As I reflect on the last two months, i do so with mixed emotions. Each day has been very turbulent, almost like a pick n mix bag of emotions, thoughts and feelings. I think the phrase used for Marathon runners when they have hit the 20 mile mark is most fitting “hitting the wall”. I have most definitely over the course of the last two months ‘hit the wall’, repeatedly.
The last eight weeks have seen my family and I having to seek opinions from numerous Neurosurgeons overseas and here in the UK in relation to the rest of my neck. I received a call at the beginning of May informing me I would require a full cervical fusion from the surgeon I was due to have my surgery with at the end of May. My initial reaction was panic, floods of tears and fear, I could not imagine my life with a fully fused neck, not being able to move my head and all the limitations that would bring. This isn’t what we had prepared for. Can people live fulfilled lives with a fully fused neck? Yes, I am fortunate through this illness to have met some wonderful people some of which are fully fused through the neck and some of which beyond that. It isn’t easy both on a pain level and having to adapt but it can be done. Once the initial shock dissipated a little, questions started to flood my mind. The first being, why? This had never been mentioned before in my consultation nor had it in subsequent dialogue over a seven month period. I felt uneasy, I discussed it with family and friends and we came to a unanimous decision to seek further opinions as I could not roll with something I did not 100% believe in. This would be the biggest surgery of my life. We sent my images over to numerous neurosurgeons in America, all independant of each other and the waiting game began for the opinions to come in.
In the midst of this unease and uncertainty saw me having to attend over seventeen appointments. Now, my life of late is a sort of one large hospital appointment, there is rarely a week that goes by where i don’t have at least 2-3 appointments however this time things were a little different.
My first appointment during this time was with Ear, nose and throat as I am unable to breath through my right nostril, a problem I have had for some years but ignored. The appointment was to discuss the results of a CT scan I had of the temporal bones looking for a particular condition, the results came back clear, YES i thought to myself there isn’t yet another problem. The consultant then proceeded to get an endoscope out of the draw and placed some jelly on the end and began feeding it up both nostrils, I was not expecting this and nor was it a pleasant experience. I had just about had enough of these mini hose pipe tests over recent weeks!! He informed me I had a severe sinus collapse and deviated septum which would require a surgery. “You have to be kidding me” off memory were the words of choice. He explained what it meant and what the surgery would entail, we agreed my neck needed to be fused first as no anaesthetist would put me to sleep with an unstable neck so we agreed we would follow up to discuss a time frame in August with the view of the surgery in the new year. The surgeries were just piling up from fusion surgery, impending shoulder surgery for tears and now a sinus surgery. 2018 is going to be great !!
Next came urodynamics testing. What a fun morning that was !! I have been experiencing bladder symptoms for around two years however in the grand scheme of symptoms it was lower down the priority list, yes i have a list!! In recent months it had stepped up a notch and my urologist referred me for urodynamics testing and referred me on to the head urology consultant for review. The urodynamics test was not a pleasant one for me at all, now I was not expecting to breeze through the test but I was also not expecting the pain it caused. I am going to spare you of all the ins and outs (literally) so… in a nut shell the test involved a tube being placed up the urethra and into the bladder and if one hole wasn’t enough they kindly placed one up the bottom too. After a few wails during placement I remember thinking the tube resembled a strawberry shoe lace, remember the ones you got when you were a child from the sweet shop? Theres that fond childhood memory banished!! Next i had to stand up with said tubes placed whilst the nurse tugged to ensure they were in, nice. My bladder was then filled with water and i had to state when i felt i could not take anymore and i felt full. This was testing how much fluid capacity my bladder can take. After this I had to cough numerous times to see if i peed myself on a lovely strategically placed nappy pad on the floor, i remember looking at the ceiling at this stage thinking “ When did it all get to this” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Now came the emptying of the bladder, this was to see if my bladder empties fully and what the pressures are when doing so, i had to sit on a ‘fake’ toilet and pee, simple i thought. well….. it hurt, it stung and as always took me forever to pee in dribs and drabs. Once finished the tubes were removed and I was told the results would be sent quickly to my new consultant with a follow up. I greeted my dad in the waiting room like a rabbit in head lights and burst into tears. Looking back I think I had just had enough of being poked and prodded the last few years.
The next week saw me at Wythenshawe hospital for allergy testing. An MRI of my spine at Salford to review the cyst I have happily resting in my spinal canal and an appointment with a kidney specialist after traces of blood and protein were coming out in my urine and a decreasing kidney function. The specialist was lovely and showed so much interest in my conditions, she also new a lot about EDS which is always a bonus that a doctor isn’t taking to google or wikipedia !! She felt the blood loss was due to a thin kidney membrane due to the EDS and advised to have regular monitoring of kidney function.
The following week I saw my wonderful specialist bowel nurse, she’s such a lovely lady. As my bowel isn’t playing ball at all it is causing a lot of pain daily. We discussed a relatively new drug on the market which acts on the nerves to basically try and get them going a bit, we agreed I would have a trial of this. I then went to see the swallowing team later that week as i have been choking intermittently on fluids and often my throat closes numerous times during eating but thankfully it happens very quickly. My swallow was assessed and it was identified that I have an uncoordinated swallow and spasms, i was given thickener to put in my drinks. JOYS.
Genetics at St Mary’s hospital was the next port of call, this was a long appointment to discuss the possibility of other types of EDS and connective tissue diseases. My DNA was taken (Jeremy kyle style) for testing which will take a few months to come back however the geneticist was quite confident I had hyper-mobility type EDS with some classical cross overs. We saw my wonderful GP the next day to update her on my appointments and to discuss the torrid time I had been having with stroke like symptoms, irregular heart rate, dizziness and low blood pressure. My blood pressure was low that day and she decided she wanted to do some blood tests.
The day arrived for my follow up with the head of urology to discuss my urodynamics. The urologist delivered the news that my bladder was not voiding correctly, the pressure was over double for what it should be for a female with slow flow and residual water left in the bladder. He informed me I would need to start self-catheterising to ensure my bladder was being sufficiently emptied daily. He went onto say due to the fact i found the urodynamics testing so painful I would need a rigid cystoscopy to dilate the urethra as he suspects a stricture and to have a look inside the bladder however with my neck being unstable I could not be put to sleep for this which would be the normal course of action, it could be done under heavy sedation, although i would still feel a lot of pain. He explained to me the correct name for my bladder issues is neurogenic bladder where the nerves are not working correctly, this could be due to EDS or a condition called tethered cord of which i am yet to rule out. He explained I would need to attend a specialist nurse led clinic on 27th June to be tought how to self catheterise and that we would have to see if able due to the narrowed urethra and if its too painful i may need the rigid cystoscopy to widen the urethra under sedation as we may not be able to move forward without it. That day I had another scan of my bladder after emptying it which showed fluid still remained. I left the clinic feeling like i had been hit by a truck. My dad gave me a big cuddle and reassured me we will together get through this next set back. He is my absolute king.
Set backs….. that is exactly what I felt my life had become. There isn’t really a week that goes by when a new problem doesn’t arise, something new to take on, another challenge and I had just had enough. How much can one person take? I remember thinking, this just isn’t fair anymore. There was not one organ or joint that wasn’t affected. I cried a lot that day, i felt angry, sad, frustrated and full of fear. When hit repeatedly with problem after problem it becomes even harder to digest new problems, I often feel too overwhelmed to even allow them to register in my mind. I think that is why I find doing my blog so therapeutic as often instead of talking about my feelings with people i will go quiet, shut off and withdraw and blogging gives me the arena to indirectly face what is happening.
Having no control over my body is a constant worry of whats going to go next, its important to me to keep control over the one thing I do still have a hold over, my mind. I inevitably will pick myself back up time and time again because there is no other option. Keeping the mind strong isn’t easy as the capabilities dwindle, you can’t occupy yourself, you can’t do the things that once filled your time so you have to constantly find new ways of doing things to maintain some level of independence and dignity. At present I am trying to teach myself sign language, it is something I am able to do without causing too much pain, it keeps my mind occupied and i hold onto the thought that maybe one day i could use it in a capacity of helping others. It is currently giving me a purpose.
The following week i received a call from my Gps practice regarding my recent bloods and have been called in as some abnormalities have been picked up on my renal and liver function tests, hopefully nothing too serious. We travelled to Salford to meet my UK neurosurgeon to discuss the recent scan of my cyst, some good news at last, a little win. The cyst has not changed in size in 12 months, he informed me he could not fully rule out a csf leak within the cyst and the only sure fire way to do so would be a CT mylegram which in itself can cause a leak especially with EDS patients as you are piercing the dura so we agreed a watch and wait for another year for now.
There were many more appointments throughout the course of the last 2 months and with many more to come over the coming weeks and months, I am trying to look at each appointment as one step closer to a better quality of life although I am not quite there in my mindset yet with the recent knocks.
Where am I right now? On Monday we received the fourth and final opinion from the neurosurgeons. The opinions had come in dribs and drabs over the course of two months with dialogue between myself and them. Its been very difficult managing the communication, the uncertainty coupled with the above appointments and set backs but i live to tell the tale, granted a little wind swept and battered. The general consensus from all surgeons is that I do not need at present a full cervical fusion however i am in desperate need of being fused skull-C2 due to the compression of my brainstem and rotational instability which most definitely reflects in the pain levels of late. I am dislocating very mildly at C3-4 and a bit more at C4-5 however it is not impinging my spinal cord and does not meet a surgical threshold based on my imaging a year ago. Will this be my last neck surgery? Probably not, no. However that is a bridge to cross hopefully a long time into the future. My family and I thought long and hard about all the opinions presented to us and how they all correlated, we liked the consistency. Together we made the decision for me to undergo the surgery in Washington with a surgeon who has performed this operation countless times on EDS patients. This is a major surgery and does not come without major risk and we feel this is the right direction for me and my condition. The thought of getting to Washington fills me with dread but it can be done and will be done. The change of course has resulted in us having to open the fundraising again as the costs are significantly higher in America however I remain positive as this has been achieved by many patients in the UK and Ireland. I am very fortunate to have the most amazing support network of people who quite literally keep me going through there encouragement each day.
Over the next few months I hope to write about my feelings as we embark on this life changing journey and head towards the surgery in September. Although i feel of late i am hanging on by a thread i am determined more than ever to face this head on and get a better quality of life for myself. The surgery will not only save my life, it is life changing and will enable me to take some control back of the rest of my body.
“Do not be afraid to travel a new path, it maybe a way to find what you’ve been looking for all along”