Summer essentials for MCAS and EDS warriors

Minnesotans have a deep appreciation of summer. It is the reward for surviving blizzards and subzero mornings. As soon as the trees begin to bloom, we magnetize to our celebrated lakes for barbeques, swimming, and boating.

Too bad my mast cells hate summer.

Specifically, my mast cells hate the sun, the heat, and humidity. Fifteen minutes in the sun can trigger six hours of fever and vomiting. My mast cells hate the winter too, but that was easier to accept. The only fun aspect of living like a vampire is being able to say you live like a vampire. And to be honest, that hasn’t made me many friends.

This summer, overall my health is more stable, but my joints are not. It seems now that I’m less inflammed, my hypermobility is more noticeable. Like many MCAS patients, I also struggle with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS). My mast cells are tolerating a more active lifestyle, but now my joints, especially my ribs, are slipping all over.

This year, I am determined to enjoy my summer anyway, even if that means getting up before sunrise. I’ve even assembled a survival kit of sorts. Here are the top five essentials I rely on to enjoy summer despite MCAS and EDS:

A cute hat

Emphasis on cute, because you should love your hat enough to wear it at all times. I have a huge head, so I’m a fan of straw, bucket hats, but UV protection hats are best. I am also a big fan of having multiple cute hats.

A fanny pack

Fanny packs are back! This is great for two reasons. First, they are perfect for carrying Epi Pens. I no longer fear a severe reaction when I walk my dogs, but I know one pissed off bee could put me in instant danger. Second, fanny packs easier to carry than most bags, meaning less joint problems . I’ve been eyeing this Lululemon bag.

Birkenstock insoles

Everyone has heard of Birkenstocks, but people rarely know about Birkenstock’s insoles. I actually find the insoles more comfortable. They provide both arch and metatarsal support and slide easily into any shoes. I can’t imagine my walks around lakes without them!

Zero gravity chair

When I asked other EDS warriors about patio furniture, the response was unanimous. I got mine from Target and it’s amazing. When my friend tried it, I worried she’d never leave. Perfect for outdoor reading, recovering, or wasting time on Facebook.

Signature (non-alcoholic) cocktail

Okay, it’s not really a cocktail at all, but this summer I’m observing happy hour. Every afternoon, when I slurpy my icy, mast cell stabilizing drink, I feel more summery. Your drink can be whatever you want. Here’s what’s in mine:

  • ½ cup frozen blueberries
  • ¼ cup raspberries
  • ¼ cup pomegranate juice (mast cell stabilizer)
  • ¼ cup lactose free Organic Valley 2% milk (easy to substitute)

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Wishing you an enjoyable summer! What’s your favorite summer essential?

Choose your own (mis)adventure

“You and YOU ALONE are in charge of what happens in this story.”

This is the ominous warning given at the beginning of each Choose Your Own Adventure book, the popular 1980s children’s series. I used to check these books out of my elementary school’s library by the armful, enticed by the idea of being in charge. I carefully weighed the potential risks and rewards of each option at the end of a chapter, imagining my fate. Do I run for the nearest escape or defend myself? Should I ask the sorceress for help? Morocco or Boston?

The authors punished greedy and cautious readers alike. This pissed off my impulsive younger brother, who inevitably succumbed to flipping through the books in search of the most appealing outcomes. Then he would back track, memorize the best choices, and declare himself the winner.

To my disappointment, adult life is a lot less adventurous, aside from an occasional vacation and professionally led excursions. Instead, I am in charge of mundane misadventures. There are no new planets or ancient jewels. Basically, I’m just trying to stay alive and support my Etsy shopping habit.

My recent misadventure in healthcare reminded of these books and their valuable lessons: life is illogical and totally unfair. Oftentimes, health decisions are a gamble. Some options end up being a huge waste of time and money, returning you back to the original situation. Other times, all of the choices suck. To demonstrate what I mean, I present to you…

Choose your own (mis)adventure: Abdominal pain

You can no longer ignore the pain in your upper right abdomen. It has throbbed with increasing ferocity over the last two weeks, but you cannot recall any new changes to your diet or exercise routine. The Internet suggests it could be your gallbladder and upon inquiry, it seems like everyone you know has had their gallbladder removed. One friend warns you of the possibility of a gallbladder rupture. You wonder if this is related to your mast cell disease. Your back begins to spasm.

If you hope the pain can wait until you see can your primary care doctor, click here.

If you go to the emergency room, click here.


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Emergency room

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You check into the emergency room. Forty minutes later, you are ushered into a room and describe your pain to a doctor. The doctor orders an ultrasound and it looks normal. Blood and urine tests are normal, too. The nurse administers mast cell medications, but they have no effect on the pain. The doctor recommends following up with your primary care doctor. Although it cost you $100, at least you’ve confirmed you’re not dying. Right?

Click here to go to your primary care doctor.


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Primary care appointment

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In the clinic, your primary care doctor examines your abdomen and agrees your gallbladder is the likely culprit. She orders a HIDA scan to measure your gallbladder’s functionality. You drink 20 ounces of a milky sludge and lay still in a narrow tube for an hour. The HIDA scan is normal. You pay the $100 imaging deductible.

Meanwhile, the pain is affecting your ability to work and move. You research mast cell related gallbladder issues and discover half of MCAS patients feel better after gallbladder removal. Half of patients feel worse. Your primary care doctor recommends you consult a surgeon.

If you schedule a surgery consultation, click here.
If you decide to give up, click here.


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Surgery consult

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The surgeon acknowledges all your test results are normal, but agrees to remove your gallbladder with the recommendation of a gastroenterologist. You know two things to be certain: surgeons love removing organs, and this was a waste of time and $25.

If you schedule an appointment with gastroenterology, click here.

If you follow up with your primary care doctor in hopes of non-surgical solutions, click here.


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Emergency room 2

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The pain is shooting up to your shoulder and your back is spasming. Near tears, you hurry to the emergency room before the pain renders you unable to walk. The doctor reviews your chart. Blood and urine tests are normal again. The nurse administers pain medication and you have some relief, but no answers. Another $100 emergency room copay.

If you schedule a surgery consultation as recommended by your primary care doctor, click here.
If you get a second option in gastroenterology, click here.


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Primary care follow up

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Your primary care doctor examines your abdomen again. You break out in hives when she pushes in the center of your belly. She reassures you it is not a hernia, but suspects a muscle spasm. She says sometimes Botox injections can help muscle spasms in the abdomen. You hate needles and have no idea if you’re allergic to Botox.

If you give up and accept a life of pain, click here.
If you decided to try Botox in the stomach, click here.


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Gastroenterology

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The gastroenterologist tells you your gallbladder is fine and he doesn’t want to treat you because you have mast cell disease. He informs you that the clinic has hired a gastroenterology psychologist. He suggests she may be able to help you to learn how “food affects your mood.” You just wasted $25 and two hours of vacation time to be referred to a poop shrink. Your current psychologist agrees.

If you give up and accept a life of pain, click here.
If you follow up with your primary care doctor in hopes of a non-surgical solution, click here.


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Botox

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You died from Botox, but at least your stomach isn’t wrinkly. You didn’t leave a will for your poodles.

(Author’s note: It is unlikely you would die from Botox, but you really chose the worst option. Click here to give up and endure instead.)


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Give up and endure

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You swear off all doctors. You can’t afford them anyway. You self medicate with baths, HBO, and ready-bake chocolate chip cookies. If you could just figure out how to never move again, you would be pain free.

Four months later, a friend with MCAS recommends a chiropractor. You decide to go, because the pain is now causing your ribs to subluxate. The chiropractor adjusts your ribs, and you mention the pain in your abdomen. She palpates the pain and tells you its an adhesion. You wince and grit your teeth, as she massages the tender area. When she stops, the pain is gone. Forever.

The End.

(Based on a true story. What the hell.)

Mac and cheese and other drugs: why ingredients matter

Macaroni and cheese is my one true love. It always has been.

When I was seven and it was socially acceptable for me to eat neon noodles every day for lunch, I’d stick my head in laundry chute and yell, “DAAAAAAAAD!”

“What?” he’d shout from the basement. (We use cell phones these days.)

“I’m so hungrryyyyy. I’m starrrrrrving. Feed me. Feed me. Feed me,” I’d chant, while stomping on the floor until I heard him coming up the stairs.

In the kitchen, I’d hand my dad the box of pasta and assume my supervisory chair at the table. I imagined the best thing about being an adult was knowing how to make macaroni and cheese. I had tried on my own, of course, but noodles, water, and the magic powder were surprisingly disappointing. I watched my dad carefully, trying to learn, but the counter was too high. I begged him to teach me.

“What comes next?” I asked, while he poured the cooked noodles back into the steaming pot.

“It’s top secret,” he said.

“Tell me!” I cried.

“Secret ingredients. That’s why it tastes better than mom’s,” he said. (Years later, I would learn mom skimped on the butter, but I would never understand why.)

“C’mon!” I demanded.

“All of your favorite things,” he said.

“Like what?” I asked.

“Peanut butter, “ he said.

“You’re lying,” I accused him. It didn’t taste like peanut butter.

“Well, what do you think makes it taste so good?” he replied.

I didn’t have an answer. I stood on my chair, trying to see for myself.

“Now the ice cream,” he said.

“Stop lying!” I cried. “Tell me how to make it!”

He went to the refrigerator, retrieved a half of gallon of vanilla ice cream, and set it on the counter next to the noodles. Turning his back to me, I saw him scoop the ice cream. I contemplated everything I knew about food. I had never tried this. Maybe he was right. My mouth watered imagining the peanut butter and ice cream mixing together.

“How much ice cream?” I asked hesitantly.

“Two cups,” he said.

I believed him.

*****

Fours years later, I finally was old enough to babysit. I was certified by the Red Cross, and eager to earn money. Unfortunately, my parents still hadn’t taught me the most important skill of babysitting: how to make macaroni and cheese.

“Do you know how to make macaroni and cheese?” my first client asked.

“I think so,” I said. “You mix the box with peanut butter.”

And yet they still let me watch their child.

*****

Today, my macaroni and cheese is no longer neon orange. I buy organic, although still boxed, and use lactose free milk. Making it whenever I want is one of the best things about being an adult.

Gone are the days of blissful unawareness of the ingredients in my food and medicine. As digestion became increasingly painful in my 20s, I began vigilantly reading labels in grocery stores. However, I never thought to read the all ingredients in my medications.

One of the first lessons my mast cell specialist taught me was many patients react to the inactive ingredients in medications. These ingredients (also called excipients) can include fillers, dyes, binders, and preservatives – not the actual medicine itself. I used to think brand name and generic drugs were the same, yet I had awful experiences when my pharmacy changed my prescription. While the active ingredients are the same, the inactive ingredients can vary greatly. Now I only use dye free medications, and have memorized a list of manufacturers my body tolerates.

The same applies to supplements. I learned this the hard way two years ago when I tried quercetin, a mast cell stabilizer. The brand I chose used the least ingredients: just quercetin and cellulose, a common binder made from plants. I even checked it out on their website: “hypoallergenic plant cellulose.” Sounds great, right?

Three days of flu-like lethargy and one seizure later, I discovered the plant they used was Southern Pine. Pine is one of my most severe allergies. Why the hell would you put a Christmas tree in medicine?

Know what’s in your pills. It’s not sunshine and happiness. Or peanut butter and ice cream.

Going to the bathroom with a service dog

I have a service dog named Sancho. He helps keep me alive.

People often see him and say, “I wish I had a service dog!”

I want to ask, “Do you wish you were disabled too?”

I would gladly leave my dog at home in exchange for a life free of fainting and suffocating. People tend to forget I have a service dog because of my disability, and while I can bring my service dog most places, I can’t go most places because of my disability.

Furthermore, there is nothing glamourous about being leashed to a service dog all day. I receive constant unwanted attention. Sancho wears a large “DO NOT PET” patch to ward off inappropriate touching. Nevertheless, every single person within a 50-foot radius wants to start a conversation about my dog. At best, they smile and say, “Cute.”

I refrain from saying, “I know he is, but what am I?”

Sancho is basically my shadow. Again, this sounds great until you’re sitting on the toilet willfully ignoring the stare of a poodle. (To be fair, I do stare at him while he potties. Maybe I should be grateful he doesn’t command me to “go poo-poo.”)

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Sancho

When I started bringing Sancho to work, we had to learn how to cram ourselves into the bathroom stall without stepping on each other. (No accessible bathrooms on my floor.) Once inside, I had to teach him that peering underneath the stall was rude, no matter what you see, hear, or smell.

I believe public bathrooms should be a refuge of anonymity. I believe coworkers who start conversations while I’m in the stall should be fired. When I go to the bathroom, I want privacy.

In other words, I don’t want anyone to hear me fart and know it was me.

To my horror, I quickly realized Sancho’s furry butt revealed my identity in the stall. At first, I froze whenever someone entered the bathroom, refusing to make any noise whatsoever. Sensing the awkwardness, that person would then hesitate to make any noise whatsoever, creating a bathroom standoff. I waited them out every damn time. Soon I began to worry people would call me “the woman with the dog who hangs out on the toilet.”

To alleviate my anxiety, I came up with a more practical solution. I taught Sancho to tuck beside the toilet, completely hidden view. Now, after several months of practice, we enter the stall with the grace of Olympic ice dancers, and I rejoice in my dog’s ability to conceal himself.

Last week, I dropped Sancho’s leash on the floor, which is totally disgusting. (Another peril of having a service dog.) Within a split-second, Sancho picked it up, and I exclaimed, “Good job!”

Toilet paper rustled in the stall two doors down. I tried not to laugh.

Apparently, there’s a woman in our building who says good job to herself in the bathroom. Good thing no one thinks it’s me.

This is why I don’t go to urgent care

This week, I got normal people sick.

Luckily, I noticed the second my lymph nodes started to swell, because I am hyper aware of my body. I took a Benadryl right away.

Then I sat on the couch and contemplated if I was dying, because last time I got the flu I legitimately almost died from anaphylaxis.

However, I know catastrophic thinking is bad, so I decided to distract my thoughts by cleaning my condo. (Also, because I like to return to a clean home after near death experiences.)

Unfortunately, I started shaking from a low-grade fever and bronchospasms started stabbing me in the chest. I knew I should probably go to the emergency room to be tested for the flu, but sometimes I have to argue with the doctor just to receive fluids. The only certainty is the $100 copay.

I checked the wait time at my urgent care. None. Only a $25 copay. So, I drove to urgent care, which is literally one block away.

When I told the urgent care doctor that I was worried I had the flu and I have mast cell disease, she googled mast cell disease and told me I have a rare disease.

Fortunately, I held my tongue.

Unfortunately, my skin began to prickle.

So, I took another Benadryl.

I realized the doctor was terrified of me when, for the third time, she asked, “But you’ll know if you need to go the emergency room, right?”

I convinced her to order the flu swab test.

When she left the room, I looked in the mirror. Deep purple, bruise-like hives covered my face, neck, and chest. My lungs spasmed and I gasped for air. I needed to go to the emergency room.

Luckily, there was an emergency room across the street.

So, I ditched the urgent care and heaved myself through the darkness, snow, and winter air.

Although, it kind of felt good to be outside, because my entire body was burning.

Once I was in the hospital, I was totally disoriented and had to ask for help getting to the ER. The walk seemed a mile long, and I considered laying down on the floor until someone brought me a wheelchair or bed.

When I got to the ER, the staff was extremely nice. They escorted me to a bed, placed an IV, and gave me medicine right away.

Unfortunately, that medicine included steroids.

After several hours, my reaction went away, and I went home.

And now I owe $125.

The following day was Pi Day, and because I was pumped full of steroids, I was able to eat pie.

Because I was pumped full of steroids, I ate a concerning amount of pie.

Rare(ly diagnosed)

Today is Rare Disease Day and I started the day feeling like a fraud.

Kind of how I feel like a fraud when I have appointments at The Cancer Clinic. In the waiting room, I wonder if all the other patients know I don’t have cancer. Can they tell by my thick hair and rosy cheeks? Do they know I haven’t even tried chemotherapy? I feel sorry for myself sitting alone at The Cancer Clinic, yet I don’t even have cancer!

The truth is mast cell activation syndrome is likely not a rare disease. Some researchers believe up to 5% of people suffer from it! It is, however, rarely diagnosed for two reasons. First, it’s a newly recognized and very complex disease. It is the most confusing thing I’ve ever tried to learn. For reference, I’ve also tried to learn Russian, tax increment financing, and Twitter.

Second, diagnosis often depends a cold piss relay race across the country. You have to collect 24 hours’ worth of your pee in your refrigerator, pack it in a cooler, and bring it to a lab. The lab then ships it across the country and you pray it stays cool the whole time. For reference, I can barely give a urine sample in the ER without spilling it on myself.

This year, I teetered back and forth about celebrating Rare Disease Day. I don’t want to be the woman who cried “rare” only to inform everyone that in fact naughty mast cells are lurking everywhere. Yet MCAS patients face the same obstacles any rare disease patient faces: lack of information; few experts; inadequate treatments; and little to no research funding. So where do we fit in?

It’s kind of like when the check-in nurse at The Cancer Clinic learns I have MCAS and insinuates that cancer would probably be easier. And then I have no idea how to feel.

The truth is they all suck: cancer, rare diseases, and MCAS.

Rare Disease Day raises awareness about patients’ lives and advocates for research funding for treatments and cures. MCAS taught me about Rare Disease Day, but I don’t need MCAS to celebrate it. I’ve decided, rare or not, I’m crashing this party (via the Internet (because my mast cells don’t like actual parties)).

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

I’m allergic to my own hormones

“Are you in pain today?” the nurse asks looking up from the computer screen.

“A four,” I say, anticipating her request to “rate the pain on a scale of 1-10”.

She reads the next question, “Do you feel safe at home?

“Well, I live alone with my poodles, so yes… except when one of them farts and I think I’m going to die of asphyxiation.” I laugh at my own joke. The nurse does not. Had she heard that one before?

The nurse continues, “When was the last day of your first period?”

“2013,” I grin. This time I’m not joking.

“Are you on some kind of treatment?” the nurse asks.

I consider telling her I have a five-year-old fetus growing inside of me, but I’m too tired to explain what humor is. The truth is hard enough to believe anyway. “Yes. I’m allergic to my periods.”

She takes my blood pressure and then flees the room.

*****

Five years ago, I didn’t believe anyone could be allergic to their own hormones. How can you be allergic to yourself? Doesn’t an allergic reaction entail hives and sneezing? I did, however, understand that hormone fluctuations could ruin a woman’s life. With the help of the internet, I realized I was experiencing premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD).

PMDD was my most severe mast cell activation symptom from age 15 (when I got my first period) to age 27 (when I started taking continuous hormone pills). In fact, aside from my reactions to hormones, I felt healthy. Like MCAS, at that time, PMDD was relatively unheard of and provoked a lot of skepticism. No lab test can diagnose PMDD. Women with PMDD have the same levels of hormones as women without PMDD.

I wish I had a heartwarmingly funny way of describing PMDD to you, but the truth is it is living hell. Imagine a panic attack that lasts several days every month. Imagine being overwhelmed by impending doom, even though nothing has happened. Thoughts of hopelessness and paranoia cloud your mind, as your body becomes heavy and exhausted from crying. Your mind suggests death as a better option, while you try to pretend you’re okay for your job and your relationships.

For twelve years, I sought relief from this torture. I tried antidepressants, therapy, and supplements. Finally, a compassionate midwife worked with me to find a hormone pill that my body tolerated continuously. I learned no hormone fluctuations equaled no PMDD. The curse was over.

When I met my mast cell specialist several years later, he asked me to list my medical history. I told him that I was on continuous hormones for PMDD.

“Premenstrual dysphoric disorder,” I explained. He nodded, knowingly. His familiarity was curious, so I added, “I attempted suicide a couple times.”

He nodded again, completely unfazed. Had he heard me correctly?

Soon after, I learned that hormones can trigger mast cell reactions and many women with MCAS use medication to suppress hormone fluctuations. I learned doom is a hallmark sign of a severe allergic reaction. These days, when I’m anxious, I try Benadryl and it often helps.

Is mast cell activation the cause of all PMDD? I do not know, but I am suspicious. Am I insinuating women with PMDD also have MCAS? No, although it’s possible. Mast cell activation is not the same as MCAS. However, I wish I had known about MCAS sooner and gotten tested. Perhaps, I may have been able to stop the progression of my disease.

*****

As a final note, I’d like to share my biggest pet peeve of all time: women calling all birth control pills “the pill.”

When women tell me “the pill” made their PMDD worse, I want to ask, “Which fucking pill?”

The truth is some kinds of birth control pills absolutely make PMDD worse, while others, if taken continuously, can suppress PMDD completely.

Here are my tips for finding the right hormone medication to suppress PMDD:

  • Monophasic, not multiphasic
  • Avoid ultra-low dose
  • Continuous use (no inactive pills), not regular use
  • Take it at the exact same time every day
  • Be patient as your body adjusts to the new medication
  • Try another one if the first doesn’t work

As always, talk to your doctor about any concerns.