Close Call

November 25, 2014 at 3:09 pm (Congestive Heart Failure, Death and Dying, Hospitalizations, Medical) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Everyone in the room – the doctors, nurses, Rave, and even me – all thought the same thing, but no one wanted to say it.

For me, it became tangible when I realized I was having visual hallucinations and disturbances and couldn’t hear out of one ear. My blood pressure numbers were getting lower and lower and no one knew why. My chest hurt like crazy and I was struggling to breathe both out of pain as well as panic. The doc even asked me what my advanced directives were – like did I want a breathing tube – which they had never done before. That’s when I knew I might actually die, like, right now.

I’ve written a lot about how I hate asking people for rides, that it feels like panhandling. Even when people assure me that I can always ask and they like doing it, I still feel terrible about the whole process. After I left the hospital in October, my team had set me up with a slew of follow-up appointments; the idea was I was not well enough to go back home and return to normal life, but I wasn’t urgently sick enough to warrant staying in the hospital anymore. In particular, Johns Hopkins runs a “Heart Failure Bridge Clinic”, the “Bridge” being between hospitalization and home. You’re able to access services that regular doctors or cardiologist offices don’t offer, like IV diuretics.

I was able to attend my first Bridge appointment, and it was pretty standard. Other than a small med adjustment, it didn’t seem like a big deal. So when I wasn’t able to find a ride to the second appointment, I didn’t really stress over it. But then I missed a PCP appointment as well. It was a combination of people legitimately unable to make it and me not being in an emotional state conducive to putting as much effort in as I should have. Both Rave and I have been swamped with a preponderance of to-do items that are all “very important” and time sensitive as well.

I don’t remember when we first noticed that my blood pressures were off. I know I had started feeling dizzy and intoxicated without any cause. But however we got there, I started getting these ridiculously and somewhat unbelievably low readings with an average around 90/60. My home nurse told me to keep a close eye on it; well, that’s not exactly true, as she first recommended I go to the ER. When I told her I was feeling fairly okay and really didn’t want to go back to the hospital (can you blame me after a series of two-to-three week stays in the last four months?), she told me to keep an eye on it until I saw her later that week.

I decided to ask Dr. Google if there was some easy things I could do to bring my blood pressure up. This is when I was introduced into my current medical dilemma: as a congestive heart failure patient, I should severely restrict my fluid intake; but the one reliable way to raise and maintain a good blood pressure is to drink a healthy amount of fluids. So over the next few days I drank more fluids that I was “supposed” to and as it were, the more I drank the better I felt and the better my numbers were.

Well, not all my numbers. People with CHF have to weigh themselves every day because even small gains may be a sign of fluid retention and could require a change in your diuretic dosing. Every day I “cheated” on my restriction, the next morning would see the resultant weight gain; usually only a pound or two, but by the end of the week I was up over 10lbs. My nurse was pretty unhappy but we all agreed that since I had a Bridge Clinic appointment that Wednesday, I would just wait and see what they had to say.

Except that no one I asked could take me to Baltimore that day. By Tuesday midnight, I sent the message to cancel my appointment. I don’t know what my plan was, but until they invent transporters I didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t even decide to drive myself, because Rave’s truck is still too broken to pass inspection and she needs my car to get to work. I didn’t sleep well that night. If I called an ambulance, they would have taken me to Hillbilly Hospital, and that was NOT going to happen. I felt defeated and depressed.

Even though Rave has been in hot water at work over how much time she takes off (mostly to take care of me), on the off chance the PTO gods would smile upon her, she submitted a request before she left work on Tuesday to see if they would let her take me to the appointment. We were pretty convinced the answer would be no, but I didn’t have a lot of other options. We were both surprised that when she got to work Wednesday morning, she saw that her request had been approved. She hopped right back into her car and came back to Hagerstown to pick me up.

We made a mad dash to Baltimore as we were cutting it pretty close, and the Clinic is one of those draconian offices that refuses to see you if you’re more than 10-15 minutes late. We even called ahead to see if that would help, but no dice. On top of that, I had only been to the location once before, and it’s hiding in one of the regular towers (instead of in the Outpatient Center) and I didn’t know which parking garage we should use. To make matters worse, there was practically no available parking in the one we chose, so we spent another ten minutes driving around in circles. We breezed into the office exactly 15 minutes late.

The nurse practitioner took my vitals and saw both the weight gain and low pressure – 80/40. She left the office to call her supervisor. Rave and I figured it was to figure out how much IV meds to give me…until more than 20 minutes go by and she still hasn’t returned. Finally, I gave voice to what we were both starting to fear – that they were going to admit me on the spot. Which is sort of what happened. There weren’t any free beds in the unit I would stay in, and after taking my blood pressure a number of times and getting consistently low numbers she felt the best course of action was to send me to the ER so I could be monitored while waiting for a bed. I am very glad to this day that this is what happened, as if I had not been in the ER when things went south I don’t know what would have happened.

Now, it’s good to know that even though my blood pressure numbers were ridiculously low (normal/average blood pressure should be somewhere around 120/80), I was upright, alert, oriented. I felt a little dizzy, a little fuzzy, and I was struggling more than usual with my aphasia, but overall I felt okay. I was more upset at the prospect of yet another long stay at the hospital forcing me to miss something I was really looking forward to (Thanksgiving with some of my most beloved tribe of the heart) and more medical complications and/or restrictions. But then things starting getting worse.

The first thing that clued me in as to how serious things were getting was when they moved me into the ERs version of an ICU bed. I was wired and constantly monitored. They took my blood pressure in just about every way conceivable – while I was in different positions, on different parts of my arms, and with different sphygmomanometers. My numbers were getting even lower – 80/30. 75/45. 60/40.

All of a sudden one of my ears went silent. It both felt and sounded like someone had slapped a thick earmuff on one side of my head. And of course, doctors and nurses and other hospital personnel are asking me a thousand and one questions and now I couldn’t hear them clearly. I was also getting more confused and finding it harder to understand everything that was happening. At one point, someone offered papers for Rave to sign because I was acting so erratically. (Yes, it’s legal, as she is my designated medical proxy.) I do remember someone asking me to state what was in my advanced directives, mostly about whether or not I had a DNR.

That was the first time I really and truly thought to myself, “This could kill me. They’re doing this because it’s possible this could actually happen.”

That was also when I noticed the visual distortion. I saw fireworks everywhere. Lots of red and off-white lights danced everywhere I looked. After images were causing trails if I moved too quickly (or if the thing I looked at moved quickly too).The light was getting brighter, to the point where I couldn’t really see anything else around me. My sense of chronological/linear time goes fuzzy at this point, so I have no idea in what sequence things actually progressed.

I do remember starting telling people, “I’m really scared. I am really, really scared.” Somehow, my reasoning said that if I refused to lay down I wouldn’t pass out or die. I started breathing more deliberately, again thinking that if I just kept willing each breath I wouldn’t stop breathing. The lowest recorded blood pressure was 40/30, although doctors are skeptical that it actually got that low since, in fact, I didn’t pass out.

That was just about a week ago. I eventually made my way into the critical care unit (which they call “stepdown”, as it is a transition between ICU and a medical floor) where we found out what the hell was going on. It seems there were three forces at play, and all of them were playing to win – which in this case means “messing with Del”.

  • CHF/Edema – In order to avoid retaining fluid which makes my poor heart and lungs work harder, I have to stay under a certain amount of fluid intake a day. I also take “water pills”, aka pills that make your body absorb less fluid and just pee it out instead. However, if I flush out too much fluid it puts a strain on my kidneys, which are already starting to show signs of damage from all this stress. It also leads to…
  • Dehydration – I am only supposed to ingest between 1.5 and 2 liters of fluid a day, and that’s not just what I drink. It includes any substance that becomes a liquid by the time it gets to your stomach, like jello, ice cream, pudding, salad dressing, sauce, etc. But as we all know, bodies need a certain amount of fluid to regulate themselves. I’ve always had low blood pressure, and 9 times out of 10 that’s considered a good thing. But when I was feeling dizzy and ill and I was pretty sure it was due to how low it had gotten, Dr. Google said the best bet to raise it was to drink more fluid, so I did. And even though I had increased my intake to almost 4 liters a day, I was still dehydrated because…
  • Infection – My pannus (the hanging part of my belly, the part that the 2012 surgery was about) is super swollen, which I assumed was part of the water retention caused by the CHF. Turns out that was only half of the story. My pannus is, once again, riddled with infected tissue. There isn’t a collection, like an abscess, that can be drained or removed. It is diffuse through the tissues. So my body was using every bit of fluid to make white blood cells and other infection-fighting stuff, which leads us back to dehydration. The lack of available fluids meant that the infection could proliferate faster and more efficiently. It didn’t help that I had to skip taking some of my meds for a month due to some health insurance stuff, and some of them were my maintenence antibiotics. (Bad Del.)

Yesterday I was transferred out of the critical care unit back to a medical floor I have been to before, which is nice because I know and like most of the nurses here. It also means less wires and other restrictions. The infection is pretty bad and causing a great deal of pain – the doctors keep telling me it’s the kind of healing that gets worse before it gets better. I’m on the good drugs for now – vancomycin (antibiotic version of a nuclear bomb) and dilaudid (painkiller version of a nuclear bomb). I’m in a lot of pain, but in a weird way it’s a familiar kind of pain, which makes it a little easier to deal with.

Most people with CHF really struggle with knowing how much fluid they can safely have without causing problems. Unfortunately, for me it looks like the line between too little and too much is very fine, and I’ve been warned that not only will it take some time and experimentation to figure out exactly where that line is and that there will be a lot of fuckups along the way. Fuckups mean more hospital stays.

My primary care doctor has even mentioned that I could go live in a skilled nursing facility – basically, a special floor in a nursing home that’s reserved for people of all ages who are too medically complicated to live at home but not sick enough to stay in the hospital. The idea is abhorrent to me, but if my lack of transportation is putting my life at risk I can’t fully dismiss the idea. Rave and I have started preliminary browsing to see if moving to Baltimore is even possible. However much we hate living in Hagerstown, the place we have is a godsend of accessibility; Baltimore is full of three-story row houses which will very likely not work for us. But I can’t even think about moving with a full heart until I deal with the divorce settlement, because Mike is claiming I have a part-time job with which I can support myself and therefore he should not have to pay spousal support or cover my prescriptions like he’s been doing since we split. I can’t afford a lawyer and few lawyers do family law pro-bono unless there are custody issues. It’s a big morass I cannot deal with without getting chest pain – and I’m not saying that to be melodramatic, I’m saying it because it really does cause me that much stress.

That’s the story of my close call. The reality and tangibility of the end of my journey is coalescing, and it’s a lot more terrifying than I was prepared for. One of my doctors admitted to me that if he were in my shoes, he’d be freaking out a lot more than I am. He even offered to send me a social worker to talk to, which is probably not a bad idea.

If you wanted to send flowers or the like, you can email Rave at delandrave at gmail dot com and she’ll give you the information. It would be greatly appreciated. I’m feeling kind of lonely and sad these days.

Permalink 9 Comments

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.”

Permalink 5 Comments

3am

September 9, 2012 at 4:45 am (Death and Dying, Living, Living With Chronic Illness, Mental Health) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

The hospital, as an organism, never sleeps. In the hallways, it’s perpetually noon with the bright lights and the temperature control. There are people wide awake, doing their jobs like evry other day. They aren’t surprised that you’re awake, crying, holding your abdomen in pain.

They realize it’s time for more pain meds. You sigh a little. They help, at least the IV ones do, but your pain is a seven and your best hope is to get it to a five. You start to feel a little disomfort in your arm, but you don’t really care because your belly hurts worse.

The nurse comes back and starts to push the opiate, but it doesn’t feel right for both of you. Your arm starts to swell, and swell, and burn. She disconnects the highly acidic antibiotic and pulls the IV. She tells you that even at 3am, they can get an IV tech to put in a new line.
Read the rest of this entry »

Permalink 10 Comments