25 November 2011

Express Yourself

In Irving Stone's biography of Vincent Van Gogh there is a line that reads, "Many times in your life you may think you are failing, but ultimately you will express yourself and that expression will justify your life." It was years ago that I first came across this maxim, and it immediately halted my reading and jolted my heart. There is no other quote that has resonated so deeply within me and continued to do so.

I've been lucky enough to be a writer in some form or fashion for the vast majority of my life. While I was in kindergarten, a local writing teacher worked with our class, and I wrote a story about a grasshopper. My mother, of course, saved the story in a box along with school photos, misshapen pieces of art class pottery, and report cards. The writing teacher had hailed my grasshopper story as very descriptive and encouraged me to keep writing. Several years later, the writing teacher—Kathryn Stripling Byer—was named the state's poet laureate. This summer, she featured my poetry on her blog. Life has a way of arching back on itself.

This Saturday, I was stirring a pat of not-quite-butter into a bowl of peas in preparation for dinner when it struck me that I am experiencing a similar arch. While in college, my news writing instructor required that each student write a variety of stories—crime, courts, etc.—as well as pick a beat about which an additional two stories would be written. I chose the medical beat. Throughout the class, my favorite story was one I wrote about the Amplatzer Septal Occluder. In a catheterization laboratory procedure, the device is run into the heart and through the defect (a.k.a. hole). It helps to picture the device as an Oreo. One wire mesh disk is deployed on one side of the hole (cookie), then a tiny wire mesh waist (creme filling) connects to a second mesh disk that is deployed on the other side of the hole (cookie). The two disks cover the defect completely and allow heart tissue to grow around the wire mesh structure. With the Amplatzer Septal Occluder, what was once open heart surgery became a procedure with a one- to two-day hospital stay for recovery.

At the time I wrote the story, Dr. Michael R. Mill, an associate investigator on a 1998 AGA Medical Corporation study about closure of atrial septal defects using the Amplatzer Septal Occluder, was the Chief of Cardiothoracic Surgery at UNC School of Medicine. Though a student, I was permitted to interview doctors performing the first surgeries at UNC using the septal occluder and the mother of an adolescent patient who had the device implanted. Fortunately, I made it through college before becoming the professional patient that I am today; nonetheless, the impact the Amplatzer Septal Occluder would make on medicine and on patients' lives was not lost on me. I found everything about the story fascinating from the technical details of how the device worked to connecting with a worried mother who, by agreeing for her son to undergo a relatively new procedure, had found a way to lessen her child's trauma.

I don't know what about stirring a pat of not-quite-butter into a bowl of peas has to do with remembering my love for my first medically-based story. I also don't know why I didn't realize that there was something larger at play and redirect myself and my studies to capitalize on my interest. It has taken the past 31 years of wrestling with my own health and using my love for writing to express what I have gone through to get me to this point—the point that I identify myself as an ePatient, a healthcare blogger, and a patient advocate. I wholeheartedly embrace my suffering and my diagnosis with an incurable rare disease because by sharing my story and using my skills I may help others. Everything has arched back in on itself and finally come together such that ultimately I am expressing myself, and that expression justifies my life.

19 November 2011

Raising FMD Awareness In Style

Today I had the great pleasure of unveiling the new logo for the global peer-to-peer support group for fibromuscular dysplasia patients, FMD Chat. The indelible image brings together the symbolism of FMD's primary form — the ubiquitous string of beads — with the vascular system's complex web of arteries connecting heart and hand, which is seen as both giving and receiving, and represents the caring community created by FMD Chat's participants.

Our designer is none other than my dear friend Margaret Hester. Margaret is a graphic designer and photographer with a warm and fun personality. She knows how much FMD Chat means to me — I am fortunate to be a co-founder along with my cohort, Kari Ulrich, who has inspired me with her tireless dedication to patient advocacy. When I asked Margaret to design a logo for us, I was pleased when she sought to better understand fibromuscular dysplasia so as to best portray its characteristics. FMD is a rare disease, though recent studies indicate that it may not be as rare as it is simply underdiagnosed. FMD can masquerade as other vascular diseases and, in cases such as mine, present with gasterointestinal symptoms that throw doctors for a loop. There is no blood test for FMD—just as there is no real treatment and no cure. The gold standard for diagnosing FMD is via angiogram, which provides a detailed look at a patient's arteries and may reveal the tell-tale string of beads of the medial variety or narrowing that may at first look like traditional atherosclerosis or stenosis in my own intimal variety.

As FMD Chat continues to grow, we hope that FMD patients and family members, healthcare providers and caregivers, supporters and advocates may draw their own inspiration from the logo. We are patients, and therefore we understand what it means for patients to put their hope, faith, and effort into a support group—it is a matter of holding one another's hearts, it is a matter of trust, it is a matter of compassion, and it is a matter of patients doing unto others as they would have done to them. We thank all of those in the FMD community who have chosen to participate in FMD Chat—we couldn't do it with out you. 

To learn more about designer and photographer Margaret Hester, please visit her at pictographybymargaret.com, on Facebook, and on Etsy, where her work is available for purchase. Please connect with FMD Chat on Facebook and Twitter

10 November 2011

Caring for Caregivers

Stacy Schaplow was 27 when she got married on Sept. 18, 2010. She was happy and healthy other than a strange soreness in her neck that she wrote off as stress; after all, she was in a dental hygiene program and studying for her state board exams while planning her wedding to financé John. The day of the wedding she took a few ibuprofen for the pain and walked down the aisle in a stunning white dress and carrying a bouquet of white roses and green orchids with eight bridesmaids in funky plum purple dresses and peep toe pumps by her side. The two exchanged vows in an outdoor ceremony, cut their four-tiered cake together, and a few days later left for their honeymoon in Maui

It was on the sixth day of the trip while on their way to go wake boarding that Stacy had a stroke. She was rushed to the hospital via ambulance. The doctors told John that Stacy's vertebral artery dissected, causing a blood clot. Stacy was within the three-hour window of time in which doctors could administer Tissue plasminogen activator (t-PA). The drug dissolves clots by thinning the blood, but poses serious bleeding risks. Stacy had become unresponsive in the time it had taken to get to the hospital, so it was left to John—her husband of six days—to decide whether to allow doctors to administer the drug, which could either save Stacy's life or kill her. 

John, for the second time in a week, said I do, consenting for doctors to give Stacy the drug. She lived, but began bleeding in her lungs. She was placed on a ventilator, and John was told that if the bleeding didn't stop, the worst case scenario would mean removing one of Stacy's lungs. It took six days, but the bleeding finally stopped. The question that remained was how much neurological damage Stacy had suffered. "Being on the ventilator and heavily sedated, I couldn't communicate," Stacy writes in her submission to Tiffany Burke Photography's online Love Story Contest for a second honeymoon. "I tried communicating with the nurses and was told that I pointed to my ring finger and they knew then that I wanted my husband. When he got to my room, I squeezed his hand and he knew everything was going to be alright." 

Recovery would be arduous, and Stacy asked her new husband a serious question—whether, given her condition, he still wanted to be married to her. John asked back, "What kind of man would I be if I left you when you needed me most?"

Stacy is among those who found true love and a love who would accept the role of caregiver. To become a caregiver for a loved one is no small task. Relationships are complicated enough without the dynamic of one person depending on another for his or her health and survival. In the most serious of situations, both patient and caregiver are saddled with the loss of independence and ability. What the patient can not do for him or herself the caregiver must do, and the time and effort caring for a patient takes reduces the caregiver's ability to care for him or herself. 

The importance of caring for caregivers can not be minimized. A caregiver is a person who has, by choice or by call of duty, given him or herself to helping another person—but that caregiver is still human. According to a 2009 report by the National Alliance for Caregiving, more than 65 million people provide care for a chronically ill, disabled, or aged family member of friend during any given year. On average, these caregivers spend 20 hours a week caring for their loved ones, while 13 percent of family caregivers spend 40 hours a week or more. Many of these caregivers do not have the luxury of making caregiving their job and so are working to bring in an income in addition to providing care—73 percent of those caring for someone over age 18 in fact. Reports state that the stress of caregiving translates into three-quarters of family caregivers not going to the doctor as often as they should, nearly half of working caregivers reporting that an increase in caregiving expenses has led to using up all to most of their savings, with 40 to 70 precent of family caregivers showing clinically significant symptoms of depression. 

I have not been in the position of being a caregiver; however, I have been—and will continue to be—a caregiving recipient. My experiences have taught me about the humanness of my caregivers. Like Stacy, I had a stroke. Mine was at age 28 after a year and seven months of marriage. One morning I was a reporter on deadline. The next morning I was unable to walk. After a week in the hospital, I had mobility using a walker, but would run into walls. I had double vision with Horner's syndrome on the left side of my face and the loss of pain and temperature on my right side. For several months, the neurological damage was too bad to very actively combat. My husband would get me in front of the TV—which I saw two of due to the double vision—make provision's for snacks and beverages and then have to go to work. Upon his return, he would find me exactly where he left me. He would make dinner, help me bathe, and then set about taking care of the routine responsibilities around the house—doing laundry, cleaning, caring for our pets, etc. 

Fortunately, we did not then (and do not now) have children. I lost my job, which added stress to my husband's already profound sense of duty. Fortunately, my parents are part of my caregiving team, and from time-to-time I would go and stay with them for a few days in order to give my husband a break. He would stay home, watch TV, drink a beer, and enjoy not having me around. There was nothing mean about our arrangement. It was simply honest. Caring for me took a lot of his energy. In addition to always being sure to vocalize my appreciation for all he was doing, what I could do to help him help me was to allow him time to rejuvenate, to give him space and time to be himself, to breathe, to not be so damned responsible. One day I searched online for information about caring for caregivers. A cancer site offered up words like bittersweet chocolates on a silver platter—grief, loss, frustration, anger, resentment. These were the words that my husband and I were choking down without acknowledging their existence—for him. He had not yet grieved the vibrant wife he lost. He was frustrated that he could not fix me. He was angry at the world. And at times, he resented me and all the care I required. Each emotion was at once horrible and a relief to acknowledge. Each emotion was valid and human. We stopped pretending everything was alright, and we cried tears of grief, loss, frustration, anger, and resentment together. 

Three and a half years later things are better. Our lives as individuals and our life together changed with the stroke and continued to change as my health became increasingly complicated. While I recovered most of my function, there are still deficits, and since the stroke, I have lost a kidney, had three of four brain aneurysms repaired, and experienced a gastric rupture. My husband has been my caregiver throughout it all. Like Stacy, I have offered my husband a chance to get out. Like John, my husband has never taken me up on it. 

Remember to vote for Stacy & John's Love Story!

06 November 2011

Just Because I Have The Same Disease As You That Doesn't Mean I Like You—But That's OK

I enjoy playing mahjong. When I was a kid, I was a fan of Oregon Trail on the Apple IIe, but mahjong held my interest game after game. Sometimes I planned my moves. Sometimes I just tried to see how fast I could match tiles. I always liked that mahjong was a game that I could play by myself.

Only children like myself are used to doing things alone and often prefer it that way. Indeed there is an element of control that we relish. Doing things alone involves no compromise, no sharing, and complete autonomy in rigidly staying the course or wildly abandoning plans to do something else entirely. An only child left to her own devices may go from building elaborate Lego houses one moment to playing dress up the next to building Lego houses in dress up clothes because there is no one to please other than herself. The only child grows into an adult who may well prefer to work alone, stubbornly refusing to delegate lest a project be done differently than imagined. The only child may turn down help because she has learned that no one else can be depended upon. The only child is therefore self-reliant to a fault. 

Chronic patients mimic much of an only child's behavior. The chronic patient is used to no one understanding how she feels. The chronic patient may withdraw because it is easier to be alone than to try to keep up with everyone else. The chronic patient operates on a schedule much her own so as to move with the ebb and flow of her health, one day hosting a dinner party and the next day never leaving the bed. 

The chronic patient who is an only child is a creature who is both fiercely independent and profoundly lonely. I am that creature, and my loneliness is further compounded by the fact that I have a rare version of a rare disease. There's a saying often used in the medical field that if something looks like a horse, and walks like a horse, and sounds like a horse, it's probably not a zebra. As an only child who is a chronic patient with a rare version of a rare disease, I can't help but imagine myself as a sullen green unicorn sitting in the corner who no one will play with because even though I could be really nice and awesome, sullen green unicorns are just weird. Even zebras think so. 

That's the problem with diseases, rare or otherwise. Simply because one shares a diagnosis with another person, that doesn't mean the two will get along. Every patient who has cancer doesn't like every other patient who has cancer. Every patient who has lupus doesn't like every other patient who has lupus. Every patient who has psoriasis doesn't like every other patient who has psoriasis. Patients must have the ability to pick and choose their disease friends the same way they pick and chose their regular friends. Attempting to pigeon hole patients into disease specific groups may actually fragment the disease population more so than allowing patients to form their own unique sub-groups. Imagine "Libertarian Breast Cancer Survivors Who Love to Knit" or "Rheumatoid Arthritis Sufferers Who Enjoy Baking and Bowling." There might be only five group members across the entire nation, but the level of connectedness that those five members would feel among one another would be tremendous. Support need not even be disease specific. That may mean that a sullen green unicorn, a zebra, a couple of otters, and a cheetah all decide to hang out together. There have been stranger friendships. So long as the motley crew can support one another in the way one another needs, the group serves its function. 

I've had the pleasure of getting to know several fellow chronic patients via social media and my relationships with these patients are based on who we are as people. There's @HurtBlogger who has arthritis and with whom I shared late night tweets about headaches. There's @joltdude who has diabetes and with whom I've tackled patient care and end-of-life issues. These are people about whom I've come to care. There's @katherinekleon who experienced spontaneous coronary artery dissection and with whom I've talked about patient-driven research and who, when she learned of my upcoming surgery, wished me "a soft cotton hospital gown with a pretty print that wraps ALL around." That's what I call true patient support. 

As the health care industry continues on its quest for true Medicine 2.0, those who are organizing patient support groups would be well advised to remember that above all else, patients are people. If patients can not get the support they need from people they like, from people they trust, then patients will grow to feel even more alone, embittered and embattled, like sullen green unicorns wishing to hell that the rest of the animal kingdom would ask them to play. 

05 November 2011

All Things #hcsm

Each Sunday at 9 p.m. EST medical social media Tweeps barrage the Twitter stream with tweets carrying the #hcsm tag. The tag stands for healthcare communications and social media, and those who follow it are involved discussions covering a wide range of topics (T1, T2, etc) from the role of technology in the exam room to patient support groups. The chat, created by Dana Lewis, moves at lightning speed because so many Tweeps are in on it and there's so much to be said in the hour's time. Even if one only "lurks" (reading without tweeting), the chat is educational, inspiring, thought provoking, and a great way to "meet" new people to follow. Throughout the rest of the week, the #hcsm tag pops up from time to time on individual tweets that are related to the overall topic of healthcare and social media, so at any time a search for the tag is sure to turn up something worth reading. In the spirit of the #hcsm chat, today's blog post covers a range of topics that, at least for me, are just as exciting. 

TI - Stanford & Medicine X
It is my great honor to have been selected to serve on Stanford University's Medicine X ePatient Advisory Panel. This panel will be responsible for helping ensure that the patient voice is part of the Medicine X conference that overall will address emerging technologies in healthcare. My fellow panelists are Sean Ahrens, Hugo Campos, Steve Wilkins, and Nick Dawson—each of whom I had the pleasure of meeting at Stanford for the Medicine 2.0 conference in September. To keep up with plans for the conference, a project of Stanford's own Anesthesia Informatics and Media Lab and directed by Dr. Larry Chu, visit medicinex.stanford.edu or follow @StanfordMedX and #medX on Twitter.

T2 - Doctors 2.0 & Paris
Continuing the healthcare and social media conference trend is the upcoming Doctors 2.0 & You conference to be held in Paris in May. The conference is a true international affair and an incredible opportunity to look beyond the American healthcare system for ideas. Previous speakers whose names ring (or should ring) a bell with those on this side of the sea include Brian Vartabedian of Texas Children's Hospital/Baylor College of Medicine and author of 33charts.comVictor Montori, who has worked with the Mayo Clinic's Social Media Center, and Gilles Frydman, co-founder of the Society for Participatory Medicine. Denise Silber, conference organizer and president of Basil Strategies, has said that she'd love to have me there. Registration fees may be waived for international patients; however, travel to Paris is not covered. Like most patients, I am unable to afford a trip to Paris, regardless of purpose, and so am putting out the call for sponsorship—for myself and for fellow patients who hope to attend the conference. For now, Silber is the contact for patient travel sponsorship. Thanks to the suggestion of the ever creative ePatientDave, I am hoping to set up a Kickstarter.com page to help bring in donations, and if it is approved and goes live, I will be sure to let you know. My estimate is that the trip will cost approximately $2,500 for airfare and hotel. As an alternative, I also have set up a PayPal donations account. My involvement in healthcare, social media, disease awareness, and patient advocacy is all building up to a book, which I will begin writing in 2012. Should I exceed my sponsorship goal (a girl can dream!), then funds will be used for a planned writer's residency at Wellspring House and actually bringing the book from concept to fruition.

T3 - FMD Chat
Shortly after my diagnosis with intimal fibromuscular dysplasia, Kari and I stumbled across one another on a Mayo Clinic discussion board when we both responded to another patient's posting about having high blood pressure and gastrointestinal issues but having passed all GI screenings with flying colors. Kari had responded that the young female patient should consider having a vascular work up. I agreed with Kari 100 percent—the patient's symptoms and history so closely mirrored my own—and responded to the patient saying as much. Kari and I alerted on one another like two hound dogs on the trail of the hunt, which is to say we recognized ourselves in one another. Sure enough, we shared the FMD diagnosis. I can not impress what a life-altering moment it was to have not only unexpectedly stumbled across another FMD patient but my first fellow FMD patient. Kari and I instantly clicked and became fast friends. Every time I hear her Minnesota accent, I think of Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, and Steve Buscemi. She's a firecracker who, after already having a successful career as an RN, has made it her life's work to be a patient advocate for those with FMD,  is the vice-president of the Joe Neikro Foundation, which is dedicated to raising awareness of and researching aneurysms, and founded the Midwest Women's Vascular Advocates group. One night Kari and I had a conversation about how, as a patient, I had never had the experience of any kind of support group—for my bypass, for my stroke, for my aneurysms, for FMD. The next morning FMD Chat was born. The group's goal is to offer non-medical, peer-to-peer support to FMD patients around the world, and it is based on Facebook specifically so that it is open, accessible, and free. Since it's creation, FMD Chat has blown me away. There have been other online groups, but the pervasiveness of Facebook has allowed for more connection between patients than I had previously thought possible. There are so many patients who are frustrated and scared and who simply want to talk to another patient with their same disease so that they don't feel like such a freak. My fellow FMD patients move me with their stories and their compassion. I am so glad to be a co-founder with Kari because I know she is someone whose heart is in the right place and will always put patients first. 

T4 - Upcoming Gigs
I will be writing a guest blog post addressing talking about dying and advance directives for the Death with Dignity National Center this month. Learn more about end-of-life issues by participating in the weekly TweetChat on Wednesdays at 10 p.m. EST. Follow #EOLChat. On Jan. 11, 2012, I will be moderating the hospice and palliative medicine TweetChat, which is held each Wednesday at 9 p.m. EST. Follow #hpm. The absolutely fabulous Renee Berry and Christian Sinclair organize the chat. 

The Problem of Being a "Patient"

There is a woman who graduated in the top 10 percent of her high school class and was accepted into the University of North Carolina at Chap...