On the Other Hand

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It can be hard to “live my truth.” Just because I have had a revelation or realization does not mean I can instantly incorporate it into my lifestyle.

Especially because my hope just got a kick in the teeth. The latest bump in my pump did not work. This means more time on oral baclofen, which, remember, is heavily sedating. Being sedated is different than being fatigued because I can’t fight it. Chemicals overtake my body and my will. They rush through me, making me heavy, blurring my thoughts. I take baclofen four times a day. It knocks me out for two hours. Being unconscious so much hurts my mental health, relationships, writing, and hope.

I say “being unconscious” because being sedated isn’t always the same as sleep. I sometimes wake up fully rested, ready for an hour of activity before it’s time to pass out again. However, sometimes I wake up feeling like I have only been out a second. It’s disorienting to say the least.

Everyone, from caregivers to family, is overjoyed when I am awake, and they all want to see me. I should be flattered and feel loved. Instead, I feel pressured. Imagine if, as soon as you wake up, whoever is near you is full of energy and ready to play. When I wake up, all I want is a few minutes to myself to check my email, catch up with Evan, maybe send a few texts – all the things you do to slowly come back to the world in the morning. Because it is perpetually morning for me. In an ideal world, whoever finds me awake would express their joy, then ask if I need a few minutes. I think that would help reduce the pressure I feel and make me ready to fight through my discomfort like I decided to in my last post in order to be present for the people who love me.

I’m beginning to fear I will always need the baclofen, that the pump will never work. I honestly don’t know how much longer I can handle this. Choosing hope is harder with each failed bump.

But I know I will go on because I have no other choice. I have up to three years before my lungs fail, and even if I live like this, the time I steal with Evan makes any amount of suffering worthwhile.

Getting Back My Voice?

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This news is both moving and a profound reason for hope! When I was diagnosed three years ago, voice banking would have taken eight hours, and I simply didn’t have the strength – or money – for such an endeavor. As you will see in the video,141136 this company was able to recreate this man’s voice with only three hours of recording. Maybe one day, my half hour of recording will be enough to get my voice back!

“I’m shouting hard… This is the start!”

The Sun’ll Come Out April 19th

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I haven’t written a lot about the problem that has rendered me bedbound for quite a few months now. You may think you understand the severity of the situation. However, what you know is the tip of an iceberg that you soon discover is actually the edge of a glacier that is moving inevitably into the sea to raise and heat the ocean around you. In other words, you don’t know the full story. Yet.

The first two minutes of this video offer an explanation of what has been happening to my body.

The spasms affected me first in predictable ways, like decreasing my mobility and flexibility. Then my caregivers began to struggle to dress because of the extreme rigidity of my joints. Bye bye to my fitted retro clothes. Hello baggy sweaters. Maybe this doesn’t sound like a real loss, but when you have ALS, or even just live in a wheelchair, there’s already so little you can control about the way you present yourself to the world and the impression you make. A teal camisole under a blue tunic topped with a gold 1960s cardigan was my way of telling new people, “I may look kinda funny, and yeah, I need a computer to talk, but I’m happy and playful!” Those clothes made me feel like my old self. Losing the clothes was a stinging paper cut type of hurt: sharp, yet invisible.

Soon, the effects of my spasms took unexpected, dangerous turns:

– I spasmed in my shower chair and nearly fell. I would certainly have broken a bone since my limbs were locked.

– My jaw clenched so hard that I can’t brush my teeth anymore. This put me at risk for more than cavities. Dental hygiene is a first line of defense against pneumonia, which is all too often fatal for people with ALS.

– I became bedbound because moving me became too risky with how violently I shake. As a result, I am vulnerable to circulation problems, bed sores, and serious mental health issues.

I am now officially on every antispasmodic and pain medication my mind can handle. I had another one, but it causes nightmares so violent about the pets, I am haunted by them. I can’t even tell Evan, that’s how bad they were. Still, despite all the medicines, my spasms are so bad that I even sense them in my dreams and wonder why my dream body is shaking. Other people in my dreams avoid me because they are afraid or judgmental. The new medicine disturbs me. I wake up suddenly because, for example, I hear a crow and see it rushing at me out of the dark with the face of a human. I also have a black owl with raven feathers who guides me through the dark forest that is now my dreamscape. (clearly, I’ve been reading too much Rosamund Hodge). I wake up in pain, exhausted, and breathless.

I wasn’t supposed to get to this point. My doctor recommended that I have a Baclofen Pump implantation eight months ago, which my insurance denied immediately. So began an epic struggle with my insurance on one side and my doctor, the amazing team of nurses at the clinic, and my mom fighting valiantly on my behalf. Guess who finally won? Are you guessing the good guys? I can’t see you. You should be guessing the good guys.

BUT BEFORE THE SURGERY… I needed to do a successful Baclofen Pump trial.

The trial will look like this. No needles are actually shown in the video, only syringes, the tubes that hold medicine at the top of a needle. There is no blood. You can safely watch this while eating lasagna and your weak little tummy won’t so much as turn.

The trial was four hours of pain, but I got through it. Evan was with me, and Evan makes all suffering 50 – 75% better according to the latest study in the Harvard Medical Review (2017 Nov. Volume 4). The pain wasn’t caused by the needle in my spine – been there, done that – but by the fact that I can’t have any baclofen – my main antispasmodic – before the procedure, and it took four hours for the baclofen pumped into my spine to take effect. That meant four hours of spasms so intense that my whole body shakes and cramps, my jaw rattles, my teeth start chattering so wildly that I actually chew skin off my lips, and I beg Evan to cut off my limbs (usually starting with my right arm).

It was worth it, though, because it worked. The trial worked.

I forgot how luxurious it is to feel comfortable in my own skin, and after April 19th, the date of the surgery, I will feel that way all the time. the other side of the surgery…

I imagine that’s where sunshine lives, the daylight outside my bedroom window that I so long for. It’s where holding hands with Evan on the back porch watching the dogs play has been waiting for me, and so too the quiet scent of the poetry paperbacks in the last aisle of the Blue Room at Powell’s City of Books.

On the other side of the surgery is everything I love and live for, and I am overjoyed that I will have it again.

I will keep you posted on the events around the surgery. For now, start around minute two where the pump first shows and stop before the explanation of side effects to gain a better understanding of how the implant works.

3 Things to Be Grateful for This Thanksgiving If You Have ALS

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Gratitude

Those of us living with ALS or loving someone who has it are gratitude experts. Don’t misunderstand me. We have our dark, bitter moments. As we catalogue our blessings – the precious time we have had on earth, our remaining abilities – we inevitably think about the other side of the coin. Yes, I have lived 30 full years, but how many do I have left as this disease does its wicked work? I can still move my legs, but God, do I miss walking and dancing.

This post is meant to break us and our loved ones out of this cycle. This Thanksgiving, let’s be grateful for the following:

1. The exciting research currently underway

In the three years since the Ice Bucket Challenge, we have seen more progress in research about the causes of and treatments for ALS than I ever dreamed of when I was diagnosed. Just a few months ago, the FDA – with guidance from the ALS Association – approved Radicava, the first new drug for ALS in over 20 years! To keep up with advances in research as well as drug trial news, follow these organizations on Facebook or Twitter: The ALS Association, ALS TDI, and ALS News Today.

2. We are not alone

In addition to the local monthly support groups hosted by The ALS Association, did you know that this fantastic organization arranges fun events for ALS families year round? My chapter hosts a Zoo Day and a picnic gathering at a local farm. Follow your local chapter on Facebook or Twitter so you don’t miss out! You can also get support without even leaving home by joining online support groups. I belong to six on Facebook!

3. Caregivers show us love every day

I am constantly amazed and humbled by the devotion of my caregivers. Whether they are family members, friends, or professionals we hired through an agency, they work tirelessly to see to my personal needs, from feeding me to toileting. What’s more, they do it in a way that preserves my dignity. Then, I think of all the ways they support Evan. An ALS spouse is never truly off duty, so it’s easy to get behind on housework and neglect self-care. My caregivers make such a difference in Evan’s quality of life by helping out with laundry and staying with me while Evan runs errands or takes a little time for himself. Make a list of everything that your caregivers do for you. It will give you something to do during the four hours your turkey is it the oven.

On that note, remember that November is Caregivers Appreciation Month. It’s not too late to thank your caregivers with a heartfelt note or some flowers!

 

This post is dedicated to my caregivers: Amelia, Aubrey, Brenda, Cindy, Evan, Mallori, Melissa, Paige, and Renee (AKA my mom).

Unabridged: “Is Your Doctor Hurting Your Mental Health? Why You Need an Emotionally Intelligent Doctor and How to Find One”

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If you are anything like me, you do a little research before choosing a doctor. Patients can easily learn about the traditional aspects of their doctor’s qualifications, such as the college they attended, years practicing, and awards earned, with a simple Internet search. However, it’s quite a bit harder to get a feel for a doctor’s emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is the ability to think and gather information about emotions, and then to use that information to achieve goals. Goals may include managing one’s own or others’ emotions, like staying calm, cheering someone up, or deciding how to share important news.

Whether or not your doctor practices emotional intelligence will make an enormous impact on the quality of your care and mental health. At best, a doctor lacking emotional intelligence can make you feel unheard, unimportant, or confused. At worst, you may end up feeling completely devalued or even traumatized.

Let’s travel back in time one week. Zoom in on me lying on the table in the OR. Right away, things started going wrong. I stayed on the table for a half hour while nurses darted around me like frightened birds, trying to find out where the surgeon was through every phone and pager in the room. One nurse even ran out into the hall to ask random people the question on everyone’s lips: “Where is Jeff?” I knew the instant he finally arrived because he owned that room. Even though my face was covered, I could feel him walk towards me, the nurses falling silent as he passed. He never paused his diatribe about paperwork and how he refuses to do another page today. He didn’t even stop when he put his hands on me. I remember thinking, he should see my face, speak my name, explain the procedure to me, anything to indicate that he knew he was touching a sentient, feeling being. That’s what an emotionally intelligent doctor would do. When he touched me, I felt like a piece of meat.

Next, the team couldn’t sedate me because of my low blood pressure. I was paralyzed when I heard this. That’s right, heard as in, overheard. No one said, “Your blood pressure is pretty low. Has this ever happened before?” No one said, “If we do this procedure right now, you won’t be able to have a sedative. How do you feel about proceeding?” Taking care of a patient means approaching him or her with empathy. A cornerstone of emotional intelligence, empathy consists of admitting ignorance about a person’s inner life and taking steps to remedy that ignorance by asking questions and imagining a different perspective. However, Dr. Jeff was too busy ranting about his least favorite nurses and why they should get fired to address me, much less ask for my opinion.

The team gave me Lidocaine, which didn’t cut it – pun intended. Apparently, Dr. Jeff remembered he was operating on a person because he finally spoke to me: “You are going to feel just a little pressure here.” I braced myself. Then, a fire alarm went off in my brain, screeching, “Sharp! Sharp! Sharp!” as red strobe lights blinded me. I cried out when I felt the blade going in and out of my skin.

“You are going to feel pressure, there’s nothing wrong with that,” Dr. Jeff patronized. Did he forget I was not sedated?

The next thing I heard was, “Wow, she is bleeding all over the place.” This is not what you want to hear immediately after someone slices your jugular. It seems that one of my medications contains an anticoagulant. At that point, an emotionally intelligent doctor would have addressed me to manage my emotional experience of the surgery and reassure me. You probably know Dr. Jeff well enough by now to realize that this didn’t happen. In fact, after he closed the artery, he joked, “Now don’t go repeating anything you heard in here.” Naturally, I interpreted this comment to mean, “Hey, Right Shoulder and Side Neck, thanks for being such a good sport. Feel free to publish this experience as a non-example in your article on emotional intelligence in ALS News Today.” So here we are.

Apparently, a lot went right with the surgery. The results were exactly as hoped for. Still, imagine my surprise when I returned to my room to find my mother and husband smiling. They squeezed my hand, kissed my forehead, and told me how brave I was. “The surgeon stopped by and said that the procedure was a success!” my mom said.

It was then that I started to cry. The experience of being helpless to pain and violence dragged me back eleven years to the night I was nearly murdered. My PTSD symptoms flared to life; anxiety and depression crept in, first through nightmares, then into my waking life. I kept thinking about how different my mental state would be if Jeff had just spoken to me. I remembered how my would-be killer barely spoke to me, either. Why would he? I was meat to him, too.

How does the term “medical success” not take patient experience into account? Answer: when the success is being described by a doctor who shows zero emotional intelligence. No one deserves this treatment, especially not those made vulnerable by disease. Emotional intelligence in doctors is an absolute must, just as vital as the medical degree that allows them the privilege of being in the room with you.

Lucky for me, the doctor I see most frequently, a neurologist named Dr. Goslin, is an expert at practicing emotional intelligence. From the moment I stepped into her office, I felt like I was the most important person in the world to her. She wanted to know all about me, way beyond my ALS story. In fact, she knows as much about me as some of my friends do. The day I met her, all she wanted to do was listen. Then, she asked me about my emotional state and medical goals. I told her I felt positive, ready to fight, and I wanted to survive this terminal, currently uncured disease.

Her response? “I think that’s a great goal, and with the way research is going we definitely have reason to hope.” I knew what I had said would be laughable to many people, but she managed to respect my feelings without making me promises she couldn’t deliver. That conversation set the tone for every future interaction we had. We follow a treatment plan that focuses on the goal of survival by staying ahead of the disease and minimizing its strain on my body while I wait for the cure. Dr. Goslin used emotional intelligence to learn about me and achieve her goal of designing a treatment plan for me, not just my disease. Now every time I see her, I feel empowered. She is an important part of keeping my mind healthy.

When I decided to write about how the emotional intelligence of doctors can affect a patient’s mental health, I asked Dr. Goslin if I could interview her. She agreed with enthusiasm.

At the beginning of the interview, she said, “I think that emotional intelligence as you have defined it is one of the most important aspects of being a good clinician. Acknowledgement of the importance of emotions is part of treating the whole person and not just the disease. [However], my medical training did not address this aspect of care at all.  There wasn’t any acknowledgement of the importance of emotions (of the patient or of the self) in caring for patients.”

Well, that explains Dr. Jeff, but what about Dr. Goslin? Where did she learn about emotional intelligence and how to practice it?

“I have attended various educational meetings regarding awareness of this topic, particularly based on mindfulness, meditation, and being in the moment. It is definitely something that I cultivate,” Dr. Goslin said.

She went on to explain, “A lot of emotional intelligence comes from experience and a willingness to be open to emotions, both mine and others. When emotions arise that would typically be unpleasant or uncomfortable I tend to allow them to flow over me, and I sit with them, without actually judging them as negative. I then use awareness of the emotions to help determine what the patient finds most important to have addressed and how best to do this.”

Being a doctor who practices emotional intelligence sounds difficult, even draining, but Dr. Goslin can’t imagine treating her patients without interacting with their emotions. “I believe that patients’ emotional response to disease and to their care factors heavily into how effectively they can be treated. Fear and anger are two common emotions that occur in the setting of illness and that can impede medical treatment. Often when a doctor can recognize and address these emotions, road blocks to treatment can be removed.”

“How does practicing emotional intelligence affect you on a personal level? Is it challenging?” I asked.

“I think that emotional intelligence sometimes allows me to have a closer relationship with patients, which can make my sorrow for the patients more extreme. It is also important but sometimes difficult to recognize my own emotions and not let them interfere with patient care. For example, before going into a room to give a patient a diagnosis of ALS, I might be feeling fear and anxiety about how the patient will accept the diagnosis and how well I will be able to respond to the intensity of emotions that are likely. I have to control these emotions so that the patient can be the appropriate center of focus.”

When I asked her what emotional intelligence brings to the table when dealing with a terminal disease like ALS, she answered with the optimism that is perhaps her defining characteristic: “While ALS is terminal, it is not without treatment and hope. I think that use of emotional intelligence results in a closer patient doctor relationship and builds a level of trust and openness. I hope that the positive emotions that I bring to treating diseases (even terminal ones), increases the likelihood that patients will also have positive emotions.”

So, how can you find the emotionally intelligent doctor you need and deserve to keep your mind mighty? Dr. Goslin, of course, has the answer. “In some ways, I think the web based assessments of doctors can reflect their emotional intelligence because I believe that patients have greater satisfaction when treated by a doctor with emotional intelligence. Of course these assessments can be also be done by patients who are unhappy with a doctor for  unrelated reasons, like the doctor wouldn’t prescribe narcotics.”

Keeping that caveat in mind, I recommend using the following free sites for finding reviews: healthgrades, RateMDs, Yelp, and Zocdoc. Once you have a list of a few you like, you can call each doctor’s office or sometimes even email the doctor directly to ask if he or she follows what I call “The Goslin Equation:” mindfulness + meditation.

Need help planning what to say during your phone call or in your email? Check out this script:

“I am interested in working with a doctor who practices emotional intelligence. How is emotional intelligence part of the way you treat patients? Can you tell me if you have had any mindfulness or meditation training?”

Now go get the fantastic care you deserve!

Abridged version originally published by ALS News Today on October 2, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

The Surprising Reason I Need to See You Dump Ice Water on Your Head

For me, the Ice Bucket Challenge is not just a way to raise money for ALS research. It’s not just about hope. The effect on me goes much deeper when I watch the videos. I know I have a vast support system that includes you, my dear readers. However, I can’t see you read my blog and articles. I get statistics on how many people read my words, and occasionally there are kind comments, but there’s a certain distance between us.

When I watch your Ice Bucket Challenge videos and you say my name, I feel seen. I feel less alone. The gift you give me when you make and post those videos is long-lasting and powerful. You kindle my heart, and I hold that light in my chest until next year when it’s time to repeat the challenge.

This year, I have only seen one video, and that weighs heavily on me. I feel forgotten, like the challenge was just a short-lived trend, not the promise of support and camaraderie that I originally believed it to be. I am holding on to hope that the last few days of August will surprise me, though.

Won’t you let your heart kindle mine?

If you need a reminder of how the Ice Bucket Challenge, follow the instructions below. Don’t forget to challenge three people in your video and tag them when you share the video on Facebook. If you are able to make a donation, you can do it at alsa.org.

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Are you wondering what the donations have accomplished so far? Check it out!

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The Power of the Bucket List

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The approval of Radicava, the first medicine for ALS in 22 years, had me reconsidering my post that labels my belief that I will survive this disease “wild.” Then, the vessel of  my most precious dream was wrecked on jagged rocks I never saw coming.

The federal budget for 2018 calls for the complete defunding of the National ALS Registry, and the shock of learning that my own government would so callously undercut one of the most important parts of the search for a cure left me – and I imagine many others – frightened and enraged. The budget also cut funding to Medicaid and SSDI (social security disability insurance), a fact that barely sunk in. I just didn’t know how to process the realization that the registry was in danger, and Medicaid was as well. Medicaid covers machines, medication, feeding tube supplies, caregiver fees, and so much more that we could never be able to afford on our own. On top of that, if we lost the $600 per month we receive through SSDI, how would we afford the expenses Medicaid doesn’t cover, like my daily injections of B12?

I chose to focus on saving the National ALS Registry155 a campaign I am continuing to expand. Narrowing my focus and taking action gave me a chance to salvage some of my former optimism.

Then came the second hit: a health care bill drafted in the dark that slashed Medicaid so deeply that 14 million of the most expensive beneficiaries – including the ALS community – would lose coverage and very likely their lives. My joy over Radicava seemed distant, even foolish. What good is this new treatment if we can’t afford it because our insurance has been gutted or taken away? Obstacles were coming from all sides. Rising tides of depression and fear threatened to drown me. They still do.

I had to find a path back to joy and hope in the midst of the battles I had been forced to join. Enter my inspiring friend Glynis, who made a bucket list with her husband Vince after he was diagnosed with ALS. The list helped them focus on enjoying the present, no matter how hard it got, and gave them things to look forward to. I decided to follow her example, and I came up with a list that includes both things I can accomplish despite my disease and other dreams I look forward to achieving after I am cured. Now, I have something new to think about as I try to fall asleep and worry creeps in. Have a peek at the list. What would you add to your own?