COVID-19 and MCAS: My experience

Why do I strain my eyes to watch the thermometer sticking out of my mouth every time I take my temperature­, as if I can control the numbers with my mind?

The thermometer beeps adamantly at 99.6F. I yell, “No, no, no!”

My poodle, Quixote, looks at me, “I didn’t do it.”

I haven’t had a fever this high in four years. Usually I run cold, less than 98F, and I’m already on daily aspirin, a fever reducer. I’ve been self-isolating for two days, after begging my manager to let me work from home. Before that, I limited myself to work and the grocery store. There are only a few confirmed COVID-19 cases in my state, so I wonder if I have the flu. In 2016, the flu almost killed me, so this no consolation.

Soon after, I poop my guts out and decide to clean the toilet. I squirt the toilet cleaner into the bowl, standing as far away as possible, ready to run when the bleach hits my sensitive MCAS nose. Except this time, it doesn’t hit me. I lean in and sniff the toilet. Nothing.

I run to my closet, grab a bottle of bleach, insert my nose into the opening, and inhale. (Do not try this at home.) NOTHING. My throat should be swelling shut by now. My unrestricted breathing triggers my worst fear.

“I am dying!” I text my closest friends.

I message my symptoms to my primary care doctor. She says in order to meet the criteria for COVID-19 I must have shortness of breath or a cough. If these symptoms develop, she recommends I go to the ER.

I’ve played the wait-and-suffocate game enough times to have a panic attack when she tells me this. I know the criteria are arbitrary. As my service dog, Sancho, runs to my side, I flashback to my fight for my MCAS diagnosis. I knew something was very wrong; my body told me so every day. For a whole year, I begged for someone to take my body’s warning signs seriously. Countless doctors dismissed my fears, and I still live with the consequences.

On day two, the fevers and pooping continue. Benadryl does nothing. I know I have a virus, but I also know urgent care will dismiss me if I ask for a COVID-19 test. So, I ask for a flu test. I explain that both COVID-19 or the flu could kill me. The urgent care doctor orders bloodwork instead. The results are normal per usual.

“Your white blood count is normal, so I highly doubt you have the flu. The flu would have hit you harder,” he says.

I don’t disagree. I ask, “Would my white blood count be high if I have COVID-19?”

“No,” he says. “Often it decreases. But your white blood count is normal.”

“But I’m on prednisone,” I argue.  “So, my white blood count should be higher.”

“You’re on prednisone?” he asks, as he quickly clicks into my chart, which lists prednisone as a medication. “Huh.”

Nevertheless, my labs are normal, so he shoos me out the door. More cars carrying suspected COVID-19 patients pull into the parking lot.

For the next week, I try to manage my symptoms, while preparing for my demise. I check my oxygen levels every half hour with my pulse oximeter. I write an instruction manual for Quixote: We’ve been co-sleeping for 10 years, so good luck keeping your bed poodle-free. At times, the chills, headache, and sore throat are overwhelming; other times, I feel completely healthy. This virus likes to play mean tricks.

On day 8, my breathing worsens, despite nebulizing cromolyn religiously. My oxygen level drops to 95% and I begin negotiating with the coronavirus, imagining it is Ursula from the Little Mermaid.

“I just want to live,” I plead.

“We haven’t discussed the subject of payment,” the coronavirus growls.

“My voice isn’t all that spectacular, but how about my sense of smell? You already took it anyway. Where do I sign?” I ask.

Articles citing diarrhea and loss of smell as symptoms of COVID-19 start circulating the internet. I read several patients’ symptom journals; they resemble mine. I learn deadly pneumonia often develops days 9-12. I worry these might be my last few days. I watch several hours of shitty reality TV anyway.

My heart rate drops to 65 beats per minute for no apparent reason. I have hyperPOTS and have not seen my heart rate this low since the flu almost killed me in 2016. This continues for two days, and then my heart rate mysteriously returns to normal.

On day 11, my chest felt lighter until I eat lunch. Thirty minutes after eating pasta, I experience a severe, but familiar, asthma attack.

“Welcome back,” I wheezed to my mast cells.

Today is day 12. I’m pretty certain I’m going to live, because I started caring about changing my sweatshirt before my daily Zoom meetings with my coworkers. As expected, my mast cells are still fighting the virus that likely died a few days ago. I will probably need to keep dousing them with drugs for several weeks, but right now their exuberance doesn’t frustrate me. After all, they kept me alive.

 


 

Notes and acknowledgments

  • I was on 2mg prednisone and 325mg aspirin the entire time. Other than the prednisone, I am not immunocompromised.
  • This would have been a lot scarier without nebulized cromolyn, an albuterol inhaler, and a pulse oximeter. I likely would have need to go to the hospital without these tools.
  • The flu in 2016 was a hundred times worse for me (my liver shut down), but I also didn’t have these tools.
  • Special thanks to my friends who left food on my patio, and Nicolle, who listened to my every symptom and fear… like EVERY symptom and fear because I still want to believe texting them makes them go away.

Please stop calling MCAS rare

Maybe it’s the pain and prednisone, but I’ve been really peeved by the eagerness to raise awareness for mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS) on Rare Disease Day.

First of all, why wasn’t the MCAS community half as engaged on Mast Cell Disease Awareness Day?

Second, there is growing evidence that MCAS is not rare. Some researchers believe more than 5% of people have MCAS! Yes, some organizations currently categorize MCAS as rare, but only because that is the default categorization for newly-recognized diseases. For example, AIDS used to be categorized as a rare disease. Furthermore, there is growing evidence that conditions like fibromyalgia, which affects 3-6% of people, are symptoms of MCAS.

Calling MCAS rare is not only unfounded, but it hurts diagnosed and undiagnosed MCAS patients. It signals to doctors that they do not need to learn about the disease. It signals to drug companies that there is not enough of a demand for new, lower cost treatments, like ketotifen in the U.S. It delays the development of accessible diagnostics. It signals to policy makers, who often vote based on numbers, that they do not need to listen to us.

Worst of all, calling MCAS rare discourages undiagnosed patients from getting tested and learning about MCAS, because they believe it is improbable.

That being said, please support Rare Disease Day. At this time, MCAS patients experience many of the same struggles associated with rare disease. Furthermore, mastocytosis continues to be classified as a rare disease through evidence-based research and we definitely should support fellow mast cell disease patients. After all, mastocytosis provides the foundation for understanding MCAS. Finally, you don’t have to have a rare disease to support Rare Disease Day.

MCAS is rarely diagnosed and rarely researched, but please stop calling MCAS rare. Instead, start planning for Mast Cell Disease Awareness Day on October 20. I know I am.

Learn more about Rare Disease Day at http://www.rarediseaseday.org.

Why viruses are scarier with mast cell disease

While the new year promised a fresh start, my mast cells were still reacting to what happened in 2019.

Around Thanksgiving, I caught a virus. I dragged my feverish body to urgent care and asked for a flu test. I needed to know if I should pack my hospital bag, which should not be confused with my emergency room bag. My ER bag is always ready and with me.

“Good news, it’s not the flu,” the doctor said.

“How long do you think this virus will last?” I asked.

“Generally, about 5-7 days and then you should be fine,” he said.

“I’m not worried about the virus,” I said. “I’m worried about my mast cells’ reaction to the virus.”

He sputtered a bit and tried to use “degranulate” in a sentence.

“I have prednisone at home,” I said, as I grabbed my coat.

Most people are used to hearing the dangers of the flu and other viruses for people with weak or suppressed immune systems. The flu is just as dangerous for me, but not because I’m immunocompromised. In fact, just the opposite.

My mast cells fight wars they’ve already won. They swiftly kill the virus, and then proceed to kill me. My immune system doesn’t know when to stop.

After seven days, the fevers waned, but I did not feel better. I attempted to go back to work, but the floor started bouncing. Benadryl every four hours wasn’t enough. I worried the pressure in my head would cause another CSF leak. So, I dug out my favorite poison: prednisone.

Maybe Ebenezer Scrooge just needed some prednisone, because within two days, I was buzzing with the Christmas spirit. As the prednisone tamed my mast cells, I shopped, wrapped, and decorated like one of Santa’s elves. Usually the holidays are a nightmare of unrealistic expectations, but this year I crushed my to-do list with energy to spare, confusing everyone. Don’t get used to it; you’re all getting unscented deodorant and a “bah humbug” next year.

The time between Christmas and New Year’s, when no one needs a calendar or real pants, is the perfect time to taper prednisone. For me, tapering prednisone means laying on the couch and staring at the wall, as optimism drains from my soul. I aimed to get it over with before the new year, because I wanted to start the year off on the right foot. Or left. At least standing.

Within a few days of coming off prednisone, my ear tubes began to ache. My mast cells were still reacting to the virus they killed a month and a half ago. I ignored it, hoping they would calm down, but the congestion in my head continued to build.

One night, after hours of painsomnia, I dreamed I went on a girls’ trip. The five of us innertubed from northern Italy to California (via the Mississippi River, obviously). The water must have been pretty rough, because I woke up with a subluxated jaw. The inflammation in my ear had gotten so bad that my jaw slipped out of the socket. I tried to ignore that pain too, but a spoonful of rice left me crying for another round of prednisone.

So instead of starting the new year motivated, I medicated. Luckily, this was just a cold. In 2016, I caught the flu and needed an ambulance and hospitalization.

I wish my mast cells had a reset button. I wish people kept their germs to themselves. I wish I could take prednisone for the rest of my life and become the most productive person in the history of the universe. Instead, I’ll embrace my solitary confinement and remind you not to kill me.

 

Fighting for MCAS

In many ways, 2019 was my worst year. My home became unsafe due to my neighbor’s laundry fumes. Even with air purifiers and a Vogmask, I couldn’t use my own bathroom without suffering from MCAS reactions. I missed meals and napped on the floor of my office, because I had nowhere to safely make food or sleep. Due to MCAS, I could not stay at a hotel or a friend’s house. Moving was not a reliably safe option either. Besides, I was already drowning in medical debt, living paycheck-to-paycheck despite working full-time at a well-paying job. I cried often and worried I was going to lose everything. The toll on my body resulted in emergency surgery in September.

But that’s not how I will remember 2019.

I was diagnosed with mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS) in December 2015. For the first three years of diagnosis, it seemed like every minute of every day was spent fighting a reaction. Eating, working, and sleeping seemed impossible. Sometimes I couldn’t walk. My body felt like an unruly toddler, throwing tantrums despite every attempt I made to appease it. I quickly learned medications were not enough.

My mast cells wanted a safer environment. So, I resigned to solitary confinement. (Technically not solitary confinement, because I had internet access, but you should still feel sorry for me.) As my mast cells quieted down, I realized my body is not my enemy. My mast cells are simply trying to protect me from a world swirling with chemicals.

This year, I switched from fighting my body to fighting FOR my body.

For me, the worst part of MCAS is not the lack of treatments or the hospitalizations, but people’s unwillingness to accommodate my health: a coworker who sprays perfume at the expense of my lungs, a neighbor who values fragrant laundry over my ability to eat and sleep, or a doctor who refuses to follow my medication protocol because he’s unfamiliar with MCAS.

Our world does not support MCAS patients. It prioritizes chemicals over people. In 2019, I was done feeling like my body was the problem and undeserving of accommodations. Here are some ways I fought for my body this year:

  • Filed a complaint with the Minnesota Board of Medical Practice. In 2018, a hospitalist refused to follow my emergency protocol and cut off my Benadryl and Diluadid in the middle of the night (after my friends left) and ordered morphine instead. Morphine is dangerous for MCAS patients and listed as an allergy in my chart. The board did not discipline the doctor; however, the complaint is on her permanent file. More importantly, the hospital made sure I received excellent care for my emergency surgery this year.
  • Shared my story with my local newspaper. The reporter interviewed me for one-hour, requested supporting documentation, and interviewed two of my friends. The interview was more stressful than I anticipated (hives!), but the front-page story changed my life and my ability to get people to understand my life with MCAS.
  • Asked for financial help. I think I threw up seven times before posting my GoFundMe, but my options were to lose my condo or ask for financial help. My deepest fear was that I wouldn’t receive the help I need, and I would confirm my feelings that I am not worthy enough to keep my home and survive. (Not true!) I raised $3k for a lawyer and safety improvements to my condo. After my newspaper story published, a local family paid my medical bills and I cried until I had to stop and take Benadryl.
  • Requested air fresheners be removed as a disability accommodation. Two businesses I frequent had air fresheners in their bathrooms. This year, I submitted formal ADA requests in writing. Although, the businesses were resistant at first, after my newspaper story published, the air fresheners disappeared forever.
  • Filed a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. I asked for my condo association to implement a fragrance-free laundry product policy as a disability accommodation under the Fair Housing Act. Instead, my condo association recommended I move several times. That is discrimination. HUD is currently requesting my condo association adopt the policy.
  • Drafted state legislation. Can’t wait to share more on this soon!

I wanted to give up so many times this year! I cried until I puked and I screamed into pillows. Other times, I was so tired or in pain that I couldn’t imagine responding to anymore legal letters. When I hit these breaking points, I stopped everything and rested. I reminded myself I’m not just fighting for my life, I am fighting for all people with MCAS. Then I planned the next tiny step I would take when I was ready.

Let me tell you about a few more moments that gave me hope:

  • When I was admitted to the hospital, my nurse was excited to meet another mast cell disease patient. His son had mastocytosis.
  • My pre-op nurse said she knew exactly how to time my pre-medications, because she had a daughter with MCAS.
  • During an emergency room visit for a hemiplegic migraine, a neurologist asked me to give a 10-minute speech on MCAS for the residents. He ended my lecture by saying, “This is why we listen to patients who know how to manage their disease.”

This year, I was grateful and angry, hopeful and scared. I’m taking all of these feelings into 2020 and continuing the fight for MCAS. I hope you’ll join me.

How to use FMLA leave for chronic illness

In the U.S., the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides certain employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year. Approximately 20% of Americans use FMLA to nurture new spawn (maternity or paternity leave), but most of Americans use FMLA because of health problems.

I prefer to call FMLA the “F*ck My Life Act.”

I applied for FMLA almost a year before my MCAS diagnosis. In April 2015, I was struggling to walk, lift my arms, and digest food. I asked my human resources manager about FMLA and she emailed me a form to be filled out by my doctor. The form asked for a description of my medical condition and the expected duration of the condition, treatment, and recovery.

I wanted to write:

No damn clue. I think I am dying. Please keep paying me though.

My rheumatologist recommended I take two weeks of FMLA to rest and recover, but I refused. Somehow, I knew I would not recover. I knew would need to budget my FMLA time, because once FMLA time runs out, you can be fired if you miss work.

My rheumatologist wrote:

“3 days per episode, every 2 weeks. Needing monthly doctor visits. Expecting to get symptoms controlled in 3 months.”

HAHAHAHAHAHA.

Instead, I only took 78 hours, almost 2 weeks, of FMLA time over the next 3 months. I endured two colonoscopies and two MRIs, and I cried most nights from pain and fatigue.

In July, my primary care doctor filled out a new FMLA form:

“Possible autoimmune disease. Expected duration unknown at this time, possibly lifelong. Unknown, intermittent, unpredictable treatment schedule at this time. 4-8 hours at 1-5 episodes per week for 12 months.”

Over the next year, I took 295 hours, more than 7 weeks, of FMLA time. During this time, I was diagnosed with MCAS and began treatment. For a while, I scheduled FMLA time on Wednesdays to recover, while I tried to learn about my disease and try new medications.

In 2016, it was much easier to describe my medical condition. My mast cell specialist wrote:

“Diagnosed with mast cell activation syndrome. Lifetime duration. Intermittent, unpredictable physical limitations. Anaphylaxis, tachycardia, nausea, and vomiting.”

However, the duration of treatment, recovery, and flare-ups was still impossible to predict. I wanted to write:

My mast cells do what they want when they want, okay? I have no control over this nightmare. Be nice to me.

Instead my mast cell specialist wrote:

“1-8 hours per day, 1-5 days per week, 12 weeks.”

… which is basically the professional way of saying, “No damn clue.”

Since 2015, I have taken an average of 200 hours, or 5 weeks, of FMLA time per year. On average, I use about 5 hours of FMLA time per week. FMLA provides up to 12 weeks, but I use my time as sparingly as my body can tolerate, in case I need a major surgery or have a complication.

The best part of FMLA, aside from not losing my job, is not having to explain myself when MCAS makes me sick. I don’t have to take a picture of my rash for proof or contemplate telling my boss that I am late because I am pooping my guts out. My paperwork allows me to skip the details. I just email my boss, “I need to use FMLA time for the remainder of the day.”

The worst part is nobody seems to understand the terror of having to budget your FMLA time for an unpredictable condition. If I run out of FMLA time, I can lose my job. If I lose my job, I lose my health care, and likely my home. My mast cells don’t give a shit. Sometimes doctors don’t even give a shit. Remember how it took months for doctors to agree to an epidural blood patch for my CSF leak? I went to work with a hole in my head, because I couldn’t afford to use three months of FMLA time. I hate when my FMLA time is wasted because of bad medical care.

I also limit my FMLA time, because I have bills to pay. FMLA provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave. While I can use my paid time (sick and vacation) when I take unpaid FMLA time, my paid time is constantly running out. This is why I rarely take a day off of work for fun.

Although working with MCAS often feels like physical torture, I love my job and the benefits outweigh the negatives. I know I am lucky that FMLA and ADA accommodations allowed me to keep my job after my diagnosis.

Tips for using FMLA leave for chronic illness:

  • Read about FMLA eligibility. Unfortunately, not everyone qualifies.
  • Notify your employer (usually an HR manager) as soon as you realize you need FMLA leave.
  • Schedule an appointment with your doctor just to complete the FMLA paperwork. It usually takes the whole appointment. You will need to fill out this paperwork every year.
  • Draft responses to the paperwork to bring to your doctor appointment to ensure all vital information is included and to save time.
  • Emphasize the unpredictability of your chronic illness, if applicable.
  • Track your FMLA leave time.
  • Don’t call it “F*ck My Life leave” around your HR manager.