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?

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.

Beware of vision boards

In January 2015, I was full of ambition. I had just finished a master’s degree, my city council campaign, and a cruise to the Bahamas. I was ready to carpe diem the shit out of the new year.

On TV, I heard a bestselling author tell Oprah how she attributed her success to a vision board. I wanted to publish a book. I wanted to meet Oprah. I wanted to use modge podge.

I riffled through magazines and scrapbook paper, selecting the quotes and colors that would best represent my future self. As I cut out my favorite images, I imagined the vacations I would take, and the memories I would make.

What else did I wanted to accomplish? What else should I accomplish?

I recalled my recent book club meeting. The average age of the group is 70, but they kindly adopted me. These ladies are everything but old. Over brunch, they shared their recent adventures: political activism, concerts in the park, and tours through other countries. I listened silently, counting the years until my retirement. The truth is I never could keep up with these ladies.

I don’t remember which books we talked about that day, but I’ll never forget when the hostess mentioned she did yoga every morning before her walk around the lake. And every morning, her routine included a headstand.

Now I’ve tried to learn how to do a headstand in yoga class, but I was thwarted by my fears of falling and farting. In the security of my own home, my dogs dodged my flailing limbs. The blood rushing to my head felt less cool without the company of hipsters. But now that I knew that a 70-something could do it, so should I.

I carefully cut out the silhouette of a woman standing perfectly on her head and added it to my vision board.

***

Unfortunately, my body had other plans that year. Three weeks later, my legs weakened and I fell down the stairs. I quit yoga, suspecting I had over done it, but as months passed, even walking became a challenge. I spent most of the year fighting to hold on to what I had, instead on building upon it. I tucked away my vision board, hoping to regain control of my life.

***

This January, I stumbled across my vision board once again. I picked up it hesitantly, not wanting to stir feelings of disappointment or grief. As I studied the images, I realized I had unintentionally accomplished most of my vision for that year. For example, I read a surprising number of books as a result being stuck on the couch. When I had been given a burst of prednisone, I drove wide-eyed across the entire state to visit parks with my dogs. It was a terrible year, but there were moments of resilience.

However, in the middle of the board, I sensed the woman in the headstand laughing at me.

Oh my god. I was that woman, I realized. My world turned upside down that year. I had learned to stand on my head. How the hell was I supposed to know vision boards could be interpreted as metaphors?

I modge podged a prophecy.

***

So this year, I made another vision board. Much. More. Carefully.

I probably should have glued pictures of money and the Nobel Peace Prize to the board, but I try to be reasonable with the universe.

This year’s vision board features images of self-care, a quote from Mr. Rogers, and zero crazy yoga poses. There is one image that may be misinterpreted for me turning into a marshmallow, but prednisone has already accomplished that.

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My 2015 vision board

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My 2018 vision board

I deserve all the gifts

HOLIDAY PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT:

Do not use my illness as an excuse to not give me a gift!

In the first year of my diagnosis, holidays were sad and lonely. On my birthday, I received only one card and no visitors. I couldn’t figure out why everyone would let me down on the hardest year of my life. “I don’t want to make you sick,” they said. “I don’t know what you’re not allergic to.”

I cried and accepted my fate. My disease was too complicated to understand. Gifts were just another casualty of my illness.

…until this year, when I created a new support system of compassionate and somewhat quirky friends (more on that later (you can do this too!))…

…and they gave me ALL THE GIFTS.

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The smorgasbord I received after surgery this year

This year, my friends lavished me with mast cell friendly gifts: Fiji water, Vanicream, books, homemade food, and even dog poop bags! I literally broke out in hives at their generosity (and that’s okay!). They cared enough to get to know me and the challenges I face each day. They taught me I am deserving not only of gifts, but loving friends.

Now I know we can’t all be as generous as my friends. But truly anyone can give and receive a gift. Some of my most cherished gifts are handmade cards telling me I’m a badass. A little thoughtfulness goes a long way and when in doubt, just ask! It’s really that simple.

In case you missed it last year, check out my gift guide for mast cell disease.

Happy gifting!

P.S. I’ve created a store for my blog! Check out these great mast cell gift ideas. All proceeds go towards my blogging costs – thank you for your support!

 

My mast cells put me in the hospital

“I’m scared and alone and I need you to tell me everything will be okay,” I texted my best friend.

Thirty minutes ago, I was insisting to be admitted. After two rounds of mast cell induced ureteral obstruction, I refused to experience the worst pain of my life again. Pills weren’t enough; I needed continuous IV medications, I told the ER doctor. So they admitted me to the neurology floor.

But maybe this was a bad idea? I looked down at my IV and then the door. I can outrun them, right?

I had been admitted to the hospital once before. Similarly, it was midnight, I was alone, and my ureter was obstructed (that time by a 6mm kidney stone). In fact, I was in another state attending a work conference. My mom offered to fly down, but I declined. I found solace in the quiet room.

So why was I terrified of hospitalization this time?

Because this time I knew I had mast cell disease. This time, I knew my doctors would not know how to help me. This time, I needed to educate and convince my care team to listen to me. This time, I knew any treatment was a gamble.

The admission process made me feel like a criminal entering jail. The hallways were empty and the rooms were dark. The head nurse searched my belongings and confiscated my pill bottles. I pleaded to keep my medications, explaining I had to use specific manufacturers or else I risked another reaction. Why do they need to lock up my antihistamines? If they don’t trust me with my own medications, how will they trust me about treating my disease? I began to cry. The nurse promised to deliver my morning doses on time.

Next came the doctor, a neurologist. He asked me what pain medications I could tolerate. I replied oxycodone and fentanyl. He told me they don’t administer fentanyl on the 7th floor. He suggested morphine and I began to hyperventilate. Why am I on this floor if they can’t give me the medication I might need?! I told him morphine will kill me and fentanyl is the only medication for extreme pain that I am sure is safe. I had tried other pain medications that week and lost my vision for two days. In the ER, two doses of fentanyl only reduced my pain to level 8 on the pain scale.

The doctor agreed to continuous IV Benadryl and oxycodone (luckily my pain was more manageable at this point). The nurse left the room and my friend who brought me to the ER said goodbye. I looked out the window to regain my bearings, but my city was unrecognizable in the darkness, and began to lose my shit.

You should know, mast cell reactions also can induce a sense of doom. The doom fogs all logic and invites fear to fill every thought. This chorus of fears echoed in my head:

  • I am going to die.
  • They are going to deny me my medicine and I am going to suffer. And then I am going to die.
  • I am going survive, but my hospital bills will be unsurmountable and I will lose my home. I will be homeless. And then I will die.
  • I am never going to have children and I am going to die alone even if it takes me awhile to die.
  • I am never going to feel joy again.

The nurse returned and asked me if I needed anything.

“I’m scared,” I squeaked.

The nurse walked over to my bedside and I began babbling how scary mast cell disease can be. She said she had never heard of MCAS, so I explained my triggers and daily challenges. The nurse listened patiently for over fifteen minutes and I felt better.

As she left the room, she said, “I won’t put the bed alarm on.” Way to ruin a moment.

I didn’t sleep at all. Pain medicine and Benadryl give me insomnia. I took black and white selfies of my tear-stained face and wrote lines for a melodrama I creatively titled “Girl in the Hospital.”

My anxiety subsided as the sun rose. I hadn’t had a reaction. I didn’t need Fentanyl. I hadn’t ripped out my IV and ran. I survived my night in my hospital with mast cell disease.

Operation Crazy Straw

I made the mistake of googling my procedure.

When you hear “stent,” what comes to mind?

Maybe a tiny coil, smaller than a thimble? Maybe a micro sized umbrella, like a cocktail decoration for a fairy garden?

Okay, so maybe I didn’t have a reasonable understanding of stents going into this, but I’m pretty sure my doctor didn’t elaborate on purpose.

Because Google revealed ureteral stents are over EIGHT INCHES LONG with curlicues at each end.

In other words, I was electing to have a crazy straw shoved all the way up my pee tube and into my kidney for FIVE DAYS.

I was equally worried about mast cell reactions to the surgery and stent. This was my first procedure since my mast cell disease diagnosis and I had no idea how I would react to some medications such as anesthesia.

However, I needed the procedure. My kidney stones were aggravating my mast cells. My kidney was constantly aching and the pain was spurring low grade fevers.

I shared all my fears with my surgeon. He listened to me, and agreed to follow the pre-op and emergency mast cell disease protocol. He tried to reassure me.

“I will leave a string, so if the stent become unbearable, you can always pull it out,” he said smiling. “Like a tampon!”

This is when I realized we would never quite be on the same page. I’m pretty sure ripping out my own eight-inch stent would be a ticket to the Anaphylaxis Express. I also questioned his familiarity with tampons. Again, I am not a medical professional, but there is a significant difference between a pee tube and a baby tunnel.

*****

My first sentence out of the operating room was, “Why did you wake me up? I was in Fiji.”

And then, “I need to pee.”

This is less curious when you realize I can only drink Fiji water.

The nurse assured me that I didn’t actually have to pee. They had drain my bladder with a catheter and I was feeling irritation from the procedure. After a quick assessment, I realized I felt quite good! My fever and kidney pain was gone! I proceeded to chat with everyone with the recovery room that was conscious. I have a suspicion that my mast cells loved the sedative.

My surgeon reported that he removed 5-10 stones, most of which were too big to pass! I basically had a quarry in my kidney!

Everyone told me the stent would be awful. They warned me that I would scream when I peed. So I emotionally prepared for death. Instead, I burst out of the bathroom, “I PEED! IT WAS FINE! I CAN DO THIS!”

The remainder of the day was awesome. For the first time in months, I had no pain. I bounced around my condo, confusing and concerning my caretaker. Thanks to prednisone, I bid her adieu at 10 pm and pulled all-night creative extravaganza. My poodle pulled a blanket over his head.

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end here. After all, it’s a mast cell story. Part two… coming soon..

Coloring is hard, friendships are harder

“When can I come over?” she messaged me.

I panicked. Does she know I am boring, feeble, and can’t offer anything except Fiji water?

For months, I had been writing the saddest story of abandonment (starring ME) in my head. None of my friends had visited me since my diagnosis. Unable to leave my house, I wished for movie nights and home cooked meals. When wishing proved futile, I alluded to my chronic illness fantasies on Facebook to no avail.

What if we have nothing to talk about and she decides I’m a total loser? Do you know what’s worse than no friends? Rejection. I hope she forgets me entirely. 

“Wednesday?” she messaged me.

Either I would have to accept her offer or wither alone in my hypocrisy. I reminded myself that she used to work in home care, and therefore was professionally trained to deal with my awkwardness. “Okay,” I said.

She did not arrive alone. Behind her, she pulled a suitcase full of coloring books, pens, and markers. We spread them across the table and began coloring our respective pages. I don’t usually enjoy coloring, but I was thankful to have company and something to focus on other than my 43,295 allergies.

Over the next several months, she continued to visit and even gave me a poodle coloring book. I warmed up to these visits. Maybe a bit too much.

Damnit, I wrecked the best poodle in this book. I couldn’t have picked an uglier color. Now I’m going to burn the whole book. I growled with frustration and showed my friend.

“Well you don’t have to sell it!” she exclaimed. I was stunned by her frankness, and then I laughed. A true friend doesn’t sugar coat your ugly poodle.