The Red Pen Technique (dramatic music, please)

This is probably the simplest, most powerful tool for getting your complex care back into the realm of sanity.

It’s easier said than done, but it’s worth it. More valuable than words can say.

It’s a fairly simple 3-step process:

  1.  Get copies of your medical records.
  2.  Prepare: understand the records, get a colored pen, and stock up on post-its.
  3.  Mark it like you own it.

Here’s the step-by-step rundown of this process, with insider insights, tips and suggestions. (I apologize in advance for the clunky formatting. I’ll work on it.)

1. Get copies of your medical records

[Updated 3/2018 to reflect current trend towards soft copy documentation.]

In the US, you are LEGALLY ENTITLED to all the information in your medical chart. (Worker’s Compensation is a special case; you can still get copies through your lawyer or sometimes directly from the doctor, but don’t talk to the insurer about any of that.)

To get copies,

A. Call the hospital, clinic, or office and ask for the Medical Records department.

B. Ask what their process is for obtaining copies of your medical records. Most MR departments are honest, understaffed, and extremely literal-minded. Be clear, frank, and polite-but-not-wimpy; that seems to work well with the MR mindset.

i. Some will let you come into the office and make your own photocopies. They may charge you for the copies. Some may have soft copy they can send you on a CD or provide a secure way to download.

ii. Some don’t allow non-staff into the department and will make the copies for you (and it’s best to provide them with a list of what you want, so they don’t provide you with the usual thin, doctor-oriented version. More on that later.) They will probably charge you for pulling the record, making the copies, reassembling the chart, and packaging your copies up for you. They might fax them to you, but, if they don’t require you to come in personally and show ID, then the chart copy is usually mailed or FedExed. Soft copy may be free or cheap. Ask about the cost for each method, and if they don’t offer the method you want, ask if they can provide it anyway.

iii. Some will give you the runaround. In that case, be polite but firm, and let them know that you have a legal right to the information in your chart, so let’s figure out how to get it to you. (Never buy into a power struggle with petty power weilders. Just refocus on the goal — like with toddlers.)

iv. If you had films of any kind (X-ray, MRI, CT scan, ultrasound), ask how to get those films. You usually get them directly from the Radiology or Sonography department rather than Medical Records. They’re most likely to drop a CD in the mail for you. You’ll need software that can view DICOM images — do an internet search to find the best current free application for reading DICOM files.

The radiology departments no longer use film. They used to recycle it every 2 years, so the only way to keep those records was to get the physical films and hang onto them despite promises they’d demand to return them. That didn’t mean you were any better or that the film was irrelevant in two years!

C. Follow the instructions they give you for getting those copies. Be sure to request copies of the following:

i. Doctor’s notes, both narrative notes and forms.

ia. Consults’/Specialists’ notes. (Yes, they need to be specifically requested in some facilities.)

ii. Medication orders. This is what was supposed to be given.

iii. Medication Administration Record (MAR.) This is what was actually given.

iv. Nurse’s notes, both narrative notes and forms. (These days, some places only have forms.) These should include Nursing Diagnoses (which gives a good idea of just how worried or confused they were about you) and daily tracking of what care was needed and provided.

v. Vital signs and intake/output sheets. (Includes fingerstick blood sugars when used.) This is usually background information, but every now and then there’s a nasty surprise. There is no substitute for the clarity and simplicity of this info.

vi. Results of tests. These include labs taken from your blood, urine, stool, saliva, tissue samples, or whatever else they examined. It can include psych tests, behavioral tests, and any other test.

vii. Readings. This refers to what a trained specialist concluded from looking at your films, ultrasound, EEGs, EMGs, EKGs, and so on. It’s usually a couple of paragraphs.

viii. Rehab notes: narrative notes, test results, and forms. This is what your PT, OT, and other rehab specialists saw.

ix. Discharge planning notes. Discharge planning is supposed to start as soon as you’re admitted. These notes will tell you what they knew or assumed about your context and abilities. Very useful info between the lines.

x. List of charges. This is what they’re telling the insurance company they did for you and how much it cost. This should include pharmacy charges as well as “floor” charges. Another place to find both corroborations and surprises.

xi. If they say, “Would you also like [something else in the chart]?” The right answer is usually, “Why yes, thank you, that would be helpful.” Sometimes they offer it because they’re so detail-oriented, but sometimes they offer it because it fits into the pattern of the care you received. Feel free to ask why they suggested it or what it relates to.

D. When you get your chart copy, either scan it into your hard drive before you do anything else, or make 2 more copies and put the original (clearly labeled) somewhere safe.

Some people consider this step optional. I won’t argue with someone else’s working style or legal situation; you’re the one best-qualified to decide how protective to be of your chart copy.

I have everything on my hard drive. I have dealt with a hospital, a federal agency and an insurance company that forgot, mislaid, misread, or destroyed part or all of my chart. I don’t trust any institution to get it right any more.

2. Prepare

When your original copy of your chart is as safe as you want it to be, take a copy to mark up. This is where the real fun begins.

A. Read the whole thing over once. Try not to get bogged down — this quick run-through will help you familiarize yourself with the lingo and the special way of thinking that’s used in the health care field. It will also give you an overall idea of what you’re working with and will shine a light on the most obvious gaps — in your knowledge or vocabulary, or in theirs. Put flags in the strangest, most egregious or excitiing parts, so you can refer to them quickly. Use post-its to comment on the page.

B. Whether or not your first read-through is quick, your second read-through will be a LOT more informative. Pick out and investigate the obvious holes in your own knowledge, looking up words and concepts that aren’t clear, or checking your assumptions about what they meant.

C. (You can start doing this in 2.B., but you’ll be better-equipped if you wait until you’ve got your vocabulary and assumptions squared away.)

GRAB A COLORED PEN. Mwahahahahahahaaaa!

Red, green, dark  pink, and medium purple are all great, because they stand out so well from the black and grey of the copy. Use a color you enjoy commenting with, in a pen that feels good to write with.

No black. No grey. Blue if you must, but it’s a very “normal” color and easy to overlook.

3. Mark it like you own it

Now that you’re prepared, are familiar with the chart, have the hot spots flagged, and know the vocabulary, you’re ready to TAKE BACK YOUR CARE.

A. Go through the chart with your colored pen.

B. Mark everything that is wrong, misleading, or unclear. (Feel free to color-code, if that works for you.)

C. Comment on:

i.  what the real deal was,

ii. what was wrong with what they wrote,

iii. your own observations,

iv. any evidence or witnesses,

v. and — this is usually relevant! — where else in the chart this error, confusion or lie is brought into question. (This is why you get the nurse’s notes. They tend to be accurate, front-line reportage of what happened at the bedside.)

Generally, you can keep emotions out of it. The facts WILL tell the story, and the reader’s own emotions will fill in the blanks.  If you can do this, then you will wind up with a much more powerful piece of documentation than if you’d given into the natural urge to editorialize. Sometimes, if I’m just too mad, I editorialize (and use expletives and call names) on separate paper, then, when I’m calmer and my thoughts are clearer, I go back and write in a calmer note.

D. Write (or tabulate, or draw; whatever works for you to nail your understanding) a summary of issues with the chart.

i. Pick out major issues, overarching issues, and the points where things really should have gone differently. (If you’re writing, use headings — that impresses the heck out of people.)

ii. Summarize the whole thing in a paragraph or two at the end.

4. Now what?

It’s up to  you. You have documentation that is worth presenting in court. (Yes, believe it or not, you can talk until you’re blue in the face and be only tolerated, but if you really want to persuade highly-educated people, then put it in print — with annotations. They will believe exactly the same thing in print, that they’ll be incredulous of when you speak.)

Regardless of what happens next, you will have a whole new approach to medical care. Your perspective on the whole business will change as a result of doing this exercise. You will be much more collegial with your doctors — much less the supplicant praying for something beyond your control. You will speak about your care with more clarity and authority, and your care providers will respond to that, usually with more forthcoming-ness and respect.

Depending on the issues involved (and whether your case is already part of a legal process, such as Worker’s Comp), you can:

  •  Send a (color?) copy to  your attorney. You can always do this. It’s guaranteed to get some attention, and your attorney is liable to  respond well to the nonverbal message that this is important enough to you to go to all this effort. That’s a big deal. Most clients of attorneys are kind of helpless. You set yourself apart with this.
  •  Take it with you to your next visit with a key physician — the worst offender, or his boss, or the one who’s on your side and can help you figure out how to proceed most effectively. Be prepared to let the “good guy” take a copy, and consider bringing a copy for the “bad guy” since you don’t want to let your copy out of your hands there.
  •  Arrange a meeting with the facility’s adminstrators to address the hot issues. Take it with you (or scan copies and show it from your laptop — lots of tech assumptions there) and let them know, kindly and clearly, what you want them to do about it. Administrators tend to be goal-oriented, so give them a goal. Tip: If they have legal counsel present, it’s good if you do, too. In any case, it’s not a bad idea to bring a couple of respectable-looking friends (“my assistants/associates/posse”) who have faith in you, for moral support — and so you’re not all alone on your side of the table.
  •  Send a color copy to your local paper, your congresscritter, the medical board for your state, or the Department of Health, with a cover letter explaining your concerns and what you would like to see change. This could raise some attention, all right. (If your case is currently in a legal process, it may be illegal to do this. Ask your lawyer.)

If you’ve never done this before, you’re in for a transformative experience. Even if you do nothing further with it, your situation will feel very different, and you’ll find yourself facing future care with a stronger, clearer, more in-charge attitude.

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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.

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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.

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Your normal is my catatonic

On top of my careful eating and constant self-policing… I’ve cut my online time to the bone, to conserve neurotransmitters and wear and tear on my telomeres.
 
I’m moving to a sunnier flat, to improve vitamin D uptake and exposure to beneficial UV bands.
 
I’ve gotten a cat, to lower my bp and help stabilize my diurnal cycle. (They get stirred up and worried when you stay up past your bedtime. It’s the cutest form of nagging ever.)
 
I’m doing my autogenic exercises as often as I can bear to, to bring my baseline level of overdrive down and begin to approach “normal”.
 
For better or worse, I’m getting more closely in touch with what a “normal” state of relaxation really feels like — and realizing how far from “normal” it is for me.
 
If I am as close to “normally” relaxed (or “normally” tense — its the same thing) as I can get, I’m nonfunctional.
 
All I can do is lie there, bathed in the peaceful antitoxins of adequate tissue perfusion and a still mind. Getting up requires dropping that calm, because there just isn’t enough energy there.
 
I’m far, far too tired to function as a normal person. My very cells are tired — I can feel it when I let down this chemical structure of overdrive and tension. Their very organelles are tired. The vacuoles, I bet, are tired.
 
Why? I mean, weariness is all very well,  but isn’t this a little ridiculous?
 
Ridiculous it may be, but not irrational or inappropriate. Here’s why, as far as I’ve thought it through.
 
– For one thing, pain is exhausting. An hour of pain is as wearying as an hour of running, but without the cardiovascular benefit or endorphins. Quite the opposite. And it never really stops.
 
– Moving the body with degraded muscles is hard work.
 
– Making decisions and doing the business of life (rent, bills, laundry, shopping) with a brain that flickers on and off… requires a lot of repeated trips and extra effort — also tiring.
 
– Remember that list of JCAHO-rated crises I mentioned on my last post? That was a sample from the latest in a series of years, each of which was about as harrowingly difficult, in different ways. Truly, I had no idea that so many ghastly things, most far too protracted for Hollywood to use in even their most grueling work, could grind through one measly life.
 
So maybe I should give my weariness some credit. Maybe I should stop bitching about how I just can’t get things done. Now that I’m trying to ratchet my ANS responses down from the stratosphere, maybe I shouldn’t wonder that it’s becoming hellishly difficult to get off the couch most of the time.
Maybe I should stop obsessing on my characteristic need to be productive.
 
Maybe it’s finally time to stop ignoring the fact that I’m really damn TIRED, and put my attention on getting more rest.
 
That might be the most productive thing I could do.
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Half-glassed — a metaphor for flexibility

We all know the old trope: half full, or half empty?

I worked at Borland, which means, I worked with highly capable engineers who were accustomed to doing things right. I once got a very friendly, but very earnest, lecture about the half-glass phenomenon: the point is not whether the glass is half-full or half-empty.

The problem is, the glass was not designed for that amount of water. You either have to fill the glass,

… or use a vessel that’s designed to hold that quantity.

The whole half-glass thing drives them crazy. It’s not a matter of attitude, it’s just bad design!

I love engineers. There’s something adorable about the way they storm the gates of Accuracy, convinced it’s the same as Truth.

At first glance, that attitude looks silly at times. On deeper thought, they’re usually right.

I was thinking about the engineering approach to the half-glass issue, while my subconscious was still bathed in reflections on Rosalie.

I realized that the engineering approach is exactly what those of us with crippling disease have to do: our glasses, our outward lives, were designed to hold a lot more than we’ve got right now.

We either have to build up what we have to put into it, or we need to use a smaller glass. A significant disparity between what our lives can hold, and what they do hold, is depressing. They need to match up better.

Rosalie alternated, and I think all of us with chronic disease (and determination) do that as well. Sometimes we can build ourselves up, and expand what we can put into that glass; sometimes we adjust our expectations and commitments, making the glass smaller so that the contents fit.

I like this image, because it reminds me that I can do either thing. When pushing against my limits doesn’t work, when I really can’t get another drop of water into that glass, I can pull back my expectations and switch to a smaller glass.

By now, I have mental cupboards full of wildly mismatched drinkware – a glass for every occasion, for every level of function so far.

The one on the right is for when my hands don’t work.

“My cup runneth over” takes on a new meaning now, doesn’t it? When it does, I’ll reach for a bigger glass.

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Rosalie’s gold

I met Rosalie about 15 years ago, when she put me up for my dad’s second wedding. I fell in love with her on sight, when she threw open the door and bathed me and my brothers in such warmth and delight that even awkward, dorky I felt completely welcome in her life.

I stayed in the little den next to her bedroom, overlooking the pool. Her house was built in the 50s, when her neighborhood was inexpensive and remote. It has an endless view across the whole valley of Los Angeles.

She was a spring chicken, only 83 years old. She had already had two back surgeries to fuse vertebrae, and scooted around – with characteristic energy – in the distinctive crow-backed shuffle of post-fixation chronic back pain.

About five years later, my CRPS journey started. Rosalie was my first model of how to handle increasing pain and disability with a degree of grace and poise. Whenever I came to visit my stepmom or her mother, I’d see if Rosalie’s and my schedules would allow a visit. In all those years, I don’t think she failed to raise a smile more than once or twice, despite some brutal trials.

She had several more surgeries, implanted devices, physical therapy, and she swam laps in her pool whenever she could possibly manage it, inviting whoever came over to swim with her to have a glass of wine and tonic water (or gin instead of wine, for my stepmom) afterwards.

She kept love in focus: for her offspring and her dear friends, she had a seemingly bottomless well of love and regard, regardless of the vicissitudes of life and relationships.

She was always herself: whatever her opinion, and whether or not you agreed with it, she would let you know. No energy and no words were wasted on making things seem nicer than they were. You never had to wonder what her agenda was. And she managed that without ever being pissy or the least bit mean. Conservation of energy, including emotional energy, is a big issue for pain conditions, because pain is so exhausting; she didn’t waste a drop.

Yet she was famous for the radiancy of her outlook, not to mention of her smile. As soon as she had answered the question, “How are you?” with customary honesty, she visibly put that aside, turned her bright eyes on her visitors, and got them talking about more interesting things. She kept her focus where it belonged: on the rest of life.

As I said at her memorial service yesterday, she always looked for the nuggets of gold, whatever else was going on. She always looked for a way forward, whatever held her back.

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that I hardly ever write about anything until I’ve found the nugget of gold. You know that I always look for a way forward, whatever holds me back.

I can find this in myself, in large part because Rosalie gave me a living, breathing, occasionally querulous but never unfair, always loving, always real example of how to do it. I need those living models. I can learn only so much in theory.

This is real life. And sooner or later, it ends. I’m slightly bowled over by this intensely personal realization that the true radiance of a life can outlast the grave. Rosalie’s radiance is with me still, reflected off these nuggets of gold.

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Unexpected adventures with the rent

Yesterday I did 10 minutes on the treadmill. Today, I walked almost a full mile of this hill in 18 minutes and 16 seconds — no shuffling, no stopping, lots of striding, not much slowing down. Woo hoo!

I’d better start scouting trails and footpaths around here. I’m going to need more options soon.

As I calm my breathing in preparation for my autogenic exercise (more on that later), I have to admit that I had some angst to work off, and that probably had something to do with the pace I kept up.

Last night, I realized I’d lost my ATM card. I have one bank, one card, and one checkbook. … Er… had…

The card was gone.

The checkbook was empty.
I’m fresh out of cash.
And rent is due.
Suuuuuuuuuucks.

Welcome to My Brain on CRPS!

To be completely apt, these should be thoroughly scrambled.

I went to the landlady’s bank to see if we could do a wire transfer.
Turns out they’re closed on Wednesday.

I called a different branch and asked if they could.
No, not without an account of my own.

I asked if I could open an account with a wire transfer.
After 20 minutes on hold, it turned out that I could only open an account with cash or a check.

Rather than repeating myself, I said, “You realize that does me no good.”

I called my bank (a local savings bank) in Massachusetts. They were pleased to tell me that someone had called in my missing card and it had been cancelled promptly. 2 weeks to get another one.

They couldn’t do a wire transfer because they’re rather old-school, and I hadn’t gone into a branch and filed the appropriate form in person.

But — and this is why I stay with them — they didn’t end the conversation there.

After exploring several possibilities, which turned up as dead ends, I thought of Cougar, one of my angels (a word with specific meaning.) He bears a passing resemblance to a slimmer and semi-shaven Jerry Garcia..

A recent photo by yours truly.

But, more importantly, he takes my mail. Why?

In case you hadn’t noticed, I move around a lot. (I’m looking for a place that has an affordable cost of living, good soil, first-rate medical care, and no extra pollution or radiation, and one day I’ll find it.) I’m here in California for awhile for medical care, BUT, no matter where the rest of me goes, my mailing address remains the same.

The benefits are tremendous:

  • Not only is my steel-sieve brain spared the affliction of changing my address every time I move,
  • Not only are my ridiculous paws spared the trouble of wrestling with envelopes and handling papercuts (a task which cougar claws are apparently well-adapted for),
  • But my memory and cognition issues get a real break from having to deal with pieces of effing paper. I have developed a mental block around dealing with pieces of effing paper, so I get them into softcopy as soon as possible.

Or, rather, most of the time, Cougar does… Because he doesn’t just take in my mail, he scans it in and sends me softcopy of anything I ask him to open. This means I have COMPLETE RECORDS of everything I need to keep track of.

He’s the Magnificent Mail Mage, and I’m grateful. Take that, Pain-Brain!

He’s my current Cash Carrier, now. The management staff at my lovely little bank have agreed to work with him as my designated agent, and will provide him with the cash I request — which he will then send to me via Western Union, so I can take care of business here. And with it, I’ll pay rent, open a bank account locally, and try not to let this happen ever, ever again.

Meanwhile, it’s time to get my heart rate down from the clouds and that strangely full feeling out of my tissues. Easier said…

While the excitement is over for the moment, I have a vivid memory of the stress-tracking line on the biofeedback machine, and how bloody hard and bloody long it takes to get the level to drop after it goes up over something as small as one giggle.

This was no giggle. In fact, it was several hours of no giggle. None. A totally giggle-free period.

I found it stressful.

The walk helped. And I hope — when I find some good forest trails to explore — to spot some wildlife.

Meanwhile, I’m off the hook for laundry and shopping. It all has to wait until tomorrow. Bonus!

Everyone should have a little cougarosity in their lives…

 

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Posture matters, across species

For the past forty-mumble years, and for some time to come, my experience of life is shaped by the particular body I’m in. The reciprocal nature of the mind-body experience fills more books than I’d ever want to read, and that’s saying something, so let’s cut past that idea of, “Wow, the mind can influence the body and the body can influence the mind, but neither has sole control of the steering wheel” and look at the subtle, but strangely clear, ways that it plays out – at least in me.

I lived in a dog-friendly marina. – Trust me, this is relevant.

It’s not just about the scenery.
I found that, even before I knew the neighborhood dogs, I could tell which ones belonged on the dock by their posture as they stood, sat, walked, and moved.



I saw dogs in every degree of getting along — or not.

I saw the active posture of dogs who were used to plenty of food and care…



and dogs who clearly weren’t.



This was interesting to me as I was coming out of a period of being thugged on by every force outside myself that had a duty to care for me. Being, not only neglected, but frequently tormented and abused in response to most of my efforts towards survival and care, left me very nervous indeed.

Not good for the brain. Or anything else.

I was having trouble with my posture, and – limited by impaired kinesthesia (the sense we have of where our body is in space) – I was working out exactly what the trick points were.

– My low back was in a tight sway, sticking my stomach and butt out egregiously. I lost over an inch of height to that sway in my back.

– I recently realized that, when I fall back in this posture, my abdominal muscles are braced outward. I’m not slack in the belly; the muscles are braced for an incoming blow!

– My neck was hunched against my shoulders. This was funny because I did used to have a bit of a weightlifter’s neck, short and thick; but that was many years ago… when I lifted weights.

– My tailbone was curled in tight, which I only realized after my physiotherapist at the time taught me to straighten it out as a way of releasing tension on the nerve “sleeve.”

– The points of my shoulders were rotated inward. I attributed this to an effort to ease the nerve opening through my shoulders, but that doesn’t actually make sense.

All of these things reduced effective nerve flow to my limbs, shortened the wrong muscles, limited blood flow to where I needed it most, and reduced my capacity for physical exercise.

And you can see how happy it makes me!

Since activity is key to managing CRPS and keeping the autonomic nervous system under some kind of regulation, this is actually a huge problem.

Good posture is not about vanity, it’s about feeling better, being stronger, hurting less, and surviving tolerably well.

Watching all those dogs running around and deciding whether to let others sniff their butts,

You’re not imagining things: the pit bull is missing a leg.

I realized exactly what my posture looked like: a dog in a hostile area, not wanting to fight, but protecting its spine while bracing for blows. Always ready to snap into action. Never knowing when things will go sour, but pretty sure they soon will.

That’s what those years had brought me to. It was a reasonable response, but not useful.

This is what’s really going on when I fall back into that posture.

I’ve managed to explain this “braced dog” image to my current physiotherapist, who’s wonderfully willing to work with my rather original views. He comes up with ways to tell my body how to stand/sit/move like a calm, alert animal, instead of one that’s braced for the next fight… 

I can’t do anything about the 3 extra cup sizes
this endocrine dysregulation caused, but
my back and shoulders hurt less anyway.

And I remind my too-nervous nervous system that a calm dog can snap into a fight about as fast, but tends to find far fewer of them.

In the meantime, relaxed animals have a lot more fun.

Postscript on self-imaging

Nearly every time I see pictures of someone in regard to posture or movement explanations, it’s someone really fit.

Now, really. Is that who needs to know?

Much as I loathe looking at myself from the outside, using my own image here is preferable to the implicit lie of using others’ figures. So here I am, warts (so to speak) and all.

/shrug/ Could be worse.
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Waiting

I’m sitting in the lab’s waiting room, recovering from the most recent vampire attack.

It’s always a bit of a circus. As I said to the lab tech, “I used to be a trauma nurse. What would be the fun of being an easy stick?”

This time, I had the joyful opportunity of having the first lab tech assess my veins and go find a better vampire without even poking me first. His hands were actually shaking by the time he left.

All I could do was laugh to myself. I used to have hosepipes for veins. They were still leathery, full of valves, and inclined to roll, but with a sharp needle and good technique, you could nail ’em with your eyes closed.

Now it takes 5 minutes with the warm pack (hot water in a blue glove) and the sharpest needler in the house. She got it in one.

In thematically related news… I’ve been essentially incommunicado since I moved into the new cabin. Internet is supposed to come tomorrow and AT&T has knocked $50 off my bill for not providing service yet and having terrible communication with me (losing notes, calling back the wrong week, trying to send me on wild goose chases) when they do get through.

Every effort to do anything other than nest — carefully, gently, and in small controlled increments of effort — seems to take 10 times the effort it should. Not two or three times. 10 times.

All I can do is laugh to myself… and, when necessary (such as when someone’s looming over me with a sharp instrument and a purposeful expression), sitting firmly on my perpetually hair-triggered fight-or-flight response.

As I said to the same skillful lab tech, “I have good doctors, and I’m finally getting lab tests, PT and good care.”

This is why I protect my mental faculties so vigilantly. They let me assess the real risk, the real effort, the real impact of the moment, so I can talk the CRPS-triggered responses down out of the sky.

And then wait for my system to recover.

I think I’m ready to go now.

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Pain rating scales that describe reality

I’m filling out paperwork for these assessments. It’s a lot of homework, especially since they didn’t provide anything I could edit in softcopy. (Wait… how long have computers and the internet been around? Doesn’t the ADA require hospitals to provide access? … ok, never mind. Anyway.)

 
I got to the usual 1-10 pain rating scale and my gorge rose. That’s so irrelevant to my life now that I can’t even throw a dart at it.

 
Between my self-care strategies and spectacular mental gymnastics, the level of what most people would experience as “pain” is a secret even from me, until it’s strong enough to blast through the equivalent of 14 steel doors, each three inches thick. At that point, the numeric level is off the charts.

 
What’s useful and relevant is how well I can cope with the backpressure caused by the pain reflexes and the central and peripheral nervous system disruption this disease causes.

 
You can read on without fear, because for one thing, it’s not contagious, and for another, your experience of pain — whether you have CRPS or not — is uniquely your own. This is mine, as it has changed over the years…

 

Step 1: Acute CRPS, with otherwise normal responses

My first pain rating scale, just a few years into the disease’s progress, was suitable for a normal person’s experience. My experience of pain was still pretty normal (apart from the fact that it didn’t know when to stop):

Mental impact

Physical changes

0

 

No pain at all.

 

1

 

Hurts when I stop and look.

 

3

3

Neither looking for it nor distracted.

 

5

5

Noticeable when concentrating on something else. 

Nausea, headache, appetite loss.

7

7

Interferes with concentration. 
Drop things, grip unreliable.
8

8

Difficult to think about anything else. 

Trouble picking things up.

9

9

Makes concentration impossible. 

Interferes with breathing pattern.  No grip.

10

Can’t think, can’t speak, can’t draw full breath, tears start –  or any 3 of these 4.

Unrated even numbersindicate a worse level of pain than prior odd number, which does not yet meet the criteria of the following odd number.

Note that weakness is only loosely related to pain.  I drop things and have trouble picking things up at times when I have little or no pain.  However, as pain worsens, physical function consistently deteriorates.

Notice how the scale ties the rating numerals to physical and mental function. This is crucial, for two reasons — one personal and one practical:

 
– Personally, I can’t bear to let misery get the better of me for long. Tying the numbers to specific features keeps the awful emotional experience of pain from overwhelming me. Making the numbers practical makes the pain less dramatic.

– Practically, in the US, health care is funded by a complex system of insurance. Insurance companies are profit-driven entities who are motivated not to pay. They don’t pay for pain as such, only for limits on function. This makes my pain scales excellent documentation to support getting care paid for, because MY numbers are tied to explicit levels of function. (Hah! Wiggle out of that, you bottom-feeders.)

 

Step 2: Early chronic CRPS, with altered responses

My next was upwardly adjusted to describe learning to live with a higher level of baseline pain and noticeable alterations in ability:

Mental impact

Physical changes

3

3

Neither looking for it nor distracted.  Forget new names & faces instantly.

Cool to touch @ main points (RCN both, dorsal  R wrist, ventral L wrist). Hyperesthesia noticeable.  .

5

5

Interferes with concentration.  Anxiety levels rise.  Can’t retain new info. Can’t follow directions past step 4. May forget known names.

Nausea, headache, appetite loss.  Grip unreliable.  Hyperesthesia pronounced. Color changes noticeable.

7

7

Absent-minded.  White haze in vision.  Can’t build much on existing info.  Can follow 1 step, maybe 2.  May forget friends’ names.

Drop things.  Cold to touch, often clammy. Arms & palms hurt to touch.

8

8

Speech slows.  No focus. Behavior off-key. Can’t follow step 1 without prompting.

Can’t pick things up; use two hands for glass/bottle of water. 

9

9

Makes concentration impossible.  Hard to perceive and respond to outer world.

Interferes with breathing pattern.  No grip. Everything hurts.

10

Can’t think, can’t speak, can’t stand up, can’t draw full breath, tears start –  or any 3 of these.

Notice how specific I am about what general tasks I can complete — following instructions, lifting things. These are the fundamental tasks of life, and how do-able they are is a fairly precise description of practical impairments.
 

Step 3: Established chronic CRPS

And my third changed to describe living with more widespread pain, a higher level of disability, and — most tellingly — a physical experience of life that’s definitely no longer normal:

Mental impact

Physical changes

3

3

Neither looking for it nor distracted.  Forget new names & faces instantly.

Cool to touch @ main points (RCN both, dorsal  R wrist, ventral L wrist, lower outer L leg/ankle, R foot, B toes). Hyper/hypoesthesia. Swelling.

5

5

Interferes with concentration.  Anxiety levels rise.  Can’t retain new info. Can’t follow directions past step 4. May forget known names.

Nausea, headache, appetite loss.  Grip unreliable.  Hyper/hypoesthesia & swelling pronounced. Color changes. Must move L leg.

7

7

Absent-minded.  White haze in vision.  Can’t build on existing info.  Can follow 1 step, maybe 2.  May forget friends’ names.

Drop things. Knees buckle on steps or uphill.  Cold to touch, often clammy. Shoulders, arms & hands, most of back, L hip and leg, B feet, all hurt to touch. L foot, B toes dark.

8

8

Speech slows.  No focus. Behavior off-key. Can’t follow step 1 without prompting.

Can’t pick things up; use two hands for glass/bottle of water.  No stairs.

9

9

Makes concentration impossible.  Hard to perceive and respond to outer world.

Interferes with breathing pattern.  No grip.  No standing.  Everything hurts.

10

Can’t think, can’t speak, can’t stand up, can’t draw full breath, tears start –  or any 3 of these.

 

The CRPS Grading Scale

The other scales measure the wrong things now. Asking me about my pain level is bogus. It would have the asker in a fetal position, mindless; is that a 5 or a 10? Does it matter?

 
I need to avoid thinking about depressing things like my pain and my disability. I focus pretty relentlessly on coping with them and squeeezing as much of life into the cracks as possible — on functioning beyond or in spite of these limitations.

 
The fourth rating scale is much simpler than its predecessors. It’s based, not on level of pain or disability, but on the degree to which I can compensate for the disability and cope past the pain. Therefore, this rating scale remains meaningful, because it describes my actual experience of life.

Mental impact

Physical changes

A. Coping gracefully

(baseline)

Track to completion, baseline memory aids sufficient, comprehend primary science, think laterally, mood is managed, manner friendly.

Relatively good strength and stamina, able to grasp and carry reliably, knees and hips act normal, nausea absent to minimal, pulse mostly regular.

B. Coping roughly

B

Completion unrealistic, extra memory aids required and still don’t do it all, comprehend simple directions (to 3-4 steps), think simply with self-care as central concern, unstable mood, manner from prim to edgy to irritable.

Moderate strength and stamina, grip unreliable and muscles weaker, balance goes in and out, knees and hips unreliable, nausea and blood sugar instability alter type and frequency of intake, occasional multifocal PVCs (wrong heartbeats) and mild chest discomfort.

C. Not coping well

C

Hear constant screaming in my head, see white haze over everything, likely to forget what was just said, focus on getting through each moment until level improves, manner from absorbed to flat to strange, will snap if pushed.

Muscle-flops, poor fine and gross motor coordination, major joints react stiffly and awkwardly, restless because it’s hard to get comfortable, unstable blood sugar requires eating q2h, bouts of irregularly irregular heartbeat.

D. Nonfuntional

D

Unable to process interactions with others, suicidal ideation.

Unable either to rest or be active. No position is bearable for long.

There is no Grade F. Did you notice that? As long as I have a pulse, there is no F, which stands for Failure.

In the words of that divine immortal, Barrie Rosen, “Suicide is failure. Everything else is just tactics.”

So what’s the point of all this?

Documenting our own experience in terms that are meaningful and appropriate advances the science. The treatment for this disease is stuck in the last century in many ways, but that’s partly because it’s so hard to make sense of it. The better we track our experience with it, the better outsiders can make sense of it.

 
Since studies, and the funding for them, come from those who don’t have the disease, this is the least — and yet most important — thing that we can do to improve the situation for ourselves and those who come after us.
 

This isn’t a bad snapshot of the natural history of my case, either. Understanding the natural history of a disease is a key element of understanding the disease. Imagine if we all kept pain rating scales, and pooled them over the years. What a bitingly clear picture would emerge.

 
I’ve never sat back and looked at all of these pain rating scales together. It’s certainly an interesting mental journey.

 
Important legal note: These forms are available free and without practical usage limitations; to use, alter, and distribute; by individuals and institutions; as long as you provide free access to them and don’t try to claim the IP yourself or prevent others from using it. All my material is protected under the Creative Commons license indicated at the foot of the page, but for these pain scales, I’m saying that you don’t have to credit me — if you need them, just use them.
 

Bien approveche: may it do you good.

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