Feeding Tube Foodie; or How I’m Being Lured to the Dark Side

The sound of the microwave whirring to life sliced through my interest in the book I was reading in the living room. I made a beeline for the kitchen where my husband Evan was clearly up to something delicious. (it was a good day for me in terms of hand strength, so I was able to steer Ruby, my beloved power wheelchair, myself) Just as I suspected, Evan was warming up some leftover pizza.

“Hey, hun. Is that your dinner?” I asked. I knew I had to play it cool to keep Evan from becoming suspicious.

“That’s the plan,” he replied, settling in at the kitchen table.

“I think I’ll just hang out here while you eat,” I said, rolling up to the table. “Hey, as long as I’m here, can I watch you eat?” I grimaced. Real smooth, Rachel.

“Um, I guess.”

“Cool, cool, cool.” Yes, keeping it casual. This time, I would control myself. I would NOT make it weird.

Evan took a bite, then another. I was riveted.

“You’re really starting at me.” He shifted in his chair.

I made a conscious effort to blink before saying, “You know, I was just wondering if you can try chewing slowly.”

With obvious discomfort, Evan complied with my request. One bite later, he stopped. “You’re leering at me. It’s freaking me out. I am going to eat in the living room.”

I huffed in frustration when he walked away. I miss food desperately, and I am always looking for ways to hold onto at least the memory of the joy of eating.

At my most recent clinic, my speech therapist put me on a pureed foods diet after she discovered that I can no longer move my tongue from side to side. Losing that motion makes me unable to sculpt my food and move it between my teeth. As a result, I have little control over where the food in my mouth goes. I am at risk of choking if I deviate from the pureed foods diet because anything I eat can slide to the back of my throat and block my airway. Even crumbs are a danger. Then there is the possibility that tiny particles of food may slip into my lungs without me even knowing it. This puts me at risk for pneumonia, which can be fatal to someone with ALS.

To protect my lungs and prevent choking, I get most of my food all of my hydration through my feeding tube (I can’t drink water because it moves so quickly that aspiration is inevitable). I eat orally at dinner, usually a pureed soup my mother-in-law Brenda made for me that morning – she concocts everything from broccoli and feta soup to savory butternut squash puree – or a fruit smoothie. I get a decent variety of flavors, but the lack of texture is starting to get to me, I fantasize about chewing on a piece of cheese or sinking my teeth into crisp slices of tomato, bell pepper, zucchini, and apple. Lately, I am nursing an obsession with all things toasted, specifically paninis. The longing keeps me up at night, and I suspect it’s chipping away at my sanity, which led to this, ahem, eccentric text exchange with a friend. Read on to witness the burgeoning madness of a Foodie on a feeding tube…

Me – I would do unspeakable things for a panini.

Melissa – Has anyone ever invented something like a chew toy for humans?

Me – Someone really should. I want to bite something and feel it crunch.

Melissa – I feel like I could put a panini in some mouth safe baggy and hold it in your mouth to feel on.

Melissa – Or I could just put a panini in your mouth and then take it back out, over and over, with purée in between so you get full.

Melissa – These might be very foolish, even offensive ideas. I just would love to please your mouth. I feel so strongly for food and I can just imagine the panini longing.

Me – no, I love it! I would drool all over a panini bag.

Me – I am desperate and the more desperate I get, the more violent I am willing to be to get what I want.

Me – I am like bargaining with some powerful dark force. ” if you let me eat a panini, I will burn down Chicago.”  **

Melissa – I can’t say I know what you’re going through, but i know it can’t be easy! When I’ve had to not eat solid food for just some period of time, i went mad.

Me – I always saw myself as a force for good, but it has taken so little to push me over the edge. Am I truly a slytherin when all my life I thought I was a hufflepuff?

Melissa – Serious hunger can push any human to the brink.

Me – Exactly. My teeth are depressed. They have lost their purpose and they are not taking it well. I think I feel at least two spite cavities forming.

Me – Can I put this conversation on my blog? I think it is a wonderful representation of my life as a feeding tube foodie

Melissa – I’d be honored.

 

 

 

Save Medicaid from Being Slashed!

The health care bill draft currently being reviewed by the Senate slashes Medicaid to the bone. If the bill is passed, 14 million of the most expensive beneficiaries – particularly, the elderly and disabled, including those suffering from ALS – will be kicked off Medicaid! Use the following text to write to or call your representatives and let them know that you expect them to oppose this health care bill (contact information here138). We must act quickly since senator Mitch McConnell intends to have the Senate vote by JUNE 30th!

The Honorable [NAME]
United States House of Representatives (or: United States Senate)
United States Capitol
Washington, DC

Dear Representative (or: Senator) [NAME]:

I am writing to ask for your help to ensure that people with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease have the coverage and health care they need and deserve. If passed, the Better Care Reconciliation Act will seriously impact the lives of people suffering from ALS and their families. In fact, it may even be a death sentence since many will be kicked off Medicaid.

The cost of living with ALS is staggering. Depending on the level of care a person needs, expenses can reach $250,000 per year. If patients are left with the burden of paying all the costs that Medicaid currently covers, these people will go without the feeding tube surgery and supplies that prevent them from starving to death. They will lack the medicine that relieves their tremendous pain. They will not be able to afford the caregivers who help them with toileting, medication, tube feedings, bathing, and monitoring vital machines such as ventilators. Most cruel of all, thousands will face the decision to go on a ventilator, or forgo the life-saving procedure in order to avoid bankrupting their families. In short, thousands of Americans with ALS will lose their dignity and their lives an agonizing death if they are deprived of Medicaid. (Optional: insert personal story of the impact of ALS on your life).

This is a matter of life and death, not politics. This health care bill is inhumane. I know there are a number of initiatives and programs under review. However, I think, and I hope you do as well, that Medicaid, which saves the lives of countless citizens, must be preserved and well-funded.

As a resident of (STATE), I hope that I can count on your support and look forward to watching closely as the health care bill moves through the legislative process.

(Optional) If you need more information on the impact of ALS on the people in our state, please don’t hesitate to contact the ALS Association of (STATE ORGANIZATION) at: (insert chapter website).

Sincerely,

Your Name

A Wild and Lonely Belief

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9Dedicated to Dr. Goslin for giving me permission to believe, and my husband Evan, who shields me from the worst of the winter winds.


I am a voracious reader. I always have been, thanks to my parents and grandparents, who planted books around my house in places I could reach even when I was still crawling. They were treasures I was allowed to discover on my own, and as a result, they felt special and personal to me. The books I read in my childhood became a part of me in that they showed me how to dream, hope, and believe. Even now, those stories influence the way I understand the world and cope with the rocks and daggers it throws at me. When I spot trouble coming my way, I snatch up one of these books, opening it wide to use the front and back covers as a shield while I confer in hushed, hurried tones with the characters inside.

Lately the shield I crouch behind is the work of one J. M. Barrie, and Peter Pan is whispering in my ear: “Every time a child says, ‘I don’t believe in fairies,’ a fairy somewhere falls down dead… Do you believe in fairies? If you do, clap your hands! Don’t let Tinker Bell die!” I watch the children bring Tinker Bell back by clapping and shouting, “I believe!” But what good can Peter Pan’s words do me, a young woman dying of ALS? More than you might ever imagine.

You see, I have this conviction that I will not succumb to my disease. I believe I will survive this. I can count on one hand the people who share my belief. I often hear other pALS (people with ALS) talk about their sadness over the special moments they will miss after the monster we are all battling cuts their lives short. On the earth beneath which we have been laid to rest, our loved ones will blow out birthday candles, throw graduation caps into the air, walk down the aisle, paint nurseries, and build cribs. We can only hope they think of us now and then as the flowers of their lives continue to unfold long after our own blooms have wilted and shriveled.

That’s not my story, though. My blossom is wilting because winter has come, not because I am dying. Bitter winds may batter my petals, but my roots are safe and strong. They remember spring and are waiting for it to come again. I have been told not to get my hopes up, and my answer is always the same: “What harm can believing do? If I am wrong, I won’t be around to cry about it.” The fact of the matter – which I rarely endeavor to explain anymore – is that believing is a source of strength for me. After all, Peter Pan said belief can save a life. If you need to hear about the power of belief from someone with more authority, consult another prominent book from my childhood. Open the Bible to Matthew 17:20 where you will find the following words: “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

To me, belief is so powerful because of what it inspires. The magic of belief lies in the way it empowers us to live, and when necessary, fight. I believe that I will be cured, but that doesn’t mean I expect an easy path. I know that only if I work hard and plan carefully, I will survive long enough to be cured. This conviction shapes how I live now. In order to last until the cure, I need to keep my lungs strong and clear with daily use of the cough assist and AVAPS machines. Each day, I also complete two dozen physical therapy exercises and follow my feeding tube meal program. I can bear all this and more – hours spent in the hospital for clinics and drug trials, daily vitamin injections, even a tracheotomy if my lungs fail – because I know that my story will have a happy ending.

This is my wild lonely belief: that I am not a withering rose, but a winter one, waiting with patient certainty for the sun.

Three Dreams and A Dragon

When I was thirteen, I bought a small, blue, canvas-bound book whose title, scrawled in loopy silver script, read, “The Interpretation of Dreams.” I purchased it because every morning, I awoke with vivid memories of three, sometimes four, dreams. About half of them were nightmares, but they didn’t trouble me as much as what I called the Sagas. In those dreams, I lived entire lives, and when I woke up and realized that none of it was real, the resulting devastation was almost as intense as if I just lost actual friends, a husband, children. I hoped that I would find answers about what the Sagas meant and achieve peace by way of the knowledge.

I never found my answers; when I started taking anti-depressants at age fourteen, the Sagas disappeared, so I abandoned my research. However, the nightmares began to run rampant.

Lately, my nightmares have been especially painful. I have three that take turns playing in my nocturnal theater. First, I dream that fierce predators escape from the zoo, lurking the city’s streets, lying in wait for unsuspecting humans to cross their path. Unfortunately, I’m the only one who knows this, so it falls to me to protect my husband and sister even though I don’t have a single weapon.

Next up, I awake on a dark beach. I lay on the rough sand, utterly confused by my surroundings. Then a pair of hands reach down to help me up. I realize too late that they belong to my rapist. Raising a hand to caress my cheek, he says, “We’re the last people on earth. It’s just us. Now we can be together forever.” It’s then that I notice I’m wearing my wedding dress.

The worst dream starts before I even fall asleep. As I drift, memories of the words of my last Lower School Director and the Head of School echo in my head…

“Your students are bored.”

“Their parents lack confidence in you.”

“Maybe your personality is the issue. Go observe the Spanish teacher. Try to be like her.”

“You lack presence in the classroom.”

“Have you considered being a librarian? Then you won’t work with children every day, and you can be around those books you love so much.”

“You’re too academic.”

“Try not to look so frail. Stop hunching over your cane.”

“Are you really teaching if the kids aren’t learning? ”

“Fifth grade is an important year, and we need a teacher so fantastic that families don’t even think of transferring to another school for sixth grade. There are five families thinking of leaving – you’re not a strong enough teacher.”

“I’ve been disappointed in you from day one.”

Then, when sleep finally comes, I am teaching in a classroom with glass walls. I don’t have a lesson plan, and when I see the Lower School Director and the Head of School watching me, I panic, making one stupid mistake after another, knowing each is a nail in my coffin. The dream fades when memory wipes away the fear and reminds me that it’s over now. I survived being kicked to the curb, and – awful as it was to end my career on a low note – they can’t hurt me anymore.

I don’t need the book to pick up the themes these dreams share; in each one, I am caught off guard and helpless. That is the essence of ALS. No one is prepared for the diagnosis (most cases can’t be tied to a family history, and lifestyle seems completely irrelevant). To make matters worse, the diagnosis comes with a decree of helplessness since there isn’t a thing you can do to fight back. I’m guessing that I am reliving the trauma of the diagnosis, but I don’t think it has to continue.

I recently realized that I am not helpless, not by a long shot. How many pieces have I written detailing my commitment to my range of motion exercises, my eagerness to participate in drug trials 135164, my openness to new medications and protocols 136165 to manage my symptoms? I use the cough assist 137166 to keep my lungs strong, my feeding tube to maintain proper nutrition and hydration, and my tobii to prepare for when I lose my ability to speak. I am not sitting on the sidelines watching this monster consume me. I am fighting the dragon with a small dagger, slashing and slicing bit by bit until I bleed it dry. From now on, I will hold this gruesome, glorious image in my mind as I fall asleep. Maybe then I’ll dream of slaying the beast.

Drug Trial FOMO

I have a serious case of drug trial FOMO (fear of missing out). I just completed my year-long Tirasemtiv drug trial. I don’t know whether I was on the placebo or active drug. However, I have been invited to join the open-label extension of the clinical trial. That would mean I definitely would have an active dose. Meanwhile, the company that created Tirasemtiv is applying for FDA approval at this very moment. I take all of this information to mean that the medication worked: it preserved strength in the diaphragm, preventing a decline in lung function. In that case, being in the open-label trial is a great opportunity because I will have the drug immediately and keep my lungs from deteriorating.

There is a complication, though. If I join the open-label extension, I will take Tirasemtiv for the rest of my life as a way to research long-term safety of the medication. The open-label extension also requires that I not participate in any other trials. There is a trial coming up in April that I have been excited about, but is it promising enough to give up Tirasemtiv? It would help if I knew how well Tirasemtiv works, but I don’t think that is clear yet, even to the research team. I do know that throughout the study, my lung function did not decline at all. So is Tirasemtiv the safe bet?

Reading the news, it seems that possible cures are being found more and more quickly. Tirasemtiv is a treatment, not a cure. Let’s hop back to the experiment I mentioned that will take place in April. That one might be a cure. How can I turn my back on that? It seems like if I play it safe, I could be excluding myself from something miraculous. On the other hand, if the drug trial in April fails, I will have given up lung protection for nothing.

The original plan was to protect my lungs at all costs no matter the collateral damage, and that way, when the cure comes, my vital functions will be strong enough for me to properly heal. And what is this collateral damage? It is pain. For the past year, I have chosen pain in order to be in this trial. Being on Tirasemtiv means I cannot safely take Zanaflex, the medication that completely erases my spasms and muscle cramps. Instead, I am on a cocktail of a narcotic (Vicodin), a controlled substance anxiety medication called Clonazepam, and the muscle relaxer Baclofen. Evan also massages Bengay all over my limbs when my cramps get bad. Plus, I have a sizeable stash of medical marijuana (60% CBD) that is also working to loosen my joints and muscles. That is the price of my involvement in the study, and I will continue to pay it if I join open-label.

Just like the structure of this narrative has spiraled into dizzying circles, my thoughts are a tornado. It hops throughout my imagination, stirring up awful and wonderful scenarios. It rips through my sleep, and there is no seller with Aunty Em waiting to make it all better. I’m Dorothy out in the storm dreaming of Oz with no idea how to get there.

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White-Knuckle Miracle

I had to work for my miracle, sweat for it, white-knuckle it, but I didn’t mind; I never expected a miracle to be easy. No one promised me a rose garden.

I woke up from a nap today needing to use the bathroom, so I hit the button that pages my sister and planned how we would transfer me to the wheelchair. As she helped me get to the edge of my bed, I felt a rush of strength. Synapses sparked, lighting up my mind with the memory of walking. The path down the hallway ahead of me was clear and bright, and I saw what I could do.

“I want to walk to the bathroom,” I announced. I’ve had ALS two and a half years. At this point, abandoning my wheelchair to go for a stroll is almost as ludicrous as trying to fly.

“OK,” my sister replied without hesitation, pulling my walker in front of me. She got behind me on the bed, pushed me until I was standing, and placed her hands on my hips to steady me. “Whenever you’re ready.”

There will never be a better way to explain my sister than describing her actions in this moment.

I shuffled forward. My stiff ankles and knees, slowly remembering their job, loosened. In my mind’s eye, stringy, dry muscles were being marinated in blood pumped from my eager heart. With each step, the muscle tissue grew more swollen with life.

Over the course of ten minutes, I walked twenty feet. That’s ten minutes of a deathgrip on my walker, of clammy hands and a trembling jaw. Ten minutes of wonder and joy. I landed safely, marveling at what I accomplished.

“I’m not even out of breath,”I said, looking up at my sister. “It’s incredible.”

“I was worried about that,” she confessed, though she seemed so calm, I hadn’t even guessed. ALS affects everyone differently, but it always mounts a vicious assault on the lungs. That’s what kills us all in the end.

“I forgot to be scared,” I replied, enchanted by the sound of my own steady breathing. For those ten minutes, even my thoughts were freed from my disease. This was my very own little miracle, a butterfly dancing briefly on my open palm before fluttering away.

I once heard luck defined as the place where hard work meets an opportunity. After today, I would define a miracle as the place where hard work meets an extraordinary opportunity.  This opportunity comes through a tear in reality to bear you forward on a  divine wind. There are conditions, though. You must be ready and willing to see the tear in the fabric; that’s called hope. Understand that the wind has the strength of a hurricane (how else could it carry you?) and may batter you even as it saves you. Miracles thrive on perseverance and strong hearts.

I accept this. I am undaunted by exhaustion, bone-grinding effort, or crippling pain. I am not afraid because I have survived it all over the course of my disease and during the drug trial which, most likely, enabled me to walk today. From now on, if you come searching for me, check the crow’s nest. I’ll be perched there, on the lookout for miracles with my father’s binoculars and my mother’s optimism. I’ll be whispering, “Come. Fly over the horizon. Take your time if you must. I still believe in you.”

Fortune’s Fool

When I was sixteen, a fortune teller at a fair predicted I would meet and fall in love with a man who would physically take care of me. At the time, I didn’t understand what she could possibly mean. Would I rely on my husband for money? I was hungry for independence and therefore a bit insulted, but most of all, I was bewildered. I needed more time with the fortune teller in her enchanting red silk tent, but she looked pointedly at her watch, then tapped the cash tray. My empty wallet made me unwelcome.

When I asked about the man I would marry at the beginning of our session, I did not imagine the ten minutes I paid for would pass so quickly and end so mysteriously. I wondered about her words for more than a decade, right up until my ALS diagnosis twelve years later. That day, I finally got the answer I sought. Doors slammed in my face. All around, clock needles spun backward. My end crept forward in every shadow.

Now, I rely on Evan to bathe, feed, and dress me, to keep me steady when I use my walker in the bathroom, even to wipe me after I use the toilet. He holds all the crumbling pieces of my body tight in his hands, as though trying to keep them safe until the miracle pill that can put me back together again finally arrives. My marriage looks nothing like it did when we were twenty-one or twenty-five, or even last year. Playtime is over, and we struggle daily to survive.

However, I realized as Evan delivered medication into my body via my brand new feeding tube, that what really matters remains unbroken. Even after all we’ve lost, he still loves me, and I will always love him. That knowledge is the bedrock of my existence, and it has yet to crack. Together, we chase happiness through a tangle of feed lines and IVs, not ready to surrender to how we live now. Side by side, with white knuckles and bloody nails, we crawl forward.

Benvolio: Romeo, away, be gone! Stand not amaz’d, the Prince will doom thee death if thou art taken. Hence be gone, away!

Romeo: O, I am fortune’s fool!

Romeo And Juliet Act 3, scene 1, 132–136

Cough Assist

Recently, I got my Cough Assist breathing machine. It will help prevent me from getting pneumonia and exercise my lungs to keep them strong (you know, since I’m not doing yoga and cross training so much lately). It pushes air into my lungs and sucks it out, forcing me to breathe deeply as though running a marathon and then cough as I exhale in order to clear my lungs. However, I’ve used it twice so far, and what it really reminds me of is that machine from “The Princess Bride” that sucks the hero’s life away. I’ve been assured this in fact does the opposite. For now I remain suspicious…

Cough Assist

My sister Laura practices using the Cough Assist on me