Before you judge my dog’s birthday party

Last month, my oldest toy poodle, Quixote turned TEN years old! Quixote is my first dog and has boldly taught me everything I know about poodles. He is a ruthless, but effective physical therapist. He forces me to socialize in hopes of scoring treats from strangers.

Of course, I had to spoil him with the perfect gift.

IMG_9943IMG_9984IMG_0131

A Charmin Forever Roll! A 12” roll of toilet paper, one of Quixote’s favorite vices. At first, I wanted to order the Forever Roll for myself. Charmin offers a money-back guarantee: Go up to one month before changing your roll. As someone who endured two colonoscopies in one year, I feel like that’s a bad business plan. My mast cells love a challenge. Then I realized my blog readers would much rather see pictures of my poodle than hear about how much I pooped in a month.

Quixote’s birthday serendipitously fell on the same day as his weekly agility class, so I also threw him a birthday party. There were hats, treats, and party favors.

IMG_0192IMG_0166IMG_0161IMG_0147

I worried these Facebook photos might undermine the seriousness of my health challenges. I try not to care what people think, but unfortunately image does matter when you’re of the precipice of crowdfunding.

I know a lot people of people think dog birthday parties are ridiculous. In fact, some people believe all birthday parties are ridiculous. I have a couple words for these people:

  1. Don’t steal my joy
  2. Prepare to feel like an asshole

First of all, it cost almost nothing. You better believe I collected every half-chewed stream of toilet paper and place them in a bag by my toilet. The mini hats were on clearance, because they look absurd on humans, and the lottery tickets technically made money. The balls were less than a dollar, even though Boost the Aussie thinks they’re worth a million.

Second, I miss celebrating birthdays. In fact, I miss celebrating all occasions with others. Because of MCAS, I usually spend my birthdays and Christmas alone. I can’t go to restaurants or parties with friends and family anymore. At the same time, I need celebration more than ever to offset my health challenges. Right now, my life just feels like a series of fights and losses. Quixote’s birthday was the perfect opportunity to share joy in a safe space. Feel like a jerk, yet?

Furthermore, I’m allergic to men, babies, and baby-making. I cannot imagine how many ways childbirth would destroy my body, nor how I would take care of children when I can barely care for myself. Plus, MCAS appears to have a genetic component. Instead of wallowing in my fear that I may never be able to have kids, I am focusing on the family I do have, even if it’s not human.

Finally, my dog has helped me and continues to help me get through hard times. At first glance, his help appears self-serving. Quixote keeps me on a strict schedule of meals, bathroom breaks, and exercise. He is the reason I get up in the morning and the reason I go outside. He is the reason I regained strength in my body. He is the reason I learned how to ask for help when I need it. He is the reason I keep fighting.

P.S. I am honored to have been nominated as a WEGO Health Awards Hilarious Patient Leader. If you haven’t already, please endorse me to raise awareness for mast cell disease, EDS, and POTS!

 

The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Dryer

Once upon a time, there were three little pigs, all with mast cell disease. The pigs lived on an American farm where antibiotics and pesticides were heavily used. As the pigs became sicker, they decided to escape the farm and move into three condos in the same building in the city. They loved their safe condos in the city.

One day, all three of the little pigs felt very ill. They noticed a flowery fragrance seeping through their condo vents. Their throats and heads swelled. They vomited and couldn’t think. When they asked the condo association about the smell, they learned their neighbor had recently installed a ventless dryer.

The dryer huffed and puffed and blew volatile organic compounds (VOCs) all over the condo building to the detriment of everyone’s health, especially the three little pigs.

The first pig cried, “Not by the flare of my skinny, skin, skin!” and filed a nuisance complaint with the condo association. The association asked the neighbor to stop using dryer sheets, but decided the fragrance was otherwise negligible. The first pig had no choice but to return to the farm, and shortly after, was turned into bacon.

The dryer huffed and puffed and continued to blow VOCs all over the condo building, even without the dryer sheets.

The second pig cried, “Not by the flare of my skinny, skin, skin!” and filed an American Pigs with Disabilities Act reasonable accommodation request with the condo association. The association inspected the common areas of condo building, which were not affected by the dryer fumes, and consequently, could not offer any reasonable accommodations. The second pig had no choice but to return to the farm, and shortly after, was turned into sausage links.

The dryer huffed and puffed and continued to blow VOCs into the lungs of the building residents.

The third pig cried, “Not by the flare of my skinny, skin, skin!” and filed Fair Housing Act reasonable accommodation request with the condo association. The third pig also provided medical documentation of her disability. The condo association had never heard of this before, and didn’t take the request seriously until the third pig threatened to sue. The condo association passed a new policy requiring homeowners with ventless dryers to use low VOC, unscented laundry products. If the residents insisted on using fragrant products, the association recommended they use one of the vented dryers available to all residents in the common areas.

And the third little pig lived happily ever after, except for ongoing, non-dryer-related, life-threatening mast cell reactions!

Learn more about ADA and FHA disability accommodations for housing.

P.S. While I hope for a fairy tale ending, I’m still legally battling my neighbor and association.

The frustrating conversation I have with every doctor

My right kidney is flaring again. Through my research, all symptoms point to interstitial nephritis. I am in so much pain I can’t keep food down. My right kidney shows damage, but my kidney function is okay. Yesterday, I went to a new nephrologist, hoping for a protocol to manage kidney reactions and prevent more damage, but she is afraid of prescribing the recommended treatment, the treatment that I know works for me, steroids. She said steroids have side effects, and I laughed, because I know this firsthand. I tried to explain steroids are a necessity for many mast cell patients, and I tried to explain the connection between mast cell activation and acute interstitial nephritis.

Instead of trying to understand how mast cell affect kidneys, she launched into the same conversation I’ve had so many times with so many doctors.

Doctor: Who is managing your mast cell disease?

Me: No one.

Doctor: What about rheumatology? Immunology? Hematology?

Me: No one will treat me anymore at this university, since my specialist moved to New York. My immunologist refused to see me after I was diagnosed with mast cell activation syndrome.

Doctor: Well, what about Mayo Clinic?

Me: They don’t treat MCAS, because there is no agreed upon diagnostic criteria.

Doctor: Well, there has to be other doctors?

Me: The few specialists in Minnesota that are willing to treat MCAS patients beyond the first lines of treatment are in private practices and I can’t afford them because they don’t accept insurance.

Doctor: Well, can you talk to HR and your insurance to try to get coverage?

Me: No, you don’t understand. Those doctors don’t accept any insurance. They cost about $500/hour and I can’t afford that.

Doctor: Well, maybe there is a clinical trial you can enroll in?

Me: There are none.

Doctor. Let me look… there are a bunch for mastocytosis.

Me: I don’t have mastocytosis. That is a different mast cell disease. I have mast cell activation syndrome.

Doctor: Oh. Well, I’m sorry I can’t help you more. You really need someone to manage your mast cell disease.

There goes another $35 copay. Today, I am at home trying to manage my pain and reactions myself with medications prescribed by my PCP. It’s hard to have hope when doctors won’t or can’t take the time to learn. I don’t know if I will ever have access to adequate care, but I refuse to lose an organ, because doctors are not educated on my disease.

Oversharing

My best friend was coming over to spend the night for the first time. I could barely sit still while my right foot soaked in a bucket of warm water before she arrived. I had slept over at her house many times, but she had been too afraid to sleep at mine. Her fear baffled me. We just had conquered first grade and she had played happily at my house for countless hours. Besides, the best part of a sleepover is escaping your parents and their rules!

My mom, sitting in a chair across from me, picked up my right foot, wiped it with a towel, and set it on her knee for our nightly ritual. A plantar wart had taken root in the center of my heel–evidence of a summer well-spent at the local pool. My mom assured me the wart wouldn’t hurt me, although as she scraped away the dead skin, I questioned her intentions and kicked her a few times. Afterwards, I admired the progress of the wart’s eviction–my tiny science experiment.

This night, however, the wart surrendered, releasing from my foot and dropping into the bucket of water below. My mom and I cheered. “I want to see it!” I begged, eager to size up the enemy. To my surprise, the wart floated like a tiny jellyfish with long, translucent tentacles swaying in the water. I assessed the damaged to my foot–a deep, yet, smooth, red crater.

“You cannot mention this tonight,” my mom warned. “You’ll freak her out.”

I had briefly forgotten about my long-anticipated sleepover. I imagined my friend’s overreaction, the horror in her eyes. “Duh,” I told my mom.

When my friend arrived, I raced to show her all the cool things in my house. Or least the most interesting things and tried to make them sound cool. After about an hour, I ran out of ideas. I sensed her boredom; she sensed my desperation. I closed my bedroom door and asked, “Wanna see my foot?”

I whipped off my sock and presented my heel. She didn’t scream or gasp. She stared as I told her everything my mom had taught me about warts. I assured her that it was no longer contagious. I studied her face. She seemed curious, not frightened. I put my sock back on to reassure her, just in case.

Later that night, when I was brushing my teeth, I heard my friend talking to my mom in the kitchen. I heard the phone be lifted from its receiver. My mom appeared in the bathroom doorway. “I told you not to talk about your foot!” she scolded me.

Fifteen minutes later, my friend’s mom came to pick her.

*****

So, the main reason I created this blog was because my Facebook friends couldn’t handle my oversharing. Turns out everyone wants to be your Facebook friend until you post something boring, frightening, or disgusting. Well, I’m not boring.

Chronic illness has increased what I like to call my “generous honesty”. Life is too short for small talk and I left all my shame in an ambulance in Florida. I have never sugarcoated my illness and if you ask me what I did last weekend, I am going to tell you which body part broke.

I share my experiences on social media for many reasons:

  1. I live in solitary confinement and poodles are bad listeners
  2. Sometimes I need validation that my disease is total shit and I am a badass
  3. Therapy is expensive and my last therapist quit the profession, which is way more insulting being unfriended on Facebook

But most importantly, my posts help people. Yes, my stories are terrifying and sometimes disgusting, but everyone has body that is probably going to do some scary shit before inevitably falling apart. I feel a duty to normalize illness and disability, because for every ten people who unfriend me, one person privately messages me and thanks me for sharing my experience.

*****

The next summer, shortly after graduating from second grade, the phone rang. “It’s for you,” my mom said.

“Hello?” I answered.

My friend softly stuttered on the other end. She said, “I have wart on my foot, and my mom and I were wondering how you got rid of yours.”

I am disabled: How the Americans with Disabilities Act helps me every day

This post is for the people who cringed when I started calling myself disabled and, more importantly, for anyone who is uneasy about calling themselves disabled (because of the people who cringe). I get the sense that some people cringe because I don’t fit their definition of disabled or they dislike the word entirely.

Do you know what makes me cringe? The thought of losing my job. The thought of losing my health care. The thought of being unable to pay my bills, and losing my home.

I don’t feel like identifying as a disabled person was a choice. I started calling myself disabled in order to keep my full-time job. This is confusing to some people, who believe disabled people cannot work. The truth is the majority of disabled Americans do not receive disability benefit payments.

The U.S. government has multiple definitions of disability.The Social Security Act defines a person with a disability as someone who is unable to work due to a medical condition. However, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a person with a disability as “a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.”

I benefited from ADA before I considered myself disabled. In 2015, before my MCAS diagnosis, I developed severe arthritis in my hips. Sometimes I wished I had a wheelchair, but I was certain doctors would fix me soon (hahaha). Eventually, the three-block walk from my contract parking space to my office building became impossible. I started calling in sick because I couldn’t tolerate the pain. Finally, I asked my doctor for a disability parking permit. Albeit, a temporary one.

But I didn’t get better.

About the same time I was diagnosed with mast cell activation syndrome, I started having life-threatening reactions at work to fragrance. Panic attacks pummeled me before and during work, as I constantly feared for my safety. This was no longer a matter of pain; it was life and death. I had to request disability accommodations.

Fragrance sensitivity is a difficult disability to accommodate, because it often relies on the voluntary cooperation of others. My employer tried to enforce a scent-free policy in our open office, but a few individuals continued to apply fragrance in the office, as if my life didn’t matter. After months of deliberation and a few emergency room visits, I was moved to an enclosed office on a different floor. My employer added an air purifier and sealed the air vents. I keep the door shut and rarely have visitors. The bathroom closest to my office is designated scent-free, but sometimes I still have to dodge plumes of perfume in the hallway and wear my Vogmask. At this point, I know which people to avoid.

On Wednesdays, I work from home. ADA does not require employers to allow telecommuting, and my employer resisted this accommodation request at first. I needed to prove it was a reasonable accommodation–that I could still do my job for home. My medical documentation explained working from home reduces my exposure to triggers, and conserves my physical energy. I have since disapproved my employer’s fears and demonstrated how working from home can decrease sick days.

Sancho, my service dog, accompanies me to work every day. Under ADA, a service animal is defined as a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability. Sancho alerts and responds to my mast cell reactions. I am safer with a service dog, especially since I am alone in my office. ADA also allows Sancho to accompany me in other public places, such as the hospital.

One of the unexpected benefits of having a service dog is visually reminding people that I am disabled. When my coworkers see Sancho’s vest, they are reminded I react to fragrances and have other invisible disabilities. Plus, people smile at me a lot more.

Finally, I fall down stairs. Vertigo, low blood pressure, and muscle weakness make me susceptible to gravity. Even if I manage not to fall, stairs can trigger mast cell reactions that last several hours. So, I avoid stairs with help of ADA-required elevators.

Disability is a non-negotiable part of my identity. When I say I am disabled, I simply mean I need accommodations to be able to function. I had to fight hard for these accommodations. They weren’t just given to me. I was met with skepticism and inflexibility. My doctor filled out loads of paperwork and I sat in countless meetings. So I don’t have much tolerance for people who get uncomfortable when I say I am disabled. Nobody wants to be disabled, but I am proud of my self advocacy. I proud to be redefining disability and accessibility.

Even though I read laws for a living, I wasn’t very familiar with ADA before I got sick, because I never imagined I would benefit from ADA. I never imagined I’d become permanently disabled. No one does.

Now I understand how critical ADA is for people with disabilities. Without ADA, I would lose my job, my health care, and eventually my home. I would get sicker and require more health care, but it would be harder to access. I am benefiting from decades of advocacy from the disability community. I am proud to be part of this community and hope I can make positive contributions as I continue to learn what it means to be disabled.

A recap how ADA helps me every day:

  • Parking
  • Workplace accommodations
    • Working from home
    • Scent-free, temperature-controlled office
    • Scent-free bathroom
  • Service dog
  • Elevators

 I also use FMLA leave intermittently. This is separate from ADA accommodations.

(Photo by Paul Battaglia.)