Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Little Things For Little Ones

My youngest is nine-years-old and the last year has been particularly frightening for him. You see, my sweet boy was adopted when just a little infant and this is a truth my husband and I have always been open and honest about. He also knows that his birth mom was very sick and is now in Heaven. Although he doesn't know the particulars of his bio-mother's illness, he understands the concept of death and the idea of losing a mommy again is too much to bear.

As I have mentioned in other posts, I almost didn't survive last summer. When things had become very bad and I was about to leave ICU for emergency surgery, he overheard discussions among staff and family about the severity of it all - that I may not pull through. He also witnessed tears, tubes, and bandages that frightened him. I was in the hospital a very long time and even when I came home, my changes came with me along with a host of medical gear and visiting nurses. As a result, he has a great deal of fear each time I am hospitalized.

Having Vascular Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, my trips and stays in the hospital are frequent. It has been my luck that most of these excursions occur in the middle of the night. As a result, my little guy has come in my bedroom several times over the last few months to make sure I am still home. I have him in counseling and I have made it known to him that the discussion topic is always open to him when he needs it. I also save special snacks for him for when he comes to visit and if I see the recreational therapists, I ask for art activities that I can do with him.

Recently I was back in and I had a new idea. I thought if I could take pictures of some of the good things about being in the hospital, I could send him the pics with text messages so he won't just picture the worst.


"Happy Face Stars" to hang on my wall....

Yummy chocolate pudding that doesn't taste like regular hospital food....

And the moment when I received my freedom papers. 

Maybe as time passes my stays in the hospital won't be so devastating for him. I don't really know. If anyone has tips and tricks for helping their young ones cope, please feel free to share in the comments section. :) 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Cold summers

This morning I cannot help but think where I was last summer. While everyone else in New England was dying from the humidity, I was freezing my zebra tail off in the hospital and then the rehab hospital from June 28th to August 28th. Hospitals like to blast the AC and they never have enough blankets. People call them cold and sterile for a reason.

Last summer was when I first heard of Vascular Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. I had a killer stomach ache for days when I finally couldn't take it anymore. I went to the doctors and it turned out my aorta had dissected and was starting to rupture. During the surgery my iliac ruptured and I almost lost my leg. From there I kept having complications that required more and more surgeries, and I kept being told I couldn't come home. I had a muscle flap operation, and a wound vacuum. I couldn't walk and shower on my own and apparently while on so many drugs I said lots of sad things about wishing I was dead because the suffering was too much.

My family was so scared and now when they tell me about it, I don't even know what to say. 

What do you say? 

I just felt so guilty for putting them through so much hell. I know I had no say in the matter, but I can't let go of the guilt. Since then, others in my family have been diagnosed. The doctors even think that the VEDS is what caused my mom to die so young. 

Then, once I was home, my spleen ruptured, I got blood clots in my lungs, I had an encounter with a NG Tube which was horrific when my intestine became blocked from scar tissue.

I have had a year to let it all sink in, but there are times when I feel like I am back in that cold, miserable place. I don't know if I'll ever be completely home again..

Sunday, July 6, 2014

A Year of Changes: Introducing VEDS

I thought I'd share a little of what has happened to me for any newly diagnosed with Vascular Ehlers Danlos Syndrome.  I know that reading other people's stories online really helped me feel like I wasn't all alone. Even though each of our stories are unique and EDS is different for everyone, I always found the common experiences among the threads gave me comfort. Within them I could see not only my own physical/ emotional challenges - but also what my mom went through before she died and what my children are going through now as they face early diagnosis in their teen years.

Like many people with VEDS, I had early issues that weren't recognized as being a genetic disorder. I didn't walk until I was 2, I fell and bruised easily and always had sprains and strains. By the time I was 12 I had migraines and days when I felt like my knees belonged to an old lady - but I never thought it was unusual. By the time I was in my twenties, I had to have surgery on my varicose veins and my thin corneas had ruptured requiring transplants, but again, I didn't think it was anything more than luck. Everyone on my mother's side of the family had those kinds of issues so to me, it was a norm. (Even our long, bendy fingers and toes. I thought everyone could do those weird tricks.) When I had my babies - my body suffered and I required extended stays in the hospital due to massive bruising and tearing.

By the time I was in my thirties, the headaches became severe and my body hurt all the time. I knew something was wrong and I began wondering if it was something genetic from my mom's side, specifically Lupus or something else auto-immune, but every time I went to the doctors I was told my blood work was fine. Some doctors suggested Fibromyalgia while others mentioned depression. I had come from a background where you respected your doctors and I assumed they were right and I was wrong. Although I didn't feel down, other than my ailments I had a wonderful life, I thought maybe depression was all it was.  My mom had passed away so young at 52 from an aneurysm in her brain, her sister at 51, and her mom at the same age from one in her heart - I just thought if I made sure to never drink alcohol or smoke, I would be better off, that maybe their young deaths could be altered by life choices. But then when I was 38 I began to cough up lots of blood and although the doctors couldn't explain why, I knew something was happening that was bad and it was only a matter of time until they figured it out.

Last year in June (2013) I was working really hard at my new job as an instructor at a day program for the mentally disabled. I had been their eight weeks and loved it, but every night when I would get home I would collapse in pain. My body and head were just hurting so much. I would need to nap for a while before being able to get up and cook dinner. On the evening of June 26, I noticed that my stomach was aching after I had my nap. For years I had been complaining to my doctors about GI issues so I figured I would take some Tums and not worry about it. The pain wasn't touched, instead it kept me up all night. I went to work again the next day, still chewing on antacids. and the same thing, constant throbbing in my abdomen that would come in waves. Even my new boss who I wanted so desperately to impress spotted the wincing. A group of my coworkers were complaining of a stomach bug being passed around the office, so I assumed that was my problem. I went home and tried sleeping it off, but I couldn't rest. I wondered if it was truly a bug or if something was happening to me as a result of coughing up all that blood for two years. I couldn't help but think of my mother and how her death shocked our family.  Although she had been sick for years, she never actually had a diagnosis. As I lied there, I knew I didn't want to die, I just didn't know what my future held.

Finally, the next morning, Friday, June 28th, I called in for the first time and even though I didn't want to, I went to the walk in clinic.  I figured I better get a doctor's note just incase whatever was hurting my stomach was still come a problem on Monday. I knew they had GI cocktails, and thought that would work better than the Tums. After two hours in the waiting room, I described my symptoms in detail. Honestly, I felt like I was having a baby. Like contractions were occurring every couple of minutes. The doctor there tried to press on my stomach and I almost hopped off the table. She sent me straight to the ER with the instructions to go there without stopping for a drink or to eat. I was so upset I called my husband crying. Partially because I was scared. but also because I was upset that I would have to pay for the ER visit, and I would have to wait in another waiting room when all I wanted to do was go home and sleep. It makes me shiver at myself looking back. How often do we skip getting medical help in the US because of costs? Or because we are too busy? Or too tired?

When I got there the doctor was waiting for me because the walk-in clinic had called and said I was coming. I guess they thought I had an obstruction because they ordered a CT Scan. The defining moment for me was when they showed me a picture of my aorta and right iliac and they were dissected and on the verge of rupturing. I was shipped to Hartford and in ICU quicker than I could blink. The whole time I kept thinking - what if I had stayed home and tried to sleep it off? What would have happened to me? What would that have done to my children? To my husband?

During the surgery the right iliac ruptured and not only did I get my aorta stent, but a femoral-femoral bypass. Other things happened while I was there - all sorts of tests to explain what was going on. A bunch of other aneurysms were spotted (some in my head, others in my abdomen), blood work was done, a nice bout of pancreatitis popped up. I went home after ten days only to return the next morning because I developed a grapefruit sized seroma wound on my right groin where the fem-fem bypass graph was. I required a thigh length muscle flap to fill in the massive hole left behind. I endured the greatest pain of my life during that time. Some of my memories are fuzzy because of all of the drugs, but my family and doctor assure me it is a blessing that I cannot remember. He said that y operation was even ore painful than having the ribcage cracked open for open heart surgery. All I know is my body wouldn't heal and the tissue kept dying. I had seven operations during that four week span before they gave up and decided to do wound vac therapy because I couldn't heal.

My doctors were vigilant about diagnosing me. They had an entire team of different specialists performing tests and asking questions. They reached out to the genetics department at the University of Connecticut with all of their results.  It was apparent I had Vascular Ehlers Danlos Syndrome which is a rare connective tissue disorder that is especially tough on arteries, blood vessels, and other hollow organs. Not only is it dangerous with the median life expectancy of 48, but it is passed on in an autosomal dominant pattern making the chances of getting it 50/50 if your parent has it. My mom fit the profile - aneurysms, clubbed feet, joint laxity, big eyes, small stature, thin scalp hair, and varicose veins. As did others in her family - our family. I remember asking my doctor to write down the name of the syndrome on a little piece of paper I had in my hospital room. After everyone had left,I lay there staring at that name. I just couldn't fathom how this disease had changed every hope and dream I had for my future. I still have that little slip of paper tucked away in a drawer. Sometimes I come across it and when I look at it, I still can't believe it.

After those weeks had passed I found myself at the Hospital For Special Care.  I was in no shape to go home although I wanted to more than anything. I had gone from an active mother working five days a week to an old 40 year-old using a walker and needing help bathing. The unit I was on was filled with elderly people - most on ventilators and unable to communicate. When I wasn't receiving my therapy which was Monday through Friday, I was mostly alone in my room. My husband and children would come every couple of days to visit, but other than them, I was alone.  It was during those quiet hours that my experience with doubt and anxiety began to haunt me. Would I die young like my mom? Would I even make it to 52?  Did I almost really die? I was frightened, lonely, and in severe pain. I used the free Wi-Fi on my Kindle to learn about my VEDS. I reached out on a support group site through the Ehlers Danlos National Foundation to others and it helped some. My healthcare team at rehab knew nothing about VEDS so it was a relief learning the whole truth about the syndrome instead of the sugar coated truth my vascular surgeon had described. Meanwhile my family was falling apart at home due to the stress of not having me there to hold them together. My bodies connective tissue was failing and I guess I was the connective tissue for my family and without me, they were failing.  Even though months have passed, they haven't been the same. I know I sure haven't. Maybe we all need more time, but I know that the thought of going back to rehab terrifies me. Maybe because it has only been a year. The entire situation was horrid for my children and my husband as it was for me. 

It still is, I guess.

Finally, on Aug 28, I went home. I had visiting nurses, occupational therapy, and PT at home. I was there for ten days when my spleen ruptured. That surgery was tough. I ended up having more pancreatitis, a case of acute gout, and a permanently dislocated toe from that stay. Ten days later I went home and came back 6 days later for a pulmonary embolism.  Since then, I have been hospitalized four times. Most recently my heart has been giving me trouble. I have a new aneurysm on my left anterior descending artery that is in tough shape. I also had a small intestine resection surgery that had complications due to the VEDS.

As hard as all of that has been physically, it is nothing compared to the emotions of it all. I needed some counseling to help me cope. I had so much guilt that I needed to come to terms with. Guilt for judging my mother's alcohol dependence when now I can see why she was looking for a means of coping. (Through all of the tests and family history we realized she had it as well.) Guilt for no longer being able to work and help my husband provide for our children, for not being able to keep promises, for being away all summer when my family needed me, and so on. I needed to learn to accept the fact that I can't walk without use of my cane and even then, sometimes I can't even manage with that and need my wheelchair. But, the hardest of all, is the guilt I have given this to my children.

The DNA tests for them are scheduled on Aug 5th.  Now that I have my exact mutation, the lab should be able to find out if they have it. Fortunately my youngest is adopted so I don't have to worry about him, but the next up, my 17 year-old son, is coughing up blood and has had tendon ruptures and easy bruising, as well as, many other little things that the doctors believe may be evidence of VEDS. As for my oldest, she suffers from ulcerative colitis which is from my husbands side of the family, so a big part of me is hoping that she won't have my VEDS, too.  But the truth is, VEDS won't care.  It does not discriminate. It does not matter how tough your life is when it strikes.  You can have nothing but the clothes on your back - it is like a coiled snake in that way, just waiting to strike.  I don't know what will happen with them, but I know that I'll stay by their sides through it.

I discovered a study on aortic dissections taking place in Boston. The study is specifically looking at genetic factors for the condition, including VEDS. I emailed the geneticists involved and right away received an invitation to come to Boston to participate.  Maybe nothing will come of it, maybe they will just take our blood and send us on way. But, I must keep trying to find someone willing to help us.  It doesn't even matter if it is too late for me, if my children can receive treatment, it is worth anything. Maybe the geneticist knows of a medication that my doctors are unwilling to try. Like the beta blockers for example. I have mentioned it to almost everyone that I've had see me that beta blockers are being prescribed to VEDS patients, yet none of my team have even offered them.  

With summer now here, I can't help but recollect about last summer. How long my stay was, how close I came to death, how some people were there for me, while others were not. I remember trying to roll onto my left side despite the 24 inch incision and tubes running out of my right leg and groin - just so I could a glimpse of the sunrise out my window. I knew that every new morning I got to witness was a gift. It was one more chance at a life I almost missed out on.

Some days remain harder than others. Some days I feel like I am an old-pro at VEDS and then there are other days when I feel like I am hearing everything for the first time. I try real hard to be positive when talking to my doctors, to my family and to my few friends. I try not to let them see the darkness I sometimes find myself in. It is too much to bare.  Yet, it isn't a bad thing to know how you will probably die. I have given myself permission to tell others that I'm sorry and that I forgive them. I allow myself to wear anything I want at any time - even if my style resembles that of a 14 year-old. I get to put stock in the little things and make them matter.  I enjoyed Christmas like it was my last and I watched the 4th of July fireworks with awe and amazement. Maybe they will be last, maybe I have twenty more years in me, but I'm not so sure the old me would have enjoyed those moments with the same amount of wonder. You don't truly know you're living until you discover you're dying.

Some of the good to have come out of it all is:

1) The validation that I'm not crazy.
2) The understanding and forgiveness I have for my mother.
3) The motivation to find long lost family members and share the family DNA results (which was needed).
4) New friends from afar with VEDS.
5) An appreciation for the small blessings in life.

If I can encourage anyone with my story, it would make me happy. If I can ask you to take something advice with you, it is to kiss your husband every day. to tell your children that you love them and that they are enough for you just the way they are, it is to call your parents and tell them how proud you are to be their child. Don't take this life for granted.

If you would like to learn more about Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, please click HERE.

To read specifically about Vascular Ehlers Danlos, otherwise known as EDS Type 4, please click HERE. 

As always, feel free to send me messages or ask questions.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The Ties that Bind

There is an old belief that if it rains on your wedding day it is good luck because your marriage will be blessed with unity. After all, if you tie a knot and it gets wet, it is really difficult to untie.

Nineteen years ago the weather was very much like today. It was cloudy, cool, and rained off and on. I remember my mom and I glancing nervously around the tent my parents had rented as the caterer was setting things up. For some reason we thought April would be plenty warm enough for an outside wedding.
I was such a young bride, only twenty-two, that most of my friends were still single, yet I knew I was totally in love with Jerry Wheeler. We were so different in many ways, but in the ways that mattered we were identical. We both loved family and looked forward to creating our own.
In the 19 years that followed we have seen a lot of wonderful things. Our siblings had babies, our children were perfect little bundles of joy who have grown into amazing young people, we bought our home and I finally graduated from college which was a goal I had always wished to fulfill. It's amazing how many joyous things two people can share when committing their lives to each other.
With all of the beauty there has been moments of great sorrow as well. My sweet mom passed away too early in life, Bobby was a very sick baby with several scary medical issues, Miranda Elizabeth developed an autoimmune disorder that almost cost her her life, Jerry's job of 22 years was outsourced, and I was discovered to have Vascular Ehlers Danlos Syndrome when my aorta dissected - causing a domino effect of other medical traumas, like my iliac arteries rupturing, my splenic artery rupturing, and more.
With the good always comes some bad. Like my friend Donald L. Roarabaugh says - "you either just got over something bad, you are currently going through something bad, or you are about to go through something bad." Such is the way of life. But I think it's hard to appreciate a gorgeous morning when you haven't seen the darkness of night.
I don't know if it is just my generation or just many of the people I have met, but it seems so common to overhear men bashing their wives and women bashing their husbands. Divorce, although sometimes necessary, is far too common. So much so that one of my children had a friend that couldn't believe we all lived together under one roof. But, here we are: a dad, a mom, a sister, a big brother, and a little brother. All together and all making a point of telling each other how very much they're loved because life can be very good and very hard and in the end, it makes us closer, stronger, and able to appreciate the beautiful mornings.
Nineteen years ago I was a young bride in love with a wonderful young man who has grown into my best friend. How great is that? He knows me like no other. He has endless patience for my bad jokes. He offers to carry me when I cannot walk and has done so many times without complaint or shaming.

When my mom passed away, he held me. When Miranda and Bob were sick, he cried with me. When I graduated from college, he stood up and applauded me. When we looked at this old house, I know he didn't like it but let me have it anyway. And the last ten months, he has loved me through this. He can't fix me although I know that he would do anything to make that so. He has held onto me and I to him like the knot in the rain, only getting stronger as it gets wet - although for us it is often tears. Our marriage is blessed and I am so thankful.

Love is good. I highly recommend it.

Photo credit Jacek Dolata 2013
My husband and I.