My Holiday Inspiration

I was listening to a Christmas CD tonight while I was painting and I was struck by the lyrics of one song in particular. I don’t know what everyone else thinks or feels about this season (and really any time of the year), but I’m a strong believer in the power of love and this song just really hit home for me.

The song said, “The story of hope and joy and peace…. let anger and fear and hate disappear and let there be love that lasts through the year.” (Alan Jackson- Let it be Christmas)

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Christmas Paintings!

Maybe it’s just because I’m exhausted and emotional from post surgical pain, medications/side effects, and insomnia, but this just made me stop what I was doing and really ponder and appreciate. Christmas is my favorite time of the year, but it’s not always a picture perfect holiday. We’ve dealt with years of illness, our fair share of (extended) family drama and arguments, tears on Christmas Eve, and anything else a “normal” family (hah, normal?) may see. However, in the end, we come together and we celebrate love and we spend time together and that’s what matters.

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The day after hearing that song, my good friend posted this amazing post on Facebook about love and family and again I was just struck with how much I related to that post and how again the power of love was shining through and someone else was recognizing and sharing that. I’d like to share that post with you…

” People always ask me how I stay so strong and how I’m so positive. Well, I’m not always strong and sometimes I feel like nothing will ever be okay, but I’ll let you in on a little secret. I was born into a family of warriors. After each punch life throws at us, we help each other up and we battle it together. No one fights alone and every one of us has scars of courage to prove it. At the end of the day, our love outshines any cloud of darkness. Together we can do anything through love.”
-Carolanne Monteleone

My family and I (parents and sisters) have been through hell and back just trying to stay on our feet through each “punch”, each trial we’ve been through, but the key to that is that WE go through each trial. Together. I am never alone through this long and challenging journey I am on because I know my family will never leave my side. Sadly, I am one of the lucky ones; I’ve seen first hand that not everyone, not even every family member, works that way.

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Decorated IV pole

Love is one of the most powerful emotions a person can experience. It can make you do crazy things, but it also brings about the best things in life. To love unconditionally and to be loved unconditionally is one of the best gifts you could ask for, and you rarely find that outside of your family (until you get really lucky 🙂 ).

Families should always share unconditional love– parents, spouses, siblings, grandparents, cousins, everyone included! Life is short. Life is full of ups and downs, arguments, differing opinions, heart break, annoyances, cold shoulders, and regrettable moments, but it’s also full of laughter, hugs, big smiles, great photographable moments, tons of joy, milestone moments, and most importantly… LOVE. So why do we waste so much time being angry? Holding grudges? Arguing over the past? We should be together celebrating, making memories, being joyful, sharing happiness and love.

This Christmas season I urge you to love unconditionally. Find forgiveness in your heart for those who have wronged you. Don’t ever take being treated for less than you deserve, but always remember that life is short and relationships with loved ones are precious. Let only positive thoughts into your mind and share those positive thoughts with others; always try to focus on the good, there is so much of it.

Spread love. Laugh endlessly. Find your happy and share it with your loved ones.

Happy Holidays!

Recovery and Discovery: A New Idea

My recovery process from having my new feeding tube placed (switching from a GJ to two separate tubes, a g and a j tube) has been really challenging. Due to some surgical complications and my connective tissue disorder, healing has been difficult and I’m still in a lot of pain. I’m lucky, though, because I have an amazing support team at home who are here for me and care for me no matter how long it takes; not everyone has that.

Because I’ve been having such a rough time healing and I’ve been in bed for so much of the last 4 weeks I’ve had a lot of time to think; through the online support communities I’ve seen so many people go through these diagnoses and tube placements alone. I just can’t stand to think of how terrible it must be to have to be your own support system in times like this; for two weeks I couldn’t even get out of bed or walk on my own, I still can’t bathe on my own or prep all my meds, feeds, and fluids. I’m dependent on my parents for almost everything, for individuals who have to have tubes placed and don’t have support systems and don’t know much about feeding tubes (who does if you’ve never had one, been on the online pages, or had a loved one with one?), this can be an extremely scary and challenging adjustment.

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My support system 😉

What I’ve decided to do is start an organization/nonprofit that sends packages to new tubies—people who are getting their first feeding tube placed—so that we can give them some comfort and some of the “tubie essentials” to get started with. This would include things like tubie pads, microwaveable heating pads, cute masks, pill crushers/sorters, journals to write symptoms in, allergen free, natural soaps, bath bombs, etc. I’ve compiled a list with more products, but we are looking for anything comforting for someone who just came out of a tube surgery (no food!).

Right now, this project is in the “just a dream/just getting started” period as we try to find people willing to donate products to our cause. We are asking small, spoonie geared businesses as well as local businesses who make things like soaps, hats, blankets, etc. So, if you have any interest or know someone who might, please let me know! There’s absolutely no pressure to donate, though!

I will also be putting the profits from my paintings into this project (once I turn a profit!), so if you’re interested in looking at my art, please do! It’s posted on my blog in the lifestyle section under “My Art” 🙂

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I wanted to share this with you all as it will be something I’m working on a lot for now, so I’ll try to keep you posted! This is a way for me to help others and be productive while hardly leaving my room—as long as we find donors! So thank you so much for reading and I can’t wait to see where this is next time I update you!

 

Battling Gastroparesis: Happy Awareness Month!

In December of 2013 I was diagnosed with gastroparesis. Like majority of people, I had no idea what that was or what the diagnosis meant for my future.

When I got my diagnosis I was given minimal information about the condition, and because I didn’t know what it was back then, I didn’t know I wasn’t getting the full picture. I was told I had delayed movement in my stomach, it wasn’t emptying food like it should be. They told me gastroparesis is a chronic condition but since mine is what they call “idiopathic” or without findable cause, it was likely post-viral and would go away within a year or 18 months.

This discussion, my original gastroparesis diagnosis, lasted only minutes, and I was left to figure out most of it on my own. My parents and I left that hospital thinking I just had to get through this flare up and then it would hopefully go away for good. I had no idea on that day 4 years ago just how much gastroparesis was going to change my life.

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Some more info about GP– symptoms especially! And yes, that is my tube and a donut tubie pad!

Since my diagnosis in 2013, I have had countless tests and tried endless treatments, medications, diets, and therapies. Gastroparesis is extremely difficult to treat and there is no cure. In 2016 we found out that my dysmotility (movement disorder) had moved into my intestine and colon as well, so that became a major complication. Luckily at this point my parents and I had become experts on my conditions; after my original diagnosis we started to learn how to do our own research, we joined online support communities, and we went to see specialists who could give us more information about my conditions and prognoses as I was diagnosed with more conditions down the road.

The journey you go through when living with gastroparesis and generalized dysmotility is extremely taxing on both your body and mind; it’s exhausting and disappointing to try and try again and often get little to no relief. But, we have to keep trying in hopes that one day we will find the right treatment and hopefully a cure.

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As part of awareness month, I want to give you a glimpse at what it’s like going through testing and treatment with gastroparesis, so I’m going to list some of the tests, procedures, and treatments I’ve tried over my time with GP.

I was originally diagnosed with an Upper GI series, an endoscopy, and a 90 minute gastric emptying scan. Since then, I’ve had 3 more 4 hour emptying scans, multiple endoscopies, countless EKGs, lots of ultrasounds, endless x-rays, a breath test (SIBO), esophageal manometry, anal manometry, smart pill test, CT scans, MRIs, and so much more. And these are only the tests that have to do with GP—not my other conditions.

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I’ve tried physical therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, acupuncture, dry needling, chiropractors, and essential oils. I try keeping up with walking and core strength and I keep a positive mind set—no one can tell me I’m sick because I’m depressed! 😉 I’ve even read mindfulness books and watched documentaries on how to “heal your body,” although I wasn’t 100% sure about that one!

When I was able to eat, I’ve also tried a lot of diet adaptation. I was on the BRATS diet, low FODMAP diet, gluten free, dairy free, a gastroparesis diet, a liquid diet more than once, and I’ve been on both TPN and tube feeds. As of now I am completely dependent on my feeding tube for nutrition and my port for IV fluids daily.

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I stared with a picc line for TPN, then I had an NJ tube for a trial run with tube feeds before quickly deciding to have a GJ tube placed surgically in March of 2015. Since then, I’ve had my tube changed out over 26 times in IR due to either clogs, having it flipped into my stomach, or just needing a new tube (every 3-5 months). I also had a port a cath placed in August of 2016 and have that accessed 24/7 for fluids and nausea medication.

I won’t even list all of the medications I’ve tried because that’s just a ridiculous number and I don’t think you or I have the attention span for that. But you name a motility agent, a nausea med, a non FDA approved trial drug for GP, or pretty much anything used to control symptoms or promote motility or hunger and I’ve almost definitely either tried it or discussed it with my doctors and ruled it out as an option.

 

Over these (almost) four years I went from being able to manage my symptoms with a specialized diet and nausea medications to not being able to eat at all. Gastroparesis and generalized dysmotility are cruel illnesses, and paired with my genetic condition, Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, they’re relentless and grievous. My condition has progressed to a very serious level and I’ve tried most of the options available to me.

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Learning to embrace my medical devices 🙂 there should be no shame or shyness towards life saving devices like tubes and central lines!

Almost a year ago I saw my motility specialist at Cleveland Clinic, a man who is considered to be the best of the best, and he gave me three options. We’ve ruled it down to one option, but sadly insurance isn’t thrilled with it. 9 months later and we are still fighting for it. But we won’t give up. Gastroparesis won’t win this fight.

Happy Awareness Month! Keep your eyes out for more posts from me and others as we try to spread awareness and work our way towards a much needed cure!

Xoxo

R

 

Ehlers Danlos Syndrome: When Things Went From “Promising” to “Progressive”

I was diagnosed with my first “real” chronic illness at age 16. In reality, I had been having symptoms for a long time, but they had always been passed off as hormonal symptoms, asthma, growing pains, etc. At the start of my junior year of high school I was diagnosed with Dysautonomia/POTS along with three other types of tachycardia and Occipital Neuralgia. I was experiencing severe, daily headaches, chronic fatigue, hypotension, tachycardia, pain, and a myriad of other symptoms. Although the doctors I was seeing did tell me that these illnesses were chronic, they also told me that because of my age and how the illnesses presented there was a high likelihood that I would grow out of them by the time I was in my early 20s. Although I was struggling at the time and had to change many aspects of my lifestyle to cope with these new symptoms, my parents and I had hope that this was only temporary and we would see improvement.

About a year later when I had just started my senior year of high school I was just getting over pneumonia when I started seeing an increase in my fainting and then began having gastrointestinal symptoms. Within a few weeks I went from vomiting once or twice a day to not being able to keep down any of my meals. By November I was taken out of school and placed on homebound due to my inability to attend classes regularly; my state of health was in rapid decline. In December I was admitted to UVA hospital where they were finally able to put a name to what was going on… gastroparesis. My stomach was essentially paralyzed and had stopped being able to process or move food through. At the time they told me it was a chronic condition but that in young people with no other pre-existing conditions it is often post viral and will go into remission or can even go away completely within 9-18 months. They fully expected me to fall into this category and told me that adjusting my diet and taking nausea medication should get me through until this time passed.

Although I did see temporary improvement with my gastroparesis, it obviously did not pass. About a year after my diagnosis I had my second “flare up” and ended up re-hospitalized at UVA and eventually ended up with both a central line and a feeding tube. After seeing multiple specialists including cardiologists, electrophysiologists, motility specialists, neurologists, GI doctors, a psychiatrist, rheumatologists, dysautonomia specialists, and I’m sure I’m missing something, I ended up finding out that my POTS and my GI dysmotility/gastroparesis is likely all caused by a genetic condition called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS). This diagnosis is what changed the dialogue surrounding my health.

EDS is a group of connective tissue disorders that are passed down genetically and cause a defect in the collagen in our bodies. I have hEDS (previously EDS type 3), which is also known as hypermobile EDS because one of the most distinctive factors is having hypermobile joints (having hypermobile or double jointed joints does not mean you have this condition, so don’t worry!). Because of my collagen defect, my joints are loose and my connective tissue is “stretchy,” leaving me with joints that sublux or pop out of place frequently and are prone to dislocation, skin that is stretchy and bruises and scars easily, and a body that bends and folds in funky ways. EDS also causes me extreme pain almost 24/7, it has caused osteoporosis to develop at age 20, led to chronic nerve pain, and it affects every part of my body down to my eyesight, my hair and nails, and my organs.

For me, EDS is the most likely cause of the autonomic failure that has caused my Dysautonomia as well as the cause of the failure of my GI tract. The tests I had done last fall showed that my entire GI tract is now affected, meaning the paralysis and dysmotility has moved beyond my stomach and into my intestines and my colon. Sadly, EDS is a lifelong condition that has no cure and very few treatments. When I got diagnosed with EDS, doctors stopped talking about growing out of it and starting talking about “comfort” and “symptom management.” The dialogue changed and things got a lot more serious. We have a lot of hope for improvement in my symptoms and my quality of life and we hope every day that someone will discover more answers for me and everyone else who is living with these illnesses, but EDS changed the game for me.

I don’t write this to scare you or ask for pity, I write it because it’s awareness month and I think it’s important to understand that there are illnesses out there that go unnoticed and unfunded and you only hear about it when it hits someone close to you. Heck, I had no idea what gastroparesis, POTS, or EDS was until I got diagnosed, but now my life is literally forever changed by them and even I don’t have answers. Doctors don’t have answers. So I write, I share what I do know, and I hope that maybe the next girl will find out a little sooner or find the right doctors a little faster. Awareness is important, so thank you for reading and thank you for sharing!

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

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.