without ectopy. Some episodes of dizziness show sinus tachycardia. One PVC and one blocked PAC were observed.

The future might be the past…

I’m going through a rough(er) patch. My body is scaring me because I can’t find any cause for recent episodes. One of the good things these past few years, is that I can usually pinpoint a reason for reactions and downturns. Even after the last horrific night I suffered with apparently no reason (it was last November, during my Dad’s very short visit and I couldn’t blame it on overdoing it because I didn’t), I started spotting late the next day and–light bulb!–it was my period coming a week early (I can have terrible reactions on the day before or the first day of menstruation).

When my husband called 911 on the first day of my last period (both my MD and ND said that my body had gone into shock), it was the first time I’d had such a bad collapse with vitals bottoming out since 2010 — since before I was sick! Then, 5 days later, I got a tingly tongue and lip during IVIG and then a hive on the base of my throat. I realise it was a tiny reaction compared to what so many mast cell patients go through (a week later, a friend of mine went into full-blown anaphylaxis during her IVIG infusion and then somehow got the guts to try again the next day with the same batch –that put my experience into perspective), but the thing is, except for one small hive when I tried Xanax in 2013, I hadn’t had any hives since being in full-blown anaphylaxis 17 years ago! And that place–a hive in the suprasternal notch– was always the position for a systemic red alert, for something I ingested, as opposed to benign contact dermatitis.

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Then Saturday evening, my tongue swelled up for the first time in 7 months for no reason that I can figure out. I had tongue swelling a few times last year, but I could always explain it (dental work, sauna, vancomycin). Even more concerning, it’s still swollen now, 45 hours later and that’s very unusual. I took Benadryl the last 2 nights, squirting it onto the affected area of my tongue, as I’ve been told to do (this is also unusual for me–I am extremely judicious with Benadryl, only taking it when absolutely necessary) and the swelling still hasn’t resolved. I can’t remember another time it lasted this long — maybe, again, 17 years ago during anaphylaxis.

Then yesterday afternoon, I was hit with vertigo after spending too much time on my feet, preparing food. Vertigo is rare for me and is a big red flag. It’s very different from dizziness and I don’t think it has anything to do with blood pressure. I went to bed for a while, hoping it would resolve, but, when I got up, I was still slamming into walls, as if I were walking the hallway on a lurching boat. The last 2 times I experienced vertigo were 5 months ago during–shocker–my period and a year ago on the morning we were leaving for California, after killing myself the day before to finish packing. I thought it might be something to do with my neck, which always has issues, so I used heat, then my cervical traction device, then an ice pack. I think it helped; the vertigo had mostly abated by the time I went to bed.

But…

A few hours after I went to sleep, I woke up with horrible shakes and chills and drenching sweats. My BP was low (but low-normal for me: 80/50), HR was a little high, temperature was 96 degrees, and O2 was 95%. It was 7 terrible hours that felt viral, like when I first got sick, but was probably mast cells, what with the swollen tongue and all. I finally got up to do that thing that other chronically ill people might understand: put on clothes in case I had to go to the hospital. On a normal day, I might sit around in my dressing gown with unbrushed hair all day, but when there could be a chance I’m going to the hospital, I try to make sure I’m not naked. I also make sure I’m not wearing anything I care about — I’ve lost clothes in the hospital before.

Strangely, I had almost an identical episode on this exact day last year. Here’s a screenshot from my calendar:

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After the most stable autumn and winter I’ve had since being sick, this downturn–this piling on of relatively rare, red-flag symptoms–scares me. My sleep has gone to hell in the last few weeks, which compounds everything by stealing energy and increasing pain. Plus, I’m exacerbating things by holding tight to my “best winter yet” narrative and by fighting so hard to maintain the level of functioning I’ve had this past year, rather than pulling way back and resting aggressively.

My ND says the naturopathic philosophy is that you will go back through previous stages of health and experience earlier symptoms as you travel the healing journey back to where you once were. I’ve latched onto this theory to anchor myself and dispel some fear. The resurgence of all these old symptoms means there has been a shift in my system — but maybe it’s a positive shift, even though it doesn’t feel that way. I’ve gained weight since starting IVIG, over 8% of my norm, which is not insignificant, especially on someone as small as I am. I’m at my heaviest since being sick and, although I’m not overweight, I’ve lost muscle tone the last 7 years and I don’t have the physical ability to burn fat and build muscle, so I hope this trajectory doesn’t continue. My doctor thought this, also, pointed towards a shift in my body: maybe I’ve started absorbing nutrients better. Acne is coming back a little, too. Maybe my hair will grow back! Or the next thing will be that I’ll catch a cold for the first time in 8 years… (And because I really don’t want this to happen, no matter what it might indicate about a calming immune system: knock on wood, toba, toba, spit over shoulder: patuey.)

But, as I lie here, shaky, with my swollen tongue, chronicling these last few weeks (minus the osteoporosis diagnosis and extremely elevated post-antibiotics SIBO test results, both of which I’ll have to write about at a different time), none of it feels like a positive shift and I worry about what I should eat so as not to add to mast cell reactivity and whether I should stay in bed and lie still, even though longed-for Seattle sun is streaming through the windows and I’d love to make some breakfast and sit at my table watching Riley lounge in the grass, soaking up the rays, and the hummingbirds diving around our feeders.

First 911 call since being sick.

We had to call an ambulance this morning for — are you ready for this unbelievable fact? — THE FIRST TIME SINCE I’VE BEEN SICK (absolutely sick and disabled by M.E.; I was fully functional with MCAS for a decade beforehand). And I need the help of all you big brains to figure out the mechanism behind what happened. This is a long post because I want to track exactly what happened. I appreciate your reading this and your thoughts.

My main question is: What can cause sudden bradycardia and loss of consciousness, but not significant hypotension (nor hypertension)? Here’s the back story:

I have a history of anaphylaxis and it almost always happened during my period, usually on the first day, usually after drinking alcohol. I also have a history of collapsing at the start of menstruation, this happened many more times than the full-blown anaphylaxis and often seemed to be triggered by a bowel movement in the morning. The collapsing we’ve called vasovagal syncope, the theory being: vagus nerve triggered by bowel pressure + very reactive day = collapse. I sometimes lost consciousness, but I always was immobile, grey pallor, yellow lips, glazed-over, unfocused eyes, covered in sweat, heavy breathing, hypotensive, bradycardic. What was NOT typical of vasovagal syncope, according to doctors, was that my body didn’t bounce back: my HR did not rise to compensate for the low BP and my BP didn’t come up once I was supine. It usually resulted in ambulance trips to the ER for fluids and at least once I got IV morphine for severe dysmenorhhea (I can’t have any morphine-derived meds anymore).

These were my main health issues before M.E., I felt normal otherwise and pretty much blew them off. Incredibly, they haven’t happened since becoming sick in 2011. My dysmenorhhea actually got much better. Since being sick, I’ve often had bad mast cell reactions and worsening of ME symptoms on the first day of my period, but no collapsing with my husband terrified, calling 911. I thought it was because I’m more conscientious about hydrating and salt-loading.

I was spotting yesterday. My period came on in earnest in the middle of the night, but what disturbed my sleep repeatedly was a viral feeling of sick chills every time I changed positions. Chills and shakes enough to wake me. Then the period cramps started, much, much worse than normal, incredibly painful on the left side. The only thing I could think was maybe it was a ruptured ovarian cyst. I was moaning and crying out with the cyclical cramps, trying to find a position that eased it, my dog Riley clawing at me and burrowing under my body to help. My husband got me a hot water bottle, 2 acetaminophen and a benadryl. Then I took a turn for the worse: I was shaking badly, became nauseous, very weak, drenched in sweat (all the symptoms listed above). We took my vitals: BP was 86/49 (low, but normal for me), temperature was 97 (low, but normal for me), oxygen 96, but my HR was 48 — very abnormal for me. I’m usually 68ish at rest.

My husband got me apple juice in case I was hypoglycemic (it was too much of an emergency situation to check my blood sugar), salt water for my blood pressure, and started to call 911, but I said no. What could they do? Besides charge us thousands of dollars that we don’t have. I’d taken the 2 medications I could take, I could give myself fluids at home with my safe saline, and I didn’t want the two of us sitting around in a building full of flu and measles for hours on end, waiting for blood work and a vaginal ultrasound that would show nothing. But I kept getting worse and knew I was about to lose consciousness (even though I was still in bed and hadn’t even tried to stand up). I was starting to be unresponsive, so my husband called the paramedics.

By the time they got there (3 emergency response vehicles, 6 EMTs!), I’d come back from the edge a bit and was able to talk. They were concerned with my low BP, but I assured them it was normal for me. They did a cursory check of my heart and were concerned about the bradycardia, but said they didn’t see any rhythm issues. They tried to persuade me to go to the hospital, but I said no and signed a waiver. They didn’t want to speculate beyond dehydration (they pointed out that people aren’t realising how dehydrated they are in the current very dry Seattle Snowpocalypse) and possibly needing tests of my reproductive organs. She said, “It’s alarming to lose consciousness while lying down, it’s alarming how low your blood pressure is and it’s alarming that your heart rate isn’t responding to your low blood pressure.” <– That’s what I want to brainstorm.

It was definitely caused by the first day of my period, as usual, but what is the physiological mechanism? What might typically cause sudden bradycardia? What can cause a low HR + low BP (if you take the paramedic’s position)? Or what can cause a low HR + normal BP (if you consider my BP is normally low)? How does a reaction to my period explain this? Could it be 100% pain-induced? If it’s a mast cell reaction, I would expect a high HR and an abnormal BP. Why would I pass out when I’d been lying down the last 9 hours? Why would I pass out with my BP around my normal? Can a low HR cause loss of consciousness without BP dropping significantly? Is this cardiac syncope? Could I have cardiac syncope without knowing I have heart issues? Or autoimmune autonomic dysfunction? Or, once again, adrenal insufficiency? Does losing consciousness usually make breathing labored?

By the time the paramedics left, I was very shaky, but I knew I wouldn’t pass out and my husband helped me get up and hook up my own fluids. I went to bed freezing, with 2 hot water bottles, all my clothes on, under covers in a warm room and it took hours to stop being chilled to the bone (why was I freezing?). When I woke up, finally warm, my HR was 76 — almost 30 bpm higher! I’m still shaky, have a very bad headache, and my heart is jumpy with some palpitations, but completely different from the half-dead, exsanguinated feeling of the bradycardia.

Any ideas are appreciated. I have a routine follow-up appointment with my GP on Tuesday and I’d like to ask her for any tests that might be important. Cardiac work up?

Lastly, I want to mention that it’s REALLY hard not to believe in retaliatory chronic illness gods — yesterday I started writing my first blog update in almost 5 months, it is incredibly positive (“my baseline is higher! I’m able to do more!” etc.) and I stopped myself from writing my usual “gods, cover your ears” and “knock on wood, toba toba” because I’m stable, I’m not as fearful of being knocked down, it’s superstitious nonsense… and then this happens… the first time in 8 years… It just seems a little coincidental. And makes me sad.

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.