We’re Breaking Up

“There’s plenty of fish in the sea.”

Are there, though? I want someone who really listens to me and understands where I’m coming from, who sees me for who I am and not who they think they would like me to be. I’m sure they wish I would lose a little weight, or dress a little better. Maybe they wish I would talk about something else besides always going back to my rare disease. But I can’t, because it rules my life.

I’m talking about my doctors, of course. They keep breaking up with me – or at least, it feels like it. And this is incredibly difficult as a rare disease patient.

The first one to jump ship was my primary care doctor. To be honest, I was a little relieved. I had had a difficult time landing her in the first place – other doctors writing things in my records such as “Munchausen’s” – but most recently she had told me to stop looking for a solution and to just accept it, and that there probably wasn’t anything really wrong with me. She had seen my MRI and claimed that she didn’t know enough about the brain to make a judgement call about what she was looking at, but JFC, even I could see that if all of the big, cavernous spaces are gone and the corpus callosum looks like Charlie Brown’s hair swirl, there’s a problem. Anyway, hers was the first letter to arrive on the University’s letterhead.

The second was my pain doctor. I knew about his desertion ahead of time because we talked about it during my last visit with him. He worked it out so I can remain his patient at his next office. HOORAY. I don’t have to train in another doctor. I like him. We have mutual respect. But I still got his letter on the University’s letterhead and an official-sounding offer to continue my care there with someone else, if I wanted. (No, thanks.)

The third one was my mast cell disease doctor. This one is actually extremely devastating. I felt quite lucky to have found him and to have gotten my diagnosis, and then to have been under his care for about a year. The problem with this disease is that it was only named about nine years ago, and so not much is known about it. I probably fit into a different subcategory from a lot of people because my CSF and dura have been affected.

The mast cell disease doctor is relocating from Minneapolis to New York. His goal is to further his research; he will make himself available to any doctors who reach out to him with questions. He will also see patients on a cash-only basis: $2,000 each for the first two visits, then $650 for each visit after that. 

I can understand why the mast cell disease doctor would want this type of arrangement. He would not be at the mercy of insurance companies. He could run his office and research with full autonomy and receive complete compensation for his time, rather than having to negotiate contracts. And he’s not a young guy; I’m sure he’d like to reduce his own stress in the gloaming of his years.

Specifically, these are my barriers: 1) I’m on Medicaid, so I’m unable to go outside of the state of Minnesota. I’ve tried many times, and each time, the petitions have been turned down. It doesn’t matter how rare my disease is. 2) I can’t find local doctors willing to take me as a patient. Believe me, I have tried. I’ve sent them info ahead of time (per their request), I’ve gone in without giving them any hint, I’ve brought all of my records with me, I’ve bargained with them, I’ve promised not to be a nuisance, I’ve answered all of their questions…bitch, please. Any way that you can think of to convince someone to become your partner, I’ve done it. 3) I don’t have any way to save up money. My earning power is gone – it’s not like I can go to work and take my bed with me so I can keep the pressure off of my brain. I’m using up every last bit of my savings for living expenses while I wait for my disability hearing, which I believe will be in the next six months, so that’s three years guaranteed without a cent of income.

What happens if I don’t receive care? Well, it’s going to get ugly. My chest, arms and face have been covered in hives for the past month. I was supposed to get another prescription last week, but that was abruptly dropped mid-process. This is a crazy disease. Other patients constantly go into anaphylactic shock. I haven’t gotten to that point, though I sometimes have sudden shortness of breath, or lose my voice because my throat becomes suddenly raw. Unfortunately, for me the allergies continue to get worse and stranger, also a common factor in this disease. I won’t even go into the brain stuff, except to say that I know it’s being strangled too.

I can’t adequately describe what it’s like to have a rare disease to people who don’t have one, especially when it comes to finding medical care. I’ve had a fibromyalgia diagnosis since I was 23, and those of you who have chronic illness may have an inkling, but this is a completely different ballgame. I got a diagnosis last fall but have been sick since birth (and I’m 43 now). I only figured out a month ago myself – MYSELF – why I needed 10 shunt surgeries. There are no other documented cases like mine.

If I can put this in perspective, imagine that your child is one in a dozen in the world who has Progeria – the disease that makes children age prematurely, so that they look elderly as infants and young children (and they come with a plethora of underlying maladies). And imagine that there is only one doctor in the world who is an expert, so every child with that disease is going to that doctor. One day, that doctor is killed in a motor vehicle accident. Then there is no one else to treat those children.

That’s what it feels like right now to have my mast cell disease doctor break up with me. The disease affects more than a dozen people, but to actually find doctors who can and will treat me is impossible. I think it would be easier to ask a man to have a baby naturally. 

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. 

Pat, I’d Like To Solve The Puzzle

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This week I’ve been taking care of stuff; taking care of me by walking to make myself stronger, taking care of medical records, taking care of clogs in my sinks and taking care of throwing out excess trash. It’s the medical records that sent into emotional pits, though. I was angry after reviewing a bunch of misinformation and it was rolling around in my head. But then I had an epiphany.

Back when I started having operations on my cranium, when my shunts were relocated from my back to my brain, my neurosurgeon remarked that my meninges were incredibly tough to break through. I don’t believe he’s ever noted that on my medical records, though. But his memory is like a steel trap so if I went back to him, he will probably be able to recall it with certainty. It certainly stuck with me. He said he had only seen it once before in his lifetime.

And then there was this published paper by Jonathan Kipnis where he explains that he and his team discovered lymphatic drainage vessels in the cranium. They weren’t known about before because when autopsies and dissections were performed, the lymphatic vessels were torn and destroyed because of their fragility. This paper was published in July of 2015; I traded emails with Jonathan in November of 2015. He explained that he doesn’t actually work with humans in clinical trials so he couldn’t help me, but after I connected the dots this week, I emailed him. I’m not sure I’ll hear from him.

Lastly, I have this mast cell activation disease diagnosis from Dr. Afrin. When I saw him in January, he told me that my outrageously high histamine level is probably what is making everything change and grow into scar tissue, including the tumor, as well as the tract along the shunt.

So here’s what I think is happening: Back in 2010 when I first started having the really bad symptoms, the meninges had already turned tough because of my high histamine levels, and the fluid can’t drain properly into the lymphatic drainage vessels like it normally would. That’s why I need shunts. The shitty part is that I’m allergic to the shunts. Just as an aside, this whole time I thought that the underlying cause was an autoimmune disease, but of course I had no idea what it would be.

So what now? That’s the question my mom asked. The tissue that has changed cannot be changed back. There is nothing on the market that I’m not allergic to. I’m at a high risk for aneurysm or stroke. This is going to kill me, there’s just no telling when. I mean really, who else do you know that is going through this? None of my doctors would be able to begin to guess.

Of course, I have to check with my doctors…but again, I’m the one leading them, not the other way around, which is almost always the way it is with rare disease. First I’ll see the neurologist and explain all of this to her, and hand her Dr. Afrin’s notes and Dr. Kipnis’ notes. I’ll see Dr. Afrin in August. After that, I’ll contact my neurosurgeon in Phoenix and roll this past him. I hope that he remembers that I was right about everything that I told him, even though some things took as much as 2.5 years to admit.

So for now I’m still waiting for my disability hearing. I talked to my attorney’s office and they called the person who sets the dates for the hearings, and they were told that hearings were being set for 18-22 months past the appeal filing. My last appeal was filed in February of 2016 (the initial filing was April 2015), so by the time I’m in front of a judge, I’ll have been waiting for nearly 3 years. Every state is different. I can’t get a rush unless I’m homeless, stage IV cancer, a danger to myself, or I have no access to care.

So I wait.  

Retrain My Brain – Gupta Amygdala Retraining Programme Review

People often ask me just what it is that I do with all of my time now that I’m stuck in bed. I love writing and I count myself lucky to have been included in the Chronic Illness Bloggers network, and given many opportunities to try products I wouldn’t otherwise have access to. I have been given this product as part of a product review through the Chronic Illness Bloggers network. Although the product was a gift, all opinions in this review remain my own and I was in no way influenced by the company.

This particular series, The Gupta Amygdala Retraining Programme, is being offered by a doctor who was laid low by chronic fatigue syndrome (which I will shorten to the commonly known acronym CFS), which is also referred to as myalgic encephalomyelitis (the acronym ME for short). The Centers for Disease Control states: “CFS is a debilitating and complex disorder characterized by profound fatigue that is not improved by bed rest and that may be worsened by physical or mental activity. Symptoms affect several body systems and may include weakness, muscle pain, impaired memory and/or mental concentration, and insomnia, which can result in reduced participation in daily activities.” (https://www.cdc.gov/cfs/) The CDC also indicates on their site that despite trying their best to figure out what triggers CFS, they haven’t pinpointed the cause. It could be a number of infections, it could be autoimmune related, it could be something in the central nervous system; they’re just not certain.

I was given this program because I have fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia shares some of the CFS/ME qualities – mainly crushing fatigue and pain that does not go away with a good night’s sleep. Dealing with constant pain and fatigue also changes your brain and your outlook, affecting the way that you interact with the people around you, as well as your ability to handle your own sickness, or wellness, as it were.

The very first thing I noticed when I opened up my packet was this map from Dr. Gupta.
20170522_092902If you can’t tell, this piece is quite large and almost covers my entire area rug. As we found out, it is an interactive practice piece that you actually stand on and use to help retrain your brain to stop negative thinking.

The other items included in the package were a workbook and a set of audio and video DVDs.
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I was signed up for weekly interactive web meetings as well. In our first meeting, we were introduced to Dr. Gupta, and informed that the web meetings were actually the most important part of the program, and that the DVDs, workbook and practice poster were supporting materials.

The web meetings were 12 weeks long total, so it is quite a commitment if you decide to join the program. And there is a lot of material to cover. However, if you think about it, some of us have been sick for years. I’ve been sick for two decades. 12 weeks is really a drop in the bucket. It’s just a matter of adjusting your schedule and making room, just as you would for a physical workout program. You want to lose the weight? You do an hour at the gym. You want to lose the disease? You do a few hours a week at the Gupta program. 

So what is amygdala retraining? Basically, it’s to stop the negative feedback loop so you can start healing. Your body feels bad, so your mind gets stuck thinking, “I’m not good enough, I don’t don’t deserve friends if I’m going to bring them down, I don’t deserve love, I’m a terrible person, I’m a loser, I can’t do anything right, I hate my body, I’m going to stay sick forever,” etc. If you can get rid of that negative feedback, you can also retrain your brain to start a positive flow of thoughts, including, “I will allow my body to relax, I will feel comfort, I will smile, I’m choosing health and happiness, I trust myself.”

And back to that interactive poster that’s on the ground: That’s the “Stop! Stop! Stop!” technique that Dr. Gupta often refers to as part of the retraining. He encouraged us through the course of the initial training to actually follow the steps on the poster: think the negative thoughts, then hold out our hands and think or say, “Stop! Stop! Stop!” Then we would breathe and smile, return to our loving self, then choose to take the loving path and be kinder to ourselves in our thinking, then visualize health and happiness. We would repeat these steps over and over again – at first slowly, then faster, as if picking up anything that feels clunky at first but then suddenly becomes second nature.

Throughout his sessions he often took breaks for us to breathe, or meditate. We also had time to ask questions or interact. Dr. Gupta warned us that there would be times when emotions would bubble up and sometimes get the best of us. I tend to be pretty stoic except when it comes to dealing with my neurologist and neurosurgeons, so I was surprised when even I had a web session that affected me emotionally. The point is to not hold everything back so that our ego doesn’t get in the way of getting better.

The DVDs and audio CDs are helpful because there are some meditations included, and meditation is one area where I always need improvement and assistance.

Dr. Gupta does advise for anyone going through this program that the changes will be gradual, and to not expect anything earth-shattering immediately; after all, anything shocking would set us back, not make us better. Six months would be a good goal for feeling a significant improvement if you do the work with sincerity. 

I’m grateful to have these materials at hand for the long haul so I can refer back to them as often as I need to – because there’s so much to learn, and I’ll definitely need a refresher from time to time. And Dr. Gupta records all of his sessions so that we may go back and rewatch (or if you couldn’t make it to the session in real time, you can watch at your convenience). I did personally notice a certain calmness and lightness after each session, and I do feel like my attitude has shifted towards all of my diseases; I’m choosing right now to be loved and to be worthy of love, and maybe that will shift again in the near future to another positive focus as I journey on.

Dr. Gupta’s Website:  http://www.guptaprogramme.com/

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.

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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.

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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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This is a Test

Another chronic illness blogger has been kind enough to let a bunch of us tell our stories on her site, and late last week my most up-to-date info was included. She has indicated that she may discontinue the series if she no longer has parties interested in being part of the project, but there are so many of us out there that I would be surprised if the well ever dried up.

From This Point. Forward.

Today was a really big day in my little alien world. I finally got the upright MRI that I’ve been asking for for 6.5 years. In all of the 56 doctors that I’ve seen, it has only been the most recent neurologist who hasn’t fought me on my request and put the order in.

So I got strapped into a chair and a cage was lowered over my head and screwed into place like I was Hannibal Lector. Like I was ready for some football and to call out some huts! I was sandwiched and squished between two huge, white panels, a bar propped between the panels for my hands and then one lower for feet to rest on to make my very own roller coaster ride more comfortable.

A couple of times the tech buzzed in and said, “I’m picking up movement. Try to keep very still.” I had explained to her that I sometimes have trouble with tremors in my neck when we were going over the questionnaire, but maybe she’s heard that line before and doesn’t think it’s important to remember. I breathe with my diaphragm, so at a break between segments, I moved my arms as far away from my torso as far as the sandwich bread slices would allow me – that way there was less of a chance that my smushed arms would move my head when I breathed.

The tech had given me the option of tilting the chair back at 30-45 degrees, but I explained that it would compromise what we are trying to catch on imaging, so I had to stay completely upright. The MRI takes about 40-45 minutes, and to make sure the pressure in my skull was really high, I exercised my arms for about five minutes both before the cab picked me up, and then again when I changed my clothes. All I have to do is mimic the bicycle motion with my arms like what I do in PT and I nearly go completely blind from the pressure in my skull. This is why I can’t exercise. I would probably give myself seizures.

At the end of it when I was extricated from the face trap/sandwich boards, I got up to walk and ended up stumbling around like a cat coming off of anesthesia. I had to have a lot of assistance to walk back to the room where my cane was waiting for me. I might have said, “No, I don’t need a fucking walker.” This scan had better not let me down.