Health, mental health, Unveiling Invisible Illnesses

The Invisible Battle of Chronic Illness

Ehlers Danlos Syndrome is an umbrella of many ailments that fall beneath it. This genetic disorder manifests in many ways; various joints and organs are affected and there is a large range of severity on each spectrum. None of us EDSers are the same. We call ourselves zebras because most doctors think of horses when they hear hooves, but rarely it can be a zebra. We are the zebras in the medical world. There is no cure for EDS but each symptom can be managed separately. It is tricky because we sometimes have several specialists to manage each symptom, or comorbidity, which can resemble having a full time job. Juggling this health conditions not only takes a toll on our energy but it also takes up most of our time. 
On a regular basis, I see several specialists: cardiologist, electrophysiologist, pulmonologist, cardiothoracic surgeon, rheumatologist, neurologist, otolaryngologist (ENT), endocrinologist, gynecologist, gastroenterologist, and of course my general physician. I also sometimes see a chiropractor for traction and the use of some machines to help build strength in my lower back. I don’t have access, but need to see a geneticist, nephrologist, ophthalmologist and orthopedic specialist. That is about 12-16 specialists every 3-6 months. If I see fourteen doctors four times per year, just as a guess, that is fifty six doctors appointments in a year! I also end up in the ER, on average, about six times per year and usually have one or two hospital admissions… on a good year. This year, I had a few surgeries already and last year I had a pacemaker put in. Last year I probably had close to fifty emergency room visits so we won’t count that year. 
An average day for me is waking up around 2am-4am with lower back pain, thirst and several bathroom breaks. I never truly sleep through the night. I have a dysfunctional nervous system (dysautonomia) and suffer from Neurocardiogenic Syncope, Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome, sleep apnea and issues with my body temperature, blood pressure, heart rate and more. My pain level has NEVER been under a five on the 1-10 scale. Not even for a moment. I usually have to be out of bed by 7-8am because my body is so sore when lying down for a long time. Even if I am sick, I have to get out of bed or the pain is so severe that I can not breathe. This means that I can not sleep for over six hours without a break, or the pain is unbearable. 
I take most of my medications and supplements in the morning. I usually start my day off with a headache, nausea, low blood pressure and a general feeling of being hungover but without the fun tequila shots. As I make it to midday, my entire body aches. Every cell in my body hurts. I feel so fatigued and exhausted, even if I didn’t do much. My head hurts and if I am around strong perfumes, chemicals or exposed to any chemicals in my food, I will have a runny nose, body aches and migraine with aura (visual disturbances). My lips and left hand go numb, simultaneously, about five times a day. No one knows why. My symptoms often mimic a stroke so I fear that one day if I have a stroke, I wouldn’t know the difference. I have chemical sensitivities that are hard to avoid. Wearing a mask and watching what I eat helps. Usually by 5-6pm, I am ready to collapse. Sometimes I make it through, with a smile on my face, because I try to live my life to the fullest. Despite how I feel, I push it to the limit to be the best mother, wife, friend, student and so on. I refuse to give up no matter how hard it gets.
By evening, I have made it through the day and usually my body temperature is low and I am freezing but somehow feel like I am burning up and running a fever. My temperature usually will read 96-97 degrees. It is incredibly uncomfortable to feel hot and cold at the same time. My chest feels heavy at night and if I lie on my back I start to feel fluid in my lungs. On a tough day, I will breathe so shallow while I fall asleep that I jump up gasping for air, with low oxygen and a racing heart. Other nights, I can’t sleep because memories flash back from the past when I was in the back of an ambulance or in the ER with chaotic arrhythmias. I close my eyes and hope to get to the next morning. It all starts over again in the morning. 
Depression can be a struggle for those who suffer with daily pain or frequent traumatic hospital visits. I recently came up with the term “Post Traumatic Health Disorder.” Depression can also be a factor because we feel like we have lost the person we once were and are prisoners to a body that doesn’t feel like it belongs to us. Our friends drop like flies the more we cancel on them, relationships are strained and many physicians don’t take us seriously because oftentimes these symptoms don’t show anything in blood work and we are passed off as a mental case. Many doctors are not familiar with rare, genetic disorders so they typically label us with anxiety or a catch-all diagnosis and send us on our way. We feel alone and like no one understands. It is scary, disheartening and frustrating. Seeing a therapist is important, as well as finding a support group.
Having an invisible illness is a battle and we all think of ourselves as warriors. We are warriors. We battle and fight every damn day. Tears are shed on the battlefield often and we watch our tribe through ups and downs on our online support groups. We have lost some and watched others give up. We keep fighting and supporting each other and raising awareness while we struggle to make it out of bed.
Always be kind to others, as you have no idea what they are battling under all that makeup and forced smile. And to those who are my fellow warriors, I believe you.
Health, Unveiling Invisible Illnesses

Living With Chronic Pain

What does it feels like to live with chronic pain? It’s something that you never really get a break from and you can’t remember not feeling it.

At the end of a long day, it feels like you just did the most intense workout the night before, and climbed 50 flights of stairs while carrying someone up. Then, you had to swim a mile in the ocean and forgot to stretch, and you were forced to sleep on the pavement. For me, this is how my body feels on a daily basis.

Every single fiber of my being aches and it always has. This is my normal and something I have grown to live with. I still go to the grocery store, cook my family dinner, make it to events and juggle school, parenting and work. I used to never talk about this because I never knew it wasn’t normal to feel like your scalp was severely bruised because you wore your hair up or switched parts, or that your legs weren’t supposed to feel like they were run over by a truck after a day of work, or like you drank a bottle of tequila the night before (only you don’t actually drink) and have a massive hangover. I didn’t know it wasn’t normal to feel like your feet have been shattered into a hundred pieces at the end of the day, or wake up each night with your back spasming, and let’s not forget the classic pounding headache and abdominal cramps.

I have been told in previous relationships that I was a hypochondriac, or always complaining, so I trained myself to suck it up. Who wants to complain all day or succumb to a life in bed? I can’t be in bed too long anyway. This is my every single day. This is me. So, when you see someone or meet someone, know that we are all fighting our own battles. Pain is just one small layer of the onion. Things are not always what they seem.

Photo by Amanda Eversz

Location: Rockledge Gardens

Dress by The King’s Daughter Bridal Boutique & Formal Wear

Health, Unveiling Invisible Illnesses

Invisible Illness – Dysautonomia Awareness at Local Emergency Rooms

I have not been confident in my local emergency department to care for me, due to dozens of terrible experiences. Am I mad at them? No. Is it their fault? Not really. This ER is 2.3 miles from my home. I can be upset or I can do something to help myself and others. Thanks to Dysautonomia International, I have access to educational printouts for physicians. I have dropped off information to the ER director and plan to follow up with a call today since he was unavailable.

I want the entire staff to be aware of medical issues that present themselves as ANXIETY. Please rule out other possibilities! Dysautonomia does not show up in blood work and it is common in young women, who are constantly dismissed and labeled with anxiety. There are many causes for it. My underlying condition is Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. Many ERs only factor in ONE complaint and the other 10 issues get tossed aside, which could help solve the puzzle.

Times are changing. I am joining the medical field as soon as I can and I am fighting for a new way of healthcare. This is my ER and I refuse to be afraid to come here, if I am in a life or death situation, because of the lack of knowledge of invisible illnesses. Learn my name. Set aside your ego and let me teach you.

Unveiling Invisible Illnesses

Pacemaker Check

Despite not having insurance at the moment, I went to my pacemaker check (priorities) and found that 70% of the time, I am paced and have 7.5 years left on my pacemaker. The bad news is that on July 1st, around 4pm, I went into v tach, which can sometimes lead to cardiac arrest.

The good news is that it was likely a result of having a fever, so we know there was a contributing factor. I went to Wuesthoff Rockledge ER, but as usual was sent away and dismissed. I always tell them I feel it in my heart when I get fevers and because I run low, a high fever for me is 100 and up. Fortunately, I made it to Florida Hospital, who admitted me for two days and put me on two IV antibiotics.

This is why I URGE people who are sick to kindly stay away. My heart cannot handle fevers and when I am sick, I am very high risk for an infection to spread to my heart and would need a heart transplant. Because of this ventricular tachycardia episode, I may have to get a defibrillator. Funny thing is, this is what I told them I needed in the first place, but again… dismissed. As you can see, these are constant frustrations being young(ish) and appearing healthy. I am feeding my emotions with Chipotle and studying for my Psych essay exam, trying not to cry in my salsa. I am thankful that I am here.

Health, mental health, Unveiling Invisible Illnesses

Health PTSD – Warrior Status

There are some evenings when I can’t help but think about the nights when my heart would struggle to beat. By the end of the day, my blood volume would be so low because I was never educated on my health conditions or how to manage my health and had no idea what was going on. I would go all day without drinking water. I avoided salt because I assumed that’s just what you do, especially with heart issues.

Here is a quick run down about my health history:

Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome was just a small fraction of what I had going on. Last January (2017) I was still very in the dark about my health. Even though I already had four cardiac ablations for Supraventricular Tachycardia, caused by being born with an extra electrical pathway in my heart that caused rapid heart rates and extra beats, I still never had a real team of doctors who had my back.

Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome made it very difficult to have a fully successful ablations due to the extra pathways in very difficult and rare spots of my heart. My electrophysiologist often noticed two P Waves on my EKGs. The P Waves are the little squiggly line that shows where the heart beat originates.

After four cardiac ablations, I needed an aortic valve repair. This is done with open heart surgery and cracking open my sternum. My aorta valve was regurgitating blood flow backwards. This caused shortness of breath and other issues.

Having the ablations did not fix my rapid heart rates. It reduced them but I still got them and often. I needed medication to slow down my heart rate but I also had bradycardia (slow heart rate) so I was unable to take medication for about a decade. I would bounce from 45 beats per minute and jump up to 150, all day. I was diagnosed with Neurocardiogenic Syncope and Sick Sinus Syndrome. This means that my heart would randomly plummet, while doing simple tasks, causing me to blackout or set my heart into a scary arrhythmia. I developed a dysfunctional sinus node. The sinus node produces your heart beat, like a natural pacemaker.

Back to 2017… As if nothing mentioned above wasn’t scary enough, including my brief encounter with cancer, January 5th, 2017 was the scariest day of my life. Unbeknownst to me, my blood volume was dangerously low and I was dehydrated and creeping up to pre-diabetic status due to a careless diet and love for sugar. I wasn’t taking care of myself the way my body desperately needed me to. My heart went tachycardia, which wasn’t anything I wasn’t used to, but then the rhythm changed to chaotic. I was going into a potential fatal arrhythmia.

We called 911 and my husband (boyfriend at the time) held me in his arms as my limbs fell to the side, with no blood flow. I was going into circulatory shock. I told him I loved him and to tell my kids I loved them and the blurry lights in the distance arrived closer. Suddenly I felt my heart convert back to a normal (but fast) rhythm and I could breathe again and move my arms. This happened again and again, several times a week, for months.

I was continuously dismissed, labeled with anxiety and even prescribed acid reflux medication for heartburn. I did not have heartburn, I was having chest tightness and pressure but this was just a small example of being disregarded and carelessly misdiagnosed. Eventually, I had a 30 heart monitor on to capture every episode. The monitor was hidden under my shirt and robe. My body would shut down before the doctor’s eyes as he mocked me and stated it was just anxiety and an EKG or heart monitor wasn’t necessary. Despite my history and the fact that I was the happiest I had ever been, I was always sent home or they couldn’t catch an episode.

Six months later, I finally found an electrophysiologist who set me up with a pacemaker that I needed ten years ago. My neurologist also looked at the tests and confirmed that what they thought looked like an anxiety attack was my body going into circulatory shock. I can also finally take heart medication to keep the fast rates at bay, now that I have a pacemaker.

Like a thick gloom, blanketing you and swallowing your body, the memories take over. There were times that I literally begged for my life. I could barely breathe and my arms and legs lost color and I couldn’t move. My body would start shaking vigorously as I took small rapid breaths. “Please help” was all I could pathetically mutter to the unconcerned nurses who assumed I was a drug seeker.

Those six months still haunt me, especially at night. No doctor EVER thought to ask, “Why does this young woman have such a unique health history?” No one thought to do genetic testing or to ask questions. They all let me slide through the cracks.

I’m here and I am still fighting. I will always fight, until I can’t anymore. I am here to stand up for others like me. I am here to inspire others to advocate for themselves and to not give up. I am still here.

Even though my story isn’t over, I still continue with sleep apnea and my aortic valve has hypertrophied. I will need open heart surgery once again, with a pig valve and possibly in the near future. I will need a new pacemaker years to come. I don’t have insurance so my sleep apnea is not being treated. I don’t know what to expect in the future but I do know that I will love every moment that I am given.

  • Educate yourself on your health conditions.
  • Get every medical record and keep a file
  • Print information on your rare diseases or disorders to give to your medical professionals
  • Find a support group or therapist
  • Eat healthy and stay hydrated
Health, Unveiling Invisible Illnesses

I Believe You

When your medical team thinks you are just stressed or maybe have a common ailment and never test you for anything out of the norm, it can be frustrating. You feel lost and alone and just want answers. Sometimes this process can last years!

Up to 12 million people are misdiagnosed each year (1 in 20) and medical errors are the THIRD leading cause of death in the US (CDC, 2006) and kill 150,000 people per year. It is also disheartening when friends and family start to question you and think that maybe it is in your head. I have been there!

I am lucky to have a beautiful support system and people who care about me and I have made leaps with my health care, though I still have much more to discover. Advocacy is so important. Though my hands are tied due to finances and lack of health insurance, I still do a ton of research regularly and do what is best for my health and wellbeing with nutrition, detoxing my body, supplements and cutting out emotional toxins. If you are suffering from anything, I got your back. I am on your side. I am always here. Don’t ever be afraid to reach out.

Health, Unveiling Invisible Illnesses

Sleep Apnea

I remember when I was 16, telling a doctor that I stopped breathing in my sleep. “No. Not at your age. I don’t believe you.”

For the last 5 months, I fought for a sleep study. I was denied because of my age and weight. After making several calls, hours on the phone on different occasions, I finally got approved.

Two days after my test I was called and referred to a pulmonologist. In 4 hours and 13 minutes, I stopped breathing 27 times with an average duration of 49 seconds. The highest duration was 117 seconds!

My point is, don’t ever give up. Keep fighting and I believe you.

It’s a bittersweet sweet moment to get these results back. Part of my is relieved to finally get help, answers and care as well as prove that I wasn’t crazy and to not be dismissed anymore. The other part of me wishes they were right and that I was just a hypochondriac.