Documentation — Long time? Timeline!

I collected health info on others for years. I’m what clinicians call “a good historian” — and in the health context, it means someone who can tell you exactly what happened to them and when it happened, and they turn out to be right.

This is fine… as long as I can keep track, and as long as the story is short enough for someone else to remember after a single telling.

cartoon of surgeon hiding a saw behind his back.
They aren’t always paying attention.

This isn’t going to remain true for any case over a couple of years in the making, and certainly not for a case that even started out with multiple diagnoses: volar ganglion, tendonitis, and repetitive strain.

When I noticed that a doctor’s eyes were glazing 5 minutes into my recital of events, I knew I had to do this differently.

I started keeping a timeline. It was a nuisance to set up, because I got injured at work, and U.S. law doesn’t necessarily allow me to get copies of my records under those circumstances.

So I drafted my first timeline from memory, journal entries, and my datebook, and asked my doctor’s staff, as sweetly as possible, to please check the dates for me. They loved the timeline and were happy to do so.

As you can see, this is before I had a lawyer, and reflected my personal tendency towards information overload:

First 2 pages of first timeline
Click to link to the 3-page PDF.

As you can see, I decided to keep my timeline in a table. I found that to be the most natural way for me to organize the layers of information in a readable way. But then, I had just finished hand-coding and debugging about 21 pages of HTML tables in raw markup. Tables were easy for me!

To some people, a table of text just looks like word salad.

 

I can understand that.

 

There are other ways to organize information: brain maps, fishbone diagrams, bullet lists with nested lists, even labeled images linked together. Search any of those terms, or even terms like “information architecture” or “flow charts”, to look for ideas.

I took a later version of this to my first QME (QME=Qualified Medical Examiner, a consultant called upon when a U.S. insurance company disputes care in an injured-worker case.) Bless his stern and rock-bound heart, he gave me excellent advice. Here it is, as close to his wording as I remember:

  • “Leave out the insurance stuff. It’s not my department. It’s distracting, annoying, and clutters up the timeline for me.”
    (I was not offended, because I’ve worked with a lot of hotshot doctors. I fully expected the brusqueness and just listened to the words for information. That information was pure gold.)
  • “In fact, thin this out a lot. I want facts, data, not suppositions or what you read. I want to know exactly what happened to you and what your doctors said or did. Everything else is filler. I’m a doctor, so doctors’ ideas are what I care about.”
    (That was frank! And an excellent statement of inherent bias, which I really appreciated knowing up-front.)
  • “Take out the personal impact? No! No. I want that in there. It tells me how this really affects your life, and I should know that.”
    (He was almost human when he looked at me then. It was a cool moment.)
  • “But I DO want the personal impact to be visually distinctive, so I can screen it out when I’m looking for the medical part alone.”
    (That’s fair.)
  • “I’d also like to be able to find your work status more easily. This is a worker’s compensation case, after all.”
    (Good point.)

That man should advise more designers. He’s retired from his medical career now, and I hope he’s enjoying himself immensely.

My next timeline, for my next QME, was much leaner and it distinguished between three key types of info: straight medical information, work status, and personal impact.

timeline-beta
Click for the full PDF.

Did you notice how the hand images I wrote about before are referenced right in the timeline? This is a great way to build your case. The pictures kick the message of your disease progress and your needs right through concrete.

Incidentally, this uses mutually-reinforcing teaching principles: multiple sensory inputs, plus multiple paths to the same info, equals excellent retention. Your doctors will really be able to remember what your case looked like and what happened along the way, what worked and what didn’t.

Dr. F was pleased to see the table and thought it was basically a good idea, but looking at it through 78-year-old eyes was a different experience. He gave me his own feedback, speaking as someone who had gone through more medical records and had more problematic vision than anyone who’d looked at it yet:

  • “Yes, it’s nice that you picked out the work status, but I want to be able to see surgeries, x-rays, the really important stuff, just as easily. No, even more easily.”

I picked those out in bold and flagged them in the left column:

timeline-gamma
Click for a closer look at the PDF.

Before long, I learned to condense multiple entries so I could use one row for several visits that were about one issue, or where there wasn’t much change:
timeline-condensed
Then I saw a doctor who had more human sensibilities. He said,

  • “Why not use colors? I want to see surgeries and tests in different colors.”

I asked, “Do you want the different kinds of tests in different colors, so you can distinguish Xrays from MRIs from nerve studies at a glance?”

  • “No, no, that’s too much. I can read EMG versus MRI; I don’t want too many colors. I want the surgeries to really stand out, though. Put them in red.
  • “And I want to see the legal pivot-points, too, because that affects your case.”

Easy enough.

timeline-colors
Click for pretty colors. subtly used, in the PDF.

Then the first page grew legs. Someone along the line said,

  • “One more thing. I’d really like to see your allergies and medical-surgical history immediately. If you could put that up front on this, that would give me the most critical medical information right off.”

That was a real forehead-smacker for me…

I used to be a triage nurse. I used to collect certain information on every patient I saw, regardless of age, sex, race, or what they came in with.

TRIAGE INFORMATION:
– Name, date of birth.
– Any medical diagnoses.
– Any surgery, with dates.
– Current medications and doses (if they recall), and what they take it for. (This fills in a lot of holes on the medical and surgical stuff — you’d be surprised what people forget. “Oh yeah, my heart stopped last month.” Good to know!)
– Allergies — and what the reaction is (because there’s a world of difference between something that gives you a stomachache and one that stops your breathing, and we need to know this if it winds up in the air or, heaven forbid, the IV line.)

This is basic. This is absolutely basic. It’s essential information that should be immediately surfaced on every patient’s chart. How could I take for granted that it would be easy to find in my medical record? The whole point of needing the timeline is that, after a couple of years, my medical record was a mess!

Also, after years of popping from one specialist/QME/consultant to another, I got tired of having to dig out the same demographic and billing information every time they had to generate a new chart.

I had a brainstorm: make the first page into a billing/demographic sheet, add the triage information, and start the table on its own page after that.

It all goes together on the medical chart anyway, and one of the unsung truths of medical care is this: make life easier for the desk staff, and they will make life easier for you.

timeline-coverpage
Click to see how I organized this info. PDF format.

After all this time, I can put my whole history with this disease into one single document that totals 10 pages.

  1. The first sheet has my contact, billing, and demographic info.
  2. The second has my more-extensive medical/surgical history, medications and yet more allergies, and priority notes, highlighting my CNS sensitivity and emphasizing that cognition matters most.
  3. The rest tells all the key points of 14, yes, 14 YEARS of injury and disease, in only seven and a half pages.

Here is the final result:
timeline-current
Every doctor, with one exception, who has seen this, has cooed — literally, cooed — with delight. They ask if they can keep it (I tell them to put it in my chart, so they can always find it. “Ooo, great!” they say.)

This one doctor looked at it, laughed rather sardonically, and said, “You spend way too much time on this.”

Clinical note: For the record, that is not an acceptable response. What clinician makes progress by dissing patients on the first visit? Right. None. The thing to do here is ASK; in this case, ASK how much time this patient put into creating the documentation. The answer certainly surprised this one.

I set him straight, in my sweetest tone of voice. I said, “After the initial setup, it requires only a couple of minutes of maintenance every few months. That’s it. Moreover, you’re forgetting that I used to be an RN and a software documentation writer; this information is easy for me to understand and easy for me to organize. If I CAN’T do this [gesturing to the document in his hand], you need to check for a pulse.”

He never sassed me again.

However, most of what I told him is true for all of us.

We are the subject-matter experts on our own bodies. Never forget this and never let anyone tell you otherwise, because they are wrong. You ARE the subject matter expert on your own life. Nobody else really knows how you feel or what you’ve been through.

 

It’s in your power to communicate that clearly enough to work with. It’s just a matter of figuring out how.

Once you get a timeline set up and put in the key events so far, it takes very little to maintain. I update mine before every key doctor visit — when I see a new one or when I need to see a QME or, of course, when I think a doc is losing the plot.

It takes me less than half an hour to update contact info, meds, and current entries, and I do that once or twice a year now. That’s a great effort/benefit trade-off!

Moreover, keeping a timeline has life-changing benefits besides simplifying explanations to my doctors. Every long-term patient can see how utterly transformative these changes can be:

  • The doctors take me and my case absolutely seriously from the get-go (or else it’s obvious right off that this person is never going to, and I need to move on. That saves time!) It stops arguments and attitudes before they even start. It makes me almost human in any good physician’s eyes, and that’s nearly a miracle, because, generally, they can’t emotionally afford to think of their pain patients as human. (This explains a lot.)
  • My medical records are a lot more accurate, because the providers writing them have this great cheat-sheet right there to help them stay on track and keep their facts straight. This has saved me more grief, bad treatments, misapplied care, getting meds I’m allergic to, and chasing red-herring issues with the insurance company, than I could ever count.
  • I can keep my limited brain-space free for handling the appointment and looking ahead, instead of trying to wrestle my complex history into shape. This makes my visits a lot more valuable to all concerned.

I consider my timelines to be worth roughly 1,000 times their weight in plutonium. A little bit of effort has paid off thousands of times over, and made it immeasurably easier to keep this messy, protracted, brutally complex case on track for nearly one and a half decades.

Now that’s a good trick!

clip-art-dancing-755667

Timeline Tips:

  • Put your name and the date on every page.
  • Put triage information (in second blockquote above) at the top.
  • Highlight surgeries and invasive procedures in bold and red.
  • Highlight tests and noninvasive procedures in a different color or style.
  • Highlight life impact, but keep it separate from medical info.
  • Attach the relevant doctor’s name to each procedure, diagnosis, or consultation.
  • Track adverse events.

Remember, this and all my blog work is under a Creative Commons Share-Alike Attribution license: do anything you want with it, as long as you don’t keep others from using it. I’d love it if you’d credit me with my work, but don’t let that slow you down.

Use it. Share it. Spread it around.

Bien approveche — may it do you good 🙂

Share this article:

Documentation – a picture’s worth a thousand words

Doctors believe what they see.The training they get and the laws they must follow all reinforce that. If they see it themselves, then it’s real; if they only hear about it, it’s hearsay, which is much less believable.

This is why it’s hard for us, as chronic pain patients with all sorts of hidden issues, not to come off as shrill and demanding: we expect them to believe what we say, and they find that outstandingly hard. It goes against everything they really know.

Therefore, show them. Put it in pictures, put it in print, and watch their expressions change before your very eyes.

sketch of excessively happy doctor running with a hypodermic needle
They should always move with such alacrity and glee 🙂

This is the first in a series of posts about the documentation that I’ve used over the years. I’m starting with the time I got tired of pointing to my arm and saying, “Well, it was like this (gestures) last week and it’s like this (different gestures) most of the time this week. It’s only blue because of the cold.” And then he couldn’t remember what I said it looked like a week ago.

No help at all.

So I went home, put my hand and forearm on a piece of paper, and drew an outline around it. I came up with a set of symbols to show what I needed to track, and marked up the outline accordingly.

As my situation changed from week to week and month to month, I grabbed paper, put my arm on it, drew another outline (I really should have made blank copies), and filled it in with the current state of my arm.

Lo and behold, I hardly had to say a thing. One doctor looked over my stack of images and said, “Wow. They really tell the whole story, don’t they? I hardly need to look at the medical record.” He did anyway, but was pretty quick.

My office visits were a lot more productive after I started keeping those pictures. I called them “snapshots” and collected quite a few of them before the case became too complex and moved into different territory. (More on that later.)

Here’s the key I came up with to explain the symbols I used for the symptoms I had at the time:

6 different scribbles to show 6 different signs and symptoms
key to snapshot scribbles

As you can see, I just scribbled patterns which I found easy to remember. Nothing fancy.

Each sign is distinct from the others, except for the two strengths of “bruising” (I now know that that was CRPS discoloration), which are the same symbol at different densities. Makes sense, right?

Here are the first 3 images, and what made the difference between them:

Baseline, after working as best I could with the injuries:

sketch of hand that shows extensive pain and bruising.
My first stab at this. What can I say? I was a writer and musician, so I took my hands very seriously.

After about 4 weeks off duty, resting and recuperating:

sketch of hand showing very little pain or discoloration.
It took 2 weeks just to relax, but I succeeded.

After 1 single week back at work on restricted duty:

sketch of hand showing pain and discoloration going further up the forearm than ever before
Yeah. Sucks, huh?

That doctor was right. They really do tell the whole story.

See how easy that was? 🙂 All it took was a pen, paper, and a few notes.

Here are some tips:

  • Put the date and your name on every single one, always.
  • Be consistent about how you label things. They don’t need to learn different labeling systems, they need to learn your case’s course over time.
  • This is a good place to note your pain ratings.I annotated my snapshots with current pain range (at rest and on exertion), bullet points and narrative notes, but it took awhile to learn to keep those annotations very short and to the point.

I scanned all the snapshots into my hard drive, so I can recreate these at any time. I find it very useful when breaking in a new team, because the story told by my first few years of pictures really does tell the key parts of those first few years. They “hardly have to look at the medical record” to understand — and remember! — what happened.

Plus, you clearly don’t have to be an artist to make these pictures accurate and useful 🙂 If tracing around your own limb is too painful or awkward, there’s no reason not to ask someone else to do theirs. Alternatively, you could take a photograph and use image-editing software (available with your camera, or for free or cheap online) to mark the image with your signs and symptoms.

There are lots of ways to get these images going, with any set of tools. And boy, are they ever worth it.

As a point of interest, the freeware I use for editing images is called Gimp. Perfect tool-name for someone like me, eh?

Share this article:

On sleeping despite all this

This is a brain-dump from a recent social-media post. Since the same question was asked 3 times in one day on my groups, I figured I might as well put it all right here and link …

Stylized image of woman asleep with enormous red and black dress billowing around and supporting her. White snow falls from a deep blue sky

I used to be a night shift nurse and a home care nurse. Boy, do I have advice about helping your body sleep. Pick and choose what to start with and try as many of these ideas as you want, until it starts coming together and working well for you:

* Positioning. (Old nurses and physical therapists can be really good at this — we don’t get to write prescriptions, so we have to go with what really works and has no side effects. Oops, did I say that out loud?) Invest in enough pillows that you can, as needed, elevate appropriate limbs; support your neck; cradle your head; support your back and hips; pad your knees; get your upper body at a good enough angle so your blood doesn’t pool too much in your head; if you’re a tummy-sleeper, this can be really interesting because you need to slant your whole body from the knees up. Positioning, and the pillows/towels/blankets that requires, is generally the first thing to address.

* Have a regular bedtime routine. This gives your body and brain a consistent, reliable set of cues that it’s getting towards That Time. Our too-plastic brains need to be constantly retrained. Mine starts about an hour and a half before bedtime; I would do well to move it up to 2 hours,, as my descent into sleep is iffy.

* Turn off electronics (TV, phone, interwebby stuff) 1.5-3 hours before bed. There are several reasons for this: multisensory stimulation, EM activation, input from the outside world beyond your control, input you need to react to or decide not to react to (all of which suck up neurotransmitters.) All of this cranks up the primitive brain. Mine goes off around 8-8:30 pm.

* Listen to soothing, calming music for an hour or two before bed. I love classical chamber music, especially Mozart, Bach, Schubert, Rachmaninov, Pachelbel – elegant but not too emotional. Soft jazz or soft rock are also good for those who don’t care for classical. The brain patterns readily to music, so this is like free help.

* Speaking as a night shift nurse, I have to say that chamomile tea is the best, bar none, the BEST way to get the squirrels off the wheel. It doesn’t make you feel as “different” as sleeping pills do, so many people under-rate it dramatically. I noticed that most of my patients couldn’t even get halfway down the mug before they passed out completely, so I know it works objectively, even if it isn’t dramatic subjectively.

* Tulsi, or holy basil (Latin name occinum sanctum), is an herb from India that actually lowers cortisol. (It was used to teach novice monks what a calm mind feels like, so they could get it together with their meditation.) If you get that pop-awake in the wee hours, that’s probably cortisol, and tulsi at bedtime can do a lot of good.

* Ashwaganda has similar abilities, but I haven’t used it much so I haven’t studied it. See what you think. Some teas have both.

* All major herbal traditions have herbs that help. Tulsi and chamomile work best for me, but valerian works for others. I find hops stimulating, and wouldn’t go near poppy or belladonna because of my CNS sensitivities. Those with migraines, central nervous system and some vascular issues need to check twice before using some hypnotic herbs… This is well worth discussing with an herbalist, because they can make all the difference if you get the right recipe.

* Melatonin can help, too. There are two ways to use it: at a “metabolic dose”, which means one tablet can last 8 doses, and that’s just to remind your body to do its calming down; or at a pharmaceutic dose, in which case you can experiment with the different dosings available (usually from 1 to 4 mg, I believe.) See which works for you.

* You can also use 5-HTP before bedtime, which is a good serotonin precursor. If you’re on antidepressants, start at low dose and be mindful of its effects; it can potentiate your antidepressants, making them more effective at a lower dose. Being overdosed on serotonin can be counterproductive, as it makes it very hard to wake up completely!

* If nightmares are making it hard to nod off (often the case for me; I can tell I’ve been having nightmares if I can’t make myself calm down for sleep) then lavender oil dabbed onto either side of your pillow can be a real help. Or a lavender pillow, but remember to refresh it as needed. It’s very good for keeping nightmares at bay.

* Get what activity you can, pretty much every day, and stop exercising either before 5 or before 3, depending on your system. Activity helps regulate the autonomic nervous system, especially if you respect the body’s natural diurnal cycle and take enough time to let the neurochemistry slow down at the end of the day.

* Be mindful of your caffeine intake. Caffeine in the morning can be a huge help to keeping the diurnal cycle regulated, but it’s important to lay off it in the later afternoon and evening, because the disruptive effect always lasts longer than the real waking-up effect.

* Be gentle with yourself. Take the time to learn what works best for you. Be considerate of your household regarding lights and noise, so there’s less fallout in the morning. When you’re stuck awake, remember that rest is still restful, even when it isn’t sleep, and do your best with what you can get. If all else fails, make the most of the time, and try again tomorrow night.

Prolly enough to go on with for now… any other thoughts, folks? 🙂

On a lighter note…

toon_dlewis_bedtimeroutine

Share this article:

International group post: Love is portable

The point is this: love is portable. Real, solid love can handle time and distance.

I’ve been saying that for a very long time. I didn’t know, however, that even the formation of love can cover distance. It can cross the globe.

I grew up overseas. Since there wasn’t always a credible, accredited school where we lived, this meant we kids were sometimes away from the family for months at a time. I learned to handle it in a curious way …

I realized, in a deeply personal way, that the same sky covered us all, and the same world held us. If I could see the stars, I felt very strongly that my brothers and parents could see those same stars — if not today because of clouds, then perhaps tomorrow or yesterday — and knowing that we could look at the same stars was a powerful comfort to me.

Beautiful colored view of a star-forming region
Star-forming region in the Magellanic Cloud. Photo from NASA’s Hubble project.

It doesn’t have to make sense, if it works.

As an adult, I got a dreadful disease that requires more research to manage and understand than one person can do in a lifetime. It took me weeks in the Stanford medical library to realize I had something truly rare. Once I was finally diagnosed, it took me months to begin to understand the complexities of what I have.

I also got the internet and a membership in an online pain group … and eventually a blog and social media accounts.

And suddenly, I wasn’t alone.

That first group’s administrator got me through the second major test of survival. (This disease has caused quite a few.) She’s on the other side of the country.

As I’d reached out to her in desperate need, I found someone else reaching out to me in a similar fashion, and she’s a nearly equivalent distance North, in another country.

Then I met the Swede, the Briton, the Belgian, the Icelandic… then Australians, New Zealanders, Chinese, Japanese, more Britons, French, French-Canadian, Dutch, Danish, Mexican, Argentine, and on and on and on. Any country with a health system sophisticated enough to think of, and look for, rare diseases, seems to have people with CRPS.

Let’s think about that for a moment.

OK, that’s long enough. It’s depressing.

The truly international distribution of the disease is almost as penetrating as the international distribution of the internet.
The Earth's winds. Not a bad metaphor. By NASA's Goddard center.
I could go on about the obvious benefits — having someone to chat with at almost any hour is a good one; having such a wealth of perspectives on health, medical delivery, and self-care is another; being able to discuss findings in one country that aren’t yet known in another is a hottie; and, of course, there’s always someone worse off to make me feel humbly grateful for my little all; but these are pretty obvious and probably stated better elsewhere. I’m not doing too well above the neck this week and I have to keep it simple.

This disease has stripped me of many of my friends, my careers (both of them: nursing and software), almost all of my hobbies, most of my strength and stamina, and pretty much every illusion about life and humans that I ever had.

Life can be bleak when it’s this lean. There has to be more to live for than usual, not less, when every day is another stab at the same tedious, repetitious, miserable slog that would make me say to Sysiphus, “Quit your whining, kiddo. Trust me, you’ve got it easy.”
Sysiphus looking miserable as he pushes a rock up hill... with poor body mechanics.
But every connection that I make with my CRPS cohorts makes me stronger. And — how do I say this without sounding mushy or daft — these aren’t superficial connections. I would gladly stop a bullet for my friends, not that that’s likely to happen … but then, it’s easy to find something worth dying for. The trick is finding what, or who, is worth living for.

Any hour of day or night, I can log on and find a soul-sibling somewhere in this world, beyond first-languages and politics, beyond gender and race, beyond anything that might have mattered once.

I don’t have time to ask permission to use names before posting, so my own ethics force me to skip personalization, but the fact is, ladies and gentlemen, you light up my world.
Earth seen from the moon. Earth is gibbous.

When I get discouraged or disgruntled about this tedious, repetitious, miserable slog, and I can’t remember the self-care routines that can help me with it, instead I remember my friends: this one’s Celtic ferocity; that one’s wry wit; the painful eloquence of one; the utter gentle kindness of another; the ghastly spelling over the radiant sweetness of yet another; the shining fragile beauty and boundless courage of, well, all of them …

Every piece I write has to meet multiple tests of integrity before it gets posted: factually accurate, logically defensible, ethically sound, emotionally true (but as the rambling nature of this one indicates, brilliance is NOT a criterion, or I’d be posting a whole lot less.)

That list of criteria has a lot to do with who I think of when I write. It’s this absolutely global, polyglot, brilliant, loving, well and widely informed set of people. Each one of us has our strengths and our weak points, but collectively, we are astounding. Utterly astounding.

I have to live up to that, and be translatable … and it’s an honor and a challenge, every time.

CRPS has taken much, but the internet, mother wit, and a quorum of luck has given me infinitely more. I’m a better being and a better writer because I share the world with people like this … and I’m aware enough to know it.

I have plenty to live for. Screw the slog. Sysiphus, move over and I’ll show you how it’s done.
girl on a flat beach kicking a ball high

Share this article:

Persistence, chronic illness, mortality, and other perky subjects

I’m recovering from packing and moving to my homestead. [I’m sorry to say that I don’t have internet yet, and the library’s uplink is slo-o-o-o-ow. Images will be filled in once that’s corrected. In the meantime, you get to see how I flag where the images will go.]
[img]
The cat is ecstatic. He’s getting muscular, too. He’s bigger than most of the cats I’ve ever had, and he’s only 8 or 9 months old. J is falling in love with his saucy sweetness — they’re a well-matched pair.

It took a week just to be able to think in a straight line again. I’m still very slow, but improving. Breakfast is my best meal, so I try to make it a good one — my stomach is not nearly as happy as the cat about all this.

Yesterday, as an aid to recovery, J and I went to the nearby hot springs for steaming and soaking.
[img]
We usually get nicely parboiled in a couple of hours, but I got horrifically dizzy going from the hot pool to the cold. Usually it feels terrific (one reason I keep going back) but I think I stayed in too long — 2 whole minutes… When I was able to see, I noticed that my skin was bright red; I touched it, and it was as hot as if I had a fever.

That’s the hyper-reactive response we get with a twitchy autonomic nervous system (ANS.) This is why we don’t ice our injuries with most forms of CRPS.

All my skin’s blood vessels spasmed with the cold, then the spasming set off an alarm in my wackadoodle ANS, and my ANS ordered all those peripheral vessels to open wa-a-a-y up.

What does that do? Sucks all the blood out of my brain and out into my skin, that’s what. Result: dizziness to a frightening degree. J helped me get out of the pool without drowning, and got me safely benched.
[img]
I realize I tend to overestimate my capacities, but that really was a first for me.

Periodically — and with increasing frequency — I get FED the heck UP with having these diseases — CRPS, FM, MCS, POTS, GERD … I’d have to be a British peer with medals and degrees to have that many letters after my name, in any other context.

These diseases are not recreational. They don’t just pop in, have a good time, and then take off.

They’ve moved in. They’re here for the long haul, or at least that’s what they seem to think. They take the concept of “persistence” to a whole new level.

It reminds me of something… H’mm. Oh yes.

In February 1999, I got a phone call at 4:10 am from my stepmother, telling me my father was dead. I still remember the way the word “no” kept echoing off the walls, until I realized it was me who had cried it out. I won’t describe the next few weeks, except that there was a lot to do (he had died in Egypt) and I learned a lot about the people in my family (interesting, not worrisome.)

After a few months, when the acute grieving was more or less behind me and I could drive safely and notice the birds and sunshine in a more normal way, I found myself unconsciously expecting him to be alive again. As if dying of a double heart attack face down in the water was like a curable cancer, horrific but eventually over. Then I’d catch myself, and that awful “no” would stab through me again.

There was a part of me that just could not get the permanence of death.

I haven’t spoken to anyone who has had this same experience. It may be so peculiarly daft that it could only happen to a wing-nut like me.

Death, take a holiday? Only in a Terry Pratchett novel.
[img]
Over the next couple of years, I had plenty of opportunity to come to terms with the persistence of death, as I was bereaved of friends and extended family about once every other month. None of them came back.

I don’t recommend it.

And this is where Walt and Pogo come stumbling in from the past:
[IMG: “don’t take life so serious, son, it ain’t nohow permanent.”]

It’s impossible to have a rotten, devastating condition and not face my own mortality once in awhile, if only because the blank spot that bereavement leaves in the world sometimes seems better than this mess. And it’s a persistent mess, too.

The real question is, is it just as persistent as death? Will there really be no end to this? The poetic injustice is, that question might not be answered until my ashes melt into the sea.

There are good times and strong times and, of course, I’m almost constantly panning for those nuggets of gold, so don’t worry.

It’s just that anyone vile enough to stick a gun in my ribs and say, “Your money or your life,” is going to have to hold me up with both arms, I’ll be laughing so hard.

Nice work, Clint, but I think me and my cohorts could top this delivery…

Share this article:

There’s always an afterwards

When I was a nurse, I could see when death was creeping up on someone. I saw gray fluttering around the person’s edges, especially around the head and upper body. As they recovered, the fluttering grew narrower and disappeared; as they lost ground, it grew wider, sometimes growing too wide to see.

Rear view of sturdy stone angel inside a lovel stone church

When that happened, I made sure I could find the code cart, because we were going to need it.

I worked and fought like hell to shrink that fluttering, to get each person closer to life.

Not every life can be saved. There’s a dislocating moment when, after working with several others to try to revive someone, it sinks in upon all of you – neaerly simultaneously – that it’s a lost cause, and then the doctor calls the code.

Everyone steps back for a moment, same expression on their faces: eyebrows up, eyes on the erstwhile patient, mouth slightly open, every brain running through the scenario and looking for something left undone (never has been, on my teams)… pausing in the shock of rebooting.

When I was coding someone, that person was the most important thing in my world, and all of my training and experience and physical capacity was tightly woven into my determination to get them back. When I had to stop coding them, all of that intense focus, activity, and energy had to come to a screeching halt, be re-assimilated back into my reserve, and clear the way for the next set of tasks. Not a trivial job.

Multiply  that by the number of professionals in the room, and you see why there’s always a breathless pause, even in the most practiced ER.

Then we get back to work, but it’s the work of cleaning up, restocking supplies and meds, prepping the body for the morgue/organ harvesting, and clearing the way for the next incident — a gunshot wound, a bloody nose, a beaten child, a drama queen or king; could be anything.

This explains a lot about ER staff: whatever happens, however we feel about it, we have to clear it away, clean up, restock, and be ready for the most trivial or the most harrowing issues to come in that door next — with little or no warning. Then deal with that, sometimes by brutal means (which you’d understand if you ever saw a chest tube placed or helped set bones for someone who’s been beaten.) Then go home, get food down and go to sleep, and be ready to  come in the next day and do it all over again. Day after day after week after year.

Imagine what that takes.

No wonder they often seem a bit detached, a bit harsh, a bit clueless about the human impact of what they do. They have to come back to that every working day, and try to stay above the madness.

Bosch_painting_of_Hell_(582x800)

The very day I realized I’d forgotten the human impact, was the day I knew I had to change careers. No wonder my immune system was failing. The effort to protect myself was killing me.

My dad’s death was unexpected, and happened overseas. It happened shortly after I knew I’d have to change careers, and shortly before I gave notice and surrendered my RN licensure.

I don’t think I’ll talk about it much, except to pass on the best advice I ever got about survival:

Take every opportunity to be happy, because it makes you stronger for the other times.

Less than a year later, one of my dearest friends died suddenly, back East… After that, I lost someone I loved every month or two, for just over a year… and somewhere in the middle of that, my relationship fell apart.

Hellish, tragic and harrowing as that period of time was, it turned out to be training wheels for being disabled with CRPS and all that comes with that.

It’s no wonder I have some of the symptoms of someone in an abusive relationship. I am; it’s called Life.

me-fingers-2up
And that’s what I say about it.

I’ve seen the grey fluttering around myself more often than I’d care to say. I’ve wrestled with the desperate temptation to end this brutal, chaotic nonsense for myself.

Angels_lossy_notsonice

My own intransigence saves me; no stupid disease gets to win. The very thought is intolerable. Not gonna let it happen.

US Navy: Marines of the embarked 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit practice hand-to-hand combat
I identify with both. They’re working their butts off and there’s no telling who’ll win… but neither one will cry uncle.

I’ve had to tell myself, sometimes every few seconds, “Keep breathing. This will pass. There is an afterwards. Just stay alive long enough to see it. There is an afterwards. Let’s find out what it’ll be like. Keep breathing. This will pass.”

Verbatim.

And, eventually, times like this morning come, which thaw those unspeakable memories on the warm stove of peace…

Gentle air from a misty morning caresses my mouth. Happy morning voices trickle in from the neighbors. My tea tastes just right. The birds are screaming their fool heads off in the greenery. My feline ray  of sunshine can’t stop moving for the sheer glee of being alive.

Ari-squirming

It’s simple, but it’s perfect.

I find myself glancing back at the shadows behind me, giving them a nod.

I was right. There is always an afterwards.

Share this article:

Is losing our minds to “pain brain” optional?

64% of CRPSers experience significant cognitive decline. Speaking as a member of that majority, I think that sucks. Most people with chronic pain find that they experience the following:

– Confusion: it’s harder to keep track of things like we used to.

– Forgetfulness: forget the car keys? We’re capable of forgetting the car. It’s more than a touch of early onset Oldtimer’s.

– Distractability: I got up in the middle of a sentence when my meditation exercise was playing. I forgot what I was doing netween one syllable and the next and I could NOT make myself lie down again.

– Locked focus: once I do get into something, it can be impossible to tear myself away, even if I need to move or stretch or calm a racing heart. It’s *weird.*

– Memory: Forgetting the car? Sometimes I forget my birthplace. There are random, shifting holes in my long-term memory that I can’t do anything about, except waffle and flannel until the subject changes. Learning anything new that isn’t related to CRPS or writing (which my brain seems to have anchored with industrial grade mooring chains, so far) is pretty much doomed.

– Intense, driving feelings: catch me on a bad pain day and discover a new word for female dog, and it’s not because I want to be like that, but my internal brakes are off and everything feels like the emotional equivalent of flashing neon.

– Oversimplifying/black-and-white thinking: this was one of the first issues we addressed in my functional restoration class all those years ago. Without constant checking, chronic pain makes everything MUCH more intense, and maintaining middle gears is a constant job.

– Poor sleep. Trouble waking up. No duh.

 

Now, just for grins, let’s look at the list of symptoms for AD/HD:

– Difficulty tracking complex ideas/confusion

– Forgetfulness.

– Distractability.

– Locked focus.

– Memory issues.

– Intense, driving feelings.

– Oversimplifying/black-and-white thinking.

– Poor sleep. Trouble waking up. Hel-lo!

 

Is it just me, or is there a wee bit of overlap here?

 

Classically, ADD (or ADHD, or AD(optionalH)D) is not considered an aquired disease. However, I noticed that the parts of the brain that ARE distorted in ADD are some of the same parts of the brain that GET distorted in CRPS — and perhaps in other types of chronic pain.

 

We aren’t making these symptons up. We struggle mightily to keep our symptoms under some kind of control, but the worse this particular family of symptoms gets, the closer it gets to impossible to keep it under control.

 

Fortunately, ADD (et alia) has been treated successfully for years. The meds used overlap with meds used for neuropathic pain, depression and dysautonomia (because it’s all about regulated nerve signaling); the techniques overlap with the techniques for handling CRPS, dysautonomia and chronic pain (see my last two posts); and the therapy follow-up ties into the fact that ongoing counselling is part of the gold standard of treatment for CRPS, and darn well should be for chronic pain.

 

This is solvable. Let’s get our brains back, because life is too short for this to be allowed to continue.

 

When I get my scientific studies lined up, I’ll rewrite this for my bioscience blog. Feel free to take it to your doctor.

 

We can do this.

 

Meanwhile, borrow a couple of books like “you mean I’m not lazy, stupid or crazy?” and “delivered from distraction”, and see if it doesn’t take a load off your mind to recognize that there IS a way forward.

Share this article:

Relentless

My pain psychologist is very insistent that 90% of my day has to be predictable. This allows my nervous system to heal and re-stabilize to the extent that it can.

I cannot even fathom that. 90% of my day? Do any of you have those kind of days, ever?

matchgrins-horsenwoman_decamps-pauline_4blog
Pauline Decamps? I’d love to credit this fantastic shot. Correction invited.

She’s been right about everything else so far, so I’m working on it.

Trying to bring stability to any single part of my life brings the inherent instability of life into high relief.

  • Every commute to the doctor’s office is a crapshoot. There’s no knowing just how long it will take, if there’s parking on the other end, whether anything unpleasantly LA will happen along the freeways on the way.
    .
  • Every trip out of the house, with all the neighborhood dogs and the roads being under construction here, puts the rest of the day on hold until further notice. Especially when my judgment is in the hopper because of pain, dysautonomia, or not being able to eat enough to prevent hypoglycemia.
    .
  • Every day is a mine field of discovering things I’ve forgotten and have to find a way to deal with, trying to clean up the past while coping with the present and preparing for the future.

poison_skull

It’s heartbreaking trying to keep up with this, but I can’t stop. This disease never quits. It never gives a break. I must try to keep up.

I thought I was stubborn. I thought I was adaptable. I thought I could be relentless. I have to say, this condition puts me in the shade.

This is one of those articles I wrote to help myself find the nugget of gold. I’m still looking…

George_Goodwin_Kilburne_Writing_a_letter_home_1875

I’m in a very small glass today, but that doesn’t change the scope of work — just what I admit I can do.

This relentlessness, this bitter intransigence, is part of any chronic disease. We find ways to cope, or we don’t make it.

  • I deal with the dietary restrictions by focusing on the wonderful things I can eat;
    antioxidant_foods
  • I deal with weakness by learning to ask for help;
    .
  • I deal with the pain by focusing on what gives me joy;
    Crab_Nebula-crop
  • I deal with bouts of forgetfulness and confusion by automating as much as possible and using external aids like a whiteboard, checklists, post-its and the apps in my smartphone;
    200px-Check_mark.svg
  • I deal with the heart, lung, and endocrine issues by finding new ways to do things, and rehearsing constant self-control in every single freaking aspect of life.

It just wears on me sometimes. It’s a lot to expect of myself day after day after day after DAY.

Perhaps the nugget of gold is simply taking credit for my imperfect, ongoing attempts to manage an impossible body of work: staying alive and on the right side of the ledger, and trying to make it bearable. It takes some doing, and yet I’m here now. The future terrifies me, but so it goes.

Marathon update:

A bloody pair of athlete’s feet, with ringworm that’s trying to consume my right foot, both fungi profoundly resistant to treatment… Have been joined by an ingrown toenail which looks like a grandchild of The Blob… Which itself is hosting cellulitis.

So I’m off my feet for the most part, wearing slippers when I must walk. I have to knock the cellulitis back by Friday, so the ingrown (which is an outgrowth) toenail (though it’s really the flesh) can be cut away, and part of my nailbed stripped. All those loverly nerve endings…

old_school_surgeon

It’s going to be a rough weekend. Perhaps I should just have it all cut off, ha very ha. Too bad that makes things worse in CRPS.

Share this article:

It’s a different world in here

TRIGGER WARNING: Body image. With a twist.

I feel like I’ve been inflated. If I get any larger, I may collapse in on myself and form a neutron star — possibly even a black hole.

"Portrait of the Quasar as a Young Black Hole" from NASA's Hubble telescope
Charming, eh? And round.

My pain psychologist isn’t worried. She thinks there’s nothing wrong with “a little comfort weight”, especially as I’ve been making such progress in her area.  Of course, she has a slender elfin figure herself.

This isn’t the usual rant about weight and health, or the girly American whining about fat. This is about living from the inside out, and what happens when my physical vehicle takes up a whole lane.

Nursing has a diagnosis called, “Body Image Disturbance.” Take a look at that phrase for a minute. It’s very telling.

Body
Our physical interface with the world; the medium we use to communicate with others; the first sensory impression we get of our surroundings; the complex organism that gets us from one place to another; the thing that gives others their first sense of who or what we are.

Image
Our mental framework, or paradigm; the belief or understanding we have about our presence or effect in the world; the way others tend to think of us; the way we think they think of us.

Disturbance
Something awry — probably disturbingly so. Not good.

Do we need to address the usual social issues? Yes, skinny people get treated better, all across the board; fat people are far more likely to get abused and overlooked, and not just for sex — for everything. Lots of people have made lots of money writing lots of books about that, so read them if you’re confused.

Let’s move on.

I’m in a different sensory and physical world from what I’m used to, and it’s a really strange one. The experience of physical life from this different shape is, yes, disturbing.

My feet are pressing so hard against the ground that my shoes fit differently.  When I carry something, it pushes my weight over the tolerable limit and threatens to bring the CRPS in my feet back to life — and I had just about gotten rid of the pain symptoms there. The circulatory symptoms are another matter — zombie-foot is a regular event.

My cat floats above me by quite a few inches, when he should be lying more or less on my abdominal muscles plus a blanket of padding.  It’s weird to have to reach so far up from my spine to pet him — my shoulder rotates much further in my cuff than I’d expect. I’m getting better at feeling my joints, and this is not exactly a positive feedback loop.

My upper arms keep catching against my sides. This is rather disorienting, since I’m improving my sense of my body in space and usually, when my arm catches on something, it means I need to increase the space between me and foreign object. There’s no foreign object. It’s just more of me. Weird.

I had a sway in my lower  back which I managed to straighten out awhile ago. Better spinal posture means less pain overall. So now I have a substantial, unstable weight hanging in front of my spine, which means I have to work my abdominal muscles really hard to pull it closer to my center of gravity so I can just stay in balance.

My abs are killing me. If I don’t use them, my lower back hurts me worse, so those abs are constantly on duty.

I give them a break and relax them when I sit down — and it’s like being on top of a balloon that inflates, as my stomach takes over the lower horizon.

balloons-innflating

I poke it curiously, wondering how far down I have to go to find the original outline. I give up at the second knuckle. Too discouraging.

When I sit in my car, my right hip brushes against the driver’s armrest.  First thought: I’m over too far to the right; my hip shouldn’t be near that. Wrong. I’m dead center. It’s my hip that has travelled far.

But there is an up-side. When I fold my hands together, I have a perfect armrest. Soooo comfortable. It’s like it was made for me!

And the stares I used to get — or rather, that my endocrine-disrupted DDD cups used to get? Gone. No wolf-whistles or dribble on the sidewalk from creepy slimebuckets who seem to think I should be delighted at their lack of self-command. Nobody’s goosed me or grabbed a feel in ages!

It’s very peaceful. Makes it a lot easier to feel at home in my own skin, not to be bracing for the next random invasion of privacy.

I’m no longer constantly holding a sharp elbow at the ready, to fend off some suddenly-clumsy dude who goggles briefly, with a word-balloon appearing above his head that says “are those real?”, then says “oops” and bumps into my pneumatic (and sensitive) form as if by mistake. I got so freakin’ tired of that!

Perhaps a leather vest with spikes all around…

myvest_front_med

This, incidentally, is why so many women feel  comforted wearing a burka. It makes the wearer more sexually invisible and insulates her from much of this random predatory crap.

My fleshly burka. Take that, right-wing-nuts — of any religion. You don’t even WANT to control this.

And, in a huge relief to my CRPS-riddled body, nobody wants to slam into it now, either. Yesssss!

I’ve got to get that vest. I can’t, and don’t want to, keep the fleshly burka, but I have to find a way to manage the body-slams. Never again.

As for food… Here’s what I’ve learned for the current incarnation of CRPS endocrine/digestive ballyhoo:

– No grains of any kind. No lentils or beans.
– No dairy, except small amounts of hard cheese — the protein sufficiently altered that I can handle it in small doses.
– No sugar at all, but more unrefined stevia.
– I’ll have to get kefir “grains” and make my own water-kefir. I have some ideas for that.

I still have most of the world of nontoxic produce, nuts, and meat from healthy animals to sit down to. There are worse things… It isn’t cheap, but I’m learning where to shop. And it sure tastes good.

P.S. You want what?? Measurements, weight, photographs? They miss the point. I’m not looking at me, I’m looking from me.

I’m not comparing myself to anyone or anything. This is simply the view from inside. Hope it’s worth a laugh or two 🙂

Share this article:

Marathon update

For weeks, I could hardly move outside without injury. It was maddening. I completely ran out of arnica pills, my best tool for keeping soft-tissue injuries from turning into flares or spreads of CRPS.

At the same time, I couldn’t make myself do the meditation exercises I’d been assigned, where I’m supposed to let some strange man tell me what to relax. Getting anything but my appointments done has been nearly impossible.

Today, I walked half a mile, half of it uphill, and most of that at around 15 degrees’ slope — really. And so far, I’m just fine. It seems  a bit miraculous, after the past few weeks.

For the past few days, I’ve also been wrestling with my dead… and at the risk of appearing to complain, I’d probably better explain that.

I’ve been interested in re-remapping my brain to a more useful cartography (so to speak) for years; that’s what holds the most promise of moving CRPS aside and leaving more room for life.

Sheer gall, determination and bloody-mindedness can only get me so far. Pretty damn far, but I think I’ve hit the limit. I need to move beyond, because frankly, life is barely worth it and I won’t stand for that.

To gain enough mastery over my brain that I can really push it into a different shape means getting my conscious mind and subconscious mind to play well together. Sooner or later, THAT means coming to terms with a few things I’ve shoved under the floorboards. Then I can put them in their proper place, and make a reliable path around them. It’s no good trying to build new paths in a brain that’s booby-trapped.

It’s impossible to discuss these losses and bereavements and horrors without sounding pathetic or whiny, so I won’t. Tell you what, though, I’ve stopped editing them out, when they’re relevant.

Something’s come loose. It’s true. It does seem to be working.

I’ve finally gotten myself scheduled into my meditation exercises, PT, and cleaning up… and I’ve walked half a mile today, much of it really steep… and I seem to be fine.

Every marathoner knows… you really run it from the inside.

Share this article: