Believe it or not, an update!

I have so much to write about, so much to catch people up on and document, but the longer I go without posting, the harder it feels to break the dry spell. Each month, I think, “Write that in a blog post, you’ll want to remember that,” but I never feel like I can “waste” the time. Especially in the last 6 months. If you’re friends with me on Facebook, you know that I have lost all available energy for months to fighting horrific healthcare battles. Energy that could have been put towards conversations with loved ones, time playing with my dogs, reading or writing…

So here’s a recap: From November, 2015 to around August, 2016 I was slowly getting stronger from my immunoglobulin infusions. I estimated that they brought me up from about 15% of normal functioning to about 20%. That 33% increase was miraculous. It didn’t exactly change the way I lived my life (I still had the same symptoms, was still mostly housebound, still had to manage energy carefully), but it changed my control — things became predictable, which reduced fear and let me branch out. Payback was shorter, not as scary, I could do more and knew I wouldn’t make myself permanently worse. That last point was life-changing for me. For 4 years, it felt like anything I did made me worse, I was desperate to hold on to the functioning I had and couldn’t take many chances without being forced down a notch — and I was always so scared that the new lower notch would be forever.

So, last year we went to the Washington coast for 5 days and I didn’t feel terrible. I had two friends visit me at my house and we talked for hours and I was okay. My family came to Seattle for their annual vacation (2 brothers, sister, mother, spouses and 7 nieces and nephews) and I was able to go to their rental house 4 days in a row for extended visits. This was the turning point, though, I think. I left it all on the stage those 4 days with my family. Friends with chronic illness, you know what I mean — it’s such a difficult act to appear normal and, from what I’m told, I gave a great performance that long weekend. Each day I came home and literally crawled on all fours to my bed. I lost 3 pounds in 4 days because between each visit all I could do is lie in bed and hope for a enough recovery to try it again. There wasn’t a moment that the payback wasn’t worth the incredible time I spent with my family. I’ll have to write a whole blog post on it one day. My nieces and nephews are everything you want kids to be — sweet, kind, honest, inquisitive, funny. No bratty-ness, no meltdowns, no selfishness. My brothers are doing something right.

Right after that visit, in August of last year, I started to nosedive. I had an increase in migraines, sore throats, exhaustion, muscle pain, unstable blood pressure. I was trying out (very expensive) hyperbaric oxygen treatments at the time and thought they were either causing or exacerbating my symptoms, so I stopped those, but continued to go downhill. In November, I started the descent into health insurance hell that lasted about 4 months. I’m not going to get into it right now. There’s too much to tell and it’ll make me shake and cry angry tears as I type, which I’m not up for. Suffice it to say it is an evil, vindictive, nonsensical, black hole of a system and nobody has accurate information about anything when it comes to healthcare for people under 65 on disability. And, even if they do have the knowledge, it seems the vast majority of health-related representatives (or is it all humans? I’m guessing it is) are inept, lazy, selfish and genuinely couldn’t care less about helping someone in need. My friend Michael had one of these phone calls where he wound up saying, “How do you sleep at night?” to the representative who was outright lying to him. Essentially, that’s how I spent 4 months — all available energy every day dedicated to battling my brain symptoms so I could continue to micromanage every person who held my health in their hands, taking copious notes and making enemies, as I waded through the morass of phone transfers, misinformation, hours of stuttering hold muzak, false promises about call backs and looming deadlines… While thinking, how do they live with themselves? Not to mention incompetent, petulant doctors that I need so I can’t I leave them.

When my mother came to visit after Christmas, she said it might have been the sickest she had ever seen me. I wasn’t even close to the sickest I’ve been, but it still says something about the severity of my crash (to be fair, I had allowed myself to have one of those total meltdown, let-it-all-out, “I’m so sick of being sick” sob-fests in front of her — the kind that I usually rein in because they can make me more reactive and wipe me out — which can’t be easy for a mother to witness). My strength started to get marginally better in February. I think it might have been helped by an increase in my thyroid medication, but it was kind of a double-edged sword because I also became horribly hyperthyroid for about 3 weeks before I realised what was happening. I had also stopped going to my weekly appointments (physical therapy, myofacial, counselling etc.) and had stopped my immunoglobulin infusions because I lost insurance to cover them, so perhaps the break from obligations and weekly medications helped me gain strength.

This spring my husband, dogs and I drove to California for an appointment with Dr. Kaufman at the Open Medicine Clinic and we stayed 6 weeks for a holiday and to test how I felt in a different climate. I will write about those big events in another post. What I really came on here to document is how I’m doing now. I want to keep track of what I can manage and how bad the payback is when I indulge in social time. Last November I went out to brunch (out!) with 4 old friends (you can imagine what it meant to me to be invited). I’m pretty sure I appeared normal throughout the 2-hour meal, but payback was vicious. My calendar notes say: “very bad today, body totally shut down, in bed, shaking, crashing, crying, guts feel swollen and full of bricks, heart, muscles, eyes burning.” It lasted days. In early February, my brother was at our house for 7 hours. I spent his visit relaxed on the couch in my pjs, but we talked and laughed like normal people, animatedly, and I didn’t rest once (unheard of a few years ago). I went to bed that night flying high, so happy from our conversation, so grateful to feel fine… And then, 3 hours later, woke up in the middle of the night feeling poisoned, shaking all over. My calendar says: “severe payback, swollen throat, can barely swallow, hard to breathe, every muscle in pain, bad stiff neck and headache, shooting pain in bowels, nose stuffy and runny.” The worst of it only lasted about one and a half days.

Yesterday, we had family over for brunch to celebrate my birthday. Although the whole shindig lasted 3.5 hours, there were only about 2 hours during which everyone was here — 4 adults and a child, not that many people. My friend Z said I looked great, she was so excited by how different it was from other years. She said, “I know you’ll pay, but today was normal.” This is everything I could hope for, BUT… the big but… But, it was hard. I can power through now, I have the ability to put on an excellent performance. If my neurological symptoms stay away, I can do quite a bit physically (although standing for a long time still causes excruciating pain). So, yesterday I showered, dressed, got out plates and cutlery, made some waffles and chatted with my family. That’s about all I did before things got difficult. There’s this weird thing that happens when you’re ill, but you’re putting on the normal act: You lose time. Or at least I do. Do any of you? For example, I remember everything about the first hour yesterday — when I was chatting with my husband and sister-in-law. Then our friends and their daughter arrived and things are a little fuzzier. I remember the conversations, but they’re not in sharp focus. Then my sister and her dog arrived, right around the time I wanted to make the waffles and apparently that’s when my mind went into … not quite “survival” mode, but “keep it together” mode: I was talking to 2 people in the kitchen while trying to focus on cooking and, although I made good waffles and I’m sure I said the appropriate things at the appropriate times during the conversations, I cant remember any of it clearly and couldn’t tell you what we talked about. Same thing while we ate — I clearly remember how delicious the food was (of course I do), but recalling things that were said is akin to trying to remember conversations I had while drunk, it’s murky, and it worries me that I was rude or unresponsive — to my favourite people, who made the effort to visit us, no less.

When I was saying goodbye to them, I could barely see. My vision was tunneled, I had a wicked headache and my brain was a buzzing scream, but being the fastidious person I am, I couldn’t not load the dishwasher. This tipped me over the edge. I was staggering around the kitchen, using immense effort to coordinate my muscles and concentrate enough to lift and place dishes. My eyes weren’t tracking properly, my heart rate was running high and my legs were burning terribly, but I just wanted to come to an end point… Stupendously stupid stupidity. I slid to the kitchen floor, panting, crying, literally unable to walk out of the room. I slurred: “Nothing is worth this. I was trying so hard to be normal, but no social time is worth this.” My husband said, “Why don’t you just be honest?” and I said, “Because THIS is honest.” On the floor, weeping is honest. He helped me to the couch, I was having a hard time sitting up, it was just utter energy depletion, muscles unable to work. I immediately fell asleep in a sort of emergency power-down. I started to feel a bit better about 5 hours later and today I’m okay besides another bad headache and stiff neck. That’s the difference now — when it hits, it hits hard and scares the bejeesus out of me, but it doesn’t last long. So I take it back, it was worth it. I ate decadent food in the warm sun in our beautiful garden with some of my favourite people on the planet (and to Z’s credit, she tried to stop me from over-exerting myself over and over and I bullheadedly kept telling her, “No, I want to do this! I’m fine!”). But of course it was worth it and I’ll keep trying to make this life have more life in it and repeat to myself during the scary times: this, too, shall pass.

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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

Oh, I’ll be free… (immunoglobulin infusion success)

The first time I ever passed out was in a blood plasma donation clinic in Madison, Wisconsin. My brother, who had attended the University of Wisconsin before I did, tipped me off that they paid quite well for plasma, so every so often I would go spend a few hours in a big comfy chair with my vein tapped. On this particular day, I suddenly got very dizzy, nauseous and clammy and the next thing I knew I was coming to with ice packs under my neck and the chair tipped all the way back so my feet were in the air. I was sweaty and shaky, but I stayed until the plasmapheresis was over and got my cash. I didn’t think twice about it and continued to donate plasma until one day, during the prescreening tests, I came up positive for heroin. It turns out it was because of the poppy seed muffin I had for breakfast, but it didn’t matter, I was not allowed to give plasma again. One abnormal test and you were no longer a candidate. I never asked what plasma was used for and it certainly never crossed my mind that I, myself, may need a medication made from thousands of people’s plasma donations.

I’ve been getting weekly immunoglobulin infusions for 4 months now and it’s become routine (prior posts about this treatment can be found here and here). Not only routine, but to keep the success going, my superstition causes me to keep everything identical each time. I drink 4 liters of water the day before, the day of and the day after my infusions. Every Monday, I tidy up, run the Roomba and take a shower. I drink electrolytes, make my chicken and vegetable soup and don’t take any supplements. I take 3mg Prednisone, remove the saline bag and Gamunex from the fridge and wrap the fluids in my heating pad. When my nurse arrives, I get into bed and she hooks up the IV and sets the pump. Half an hour later, I take 650mg Tylenol, 25mg Benadryl and 10mg Zantac and then, before the Benadryl kicks in, I prep the Gamunex (I have to suck it from the vial into a fat syringe, which is surprisingly hard to do and painful on the hands). After the saline has been running for an hour, I insert 4 subcutaneous needles into my thighs. I could use wider tubing (for a faster infusion rate) or fewer needles, but, again, I’m sticking with what works, even if it’s not the norm for other patients. For the first few months, I did change where I inserted the needles, trying different areas on my belly and legs, but now I stick with the inner thighs which proved the least painful for me. I then fall into an antihistamine-stupour sleep and my (wonderful) nurse leaves once my husband gets home. In theory, she could leave as soon as she has inserted the IV catheter, which would be a half hour max, but because of my history of reactions and anaphylaxis, she’s extra cautious. By 8pm, I can disconnect the IV, remove the infusion needles and go downstairs to make dinner (this treatment makes me ravenous).

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When I first started infusions, I would have to take more Tylenol and Benadryl at around 9pm, my sleep would be horrid for a few nights from the steroids and I’d be dragging and headachy for at least a day afterwards. Recently, besides sleep, which will be my nightly nemesis forevermore, it seems, I haven’t had any problems. No need for extra meds, no dragging, no headache (except later in the week, which could be because I drastically drop off my hydration). In fact, it almost feels like my body is eagerly drinking up the infusions each week. In fact… the last 5 or 6 weeks have been… so nervous to say it (cover your ears, gods!)… good. Some of the best weeks I can remember. I feel freer — less restricted by pain, less confined by finite energy reserves, able to push boundaries without fear. My headaches have been more infrequent, my skin is better, my debilitating neuro symptoms have been more intermittent. I’ve been driving to nearby appointments again and I’ve been able to talk to the point of being hoarse, but without a weak voice. This last thing is very exciting to me.

My pilot brother was here on a layover and I was able to talk and laugh with him for almost 6 hours. My voice was tired, as if it were an unused-muscle, but it wasn’t weak in that way it’s been for years where I could barely contract the muscles to get the air past my vocal cords (or something). I was most definitely dizzy and deflated from the energy expenditure (my brother is a bottomless well of entertainment and conversation), but I didn’t have payback. Before he came, my brother texted me and said, “I’d love to see you, if only for an hour” and I realised how much worse I’d been the last time he visited in 2014: I remember wilting weakly an hour into our animated discussion. What glorious freedom to ignore the lightheadedness and tightening muscles, ignore the raised heart rate and blurring vision (because I’m still very far from normal), and not be terrified of repercussions. To have the option to push through! In the past, I’ve crawled to my room mid-visit — not out of cautiousness, but because there was no other choice and I always feared becoming permanently worse if I strained too much against the restraints.

This uptick could be because of a liter of IV fluids each week — it would explain why I’ve been having bad days later in the week — but I don’t think so. I usually feel kind of puffy and swollen afterwards and my blood pressure hasn’t increased at all; it stays steadily around 85/45. We’re considering experimentally doing some infusions without fluids and see how I get on, but I’m hesitant because, like I said, I like to keep everything consistent. Also, in the past I’ve asked so many doctors to help me with a trial of weekly IV fluids to see if it would help dysautonomia symptoms, now that I have them, I don’t want to give them up.

I want to mention one small thing that I’m incredibly excited about, which will sound so insignificant to most people. About a year into this illness, a few things happened to my body seemingly overnight and they always make me quite sad. The whites of my eyes changed colour, vertical ridges appeared on my once-smooth nails and I became allergic to my platinum engagement ring, which had been my grandmother’s and I’d worn 24 hours a day for years. Every so often over the past 3 years, I would put my ring on and, after a few days, I’d develop big itchy, sore bumps and discoloured skin and have to take it off again. I tried again just after Christmas and, 4 weeks later, I’m still wearing it with no problems. I want to add loads of exclamation points to this!!!!!! For me, that is so much more encouraging than IgG blood tests in the normal range or being able to walk more steps each day. My body has stopped rejecting something — a precious thing — that swiftly angered it over and over for so long. Rejoice. 🙂

Feeling emboldened, I asked my doctor if we could increase the dose or the frequency of my infusions or if I could add in a new treatment (antifungals, antivirals etc.). She said no — and I quote: “You are exactly where I want you to be.” That is so great to hear and such a reversal from my usual position of moving much more slowly than my doctors would like. She wants to continue my treatment indefinitely, raise my IgG levels as much as possible and then retest for infections in about 6 months to get a new baseline.

Insurance coverage always scares me; I’ve heard such horror stories of the battles to get treatment approved and, even after approval, actually paid for. My infusion bills were $943 for the first 3 months and I feel very fortunate that it’s so low. SCIG is the only thing that I can definitely say has helped in 4.5 years of being sick and, after 6 doctors refused to help me get the treatment, I feel immeasurably grateful to Dr. I for not only suggesting IVIG herself (I didn’t bother to ask because I’d given up at that stage), but allowing me to start on such a low dosage and increase slowly. No immunologist would have agreed to this. Yesterday I got this letter and almost wept (with joy). Thank you to the good doctors and nurses, to everyone that donates plasma (especially the broke college students) and even (in this case) to the all-powerful insurance companies who help perpetuate this dysfunctional healthcare system.

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I wrote this post on Thursday, the day after I’d driven to the dog park by myself, feeling victorious, and delighted my Bowie by walking further around the path than I have since being sick. I was still doing okay the next day and wanted to finally update everyone on my exciting progress.

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I’m not saying the chronic illness gods read my blog post draft and decided to tip the scales in the other direction because that’s just crazy nonsense, everyone knows that. But I did wake up not very good yesterday and I’m even worse today, with a bad migraine. Don’t get me wrong, I constantly remind myself that my husband used to have to wash my hair, but it’s still difficult to let yourself get a little bit excited (and in reality, “get a little bit excited” in my world means I’m thinking, “I’M GETTING BETTER! THIS IS THE YEAR! I’M GOING TO LEAVE THIS DISEASE BEHIND! I’LL BE FREE!”) and then have such a harsh reminder. Maybe the difference now is… I’m not scared.

Title Credit

Sweet Smell of Success (So far)

I am so proud of myself for sticking to my guns and waiting to do the immunoglobulin infusion when it felt right for me, at the lowest dose possible, with a bag of saline and a showered, no-scent nurse. I feel fine. I’m stiff, sore and tired, a bit more than normal, but no big deal. The infusion site on my abdomen is sore if it touches something, but no big deal. I didn’t need to ice my belly and I hardly felt the needle going in. I think next time, though, I’ll try my thighs because I do daily abdominal massage and castor oil packs for my constipation, which I can’t do now.

My vertigo from yesterday is gone (maybe it was a neck issue in my sleep) and today, inside, I am vibrating with excitement. Hell yes!! Success! I’m usually either so impatient to try something, I take too much (Cromolyn) or I don’t want to face the adjustment period/eventual withdrawals/possible reactions, so I postpone forever (Equilibrant, antidepressants, B12). But I did this the right way. I waited, I tested everything I needed to test, I didn’t jump the gun and start where my doctor wanted me to start (3mg), I started low and it was no problem.

My biggest excitement, honestly, is having a positive experience with the premedications and it gives me hope that my reactivity has calmed down. I didn’t even fall into a drugged stupour like I did when I tested the premeds. I have no horrible antihistamine-poisoning-hangover feeling, no headache, my blood pressure has stayed stable at around 85/55 (I know, too low, but stable low). Since all these sensitivities cropped up, I’ve been lucky that my disabling dysmennorhea has abated and I’ve not had any anaphylaxis, collapses, accidents etc. (toba, toba, knock on wood), but I was worried about what I would do in the event that I’d have to have surgery or some emergency procedure. This feels great! I have an arsenal now. I might have done the MRI contrast if I’d had the confidence at the time to pop some Prednisone, Benadryl and Zantac. I’ve still never taken my EpiPen, but, if ever I have to (toba, toba, KOW), maybe I won’t be as sensitive as I was in the past (when an endodontist accidentally put epinephrine in my numbing injection, it felt like I was having a heart attack). I can’t tell you how good this feels. I might finally try daily H1 and H2 blockers to see if they make a difference in how I feel overall. I might sit down with a bottle of wine, salami, aged cheese and kimchi.

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I set this all up in our spare room upstairs to keep away from the dogs and so I could sleep if I needed to, but really I could do this anywhere. The saline bag has a carry pouch with a shoulder strap and is infused by a battery-operated pump. Once the needles are in and covered with tape, I could conceivably be on the couch with my dogs, watching TV. The tricky part is navigating the bathroom with one straight arm while carrying the saline pouch and holding the SCIG pump and managing not to rip out any of the needles.

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Honestly, the most daunting part of the whole experience is the amount of water I have to force down my gullet. On Thursday, I drank four liters. Yesterday, I drank over five liters and I’m going to try to do the same again today. Having to do this three days a week, every week makes me want to vom. It also wasn’t fun to have a chatty stranger in my house, albeit a very nice, low-maintenance one (I kept worrying that she didn’t have water or snacks and that her back would get sore in the upright chair). She was only here fewer than four hours, but as my dose increases, I assume the time will increase (most of that was infusing 500ml of saline, the IgG itself only took an hour). Next time I’ll just let her know that I want to rest and meditate through the whole thing and I’m hoping after the next few infusions she’ll just be able to hook up my IV and leave and I can place the subcutaneous needle myself and remove the IV at the end.

So, the plan is to double my dose next Friday to two grams, then increase by one gram each week until I’m at five and hold there for a few months. Perhaps even graduate to IVIG eventually. I’m happy this started at the beginning of flu season, too, because that’s what Dr. Chia recommended. He thought I should get a little boost in September and January and also if I traveled anywhere so I would be less in jeopardy of succumbing to a virus that would take me down. And maybe, just maybe, it’ll make me feel better over all. A lady can dream.

Thanks to everyone who sent positive thoughts my way. You carried me through.❤

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.

Finally Starting IgG Infusions.

After 13 months of buildup, I’m finally scheduled for my first IgG infusion. Dr. Chia recommended I get IVIG (intravenous immunoglobulin) in August, 2014. When I came back to Seattle, I asked my GP about it and she said my total IgG wasn’t low enough (allopathic guidelines say total IgG < 400mg/dL) to warrant therapy. I asked my rheumatologist about it and he said because I have no evidence of persistent infections, I’d have to get an antibody vaccine provocation. I’m sure there’s a name for this, but, essentially, you are given a vaccine and then they look for an appropriate rise in antibody titers to that vaccine. If your body doesn’t mount a response, they can approve IVIG. Well, of course, I’m never getting a vaccination again, so that’s out of the question. I asked my main ND, Dr. W, and she said she didn’t have the ability to order it, but suggested oral IgG, which I never started because… another supplement, ugh. So, I’d given up on it when I went to a new ND, Dr. I, and I didn’t even think to mention it. After reviewing all my labs, the first thing she recommended was IVIG and, just like that, she got it approved. But… not so fast. That was 10 months ago and there was a lot of work to be done.

(As an aside, I do wonder if I’ve had low immunoglobulins my whole life and nobody looked into it. Or maybe it waxed and waned. I had chronic bronchitis, pneumonia and asthma as a child and, as an adult, got a chest infection pretty much once a year–probably more when I was smoking–but never thought this was unusual. Here’s a short article about one girl’s SCIG from infancy. It has some photos of infusions.)

Before trying IVIG, we decided I should try SCIG (sub-cutaneous IgG) because there are fewer side effects for most people. Before SCIG, I needed to test out the medications necessary to stave off anaphylaxis, aseptic meningitis, migraines and a host of other issues that can develop. Before testing the pre-meds, I had to make sure I could handle IV saline infusions since the last one I had caused a leaky anaphylactoid reaction. Before trying IV fluids, she wanted me to be on bioidentical progesterone, pregnenolone and DHEA, not only because my hormones are low, but also because there is evidence that hormone therapy can calm reactivity. And all of this has to be danced around my menstrual cycle because I’m somewhat reactive during ovulation and extremely reactive during my period. We also had to wait for me to get my nerve up because so much of this is dependent on my comfort level and, when anaphylaxis could be involved, I’m never comfortable.

I have friends in mast cell groups who “anaphylax” often, repeatedly, sometimes daily. I can’t imagine this. There are different levels of anaphylaxis, so I suppose these could be lower level reactions, but my episodes of anaphylaxis were full-blown and very scary, mostly because of the difficulty breathing. I really thought I would die and I probably have some PTSD from those experiences. No amount of sickness scares me as much as having a sudden anaphylactic reaction that kills me. I don’t want to get meningitis or be saddled with chronic migraines like my friend Jackie, but those are not at the top of my list of fears.

Having said that, I pay attention to comments like this since I, too, once had a CSF leak from a lumbar puncture and it was the 10 on my pain scale to which I now compare everything else. IVIG can mess you up:

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(FYI, I found this website with tons of allergy information and graphics that might be interesting.)

So, I’ve been on topical, compounded hormones for almost a year and they haven’t raised my serum levels much, but I think they’ve helped with sleep (they also cause greasy skin and hair, like I’m going through puberty, but I’m willing to put up with that). At the beginning of this year, I was reeling from the terrible nocturnal reactions and tongue swelling I had been having, so I wasn’t willing to try anything new. Finally, in May, I got around to testing a tiny bag of IV saline (it went fine, although the whole appointment and clinic visit was a total shitshow which lead me to write two long emails to my doctor. I came very close to not going back, but I really want this treatment). Then in July, I had a full liter infused over 6 hours (a very long time for 2 bags of saline). Everything went fine, no problems (but no boost in blood pressure or energy, either), which meant it was time to schedule SCIG, but, once I started researching in earnest, I realised that there were so many questions I needed answered.

IVIG is often done in a hospital setting if the person is high-risk. I would prefer to have more than just a nurse present if I went into shock (and, by all accounts, nurses’ competency levels are highly variable). My doctor didn’t know how to get this done because the company with which she works does home infusions; she recommended I ask one of my MDs for help. More time ticked by while I emailed my GP (who has only met me once), my endocrinologist and my rheumatologist (both of whom have only met me a few times) for help with this. They all said no. I talked to the infusion company (who have been incredibly helpful thus far) and they offered to do it in their “infusion suite”, but there are no doctors present and their protocol is to call 911 if there is an emergency. Well, I live a few minutes from a fire house and an emergency room, so home seems just as safe as the infusion suite, if not more so since my husband, who is far-too-intimately acquainted with my history, can be there.

Scrolling through Facebook groups, I realise I have to learn how many injection sites I’ll have and whether to use my belly or thighs and the needle size and how many ml you can put in any one area and leakage, hardness, weals etc. etc. My good friend, who is braving his way through gruelling IVIG treatment, has been giving me advice every step of the way, which is invaluable when your doctor doesn’t tell you exactly what the process is or the importance of hydrating or the effects of IgA.

Different brands of IgG have varying amounts of IgA in them. In general, lower IgA equals fewer reactions and, if blood tests show that you have very low IgA or anti-IgA antibodies, you will qualify for the IgA-depleted IgG brands. Isn’t this something my doctor should have mentioned? She wrote the prescription for Gamunex and I asked her if she would consider Gammagard or Hyqvia, both of which have lower IgA. but she said it wasn’t necessary. And she may be right, but wouldn’t you want to use every tool available to keep your highly-reactive patient as safe as possible? My IgA has been slightly low in the past, so, right before I was meant to schedule my first infusion, I asked my doctor, “Can you test me to see if I have anti-IgA antibodies?” and she said yes. Doesn’t this seem like something that should have been done originally without my asking, considering my history?? Maddening.

The IgA test was meant to take a week to come back and I didn’t get the results for 3 weeks, so here we are in September. One of the IgA subclasses was low out of range, but I didn’t have anti-IgA antibodies, so I couldn’t really make a case for changing from Gamunex. And I wanted to do it as soon as possible rather than wait until after my next period, which would put us in October, so I scheduled it for this coming Tuesday.

My doctor wants me to take 2 Tylenol (Paracetamol), 2 Benadryl and 3mg of Prednisone (Prednisolone) before my treatment. I needed to test these premeds because last year when I took Prednisone, I worked up very slowly to 3mg, I only ever take 1 Tylenol at a time and I have been VERY sensitive to Benadryl since having M.E.–plus I’ve never taken the combo. I realised my EpiPens were expired and so were my two boxes of Benadryl and my emergency Prednisone. It took more waiting time for new prescriptions to be called in and finding a good day for my husband to pick them up. When he did, I realised they had given me 10mg pills of Prednisone rather than 1mg (always carefully inspect your pills!) and he had to go back to the pharmacy for a fourth time in a week. Poor guy.

Last week I tried 1 Tylenol, 1 Benadryl and 1.5mg of Prednisone (using my expired stash). About half an hour later, I got a tight chest. Not enough to scare me, but enough to put me off trying more Benadryl. Then I got very shaky and drowsy and had low blood pressure. After I slept for about an hour, I was incredibly thirsty and hungry and then, about 4 hours after taking them, I felt better than I have in a while and was chatty and good-humoured. Success.

Last night I tried again, this time with 2 Tylenol, 1 Benadryl and 3mg of (fresh) Prednisone. I couldn’t bring myself to take 2 Benadryl. The good news is, I didn’t get the tight chest and shakes this time, I just fell asleep for an hour. The bad news is, I didn’t feel good afterwards at all. I had a headache, my eyes and lips felt swollen, I was completely parched and felt really out of it and hungover. But, this is HUGE for me. It is so incredibly exciting to take a bunch of medications and come out unscathed. I’ve been wanting to test this for ages so I have some confidence that, if I’m given IV Benadryl and/or steroids in the event of an emergency, I’ll be okay.

A few final hurdles: I’m scrambling to get two blood draws on Monday before starting SCIG. Dr. W has been trying to get me to do regular “hydrotherapy” for a year and a half. It’s basically hot and cold towels over my torso and back, coupled with electrical stimulation (instructions for doing it at home can be found here). I never wanted to expend the energy until she told me about a patient of hers with hypogammaglobulinemia whose IgG levels came into the normal range after 6 weeks of hydro constitutionals. She was willing to test my total IgG before and after if I did this experiment. I love quantifiable evidence! So I started in August and, even though it’s only been 5 weeks, I want to get my levels tested again before starting SCIG.

The second thing is a babesia test. I’ve been asking my ND about this since June–in person during appointments, in email to her and also to her assistant, who keeps saying she has to get the doctor to sign the form–and can’t seem to get anywhere. They say yes, but it never happens. How hard could it be to sign a requisition form?? Her last message to me said I could get my blood drawn if I make another follow-up appointment. Are you kidding me? That seems downright cruel when we’ve discussed this at my last 3 appointments and she only works two days a week. I talked to the director of Igenex, the lab that does the testing, and he said I should definitely get it done before SCIG, so I finally just ordered the test kit myself and I’m going to bring it to my other doctor, Dr. W, on Monday and beg her to do the blood draw along with the total IgG. I don’t understand why everything has to be such a battle. It’s exhausting and infuriating.

I’m trying to not be annoyed at the difficult communication with my SCIG doctor because, not only is she the only one getting me this treatment, but she was willing to start me at 1 gram the first week (unheard of), building up to 5 grams over 5 weeks. She was also willing to prescribe saline infusions along with the treatment. Only 500ml each time, but every little bit of hydration helps mitigate side effects. I’m deeply grateful to have someone willing to do that when an immunologist wouldn’t even have a conversation about it.

Wish me luck. I’m going to receive all the supplies by courier on Monday and then Tuesday afternoon a nurse will come over, start the drip and show me how to do the sub-cutaneous injections. I believe after that, I’m on my own. Or, maybe because I’m getting IV fluids each week, a nurse will have to come, I don’t know. I will take Zyrtec and hydrate like mad the days before and after… But, friends and family, I am very scared. Even though it’s SCIG and not IVIG and even though I’m starting at a laughably low dose, I’m still scared. I will eat fairly low-histamine in the next few days and do my breathing exercises and meditations before, during and after treatment, but still… I want this to be the beginning not the end. Are my affairs in order? Do you all know how much I love you? Remember: when I first got sick and thought I was dying, I wrote down directives and requests. Husband, remember: the notebook in my bedside table.

Now everyone knock on wood for me and spit over your shoulders. Toba toba.