Isolation in the 90s vs. now

At first, I hated Zoom. I love working from home, but the daily video check-ins are soul sucking. Every morning, I struggle to tame my hair, change into a different colored sweatshirt, and make coffee before my 8:30 am Zoom meeting. I have no idea how I used to manage mornings, but I do know it required more drugs. When my meeting starts, I try to think of something different to say than yesterday, but I’m distracted by my clammy face and frizzy bun. Then I examine each of my coworkers and try to determine if they are boycotting morning showers too.

It turns out Zoom is more enjoyable when you use it for fun, and not at 8:30 in the morning. My writing group asked me if I wanted to rejoin now that they are meeting over Zoom. The group had always been accommodating, but the in-person meetings were too physically demanding for my body. Finally, I don’t have to choose between comfort and connection. My only complaint of the meeting was the disruptive poodle who knows when I’m unmuted.

Moderation may be the key to life, but it no longer applies to me. Every day I deny myself simple pleasures to appease my mast cells. The amount of self-control required to stay alive is superhuman. So, when I discover I’m not allergic to something I enjoy, I overindulge. In other words, last month I enrolled in two writer workshops, led a book club, joined two more writing groups, and video chatted with a dozen complete strangers.

“Oh, for Pete’s sake,” my grandma would have exclaimed if she had lived to experience Zoom.

Until now, I never thought of my grandma as disabled or isolated. I just considered her old. Everyone was quick to turn her emphysema into a lesson on why I should never smoke cigarettes. When her breathing got so bad that she couldn’t leave the couch, I just accepted it as her punishment. Besides, I was eight years old and she was my captive audience.

“You made grandma babysit me on hospice?!” I texted my mom last week as I reflected on the horror of being couch-bound in 1995. My mom reminded me my grandpa was there, quiet in the kitchen, but I realized how desperate for company she must have been.

Once a week, I would unpack my toys on the glass coffee table in front of my grandma. She always lay on her left side with one arm resting above her head to relieve her lungs. Our visits began by negotiating the TV schedule, a combination of soap operas, game shows, and Nickelodeon. During my cartoons, she worked on her crossword and word search puzzles stacked next to the couch, alongside her Bible and the latest Danielle Steel novel.

During the day, grandma taught me to read, write, and recite prayers. At night, grandma taught me to gamble. I preferred UNO over the more complicated card games, but grandma didn’t mind. Her handheld electronic poker game was always running out of batteries. Grandma missed the casino so much, she always gave me $5 to bet against her.

At first, we played nicely: she didn’t want to discourage her granddaughter, and I didn’t want to deceive my grandma. However, we had the same sly DNA that inevitably lead to wicked grins and carefully guarded cards. Grandma taught me setting down a winning hand feels like telling a great joke.

“Shit,” my grandma would mutter and toss her cards at me, while I squealed with glee.

Every time I left grandma’s house, with a pocket full of cash, I knew she didn’t have much for company: quiet grandpa, the TV, and the cordless phone. Unfortunately, long distance calling was expensive. Once a month, she’d record herself on audio cassette tapes and send them by mail to her sister in Washington State.

“You’re stealing my oxygen,” my grandma used to say when she needed a break from talking. What I would give to talk to her now, even if by Zoom.

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P.S. Did you watch my interview with No Labels Live? Let me know if you would like me to do more interviews!

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.

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.

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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.

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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!