First 911 call since being sick.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Día de Muertos

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I can’t remember what was on tv. I was listening casually while I sat writing Christmas cards on the other side of the room. I had five half-boxes left over from the years before and I was determined to have all of them written on time because I’m notoriously late with cards. I decided to start writing them on Halloween night because I could see our gate from the dining table and, when the kids arrived, I could dash outside with the bowl of chocolates before my dogs heard anything and went into cacophonous protection mode. I was hunched over, scribbling and, when I straightened, I felt this ripple go through my body. I’ll never forget that feeling. Like a ghost had walked through me. Like unearthly cold hands had reached inside my body and stroked downwards, from head to toes. A momentary shudder through my brain and nervous system that I never imagined would settle into each muscle and fiber, growing, mutating, eroding. I think of it now and wonder what was happening on a cellular level while I was nonchalantly scribbling notes.

I said, “Oh, I’ve been at this too long” and went to the armchair, curled up fetal, and fell asleep. An hour later, I awoke and knew something wasn’t right. Although it hadn’t really started yet, it felt more serious than a cold or flu. I felt unstable on a systemic level and thought it might turn into one of my syncopal episodes where I would collapse, pale and clammy, with a barely detectable blood pressure and pulse. I said to my husband, “You have to come to bed now. Something might happen and I won’t be able to make it down the stairs to get you.” Those were the days when we used to share a room. Before my illness became my bedfellow.

I spent the next four hours colder than I’ve ever been in my life. I was fully dressed, in bed with a hot water bottle, teeth chattering, shaking so violently, little moans were squeezed from my chest. I vividly remember the eternity it took me to move my hand out from under the duvet in an effort to cover one freezing ear. I thought if my hand left the relative warmth of the blankets, it might freeze solid and shatter into pieces. Oh shit, shit, shit. I’m sick. This is a doozy. I couldn’t ever remember having something like this, but it reminded me of my husband’s horrid battle with chicken pox. He was the sickest person I’d ever seen.

I drifted into sleep, curled in a tiny ball against the headboard, holding my knees, and, when I woke up, I was drenched. I had never experienced even slight night sweats and I couldn’t believe my body contained so much fluid. It was as if someone had poured a bucket of water on me. I could slap my stomach and make little splashes of sweat. And I was so relieved. I had assumed I would battle this virus for days, but the fever had broken after only a few hours and it would be a quick recovery. How could I imagine that I would continue to experience this almost every night for the next two years, losing lifeforce into my bed sheets, becoming weaker and weaker?

I spent the last of the night drifting in and out of fever dreams, waking up intermittently, sweaty and shaky. My husband snoozed peacefully beside me. At one point, my bowels cramped up and I wondered if it was just some atypical food poisoning event. In the morning, I decided I was on the mend, showered, got dressed and went to work. Because that’s what you do… So, that’s what I did. You’d have to be on your death bed to call in sick and, besides, I wanted to save my days off for Christmas.

*****

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I’ve thought about that night a lot over the last three years. The moment my immune system shifted permanently. My utter naïveté about what could happen to a body. Although I’d taken many premed classes and had quite a few health problems in my life, it really never occurred to me that I wasn’t unbreakable. Or, at least, if I broke, I assumed I’d be able to be fixed if I put in the work. I had been diagnosed with Graves Disease a few years earlier, told it would kill me without treatment, had radioiodine ablation on my thyroid and had to avoid people for two weeks. And, during all of this, I never took a day off of work. It also never crossed my mind to get a second opinion, talk to others with the same condition or change my eating and sleeping habits. I just popped the radioactive pill and got back to work. The same month, I was told I had reactivated EBV by a naturopath and was advised to cut back my work schedule from 55 hours a week to 20… Ha! I’m sure you can guess how that went. I never saw that doctor again. I was too busy.

I had never been intimately exposed to chronic illness, so I was completely ignorant to the toll it could take on a family. I imagined it would be hard, of course, but you can never understand without experiencing it. Everyone in my family is healthy, even my extended family. We have our demons, but they’re addictions, mental health problems, typical old age conditions. I had my first major bout of angeoedema when I was 23 and went into anaphylaxis for the first time when I was 28. My siblings are all in their 30s and 40s and haven’t had more than the occasional cold. My parents are in their 70s and both still work and are active and social.

I was a sick baby. People would famously stare at the itty bitty girl with the old man’s cough. If I’d understood what could happen to a body, if I’d been less in denial, if I’d been less concerned about proving my bullet-proof toughness, I might have looked back on my childhood and my chest infections, thyroid disease, vasovagal syncope and all the symptoms that turned out to be mast cell activation disorder and tried to make changes to protect myself. If I’d understood what can happen to a body, I might have tried to nurture what was obviously a sensitive system, armour myself against external assaults and preserve what was still working. I could have eaten food that didn’t come from a restaurant kitchen. I could have taken a vitamin once in a while and stopped drinking all of my water out of cheap plastic bottles. I could have made sleep a priority, quit smoking and drinking sooner and not married a job that turned a run-of-the-mill control freak into a spread-too-thin obsessive perfectionist, trying to do all things, everywhere, first and best.

It’s been exactly three years since M.E. shuddered through my body and I wonder if I’ll ever stop thinking about the life that I lost that day. I would take all of my previous health conditions over this one. It was like a death: of my career, of my strong body, of ignorant bliss, and of our future dreams. I think about the months leading up to it — the blatant warnings of a body in crisis that I chose to ignore. There was a nagging voice in my head that pushed me to make a will, living will and power of attorney the year prior, at the age of 36. That same voice made me insist on a quickie marriage in the back garden after my husband and I had been together 13 years. I wanted him to be able to speak for me if I happened to be incapacitated and have legal recourse and rights if I died. I did everything I needed to do for luck: old, new, borrowed, blue, coin in my shoe… We signed the papers on the patio table and, half way back to the kitchen to grab our lunch, I remembered the last thing needed to insure we didn’t jinx our new life: he carried me over our backdoor threshold. We didn’t tell anyone because we thought we’d have a proper ceremony with friends and family in the next year or two — maybe in Ireland or somewhere exotic on a beach. It was exciting to dream up plans for a wedding after so many years together. That was 44 days before my Halloween sickness.

My life feels like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books that I adored as a kid.

Move back to Ireland after college, turn to page 63 or drive across America to Seattle, turn to page 82.

Work your way up the restaurant corporate ladder, turn to page 103 or go to grad school for nutrition and dietetics, turn to page 123.
 
Jump in the lake in Virginia, just once, for only a few minutes, turn to page 146 or stay dry and don’t catch whatever is going to land you in the ER, wipe out your gut flora and set your immune system up for failure, turn to page 160.
 

Run into Walgreens on the way home from work and get a flu shot, turn to page 184 or keep on driving and live the rest of your life never having heard of myalgic encephalomyelitis, turn to page Happily Ever After.

I know, I know. You want to say it might have happened anyway. But it wouldn’t have. And you want to say I’ve got to stop ruminating over the what ifs and focus on the present. But it’s the Day of the Dead, a time to remember the dear departed. So, today, three years after the specter came to stay, I will think about the woman I lost that hallowed eve.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN

I’ll leave you on a happy note. November 1st is not only the anniversary of the first day of my new life with chronic illness, it is also the anniversary of my first born son, Bowie, arriving in our lives. ^^

Going to California

After two years of being housebound, only leaving my house for doctors’ appointments, never going to a friend’s house, coffee shop, grocery store or cinema, never taking a drive to look at the ocean or waterfalls or mountains, my longest excursion being a 45-minute journey to a doctor out of town, I’m going to California to see Dr. Chia.

I made the appointment months ago after rereading No Poster Girl’s advice for the newly diagnosed. I’ve seen 40 healthcare providers in Washington and really, truly feel that the only substantial help they have been is ruling out brain tumours and cancer. Countless visits, horrendous amounts of money and unimaginable energy expenditure… all wasted, unfortunately. Although, my physical therapist has helped my pain but, alas, I must stop seeing him after Monday because my private health insurance coverage ends.

I based my decision to see Dr. Chia mostly on geographical proximity, assuming that we would have to drive wherever we went. His practice is in L.A. I also considered Dr. Peterson (Reno), Dr. Kogelnik (San Francisco) and Dr. Bateman (Salt Lake City). The latter would probably be my first choice, but it seems she really isn’t taking new patients. I battled between Dr. Kogelnik and Dr. Chia, but decided on Dr. Chia mainly because I knew more about him. I have followed my friend Patrick’s experience with Dr. Chia closely, have read Christine McLaughlan’s articles on Health Rising, and have watched all of the ME/CFS Alert video interviews with him.

In a nutshell, Dr. Chia is an infectious disease specialist who believes enteroviruses are at the heart (or gut) of ME/CFS. I will never forget reading Patrick’s account of his ME onset. He said he had surfed at a dirty beach, became ill a few days later, recovered and then got the Tdap immunization and, 5 days later, crashed with ME and never recovered. I swam in a lake in Virginia, came down with a GI illness a day or two later, recovered and then got the flu vaccination and, 11 days later, had acute-onset ME. We had such similar etiologies, although, I believe Patrick was otherwise healthy and, in my case, these came on top of a plethora of other issues such as working too much, never resting, lots of dental work, lots of traveling, bronchitis, vasovagal syncope, angioedema, anaphylaxis, unknown detox issues, IBS-C blah blah blah. But I knew the diarrheal hell was the penultimate cause and the flu vaccination was the shot that broke my immune system’s back. So to speak.

I was in such bad shape last December, I didn’t think there was any chance of my being able to keep this appointment. Five months flew by and my husband and I hadn’t discussed the logistics of the trip or renting an RV or whatever (I don’t even think he knew I had made an appointment), but, before I called to cancel (because, seriously, who goes to California to see a doctor for an hour?), I asked the good people of Phoenix Rising whether they thought I should do it. They were incredibly supportive and answered with an overwhelming YES! Uh oh. Really? But, at this stage, I’d have to fly. I assumed I’d never fly again. I don’t know what a flight would do to my symptoms, let alone the whole trip. So, I asked my family what they thought and they answered with an overwhelming yes and, not only that, but they all offered to help in so many ways: come with me on the trip, stay in my home to watch the dogs, research rentals, help with money, accompany me to the appointment, donate miles for a plane ticket etc. I was flooded with love and encouragement and, suddenly, for no other reason than I wanted to ride the wave of excitement, I decided to go. If not for Dr. Chia, for me. To know that I could leave this house. To create new memories — even hard-won ones — that aren’t these four walls, this bed, this garden. The truth is, I’m terrified and I know enough about Dr. Chia’s treatments to know that it may be a one-off visit and it will probably be a dead-end. But, I’m still going to do it. And I’m going to close my eyes everyday until my departure date and envision safe travels with stable blood pressure, steady legs, no vertigo, no headaches, comfortable body temperature, no chemical or food reactions, no collapsing or swelling or bowel issues, and good sleep. I’ll write more details in my next post.