Monthly Archives: February 2017

Do right for your heart but be prepared for an awful ride

Sunset at sea. Text: There is only HOPE WHILE there's Life. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

I HAVE DODGED A NUMBER OF BULLETS

I will be terrified for a while.

I will have to deal with emotions both new and accumulated, and emotions are very hard to deal with if you have CFS, partly because the adrenaline which is the aftermath of much emotion takes forever to process out of my body, and so makes me ill for far longer than it is usually worth the original emotional outburst.

I have to deal with new medications I didn’t ever want to take, and which fight with CFS (potentially). I may have to deal with both more pain and with the cardiologists being unhappy I’m taking even the amount of pain meds I was taking before.

And I will have to learn to be more grateful for and more gracious about what may be the most important outcome: that, even in a reduced capacity, I’m still alive. Funny that, right?

I process things by writing about them (the brain doesn’t like to do internal processing, even when it can, any more).

The whole subject is incredibly boring.

And I have some obligation, willingly assumed, to share.

As part of a community, I value my online friends

Enormously. Probably more than most people.

I have a loving family – I am immensely grateful for them. And for the space they give me. They’d rather have me live in Mexico City with the rest of my sisters, live that lifestyle with help, and socialize more. I’ve had a limited capacity for that my whole life, but it doesn’t mean I don’t value it and feel wistful about it. I hope this post will clear up some of the details of the past three weeks for them, too.

But I’m trying to make sense of it AND bring my online friends up to date simultaneously, because there is no energy to do this for each of you (I will probably be sparser in replying to comments for quite a while), and the main lesson is easy and the personal details pretty obvious if you understand limited energy.

I don’t like it when my friends disappear from the blogosphere – but if we knew each other better we probably would be communicating by phone or email more. Even very good friends, family, people I’ve known for decades will have to be content with this for a while. I start from no energy when I’m my most ‘normal’ – and this ‘event’ (as the cardiologist calls it) has taken, and will take for a while, everything I have.

I OWE EVERYONE MORE. REALLY.

THE SHORT(EST) version

I had chest pains Superbowl Sunday after the game (no, I don’t care at ALL about sports, didn’t watch any of it). Kick in the chest by a mule.

Because it was Superbowl Sunday, I didn’t immediately go to the ER or call 911. This was my ONLY mistake, and it could have been fatal, but the chest pains subsided, I felt like I had avoided looking like an idiot, and I went to sleep. (Note: I had had a cold protein shake. This is relevant.)

The next morning (Monday) I called the cardiologist’s office, while drinking my (cold again) morning protein shake. They moved my appointment from later in the month forward to Wednesday, two days away. The nurse told me that if I had chest pains, I should call 911. I hung up – and a mule kick hit. Husband prepared to DRIVE me to the ER (we would have gotten there sooner, it turned out, but don’t do that unless you are VERY sure – another kick, and I lay down in the living room and TOLD him to call 911.)

Uneventful ride to local hospital (feeling like idiot already).

Absolutely horrible and boring day in ER being screamed at by an ER nurse who didn’t want me out of bed (long story – ignore – EVERYONE else was wonderful).

They take blood (3 sets of cardiac enzymes which tell them, over a long period, whether you have HAD a heart attack). Cardiologist who visits insists my symptoms go with a 90-95% blockage. Scares the heck out of me. They keep me overnight, send me from this hospital in NJ to PA one by ambulance in the morning, DO a cardiac catheterization – and RELEASE me because there is a ‘lesion’ but it doesn’t meet the guidelines for stenting (70% blockage). Surgeon does a flow test around it – blood flowing. Cardiac enzymes NEGATIVE.

Next day (Wed.), MY cardiologist goes over the results, tells me surgeon has not found anything stentable.

I PREPARE TO FIND A DIFFERENT REASON FOR THE PAIN, SINCE THE CARDIOLOGISTS HAVE ‘CLEARED ME.’ If you’ve seen my recent posts, the best candidate seemed to be an esophageal spasm. My assumption was that the months of coughing which had recently stopped had left things tetchy and easily triggered. The next morning, I dutifully call my primary doctor’s office, feeling like an idiot. They fit me in at 10. I drive myself.

I get there. BEFORE discussing my question with me (how do I figure out what this CERTIFIED NON-CARDIAC PAIN means and how to fix it), she has the nurse do an EKG, CALLS the paramedics immediately because of ‘changes’ happening right then during the EKG, and I end up in the SAME ER, and the whole process – boredom, cardiac bloodwork  – REPEATS. Cardiologist insists, keeps me overnight and does a stress test the next day – and he says he sees ‘something worrisome.’ I DON’T believe him, think he’s making a big deal out of my small reported comment of some chest pain FROM THE NUCLEAR CHEMICALS. Really, it was NOT a big deal. I want out.

Another overnight observation, and trip by ambulance to PA for a catheterization. This time, because there has been another chest pain event, and there are changes in the EKG from the stress test, the surgeon stents that lesion he’d seen before.

They stupidly tell me that IF the catheterization doesn’t stop the pain, they will be SURE it is non-cardiac, and I will be free to leave the hospital and go do what I was pursuing when I landed in the ER the SECOND time: a non-cardiac reason for the chest pain (about half of chest pain IS non-cardiac – I actually had a consult with a GI doctor who agrees an esophageal spasm is a possible explanation – triggered by cold food).

Imagine how pissed I am the NEXT morning when the mule kicks my chest and THEY WON’T LET ME LEAVE. This is Friday. They can’t force me, of course, so they overwhelm me with talk (I’m exhausted from days of this and hospitals and too many people and NO energy to start with – thank God husband was there and more coherent than me). I agree to let them look into it more. The next morning a different surgeon comes in, looks in more detail at the films ALREADY taken at the first two catheterizations and first stent (I’m a conundrum to them and they’re getting VERY concerned), DOESN’T come talk to me in person (it’s a Saturday – and he sends the cardiologist, another of the overwhelming talk-too-much knowitalls), and he somehow persuades husband and me that I need ANOTHER catheterization (third), that they are pretty sure they know what’s going on, that it NEEDS fixing. He also persuade me to wait for Monday staying flat in bed so the procedure won’t be an emergency weekend one.

It was a horrible weekend. For me. I’m pretty sure I was a hyper-controlled super-stressed trying-to-be-polite sure-I-was-right-and-they-were-wrong-again pain. Bedpans and being interrupted every 10 seconds and ‘cardiac’ tasteless diet will do that to an introvert, especially since we’re now at the two-week mark of this nonsense.

Finally, Monday the second surgeon, knowing I was refusing to go in until I had talked to him, stopped by (I haven’t eaten or had water since midnight and it’s past 11 am), came in, gave me a short and DATA-FILLED explanation, SAID personally (I think) he KNEW what the problem was. And I agree, if nothing more than to get out of there!

Why? Because the other alternative is to leave against medical advice – and I CAN’T DO THAT TO MY POOR HUSBAND. No matter HOW pissed I am, they may be right, and husband should not have to pay for my fit of pique, etc., etc.

They finally take me in for the procedure around 5PM. Cruel.

Surgeon talks to husband after procedure – he not only fixed the very complicated bifurcation lesion he had seen on the films, but found and fixed a 95% blockage lower on the same artery which was actually closer to the region the stress test had indicated was a problem, and which is an odd feature of my anatomy variation. This part is a little fuzzy, because husband thought he told me the details – he may have – but I was still under hypnotics and have odd and possibly false memories of some of it.

So I’m alive. The blockage which probably would have caused an actual heart attack at an inconvenient time has been stented. I have three stents, and the bifurcation got a balloon angioplasty in the other branch, because you can’t stent both branches, and I am on all the meds I didn’t want to even consider because of potential side effects for CFS folk.

Some aftermath, still iffy

The next morning, just for the heck of it, I blow the gasket in the groin, go through unbelievable pain (more than the mule kick – and lasts much longer!) while a burly male and female nurse ‘reduce’ it, and I spend ANOTHER lovely day in the hospital repeating the entire hole-closing procedure (a rate complication, they assure me).

We finally go home on Wed. (two days ago), after the most horribly protracted release process I could have imagined, with a bag of the new pills I have agreed to take until I see the cardiologist for the hospital followup visit I’m supposed to make within the week.

You cannot imagine – and I can’t describe – emotions and exhaustion.

That Wed. night, when I can’t get to sleep, I do a lot of thinking, internet research, and processing of implications. Rather incoherently, but I have to make at least a bit of sense of it.

Thursday morning I dutifully call in to make the cardiologist (mine) followup appointment, asking them to call me back in the afternoon and give me one, if possible, for Monday or Tuesday after the weekend (so I have a chance to rest, recover, and possibly become coherent again).

They drag me in that afternoon. Husband graciously cancels his appointment at the exact same time to take me. I really shouldn’t be driving. Damn. I thought I was going to have a break.

The followup cardiologist visit – too soon?

  • This is where we sorted some of the above stuff out. It was probably good that the bits and pieces were still clear, and necessary for husband to be there.
  • The odd sequence of THREE catheterizations, stress test results, EKGs both with and without problems, ending in the hardware I now own for life, is worked out. My cardiologist is amazed I’m coherent and functional (short periods between naps – I can work this), happy to explain ANYTHING I ask, amazed I’m willing to take their meds, agreeing I am special (that was funny) and that I need to be treated as such (here ‘special’ means ‘different from most other people because of ANATOMY and the CFS,’ but I still liked getting her to say it – whadda you want? I’m human).
  • The anatomy is special enough that it literally made it hard to figure out exactly what was going on. I am grateful that my big mouth didn’t cause them to give up on me – I assume I also worried the heck out of them. I am pretty sure, from her demeanor, she was prepared for anything when I came in.
  • Doing the research and thinking I did the night before was CRUCIAL for putting me in the right mental place to deal with her, the whole ‘story,’ anger, etc., etc., etc. I’m still amazed at that one myself. Though, remember, I’m still alive. All bets would have been off otherwise.
  • Because I’m special, the cardiac rehab will be special. And she is fully prepared to have to do a lot of work on meds if necessary. And isn’t demanding I give up my necessary CFS pain meds (which I finally got back to taking, defiantly, the last day in the hospital). There will be work on those – from a cooperative place.

So what next?

Anyone who cares is now up to date.

I’m exhausted, taking my meds, keeping VERY extensive journals of ALL details – there will be many days of this so I neither exaggerate nor minimize problems.

What do I want?

To get back to a place, mentally, where I can write fiction. Today has not been that place, and the aftereffects recorded in the journal are already at 3000 words, just for these three days so far. The crash is already ferocious; I don’t know how long it will last or how bad it will get, but am not sanguine about what this has done to me.

(Buy the first book if you haven’t and the Look Inside satisfies you in any way.)

I want to update anyone who cares – and then do the smallest amount of focusing on illness/disease/being a cardiac patient when I was no such thing less than a month ago – as possible. Consider this it. Be prepared for at least a couple of weeks of rather minimum interaction from me – not personal, as I love you all and wouldn’t have put myself through this post if I didn’t think it was important in some small way to get most of the chronology in writing and a first cut at accuracy.


I WANT ALL OF YOU TO LISTEN TO THE LESSON:

You MUST rule out cardiac causes of heart pain properly, because my cardiologist said I did EVERYTHING right (one of the reasons she agreed I’m special) and most people don’t, and many don’t make it (I didn’t tell her the one little bit of not going to the ER on Superbowl Sunday night, and going to bed – I am acutely conscious that night might have been my last – that 95% blockage bit).

Note the cardiac enzymes – done several times – never showed a heart attack – I never had it.


I’m wiped and going to try Next Nap.

Stay well. Take care of yourselves. Drop a comment. My online community is as real to me as the RL one. I will take up my responsibilities in it as soon as I possibly can.

Chest pain from striated versus smooth muscles

self-diagnosis

DEALING WITH PERSISTENT PAIN EXPECTED TO BE TEMPORARY

*** NOT medical advice. I’m not that kind of doctor. ***

Having abandoned the hospital last Tuesday with a relatively clean cardiac bill of health, and after the cardiologist visit on Wednesday, I noticed the pain hadn’t stopped. Not discomfort; PAIN.

(By the way, the cardiologists lose all interest in you at that point.)

It was a bit smaller due to relief – but that was all.

On Thursday, sensing it would finally work, I made the effort to voluntarily NOT cough when my body wanted to. That’s a trip, by the way: you have to catch it and distract it.

But it wasn’t enough. I was still setting off the kick-in-the-chest-by-a-mule feeling when I would do such small physical tasks as walk to the bathroom, go down 7 steps to the living room, and, the worst, coming UP those 7 steps and having to walk down the hall and across my tiny office to my desk chair, where I would sit, and grit my teeth until the pain started subsiding.

If I had not already done that, I probably would have made that hospital ER trip.

Why didn’t you go to yet another (or one of the same) doctor, Alicia?

Because I decided, if I knew I probably wasn’t going to die yet, that the whole experience had completely wiped out any chance I had of getting better without some serious rest time.

Internet lookup of possible sources of chest pain

Surprisingly not, it was hard to find the information online about non-cardiac causes. Because of course you push ‘get checked out by your doctor’ and ‘go to the ER’ as solutions, if you don’t want to have your patients’ families sue you.

Have you noticed how all sites that start with ‘Non-surgical ways to…’ quickly end up with dismissing those ways and heading for, ‘If you have to have surgery…’?

In the end I found NOT ONE SITE stating that coughing could CAUSE pain elsewhere that wouldn’t necessarily go away by itself.

And none of the sites talked about HOW long-term coughing might trigger TEMPORARY chest pain – I ended up deciding that one strictly on my own. Since it happened to me, I’ve decided it IS possible to cough so much that your chest gets supersensitive, and any little thing can then set it off.

Ibuprofen, which I now allowed myself, helped a bit – but not for long – and didn’t remove the crushing/tense feeling that minor exertion set off.

Some of the sites that talked about non-cardiac chest pain had a list of other serious things that it could be (with the ‘temporary’ part not discussed).

  • Some of them were pulmonary – things like pleurisy or pneumonia.
  • A bunch were gastrointestinal – having to do with spasms of just about anything from one digestive end of you to the other.
  • A very small number were musculoskeletal (specifically talking about the intercostal – between-ribs – muscles that help you get air in and out), and mostly seemed limited to sharp pains that might have been brought on by sudden muscular exertion.
  • And no one mentioned the specific area that seemed to be aching, the outer chest wall pectoral muscles.

Using the old noggin – a dangerous thing with mine

Assuming I’m not dying from something else wasn’t hard: I convinced myself the mule-kicks were induced by coughing, and would eventually go away if not continuously triggered.

So I decided to see if I could fix the phantom mule with things on hand in a regular household like ours, and figure out what it was. I also promised the husband I’d see my doctor again if the pain persisted despite my best efforts.

I decided, from the region affected, that the three candidates were:

  1. esophageal spasms
  2. pectoral muscle spasms
  3. intercostal muscle spasms

Tools on hand:

Last summer, I pulled my usual ‘I don’t want to go to the doctor’ routine when I’d had a bout of waxing and waning spasms of the GI tract, until, 8 days in, and 4 later than I would have taken anyone else, I went to Urgent Care and complained. I’d never had that intensity of pain before, and I was hoping it would go away before I had to have my insides subject to scoping – which would involve doctor visits, labs, tests, all things which are 1) exhausting, and 2) suck up my so-limited writing time because I have to leave the house.

When I finally went to UC, the doctor prescribed an anti-spasmodic called dicyclomine, and within a day or two my innards had stopped punishing me for eating, and drinking water. Much better. I stored the remainder, thinking it was a nifty thing to have with you on a vacation just in case.

Also, from a previous doctor I had Skelaxin, a muscle relaxant – said doctor saying I could take up to three a day. I had found that I could barely tolerate 1/3 of a pill, very occasionally, and it would knock me out. I’m a bit sensitive to medicines, which is why I try not to take them! But I have a couple of bottles of the stuff left, which will probably last until I’m in a nursing home, non compos mentis.

Plus over the counter cough suppressant, and the nice cough syrup with codeine which is the only thing that really suppresses a cough – and wipes me out.

What to use – and why?

I figured out the important thing depended on a fact I learned in Anatomy in 1968: that we have two kinds of muscle fibers:

  • striated muscles – heart, skeletal muscles, with the heart muscles being INVOLUNTARY
  • smooth muscles – lining your gastrointestinal tract (also blood vessels?)

The difference is that the striated ones can be affected by a muscle relaxant, and the smooth ones need the anti-spasmodic anticholinergic meds.

Using the muscle relaxant had helped a bit with Mr. Mule, but once I found the dicyclomine, and took some, I’m finding that the same medicine which the UC doc prescribed for acute abdominal cramps seems to be helping with spasms in the chest region. Same system: GI.

Conclusions

Which brings me to the conclusion that the pain probably comes from an esophageal spasm – a scary thing to consider if it were persisting or getting worse – but taking a few doses of the anti-spasmodic dicyclomine seems to be bringing the severity and duration of the pain attacks down to bearable.

Where we will keep them until they stop happening.

7 steps now trigger a much smaller animal kick; a jackrabbit, maybe.

I’m still having to control coughing attempts voluntarily, but I can do that, and the severity of that is also going down, so a week after this stuff sent me on an ambulance adventure, I am in a state of less pain, I plan to continue to avoid the doctors, and maybe I can get enough rest to get back to not leaving the house so I can write.

I’m so glad I took anatomy.

I’m not a medical doctor, so don’t do what I do.

But if you do, tell me what you figured out about your body.

ME/CFS is in the news but the novel is already written

CFS (ME/CFS) in the news

**** PART 1: NON-FICTION – Documentaries, etc. – The Facts ****

Facts – non-fiction books and documentaries – are incredibly important for getting the actual story of what is a major unsolved public health epidemic out.

There have been MANY, MANY books on the ME/CFS crisis – memoirs, Ostler’s Web, books getting out the story of the things which have happened, and how money has been consistently diverted from research in the disease because doctors don’t believe it’s even real.

And there will be many more. It is a very serious subject, and causes untold misery WORLDWIDE. It doesn’t affect only women, and the treatments proposed – such as the whole PACE ‘study’ in the UK (aimed at making sick people exercise in a way which makes them sicker – but saving money for their national health system AND blaming the victims) which has been totally debunked by statisticians as ‘bad science.’

But all of that keeps the reader who doesn’t have CFS OUTSIDE the loop of having the disease.

A new TED talk – more facts

My husband just came in, and told me, all excited, that he had just watched ‘this TED talk on CFS,’ and had I seen it?

He’s lived with me having it for 27+ years, and he still has this enthusiasm when the media give my disease, and the people who live with it, any attention.

I dedicated Pride’s Children: PURGATORY to him – because this man in my life is the reason I can write: now that he’s retired, he’s taken over the paperwork I used to do when he was teaching and had not a minute to spare, paperwork I did because it had to be done (educating the kids, getting them into college, paying for it; taxes; whatever was necessary for the house). Paperwork I did, not well, not efficiently, but until it was done.

He does it now, and it consumes all his time in retirement (because he IS doing it well, and setting things up for the rest of our lives, and dealing with how do you live so your nest egg makes it) – and I get more time to write. Which is good, because the writing and marketing have gotten more complex (market book #1 while writing Book #2 is, for someone like me, excruciatingly close to an oxymoron), and I have gotten older and less mobile and less functional.

But, in many ways, he accepts how I am – but he doesn’t read fiction. He hasn’t read Pride’s Children. That I can tell. And Pride’s Children arranges for you to understand CFS – without making it too hard for you.

So when he came up to mention the TED talk, it was almost new to him.

Jennifer Brea’s TED talk:

Should you watch? Yes. Is there treatment? No; only symptomatic

I asked him if I should watch it (I haven’t yet), and would I learn anything new? He thought a minute, and said no. Which didn’t surprise me. It’s a lovely TED talk, I’m sure, and cost Jennifer Brea an enormous number of spoons to do (Hugh Howey was all aglow on his blog when HE saw it), but there was little to nothing I, who have been living with CFS (okay, politically correct people, ME/CFS) over FIVE TIMES longer than Jennifer, and keep up with in various ways, didn’t already know.

I’m glad she did it, but it was for the general public who watches TED talks, not me.

I’m glad she did it, because it is harder for people to trivialize and marginalize and say it’s a woman’s disease, or hysterical, or all in her head, when the victim is a Princeton-educated Harvard PhD student. Princeton – which has as its motto “In the Nation’s Service,” trains its students to be activists and entrepreneurs – with a social conscience. I don’t want this lovely photogenic young lady to be sick, but since she is, I’m glad her entrepreneurial spirit – and help from her friends at Princeton and Harvard – makes MY disease harder to ignore.

Trust me. It is a huge gift to the world. Most people who watch this talk will be inspired, but they won’t get it – and will move on to the next cause. Whereas I KNOW what this effort must have cost her.

Hugh Howey said, on his blog:

…Another incredible talk came from a woman with myalgic encephalomyelitis, or chronic fatigue syndrome. It was one of the most powerful talks I’ve ever seen. Again, it came with a preamble and a warning. We were not to applaud at any time. Instead, we waved our hands above our heads like we would for someone who was deaf. Any kind of stimulation can be exhausting for someone with ME.

Watching Jennifer speak from her wheelchair, pausing to catch her breath now and then, laboring through both physical and emotional exhaustion, brought this disease to life. More people suffer from ME than MS, and the funding is sparse. A mere $5 spent per patient, compared to thousands per AIDS patient and hundreds per MS patient. Part of the problem with ME is that sufferers simply disappear from view. They crawl into darkness. It is an invisible but pernicious problem.

The other and more ruthless impediment is the shame and humiliation those with ME suffer as they are told there’s nothing wrong with them, that it’s all in their head, that they should just overcome the disease with a force of will. Because we do not yet fully understand ME, doctors look to psychological explanations. Jennifer tells us that it’s far better to say “We don’t know.” But the suffering is real. Jennifer will pay a heavy cost for traveling here from Boston, but she gives a face and a voice to the disease. It was a courageous display that brought me to tears…

But that enthusiasm hasn’t translated to something I can see. Yet?

I wrote to him in a comment:

July 9, 2016 at 5:41 pm

I’m glad you were able to learn about CFS at the TED conference.

I’m doing my best to make CFS better understood – but from the emotional side. I believe fiction has the power to break through the barriers people set up against having the outside world impinge on their consciousness to an undesirable level: we can’t exist if we worry continuously about every problem in our world.

My novel Pride’s Children: PURGATORY has a CFS main character.

I also believe that the harder a concept is going to be, the better the level of entertainment around it will need to be – I’ve tried to provide that. It’s on Amazon.

 I got no answer to my comment after moderation allowed it through.

Other huge efforts from people with CFS:

Laura Hillenbrand showed what could be done by first writing Seabiscuit, and then writing Unbroken – narrative non-fiction (not about CFS, but written by someone WITH CFS). It was amazing work, done over MANY years, by someone with NO energy.

Jen Brea ALSO was just featured for a documentary she worked hard on at Sundance which used to be titled ‘Canary in a Coal Mine’ (to indicate that what we don’t know about this illness and similar ones may be critical for more than just its victims) and has been retitled ‘Unrest.’ Again, kudos to this wonderful young lady for the effort, skills, and entrepreneurship which led to a prestigious documentary featured at a major film festival.



**** PART 2 – FICTION: BETTER than facts for developing empathy ****

The novel which lets you experience CFS from the inside is already written. It is called Pride’s Children.

Fiction – the kind I write – will make you FEEL as if you have CFS yourself. Without that being the main aim of the novel. You will still have to live, cope, and aspire to love – while ill.

Fiction gets under your skin.As I keep emphasizing:

Fiction gets around the barriers people put up to protect their hearts and minds.

From feeling too much. From really ‘getting’ it, and feeling its devastation PERSONALLY.

I started writing what I hope will be the definitive treatment in FICTION – in 2000.

Slowly, painstakingly, with a huge commitment to learning to write.I published the first third of the story in a mainstream novel in 2015, Pride’s Children: PURGATORY.

How the CFS part of the plot is woven in, from reviews:

Each obstacle the characters must over come is treated with depth and intimacy. It’s not gooey (I hate that) but gritty in an intelligent and classy way… (KR)
Kary is CLEARLY a hero, by any criteria you want to apply apart from armed combat, and she is the center of the book. She lives in isolation in New Hampshire, and writes; she suffers from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and it robbed her of her previous career as a physician, and gave her weak/treacherous husband the excuse he needed to rob her of her family. She has other grief in her life, but she does not share the pain casually. … 1. You get a private tour of the life of someone living with an incapacitating disease…. I compare it to the Thanksgiving feast we just celebrated at our house… (PP)
The main character copes with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, one of those “invisible” illnesses that get people vilified by mouthy and judgmental people for using handicapped parking spaces when they don’t have an obvious limp…But it isn’t Disability Porn….These characters, you see, aren’t one-dimensional, they’re four-dimensional: They’re full-bodied and they exist in time. Like real people you meet in real life, they have histories, and they’re made up of all the people they’ve ever been and all the people they could possibly become. They’re the people they seem to be to others, the people they seem to be to themselves, the people they wish they were, the people they’re afraid they are, and the simmering stew of people-stuff that they actually are…. I couldn’t stop reading it, and I wanted it never to end. (AC)
Kary’s world revolves around her Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Getting through a normal day is already an enormous challenge. From calculating nap times to building a sensory deprivation office, she does everything she can to keep functioning. The last thing she needs is to fall in love with Andrew. Fate, or maybe temptation, won’t let her off the hook. At every turn, there is Andrew, offering an alternative to the tried and true. (CG)

The best fiction is not ABOUT the illness

But it is a tiny part – though extremely important – of the total story. As any obstacle the characters deal with in a novel SHOULD be.

The STORY is key – or you won’t read. Anything that interfers with STORY doesn’t belong in fiction.

I’m not out to make you feel sorry for a character; that’s too easy. I’m out to make you BE a character, be Kary, live her story – from the INSIDE.

Try it – to see if it gets under your skin. Got to Amazon. Don’t buy it yet – just read the Look Inside feature – and live with CFS for a short while. You can leave that world behind. She can’t.


Thanks to Quozio for the ability to easily make images of quotes.

Chest pain is not always heart-related

chest-pain

BUT CARDIAC CAUSES MUST BE RULED OUT FIRST –  THEY CAN BE FATAL

Your brain, the precious thing that makes you, YOU, cannot function without oxygen for more than a tiny number of minutes. After which, if it doesn’t get that oxygen, you are no longer YOU, even if you survive.

Get that through your head.

Before you read what follows. And remember it.

The Perfect Storm

I’ve hesitated to write this post all week because ‘The Perfect Storm’ is never apparent except in hindsight. And I’ve been feeling like crap.

As a result of the CFS I live with, you can consider me immuno-compromised all the time. Sometimes it helps to have my immune system cranked up all the time – I fight off many things with a shorter period of malaise than many people. But when it gets overwhelmed, it REALLY gets overwhelmed.

I had been coughing, as a result of first one virus, and then, probably another (probably caught from husband who thought he had caught it from me – and didn’t take precautions – and probably gave already-weakened me the horrible virus he picked up somewhere else), since around Nov. 1, 2016. Sometimes very violent coughing. Painful coughing. But not chest pain. Remember that. Not chest pain.

And yes, I had seen at least four doctors (including mine twice), had a chest X-ray, antibiotics, steroids, and an inhaler of albuterol. My lungs had been listened to carefully, and pronounced good, then diagnosed as bronchitis, then diagnosed as ‘tight’ (whatever that means).

I had the feeling that if I could just STOP COUGHING for a while, everything could get better. I really hope so – I’ve now managed to not cough for two days.

More scary symptoms added – caused by cough? Or revealed by cough?

Older white female, heavy, sick a long time, not very mobile, is not a good place to start anything from.

This is where things get a bit fuzzy. I don’t know when the extra shortness of breath started – because I didn’t record it. I just took my time climbing up the 33 steps from the crypt of the Princeton U. Chapel where I sing on Sundays with a tiny Catholic choir. Was it just the CFS lack of energy? Or was it something new? And was it a result of the coughing, or something made worse by the coughing? I honestly don’t know.

But shortness of breath is a symptom that shouldn’t be ignored if it gets worse. Nor should the tightness in the chest that went with it. If you wonder how I managed singing with the cough going on, it wasn’t continuous, I took over-the-counter meds to control it (paying for their help with the extra fuzziness that hits my brain as my body clears out the meds), and I really like to sing, and there was, accidentally, a long hiatus between the last time we sang in December (the 17th) and the first time I made it in February (the 5th). Vacation, the choir director canceling because he thought there wouldn’t be many people there, and a couple times I was too sick to go and didn’t want to cough on my choirmates. So, a big gap – during which I coughed a lot.

So I sang last Sunday. And noticed things were not good in the pain department, so I took the steps extra slowly.

And then, that night, the first trigger?

Triggers for chest pain

Are not always obvious. In retrospect only, the chest pain flare – significant and scary – Sunday evening was set off by me having a chocolate protein shake. Silly, right? I had had eggs for breakfast, so I decided to have my usual shake at night. I make it with lots of ice, and it’s very close to a milkshake (okay, for someone who doesn’t eat carbs if possible), cold and frosty and tasty.

And sometime shortly after I finished it, a wave of chest pain that stopped me short, raised my blood pressure, and scared the heck out of me – but slowly resolved, leaving me shaking and wondering whether I should be doing something. But you know what Sunday night after the Superbowl must be like at the ER, and if you’re not absolutely sure you should be going to the ER – after all, the pain resolved, right? – you pretend it wasn’t so bad and go to bed. Just to be sure, I took my blood pressure, which was high but came down slowly to almost normal.

That’s the place at which many fatalities happen, and yes, I’m perfectly aware of that.

The next morning I called the cardiologist’s office, and moved my appointment from Feb. 23rd to last Wednesday because they had an opening. The cardiologist was my primary’s idea BECAUSE SHE THOUGHT SHE HEARD A MURMUR – almost a year ago – and I had finally gone to see her, had had the recommended echocardiogram and ultrasound of the carotids, and had that appointment on the 23rd to get the results (which turned out not to be significant, or they would have made me come in). I was being reasonable.

The cardiologist’s nurse whom I was talking to – and had told about the spasms which resolved – concluded with, “If you have any significant symptoms, head to the ER.”

I hung up after those words.

On the cusp here.

Except that, while I was talking to her, I was having my morning protein shake – same as usual, full of ice, I was still coughing, and I drank it at normal speed, not really paying attention.

And in all this remember that I’m operating at much reduced brain speed – because of that infernal and exhausting coughing that just won’t go away completely. I haven’t, at this point, written fiction in weeks – because that requires that all the indicators align perfectly, and I haven’t had that in weeks. We CFS types call it brain fog.

And then it happened: decision time

An unbelievable wave of pain hits me in the chest.

Husband frantically puts on clothes, intending to drive me to the local hospital (in retrospect, I should have let him – they did nothing IN the ambulance), but I lie down on the living room floor when faced with the prospect of walking all the way out to the car, and make him call 911.

I’m coherent enough to walk him through FINDING a non-enteric-coated full size aspirin tablet (he had brough me four of the baby coated ones, and I though they might take too long to dissolve), as the dispatcher said to take. The people who make it first are the firemen – I guess they had nothing to do. They can’t do anything, and they don’t transport, but there they were. To be with us (I suppose they have CPR training) until the EMTs get there. To help me down the seven steps to the front hall (at which point they let me walk myself to the downstairs bathroom just fine – should have taken that as a sign).

The EMTs get there, transport to hospital – without doing a thing IN the ambulance except, as we practically pulled up to the hospital, rolling out the oxygen tubing you see on TV going into the nostrils – which was then on my head for less than 3 minutes. Revenue enhancement? The things you think about!

The chest hurts a lot, but it is, like Sunday night, slowly resolving. The BP has been high, but is coming down. I am trying hard to calm my breathing and heart beat.

At this point you are as committed as if you jumped out of a plane

NOBODY in this whole system can send you home now (and you’re still terrified anyway – chest pain really hurts).

Every bit of exertion IN the hospital sets off the waves to some extent. I duly report this.

I won’t bore you with the rest of the day, the admission to the hospital, the doctor from the cardiologist’s other office who tells me my symptoms are indicative of 90-95% blockage somewhere. And scares the hell out of me. And orders drugs which I later, when they are offered in the hospital that night, I decide can’t possibly help in one day, and I refuse to take drugs without discussing them thoroughly with MY cardiologist and bringing up the whole CFS thing (this was the statin; I think I took the aspirin).

By the way, if it had been cardiac, taking the statin right away is important (said MY cardiologist, but I still don’t see how – she said it prevents even more damage to the heart – must look that up).

And the train wreck continues (as well as the pain, enhanced by fear)

You can probably see where this is headed, but, after a totally miserable night on a hospital bed after being in an even worse, if possible, ER bed all day, with all other indignities not being related here, they haul me off by ambulance the next morning to the cath lab at St. Mary’s in another state (PA), and finally, after a circus of paperwork and other activity, actually go in and LOOK at the state of my arteries, etc., with the view to saving my life by stenting those presumed 95% blockages.

Only to find nothing major (though there are the beginnings of plaque they don’t like), and SEND ME HOME. No stents. No hospital stay. NO prescriptions.

With no one caring about the, you know, actual CHEST PAIN.

Which is the same theme when we see the cardiologist the next day, who now wants to treat me as if I’d come in for cardiac reasons (instead of the benign Level 1 heart murmur which tests show is accompanied by minor calcification) – and start me on meds: no, nothing important wrong, but you really should start taking these heavy-duty drugs which are known to cause significant muscle pain, especially in the CFS population, and memory problems in many (c’mon now – I have TWO brain cells left, and can’t afford to lose them).

No, the drugs don’t lower cholesterol.

No, the drugs don’t REVERSE plaque buildup. Nothing, apparently, nothing chemical can do that.

No discussion of alternate methods of lowering cholesterol (like diet, my only real option as exercise isn’t possible – can’t go aerobic because the body can’t produce energy aerobically).

The end? The summary? The conclusions?

  1. If your chest hurts enough, or worries you enough, you HAVE TO GO TO THE ER. Period. You don’t belong at your doctor’s office, or even at urgent care – they don’t have the facilities should it be, you know, a heart attack. Only a hospital does. I did everything right. At the ER they take blood three times, 8 hours apart or so, and they look for certain cardiac enzymes to be present, to indicate you may have had a heart attack. But this takes a while. Meanwhile, they treat you as if. They have to.
  2. It may NOT be cardiac. Some 23% of chest pain is NOT cardiac OR pulmonary. It might be esophageal spasms, or intercostal muscle spasms (the intercostal muscles between your ribs pull air in and push it out, and they were already in revolt from the coughing. Probably). The pulmonary pain can be separated out a bit, but may not keep you from a full cario workup. I don’t know about that one. The pain/spasms could be chronic or acute, or getting there – you won’t know until analyzing all the evidence later.
  3. I ended up getting a heart catheterization, the gold standard for actually LOOKING, which might have taken a lot longer otherwise – but might also have never been done, especially if the pain resolved soon enough AFTER THE COUGHING stopped. So I have the baseline I, as a PWC (person with CFS) would not be able to get with a treadmill stress test (testing to exhaustion has horrible effects on PWCs; I won’t do it) or chemical stress test (same effects on PWCs; won’t do that either). But it didn’t have to be the whole ambulance/ER/cath lab emergency experience. IF the chest pain hadn’t stopped, I would probably have had the test eventually.
  4. If the doctor you see in the ER gives you meds he says you should take, take them. I did with the ER doc’s meds (I think). It was later, in the hospital bed alone all night (they slap a heart monitor on you and then only come if you call) when I decided not to take the meds the over-zealous cardiologist ordered. 50/50 on that one.
  5. It is possible (maybe) to stop your own coughing – IF it’s on the way out anyway, and you take it very easy, and use the OTC meds (and the cough syrup with codeine I was prescribed at one point in those 3+ months), but it’s a full-time job, and I may only have been fooling myself. By my husband’s symptoms – he who gave me the second virus – I had expected to be done with the coughing by this Wednesday. It happened/I forced it to stop on Thursday by fighting back with every cough attempt. Maybe my yoga breathing helped a bit. I couldn’t do it before, so maybe that’s also completely bogus.
  6. Don’t get sick. And even if you think someone else’s illness is the same as you have, it is STILL possible to hand it back and forth – so keep up with the precautions, don’t get near other sick people, wash your hands a lot… Everything spouse didn’t do.
  7. Try not to have overlapping illnesses. It messes up the diagnoses.
  8. Don’t be stupid – this was a royal pain, a huge expense, and a possibly wasted effort – and it was still the right thing to do.
  9. You may feel like an idiot when it turns out your heart is fine. I did. But you shouldn’t. They really can’t tell, and you really need to know, and you can’t take that chance. And you are the only one who can decide: What’s happening isn’t right, for me. Unless, of course, you’re passed out on the floor and trusting someone else will make the right call.
  10. I am SO glad it is over (or getting there).

Share your own happy experiences in the comments. I’ll listen. Might learn something.

Real Fiction: How to develop empathy

Girl holding heart made of lights at night. Text: Use Real Fiction (trademark) to develop empathin vicariously. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt

EXPERIENCE MANY LIVES VICARIOUSLY – BY READING

Let’s start somewhere

NOTE: None of what I’m about to say is meant to ask for help or pity, and certainly not for special privileges. Just understanding. JUST. And, among those whose lives isn’t constrained, both happiness for what they have, and a little of that empathy for those who don’t have it.

Even though political events have made this development more urgent, I’m not going there: better writers than I are doing that right now.

I’m discussing the part of empathy associated with illness, chronic illness

When friends seem surprised that I’m still sick, I want to respond as a character in my novel, Pride’s Children: PURGATORY does:

“Has the word ‘chronic’ been marked in dictionaries as ‘Archaic’?”

They don’t ask this question of people who have ‘real’ illnesses such as Lupus or MS or Rheumatoid Arthritis, do they? If someone now lives with HIV, friends usually understand that there is no cure, and remission is bought by a DAILY regimen of pills under a doctor’s care.

They understand that many mental illnesses are chronic, and also managed with a drug regime – every TV viewer has seen the TV writer’s trope: a violent person who is turns out is to be pitied because he has a mental illness, and is ‘off his meds.’

Invisible illness – can’t see it, must be fake

But if you have one of the invisible illnesses, ME/CFS or FM or Gulf War Syndrome, that are not understood because they have been disbelieved by medical ‘professionals’ in general, you are expected to have made a miraculous and convenient recovery using supplements, alternative medicine, acupuncture, specialists, exercise, diet, or yoga, and are now back to full health because, the groups’ sick in-joke, “You don’t look sick.”

‘Chronic’ thus means ‘inconvenient’ to those inquiring, “Are you still sick?”

It doesn’t mean, ‘needs continuing care for symptoms that wax and wane and never go away.’ It doesn’t mean, to the friends, ‘let’s not forget her because she doesn’t have the energy to make new friends.’

And it doesn’t mean, ‘Advocate for her, because she doesn’t have the energy to do it for herself.’

Then something happens to THEM

And it is too late; they get a crash course in empathy – or not.

Until the ill one is their child, their spouse, or their parent or grandparent, and they have to provide or arrange for whatever care is necessary, ‘chronic’ is just plain inconvenient, unless it is also ‘malingering,’ ‘gold-bricking,’ ‘laziness (she’d get better if she just got out and exercised),’ or ‘playing the system so she doesn’t have to work.’

And then, unfortunately, once they understand, they are too busy to be useful – because they are taking care of said loved one, and the now know how much energy it takes to do that, and have little left for the advocacy that is so desperately needed. Catch-22.

Which brings me to the point of this essay:

There have to be other ways of developing empathy than suffering chronic illnesses in your own flesh.

One of the best – and highly underutilized – is fiction.

But not the special books for children – barely disguised non-fiction

‘Little Tommy has Cancer’ or ‘What Does Ostomy Mean’ or ‘You have diabetes – now what?’ – designed, usually, to help the child, school, teacher, or close friend understand what is going on with the child.

Not usually meant for the world in general, such a book might have a cover picture of a kid in a wheelchair, or with an oxygen supply device, or getting a shot. These books are necessary for the ‘different’ ones, the same as the Barbie with crutches is meant for the different child to see herself (as both handicapped AND held to impossible fashion standards).

They are less frequently bought for the kids who don’t have the disability, disease, or impairment – but are there in the library if necessary. These aren’t the fiction I mean, because they’re barely fiction.

Nor books (or movies) intended to promote suicide as noble

Those are just disgusting: if someone becomes broken their best option is to find a way to tidy themselves out of this world so as not to inconvenience their ‘loved ones.’

Ask any real family affected by suicide whether they feel loved by it.

Million Dollar Baby, The Ocean Within, Me Before You – it has become a trope.

I reserve judgment in the case of ‘intractable pain or depression’ – and I could not possibly judge the person who chooses this exit if it is truly intractable – though I often hope it means they have been unsuccessful at finding help. It is not a matter for fiction, because fiction always conveniently leaves out the real details. Horribly depressed and wracked by pain people can and do have ‘quality of life’ in many cases – when their need to stay alive for those same loved ones is their prime imperative. YMMV.

Alternate preventive empathy development made easy via REAL FICTION

In Real Fiction (TM) of the empathy-developing variety, characters happen to also have a disability, illness, or difference – but it isn’t the focus of the story, while always being there.

Real fiction offers the reader a way to understand without being personally overwhelmed.

The writer can go into the thoughts of the character to show inner strength balancing outer pain.

The reader is thus safe to explore the consequences and conditions set up by the writer, to understand more, to literally be a voyeur – or in modern parlance to inhabit a virtual reality – that allows the reader to experience the life of a disabled person from the inside.

This alternate reality is temporary, and can be left or abandoned if it becomes too much for the reader to bear.

Fiction allows the small details that are important to the character to emerge, rather than be lectured about.

A great example is the book (and movie) Ordinary People, by Judith Guest. A family tries to understand why their son attempted suicide – and the family dynamics digs down into the real cause.

Pride’s Children is designed to be REAL FICTION

One of the main characters is a former physician who has CFS (ME/CFS), and is no longer able to practice medicine (which requires energy and brainpower), but has retrained herself as a novelist.

The story shows the development of her change in the area of personal worthiness for her goals, triggered by an accidental meeting with a charismatic actor which then affects her whole life.

Is she correct in the assumptions she’s taken on as to her own value as a PWC (a person with CFS)? Will chronic illness limit the rest of her life? Can she hope for and desire what ‘normal’ people are allowed by society to want?

At least you don’t have to get sick to find out. You will just have to read.

And be patient. It’s taking the writer a while to finish the story.

What’s your favorite vicariously-lived life? Who would you have liked to really be?