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.

But you don’t look dead

In the 80s, HarperCollins decided to encourage children to read by scaring the hell out of them. The scary stories were cleverly disguised with “I Can Read Level 2” emblems. To be fair, I was the type of kid that got nightmares from Nancy Drew. However, I never suspected such simple words could wreck me for so many years.

I wouldn’t be surprised if millennials’ trust issues stem from one story in particular: The Green Ribbon.

Listen to the story with pictures from the actual book.

Basically, a woman named Jenny wears a green ribbon around her neck her whole life and won’t tell her husband why. When she is very old, she removes the ribbon and her head falls off.

No explanation.

Children need explanations to sleep at night.

Until that moment, I hadn’t worried about anyone’s head falling off. Would someone do that to me? Could I trust anyone? I became nauseous every time my mom put on a turtleneck.

Today, I no longer worry about anyone’s head falling off.

I’m too worried about my own head falling off.

You see, I finally understand Jenny, thanks to Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. I am able to look past the fact that she is dead and relate to her cranial instability. After all, I’m half-dead most days anyway.

I have great empathy for Jenny. Even if she did tell people about her cranial instability, no one would have believed her anyway. Doctors probably would have blame it on anxiety.

In fact, I wish I could commiserate with Jenny about the pressure to be alive. We would probably be great friends. She would have understood the complications of my cerebrospinal fluid leak and fear of sneezing. We would have rested our heads, while binging our favorite TV shows. I wouldn’t care that she was dead, as long as she laughed at my jokes.

Jenny would teach me the importance of having boundaries, that it’s not always necessary to disclose my medical conditions. I would tell her Alfred is an ableist asshole, and kinesiology tape is a thing now.

Jenny would never tell me, “But you don’t look sick.”

And I would never tell Jenny, “But you don’t look dead.”

Why are hospital discharge instructions so unhelpful?

Last month, I temporarily lost my vision from a cheeseburger. My iron was low, so I scheduled a cheeseburger like a healthy person schedules a haircut. Not just any cheeseburger, but a $12 grass-fed patty without any seasoning or toppings except cheddar cheese–the same burger I’ve been eating for years.

Less than an hour later, I lost half of my vision in a staff meeting. At first, it was fun to watch my coworkers disappear, but then the doom kicked in. By the time I got to the emergency room, half of my body was numb.

A few seconds later, I felt like I was making a cameo on Grey’s Anatomy. No less than six residents swarmed me. The supervising doctor said they were going to prep me for tPA, and I nodded even though I wasn’t sure what that meant. I knew I was in trouble when the nurse grabbed my service dog.

One resident warned me, “Okay now, big poke!”

I thought, “I think you mean little poke.”

Then two of them in chorus sang, “Big poke!”

I contemplated how quickly six residents would tackle me if I tried to run. In the end, it was a big poke and I have not eaten a cheeseburger since then. Although the doctors quickly ruled out a stroke, it’s terrifying when my mast cell reactions affect my brain. I worry about having a ministroke, if I don’t treat the inflammation quickly enough. I would much rather have hives and vomiting. I didn’t get any gastrointestinal symptoms, but the next day I had two black eyes. The restaurant staff could not have been more helpful trying to identify the culprit, but I may never know what triggered my reaction.

After steroids, Benadryl, and a few hours of observation, a nurse handed me my discharge papers and wished me luck. On the way home, I curiously thumbed through the packet. It’s always interesting what doctors list as the reason for my visits, since mast cell reactions are not an option.

On the sixth page was a 3-inch clipart image of a glass of wine. Below, it read, “Red wine is a common migraine trigger.”

Folks, I haven’t ingested alcohol, let alone a grape in the past four years. Red wine is a common migraine trigger because has enough histamine to give me lips bigger than Angelina Jolie’s.

I don’t know what was more appalling: the useless advice or the wasted paper. Don’t even get me started on clipart. At least, I am accustomed to the useless advice.

“Okay, the discharge instructions say come back if you develop a fever or hives,” the nurse often says.

“I have hives right now. I have hives every day of my life. I am not putting that gown back on,” I reply.

After my gallbladder surgery, I received advice on how to clean my wounds and keep my poop soft (and no clipart). What I really needed was some encouragement and a 24-hour prednisone hotline for when I wanted to punch people in the face.

I guess that’s what Facebook is for.