A Slap And A Poke

It’s crazy being me. I say this so many times. I had mentioned the rare disease in my regular every other Tuesday get-together (most everyone has heard about it at some point), and a new guy had it in his head that he was going to school me on how he was going to cure me with diet and a holistic doc. He had the usual probiotic and chelation recommendations but also insisted I should eat sauerkraut. He couldn’t believe that said sauerkraut would instantly release histamines and give me hives. He also couldn’t believe that the Mayo would turn me down. I told him that I don’t ask for advice because I am always 1-7 years ahead of anything anyone can ever tell me, and I’ve never met anyone with my particular neurological symptoms with the mast cell disease.

<sigh>

On Monday, I was supposed to get a high volume lumbar puncture. That was the way it was ordered. This meant that the opening pressure was supposed to be read AND fluid was supposed to be taken off. When I was in the fluoroscopy room, I asked the radiologists and staff if they could carefully document everything before and after because my symptoms would change. They then offered to have a physical therapist evaluate me. I said great, yes, no one has ever offered that to me so I didn’t know it was an option. So they called the doctor to see if he would change the order.

However, when they got the doc on the phone, he changed the order and said forget it, only get the pressure reading and don’t take any fluid off at all. I was floored. First he wanted at least four vials (which is a lot), and then he wanted nothing?? I said that even if the opening pressure was normal, if they took some off, they would still see an improvement in my symptoms for a few hours. The doc said no way. Do not take any fluid off.

The radiologist hung up with him. He told me that he couldn’t go against this new directive and I had two choices: go ahead and get the pressure reading only, or stop everything and come back some other time. But here’s the thing: I only got this lumbar puncture because I called this neurosurgeon that I saw two years ago and begged for it, because I haven’t had my pressure checked since then. My current neurologist has been telling me I’m overdraining (even though no one has checked me) and I’ve been saying that the pressure in my head is high when I’m upright, and I felt like getting this check would help settle the fight. But the neurosurgeon wouldn’t agree to see me in the office. This was all I was going to get. So I went ahead.

I don’t metabolize Lidocain properly, so even though the radiologist juiced me up liberally, it wasn’t enough. It was also tough for him to penetrate my dura – possibly because of the sclerosing issue caused by my high histamine levels. After all of that pain my opening pressure came up as a boring normal level. Nothing to see here, folks. Except it completely rules out what my neurologist is saying about my shunt overdraining. My guess about why it’s not giving me a high reading is that the pressure lowers when I’m flat. There’s only been a couple of times when I’ve had high readings and I’ve been flat.

On Monday night, I ate some homemade spaghetti sauce and woke up the next morning to find that my entire mouth had swelled up, and the lining had sloughed off. I also had sores all over the inside. So tomatoes are now a big no-no. That’s a bummer because I make killer chili and lasagna.

Also kind of new in the past few weeks is another diagnosis. I’ve been struggling with this for at least the last 7 years as well. Doctors were telling me that I must be doing something wrong, blah blah blah. It’s super painful. I have hidradenitis suppurativa. I’ve had it come up in two different areas not close to each other and had to have “surgical intervention,” which makes it officially grade II. I’ll be seeing a new doctor Monday to talk about injections; it’s controlled by a medication that is similar to Imuran, which I was on in the past. The crazy thing is, I saw a very extreme case of it a month prior on a British show on Netflix called “Embarrassing Bodies” but had no idea that it was the same as what I had brewing. (Let me tell you, if you are fascinated by all things medical, that’s a good one to watch.)

Back To Life, Back To Reality

I had the pleasure of planning my arts high school’s 25th reunion for my classmates. It’s difficult to explain, but our school was unlike any other that most people have attended. It’s a public school and we came from all over the state of Minnesota, we had to audition or submit portfolios as well as letters of recommendation, we lived on campus like a college, and we created life-long friendships (most of us). I’m not saying it was without flaws. But going to college was a complete let-down because we already did it all, and our skills were senior level when we went to our respective schools post-high school.

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The reunion officially lasted nine hours. We started with performances, some dancing, I handed out random door prizes (which included ramen, Pop Tarts or macaroni and cheese plus sticks of margarine but NOT milk – because we never had milk; also Nerf guns, and cassette tapes such as Crash Test Dummies, The Sundays, REM, M.C. Hammer, Bullet Boys, anything that would have been released by 1992). Then we headed over to a pub that served microbrews and sausages where whomever couldn’t make it to the portion at school hung out with us there. We were officially done at 10 pm, but some people wanted to keep partying, so they went back to one couple’s hotel room and kept it going until 4 am. I didn’t – I was toast.

(By the way, the picture with the classmates trying to pull open the doors is something I didn’t find out about until later. They were giving themselves a tour, not realizing that they locked themselves in an area and they would have to wait for someone to randomly walk by and let them out.)

Our turnout was excellent. My classmates are literally scattered around the U.S. and the globe. I haven’t lived in Minnesota for 20 years and would have been counted as an out-of-towner if I hadn’t been forced to move back because of my circumstances. I know that I have classmates in Sweden, South Africa, the UK and France for sure, but I’m also sure that I’m missing some places. So to have this many show up is considered a small victory. And everyone was helpful, mostly sober and didn’t want to leave.

When I was attending school here, my major was theater (located directly to the right of the dancing space where everyone is slapping hands and their shoes are off). I discovered there that I had a natural affinity for organization and detail. So that was the reason that I gave everyone for wanting to organize the 25th reunion.

But I had an ulterior motive.  Two years ago, and even continuing through to today, a lot of the classmates that traveled back for the reunion (either by driving or flying) have helped me. When I relocated from Phoenix to St. Paul, they contributed to a fund. Sometimes they organize and send me gifts. A lot of them have their own hardships to worry about, so I appreciate their contributions even more for that reason. So the fact that I could work out every damn detail for them and all they had to do is show up was great – and even better that they all had a really great time and didn’t want to leave. 

Unfortunately, I did have to ask for some work from a few of them, but being the wonderful people that they are, they stepped up and said of course, and blew the rest of us away. The school was under great scrutiny and was nearly closed, and I had gone to all of the state senators and representatives, asking them to come to about an hour and a half of our reunion to meet us to see what had become of one of the first graduating classes from this school. One of the representatives, Mike Freiberg, happened to be a classically trained pianist and agreed to accompany our opera singer – and wow! It was fantastic! In all, we had two writers, a violinist, an opera singer, and a dance instructor.

Pictured below is an example of many of the lockers – students are allowed to paint them however they choose. Also, the woman in the phone booth is one of the readers from the performances. The phone booth is an infamous one; it was down the road from us and is from before the advent of cell phones, and we all used to walk down the road to use it when we wanted privacy. 


So for the week after the reunion, I stayed in bed. It was totally worth it. I love these people. Some of them I’m lucky enough to see frequently, and some I suppose I’ll have to wait another 25 years to see, but we know we had a unique experience and kinda feel sorry for people who had to drag through regular schools. We had a completely amazing experience for our junior and senior years.

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Today, I had a doctor’s appointment for an outpatient surgical procedure. I’m not going to go into detail for what it was. I was just dreading it. So I got the usual notification from the cab company that the driver was on his way, and then I got a notification that he was outside. So I went out. He wasn’t out there. Sometimes it happens that the notification comes about 60 seconds before the cab. I wasn’t alarmed.

However, after waiting for about 12 minutes, the cab still didn’t show. Today the temp was 91 degrees Farenheit, and Minnesota is humid this time of year. Also a problem: My high-rent building’s front door was vandalized, so I can’t actually get in with my key. If I want to enter the building, I have to walk around to the back, which is the equivalent of walking the length of a city block because the spaces between the buildings are fenced and locked off. I also had no idea when this cab was going to show. So I called the cab company.

They claimed he was five minutes away. I have a GPS tracking map and he hadn’t moved. I explained that the heat makes my condition worse. I also can’t go back inside because I can’t go in the front. They told me to just wait. This is what happens to me because the cerebrospinal fluid builds up in my cranium because my shunt hasn’t worked for two years:

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Many times my facial droop has been mistaken for myasthenia gravis. I can assure you that I do not have that. I can actually slosh my CSF around, and when I tilt my head parallel to the floor, the paralysis goes away within seconds. Also, my face is not swollen. The muscles on the left have relaxed because they are paralyzed.

I was actually stuck out in the heat for a total of 35 minutes. When the driver finally got there, he first tried to force me to cross the road to him. I can’t see very well like this – this is as far as my eyes will open. When he finally came to my side of the road, he parked up the street so I had to walk to him, even though there were spots open in front of me. When I got in the car, I asked him to turn on the air conditioning. He told me I had to wait until he “got going.”

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When he finally did turn on the a/c, it was at the lowest setting to spite me. I had to tip over in the back seat to take the pressure off of my head, which at that point was absolutely unbearable.

When I got to my appointment, they took me back to the exam room and got me on the table. However, I wasn’t doing so well. The nurse and the PA both said I looked grey and the PA reclined the table while the nurse ran to get me some sugary drink. I whipped off my wig and they slapped wet cloths on my neck and head. I could tell my pulse was all over the place, but I knew this wasn’t a blood sugar problem – those feel completely different to me. [I am getting checked for POTS next month.] When I got up from the table, I saw that I had completely soaked through the paper with my sweat, which was disgusting, but they said it was an obvious sign that I was in distress. We made sure everything had returned to normal and we got on with it.

I absolutely wrote up a complaint to the cab company, with details and times. They have a contract with my insurance company, and if this driver can’t handle medical rides, he shouldn’t get them. Period. 

Give Me A Break

On Thursday afternoon, I saw my 59th doctor, a neurosurgeon. At least, I think he was #59. I don’t feel like going back in my previous posts to make sure. I could be like that person who doesn’t want to admit that their birthdays keep happening so they claim to be 29 & holding.

The ride out was long. The conversation with the cabbie was lively. His name was Isaac. I found out he has a wife and five children who still live in Uganda. He goes back every 6-8 months to spend time with them when he has saved up enough money. I can’t imagine having to live like that, my loves living half a world away. He told me about the worst job he ever had (digging pits that were 20 feet deep, 16×16 wide/long with a pick ax and then having to haul away the dirt himself because there was no machinery). The pits were for storing water. We talked about what shocked him the most when he moved to Minnesota the first time, which was snow (before global warming kicked in, the state used to get dumped on so that sometimes the snow would be thigh high) and teenage pregnancy (in his culture, girls would live with their parents until they were married and they never spent time with boys until the marriage happened). We talked about how violent men are towards women in the States, and how women are so accommodating and undemanding of the men, as in, “It’s okay if you don’t work. Here, lemme make you a sandwich and buy you a house.” See? Lots of sharing.

In my appointment, I first talked the physician’s assistant through everything and demonstrated how my symptoms disappear when I tilt my head parallel to the floor. He asked if I had seen the one doctor I had asked to see, and I said I hadn’t. He asked why, and I said, “Because he said there wasn’t anything wrong with me.” The PA couldn’t hide his bafflement. He said it was obvious that my ventricles were completely gone. He did a few of the standard neurological tests like having me squeeze my eyes shut, follow his finger with my eyes, push and pull his arms, etc. Then he went to get the neurosurgeon.

The neurosurgeon came in and after our introductions, he said he had talked to my neurologist. He mentioned that they thought I was overdraining, and I shot that down immediately. I told him that my lumbar puncture came out with a high opening pressure and I hadn’t had anything surgically done since then. I also told him that I had a leak for an entire year so I know the difference between overdraining and underdraining and they are completely different sensations. For me, the underdraining always brings vertigo, fatigue and the facial droop. Overdraining will never bring paralysis for me; instead, I get the tire-iron-beating-me-in-the-skull pain. 

We talked about the fact that there hasn’t been new shunt materials in ages. We talked about the near-impossible task of finding materials that I won’t be allergic to since I’ve had so many already and I’ve reacted to them.

We also talked about the mass that’s growing on my right side. I asked him if it was at least possible to take that out. I’ve been having pain on the right side that radiates down my neck, and if it’s killing brain tissue and turning it to jelly (which it is according to the MRI), then I’d like to get rid of it. However, because of where it is – in my cerebellum – it’s in a bad spot for a craniotomy. As of November it had grown to about the size of a quarter (not sure what size it is now). 

The neurosurgeon doesn’t want to operate on me at this point. He wants to repeat the upright MRI in about six months to check the size of the mass. He expects it to interfere with my coordination; it might be what’s causing my legs to jerk uncontrollably right now.

So, that’s the plan. Follow up in six months. No surgery right now. Wait for the mass/tumor to get bigger and my symptoms to get worse.

Luckily the same cab driver drove me back – he stayed nearby so it wouldn’t be a long wait for me, thank goodness. The office was really way out in the middle of nowhere by city standards. But the ride back was completely different. Isaac was trying to get me to talk, but I couldn’t. I was overwhelmed and upset, and trying (but failing) not to cry in front of this total stranger. It was just a few sniffles, not an ugly cry, thank goodness. 

That evening I got home and received a notice that my primary care doctor is leaving the practice (and maybe even the state). During our last visit in March she had tried to talk to me about palliative care, but said she would wait for me to decide.

Just so I don’t lose my mind, I have to stop pursuing another opinion on the neurosurgery side for the time being. I’m getting a lot of well-meaning advice about how I should just “stay strong” and “keep going” and “don’t give up.” Honestly, though, I’ve been going at this for nearly seven years. This isn’t fibromyalgia, which I’ve had for 20 years – and I’m not knocking anyone who has it, it’s a beast; and this isn’t Hashimoto’s, which I’ve had for 12 years and again I’m not trying to put anyone down, but this is a whole new level of sick. I was able to work through that shit, even if I had to sleep after work and sleep through weekends. My brain is literally being crushed and I have a mass that’s growing in my cerebellum. There aren’t good days and bad days. I need a break from having to be my own advocate for this really rare orphan disease as I drag my sick ass around from neurosurgeon to neurosurgeon to try to convince them that what they are seeing is real (because it’s right there on the MRI).  

In the meantime, I have plenty of other things to keep me busy and other doctors to visit. We just won’t be tapping into my skull right now.

All You Need Is Your (Whole) Health Back (Movie and Book Review)

Half of the adult population around the globe has some sort of chronic condition, varying in severity. Some are lucky enough to barely be bothered by it except as a reminder on their calendars once every few years to get checked by a doctor for any notable changes. Others can’t move an eyelash without being reminded that their body has taken on a long-term burden and there’s no relief in sight. A huge majority fall somewhere in between. Because of this, and social stigmas falling away regarding the discussion of chronic conditions, the market is being flooded with all kinds of materials and “how to” manuals for coping.

Through the Chronic Illness Bloggers group, I was lucky enough to be given these two products as part of a product review through the Chronic Illness Bloggers network. Although these products were a gift, all opinions in this review remain my own and I was in no way influenced by the company.

The two items that I was given in tandem were a documentary called “The Connection,” and a book called “The Whole Health Life.” I didn’t approach either medium with any expectations, which turned out to be a good thing, because I tend to be very particular and picky – I don’t want my movies or reading materials to be too “preachy,” nor do I want them to assume that I know nothing about my diseases. Most of the time I see manuals out on the market that are written with new patients in mind, not with 20-year war veterans like me.

First, I’d like to cover “The Connection.” I’ll admit, I reached for this first because I didn’t feel like I had the attention span to get me through a book right out of the gate. I was quite pleasantly surprised. It was a good pace, but not overwhelming, while still giving the audience constant reliable information to process. For instance, I learned about “medical hexing” – many patients are told by doctors that we’re not going to get better. Would you believe it if I told you that two weeks ago, my primary care doctor told me that I should just give up and accept that I will never find a neurosurgeon who will be willing to help me with another shunt surgery and who will take my tumor out? Boy, is that ever a hex! But a hex doesn’t have to be that obvious. It can be about giving you a pill rather than looking at your whole lifestyle and looking at what can be improved upon. 

More points from the movie hit home for me, especially since I’m having such a hard time finding doctors who will help me. For instance, if I have zero support – friends, family, doctors – I’m three times more likely to die early. Luckily I have some really great family and friends. Also, belief is part of why we get better, but it takes both the doctor and the patient believing. So far, I don’t have the doctors backing me up. And I also learned from the film that our genes do play a major role in what we do develop as far as diseases go, but our life experiences and our environment also trigger the genes. In other words, you could be perfectly fine but if you go wading knee deep through an oil spill, chances are that MS is going to come leaping out that has been lurking all these years.

So if you haven’t picked up on it, the documentary “The Connection” got my attention. Because of that, I was confident that the book “The Whole Health Life” would be engaging – and it was. And that says a lot, especially coming from someone who has the attention span of a gnat at the moment.

As readers, we can spend more time on the book, relating to what the writer is saying about wading through the soup of pain and foggy brain, trying to get through an able-bodied world and looking normal on the outside. Immediately the author, Shannon Harvey, introduces the core concept: we cannot deal with health by separating “body” health and “mental” health. They are intertwined and inseparable. A pill may address one portion and meditation may address another portion and talk therapy may address yet another potion and engaging in positive social activities may be uplifting, but when consumed in isolation, they hardly make a difference. When combined, they improve a person’s well-being by leaps and bounds. Ms. Harvey breaks it down into 10 topics to easier process and incorporate the practices into daily living.

For me, meditation is difficult. As I mentioned before, my mind is more that of a squirrel than it is a turtle, but she talks about the benefits of calming the mind and recommends a few easy steps that anyone can pick up. Emotions logically follow right after that. What are we doing to process our emotions? What do we allow to play on our inner recording? And then there is the “placebo effect.” Let’s try changing the name of this, the taking of sugar pills and still seeing positive results, as if a patient has taken “real” medicine; what is really at work is the power of belief. The belief that a patient can heal and become well again (or at least have an improved life) that comes with the motion of the taking of the medicine is just as powerful as the drug itself and has been documented for hundreds of years; it’s why people “pray” when it seems all hope for recovery is lost.

Of course, on the physical side, what we put into our bodies and how we move our bodies makes a huge difference. Eating the foods that are the best for us, sleeping the right amount and exercising to the best of our abilities are all important in our recovery and maintenance.

As a “spoonie,” as those of us are known who have chronic conditions that cause fatigue and pain, many of us keep blogs, as I do, as well as participate on social media like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. We seek out others who are like us. We appreciate having others who understand our daily (and sometimes hourly, minute-by-minute and second-by-second) struggles. I think that “The Whole Health Life” would be a good book to read and re-read because we tend to get stuck in patterns that reinforce the negative feedback loop – myself included. If someone isn’t feeling up to concentrating on words, then they can sit back and watch “The Connection” for some reinforcement.

Please visit the documentary movie “The Connection” here.

You may purchase the book “The Whole Health Life” by Shannon Harvey through Amazon here.

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Gender Bias: It’s Not Just for Work

Everyone is going crazy for this article that was published about a man and his subordinate who swapped names as an experiment to show gender bias in the workplace. Really, it’s not so much an article as it is a series of tweets, but you get the full picture. And REALLY really, if you’re a woman and you’ve worked outside of the home or if you’re a woman and you’ve been outside of your front door, you know how this went.

We Swapped Names and I Was So Surprised (Said Every Male)

But if you know anything about my blog or about me, I write about my experiences as a woman in the American healthcare system. Now I’m a really concerned woman as I watch a very out-of-touch bunch of Republican-led lawmakers work on dismantling the social safety nets that will help keep me housed and fed as a disabled adult with no chance of working (at least, not now, for as long as I’m allergic to the shunts they keep putting in me).

A huge barrier to my care is the fact that I’ve seen 57 doctors in 6.5 years, and a good number of them have told me to go away and not come back. My disease and symptoms scare them. They can’t diagnose me. I can tell them exactly what’s happening with my body, but they don’t believe me – they tell me it’s not possible, even when I demonstrate it and they see it with their own eyes.

I was told by someone close to me – a man – that I probably wasn’t doing something right. I wasn’t advocating enough. I wasn’t demanding enough. I wasn’t yelling enough. I wasn’t stoic enough. I was probably too emotional, or not enough, or not the right combo. I was just the wrong kind of patient and it was hurting my case.

By the time you get to 57 doctors in 6.5 years, you learn a lot of tactics: cajoling, crying, stoicism, joking, demanding, taking binders of info (so they can’t claim that they don’t have enough of your info at hand to continue).

My conclusion is that I just don’t have a penis. I wouldn’t be doubted. I wouldn’t be treated as if I’m being over-dramatic or like I can’t handle four-syllable words.

I always invite someone who has told me that I’m not doing enough to come with me. Of course that person suddenly becomes too busy to join me…but not too busy to dispense advice from his armchair.

Are You An Organ Donor?

I have friends who have received organs from living donors, from cadaver donors and from donors who have indicated that they wanted to donate their organs and tissues in the event that they suffered trauma that they could not recover from.

There just aren’t enough organs for the people that are listed. And organ rejection is a real concern. But scientists are looking to pigs to fill in the gaps on how we can avoid rejection:

New Hope in Organ Donation Crisis

Also, this story has been making headlines from the Mayo clinic, based here in Minnesota. It’s the first facial transplant that the Mayo has attempted. It was also surreal to realize as I was originally reading the article that I have a personal connection to one of the families. I was not much younger than Lilly when her mom and I met each other and became fast friends while attending a school for the arts. I can’t imagine going through all that she has – marriage, pregnancy, the sudden loss of her spouse, and then deciding to go ahead with this donation – at her age, but damn, she has done good. By the way, their baby boy is absolutely adorable, and absolutely adored.

Mayo Clinic Performs First Face Transplant

We have so far to go with science and healthcare. We don’t know all there is to know. We have to keep moving forward, and supporting lawmakers who approve budgets for science.

 

How Much Do I Owe The Swear Jar This Time?

A couple of weeks ago I got the last of my fillings repaired as part of the bigger, year-long, multiple visits to the dentist that were caused by me clamping my jaw in my sleep because of the pain in my shoulder and abdomen. I also had to make sure that they marked in my chart that I had slit ventricle syndrome and the tumor because they love to tip me waaaaaaaaay back in the chair and it really messes with the pressure in my head.

There was a mixup with my appointment and they got me back much later than my start time, which caused me to have to call my transportation to pick me up later; unfortunately, transportation had to leave me until 2 hours after I was done, which caused the fluid to build up a lot, which means I was hella uncomfortable and my vision was cut down quite a bit. But before that, I had a weird/comical/maddening exchange with the staff in the back.

I require four times the amount of numbing medication because my sodium channels don’t process pain meds correctly. Both of the teeth we worked on were in my upper jaw, so I ended up being numb up to my forehead. When they sat me up after I was patched up, they told me I could walk to Walmart down the road (as if! No way am I giving them my money!). I said no. They said I could then walk somewhere else. I again said no. They asked me why. In the best way I could with a very numb tongue/lips, I said, “I can’t theecuz oth wuth wrong with ny vrane.” The assistant, who was none too bright, said, “WHAT’S WRONG WITH YOUR VEINS??” I said, “No. Ny vrane. Vrane.” And I pointed at my head. The assistant dentist asked what was wrong, and I said, “I can’t do anyfing vat vill nake ny vlood mressure go umph. I cood have a stroke and nigh.” The assistant dentist asked what the doctors were doing to help. I said, “I can’t fine anyvun who vill take ny case. I’n lergic to da shuns. I need to fine stuff I wone vee lergic to.”

Then the dental assistant piped up and said, “Well, I don’t blame the doctors. I’m sure they don’t want to feel bad if it doesn’t work out for you.”

I shot her a look and said, “I cood die wifout helf. Da pressoo keefs goin’ uf in ny head and if I can’t get sunfing in to work, it vill kill nee.”

Without hesitating, she said cheerfully, “Well, I can see both sides.” Like we’re debating whether to have fish or chicken, instead of whether or not it’s better to kick the bucket to spare doctors’ feelings. She stuck with her “too bad for you” attitude.

At the end of December, my case was referred to the top neurosurgeon in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area after it was discovered that my brain had literally collapsed under the pressure, as well as started growing a tumor from the scar tissue that was left in from a previous shunt that is now about the size of a quarter. I know he got the radiology report that listed all of my symptoms. I know he got the impressions from the neurologist because he seemed to answer her question about whether I’m overdraining.

His reply was that my brain was fine and the tumor was no big deal. He also said the shunt isn’t overdraining. Now I’m not allowed to see him either. 

Here’s the deal: I know I’m not overdraining. If I were, I wouldn’t have high opening pressures every time they do a lumbar puncture. The overdraining assumption is strictly my new neurologist’s misunderstanding of slit ventricle syndrome – she’s trying to make my symptoms fit, instead of paying attention to what’s going on. Second, the brain tissue around the shunt and the tumor is turning to jelly. This isn’t normal and it’s a big deal. Third, the tumor is causing measurable cognitive damage. Fourth, and I’ll show you pictures, but my ventricles disappeared, and my brain has literally collapsed.

mymriscreenshots

I have new insurance that started on February 1st that comes with an advocate and a care coordinator, so I’m waiting for them to contact me, which is the norm. I smell a lot of research in my future for trying to figure out what I can try for the next shunt system, and I’m not looking forward to it, but I also know no one else will do it but me.

Can You Repeat That?

The last couple of weeks of December were a revelation.

I spent 20 years away from my family over the holidays, and I learned very early not to make a big deal out of the days we had off in November and December. When I’ve had serious boyfriends and we’ve lived close to their parents or grandparents, I’ve ended up at their houses, but if not, I’ve stayed at home and cooked whatever I’ve wanted to eat and overloaded on movies. A few times I’ve gone to friends’ houses – and one time that I did that, bringing my most recent ex with me, is a story still told today. My friend’s mom introduced us as, “Hi everybody, this is Chelsea, and this is ______, and they used to be boyfriend and girlfriend, and now they’re not, so I don’t know.” This was about 18 years ago, and when I reminded my friend, she started reminding her mother, and her mother finished the story, so yeah, it’s still fresh in her memory.

This holiday season really felt like a roller coaster. I received the results from the upright MRI. Just a few days after that, I received some medical records from a doctor I had seen one time for 20 minutes in August of 2015 when I was trying to find a primary care doctor who would take me on as a patient. I remember this one visit because the doctor had been so friendly, but I knew she was struggling with understanding the complexity of my conditions, and I had to repeat some information. I carried my previous records with me but she wasn’t interested in looking at them, she just wanted me to tell her again.

I was relieved at the end of the visit because it seemed like she was willing to take on the basic care like ordering my thyroid and cholesterol labs for my Hashimoto’s stuff. But then a week later I received a call stating that I had to find a new primary care doctor because she left the practice – she received notification that she passed an exam for a different field. I was floored. If you’re anticipating leaving, why take on new patients??

But the real kicker is getting her notes from that 20-minute visit now. Because I had to repeat myself, she wrote that I was “bragging” about my surgeries, and that I had Munchausen’s.

It’s really hard to read that in the same week that I received results saying that my brain has literally collapsed and I have tissue growing like a tumor and doing damage to my memory and speech. (Today I couldn’t remember why I called the county regarding picking out a vendor for medical assistance.) I still have a hard time talking about what’s going on, to get the words out. It’s serious. What’s happening is that the pressure in my cranium keeps rising, and it’s going to keep rising until it’s the same pressure as my blood pressure and I have a massive stroke and die. The two methods they have of treating it don’t work for me. First, the medication to reduce the CSF production has been proven not to make any difference for me. It’s been tried multiple times. Second, implanting another shunt isn’t going to work; I’m allergic to them all. I’m now at the point where I clog them and strangle them within days. I simply don’t have options at this point.

I also just got notes from a neurosurgeon from the University of Minnesota that I saw a year ago, from one of the guys I have nicknamed the Three Stooges. He was one of the three doctors who saw my MRI from July 2015 that had the beginnings of the slit ventricle syndrome and a smaller version of the tumor, and observed my fatigue, vertigo, facial droop, unsteady gait, and resolution of some of the symptoms when I tilted my head to move the fluid around. In my file he wrote that I “walk with a cane and can’t perform a tandem walk” but that I’m “fine.” He also stated that if anything changed, they would welcome me back to the neurosurgery department.

Fuck that. He’s not going anywhere near my brain when I’m unconscious. He obviously can’t handle it.

But the one bright light in all of this swamp of shit was that on December 27th, I received a voice mail from a case worker with the State of Minnesota. She simply stated her name and said that she approved my case for disability. As soon as I heard it, I immediately burst into tears. Being approved by the state doesn’t mean that I receive any kind of financial compensation, but it does assist me when I’m applying for housing – I can officially state that I’m disabled – and I also qualify for medical assistance as a disabled person instead of just a person living at or below poverty. It will also help to make my case stronger when it comes time for my hearing with the federal case, which I still don’t have a date for yet. My attorney thinks it’s still “some months” away.

Gold, Frankincense, Myrrh, and Brain Damage

Happy Holidays! Froeliche Weihnachten! Happy Hanukkah! Happy Kwanzaa!

What is Santa/Kris Kringle/Krampus/Monito-monita, that crazy, overgrown elf/Viking who has nothing to do with a mythical baby born in a stable bringing you this winter solstice/Christmas/yule?

I already got my gift, but nothing like what the three wise men brought across the desert. At the beginning of November I saw a new neurologist who agreed to give me everything that I seemed to be missing: an upright MRI, a neuro psych test, and keep me on as a patient, as confusing as my case is. Three days after our initial meeting the doctor who administers the neuro psych tests had a cancellation so I didn’t have to wait four months. A neuro psych test is a series of tasks to evaluate my real brain functionality – not just the few words a doctor might ask you to remember a few minutes later, like “pencil,” “dog,” and “purple.” I had to take many different kinds of timed tests, including drawing, making linear connections, making word associations, and answering personality questions. That’s the short version.

I didn’t have any problem with drawing pictures from memory. I was shown simple lines and boxes and then given a blank piece of paper a half hour later and could draw them in sequence perfectly. However, when it came to things like giving a list of words that began with a certain letter in the space of 60 seconds, it was like the bottom of my brain fell out. I could only give four words for the letter “A,” and they were very simple words like “an” and “apple.” There were four letters total, and each letter was a challenge. I can only remember the letter “A” at this point.

There was another exercise where the tester gave me a list of words that included pieces of furniture, animals, and modes of transportation. Every time I repeated the list back, I always tried to give it back in order, I never tried to group everything together in like groups. It never occurred to me. However, if I had full functionality, it probably would have. I also could never remember more than a few words, even though I’m guessing the list was repeated more than 20 times.

They wanted to see how I could do with repeating numbers back, so they started with three numbers, then four, then five. As soon as I got to five, I started struggling. At six, I couldn’t repeat any numbers, not even the last two or three of the group. Again, it was like the bottom of my brain dropped out.

There were many other tests, but in the interest of space and to save some face, I’ll stop there. You get the idea.

A few weeks later when I could meet with the doctor who administered the test, she confirmed what I dreaded hearing but suspected: I have brain damage. Since I’ve never had an evaluation done before there’s nothing to compare it to, but she said she could tell that in some areas my knowledge base and functionality was “superior,” or above the level of a college-educated woman. However, the brain damage affected my memory and speed and speech and brought those areas down to true mental impairment.

A few days ago I went into the office for part II of my follow-up to look at the actual scans of my upright MRI. My MRI did not look good.

normalventricles

Above is a progressive MRI scan of a brain (not mine), moving down from top to bottom. As you move further down, you notice that the part in the middle gets larger and darker; that’s the ventricles. They are the four chambers that are the gold standard for figuring out if there’s a problem with CSF in the brain. This is what normal looks like.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any ventricles left. All of them have collapsed. My brain is pressing on the brain stem and I’m having all kinds of unusual problems, like my legs suddenly jerking if I’m standing and I look down briefly. Of course I have the problems I’ve always had, like the vertigo and the fatigue, and that pesky facial droop and ptosis (pronounced “toe-sis”). My new neurologist insisted that the disappearance of my ventricles must mean that I’m overdraining, but I knew that I must be suffering from Slit Ventricle Syndrome, and it means just the opposite – the pressure is crushing my brain.

UCLA has a pretty good explanation of Slit Ventricle Syndrome. I’m 100% certain that my shunt is “nearly blocked but barely flowing.” I always, always feel like my intracranial pressure is extremely high. It’s exhausting. So for now, it looks like I have Slit Ventricle Syndrome, and I’m not sure if this would have been picked up before this point – at least not two or three years ago, even though the symptoms are the same. I don’t recall that my ventricles have looked this horrific in all of my 20+ prior MRIs.

Also troubling is trouble brewing at the back of my skull. In 2013 I had two cisternoperitoneal shunts placed when my neurosurgeon was trying to find anything, anything, that my body wouldn’t reject. After we removed those and I ended up with a ventriculoperitoneal shunt, he barely got the old one out after a lot of scraping and pulling because of the scar tissue that had built up along the tract. A surgery that should have been an hour and a half turned into five hours and I was left with a huge highway of bruising from my head to my abdomen.

Unfortunately, he thought that it wasn’t detrimental to leave scar tissue in my head, and in fact may help to plug the burr hole where he drilled for surgery so I wouldn’t have any leaks. I knew what it was like to have a CSF leak; 2014 was incredibly painful when I had a leaking shunt for that whole year. The scar tissue has been increasing in diameter and it’s now growing like a tumor. From what I can tell it’s about the size of a quarter, and it’s pressing on the area of the brain that deals with memory and speech. It’s actually a long rope but it’s got a huge bulb, and if I press on the burr hole, it yanks on the area it’s attached to right behind my ear.

In plain English: My brain is being crushed. My shunt isn’t working. I’m growing my own tumor that was started by my scar tissue.

My challenge is that I’m allergic to the shunt materials. Also, now that the scar tissue is turning into a growing tumor, can we take it out without creating a leak, and when we pull it out, will the area it’s damaging have permanent damage or will it heal?

Also, can I fucking qualify for disability now? Everything that I’m reading about Slit Ventricle Syndrome says that it’s a permanent condition – there’s no going back.

Within the next few weeks (because of the holidays messing everything up) I’ll find out when I can get in with the best neurosurgeon in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. He came highly recommended by other hydrocephalus patients when I attended the hydrocephalus conference including the mother of Olivia, the young woman who had 123 surgeries since birth and who is now aged 20.

I am also in the process of finding an occupational therapist for an evaluation that can be included in my records for my attorney and disability case.

I’m going to share the most personal thing I possibly can and have up to this point, because some of you may doubt how much this has affected me because I have created coping mechanisms. It has taken me two full days to write this post and writing even the simplest words is sometimes a struggle. But the hardest thing for me to do to date was to send out holiday cards. At one point I had to stop writing for about a half hour because I broke down in tears. Hand writing words without the benefit of being able to go back and erase them and rewrite them like I do in the computer almost caused me a panic attack because I could no longer remember how to write even single-syllable words. For the people who did get cards, there was a lot more crossing out and scribbling than I would have liked. Maybe you noticed that I started to write an “E” where there should have been an “L” first. Sometimes I couldn’t even remember how to write my own name correctly – I would skip letters.

I don’t have all of the answers. I still – STILL – don’t know what’s causing the imbalance with the CSF in my brain. I don’t know if taking out the scar tissue/tumor is going to alleviate the memory and speed problems. I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to tolerate an appliance in my body. I definitely don’t want to hear, “But you look fine!” or “Have you tried _____?”

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