Congestive Heart Failure And Me

August 27, 2014 at 11:22 am (Congestive Heart Failure, Hospitalizations, Living With Chronic Illness, Medical, The Journey Towards Diagnosis) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

I have been diagnosed with stage 3, right sided congestive heart failure. Let’s break that down so you understand what that means. Keep in mind, I’m not a doctor and this is by no means meant to be a completely scientific lesson on heart disease. I am sharing the information I feel will help my friends and family understand how this diagnosis affects me and what it means. Feel free to ask your doctor for more information.

I’m going to start with the “congestive heart failure” part. Your heart is a wickedly smart little organ. It knows exactly how much blood each of your organs needs to operate at their maximum. When one or more of the organs needs more blood, the heart is able to increase how fast it beats, pushing blood faster where it’s needed.

The first symptom I had was that my heart was beating pretty fast – upwards of 120bpm. Obviously, that can be caused by a lot of less serious reasons, so although it was something my doctor was aware of, it didn’t cause any alarm all by itself.

Meanwhile, my right ventricle, the one in charge of getting the right amount of blood to my lungs, thought something was up. It wasn’t getting as much fluid back as it was sending out, which is cause for concern when you’re a right ventricle. It assume that there has been some trauma or injury to the lungs wherein there is blood loss, so it wants to pump harder to make sure the wound doesn’t drain the blood the lungs still need to function.

But in my case, it was not a wound that was causing the lack of fluid return. My body was soaking it up, in the form of edema. That’s the reason my feet and ankles, and then eventually my abdomen, got really swollen. The reason my heart thoughts my lungs were in trouble is because my lungs were really struggling with keeping my oxygen levels high enough to function. The struggle was primarily caused by my sleep apnea – I was using a CPAP setting from 2005, and a lot has changed since then. I need a BiPAP in order to get the right amount of oxygen at night, and the more oxygen and the less carbon dioxide in my system, the less the demand on the right ventricle.

CPAP? BiPAP? Is this like a Pap smear?
No, thank goodness. Continuous Positive Airway Pressure is one way to make sure someone’s airway is open and functioning while they are asleep. If you’ve ever shared a bed with someone who snored terribly, that snore was likely caused because it was the only way to get the passages open enough to maintain enough oxygen. With a CPAP, it gently blows air into your nose (and mouth if necessary) to help keep the airway open.

With CPAP, there’s one number: the amount of air pressure the person needs to keep their passage open all night. However, if the person needs a very high amount of pressure, it becomes difficult to exhale without feeling like you have to use your exhale to push against it. What makes sense is to have two pressure settings: the higher one when you breathe in, and the lower one for when you breathe out. Thus: BiPAP. Bilevel positive airway pressure. BiPAP comes with a second usage, which is that it can also stand in as an external ventilator should someone have significant trouble breathing night *or* day.

I knew I needed a BiPAP for a few months, but I was dealing with a lot of doctor office monkeyshines and did not get it. But I will have one when I get home, as the hospital has taken care of that.

The Right Side of Heart Failure

Like I’ve said earlier, the right ventricle is specifically tasked with keeping the lungs happy. Because I was having severe O2 deprivation due to the apnea, my poor little right ventricle did all it could do. Now it is damaged from being overclocked for so long. Part of the reason it took so long to figure out what was going on is that the symptoms of heart failure are easily attributed to being fat, even if you aren’t really fat to begin with. CHF makes you feel tired all the time, it robs you of your stamina, you lose your breath even when you aren’t doing anything, and then the swelling comes. The edema is made worse when it gets to the abdomen, because then it is putting extra undue pressure on the diaphragm and lungs, making it even more difficult to breathe.

Although I am still a little angry about it, I have come to accept that even though I was clear with many doctors about these symptoms as soon as I noticed them, many of them dismissed me and told me it was because I was fat and I should reconsider weight loss surgery. (In case you weren’t a reader when I wrote my many rants on WLS, look at the tags on the side of this page for more info). I mean, my weight is a contributing factor (but not the only factor!) to my apnea, so in a way it is also a factor in my heart failure. But lots of people get CHF, and getting it at my age is getting more and more common.

What does this mean? Are you going to have to stop traveling/teaching?

Well, Del is going to have to get used to a daily regimen. Not only am I increasing the amount of prescriptions I need, but there are other changes I need to track carefully. I will have to weigh myself every single day (whee!) and do it in kilograms because metric! If I gain even a little bit of weight, I have to call my doctors ASAP to see if it’s related.

I am also going to have to learn how to live with strict fluid intake rules. I am only allowed to have 2000mg a day of any kind of fluid – that’s 2 liters. I have a plan on how to measure this, so hopefully that will work. I’m just from a world where drinking fluids was a good thing, and there was no such thing as too much water.

The reason I have to restrict my fluid intake is because should my body have extra fluid, it is likely going to shunt it into edema, because the right ventricle will be all like, “Hey feet, I got some extra fluid here, so I’m a hook you up!” and my feet will be like, “No, dude, we’re already super full! I’m sure your fluid is tasty but I can’t even imagine another…oh. Thanks.”

The last part I’ll tackle is the Stage 3. There are 4 stages, with 1 being asymptomatic and 4 being severely damaged and in need of interventions like surgical implants, surgery, or transplant if the patient is young enough to recover. 3 means that I have significant symptoms, but we’re hoping that with a minimum of intervention I should be okay for a while. But I’m going to give it to you straight – this is not a thing you take a pill, you stop eating salt, and everything gets better. This will degenerate and become more bothersome as time moves on. At some point, I plan on writing about how this diagnosis takes some of the vagueness out of “Del is sick”. The monster in the closet (or at least one of them) has a name, a face, a sense of reality.

Please feel free to ask questions in the comments below. Just please don’t break my rule of offering treatment options unless you are a professional. I don’t want to know what your Uncle Tommy did to recover from CHF, nor do I want to read that article you saw on how CHF is a made-up disease to sell cardio meds. But at the same time, I want to make sure everyone has a clear understanding of what’s going on with me and how it affects things moving forward.

*BONUS ROUND*

My blood sugar numbers were also wacky out on control when I got here, and I had a great endocrinologist who helped get me back to a normal-ish level. When talking about follow-up and finding the endo, I took a chance and mentioned that I was hoping to find an endo who would manage my diabetes *and* administer T. Without hesitation, he made me a recommendation to a Hopkins endo who does T for lots of different people. Even got me the number of the pysch I need to see for clearance before we can talk about T. He keeps reminding me that this is a maybe, not a yes, because I am so complicated; but he also said it may come down to an informed consent situation, where we go over the pros and the cons and then I choose what I think is best.

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Hanging In There

August 21, 2014 at 1:42 pm (Disability, Living, Living With Chronic Illness, Mental Health, Spiritual) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

If you’ve ever had any kind of conversation with me, regardless of the medium, there is an incredibly high probability that when you’ve asked some version of “How are you doing?” I have responded with my fallback, favorite, non-pessimistic, doesn’t-drag-you-into-a-conversation-you-didn’t-want-to-have response:

“I’m hanging in there.”

Those who get to know me more intimately hear that phrase so often it begins to lack meaning. Or they’ll see a twinge, a wink, a deep exhalation; something to cue the listener to the “where” I might be “hanging in”.

I learned at a party four years ago that “How are you, really?”, can easily be mistaken for “I know you had a medical ‘thing’ recently; please tell me how miraculous your healing has been so I can feel good about the world.” I know some people actually mean “I read your blog and I have a general sense of the technical side of what’s not working for you; we’d just like some secret stuff not shared on the blog and I know some pretty awesome doctors who treat Ginger Cancer*.” But once the gathering gets past the awkward social niceties, no one is sure what the next step should be. (If you’re roleplaying 1950, I believe it is to take his hat and coat and usher him into the downstairs sitting/crochet/wielding/welding/spelling correction room while asking him about coffee preferences.)

Sometimes people really do want to know how I’m feeling, generally or right in the moment. Maybe they read this blog and want to hear some of the wacky stories straight from my mouth, or they want to ask questions about things I’ve written.

And sometimes people are super grateful when I answer with something so non-committal, so they can skip past the whole ‘Del’s life is hard’ part and get straight to the “Do you want to go catch frogs with me?” mode. Or just about any other question or conversation or activity.

People are correct that when I go to a party or fun gatherings or even just have you over for hangouts, that I am both of the following at the same time:

  • Totally willing to answer any questions or share any details about my medical journey. Remember, that’s what Baphomet said in the beginning of all this, was to share my experiences as far and wide as I can.
  • Sick and fucking tired of every conversation I have with any human being on the planet is somehow related to me being sick, disabled, or in pain. I want to pretend for an hour or three that I’m just an average ordinary Joe doing ordinary Joe things like going to the movies or setting my friends on fire. Y’know, stuff that just happens every day.

I have been getting MUCH better at setting and supporting boundaries around these things, including being totally willing to withdraw into my bedroom if we are hanging out and I’m starting to feel weak, tired, in pain, etc. I warn people before they visit that it will happen, and sometimes it happens for the majority of a visit, and sometimes it was just during the most critical moments of why they came to see me. But there’s nothing I can do about that, so I accept it and move on.

Too Intimidating?

Another social thing I’ve been trying to figure out lately is that many people think of me as being intimidating. I think the first time someone brought this to my attention was a wonderfully powerful and bodily petite Priestess. We had been to a lot of the same events and such, and when necessary we’ve have fun and interesting but politely distant social contact. I couldn’t really tell if she liked me as a person, or if she was being respectful of my experience while secretly disagreeing with any one of my many unusual beliefs or practices, or if she just thought I smelled funny.

Anyway, said Priestess comes striding into my cabin during a camping event, and sits on the edge of my bed. “Del,” I paraphrased, “I am done being intimidated by you.

This is the sort of thing I hear a lot. People saying that they read something I wrote or went to one of my classes or saw me at a party but couldn’t approach because I am intimidating. It baffles me, as I try to be open and warm and friendly, even though I am introverted down to the remnants of my toenails. But it’s a perception, and all I can do to change perception to be reliably un-intimidating (whatever that looks like).

I mean, it’s nothing like what you’re going through…

People are sometimes afraid to talk to me, especially about wellness-related issues, because they’re afraid that being worried/upset/tired/challenged with their health situation when compared to whatever they perceive I’m going through.

What you don’t see is how that reflects on me. Here are some of the things I hear between the lines when people say things like this:

  • You’re so much sicker/weaker/poorer off than I, so much so it’s only okay to talk about your struggles all the time.
  • You’re never going to take my struggles seriously because yours are so much bigger and more threatening than mine,
  • You are so, so ill that even a simple conversation causes you pain, so instead I will only engage in flighty small talk with you.

I’m sure you get my drift.

Now, this is not an invitation to grill me further the next time I tell you I’m “hanging in there”. Sometimes I really do need a little pushing to open up about things, partially because I find myself telling the same stories over and over again (Baphomet sorta promised me this blog would stop that from happening), and partially because I don’t want to waste the 20 minutes of face time I’m going to get with you at the party/gathering/concert/event to be all about my blood sugar numbers and my O2 sats.
I also have a hard time telling who really wants to hear every single detail about what tests I’ve had and what they’ve shown and who all the “charming players” there are (I not-so-secretly nickname most of my doctors and nurses, especially if there are ones that stand out screaming for one. This trip to JH has given us several – Nurses Anxious, Snake, and Afro; Doctors Bopper, Blondie, and Randomly In Charge; even techs like Pocket Fairy and New Best Friend. In fact, I’ve been asked to come up with a new cast of characters and why they got the nicknames they did, so I’m going to end this post a little prematurely so I can take a break and then tackle that. The next post will also likely have much bigger updates as to what’s going on and why I’m not discharged yet…

….and I just may have found my Zebra hunters. Oh yes, another nickname. The “Zebra” thing comes from an old medical school saying – “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.”

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Darling, Can’t You Hear Me SOS?

August 12, 2014 at 12:42 am (Hospitalizations, Medical, The Journey Towards Diagnosis) (, , , , , )

It’s now been officially a week since I have been admitted to Johns Hopkins. Although Rave and I both had tingly spidey-senses that a hospital trip was close at hand, we had no idea what we were in for.

I have been slow in telling people why I’ve been admitted, primarily because I’m still wrapping my brain around it and the effects it will have on my life going forward.

I have congestive heart failure. Specifically, right sided congestive heart failure, which is the rarer of the two. The doctors believe it was caused by my obstructive and central sleep apneas – a long story about which I am saving for another time.

I am requesting as strongly and seriously as I can that you do not ask questions or offer information (especially anecdotal or third-party info) about the causes, treatments, lifestyle adjustments, etc. THIS REQUEST PERTAINS TO THE INTERNET EVEN MORE SO THAN IN MEAT SPACE. One of the reasons I’ve been hesitant to post about this is because I am really not in a space to hear suggestions from everyone as to what to do next.

My second impetus for this post is more practical. In a perfect world, Rave would be here with me 24/7 until I was discharged. In the past, she’s done her best to attempt it but graciously accepted when she needed other people to step in. This time, things are much more challenging for us both as a unit and as two separate people.

What would be of help is people who could come and spend an entire evening with me (Ernie and Cookie Monsters may be warded against if necessary.). Throwing us a tank of gas (there are better turns of phrase, I’m sure) or helping us obtain parking passes. Specifically making plans to pick Rave up and take her to do de-stressful things. Rave may have some other ideas, and you may come up with ways to help that we didn’t think of.

I’m only going to add this next bit because I feel it’s necessary no matter how many times people have said it is not: Thank you from the bottom of my heart. We both loathe asking for assistance, especially with how generous our tribe has been for us, and we would NOT be asking if we saw many other alternatives.

Here’s the thing – I may be in here for another full week. In fact, that’s on the low end of the spectrum. It’s one of those visits where there is a goal to be met that can’t really be influenced by willpower or any kind of effort.

If you feel you want to help, contact us using our shared email address – delandrave @ gmail . com.

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The Magic Number

August 8, 2014 at 2:26 pm (Death and Dying, Hospitalizations, Medical, Mental Health, The Journey Towards Diagnosis) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Hey there, dear readers. Before I begin, I want to apologize. When I started this blog, one of the main reasons was so I could share information about my health in a timely manner from a centralized location – so I didn’t have to post to every single social medium and then answer comments from them as well – but this time I didn’t feel ready to blog about coming to Johns Hopkins ER or why I came in. I’m still not ready to write about all of it. But here is a little information, a little navel gazing, and a little update. -Del

A while ago, back in March, I started taking on some serious edemitous weight (what we non-medical types call “water weight”, “edema”, or “swelling”) – one doctor guestimated I had gained 50-70lbs of swelling (and he was pretty close to exactly right). I began seeing a long and complicated list of specialists, each of whom happily pointed to one another as the doctor who could help me tackle this once and for all. I was bounced from cardiologist to infectious disease to primary care to nephrology and around again. I got put on several different combinations of drugs, kept on using the pneumatics when I could, tried to limit my fluid intake, etc, etc, etc.

I will admit, I was feeling pretty defeated. Not only did each doctor think it was definitely a SEP (Someone Else’s Problem), but none of them treated it like a big deal. When I had to buy new shoes 3 sizes larger, I barely got a shrug. To me, my Non-Violet Beauregard impression felt like something pretty hazardous but even when doctors was using scary words like “organ failure” and “amputation” they did it with a resignation usually used about troublesome boys.

After all, the list of symptoms I had –

  • Extreme Fatigue
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Apparent Weight Gain (Swelling)
  • Lack of Appetite/Nausea
  • Sleep Disturbance

– could all (and were) attributed to being obese/sedentary. When I showed my primary doc that I was losing my breath just from standing up and buttoning my pants, we had a ten minute conversation/debate; she was forceful with her opinion that I was decompensating. (Basically, the opposite of ‘getting in shape’.) I kept arguing that even if I was truly decompensating, I was pretty sure it wouldn’t happen that fast and that dramatically.

But all along, everything that popped up she immediately tried to relate to my weight. In fact, when I came back to her after getting the diagnosis “Volume Overload” (Totally my Del Tashlin cover band), she weighed me to confirm that I’ve had a radical weight change – 60ish pounds in 3 months.

But to me, that wasn’t the shock. It was the magic number. I think we all have one. It may not be the same statistic, but there’s a number somewhere in your life that fits the category.

  • “If I ever have to buy my pants at Lane Bryant, just shoot me.” (number implied)
  • The day my scale says 300lbs is the day I lose my shit.”
  • “When I can no longer buy clothes at the mall because I am too big/short/tall/etc, I will have to kill myself.”
  • My cousin’s bra size is a 44G. I’d rob a bank to get a reduction before I would live like that.

There I am, standing on the scale looking at the highest weight I’ve ever been. I’m not seeing the magic number, but I’m very close to it. I take a deep breath and start reminding myself that it is edematous weight, swelling, something that will go away once they figure out what is causing it. Maybe a few tears roll down the side of my face, because it’s a number I wasn’t ready for that day.

As we go back into the exam room, my doc makes a comment about possibly revisiting the weight loss surgery conversation. Anyone who has followed my story from the beginning can probably guess how that conversation went. She’s trying to assure me that just because I had ONE bad experience with ONE doctor should not mean I reject the possibility forever. I am trying to clarify to her that this weight is not “Del ate some extra cheetos and skipped aqua aerobics” weight, but “something is physically wrong with Del that is causing water retention at a ridiculous level”.

I left the appointment feeling pretty sure that my GP wasn’t going to be any further help in this situation. Once again, I’m thinking I might have to go looking for someone new – especially in light of what has happened. In the most obvious application of the metaphor, I came to her with a list of symptoms of a serious medical problem of immediate need of treatment, and what she saw was a fat, lazy person who wasn’t taking care of themselves.

I got so disheartened, I stopped giving a shit. I still took my meds and the like, but I stopped making doctor’s appointments. I lost my fire. Inside I knew that something serious was going on, but it was as if I ran around the village telling everyone the Monsters are Coming and the village reacted with affected apathy. It wasn’t until Rave and I noticed that the swelling was getting markedly worse, and now was happening faster than before, that we decided something had to be done.

Now I am inpatient at Johns Hopkins and I know for certain what all my symptoms were caused by and what the short term plans are to get me going home, at the very least. As I discussed things with Winter last night, he asked me what he and the Clan could do to support me in this time, and I paraphrase for you, dear reader, as well:

I feel like I need some time to wander in the dark, bump into the walls, wack my toe on the moulding. I need permission to let this filter in slowly, rather than jump to branding it on social media for the 140 characters times worth of edification faded into the next cute cat meme. I don’t want to have to educate each and every person I talk to about what it is, how I got it, and how we’re treating it. I just want to sit with this for a while, think about it, run my fingers around the edges and see if there’s a contingency envelope hidden somewhere.

When I’m ready, I will share everything on the blog and you will all know what’s going on. Until then, for now, it’s just mine to feel in all the ways I want to feel it.

(And the good news is, I’ve already lost 15 lbs away from the magic number, so that’s reassuring.)

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