The Three Sided Coin

April 16, 2013 at 7:21 am (Hospitalizations, Living, Living With Chronic Illness, Medical, Mental Health, The Journey Towards Diagnosis, The Panniculectomy, Tuberculosis (Inactive)) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

If you just want the short version, you can skim/scroll down to the “Here is the TL:DR Bookmark”, and start there. You’re welcome.

As you all know, I had a panniculectomy in late December, from which I healed much faster than expected. The surgeon had predicted a much more dire situation, but in the end other than a little breathing issues on the table everything seemed to be going fine. By February, the surgeon was ready to start scheduling my follow-up appointments six weeks apart; we had agreed before the surgery that we would be following up for at least a year if not longer, because there was a really high chance of post-op complications. Six weeks was the maximum time between follow up appointments, so that’s how well I was doing only two months after the knife.

In the middle of March, I noticed that there was some very slight swelling around the right-of-center part of my abdomen, around part of the surgical scar. The doctor has warned me that there might be odd swelling up to a year afterward, so at first I dismissed it. Also, I had just spend two and a half months “healing from surgery”, so I wasn’t keen to go running back to the doctor right away; I wanted to spend that time and energy getting back into the swing of things post-separation, booking some gigs and finishing the book. Every week I’d say to myself or Rave, “I should call Dr Sacks about this swelling in my belly; it looks a little worse.” And then I’d get distracted doing other stuff and wouldn’t. I kept assuring myself I had the six-week checkup already planned and if nothing else, I’d be seeing him then.

Six weeks finally passed, and I went to see him for the appointment. As soon as he walked in the room, my guilt jumped out at him and said, “Don’t be mad at me; there’s been some swelling. I kept thinking I should call you, but I was busy with other stuff and was afraid I’d have to go on hiatus again to deal with it.” He laughed; he reminded me that this is my body, not his, and if I want to ignore something I had the right to do so. He’d eat those words a few weeks later.

This is an interesting thought, and something worth going on a bit of a tangent on, if you’ll indulge me. (Again, if you want to skip ahead to the part where I get to the point, feel free.) Between having friends who deeply care and sometimes feel invested in my well-being, and being a blogger who shares their medical journey with the general Internet public, it can sometimes be overlooked that we’re talking about my body, and that everyone has made decisions that did not put their body or their health at the top of the priority list. Whether it’s extreme sports or eating a triple bacon cheeseburger with hamburger patties for buns, we accept that sometimes the experience is worth the risk. But when one is both public and chronically ill, people tend to want to bundle us in soft cotton and keep us from any extra suffering. It’s actually something I’ve read quite a bit about when reading disability advocacy and activism papers; that part of fighting for body autonomy is fighting for the right to do unhealthy or risky things with one’s body regardless of one’s state of health/ability when they make that decision.

In writing this blog for over a year, I frequently get emails, comments, or find myself in conversations, in which people basically inform me that they know more about how to treat my body than I do. That’s not what they say, but it’s what they mean. When someone sees me eating something delicious, but not the most healthy (or these days, merely something I’ve previously stated is a food or drink I am avoiding) they feel they not only have automatic permission to point this out to me, but in some cases, they physically take the food away or publicly shame me for making that choice.

During this hospital stay, people have been bringing me slushies from Sonic, which is a total Del comfort food. They’re basically fruit, simple syrup, and frozen water (and I get the ones that Sonic claims are made from “real fruit”, rather than just a flavored syrup), but it doesn’t take a food scientist to know that they’re full of simple sugars. My blood sugar numbers have been pretty shitty lately, and most of that is due to stress/pain. However, I’ve noticed a behavior among the nurses here that I really wish the rest of the world would take a cue from: they don’t care. When I get “caught” – when a nurse comes in to take my blood sugar only to see a half-empty Sonic slushy on my table next to my laptop – the nurse doesn’t actually say or do anything at all. It’s me, responding to years of programmed fat-and-sugar-shaming, that immediately jumps and says, “You caught me. I was having a slushy.” And it is Pavlovian, this response, because my experience from the last few days has shown me that the nurses don’t give a damn. It’s the people visiting me who make the judgement statements or even just a joke about how terrible it is that I’m drinking this thing.

It’s as if disabled/chronically ill bodies no longer belong to the person using them. We are community property, open to scrutiny and judgement by anybody, but most often by people who think they know better. However, I will assert that when a person feels entitled to judge another based solely on what they see/hear/know in the moment, or solely on what that person shares on the Internet, frequently their judgements say more about them than they do about us. Someone may attempt to shame me for my choices, as some sort of dodge or deflection about their unhealthy choices.

There’s more I want to say about this, but this tangent is getting really long and you’re more interested in what’s going to happen next in my hospital story, so remind me to come back to this sometime.

He didn’t think the swelling was anything particularly surprising or negative, but he sent me to get a CT scan right away to see if it was a new fluid collection or abscess. It turned out I had a much smaller (9mm) fluid collection, but that it was not infected. I got another drain installed via Interventional Radiology (IR), but there was (oddly) very little fluid coming out. What did come out was serrous fluid, or basically white blood cells. I only had the drain in for a week and a bit, as it mysteriously fell out of it’s own accord on that Sunday when I was at Charm City Fetish Fair.

The day before that happened, Saturday April 6th, was a very bad day. Even though I knew I needed to be up very early (for Dels) in order to go to Charm City and register, I could not for the life of me get any sleep the night before, mostly because I felt pain and nausea. It was bad, really bad. Probably the worst chronic illness day I’ve had in the last two years. We got to the hotel and I went right to sleep, woke up, did my class/panel, went right back to sleep, woke up for my volunteer shift, and then sleep. I couldn’t really eat or even drink fluids because I was so sick to my stomach. I emailed my surgeon and his PA to tell them how bad I was feeling and asking for their advice. Dr Sacks felt it was no big deal and to be expected, whereas his assistant thought going to the ER there and then was the better choice. As I was not feeling inclined to go to the hospital, and Dr. Sacks was assuring me it didn’t have anything to do with my abdomen, I decided to stay at the event.

As part of my earlier tangent, I wanted to add another point here. Again, feel free to skip this part.

Another way in which people outside of my immediate circle judge me and my choices is when they criticize me for leaving the house. I have lost count of how many times someone has suggested that if I only stayed home more often, or rested more, or did less work, or some other way confined my life to my bedroom, I would miraculously feel better and/or have taken better care of my body. They also feel entitled to make those comments because I openly write about financial struggles and have received donations from people in the past to help cover medical costs; and yet, I also write about going to parties or events or in some other way spending money on a social life that, in their opinion, would be better spent on medical costs.

I can’t stress enough how backwards this is. If I never go out and never do fun things, then my entire life becomes restricted to “being sick”. The only people I know – and I do know them – who want their lives to completely revolve around being ill/having medical emergencies, are mentally unstable. They thrive off of the attention people who suffer are given, and they are immediately jealous if someone else gets one iota of attention because that other person is also suffering. It’s as if there is nothing redeeming about them, nothing worth paying attention to or engaging with them over, except their illness.

I, and I like to think saner people, fight that perception with every bone in our body. I begged Baphomet to allow me a second blog specifically because my online presence had become completely focused on me being sick, and it’s not the only, or even most important part of my identity. But in order to do that, writing about my adventures is not enough; I actually have to go have them. Now, this doesn’t mean that I spend the grocery money (or the prescription money) on sex toys and roller coasters, but it does mean that – gasp – I choose to cut back on one thing in order to have fun, and also that – gasp – I frequently go out and do fun things when I “should” be home resting. Anyone who tries to shame me for leaving my house twice this month, putting off seeing the doc by a week or two, doesn’t understand or support the concept of people living full, complete, joyous lives. And that’s just sad, because it means that their life is so boring, so empty, that their idea of fun is to criticize and ridicule some random person on the Internet for doing something fun.

Sunday morning came, and our plan was to get dressed, eat some breakfast, take a look at the vendor mart, and go home. A friend of mine was in charge of vendors and was telling me that no one was buying stuff and the vendors were feeling kinda desperate. As I was getting dressed, I turned at one point and realized my drain was on the bed, and it was too far away from me to still be attached. Sure enough, upon closer inspection, I could clearly see the end of the tube that goes inside of the abscess lying on the bed like it was just another piece of my outfit. I emailed Dr Sacks and his PA again, and this time they both stressed that I should only go to the ER if I felt I had to, because there was really nothing the ER could do to assist me. I bandaged up the wound and left the hotel for home, spending most of the next two days asleep.

I was looking something up online about Isoniazid, my TB drug, when I remembered about liver-toxicity, which is a well known and documented side effect that hits those who get ill a lot. I brought up a page on the med and lo and behold, there’s a list of all of my current symptoms under the heading, “Seek out medical attention immediately if you experience…”

I had been waffling about calling a new PCP or going to see the old one. My PCP is no spring chicken, but at least I’ve been with him for long enough that I feel like he knows what’s going on and how to look at the bigger picture. However, I couldn’t get in to see him specifically, but another doctor in his practice. My ride shows up to take me to the appointment, and even she suggests we skip it and go directly to the ER instead. At this point, however, I’ve created this narrative in my head that says “If you go to the ER, it will be an emergency. If you go to the doctor, it will be no big deal.” I even reaffirm my decision when we reach the point in the journey where we could still peel off and go straight to the ER.

Well, we know how that played out. The PCP listened to what I had to say, and immediately knew she was out of her depth and I should go to, not just the ER in general, but the ER at Johns Hopkins, since I’ve been working with them and my files are all integrated. So my patient driver and I hop back in the car and reverse our trip to JHER.

It is quickly realized that I do not have a liver problem, but whatever is ailing me is fucking serious. I get admitted fairly quickly, even though it takes hours upon hours to get a bed. I start to feel much more ill as they park me in a tiny waiting room (which they now swear is a “staging area”) for two hours with no supervision, no one checking in to see how I’m doing, and a gaggle of very angry sick people who have also be relegated to this purgatory. Finally, Rave and I make enough of a stink combined that they move me back into the ER proper but we have to continue waiting for a “real bed”.

We learn that the new fluid collection has grown larger. It now has a “skin”, a membrane that holds it all together, which makes it really difficult to kill with antibiotics alone. They take cultures and try to determine exactly what is in there and what way is best to treat it. I end up losing the fight over getting a PICC line or central line when they start running Vancomyacin through my veins, and I blow three or four veins that first night alone.

The next few days are kinda blurry for me. See, at the same time, I started suffering from very short bouts of amnesia. I would forget where I was, or what I was doing at Johns Hopkins (I kept thinking I was back in High School). I got a neuro consult and although they’re testing just to make sure I didn’t have a mini stroke or temporal lobe seizures or anything like that, they think it might be a side effect of long term use of narcotic pain meds. I don’t know if I agree, but I do admire them for at least making an effort to make sure it’s not something more serious. They chided me a bit for not chasing the neuro stuff more aggressively (like going to get all the test my neuro ordered or going to see him more often) and I explained that I have been putting out fires since August and am doing my best.

Anyway, now you know enough of the backstory to get to the point.


Here is the TL:DR Bookmark

The Infectious Disease Doctors, The Plastic Surgeons, and The General Surgeons all agree.
The reason I am getting these infected abscesses in my abdomen is because of the mesh that was used during my ventral hernia repair back in 2009. Yes, that was Dr. WLS’s doing.
They used mesh to hold up and strengthen my abdominal wall, and in the process the mesh grew a “biofilm”, basically, a wonderful fertilized area for bacterial infections to grow and flourish.

Option One: “The Big Deal”

I will continue to have these infections while I still have the mesh inside of me. Removing the mesh, however, would be a big deal surgery wise. The mesh is covered in adhesions, and may very well be attached to my intestines, and it was put there for a reason. So this surgery, which I’ve nicknamed The Big Deal, would be a team of surgeons going in, finding said mesh (it doesn’t image well on CT or Xray), carefully removing all the adhesions, removing it from my bowels (which could get complicated very quickly, and include such favorites as “Bowl Resection”).

The surgeons are giving me all the exact same doom and gloom songs that they did about the surgery in December; that I will definitely be in the hospital for close to a month if not longer, that there is a really good chance I won’t make it through the surgery (especially now that I had a hiccup in the Dec one), and it will be a very long and difficult recovery with lots of creative agony and embarrassment. But this time, none of the surgeons want to do this surgery. They all feel this is something we should wait, and plan, and know the area super well beforehand, for the reasons we all know and have discussed.

The only way The Big Deal would happen during this hospitalization is if I spiked an abnormally high fever (like 104), or in some other way showed signs of advanced infection.

Option Two: “History Repeating”

My second option, which is still very much on the table for this hospitalization, is to address this specific abscess. That would entail having much the same surgery that I did in December; it would be much more superficial than The Big Deal, in that it would not entail cutting into the muscle wall or anything like that. It is still as dangerous as it was last time, but we also know that I did very well with the surgery itself and healed fairly well.

Option Three: “No Cuts, Just Infinite Pills”

This is the option most of the doctors (but not all) are currently advocating for, depending on how the next few days go while I’m here. This course would be to put me on really strong “nuclear bomb” home antibiotics, either via a PICC line or oral meds, for six to twelve weeks. After that, I would be given a permanent prescription for whatever antibiotic they feel will fend off more infections in the abdomen. I would still have the mesh, and that would still be fertile soil for growing infections, but the antibiotic would hopefully keep the infections from becoming anything to write home about.

Before you get all excited that there’s a non-surgical option, there are some big drawbacks to both being on a nuclear bomb level antibiotic for six to twelve weeks, and there are some bigger drawbacks to being on a permanent antibiotic prescription. Now, I’m saying “permanent”, but that makes the assumption that we never decide to try to correct the problem surgically.

Now, this makes it sound like I have a decision to make, right? Not really. I need to be informed about each of the options, and have a general understanding of how I feel about them and how seriously I want to pursue them. But how things like this usually play out is that the doctors will look at all the test results and data and make the best decision based on their knowledge and experience, and then recommend that choice heavily to me. It doesn’t mean I couldn’t chose to advocate the fuck out of a different choice if I really wanted it (like in Dec, when Dr Sacks kept suggesting reasons why we’d postpone the surgery another six weeks), but I’m the type of guy who trusts but verifies.

If we lived in a world where I could make a free and conscious choice, I would probably choose History Repeating for the right now, and then spend the summer preparing for The Big Deal. I’ve already reached out to Dr. Awesome and asked her if she might be willing to look at my current records and give me a consult over what she thinks is the best choice; but I did this with the covert agenda of asking her to be my surgeon for the Big Deal. Dr. Sacks would handle History Repeating, but I know from past discussions that he would feel uncomfortable doing The Big Deal all by himself. He and Dr. Awesome have worked together in the OR before, so it’s possible to get them to team up for The Big Deal.

Right now, they’re still trying to get a very accurate understanding of what types of infection I have growing in my abdomen, and also digging up information about the mesh that was installed – when, what type, where, etc. If I had to take a wild guess as to how much longer I am going to be here, I’d say at the minimum three more days, at reasonable maximum (barring surgery) I’d say a week or a week plus a day or two. If History Repeats, I would bump that up to two to three weeks.

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3 Comments

  1. Kate said,

    *listening*

  2. Duffi said,

    Here’s hoping that you can go forward with History Repeating, towards The Big Deal; and that Doctor Awesome gets back to you pronto.

  3. panoptical said,

    So, totally random – I just got a job writing SEO copy for legal marketing websites. This intestinal mesh infection thing reminds me of another mesh infection thing that I am writing about for an assignment.

    Anyway, the point is, if you were so inclined, you might be able to sue someone over this, depending on how well-known the infection problem was and how well the manufacturer and/or the doctors informed you of the risks and potential complications. From this post, it sort of seems like you weren’t warned that, for example, the mesh might result in you having to get a near-endless series of surgeries to correct the problems caused by the mesh.

    I don’t know your feelings on lawsuits or the attendant political/ethical issues, but other people in situations similar to yours have at least gotten their medical bills covered and some have gotten a lot more. It could take a lot of the financial pressure off.

    It’s not a definite, but if you find out what kind of mesh was used you could at least google the manufacturer and brand and see if there have been other complaints or lawsuits filed. There might even be a class action going already that you could join with very little effort and probably no cost.

    Anyway, good luck with everything!

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