A Day with Dysautonomia

I’ve been dealing with dysautonomia since I was a teenager, really even longer before my diagnosis in high school. It started out with shortness of breath and heart palpitations before moving into full on syncopy and fainting spells and eventually complete autonomic dysfunction. Today, although my dysautonomia is in many ways managed better than it has been before, it still affects my body and routine every day.

Although my fainting spells have been minimized by doing twice-daily saline infusions, if you look deeper you find that my dysautonomia is still very much present. I struggle daily with common symptoms like dizziness, accelerated heart rate, and fatigue, but I also have symptoms that are less talked about.

I struggle with temperature regulation, being unable to stay warm if I go anywhere with a temp under 65-70 degrees, even if I’m bundled up and only there for a couple of minutes; this includes grocery stores, cars, outdoors, and my own house during the winter. Something as simple as changing my clothes can send my body temperature drops as low as 91 degrees F – hypothermia is 95 and below. I joke about my “hibernation” during winter, but it’s partially true, being that cold and unable to warm up is not a fun –or safe– feeling. On the other hand, if I’m fatigued or talk too much (no joke), I run low grade fevers and have to put myself in a “time out” to let my body rest and recover.

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I also struggle from severe adrenaline rushes. My blood work shows high norepinephrine and dopamine levels which you would expect from someone who is overly excited or even scared, maybe from sky diving or being in a high speed car chase? Well, I get them from standing up or over exerting myself. When your body has to work extremely hard just to keep you on your feet, it sometimes goes into overdrive. These adrenaline rushes either leave me hyper during the day or up all night, but either way, I’m exhausted and weak when they’re over.

My dysautonomia has also contributed to my digestive tract failure and my chronic pain. Although I have other conditions as well, these are all comorbid and interact with one another making it harder to treat. I’m on 24/7 nausea medication and daily pain medication as well. I struggle with daily migraines and occipital neuralgia. I rely on tube feeds and IV fluids to keep me nourished, hydrated, and able to stand up without passing out.

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Although there are many other symptoms I struggle with, these are just a couple that are currently having a big impact on my life.

Dysautonomia is an umbrella term for a multitude of conditions and needs more research and awareness. There are way too many people suffering from this condition who deserve treatments and a cure, but we have none.

To each of you reading this, thank you. Please continue to read, share, and educate others on these conditions so that one year we can write about the cure.

Desensitized to The Diagnosis

Yesterday I got a new diagnosis. But in all honesty, a new diagnosis doesn’t phase me much anymore. When I was 16 I got my first diagnosis, Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), but I had no idea that 5 years later I would have more diagnoses than I can count on both hands.

In 2016 I was diagnosed with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, a genetic condition that affects connective tissue and collagen in your body. For me, this diagnosis explained a lot. I had already been diagnosed with Dysautnomia/POTS/NCS as well as Gastroparesis and generalized dysmotility in my colon and intestines. I had been struggling with unexplained chronic joint and nerve pain and I finally had an answer; although EDS wasn’t an easy answer and it meant I will likely never be completely free of illness, I finally had answers.

You probably won’t understand this unless you’re chronically ill, but after receiving that diagnosis, the ones that followed haven’t been surprising to hear or hard to accept. EDS has a lot of co-morbid conditions, and as mine has progressed and as I’ve seen more specialists, I’ve collected a nice array of conditions. Because I know my illness and understand what it can cause, I’m prepared for all of the co-morbid conditions it can bring on.

It’s never good news when I get another diagnosis, but I like to think that a diagnosis simply means we are moving forward towards treatments and answers, it doesn’t actually change anything symptom wise. I’m the same as I was before the diagnosis, I just have more answers and another syndrome/condition on my records. Usually a diagnosis actually brings me more relief because doctors actually start treating a conditions once it has a label and is no longer just unexplained symptoms.

I don’t mean to minimize the severity or seriousness of chronic illness; every illness I have I take very seriously and we treat each to the best of our ability. But after being sick for so, so long and being diagnosed with so many things, there is a desensitization to the process. Maybe it’s a protective mechanism, a coping mechanism, or maybe it’s just because it becomes your life, but just because I’m progressively ill doesn’t mean I have to let each diagnosis set me back.

Adventures of a Tubie

Have you ever had to make a decision between what may be smart or practical vs. what would make you happy or what would be fun? People often make these choices in small ways every day when it comes to choices about what’s for dinner, whether to study or go out with friends, what to wear, etc. One of the biggest lessons I have learned in my journey with chronic illnesses is that life is short and sometimes it’s worth a little bit of impracticality if you’re just in need of some fun.

I spend a lot of time taking care of myself and majority of the time my health comes first. I have a lot of doctors appointments and I spend anywhere from 16-20 hours a day hooked up to my IV pole on various tubes for infusions and feeds. I take countless daily and as needed medications and require a great deal of rest due to chronic fatigue and pain. That said, after a rough recent admission—which you can read about in a recent article here—my parents and I decided that I am in need of some fun.

I have some fabulous friends who live with similar health conditions that I do, but most of them live hours, states, and even countries away! Taylor is one of my best friends and she lives in Texas; she has two or three of the same conditions I have and has a feeding tube! Taylor came to visit me and our other friend, Macy, last summer and we had an amazing time! We have had two other trips planned but both fell through due to our health at the time.

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You’d never know each of us have tubes, central lines, and a handful of chronic illnesses! This time together was so precious.

Well, even though my health is not currently considered “good” or even stable, I’m going to go visit Taylor! I will fly to see her and spend a week with her in Texas! Considering most days I hardly leave my house right now, this is a huge undertaking for me, but it will be so good for my spirit. And although we are both in our early/mid twenties, Taylor and I are both quite sick and have similar restrictions so we will be good company for one another 🙂

I am so excited for this trip. I do have some anxiety about flying and traveling by myself and I know that I will need a long time to recover when I get home, but it is totally worth it. Although I can’t escape my body and my illnesses, I can take a small break from all of the stress that comes along with appointments, phone calls, insurance, etc. (or at least I can try!).

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Sometimes you just gotta pretend you’re a normal 21/24 year old and duck face it out 🙂

This trip does not mean I’m feeling better or I’m recovering, it just means I’m doing something that is fun and something that will make me happy. I’m taking time to be young and savor this part of my life as much as I can. We don’t have time to waste, so even if all Taylor and I do is watch movies and talk and nap, it is so worth it. Even if it takes me two months of sleeping when I get home, it is so worth it.

Don’t forget to choose the option that will make you happy sometimes, even if it may not be practical.

Thanks for reading.

xoxo

Happy Birthday, Mom!

I’ve always been told that I’m a lot like my mom. We are both strong willed (maybe stubborn), hardworking, and loving women. My mom is more free spirited and outgoing than I am and loves to be spontaneous; while I tend to like to have a plan, she’s always up for adventure. Although I’m slightly more “rational” as we put it, we both always look for the positive in the situations we are in and help each other hold on to hope.

I am so blessed to have a mother who not only went above and beyond in my childhood but who continues to care for me today– in my adulthood! Not everyone is lucky enough to have even half of that.

My mom goes above and beyond each day to help me and my sisters be as healthy and as happy as we can. She works a full time job and parents full time for 3 of us! Having a grown child who is as sick as I am is more than a full time job in itself, yet she manages a job and my sisters as well. Of course having a wonderful husband and father helps, too 🙂

Although my mom never planned for it, she has become my at home nurse. She overcame her squeamish side and learned how to change a port needle, prep feeds and fluids, handle all of my feeding tube supplies, deal with my fainting, and so much more. She’s incredible.

My mom is also one of the strongest women I know, both emotionally and physically! Neither one of us is great with expressing ourselves emotionally, but she’s been through so much yet remains so strong. She supports me and the rest of our family through everything and always advocates for us without hesitation.

I could go on and on about my mom and all of the amazing things she does, but this is a post to celebrate her birthday! So, happy birthday, Mom! I hope your day is fabulous. I love you so much. I wouldn’t be able to do this without you. Thank you for fighting beside me every day❤

My Little Sister

The day my little sister was born, two days after my 4th birthday, was one of the most exciting days ever – okay maybe just the most exciting I’d experienced so far in those four years, but that’s still pretty exciting. 😉 I loved dolls and dress up, so getting a baby to bring home—a real, live baby — was a dream come true!

I practically lived in Laura’s crib. I loved cuddling her and helping mom get her dressed, fed, and bathed. She was super exciting, even though she pretty much just slept, cried, ate, and pooped. (Sorry, Laura 🙂 ) I did, of course, have a little jealousy since I wasn’t the baby any more and I had to share everyone’s attention, but in general I loved the new baby.

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To the point, Laura’s all grown up now and today is her 17th birthday. I can’t believe what an incredible person she has become. If you know Laura, you know she’s full of spunk and passion. One of the things I admire most about Laura is that she is totally confident in who she is. She likes to be appreciated and recognized for what she does, but she doesn’t need approval from others to feel good about who she is. I wish everyone (including myself!) was that comfortable in their own skin. She also has such an incredible view on the world and always stands up for what she knows is right. Whether it is to a friend, a stranger, a teacher, or a parent, Laura always speaks her mind and she does so with great passion and articulation. She is brilliant with words and is strong enough to speak out—something else I, as a huge introvert, greatly admire about my younger sister.

Laura is beautiful both inside and out—she takes kick ass selfies, something I’ve always envied. 🙂 She is also full of compassion and love. Laura has grown up as the younger sister of a “sick kid,” which is an extremely difficult role to play. Since Laura was in middle school, she’s had to watch me be passed from doctor to doctor and grow sicker and sicker all while she is trying to live a normal life. The stress that puts on her is huge, but she handles it with such a great attitude.

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Because of my illness, my needs are often the priority in our family. My parents have to focus a lot of time and energy on me. They spend a lot of time taking me to appointments, helping me with medications and tube feeds, and doing other things that are required because of my health. Although my parents are incredible and juggle having both of us here at home so well, it is still really difficult on Laura. However, you hardly ever hear a negative word about this situation come from her.

Laura was supposed to be the only child left in the house when I graduated from high school 3 years ago, but instead, I got extremely sick (again) half way through my first year of college and had to come home. Since then, I’ve been at home and my illnesses have gotten progressively worse. For Laura, this means she has watched my health deteriorate over the last 4 years while she is just trying to make it through the crazy high school years.

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Laura has traveled to different states with me for doctors appointments, stayed with me countless days while I’ve been inpatient in the hospital, laid with me in bed when I was in too much pain to move, and literally picked me off the floor when I’ve fainted. She also regularly brushes and braids my hair when I’m too weak or tired to do it myself, she (and her boyfriend, Sam) pick me up or drive me places when I can’t drive, she gives me piggy-back rides to help me save my “spoons” (aka energy), and she is always looking out for me and making sure I’m as comfortable and cared for as possible. Laura is one of my biggest advocates and supporters through this crazy journey. She’s always spreading awareness and reminding people of how lucky they are to be able to eat or go to school or work when some people can’t do any of that because of illness. Laura has let this situation shape her into such a wise and mature person and I’m so proud of who she is becoming.

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Being the sister of a sick kid isn’t easy, but Laura is incredible and I’m so lucky to have her. Laura is often greeted with things like, “Hey! How is your sister?” or “Is Rachel feeling any better?” Although Laura knows why people so often ask about me, she struggles during my hard times, too. Being a loved one of someone who is so sick is extremely taxing, so I encourage everyone who knows Laura or anyone else with a sick sibling or child to ask them how they are and express interest in their lives before asking about the other person. Laura has a passion for animal rescue and regularly fosters dogs, she is a great artist and writer, and she loves her criminal justice classes and is looking forward to a career in that field. Laura is so smart and has such a great perspective on things; if you get a chance to have a real conversation with her, definitely take advantage of it.

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I’m so grateful to have Laura as my sister. Although my illness causes us all great stress and worry, it has also brought us closer as a family. Laura has become one of my care takers, my biggest support, and a best friend. Happy birthday, Laura! I love you to pieces!

Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome

Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) is a group of genetically inherited connective tissue disorders. EDS causes a severe defect in the production of collagen, which is the part of the connective tissue is what provides strength and elasticity to major structures in your body such as your skin, joints, and blood vessels. EDS can range from being mild to being life threatening from person to person.

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EDS mama and nurse 🙂

Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome is considered a rare disease, and although I have the most common type, EDS type 3 or hypermobility type, there is still a major lack in research and funding. There are six different types of EDS, some more severe than others. There is no cure for Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and very few treatment options.

EDS type 3 is diagnosed based on clinical evaluation and family history. Doctors look at joint hypermobility using a nine-point scale called the Beighton scale. I scored an 8/9 on my clinical evaluation, you generally need a 5 to be diagnosed, but it varies some. Other things they look for are easy bruising and scarring, stretchy and soft skin, subluxations and dislocations, joint and back pain, GI symptoms or bowel disorders, dental crowding, and postural orthostatic tachycardia. I have all of these symptoms and we found that my mom fits much of the criteria for EDS as well.

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My shoulder is in the process of sliding out of place in this photo, just because of how I was selfie-ing! Oops!

That’s a simple medical definition of EDS, but it is such a complex illness and causes daily symptoms and complications. In my case, we believe EDS is the underlying cause for many of my other conditions. It is likely that this genetic condition predisposed me to the autonomic dysfunction that led to Dysautonomia (POTS & NCS) as well as the failure of my GI tract. I have also been diagnosed with scoliosis, osteoporosis, and have suspected fibromyalgia that causes severe nerve pain throughout my body. My EDS causes severe joint pain and chronic back pain that often leaves me bed bound as well as constant subluxations and dislocations of my major joints such as my shoulders, knees, hips, thumbs, wrists, ribs, and collar bone. I rely on my feeding tube for nutrition and my port for hydration because my stomach and intestines/colon no longer function properly due to gastroparesis and generalized intestinal dysmotility.

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My feeding tube goes through my stomach and into my intestines so that I can bypass my stomach and receive nutrition.

Because I have low bone density (weak bones) and experience regular subluxations (joints popping in and out of place), I have to be extremely careful not to hurt myself. I can fracture bones much more easily than most and my skin bruises from things as simple as crossing my legs the wrong way or wearing boots for long periods of time. I used to be extremely active and adventurous and I loved to run and swim, but now I’m lucky to be able to take a short walk or do simple floor exercises a couple of days a week. My chronic fatigue syndrome leaves me in bed anywhere from 16-22 hours a day sleeping and resting and even when I’m awake I’m usually still just at home because of pain/nausea, daily migraines, and fatigue.

Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome has changed my life, just as it changes the lives of everyone else it affects. I have had to leave school and am unable to work due to high levels of daily pain, constant nausea, and extreme fatigue. One positive thing that has come from my diagnosis is the many friends I have been able to make from the online support communities that I joined once learning I had the condition. Making friends who are going through the same things that I am has been such a gift, even if most of them live in different states and even different countries.

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My first ever EDS friend! She also has gastroparesis and Dysautonomia/POTS just like me!

February 28th is rare disease day, so take time to be aware and spread awareness for rare conditions like Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome today. These conditions need more research, funding, and awareness so the millions of people living with rare conditions can move towards finding cures.

Upcoming Birthday

As my 21st birthday approaches (less than 2 weeks away!), I have been reflecting a lot on all that has changed this year and how crazy my journey with chronic illnesses has been. My life is so different from what I used to imagine it would be at this “milestone.” I never could have predicted the many things that have shaped me into who I am today, but I’ve made it another year and that’s something.

When I was younger, I always imagined my 21st birthday would be celebrated with food, friends, family, and of course, my first legal drink. I figured at this point in life I would be in college studying and living like a college student. I got one year in at UVA before taking medical leave; I am still working on getting back two years later. A part of me still feels like I am a first year at UVA, yet I see all of my friends getting ready to finish their third year! I can’t believe it.

This year, my illnesses have progressed to the point where I’m not able to intake almost anything orally, I have trouble even tolerating my tube feeds, and most days I spend much of my time in bed. My migraines make me extremely sensitive to sound and light so I get over stimulated very easily. I am 100% dependent on my feeding tube and my port for nutrition and hydration and I am on around the clock medications to try to control nausea and pain. My symptoms and lack of energy make it hard to plan ahead and make it so that I’m most comfortable just being at home.

My 21st birthday won’t be celebrated with food or alcohol. I likely won’t see friends or have any sort of “party.” My mother does like to try to be sneaky, so if you hear of any secret plans, feel free to inform me. I’m not a huge fan of surprises 😉  My birthdays now are usually a quiet affair celebrated with just my family. I don’t tell you this to complain, this is just how it is; for me, simple and peaceful is usually just right. Since I can’t eat and my energy levels are extremely low, I don’t require much. Chronic illnesses steal a lot from you, but they don’t have to prohibit you from having fun or enjoying special events.

Although my 21st birthday is not what I would have imagined it to be, and my life has taken some unexpected turns, I feel blessed just to be here and to have an incredible family here to help make the day as happy and celebratory as possible. My illnesses have taught me to be so appreciative and thankful for all of the small things in every day, and I know my birthday will be wonderful, even without cake or alcohol 😉

My Feeding Tube Journey

This week is Feeding Tube Awareness Week. As part of that, I decided to write a blog post about my journey as a “tubie.”

I got my first feeding tube in March of 2015. I had been battling with gastroparesis for just over a year at that point and was in my first year of college at UVA. Although typically you try a feeding tube before you resort to TPN (total parenteral nutrition—IV nutrition), I had already been on TPN for three months before this. Because I was hospitalized in December right around final exams and was supposed to return to school away from home, my doctors had placed a picc line in December in hopes that it would be short term and it would allow me to remain at school. However, when that line got infected in March and TPN was not working well, we decided to go ahead with a feeding tube.

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Picc Line AND NJ tube! Ick!

My hospital does a short-term trial run with an NJ (nasojejunal) tube before placing a long term GJ (gastrojejunostomy) tube surgically. For me this meant a two hospital stays, one for the trial run during which I had my NJ tube, a tube placed through my nose and down past my stomach into my intestine where we hoped I could tolerate feeds. Having this tube placed was one of the most uncomfortable procedures I had experienced up to that point. I was not sedated or medicated at all aside from some lidocaine ointment and they stuck the tube down my nose, past my throat and into my esophagus while I was choking and gagging, my nose bleeding, tears streaming down my face, and they kept telling me to sip on water and swallow and just hold on it’ll be over soon. Some people tolerate it fine, especially people without gag refluxes, but for me it was miserable. I could hardly talk or swallow for the two days they made me keep it in. So shout out to my many friends who have multiple, long-term NJ tubes, I don’t know how you do it.

The second hospital stay was for my surgery. They decided to place a low profile, mickey GJ button tube. I was lucky that I still saw my pediatric doctors, because they use these tubes on children and I am small enough to fit into them. Often, adults get long, dangling tubes called PEGJ tubes. My surgery was able to be done laparoscopically, but they placed the wrong size tube so the pain was much more than anticipated and we stayed in the hospital for a five days to try to manage that. I had to keep that tube in for 6 weeks for the tract to heal before switching it out for the right size and finally getting some relief.

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Tubie– this is about one year post op. I actually continued to lose weight for awhile.

I stayed in school for that semester anticipating that my feeding tube would improve my quality of life; in many ways, it did. However, my gastroparesis continued to progress and I had to make the decision to take time off from UVA and stay home the next fall. Although my feeds did help me gain some of my strength back, I didn’t end up tolerating them as well as we had hoped. It’s been quite a journey.

For a while I was able to get in almost 1,200 calories by tube every night. Because of my chronic fatigue and the amount of time I spend in bed, that was almost enough to get me by and I was still able to take in a few hundred calories by mouth. Over the first year or so, my tube feeding rate slowed down by about 40% and it took me much longer to get in what I needed and I often wasn’t able to finish feeds over night. But still, I was able to supplement some of what I needed by eating a few of my “safe” foods—potatoes, squash, simple carbs.

Other parts of tube life include daily maintenance like keeping drainage clean, flushing the tube every couple of hours so it doesn’t clog, and changing tubie pads or gauze. I deal with bloating, pain, and changes in how my tube has affected my self confidence and body image as well as adapting to how little control I have over what goes into my body.

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This is where I get my tube swapped out!

I also have to get my tube changed out every 3-6 months or every time it flips into my stomach or clogs. I can tell my tube has flipped into my stomach when my medications and feeds make me sick. When this happens, I have to schedule a time to get my tube fixed. When it is clogged, I have to call UVA and ask them to order a new tube. Sometimes it takes up to a week for them to get a new one and I go that long without receiving my feeds. (That happens to be the case this week!) I don’t get sedated for these tube swaps– some doctors use sedation, others don’t, mine just happens to be one who doesn’t. I get them done in radiology under imaging. They know me pretty well down there. It is an uncomfortable procedure but usually only takes between 30-60 minutes.

I’m about to hit my two year mark with my feeding tube and I now only tolerate a rate of 50ml an hour. That is almost half of what my goal rate was when I got my tube. My original diagnosis was gastroparesis, or paralysis of the stomach, but now my diagnosis has changed to Digestive Tract Paralysis (DTP) which means my dysmotility has moved into my lower GI system which makes tube feeding much more difficult. My colon is now greatly affected and my intestines are also delayed.

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This is the smart pill– a pill I swallowed and it tracked the movements of my GI tract and told us how each part worked (or didn’t 😉 ).

I recently switched formulas to a blended food formula in hopes that I will tolerate it better and it will make my body feel more human-like than my old formula that was full of preservatives and sugar. Sadly, I am not able to get in enough formula to gain weight. At this time, I also do not have any “safe foods” that I can intake orally to use to supplement my tube feeding. Because of this, my doctors talk about alternative options that could be in my future.

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My tube and my port peeking through!

My tube saves my life every day.  I rely on my tube and my port for 100% of my nutrition and hydration now. I can’t say I’m always thrilled about tube life, but I wouldn’t be here without it and I am so thankful for it. If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to ask!

Why I Sometimes Choose not to Listen to my Body

When you’re sick for a long period of time, you become very in tune with your body. I’ve learned how to listen to its cues and I can often tell what kind of day I’m going to have or when certain symptoms are escalating and I can then plan my day accordingly. However, I’ve also learned that sometimes it’s okay to hear my body out and then choose not to listen to it.

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A recent outing to visit a friend who has alpacas! One of my favorite animals 🙂

Right now I’m at a point in my illness where I don’t get many great days. I have days that are less symptomatic, sure. But every day I’m experiencing pain, severe nausea, migraines, and fatigue. I spend most of my time in bed, sleeping all night and much of the day. I am often pretty uncomfortable when I am up and moving around.

That said, when I get the opportunity to do something fun, sometimes I have to tell my body that I don’t care what it thinks, I’m just going to do it. For instance, my dad got 2 free tickets to the UVA basketball game this weekend and my little sister, who is a huge fan, couldn’t go. Obviously, I love UVA basketball, but events like that aren’t easy for me to attend. This is something that my dad and I used to love to do together and I haven’t been to a game since I was in school there two years ago, so I decided to fight my body and take advantage of the opportunity.

I’ve been in a flare up all week because it was an antibiotic treatment week and those always take a lot out of me. Because I’m low energy and high needs, preparation for me to go on an outing like this takes a lot more time and planning than it does for most people. I showered the night before because I always have to nap after showers—they exhaust me and always leave me with a migraine. When I woke up on Saturday morning (for the first time) I did a bag of IV fluids and did my morning meds a few hours earlier than normal because they make me sick to my stomach. I took three different nausea meds by 8:00am and made the final decision that I was going to go with Dad to the game. I stayed in bed finishing my tube feeds and trying to rest and control my pain/nausea until about 11am—the game was at 2pm.

As I said, for me, this game is a huge outing. So, I had to take enough nausea medication to last me at least 6 hours, pain medication, migraine meds, and all of the other supplies that go along with my tube and port. I also take sunglasses and a mask for the car because of my light sensitivity, a heating pad, lidocaine patches on my back and my stomach, and lots of germ-x! I’m nearly 21 years old, but packing me up for a day trip is comparable to packing up a baby’s diaper bag, just swap diapers and toys for medical paraphernalia.

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Yay! We made it!

I love getting out and doing things that I loved doing before I got sick, but as you can see, it is quite a process now. Going to this game will likely land me in bed for days recovering from using so much energy and being so over stimulated, but being there reminded me how much love I have for UVA and getting out and having quality time with my dad that wasn’t a road trip to a doctors appointment was such a gift. I’m blessed to have a family that works hard to help me be able to have fun outings like this every now and then.

Some days, chronic illnesses just don’t get to win.

Brain Fog

So I haven’t posted a blog in a couple of weeks and although I’m sure in this busy season of life most of you haven’t even noticed, I decided to give you an idea as to why it is that I haven’t been posting.

The last few weeks – or really the last couple of months—have been really challenging for me health wise. Winter has always been my worst season, especially for my gastroparesis. I’ve been spending anywhere from 16-22 hours in bed every day, my pain and nausea levels have been through the roof, and I’ve been having migraines literally every day.

Aside from being in a major flare up of all of my physical symptoms, I’ve been struggling big time with my brain fog; that’s what I want to talk about today. When I tell people I have this elusive symptom called “brain fog,” they often just blow it off and think I simply mean I’m tired, lazy, or forgetful. But brain fog is a real symptom of my condition(s) and it has seriously affected my life since getting sick.

The medical term for brain fog is cognitive impairment. The most common symptom, and the one I struggle with the most, is difficulty with word finding. Essentially, I know exactly what I want to say but I have no idea what words to use to say it. I forget simple words used to form sentences, names of objects, places, and even names of people. I often have trouble forming sentences and finishing thoughts. This makes holding a conversation — or writing a blog! — very difficult at times.

Other symptoms of brain fog include short-term memory loss, decreased concentration, and fatigue especially after mental exertion. For example, when I am reading a book I often find that I have no idea what the page I just read said. Although I’m sure that many people find they have this problem, its not because I was day dreaming or because I don’t like my book, its just because my fatigue and my fuzzy brain can’t keep up. I also couldn’t tell you the name of the book I’m reading right now if my life depended on it nor could I tell you the names of my favorite movies, books, or often even my favorite actors or authors.

These symptoms make school extremely difficult for me and for many other patients who live with POTS and other conditions that cause brain fog. Imagine trying to write an essay (hopefully you can find words in your fuzzy head) on a book you can hardly even remember reading. It again also makes conversations hard because when people ask me simple questions like, “Who’s your favorite actor?” or “What movies have you watched recently?” I often have no good answer for them when I’m put on the spot.

A few of the other symptoms of brain fog include difficulty multitasking, blurred vision, headaches, and difficulty working with numbers. Not everyone has all of the symptoms and there are others I didn’t mention, but now you have a general idea! Research states that up to 96% of patients with my form of Dysautonomia have brain fog.

My brain fog gets worse on days when I’m more fatigued or have over exerted myself (which doesn’t take much!). It is also made worse by certain medications that have side effects like drowsiness or lightheadedness. When I’m tired and having a conversation with someone who doesn’t know about my condition and how it affects my ability to find words, I can get extremely flustered and overwhelmed.

I used to be extremely articulate and I had a great vocabulary so it can be weird for me to talk to someone who knew me before I got sick because they often aren’t aware of how my condition affects that part of my brain. Brain fog is an extremely frustrating symptom of Dysautonomia and it is so much more debilitating than one might think. I know my brain function is in there somewhere, but it often hides and doesn’t work as well as I’d like it to.

I’ve learned to cope with brain fog, but it has taught me that you can be robbed of any part of yourself at any point in life, whether it be your vocabulary, your ability to form sentences, your memory, your ability to consume food, your ability to walk, your ability to see, etc. There are a million things we take for granted each day, and the only time you will truly start to look back on it is when you lose one of these things.

I know I say it all the time, but I continue to encourage you to take nothing for granted and love others unconditionally. Don’t judge someone before you know their story. Brain fog is a real symptom and it affects me every day. Many people don’t believe that, but that’s just because they’ve never walked a day in the life of someone living with it.