SIBO Antibiotic Failure in Half a Milliliter.

Referring to my last post:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mast Cell Madness.

I’m officially terrified by my mast cells because Christmas heralded another sick, sick few days. Almost as sick as Thanksgiving, so I’d have to say the 2nd sickest night of my life. However, this time, it all started with my tongue swelling up, which gave me more insight into the mechanism behind it.

I sometimes wonder if all my health issues stem from mast cell activation syndrome. I can tell the difference between ME symptoms and mast cell reactions, but, still, there’s this little seed in my brain that says, what if they’re at the root of EVERYTHING and I should be spending my time finding a doctor with MCAD expertise on this side of the country (it doesn’t seem to exist in Seattle)? I don’t do this because I am generally stable. On a day-to-day basis, I’m not having reactions — unless, of course, many of my chronic symptoms have mast cell degranulation at their core and I just don’t realise it.

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My health issues started with full-blown anaphylaxis, out of the blue, 9 days after my 28th birthday. Doctors were hopeless and gave no advice back then, not even daily preventative antihistamines. The common denominator was alcohol (but not every time I drank, so it was confusing), so, after the last trip to the emergency room in Dublin, where I almost died, I finally quit drinking and haven’t touched a drop in 13 years.

Before that, I had swelling in my eyes and hands and a severe edema episode once or twice that I didn’t really think much about. I linked it to Asian food, so stopped eating that and MSG and didn’t look any further into it. This was eventually diagnosed as autoimmune urticaria and angioedema and I was told to take Zyrtec, but didn’t want to medicate daily for an intermittent condition.

I’ve always had trouble with my periods — crippling dysmenorrhea — but they got progressively worse until I collapsed with syncope and shock 13 days after my 32nd birthday and was taken off in the ambulance. For 6 years, no doctor gave me any advice until, finally, an OBGYN told me to dump salt on my tongue. This doesn’t stop the collapses, but it certainly helps. These episodes continue to happen randomly to this day, always on the first day of my period and are, without a doubt, mast cell mediated, presumably low-grade anaphylaxis (very low blood pressure and pulse, bowel problems, syncope, shortness of breath).

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I have a spot in my throat that has itched for years. It was actually the thing that lead to diagnosis of my toxic thyroid goiters and Grave’s Disease because I mentioned the itch to some random doctor who palpated my throat. I’ve now realised it signals reactivity in my body at a very low level. It’s almost always there, but, when it’s not or when it’s very bad, I pay attention.

I was flushing badly for years, thinking I had developed bizarre self-consciousness, but the self-consciousness was actually a result from flushing and having people point it out! When I was diagnosed with Grave’s, I thought it was a symptom of that, but it never went away after ablation.

Of course, in retrospect, there have always been issues I have dealt with, which may or may not originate with mast cells: thyroid problems and Raynaud’s can be a result of mast cell disorders. Also, constipation, headaches, low blood pressure, and temperature sensitivity (all of which got much worse in recent years). Finally, many of my ME symptoms could also be from MCAS: fatigue, joint and tissue pain, eye pain, vision problems, vertigo, episodes of low body temperature, scent/odour/chemical sensitivity, sinus problems, cognitive impairment, hair loss, decreased bone density (I have osteopenia, on the cusp of osteoporosis), shortness of breath, medication reactions, malabsorption, and tinnitus. See a list of signs and symptoms here.

It would be wonderful to be able to manage and control any of these issues, but none of them scares me like the nights I’ve had recently, not even full-blown anaphylaxis. I’ve tried so hard to figure out my triggers, but they are moving targets. Tongue swelling and angioedema are obvious, as is the very specific breathing difficulty you get with anaphylaxis (it is nothing like asthma or wheezing from an infection). I don’t get daily hives and itching like many people. My reactions now are all about the histamine bucket and completely dependent on where I am in my cycle and what is happening in my life. I may be able to eat anything one week and then suspect that those same foods are giving me sinus trouble, insomnia and a jaw ache a different week. My chronic daily headaches, tinnitus, brain fog and exhaustion could be from food choices, but I’ve never been able to pin down any causation. My diet is very low-histamine compared to normal people and how it used to be, but I still allow myself chocolate, coconut, store-bought chips, beef, almost all fruit, including dried and many things that others avoid. Could these things be contributing to my problems? Yes, but, without a definite correlation, I don’t want to eliminate foods. Once you’ve experienced anaphylaxis, “reactions” like a runny nose, constipation or aching hands are quite ignorable. The only thing that consistently caused a reaction was alcohol and my periods. And, now I can say with certainty, holidays and events, no matter how careful I am.

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I prepared for Christmas over the course of a month and a half, slowly bought presents and wrapped them, slowly wrote some Christmas cards, slowly got the spare room ready for my sister, slowly did laundry — over the course of weeks! Didn’t overexert myself at all. There was no excitement, no activities. My sister and her small dog came over, we watched tv and opened presents. I had rested multiple times throughout the day and the only not normal thing I ate was half a tiny piece of fresh King salmon, which had been brought in off the docks that same morning and, I was told, caught the day before.

My tongue started to swell up after dinner. By the late evening, I had gotten upset for really no good reason (which has historically happened with my mast cell reactions) and was flushing. I had a bad reaction to about 15mg of Benadryl a week or two prior, so I was scared to take a decent dose on this night. I bit a dye-free capsule and put a drop on my swollen tongue and went to bed. At 2am, I awoke with the same evil that I experienced on Thanksgiving and the night after starting Cromolyn (before going to the AirBnb rentals back in September — it was a few days before my period that time, too). I was shaking so badly, I couldn’t lift the water glass, I was drenched in sweat and had weird runaway chills coursing through my body. I crawled on my hands and knees to the bathroom, which scared the shit out of me because, through all the worst of ME, that’s only happened once before. I fell into harrowing nightmares and woke up gasping for breath over and over, feeling poisoned and infected. I dreamt that I was sick and dying and my husband wasn’t paying attention or taking it seriously. I dreamt that I was sick and dying and my mother laughed at me (this isn’t remotely based in truth, this is my terrified mind not knowing how or where to get help). I dreamt that my dog’s neck was broken and I was carrying him to get help, but I was sick and dying and couldn’t do it. And, finally, I dreamt that I was lying on the floor begging my husband over and over: “Please kill me. Please kill me. Please kill me.” I woke up sobbing and so wrung out.

That morning, my period came 5 days early. You better believe, if I had known my period was going to arrive Christmas Day, I might have cancelled Christmas. Or at least postponed present opening for a day. And definitely not eaten even the freshest salmon.

In the past, my anaphylaxis episodes went like this:
My friend A’s birthday party.
My friend C’s birthday party.
Oktoberfest.
Easter party.
C used to joke that I was allergic to fun. I can’t believe he was right. I collapsed and had the paramedics called twice while my mother was staying with us and, also, when my best friend was here from Ireland — both were “events”. I started to get paranoid that, psychologically, I was somehow causing my system to crash when there were visitors. But, every single one of these times, I had my period. There were only a few anaphylactic episodes that I can remember when it wasn’t the first day of my menstrual cycle. EVENT + MENSTRUATION = MAST CELL MELTDOWN. But I think I only really and truly started to believe this 100% on Christmas.

So, Christmas day is a total haze. I crawled downstairs a few times to eat and try to put on a good face, but I don’t remember much and dozed most of the day. Like Thanksgiving and September, however, I bounced back quicker than I could have ever anticipated. That night I kept marveling, “How am I speaking? How am I sitting up? How am I alive?” When it’s bad, you honestly want to die. When it ebbs, the human spirit kicks back in shockingly quickly and you just get on with it, until the next time when you are surprised anew at just how bad the bad is. I didn’t even really modify my diet. I continued to eat my almond butter, coconut ice cream and drink bone broth and tea (all high-ish histamine). If anything, I felt more, Oh fuck it, how much worse could it be? At this stage, I’m much more scared of menstruation and engaging in any sort of event — even one in my house, in my pajamas, with only a single guest.

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I am currently putting together an informational kit (in a bag that was donated to me by a member of one of my groups), so my husband has something to grab in the event of an emergency. My dilemma is that I’ve managed to avoid drugs all this time (never had to use my EpiPen), so I have no way to premedicate for things like plane flights, dental work or necessary procedures like a CT scan or colonoscopy (which my doctor has wanted me to get for years, but I refuse because I’m worried about reactions). I have no safe protocol. 13 years ago, I got IV diphenhydromine for anaphylaxis, now I react to 15mg of Benadryl! 5 years ago, I had IV morphine for dysmennorhea, now my breathing shuts down with a crumb of hydrocodone or codeine. What would happen in a real emergency? If I need surgery? Knock on wood, toba toba, ptooey, ptooey. Once I have everything compiled, I will post it here.

Having said all that, I’m really in quite a good place, feeling happy and hopeful about the new year. Maybe because I realise that these reactions are mast cell degranulations and not ME relapses and that takes some of the fear away. Somehow dying from anaphylaxis is less scary than becoming permanently bedbound with ME. Perhaps only people with both illnesses will understand that. So, here’s what I did New Year’s Eve:

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As well as resilience, forgiveness, positivity and optimism, I’d also like to request that 2015 doles out truckloads of health, wealth and happiness to all of us. That’s all. That’s not too much to ask, right? 🙂

Doctor Love/Hate

A few weeks ago, I had the follow up with the rheumatologist I saw in January. The one who came highly recommended by multiple doctors I’ve seen. The one who spent over an hour and half with me at our initial appointment. The one who wrote the most thorough and accurate notes on my history and even sent them to me. The one who ordered spine x-rays, a DEXA bone scan, blood work for inflammatory bowel disease and who did a quick ultrasound of my shoulders. The one who knew about the pretty much unknown mast cell activation disorders and even knew most of the tests to order. The one who wrote a book called, “You Don’t Look Sick.” … So, you’d think he’d get it.

At one point, he asked, “Why are you in bed so much?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer. This was my second appointment in a row; I’d previously spent a useless hour with my therapist, not having anything to talk about and feeling out of place. Maybe my brain was ticking over even slower than I had realised.
“Because I’m sick…”
I thought he understood my illness because of the thorough chart notes, but I’d have to reread them. Maybe he didn’t understand the key part about ME and post-exertional malaise (second worst description of anything, ever, after chronic fatigue syndrome). Maybe he didn’t quite get that my battery dies very quickly and, if I push through, I’m in a world of hell and the battery never quite fully goes back to where it once was.
He said (and this is a direct quote), “If your hope for the future depends on getting disability, you’re not going to get out of bed.”
And then my brain blew up.

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I know many, many people have dealt with this sort of thing before — this blatant skepticism about their illness — but I hadn’t. Nobody had ever questioned me to my face. I didn’t really hear anything else he said after that because I did a white-out with fury. This manifested itself with me bursting into tears, unfortunately. I told him I wanted to make it clear that I wasn’t in bed to try to get disability. He said something along the lines of: “It may not be that you’re a malingerer [I remember that word clearly], but that you subconsciously are staying in bed because you need the money.”
Wow.
I was raging. After waiting two years to apply for disability in the desperate hope that I could go back to work… after going from a happy, high-functioning person to practically an invalid… it was too much to think this might cross somebody’s mind. Why would I want to give up my whole life to get 1/10 of the money I used to make? I cried the whole way home. I kept thinking about it and crying the whole evening. Granted, I was premenstrual, but my anger can’t come out in yelling and stomping anymore, so it just bubbled out in tears. Would he have said that if my husband were with me? Would he have said that if I were bedbound with cancer?

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There was slight vindication when he told me I had to try increasing my steps and I told him I have: from 500 in January to 1500 now.
Then he said I had to try “bicycle yoga”, lying down and I said, “I do! I try to do yoga poses and gentle stretches whenever possible.”
Then he said, “You need to come in here with a list of your current symptoms, your meds, your questions and concerns.” I waited for him to finish drawing an example of the page he wanted me to write and then I told him: “I did — it’s on the back of that sheet of paper.”
“Oh, I didn’t look at that,” he said. “A+.”

Amazingly, after this conversation, he told me my clinical diagnosis was mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS) and prescribed Cromolyn.

I smoldered for a week and then went to see my therapist who works in the same clinic and has known Dr. O for 37 years. I let loose on him. I railed for a full 45 minutes and was completely supported and validated. He said he’d seen it happen before and that, typically, when Dr. O is called out on his behaviour, he is blind to what he did and remorseful. He read me the notes that Dr. O had written and they were great — he wrote that he wanted to treat me for MCAS and also continue to look at inflammatory conditions, that I wasn’t depressed… There wasn’t a mention of ME in the notes and that’s how I wanted it. I went to him in the first place for his diagnostic talents, to have someone search for other possible answers. So, I’ve decided to give him another chance. My therapy session completely calmed my outraged soul and I’ve let it go. I think I will write Dr. O a letter when I feel up to it, explaining professionally why he was bone-headed and offensive. I’m actually looking forward to seeing him again, so I can be the calm, assertive person I normally am with doctors.

So, about MCAS: I haven’t dealt with scary symptoms (anaphylaxis, tongue swelling) in years and I react terribly to most medications, so I’m hesitant to start treating with mast cell stabilizers, histamine blockers or other anti-inflammatory drugs besides Prednisone. However, I wonder how many of my daily symptoms could be caused by mast cell problems (GI issues, bowel swelling, headaches, fatigue, brain fog, sinuses, pain etc.), so I’m also excited to have this diagnosis and the treatment options available. There’s also a teeny tiny part of me that whispers, What if your only problem is MCAS? What if mast cell problems caused everything from anaphylaxis until now? I don’t believe that — of course it’s multifactorial and involves many different pathways: immune, neurological, endocrine, gastrointestinal, vascular — but, there’s still a seed of excitement that something might make a difference.