Tonight was supposed to be a date night with the boyfriend. Unfortunately, I’ve been nursing a headache all day that has been getting progressively worse, so we’re postponing until tomorrow night and I have vowed to not make myself ready for public consumption tonight even a tiny bit. Instead I’m listening to Enigma and thinking about how to put all of this week’s news together.
When I was little, I had a lot of problems with asthma and allergies. There was one time I had gone hog wild with the Cracker Jack tattoos and then went into anaphylactic shock shortly after from who knows what and was rushed to some kind of urgent care (though back in the 1970’s it wasn’t called that), and my mom and I remember that the doctors and nurses were momentarily amused to discover how enthusiastically I had stamped them onto my arms and legs when they hurriedly stripped me down to shoot me up with multiple adrenaline shots. I always had allergic reactions that seemed to come out of nowhere. I would have hives show up on my little cheeks that couldn’t be explained. We tried so many things, including eliminating dryer sheets and perfumed laundry soap. I could only bathe with certain soaps – I remember being disappointed that my friends had fun soaps with glitter, while mine tended to have real oatmeal and vaguely resembled excrement.
Often my allergies would turn into full-blown infections. My little body was so worn out from the allergic reactions that the microbes had an easy time of taking over, every time. I know now that specifically I am even more vulnerable because I have both IgG3 and IgG4 immunodeficiencies, so I cannot fight off infections like other people can, and my infections will always last longer.
One of the many things I always struggled with is cigarette smoke. I knew from a very young age that I was allergic to it; it wasn’t just that I didn’t care for the smell, but that it made my throat close up, like I was having an allergic reaction to it, much like what people experience when they are very allergic to cats (a more common allergy than dogs), or when they have a peanut or egg allergy. After being exposed for a few hours to cigarette smoke, it’s inevitable that I will develop an infection. Three of my four parents were smokers and so I always had sinus infections, bronchitis, ear infections and pneumonia growing up. Nowadays I’m thankful that most places in the U.S. have adopted laws banning smoking in indoor public places.
Animals are tough too. We had a cat that I loved very much but we ended up having to re-home her with our aunt after it was confirmed just how allergic I was to her; our dogs were outside dogs at my mom and step-dad’s house, but my dad and step-mom had an indoor dog. It seemed like I always had a sinus infection and/or bronchitis and/or an ear infection.
There are other allergies that I have noticed over the years that are not the usual suspects for most people. For instance, I get hives all along the entire surface of my body that has been in contact with brand new furniture. I’m not sure if it is the dye in the fabric or the chemicals in the padding that I’m allergic to, but it’s miserable. Also, commercial perfumes that the general public wears and Lysol are incredibly toxic to me. (When I used to work in the cubicle farm at Bank of America in Phoenix, I used to stand up and yell “Stop spraying!” if a co-worker started spraying Lysol in his or her cube because my throat would immediately start closing up. Everyone thought I was nuts.)
Lately I’ve been having some trouble with my pulse being about twice the normal rate and with my blood pressure being elevated. I also have burning and a metallic taste in my mouth, constant heartburn that no one to date has been able to pinpoint the source of, and of course the constant problems with my CSF, memory, word recall and crushing fatigue.
Back in October of 2015 at the urging of a friend, I made an appointment with Dr. Lawrence Afrin, who is fairly new to the University of Minnesota staff; he used to live in South Carolina and transitioned to Minnesota starting in 2013. When I moved here a year ago, I was trudging back and forth between appointments with doctors and labs and scans, and didn’t think much about what he had to offer me, quite honestly – I mean, I thought that what I had going on was better addressed in the areas I had already been concentrating on: neurosurgery, neurology, immunology, rheumatology. I couldn’t even find a regular primary care doctor who could handle me. I made the appointment anyway, but Dr. Afrin is in high demand, and they booked me for ten months later. I didn’t give him a second thought.
A month ago I received a call from his office with the offer to move my appointment to the end of June. I accepted. In the meantime, the same friend who urged me to make the appointment also bought me his book and sent it to me, so I quickly started reading it because of the pending appointment – “Never Bet Against Occam.” Within the first 20 pages I realized that I was reading about my own puzzling history. I started to assemble my list of questions and completed my 3-ring binder for the appointment.
Dr. Afrin is considered the national expert on a newly identified disease called Mast Cell Activation Disease (or Syndrome) or MCAD (or MCAS). It has only begun to be identified in the past 8 years, and he has been at the forefront of the movement to get it nailed down and classified. Everyone has mast cells. Everyone with this condition has a “normal” amount of cells, but they act in a very abnormal way. For some people, maybe it’s normal for them to have an allergic reaction to a mosquito bite. However, if they go into anaphylactic shock from the mosquito bite, then that might be considered MCAD if the actual number of mast cells didn’t increase.
Dr. Afrin first read through my records. Occasionally he quietly chuckled to himself as he read. At one point I asked him what was funny; he said that the signs I had MCAD were quite obvious. I told him to wait until he got to the part where I demanded to get azathioprine to try to stop rejecting the shunt, because I came up with that on my own, no one suggested it to me (I found out from his book that he prescribes chemo drugs such as azathioprine to MCAD patients in an attempt to try to find the right treatment).
In another section, he stopped and said, “Oh, Dr. T. here said that you have a mast cell disorder.” I said, “He read that I was coming to see you in the future. Let’s just ignore everything he said because he misdiagnosed me, shall we?” He laughed, but then later said I shouldn’t be so hard on my doctors in general because their main goal is quantity, not quality. I didn’t tell Dr. Afrin that he was my 53rd doctor at that point. I also didn’t want to go into an impassioned speech about how difficult it has been to lose my ability to work, to lose my house and car, my independence, and my sense of self-worth, all because doctors thought my case was too difficult and they just wanted easy cases.
Dr. Afrin thanked me for putting together such a complete medical history of the last six years. We talked about my life from birth to present and what were probably the signs of MCAD from the very beginning.
Here’s the plan: He’s going to request the biopsy samples from my upper GI (that I insisted on getting done on my own because I’ve been trying to figure out where this horrible acid reflux is coming from) so that they can be stained with the special stains that can show the concentrations of the mast cells. I’m going to have a bunch of blood work done next week. I’m also going to be sent home with a collection container that is going to live in my fridge for 24 hours. Can you guess what it’s for? Not Kool-Aid! Urine that I have to collect for 24 hours worth of peeing. That’s right. Then I have to transport that back to the lab, but first I have to pack it in a zip lock bag, pack it in ice, and then put it in a cooler. The urine has to stay cold or the components that have to be tested begin to degrade and become useless.
My sister and I had some good laughs over the whole refrigerated urine thing. First of all, I’m a bit of a germaphobe – partly because of the time I spent in nursing school and specifically in microbiology and all of that in-depth studying of bacteria, and partly because I know my immune system is weak. Second, I’m going to have to carry the cooler in my left hand because I have to walk with my cane in my right hand. Right now my left shoulder is in really bad shape because the tendons are likely frayed. What if I drop the cooler of urine? Am I destined for YouTube infamy when the bucket-o-urine splashes me in the face?
I’m thankful for this person steering me to Dr. Afrin. I’m trying not to get too excited because even though he’s 99% certain that I have MCAD, I’ve been down the 99% certain road before a few times, and it’s very emotionally draining to get misdiagnosed.