2016 Beach memories: Pictures worth 20,000 words.

Two years ago, I spent a few arduous days in L.A. with my mother and husband so I could have an appointment with Dr. Chia. Last year, we spent a few days on the Washington coast while I was very sick. We picked the closest coastal town to our house, so it was the shortest drive and my husband did all the work — I just had to get myself in and out of the car. I did it for the dogs, to see their joy on the beach, to try to make up for two and a half years of no adventures and lessened activity… but I was not in good shape.

This year, though… This year we took TWO TRIPS TO THE COAST. Again, all I had to do was pack (no easy feat — it takes me days) and get myself in the car. My angel husband, with good spirits, loads everything in and out and in and out of the car, including my mobility scooter, all my food, bedding, towels etc. I even brought my air purifier. I love being so low-maintenance.

Last June, was our longest trip since I got sick. We stayed in the same place in the same coastal town as we had in 2015, but I was feeling better than I had in years so, on the day we were meant to leave to go back to Seattle, we found a different rental and extended our visit for an extra two days. This new house was right on the beach and had a balcony. I had no idea the difference it would make to my experience. The first rental was further inland and had a fenced-in yard and trees enclosing the garden. It never occurred to me that a view might be nice — might even be soul-enlivening — I was just happy to see four different walls. But the simple act of gazing at an expanse of nature, even from inside a house, is everything when you’ve been housebound for a prolonged period. That first night, when I saw the vast black sky punctured with millions of bright stars, I started weeping. When was the last time I really saw the stars? I will never forget that moment. And the next day, sitting on the balcony, watching the waves… It didn’t even matter if I was feeling too ill to get to the beach. The funny thing was, I experienced none of that Oh-I-feel-so-much-better-near-the-ocean “locations effect” that so many people with ME report. If anything, I was taken down a notch by the wind, the marine smell, bonfire smoke at night, trying to manage my temperature fluctuations etc. Plus, there were, of course, a few difficulties for my sensitive system (a house on stilts that shook so violently, I couldn’t sleep, overwhelming bleach smell in the bathroom, strongly chlorinated tap water, too many stairs), but it was definitely worth it.

Over four months ago, I wrote a Love letter to my sons as a preamble to the big post I intended to write about the coast trip and then, of course, never got around to writing it. I’m struggling at the moment (this post has taken me a week to put together), so I’m going to let the photos do the talking.

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Half the house packed in the car, ready to go.

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ROAD TRIP!

This was the first night we arrived. A beautiful crescent moon welcomed us to the coast.

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Some days were overcast…

… with dramatic evenings.

Some days were glorious…

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…with breathtaking sunsets (taken from the balcony).

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The beach is exhausting. 😀

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The couple next door got married on the dune in front of our house. I wound up talking to them the day we left because I wanted to send them the photos I took and, in a bizarre coincidence, it turned out the bride had been suffering with a similar illness as mine, had tried many of the same treatments, knew all the same doctors. We both got tears in our eyes. It was a surprisingly beautiful thing to talk to someone so freely *in person, not on the internet*, without having to explain anything.

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The flag on the left is where they were wed.

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We had no plans to go again this year, but our best friends wound up renting the house next door to the one we had in June, so, at the beginning of this month and at the very last minute, we decided to join them. I’ve gotten worse the past few months, so I knew I wouldn’t be able to participate as much as I would like to (the first night they all played cards and had drinks, while I was in the other house, resting. The second night they had a bonfire on the beach, while I was inside, resting), but there were wonderful moments of normalcy: Z. chatting with me over morning tea, without the time-pressure of a planned visit; my dogs’ excitement when they saw Aunt Z. and Uncle J. on the beach — missed members of our extended pack; watching their family fly kites on the beach; colouring with sweet Anna while she talked my ear off more than she ever has before; eating dinner at a table with a group of friends, with conversation, laughing and music playing in the background (<~ this most of all: just hanging out amid all the normal sounds, feeling part of a group); and the social time my husband got, just hanging with friends he hasn’t seen properly in years.

The only downside was my dogs are showing their age much more now than they were even four months earlier. I couldn’t use my scooter as much as last time because they simply didn’t have the stamina to walk distances and were both limping after our first short excursion. The last — and warmest — day, Bowie didn’t even get out of the car for more than a minute. He was pooped. And Riley just sat next to me like a sentry, wondering why I was lying on the sand. I fear it really might have been the last hurrah on the beach, which makes me even happier that I pushed myself to go and create new memories.

The boys were thrilled to be back!

Our best friends frolicking. 🙂

Bowie and sweet Anna flying a kite.

One day was dark and brooding and that night it stormed with 50 mph winds.

Another day was sunny and clear.

 

Small steps with payback… But new memories and happy dogs are everything.

Love letter to my sons.

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After more than 10 months, I got away from the house. Every time I look at the grey in my dogs’ muzzles, I have a panic about time slipping by and the knowledge that Bowie is hurtling towards end of life. He is 9 and Rhodesian ridgebacks typically live 10 to 12 years. Bowie is big — the tallest ridgeback I’ve encountered in the flesh or online — I fear he’s more like a small great dane and they typically live 6 to 8 years… So, I’m bracing myself. Truth be told, I’ve been bracing myself for their ends-of-life since they were kids.

Riley was originally found emaciated to the point that he couldn’t stand up and had already been in two foster homes before coming to us. We were meant to be a foster home, too, but, after he was placed with two more families that didn’t work out (and my emotional meltdown with each goodbye), we knew he was meant to be ours. And, wow, was he meant to be ours. I don’t think any other pack would have worked so perfectly. He almost died from some gastrointestinal awfulness soon after we adopted him. I watched him lie on his side, dead-eyed, weakly vomiting blood while the vet told me he thought he might not make it. Not long after that, Bowie hurt his back at the park and I lifted his 110lbs into the car with some sort of super-human mother strength and raced to the emergency vet. I was healthy then, but, still, that’s more than I weigh.
[NB: Of course I called the clinic to verify his weight at that visit.]
[NB: Of course I made sure they weren’t busy before I bothered them with that question.]

So, losing them has been at the forefront of my mind for most of their lives. It may sound morbid, but it makes me appreciate every day that they’re here and I never take a moment for granted. I will miss this hair one day, I think as I pull it out of every meal I eat. I will miss his drool one day, I say as I almost brain myself slipping in the saliva pool on the kitchen floor. I spend an inordinate amount of time cuddling them, memorising every curve and bump of their bodies, making sure I’m always conscious and grateful for their presence.

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I will never forget the first time I took a mobility scooter to the cemetery for a “walk” with Bowie (at the time, I didn’t trust Riley to stay close off-leash, so he went to doggy daycare instead). We had been visiting the cemetery since Bowie was a puppy, but it had been a year since I was housebound and that first year was the longest and sickest of my illness. He lept like a puppy when we got there and I wept as I watched him. I think it was as important for him to see me out as it was for me to be out. Last year, both of my dogs’ mobility declined sharply. Riley is arthritic and Bowie is an old, creaky man. My number 2 wish (after getting better) is to fill their time with as much fun as possible. If I could, I would take them someplace different every day, wear them out, introduce them to novel smells and new friends (every time I’m flabbergasted or frustrated by my acute sense of smell, I think what the world must be like for a dog whose nose is tens of thousands of times as sensitive as a human’s. While a dog’s brain is only 1/10 the size of a human brain, the part that controls smell is 40 times larger. Can you fathom that even slightly? Whenever I see someone yanking on a dog’s leash, I think, imagine what he is smelling down there! Give him a minute!).

My dogs are my kids, my caretakers, my comedy, my inspiration, my reason for pushing myself, my main source of joy.

So, this is all a big preamble (pre-ramble, more like) to the story of our recent road trip to the coast (in a future post) and why it was so important to me. I can’t fly with my dogs to India or Africa or even to different parks very often, but once a year for the last 3 years, we’ve made it to the seaside. This time was different, though. This time I was stronger, I wasn’t as crushed by poisoned pain and my husband and I were happier, not desperately grappling for handfuls of different memories within the blind freefall of sudden severe illness survival. Because that’s what it has felt like: an initial period of confusion, fear and searching, followed by 3+ light-speed years of gasping for air and kicking like mad to keep our heads above water, learning how to navigate this life. And in all that time, it’s felt like we both had faces bowed down in grimaces of pain or duty, grief or worry, eyes meeting fleetingly, but blinded by our separate burdens. So, I remember those previous journeys to the ocean as a bit desperate, slightly lonely and only partially successful. But this time was different. Not easy, not perfect, but more like real life. Like a life where I’m totally present with my husband and easily walking the beach with my sons. I’ll get there one day.

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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

International Awareness Day for Myalgic Encephalomyelitis

Posted on Facebook:

Today is International Awareness Day for Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME/CFS) and this is my small effort to educate and contribute to a larger understanding of this disease. Like I said last year, there’s not much point in continuously sharing information within the patient community, since we know the hardships all too well, so I’m asking my healthy friends to take a minute to learn a bit more about this debilitating neuroimmune condition. Only with awareness can the tides change.

Like many illnesses, there is a large range of disability. Some people can hold jobs, while the severe end of the spectrum is horrific incapacitation*. Unlike other illnesses, however, there is virtually no budget for research (male pattern baldness has 6 times the funds devoted to discovering treatments, according to Dr. Klimas).

274c75c7-e926-442c-947c-68e020e95d2b-1-1In my own case, I have made a lot of improvement since starting immunoglobulin infusions 7 months ago. Facebook reminds me that this time last year I was bedbound, in pain, with flu-like symptoms, which still happens, but with much less frequency. Things are more stable, payback isn’t as vicious. I still use a mobility scooter in the dog park, but I have more than doubled my daily steps and I’m able to do more. Today I went to the bank. 🙂

More information:

Jen Brea on TED Blog
Occupy CFS: Very Very Aware
Learning to Live With ME/CFS: Today is International ME/CFS Awareness Day

How you can help:

On May 26th, MEAction has organised the #MillionsMissing project, which will take place in multiple cities across the world, with a coordinated campaign of demonstrations and demands. Learn how you can support it here.

Sign this petition to increase funding to find a cure.

There is very little funding for research for treatments, so, if you have the inclination and means, donations are sorely needed:

U.S: Open Medicine Foundation
U.K: Invest in ME

In the U.S:
Tell Congress to Increase Funding for ME Research.
Send your congressional rep Llewellyn King’s article on The Hill’s “Congress Blog”.
Buy a “Congressional pack“.

*More info on severe M.E.:
Severe M.E. and Invisible Illness Video
JK Rowbory: All the things that you never wanted to know about my life with an acute chronic illness

Treatment Update

Today (actually last Thursday, it took me a while to write this), I had my follow-up appointment with Dr. Kim to go over the gaggle of blood tests I had done in March. There is a lot that I am adding into my regimen, so I wanted to document it all asap before I forget everything she said.

We’re going to try hyperbaric oxygen therapy! I said it as a joke as we walked past the room with the claustrophobia chamber: “When do I get to dive?” And she thought it was actually a good idea. So, I’m going to start with a very short time (10-15 minutes) and work up to 60 minutes “at depth”, with supplemental oxygen, once a week. This is out-of-pocket, of course, and pricey at $150-$175 per 60-minute session, so I’ll try a few and see how I do.

I am starting a slow treatment for candida with Nystatin, Diflucan and Thorne SF722. Here’s the protocol:
*Nystatin on Mondays and 2 capsules a day of Thorne SF722 Tuesday through Sunday for 3 weeks.
*Then the same thing with Diflucan on Mondays for 3 weeks.
*Then Nysatin Mondays, Diflucan Thursdays and 2 SF722s on the other days for 2 months.
She didn’t mention diet and I didn’t bring it up. Yippee!

I’m increasing oral progesterone to 100mg/day (I’m at 25mg now), staying at 25mg of oral pregnenolone (uh oh, I just realised while adding this link that I’ve been swallowing my pregnenolone whole, not realising it’s sublingual… grreeaaat 😝) and changing from topical DHEA to 25mg oral.

My sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG) is high, which she said functionally lowers hormone levels. I’m going to start nettle root capsules (work up to 300mg twice a day) to bring SHBG down (not to be confused with nettle leaf, which I drink in tea every day).

I’m not anemic, but my iron is low. She wants me to add Floridix, but after reviewing the ingredients, I may just do a generic ferrous gluconate supplement for 6 months.

For sleep:
*5HTP, 75-150 mg at night (this was recommended by a friend–thank you, M–and Dr. Kim thought it was worth a shot). She says it may even interact with the 5HT4 receptors in my GI tract and help motility. 30-50 mg P5P (active vitamin B6) should be taken with 5HTP.
*Dr. Yasko recommended I get my lithium tested (she answered a quick question on Facebook, I’m not working with her) and Dr. Kim thought I could try supplementing a 20-40 mg per day without a test and see if it helps.
*Belsomra, a prescription sleep medication given to me by my sleep doctor, is still sitting on my shelf a year later and I intend to take a small nibble one of these days. It doesn’t interact with 5HTP, so I can try all the things.

For constipation, I am going to try MotilPro (work up to 3 capsules morning and noon) and a bit of iodine in the form of potassium iodide (5-20 mg 4 times per week).

She said my vitamin D at 40.4 ng/mL is actually fine and I should continue taking 4,000iu/day (I take Thorne liquid D3+K2). She bases this on my calcitriol (vitamin D 1,25) number, which is good at 48.2pg/mL, right in the middle of the range.

She’s not worried about my high cholesterol or LDL at all, so I’m going to shake off my concern about that and trust her.

She said not to worry about an Igenex lyme test or my positive bartonella test for now. She is going to treat my high mycoplasma pneumoniae eventually and she said that treatment is similar to what she’d do for tick-borne infections. I have to say, I kind of like that a reputable LLND isn’t jumping straight into Lyme testing and treatment. She’s definitely not a one-trick pony.

I’ll start antimicrobials for M. pneumoniae, CMV, HHV6 and EBV later this year when my body is stronger. She thinks it will most likely take at least 2 years to get those blood tests into the normal ranges (to the point where my immune system isn’t mounting a response against reactivated infections).

Other supplements* and prescriptions I currently take, many sporadically:

MitoCore
CoQ10/ubiquinol
Humic Acid
Thorne Trace Minerals
Thorne Riboflavin-5-phosphate
Thorne Niacel
Thorne vitamin D3+K2
Thorne B complex #6
Magnesium malate
Magnesium glycinate
Jigsaw magnesium
Potassium gluconate
Biotin
Thiamin
Vitamin A
Vitamin C
Wormwood
HCL + gentian + pepsin
Enzymedica Digest Basic
Enzymedica Digest Spectrum
Charcoal
Levothyroxine (100mcg/day)
Liothyronine (15mcg twice/day)
Prednisone (3mg), Benadryl (25mg), Zantac (10mg), fluids (sodium chloride 0.9%, 1 liter) and Gamunex-C (5g) during infusions.

*By the way, all the supplement links here are for Pure Formulas (and all brands are gluten-free, soy-free and well-regarded). I am not affiliated with them in any way and I can’t get kick-backs if you buy something from these links like lots of bloggers that make money that way (although, maybe I should look into that!). I’ve just done a lot of research and they are consistently the best for me. If you decide to order from them and you want to be a kind and selfless friend, you can use my referral code: RRKMLW or shop here. Once you complete an order (without using any of your own reward points), I get a $10 credit. 😀 I like Pure Formulas because a) free shipping with no minimum; b) 2-day shipping always if you have ShopRunner, which I do through my AmEx; c) you earn cash credits for your orders; d) you can return products you have problems with, even if opened; and e) I have contacted many supplement manufacturers to ask about recommended online retailers (because I’ve read some scary articles about knock-off supplements on Amazon) and almost all of them have told me Pure Formulas is reputable. Last thought: if you comment below with your Pure Formulas referral code I will use one whenever I order (which is often).