The Best Little Gift Guide

I used to pride myself on being able to find little things – and big things – that seemed like a perfect fit as gifts. I would look or listen for clues. Okay, maybe sometimes I wouldn’t get it quite right, but at least I would try. My shopping would take place over the course of the entire year and during festivals and trips, because you never know when you will stumble on something unique that screams “_____!” (Use your imagination.)

But times are different. It seems like the majority of the people I know are much more careful about how and where they spend their money because of various constraints or social awareness. I have to be careful too; I no longer have an income, so no extra money to spend during the holidays. This list that I’m going to lay out is for someone – like me – who has little or no income, who might not be able to buy much of anything anymore.

1. Time. This is a big one, and it’s free! I simply can’t get out and socialize like I used to, because my body has put a hard stop on that. Sometimes I don’t want to be by myself. I love it when people visit or call, but I don’t always initiate stuff like that because I don’t want to be a burden. There’s nothing worse than a whiny-ass friend constantly saying “Pay attention to me,” right?

2. Gift cards. Conventional manners/wisdom say that giving gift cards is tacky because then people will know how much you spent on them, yadda yadda yadda. Bullshit. I love gift cards. I especially love them when my entire monthly budget has gone to rent/utility/medications and I have nothing left over to buy groceries, and I have a lovely gift card to the rescue.

3. Wheels. Man, I miss driving. I miss those Saturday mornings when I would get up at 8 am and run around until 11 am and go to about 8 different places and get all of my shit done. Now I ride the short bus and I can only go one place, and it takes me 2-3 hours. And it’s a drag. And I never know who’s going to be with me and if it’s going to be a bat out of hell drive. I would love it if I could have a whole morning of driving around for errands, like dropping off my recycled clothing/rags, recycled toner cartridges, disposing of hazardous waste, petting animals at the humane society, recycling old medications, getting 5 favorites from Trader Joe’s and 6 favorites from Hy-Vee and 4 organics from Aldi. As a side note, disabled people like to recycle too. It’s just that we can’t easily get to these locations and facilities. Plus, me getting out to do these things instead of doing them for me means I get to get out. (As a side note, I have discovered that more than a few people have assumed that the short bus is free. It’s not. It’s actually more expensive than the regular bus. Each round trip for me is nearly $10. It’s really, really expensive when you have no money coming in at all.)

4. Independence. My oldest sister made up a list of modified items that would have made her life easier, like rounded chopping knives that were easier to grip. We were puzzled at the time; it didn’t seem like fun, especially for Christmas. She had debilitating MS and was bedridden because she had lost the use of her legs and some of the finer motor skills of her fingers and hands. Looking back, and living what I am now, I understand that ignoring her list and insisting that we only get her “fun” stuff was a huge mistake. It is not only fun but a huge relief to get everything you ask for and need. So if someone asks for a modified chopping knife, get them the chopping knife.

5. Entertainment. I’m a movie/TV snob. I don’t like most sitcoms because there’s a lot of yelling involved. I also don’t watch cartoons. I know what I like, and I’m a binge watcher! I’m a loyal customer of Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Plus. Yes, all three. They have some overlap, but there are some things that don’t appear on all three, and Hulu allows me to watch network shows that aired the night before. If you love me or someone like me who is in bed a lot, give the gift of streaming entertainment. I guarantee you it will be used. (Side note: I’ve tried reading. I used to be a voracious reader. Because of brain damage and eye problems, I don’t read much right now. Zero memory and attention span. Squirrel!!)
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6. Amazon. This deserves its own category. I have used Amazon for vitamins, durable medical equipment (that was not covered by my insurance), ingredients to make my own deodorant/antiperspirant, and tons of OTC medication like Benadryl and Pepcid, which I take megadoses of. Of course, I use Amazon Prime too, so I get the movies, and it comes automatically with the music service too. Another great thing is that if you purchase through Smile.Amazon.com and designate a charity to receive 0.5% of your total spent, you can automatically make donations. I don’t have money to donate to any causes, so it still makes me feel as if I’m making a contribution, even if I can’t hand anyone cash. So you will never go wrong with an Amazon gift card.

7. Skin. Disabled people like luxury stuff too. Not everyone wants to smell like an Avon or Dove whorehouse or litter box. A little company called Villainess was just purchased by a new owner and sold out within a few days of its new stock because everyone was so excited to dive back into its soaps, lotions and scrubs. I’m telling you, their stuff is sooooooooo yummy. I just got 3 of their jars of lotions. I’m going to wait to open the jars until I feel really poor because it should be used within 2 months of opening (less preservatives = better for your body) and I want to stretch them out. So keep an eye on them, and put in an order and make someone feel extra special.

Another great place with amazing combinations is Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab. I’ve had some bottles for 2-3 years because I have enough to rotate them around and not smell the same every day. You can buy samples (“Imps Ears“) instead of full bottles, but if you are sure you are going to like all of the flavors that they list, go ahead and buy a whole bottle. I have very rarely been disappointed. Buying scents for other people is a crap shoot, so be very cautious! I’m deathly allergic to lavender and patchouli. Anybody can be allergic to anything. If you aren’t sure, there are always gift certificates.

8. Pain control. I reviewed two different lotions in my blog, and I recommend them both: Mo’s Dream Cream and Invigorate. You can’t go wrong with either of them.

The Oska Pulse is a device that is a financial investment, to be sure, but it has a 30-day money back guarantee, and I use mine every day – because there isn’t a part on my body, somewhere, that isn’t hurting. Sometimes I end up using it six or seven times on that part. I’m just grateful to have it because I always end up feeling better. (It is important to note that it shouldn’t be used around any medical devices that are surgically implanted that could be affected by magnets, like shunts, stimulators or pacemakers. My shunt is strictly all silicone because I’m allergic to nickel.)

9. Massage. I go to a massage therapist once a month. There have been a couple of times where I have second-guessed myself and the wisdom of going, especially when I’ve had to shell out extra for medications and money is getting low, but when I’m on the table and getting worked on, I know I need it. First, it’s hard on my body to be in bed so much. Second, I rarely ever have any physical contact with anyone else. The massage is it.

10. Activism. I can’t do all of the work. Literally, I can’t do all of the work. The best gift you can give people that you don’t even know personally is to tell your elected officials that disabled people need housing, healthcare, transportation and good nutrition. I’m still waiting for housing that I was promised 8 months ago; it would mean that I would have things like grab bars, instead of constantly falling in the shower, and affordable rent, instead of paying full price on zero income (still no disability income after nearly 3 years of filing). Do not buy into this idea that everyone who is disabled should be punished.

Honorable Mention:
Check out The Unchargeables for a variety of chronic/invisible/rare diseases for gear – you can even look for items according to the disease! I checked my alphabetized list and they have a few of mine in there. Pretty impressive! And for each disease, there’s a bunch of items, so you’re not limited to just a t-shirt or bracelet.

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Ring Around The Rosie

I don’t know if you knew this, but the old nursery rhyme “Ring around the rosie, pocket full of posies, ashes, ashes, we all fall down!” is about the black plague.

Or, actually, it isn’t, according to Snopes.

I think about it this time of year, while I maneuver my way through hoards of people who don’t cover their mouths when they cough, or if they do, they immediately touch the door handle I was just reaching for. The Plague. Everyone is just waiting to infect me, I know it.

I’ve been having a hell of a time just getting a flu shot. Until two years ago, I never got one. Then they started making an egg-free version, meaning they didn’t grow them in an egg base as the very cheap food source. Now they also make the shot preservative free. It’s the holy grail for me since I’m allergic to raw eggs AND preservatives. However, my PCP’s office won’t order it for me. They insisted I call my insurance company, but the insurance company told me they couldn’t tell how it would be billed (as in, would there be a special code for an egg-free and preservative-free flu shot?), so I’m supposed to get the code from the doctor’s office. The PCP’s office doesn’t know how to bill for the shot unless the insurance company knows how it should be submitted, otherwise I’ll have to pay out of pocket. So…………

Scratch all that. I just talked to Walgreen’s, and they have an egg-free, preservative-free flu shot on hand, and I just have to show proof of my medical assistance. So guess who’s getting a flu shot from Walgreen’s?

This is the reason why not having preservatives is a big deal.

I’ve been giving myself Humira injections since August 30th to combat hidradenitis suppurativa outbreaks that I’ve been experiencing for about the last 8 years. It’s another autoimmune disease that up to around 2 years ago, not much was known about. I’m not going to spill all here, but trust me when I say that it’s super, SUPER painful. And doctors were cutting infections out of me, but because of mast cell activation syndrome, the lidocaine they were using wasn’t numbing me, so I would feel every slice. Before the HS was diagnosed, all of the doctors didn’t understand why I was getting the infections, and they thought that it was something that I was doing wrong – not bathing properly (HA!), wearing the wrong clothing (HA!), shaving inappropriately (because I don’t grow hair – ???? – HA!).

The treatments for HS include getting monthly injections of steroids in the normally infected areas – which I don’t know anyone who would go for that – or using oral and topical antibiotics, which I’m allergic to. The last resort is Humira.

The bitch of it is that I’m also allergic to the Humira shots. On August 30th I did the first loading dose of 4 shots. I didn’t have a reaction until 10 days after that, so it took me a while to catch on, and the reaction showed up only on my legs and not my stomach.

So I thought, okay, there was no reaction to the two shots in my abdomen. I’ll just get my abdomen with the next two shots. Besides, doing the injections in my legs hurt like a bitch. But then:
20170915_190958(Keep in mind I never show my stomach to anyone. The zipper scar you see running from my belly button is the extra large cut my neurosurgeon had to do on 12/21/13 when he didn’t have anyone assisting him on that surgery, which is the one where he finally saw my abdomen with his own eyes and remarked how it looked like a war zone inside and acknowledged my allergy to the shunt.)

So these two welts showed up the same day as the injection, and hung around until the Monday after – about 5 days. After the itching stops the welts turn into huge bruises.

I called the manufacturers of Humira to report my reaction. I knew immediately what the problem was before I even called. They make the shot shelf-stable for up to 14 days so that if you have to travel or lose power, you can still use it without it needing a refrigerator. Conclusion: preservatives. Specifically, there are 8 of them in the medication. When I talked to the company, they said the FDA approved them ONLY to make the formula with the 8 preservatives. It’s possible they might release a formula with only 2 preservatives in 2018, but they are still waiting for the final approval from the FDA. They cannot allow me to take another form of Humira with less preservatives because it’s only approved for use in the U.S. with the 8 preservatives.

I have to stay on it. If I go off of it, it immediately loses its effectiveness by 20-30% for the rest of my life within the first 2 weeks of discontinuing it.

Humira does lower my immune response. I’m already compromised because of my non-existent IgG3 and IgG4, so I have to be extra cautious. I’ve noticed that I’m much more fatigued than normal while I’m on this juice. The maid doesn’t get a whole lot done these days, know what I’m sayin’?

Usually my stomach doesn’t see the light of day unless it’s the surgeon operating on me (you can see another horizontal scar on the right pic above), but this is the reality of the mast cell disease. If you don’t know me and you see me clawing at my belly in public, now you understand why. I really do want to rip my skin off.

Two days ago I woke up for another appointment and my entire upper half was covered in hives. In this pic you can also see the shunt protruding because of all of the scar tissue that is growing around it. The rate it’s growing is highly unusual; the doctors are seeing in 3 weeks what they would normally see in 20 years. But I have no freaking idea why I woke up with the hives because nothing in my routine has changed as far as I know:
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One thing that ended up on my good list is that I discovered that I’m not allergic to potato chips! Some of the other MCAS patients were discussing them in a group and so I took a chance and snuck some at a party – plain, salted – and didn’t develop hives, and didn’t lose the inside lining of my mouth or develop sores. The other crazy upside is that because I have POTS, I’m also encouraged to eat higher quantities of sodium so my blood pressure doesn’t dip too low. So, people, I am rediscovering Ruffles! I haven’t had them for decades! But they have to be strictly plain/salted, no other flavors including vinegar. It’s a nice change from the 8 foods I’ve been stuck with.

The Tender Trap Of The Gender Gap

I received three letters in three separate envelopes from the state medical board. I tore the first one open; a single page with the name of the respondent at the top and an official signature at the bottom. “Dear Miss: We are writing to inform you that your claim will not proceed because there is not sufficient evidence…

What the board was telling me is that my claim against three doctors is being denied. They saw my facial droop, my staggering walk, my shaking legs, heard my stilted speech, and then saw it go away when I tilted my head to manipulate the CSF in my cranium, and they wrote in my medical records that I was making it all up. It took me close to a year to get the correct testing after that. When I had everything together, I bundled it and sent it to the state including the disc with my complete MRI showing my brain had collapsed. I sent documentation from my previous surgeries. I outlined how their notes directly affected my life – both by delaying my care, and because I was denied by the Undiagnosed Diseases Network based on their notes.

The only conclusion that I can possibly come up with is that I’m a woman. Who could believe me? Why not attach a hinge to my cranium so I can flip my lid open for everyone to see, and then maybe, maybe, they will consider the notion that I’m telling the truth?

The irony is that this very place where these doctors work tweeted an article today about how there’s such a big gap in women being tested in healthcare trials, and how there’s still a huge gender bias against women when it comes to our symptoms being recognized and validated. THIS EVEN HAPPENS IN LAB RATS. So they are willing to admit it happens,

but

not willing to admit it happens with them.

Here’s another article that speaks directly to the phenomenon of being a woman in the healthcare system. Women are “emotional” and therefore shouldn’t be believed. By the way, female doctors can be just as unforgiving as male doctors.

I’m going to take a little time out to compare and contrast. I have a male family member who had rotator cuff surgery when he was a teenager, at least 13 years ago. He just had to have an EMG of his arms and possibly legs. I was explaining to him what to expect since his doctor’s office didn’t do a very good job. Let me emphasize that there’s a 13-year span between those two medical events. Yes, recovery from rotator cuff surgery isn’t pleasant, and an EMG isn’t pleasant.

In comparison, I’ve had 10 brain surgeries, 12 abdominal surgeries, 4 infections cut out, 7 crowns, 10 spinal taps, 2 EMGs (including my face), a year-long CSF leak, and a spinal blood patch in a 7-year period. For a lot of these I couldn’t have Lidocain because my body doesn’t metabolize it, and it’s the same for morphine. So every time I was poked or sliced or stitched, I felt it. I also tore the capsule and the tendon in three places in my left shoulder (but couldn’t get surgery because of all of the scar tissue I make). I’m also horribly allergic to my shunt that is still implanted and runs from my brain to my abdomen, so I constantly feel like I am being stabbed in my lower abdomen.

This male relative’s doctors immediately jumped at the first sign of his trouble. The help he has received is in stark contrast to how I have been treated, which is to be called a liar and to be treated as a hysterical woman. He was also considerably nervous about the EMG. I tried to reassure him that if he could get through rotator cuff surgery, the EMG would be much easier. Seriously, I would trade that CSF leak with just about anything. An EMG is a walk in the park.

So, what exactly do women have to do to “prove that they are in as much pain as men”? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

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. 

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.  

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.

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.