Monday, November 30, 2009

When Silence Speaks Volumes

I read this NYT piece, Are We Going to Let John Die? the other night and am only now just getting around to linking to it. It got me riled up, and like a successful Op-Ed piece should regardless of where we stand, it made me think about the issues involved.

From a research standpoint, health care reform remains on my mind these days. Right now, I’m looking at the civil rights movement, the early AIDS movement, and the disability movement and their influence on chronic illness. In terms of catalysts and goals for the chronic illness community, certainly health care reform is a significant issue. (Stay tuned, as I have a lot more to say about all of that…)

But when I move away from the books, journal articles, and interviews and look at daily life, and the recent content of this blog, I can see I’ve moved away from policy and reform a bit. This past spring and summer, it was hard not write about—from watching webinars that explored private versus public insurance to digesting the health care conversation with Bill Clinton to discussing the particular needs of patients with existing chronic illness, the subject was always fresh in my thoughts.

But lately, not so much. It’s still in the headlines, and I still read the articles. It’s still the topic of morning radio shows, and I still listen to NPR. Yet despite my cognizance of it, and its obvious importance to me as a patient, it hasn’t crept into my own titles and hasn’t been featured in my own writing.

The difference? Honestly, I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that this summer was relatively calm in terms of my health. I could manage the juggling act and stay on top of things with enough mental energy to engage in the dynamic conversation. Since September, I’ve spent 6-7 weeks acutely ill. Now, I am used to this cycle. If you’ve read this blog with any regularity, you’re probably used to it, too. It’s just the way things are when you’re blessed with dodgy lungs and a pathetic immune system and other medical complications right now.

On the positive side, I can say the infections haven’t been as bad or lingered quite as long as they normally would because of the very proactive, very aggressive preventive protocol I have been following since last March.

I’m a walking risk/benefits analysis, really.

While the cycle is all too familiar, what distinguishes it right now is that my workload has never been more intense. When infections sap my energy and consume my already scant hours of sleep, it hits me even harder. Or, to be more blunt, when I am sick it takes every ounce of energy and focus I have to just make it work, to get through the day and accomplish the tasks I need to in order to stay on track.

When I am sick, I fall off Twitter. I become a comments slacker on other blogs, my response time to e-mails takes a notable dive, and I beg off pretty much every commitment. I enter the Black Hole where the only things I can focus on are trying to get air and not falling behind in work. I read articles without comment, I skim headlines without linking.

In short, at times I am too busy being sick to contribute in any meaningful way to the conversation of the very health care reform that could define my patient experience.

Ironic? No, it’s inevitable. It’s life with chronic illness.

I get sucked into the Black Hole of silence even with a ton of local family and friend support, with an amazing husband, a relatively flexible career, a world-class hospital 10 minutes away, a healthy stubborn streak, and twenty-nine years of experience living with illness. Oh, and with very good health insurance.

Scary, when you consider the millions who cannot say the same.

(Also inevitable, rather than ironic: what keeping that wonderful health insurance has cost me so dearly in so many other ways, and how precarious it feels nonetheless.)

I guess I can tell I’m starting to improve. The ability to be riled up is always an encouraging sign.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


Even with my currently muted sense of smell, I can tell good things are happening in our kitchen right now. The plague of November 2009 continues to lay siege to my lungs and my productivity, which could spell trouble for the Thanksgiving dinner we are hosting. (And no, it is not H1N1; I was able to get my vaccine at a recent lung appointment.)

Luckily, my husband loves to cook and knows the value of early preparation when we’re in the midst of an infection. Gluten-free corn bread is cooking, sweet potatoes are roasting for a bourbon-walnut sweet potato mash, and other assorted casseroles and desserts are in various stages of completion.

Like so many others, I find it impossible to avoid reflecting on the things for which I am grateful this time of year. I can’t help noticing that these annual November posts invariably include food, like this one on the evolution of a gluten-free Thanksgiving.

Holidays are largely defined by the traditions we have, and particular foods and recipes form part of those traditions. I am grateful that over the years we’ve been able to blend long-held traditions with gluten-free ones. I love that my parents are excited to make a side pan of gluten-free stuffing to go along with their famous dish. I love that I addition to the usual pies, we will have a gluten-free almond cake with homemade cinnamon ice cream that tastes a lot like eggnog. (I also love that my husband made said ice cream in between days of running errands, cleaning, and ferrying my nebulizer from room to room.)

And I love that being gluten-free on Thanksgiving isn’t a big deal. In our group we have celiac, lactose-intolerance, allergies to peppers, onions, nightshades, cheddar cheese, and chocolate, as well as the challenges of type 2 diabetes. We all have some safe foods and some foods we know to avoid, and we will all be satisfied by the end of the meal.

It has been a long year, one filled with exciting developments but just as many challenges and setbacks. It has been a long year for so many people around me: illness, loss, economic stress, uncertainty.

I was thinking about all of this the other day when I skimmed some of the e-mails I get from an online disease community for celiacs. I don’t participate much, but I appreciate the advice and recipes many group members offer the newly-diagnosed. Usually people are pretty upbeat, but there’s one voice that is consistently negative. Work dinners, picnics, holidays, restaurant trips, etc—the focus is always on what this person cannot have.

I know sticking to a gluten-free diet can be expensive and difficult, and I know it is a huge adjustment. I know that adjustment is a lot more challenging around the holidays, especially if you’re newly diagnosed. Six years ago, I was diagnosed days before Christmas. Try being gluten-free for a mere four days when you’re not sure what is safe and trying to eat at an Italian Christmas Eve, where six of ten entrees contain pasta and the other four have flour of some kind.

Nothing says bountiful Christmas dinner like a plate of olives and peppers from the antipasto. So I get it. I really do.

I only wish I had the grace and eloquence to reply to the negative posts along these lines: While I am not grateful I have celiac, I am grateful I know I do and can do something to feel better.

That was the essence of the reply someone posted last week, and it is a sentiment that looms large in my thoughts these days.

I am grateful that in light of other medical problems that do not have such an immediate and definitive treatment plan, I have something I can manage with my diet. I am grateful that I know what’s going on (especially since I never presented with GI symptoms) and that I am no longer throwing my autoimmune system into a frenzy by eating foods I cannot process. I have control over something, I have choices and options I can make every day to help improve my health.

As many of you with chronic illness can attest to, that does not usually come easy.

With viral plagues and flu fears and feeling like no matter how hard I try to get air it will not come, having that kind of knowledge and control is even more important to me. And knowing people around me are dealing with far more right now, emotionally and physically, I realize how precious this is.

As many of you know, I’ve spent many holidays in the hospital. Usually, just being present and accounted for at the Thanksgiving table is enough for me. This year, knowing the people who matter to me will be there, despite a lot of serious challenges and stress in their lives, is what counts.

We might not be able to eat everything there, and we might not all feel too wonderful. But we’ll all be at the table, and that’s enough for me.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Tales from the Crypt…

Contrary to a certain famous modern poet’s assertion, in my world November is the cruelest month. Okay, it’s arguably a toss up with December-February, too, but in terms of the lovely cycle of getting sick, falling behind with work, and missing family functions and/or social engagements, November is right up there with the best of them.

This past weekend was no exception: the tightened chest and spastic cough of Thursday night developed into the mini-plague that prevented me from attending a long-awaited family function Sunday morning.

(It’s not H1N1, though. Still hoping I avoid that long enough to get my H1NI vaccine.)

Anyway, I had to make a phone call early Sunday morning to let relevant parties know I would not be able to make it. My throat was hoarse and scratchy from coughing, and my voice itself was fairly faint because I wasn’t moving much air. It was definitely Crypt-keeper quality (as opposed to my other alter-voice, Darth Vadar, which is a little deeper and usually sets in a good two to three weeks later.)

My two-year-old niece loves the phone these days, and when she heard it was me on the other end, she wanted to say hello.

I started talking (read: rasping) to her as best I could, asking the kinds of questions two-year-olds are usually pretty good at answering.


“Broken. Mama, it’s broken,” I heard her say.

“Not working,” she muttered, her voice growing muffled and distant as she pattered away.

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

On H1N1, Vaccines, and Differing Views

I haven’t written too much about H1N1. Partially, this is because as an avid reader and headline scanner, I suffer a bit from H1N1 fatigue. From local news reports to national updates to reminders and policy talk at my job, H1N1 is everywhere.

But it’s also because everyone seems to have an opinion about the H1N1 vaccine. And lately it seems I can’t go anywhere without getting a hearty dose of other people’s strong opinions about it in my face.

It’s a controversial topic for many, and I get that. I respect other people’s right to make their own decisions about their health. The thing is, I don’t need to agree, or be convinced my own decision about my health is wrong. So when I’m getting my blood drawn and stressed about getting to work on time because the line is long and my veins are wily and unyielding, I don’t really need a lecture from a health care professional on how flu shots are full of toxins and poisons we shouldn’t put in our bodies. (While flanked by posters advocating flu shots, by the way.)

You might be drawing my blood, but that doesn’t mean you know anything about my health or my personal beliefs, or how I might interpret your unsolicited “advice.”

The same goes for the forwards and attachments that appear out of the ether in my inbox warning me against the evils of vaccinations.

Because you know what? I would do anything for an H1N1 shot right now. For months every single doctor and nurse on my medical team has repeated the same mantra: I am absolutely high risk and should get the shot. The problem is, they just aren’t available yet. I have reason to believe I can get one in the next month, so if I can avoid infection until then, I will be in good shape.

At the same time, it is not as possible for me to read the headlines but stay on the sidelines. Students in my classes now have the flu, and each time I get an e-mail about a 104-degree fever I worry about them, and about how many of us were exposed.

I am not a paranoid person, and considering I spend 7-8 months a year continually sick, I am pretty used to infections. Generally speaking, I take reasonable precautions and reasonable risks with my health.

After I read this NYT article on parental views about the H1N1 vaccine, I knew I couldn’t resist the pull of breaking the silence any longer. In discussing society’s willingness to be vaccinated during twentieth-century epidemics like polio and smallpox, historian David Oshinsky is quoted as saying, “People had a sense of risk versus reward and listened to public health officials.”

That line really resonated with me, because that’s how my doctors and I have approached the H1N1 shot. For me, the risks of contracting H1N1 are much, much more severe than any risks of getting the shot. (And yes, I get the seasonal flu shot every year without incident, and since they are made the same way, I personally do not have fears about the production of H1N1 vaccines.) Vaccination and communicable disease prevention are some of public health’s greatest triumphs, in my view, and I am incredibly grateful modern medicine gives me and my sub-par immune system some protection.

After all, otherwise healthy people face serious complications from H1N1, usually in the form of secondary bacterial infections (pneumonia) that linger because the flu virus damages cilia in the respiratory tract.

I don’t have working cilia. I also have bronchiectasis, which increases the likelihood of bacteria and mucus festering in my airways, causing severe exacerbations. That sounds like an awesome combination, doesn’t it? I can catch a cold in September and not recover until March, and I’m not exaggerating. I’ve almost died from infections on multiple occasions throughout my life, and have spent weeks in isolation units of hospitals. There are few antibiotics left that can squelch the secondary bacterial infections I am so good at growing. As much as my friends joke I need to live in a bubble, I can’t.

But if there is a way for me to prevent contracting H1N1, sign me up. This is the decision that makes absolute sense for my individual circumstances, and it is one every medical professional I know espouses.

I know every person’s situation is unique. For example, I know that for patients with certain autoimmune conditions, the risks of getting a flu shot are very real and very serious, and I would never presume to convince them otherwise.

But that’s just it—these are the kinds of conversations that should take place between doctors and patients, between the people who know the most about an individual’s medical history and constellation of risks. When people do ask me, I am always honest about how I feel about the shot for me, but emphasize I am not a medical professional.

I’m not saying I’m unwilling to engage in dialogue or debate about this, but there’s a difference between informed views on subjects and imposing personal views on other people. I know vaccination in general is a hotly contested topic right now, and there are so many voices on both sides. I don’t want to start shouting. Honestly, I just want to get my shot and get through this winter.

So please, please don’t assume to know the particulars of my situation and tell me I am crazy to pump my body of toxins. No matter how strongly I feel about opposing viewpoints on this, that is not a productive way to have a conversation.

And the way I see it, I’d be crazy to turn down the chance to protect my dodgy lungs.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Disappointment: The Intellectual Opposite of Hope?

When my agent was shopping my first book out to publishers, it was an incredibly tense time. I’d done all I could do to set myself up right, and now the decision was out of my hands. For a control freak like me, it was an uncomfortable position.

But what made it harder was how much I felt hinged on getting this book under contract. In my mind, everything else I wanted to do depended on getting this deal for this book at this particular time. The next book I wanted to write, and the book after that, and the book after that? They could only happen if this book happened. The fledgling freelance career I wanted to build out? I would have much better standing with a book under my belt. The more stable academic and research positions my newly-minted MFA hinted at? You know what they say—publish or perish. And my very identity as a writer? Well, writers write things, right? Things that get published.

Of course none of those static boundaries were true, and my life and career would have gone on had things not worked out the same way. It is easy to say that, though, because I did get what I wanted then. The script I wrote for myself, the one so meticulously reliant on each step unfolding just so, went (somewhat) as planned.

But what are so much harder—and, unfortunately, so much more common—are the times when we do plan and work towards something and set up a script for ourselves that does not come to fruition. We want so desperately to accomplish a certain goal that it becomes difficult to see ourselves in any other reality. I see this in my students who are applying for jobs, my consulting clients who are applying to schools or trying to secure agents, and of course I see it so often in the lives of patients. We want a last-ditch medication to do all the things it promises it might; we want the much-anticipated surgery to be 100 percent successful; we want that super-star specialist to give us the answers we need to hear.

We carefully construct this eventual outcome, and we cling to the promise of that better reality because that’s what we need to do to push through all the obstacles and hard work necessary to have a shot of getting there.

We hope for the best, because it is not unreasonable to hope for good things.

Because we have hope we can keep sending out submissions while the editors’ rejection letters accumulate, or the job offers don’t appear, or the letters that arrive in the mailbox are too thin. Because we have hope we work through the side effects of medications, or gear ourselves up for the major surgery and lengthy rehabilitation, or undertake medical interventions with high risk and limited chance of success.

I’ve often heard that the opposite of hope is despair. I don’t disagree with that, but I think the situation is far more nuanced. In the immediate moments of bad news, setbacks, and realizations that what we want is not going to happen, despair is real, and it is palpable. It is the moment when hope does not seem possible. It is an innate emotional reaction, one that manifests itself in different ways: tears that come without warning; numbness; a feeling of emptiness. It is encompassing and isolating. It pulls us off our center of gravity.

But there is an intellectual component to an otherwise emotional experience, and I think that is where disappointment comes into play. Disappointment is not as overwhelming as despair, but it makes demands of us. We have invested so much time and energy into one path, and it didn’t work out. Now where we do we channel that energy and momentum?

It’s a question of readjusting our expectations, and re-calibrating our goals. Whether it was getting a certain job, having a successful surgery, or any number of other realities, when we envisioned the “after,” we saw things unfolding a certain way. We have to write ourselves a new script, and in our disappointment, we don’t always want to do that. New deadlines need to be set, new strategies need to be formulated.

Sometimes, if we’re lucky, our re-writing is only temporary. Sometimes, it is life-changing.

I am often amazed at the capacity we have to hold out for the best possible outcome even in the face of very low odds: when early indications and test results don’t look promising, when other people’s envelopes already arrived and we are still waiting, when it has been three months and an editor hasn’t gotten back to us, or deep down we know we’re not really feeling any improvement on a new medication but we resolve to give it more time.

This capacity for hope is wily like that. It is stubborn, sometimes willfully so. But because of that, eventually we are able to envision other possibilities and are willing to pick ourselves up and start again.

Sunday, November 01, 2009


Things have been a little crazed lately. There’s been a lot of health-related static taking over the scene offline, and on the heels of my last post on priorities, I’m trying to strike a balance.

I have stories to tell, but sometimes the stories that most need telling need the longest time to settle, so their many threads come together in a way that is cohesive, not chaotic; so the story is tempered and not reactionary. And sometimes the stories that matter the most are not always solely ours to tell.

While my posting has been light the past couple of weeks, I have tried to keep up with blog posts and headlines. No matter what else is going on and how many roles I find myself trying to manage, I will always be a reader.

So in lieu of the many posts swirling around that are not quite ready for editing, I offer instead a smattering of headlines that cut through the static this past week.

I’ve seen a number of stories on the new research that suggests a connection between chronic fatigue syndrome and a retrovirus, and I was pleased to see this news article, in which pain advocate and For Grace founder Cynthia Toussaint is interviewed. I’ve interviewed Cynthia several times regarding pain and gender, and find her story compelling.

I spent a lot of time the past month researching early AIDS activism and its relationship to other political and patient movements. I have a few students in different courses researching and writing about various aspects of HIV/AIDS right now, too, so it’s been an interesting time of intersection. As such, I was particularly interested in this NYT article, “Obama Lifts Ban on Entry Into U.S. by HIV-Positive People.”

According to the article, “The United States is one of only about a dozen countries that bar people who have H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS.”

Now, I could write several posts on this topic (give me time) but I’ll start with the obvious: it’s about time that archaic guidelines based on fears and lack of knowledge/understanding of the disease were updated to reflect the realities of the HIV/AIDS and the respect that patients living with it deserve.

And moving from news and policy to the relationship realm, I spotted this submission in the Boston Globe’s Love Letters forum: “She Has Cancer and I Want Out.” A cursory glance at the headline might warrant immediate reactions, but read on: I agree with Meredith Goldstein that the larger issue here isn’t the cancer, it’s the letter-writer’s inability to be honest from the get-go.

And with that, another weekend is almost over, and another week of headlines is about to begin.
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