My escape before surgery 

It was essential in the days leading upto surgery that I kept myself occupied. I could not do too much however we managed to get out for an hour here and there in the wheelchair which was heaven. 
A place we soon discovered was ‘ the waterfront’ which on first visiting instantly became my “go to” place. I found myself gravitating to the steps which led into the water where the ducks would gather. Just to be able to be outside, hear the relaxing sound of the water and ducks splashing was truly heavenly, it often brought a tear to my eye as I really took my surroundings in. It became my all time favourite place and I found myself very relaxed when there. I would sit and just watch the water whilst listening to music. It was so peaceful it gave me the time needed to think about the surgery, the journey ahead and reflect on the journey so far. 
My head felt cluttered regarding the surgery. Most people go into surgery and ultimately come out cured or significantly better. The main aim of this surgery was to save my life, stop my neck from dislocating, stop the artery and brainstem from being compressed. Ultimately saving my life and enabling me to move again without risk of falling over and causing paralysis. Stop the symptoms in there tracks before they became even more disabling and serious. Having the neck brace as a tool when needed instead of it being a necessity. Any symptom improvement was always going to be a bonus from the long term damage already done and the recovery was going to be mammoth over the course of 12 months plus. There were fears of getting through the surgery safely especially with it being in such a crucial part of the body to developing further instability in my spine over the course of my life to the day I’ll be weaned off the brace and have to learn to do quite basic things again with little head/neck movement. We all in life want a quick fix, myself included and sadly this wasn’t going to be that. I had so many day dreams of waking up ‘cured’ and symptom free, I dreamt of doing everything I had missed out on over the course of many years but I also had to bring myself back down to earth and remember I had EDS, dysautonomia and other health issues that sadly weren’t going away. On the other hand I also wanted the opportunity to live and be able to fight those illnesses as best I could. I wanted a chance at a life again. 
Two days before surgery I sat by the water reflecting on the past two years from the loss of my job, becoming virtually housebound and thinking how much I had lost. I do find it too painful to talk in great detail about this as it’s all very raw. I then as always counteracted those thoughts with the hundreds upon hundreds of people who came together and supported my campaign, the amazing fundraisers, hard work of friends, colleagues and people I had never even met before. Receiving the warmest messages of love and encouragement that pulled me through some very dark days. Human kindness at its finest. 
I started to become mentally focused, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t cry, panic and have 101 fears running through my mind but strangely at the same time they were accompanied by an air of peace and rationale. I was ready for this surgery and the chance to move forward with a secure head and neck!!! 
It’s very important to me to have an escape, often over the course of the last few years it’s been my music I’ve fallen into or imagining going to various places in my mind and almost getting lost there. I was so fortunate to find this beautiful place that at times made me feel like Ali again, it gave me such comfort and peace to enable me think. It’s a place that will be etched in my memory forever. 

Meeting my neurosurgeon for the first time. 

We had only been in Washington a few days when it was time to meet my neurosurgeon, Dr Sandhu for the first time. I was still jet lagged and struggling with adjusting to the time difference but tried to just roll with it and sleep whenever I could really. 

It was Wednesday 6th September, We all took a taxi down to Medstar Georgetown University Hospital. My first thoughts as we approached the hospital were that of the sheer size with different entrance numbers depending on your purpose for visiting. The site was huge with many campus’s with it being a teaching hospital. 


*A very small segment of the hospital* 

We went up to level 7 of entrance 1 (physicians offices) and checked in and waited to be called. Whilst waiting I had numerous forms to fill out, my vertigo was still bad from the journey so i felt like the paper was moving up and down which made for interesting handwriting!!

Initially I was called by the nurse who was lovely and took my blood pressure, weight, height and asked me some general health questions whilst documenting them on the computer. 


Not too long after I met the man himself. It was lovely to finally meet the man who would soon be performing such a major surgery. I maybe biased but I can quite honestly say with confidence that Dr Sandhu is one of the nicest consultants I have ever met, he is extremely polite, non-assuming, very calming and down to earth. Although the topic of conversation was serious it was an absolute pleasure to talk with him. I had my usual 101 (22) questions all written down and prepared and he was more than happy to answer each and every one. 

We discussed the surgery in more detail, I am very much the type of person that needs to know the details. Dr Sandhu initially pulled my imaging up on the computer and explained how C1 and C2 are dislocating and over rotating and how this compromises the vertebral artery and how my clivo-axial angle was acute causing compression of the brainstem which meant I warranted a skull fixation -C1-C2. Dr Sandhu discussed the method which was his own he had designed. The hardware really is like mechano only much more expensive than at Toys ‘R Us and can be adapted and tweaked for individual anatomy. The most common are T- bars or two rods at the back of the skull but quite often surgeons will design there own method which they have found works well and will use that. Dr Sandhu has designed the ‘grappling hooks’ method which essentially was like two bolts either side of the skull, less hardware but felt they fixated to what is very thin bone in that area well. Dr Sandhu proceeded to show me on his phone the method on an open skull during a surgery, I am a little geek at times so i was fascinated by this and not at all squeamish . Shame I didn’t show such enthusiasm back in the day in biology and I might have passed the exam!! We discussed length of surgery, the potential for ‘surprises’ during surgery especially with having EDS and the risk of excess bleeding due to fragile tissue. I had many questions about other possible complications afterwards like developing tethered cord and instability in other areas of my spine. The truth is this is very much a possibility and all I can do is try and keep those areas as strong as I possibly can and keep an eye on it with symptom tracking and scans. Dr Sandhu explained he would take rib from the back and place this over the fusion with the main aim for this to take and my own bone to grow which is then a successful fusion as you need your own bone to grow as you can’t rely solely on the hardware. We discussed a little about what would happen the morning of surgery and how I would need to arrive 2 hours before and I would be taken to a ward which is almost like a holding area where all patients imminently awaiting surgery go. Here I will be marked out by Dr Sandhu, meet the anaesthetist, possible student doctors and have IV’s placed. I discussed some of my fears regarding my stomach with Dr Sandhu as my gastro system is so shocking, he was extremely reassuring that we would find a combination of medications that would work for my stomach and use maximum anti-nausea medications to try and combat sickness. He was extremely well versed in EDS patients and POTS so knew all the things that could potentially arise. I would say I was in over an hour asking various questions and airing my worries and anxieties, never feeling rushed and always feeling understood. 
At the end of the consult we shook hands again and I said I would see him on Wednesday, Dr Sandhu assured me everything would be okay. I trusted him entirely. 
Seven days to go …….

Manchester to Washington 

Well……what a journey with a long way yet to go. It’s been some time since my last blog post and so many things have happended I am going to attempt to add some as-semblance of order and take you on a little retrospective back over the last few weeks when I feel able.  I guess beginning with the journey is as good a place to start as any. 
On Sunday 3rd September we made the trip to Manchester airport. I hadn’t slept a wink the previous night, I resigned myself to the fact no sleep was taking place as the nerves were too great. I had no idea how I was going to make such a mammoth journey in my current state of health, I knew how unwell getting to a local hospital appointment made me but at the same time I had worked so hard on my mindset leading up to the journey that I felt very focused on the task in hand and that is how I looked upon the journey- a task, a task with numerous phases and challenges within it. 

Phase one was making it to Dublin airport where we would stay overnight ahead of the “biggy” to Washington the next day.
We arrived at Manchester airport safely and said goodbye to my brother and his lovely wife who had kindly driven us. I got quite emotional saying goodbye and had a good cry clinging onto my brother. We headed through to airport security. There was none of the usual excitement you’d associate with the airport before embarking on a holiday, this was a mission. I was in my wheelchair due to my vertigo and it was a new experience going through the airport and customs this way. I bleeped (as always) at the scanner and was wheeled to one side to get “checked” then the task of trying to gather all the hand luggage the runner spits out at the speed of light, I felt frustrated I couldn’t do this myself and look after my own belongings. It was all too fast for my head and my body to keep up with. 
We soon got into the airport and had a cuppa, which is my answer to most things. I think that’s the Irish in me. I was nervous for the flight, although such a short flight I am not a keen flyer at all. It’s more the fear of not being able to get off the aircraft than anything else. My dad took me over to look at some of the planes on the runway, whilst we waited for our gate to open. Eventually the gate opened, I was struggling being upright by this time and was wanting to lean my head against something to take the weight off. Nick wheeled me to the gate and I remember my first thoughts were that of dread!! This was not a plane before me this was a coach with wings i thought!! My dad made a joke the Tiger Moth plane he had been in was bigger. I think given the time of day and the few people on the flight they were using the smallest plane!! I remember commenting on the 4 steps up to the plane and then getting stuck in the toilet. As soon as I got to my seat I put my headphones in and got myself in “the zone” I was nervous but this was the first leg of the journey and in 50 minutes I’d of made it. The plane taxied the runway and quickly took off which admittedly was a little bumpy but given it was a coach with propellers it wasn’t as bad as anticipated. 

We soon landed at Dublin airport and collected all our luggage. We were greeted by our good friend Rich who we had arranged to come over and help get me and the luggage to the airport premier inn and help with food. As I’m gluten free and my diet consists of only a few foods it makes eating out very awkward. Luckily we had arranged in advance for Rich to take me over to his lovely friends house to cook some gluten free pasta to ensure I had some food for dinner and breakfast. By this time I was exhausted and went to lay down for a few hours flat whilst my family went for some food. My dads cousin, his lovely wife and there daughter from Ireland had arranged to travel to meet us at the premier inn which was just lovely to see them all and have a lovely cuppa. It meant an awful lot they had travelled over to Dublin to wish us all well. That night I didn’t sleep well, the worry overtook me a little at this point with lots of tears for the flight to Washington. I am not a seasoned traveller and had never travelled that far before well , let alone in the condition I was in. I was scared of getting unwell on the plane and being unable to get off. As the light peeped through the curtains it was around 5 am I got myself up and ready. A few hours later Rich drove myself and all the luggage to Dublin airport and my Parents and Nick shortly followed. Luckily we had arranged special assistance which meant being able to sit in a quieter area of the airport before joining a different queue to check in, I highly recommend this if you are travelling in a wheelchair with medical supplies. We were directed up to airport security, before going through we said goodbye to Rich who had been so helpful and then through the gates we went. My wheelchair was scanned as I went off again. We didn’t have too much time for a rest as we then had to make our way to customs, we chose to fly from Dublin for this very reason that you can do all the customs and essentially gain access to America in Dublin which would be speedier that doing this over in Washington. We went through a second batch of security where everything had to go through again including shoes and my neck brace was swabbed and wheelchair scanned. We then joined another queue this time my finger prints were taken and I was asked the reason for visiting the United States, “surgery” and provided my Esta and medical information, my photo was then taken and i was stamped. By the time we all got through it was time to head to the gate as the plane was boarding. I was nervous but also again very much in the zone, I had a task to do and it was going to get done. When boarding the flight I was helped on board and the Aer Lingus crew were fantastic with there care and consideration. Myself and Nick were in business class, I could not remain upright for anything longer than 30 minutes without issues arising so I needed to lay flat. Again the headphones went in and I tightened my brace in anticipation for take off. The flight seemed to board very quickly and began reversing onto the runway I remember thinking to myself “Well Ali, this is it. You got here missy there’s no going back now”. The plane was on the runway and away we went. There was a little TV where you could track the flight. I lost count of the amount of times during the flight I flicked onto this to see whereabouts we were and more importantly how long left. I did find the flight difficult but being able to lay completely flat made all the difference. Around the 5 hour mark I ran into more difficulty with a severe headache and pain I took my medication and lay back down. I sadly couldn’t participate in the food on the plane but had brought some cake and bits and bobs to tide me over. I drank a lot of water as flying dehydrates the average person and with having POTS you require even more. As well as my wonderfully sassy flight socks which felt like they were cutting off my blood supply I took my doctors advice and took regular walks through the cabin (usually for a pee from all the water)!! I more or less stared out of the window the entire journey listening to my music thinking about what was about to happen and that it was finally happening. It all felt very surreal.




After around 7.5 hours we touched down at Dulles airport. I shed a tear when disembarking and everyone said how proud they were. I was suffering quite badly with vertigo at this point which was unsettling but expected. We made our way through the huge airport to baggage collection and onto airport travel. It was around another 1.5 hours before we reached the house. I was carried out of the taxi and put into my wheelchair.

As I looked up at the house, teary, in agony and with no concept of time I thought to myself “I’m here, I did it. This will be my home for the next 6 weeks”. 

 

Turbulence

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”

The Invisibility War

“You look really well” those four words again, the cynicism builds within me.
‘Do they think I’m making this up or something? I may look okay but I certainly don’t feel it or maybe they are just being nice”.

 
In society, there is a mainstream idea of what illness should look like, how long it should last for and expectations of recovery, when you will suddenly become ‘well’ again. Unfortunately, for those living with chronic illnesses we will never meet those expectations, we may fluctuate within them, learn new ways of managing our conditions, go into ‘remission’, our symptoms may wax and wane but we will not get ‘well’.

 
Many chronic illnesses whether it be EDS, depression, anxiety, lupus or Crohns disease, to name but a few can be invisible either on the most part, on days, weeks or even months. This invisibility can make it extremely difficult for even those close to us to be able to relate, acknowledge, understand and empathise with our individual daily battles with illness. It can be hard for people to relate when something isn’t always apparent or visual. However just because you are unable to see it does not mean it is not there, it’s very real.

 
It is estimated that 69% of those with invisible illnesses were told their symptoms were down to anxiety or not even believed, before eventual diagnosis. Many people with invisible illnesses have spent years being disbelieved, poor treatment and care so you can see how the words of others can have such a significant impact on their wellbeing.

 
Over the years, I became somewhat a master of hiding behind my pain. I did not have a name for all the symptoms I was enduring, I could tell at times certain people doubted the validity of my symptoms and suffering. It was somewhat easier to hide behind a smile than attempt to explain just how unwell I was feeling when overall physically, I looked fine. I even took this stance often with certain doctors or consultants as I felt their willingness to help was not there, they could not find the cause of my problems therefore to them they did not exist or exist in the capacity I presented to them.

 
Since my diagnosis’s my attitude has changed to a certain extent, I am much more open about how I feel both physically and emotionally, I no longer actively hide my symptoms behind a smile, I choose too at times. Validation of a diagnosis can help enormously in the ‘believing’ stakes but not necessarily in the ‘understanding’ stakes. Living with a chronic illness is unpredictable, literally not knowing what is coming hour by hour, even minute by minute. It is a hard task constantly adjusting to this unpredictability. What we can do one day we may not be able to do the next day or even again that same day which those without illness can, not always, but can find hard to comprehend. If we have one activity that day (usually hospital) everything pivots around that. We could be seen out ‘looking well’ but it’s not seen that to enable us to make that outing we had to stay in bed until it was time to leave, we couldn’t possibly wash our hair too and afterwards when we get to our homes we crumble with pain and symptoms, all behind closed doors. When you’re seen out, it’s just a snippet, a snap shot, a moment, not your actual reality.

 

In life, we only see what we want to see and only let people see what you want them to see. We often live our lives through many different faces and smiles that may not necessarily reflect how we are feeling. That good old British stiff upper lip!!!

I am ‘a smiler’ it’s my way of coping, almost like my default mode. I don’t want the conditions to define me, I want to hold onto as much of ‘Ali’ as I can. I will often feel terrible but put my make-up on and some nice clothes just to sit in my house for a feeling of normality and to break up the horrendous ‘my heads falling off hobo look’ of late!! I may take a ‘selfie’, I may post on social media, you may see me smiling however don’t be fooled by the smile, it does not mean I am healthy and miraculously cured. It means I am happy in that moment or I am trying my best.

 
It’s strange that we all, myself included on the most part relate more to the visuals in life. Some days my condition can be very visual, will I let you see that? On the most part, no. I’m not ashamed of my illnesses but I still feel uncomfortable allowing people to see me look so sick, on these days, moments, weeks, I will stay in. I could be in numerous braces to steady my joints after dislocating, my neck brace on, using my walking stick or wheel chair, underneath the make-up looking like I’ve done 12 rounds with Mike Tyson with black eyes from brainstem compression, black and blue with bruises, resembling a real-life mummy wrapped in KT tape and on those days, I find I don’t actively talk about my symptoms as much because they are VISIBLE, often speaking for themselves. Does this mean the days I am not in a wrist brace, means I am pain free? If only, the pains in my wrist are constant it just means on the day I’ve worn the brace the bones have disconnected and its dislocated so I need to rest to it.

 
I would say for anyone living with chronic illness, whether invisible or not to go easy on yourselves. Do not feel you need to justify your pain or your symptoms. What you are experiencing is real. People will never fully understand, even people with the same conditions as you, as we all experience pain differently, we all have different symptoms and coping mechanisms. Our lives are already filled with challenges, we may also be in pain from a life un-lived or lived how we had not imagined so be kind to yourselves always.

 

It may at times be invisible but that does not mean it’s not there. See into the invisibility and help make our invisible, visible.

 

IMG_9973

A Real Life bobble head

We got off the train at Euston station, severe vertigo rendering it impossible to walk. I could not see straight nor gage where the floor was. This was to be the start of many more attacks of vertigo, little did I know what the cause was going to be. My partner, Nick, virtually carried me across the station to a coffee shop where we remained until the spinning settled down enough for us to navigate our way to Medserina for my upright MRI scan. It was August 19th 2016.

Despite the multitude of symptoms I’d had over the years, headaches were never one of them. In May 2015 I began to develop the most excruciating pain to date. I had pains in my head 24/7, they ranged from pressure, occipital headaches/neuralgia, pulsating temples, frontal head aches, pulling back of my skull, teeth and facial pain. At times I lost my speech, my mouth would droop and my face go numb. These were headaches like NO other and the fact they were unremitting, I knew something serious was at play. Debilitating neck pain accompanied the headaches along with clicking, crunching and spasms. I became very aware of the weight of my head. Suddenly I felt like I was carrying a bowling ball on a tooth pick and my shoulders became equally as painful. It was terribly debilitating.
The next 15 months were spent in and out of A&E, neurologist appointments and testing. It was a long, complicated and traumatic 15 months, the worst time of my life. I will revisit this time again in my blog but at present its still too raw.

The oh so familair diagnosis merry-go round commenced, starting with a suspected stroke, due to weakness on my right side and facial droop then followed bleed on the brain week. As time went by and more scans were not showing the cause (as they were supine) the avenues of migraine, occipital neuralgia and hemiplegic migraine ensued. I had injections into my skull without anaesthetic due to allergy, all to no avail.

I was losing hope. I had no idea what was causing such pain but I knew living my life like this was not an option. I couldn’t carry on. As time went by the headaches increased in intensity, shoulder pain worsened and the ability to carry my head was becoming impossible. When upright I’d physically hold my head up with my hands at times. As strong willed as I am, at this point I felt I could not go on another minute. I was still employed but unable to attend work due to the severity of the symptoms.  I spent 3 months mainly bed ridden, feeling very isolated and alone. I was losing every aspect of my life, everything I worked for, everything I enjoyed, everything that made me, me was fading away and I didn’t know why.  My world became very small.

Over time I developed weakness down my right side, I was dropping items, severe vertigo, dizziness, vision problems, increase in nausea, my hearing changed, tinnitus, I started to forget words and have problems communicating at times.  I began choking on liquids and solids and found it increasingly hard to swallow. The list of symptoms increased as the months went by.  I had never felt as frightened as I did at this time.

It was a chance conversation with my Shoulder surgeon that put me on the right path. I’d had right shoulder pain for years and was told by many physios it was just a strain. An MRI scan revealed I had 2 shoulder tears (EDS for you) and I was referred to a surgeon. As well as my shoulder the surgeon was very interested in EDS, asking me about my various symptoms. I told him about the current symptoms and the impact they were having on my life. He immediately said it sounded like neck instability as the way I was describing my symptoms was almost identical to that of rheumatoid arthritis patients he had come across with instability in the neck. 

Once home I took to google, I came across articles on Craniocervical instability and the similarities were far too canny. I found a support group on Social media (they have proven invaluable) it became apparent from other sufferers and medical information that the only way to find Instability in EDS patients, due to the mechanics of why we have it is through an upright Motion MRI of which there was only one in the country.  My GP made the referral.

We arrived at Medserina and were taken into the waiting area. The vertigo was so extreme I had no idea how I would sit in a scanner for the next hour, but I hadn’t come all this way for nothing.  I sat and sipped on water trying to focus on one place in the room as it span around me. Nick completed the paper work for me and I signed.

Nick walked me to the scanner and stayed in the room with me. I was strapped into the scanner with a cage placed over my head. First of all, scans were taken in neutral followed by flexion, once I was flexed a bar was placed to support my head and to limit movement to enable a good clarity of picture, the cage was again placed and the radiographers left the room to take the images.  I then had to extend my neck and it was held in position.  It was very painful but I tried to remain focused to get the job done. Then came rotation both left and right. On rotation right I lost the ability to swallow, this frightened the life out of me.  I could not speak as I could not swallow, a groaning came from me and the radiographers ran in and released the bar. I had no idea at the time why that had happened. The scan lasted just over an hour.

We sat in the waiting area afterwards as I felt too unwell to get back to the station. Myself and Nick got chatting to a lady who felt equally as rough after her scan and it turned out she also had EDS and not only that she lived less than 10 miles from me, small world.  We exchanged numbers.  We left the facility after 30 minutes with my images on disk and was told the report would arrive within the week. The journey home was horrific. My head and neck agony after the scan, vertigo still lingering and now nausea.  It felt like the longest train journey of my life.

A few days later I received a copy of my report, it was clear from the imaging I had craniocervical instability. I did not understand everything in the report so I arranged a telephone consultation with Professor Smith, consultant radiologist.  Professor Smith explained that I had a range of motion in flexion and extension greater than 95 degrees and that instability was demonstrated in flexion and on rotation. He went onto say I would need a fusion surgery however this is not yet undertaken in the UK on EDS patients. I could not believe what I was hearing, it was 2016 not 1916!! The professor gave me a few names of world class surgeons, all based in America and said that UK/Irish patients were having to go for surgery over there.

Panic set in, how could I make it to the states? How could I fund such surgery? I read numerous stories of patients in the UK and Ireland having to fundraise to get over to America. One amazing girl had to sail as she was not fit to fly. I felt I was in a living nightmare.  I needed to get the advice of top neurosurgeons as soon as possible.  In the support group there were talks of another surgeon based in Barcelona who had recently undertaken a surgery on a fellow EDS’er.  More and more UK patients were heading over to consult with him, I felt at that time this was a viable option and we made arrangements to have a consultation over in Barcelona for November.  We also scheduled a Skype consultation with one of the worlds leading neurosurgeons in America for December.

It was only when we made the long and difficult journey to Barcelona to meet with both Dr Gilete and Dr Oliver (Europe’s leading skull based surgeon) did we realise just how severe my instability was and the risks involved…………….

A Racing Heart

Sat slumped in triage the monitor persistently beeped 156,157,158 my heart rate continued to soar. I was taken straight into resus; no 6 hour wait in A&E for me today. I was placed in a lovely gown and electrodes positioned around my body. An ECG was done promptly. The doctor on duty came and asked me questions whilst keeping one eye on the machines. He repeatedly asked  if I had chest pain or any pain in my jaw and down my arm “no, I just feel unable to catch my breath, sick, shaky, dizzy, thumping headache and extremely fatigued”. It was Sunday night, I had been going like this since Friday but the stubborn voice in me continued to say, ‘it will settle’. Sunday came around and things were seemingly deteriorating I knew it wasn’t safe for me to sustain such a heart rate so I reluctantly agreed to get checked out.
A few months previously I had seen a cardiologist who I had been referred too based on my tachycardia and autonomic symptoms. The cardiologist had done a quick bedside active stand test and felt it reasonable to book me in for a tilt table test to investigate POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome). I wasn’t nervous about the tilt table test, I had so many invasive tests in the past, I remember thinking how hard can it be being strapped to a bed and tilted, piece of cake, I thought.
Tilt table test arrived, myself and my dad went over to the cardiology department at the hospital. I started to feel a little uneasy, not scared just uneasy, the fear of the unknown I guess. My name was called and I walked into a very dimly lit room to be greeted by two cardiology nurses. We discussed my symptoms and they went on to explain what the test entails. Electrodes and monitors would be placed to record my blood pressure and heart rate continually throughout the test. I would be strapped to a table lay flat until they obtain a reasonable baseline heart rate, once a baseline is established the table will then be tilted to an angle of 60-70 degrees where I will stay throughout the duration of the test. I must remain quiet throughout the test (hardest part of the test for me, I thought) only talk to relay any symptoms I may be experiencing.

IMG_9595

Image taken from pots.org
I lay hearing the continual irritating beeps of the machines thinking to myself ‘let’s get this show on the road and tilt me’. After around 15 minutes the table was tilted. I was NOT expecting to feel how I felt. Suddenly my heart began to race feeling like it was beating out of my chest, an overwhelming heat came over me and I began to feel sick and dizzy. I relayed this straight away to both nurses who acknowledged me and then remained quiet. After a while my legs and feet began to burn and itch, I peeped down at my feet, yep they were purple. This was an all too familiar symptom I had since being a teenager. I nicknamed it ‘The corned beef legs’ Its blood pooling in the legs and It was a frequent occurrence throughout my life. I could not stand for too long as it would happen and have to fidget and keep moving around to stop it. At High School, there was no way I was letting anyone see the corned beef phenomenon and I lived in tights, even in the height of summer id be baking but putting socks on was not an option, I was too paranoid. I of course did not know why this was happening throughout the years. Finally, the table was tilted back to flat and I was told to just lay quietly. At this stage I felt like I was going to be sick, visibly sweating, headache, dizzy and my corned beef legs felt like they were on fire. The straps were finally removed and I was sat up slowly. The nurse asked how I was feeling. “Awful, I was not expecting that at all, is that even normal?” she sat next to me and explained that my baseline heart rate was 64 BPM and upon tilting quickly shot up to 135 BPM and continued to rise, on tilting back my heart rate stayed up at 128 BPM and eventually went down to 86 BPM. The nurse said the hearts response to being tilted was abnormal and that I did in fact have POTS. I would get a follow up appointment to discuss a management plan with my cardiologist.
Back in the waiting room my Dad was sat, he had waited the whole time. “I’ve got it” there those three unattached words rolled off my tongue again. Walking out of the hospital I explained to Dad what the test entailed and what my bodies response was and that we can now add POTS to the diagnosis list. I remember thinking I had spent so many years without a name for any of my symptoms in the space of a few months I now had two. I felt terribly unwell and just wanted to get home. The after effects of the test lasted weeks.
Fed up and frustrated constantly using an oximeter to monitor my heart rate I purchased a Fit bit which recorded my heart rate all day long, logging it on a graph. It soon became apparent my heart rate was not always high it was in fact the complete opposite and very low. I contacted my cardiologist and he suggested having a 7 day holter monitor fitted.
The monitor was attached to my chest and side and fitted around my neck. It had to stay in place for 7 days and I was to record any symptoms and what activity I was doing at the time. The monitor was extremely uncomfortable throughout the 7 day period however I was told it will be minor irritation from the pads. When removed it became clear this was not the case and I had reacted badly and was burnt. A week back and forth to the hospital for dressing changes commenced.

IMG_9591                          FullSizeRender
When the results came in, it showed as well as high heart rates there was in fact low readings in the late 40’s and 50’s causing me to feel breathless. I was experiencing both tachycardia and bradycardia. This made medicating POTS somewhat difficult as the medication I was due to be prescribed slowed the heart down and as I was experiencing both this was not then an option.
I liken living with POTS to that of having a permanent hang over. As it is caused by the dysfunction of the autonomic nervous system which controls everything our bodies should do automatically, its effects are equally as broad ranging.

The simple act of standing up must be undertaken carefully as I will either faint or feel extreme dizziness (pre-syncope) which is a sign to tell me to sit back down before I faint. On standing my heart often behaves like that of a marathon runner 20 miles in, however all I have done is stood up. The heart pounds out of my chest, initially this used to make me panic but I got used to it after a while and have come to expect this sensation as the norm. Add in orthostatic headaches, a sort of pressure within the head when you stand you can imagine standing isn’t on my top 10 list of things to do but a necessity every day.

FullSizeRender 2

Reading taken a matter of seconds after standing up.

I often feel hazy, fatigued and weak. Brain fog can kick in whereby you feel your thoughts are in a fluffy ball of clouds and unclear. I often forget words mid-sentence a bit like when we go into a room for something and when we get there we forget what we’ve gone in for. It’s like that but frequently throughout the day.

Tremors are a big part of POTS for me and can be quite troublesome. My whole body can shake and hands visibly tremor ,which can make carrying my cuppa into the room a challenge (really need to ditch the cream carpets).

I can become short of breath and not necessarily on exertion either, this one is a scary one as sometimes it feels like I am grappling for a big enough and fresh enough breath in.

My body is unable to regulate its temperature which is a nightmare. I could be sat in the room with a normal temperature and all of a sudden an overbearing heat comes over me, in the space of 20 seconds I feel like I have been placed into a roaring fire and will find myself having to do a rapid ‘Full Monty routine’ (terrible sight) and cover myself in cold flannels.

Sleep- what’s that?? 2-3 hours broken sleep a night.

I am plagued by my digestive system which is also linked to the autonomic nervous system.

My bladder is also effected which can be linked to both POTS and EDS.

There are many overlaps between both conditions making it difficult at times to differentiate whether POTS or EDS is at play.

The day I was diagnosed with EDS.

Sat in the waiting room of The hospital of St Johns and St Elizabeth’s, my stomach full of knots and head whirling with thoughts waiting for what seems like an eternity for the door to open and my name to be called.

It’s August 14th, 2015. We had got a late train down to London the previous night and stayed in a little hotel, I couldn’t sleep last night nerves most definitely got the better of me.

We had travelled down to London to see one of the country’s leading rheumatologists who specialises in Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. You see, it wasn’t the first time I had heard those three letters ‘EDS’ before in passing and who better to confirm or deny than a leading specialist.

Id complained of joint pain as a child, when taken to the doctors it was always attributed to growing pains, reasonable really considering I was a growing child. I was 11 when I had my first dislocation. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was lay on the sofa watching TV at home I turned ever so slightly and my right knee cap just popped out. I started to shout as I had no idea what was going on other than the fact it hurt like hell and looked disgusting. My instant reflex was to bend my knee (NEVER ATTEMPT TO BEND A JOINT WHILST DISLOCATED). I howled with pain, my Mum ran over whilst my brother ran out of the room (I don’t blame him). Instinct kicked in to knock the cap back and low and behold it went quite easily back into its rightful place. My knee throbbed for days and for a few weeks felt very uneasy, I was petrified it was going to pop out again.

Over the course of years this became quite a frequent occurrence. If my knees weren’t dislocating they were popping, clicking, crunching and giving off wild pain. I had to constantly move around, stand up, sit down, bend and straighten. They would stiffen up and throb. I’d wake often in the night having to lift each leg out of the bed and do a little circuit of the bedroom. Driving could be painful, frequently needing to pull over, get out to stretch my knees whilst holding the caps in place. Navigating the stairs was a challenge often shuffling myself up and down on my bottom. Over time my wrists, ankle, fingers and right shoulder joined the dislocation party!! What was this party and why was my whole body involved? This was one party I did NOT want an invitation too!! Sometimes I could relocate the joints myself and others warranted a trip to A&E.

Throughout these years, I had seen several specialists from endocrinologists, immunologists, physiotherapists, dermatologists, gynaecologists and so on!! Again, having a multitude of tests and going around the ‘diagnosis circle’ of spondylosis, arthritis, lupus, Addison’s disease- all sorts was branded about.

The first time I had heard of EDS was from a physio who in passing mentioned I was very hypermobile. I went home and consulted Dr Google. The information at the time on EDS was very limited and did not cover what it entails. Due to how sparse the information was I could not connect everything to it. It was then mentioned by a rheumatologist, I had gone regarding all my joints as at times they would swell and the current theory was an auto immune disease of some ilk. The rheumatologist looked at the MRI of my knees and mentioned both were subcluxed (partially dislocated) and were mal tracking. She then examined the rest of my joints saying “You’re very Ehlers-Danlos ’y’ “ She took this no further and sent me on my way with steroids for my swollen joints and a referral to orthopaedics and physio. It was then at the orthopaedic appointment it was mentioned AGAIN how hypermobile my joints were. We discussed a potential knee operation but the likelihood of the pins popping out and further surgery was high so we agreed on more physio. Once home I typed Ehlers-Danlos syndrome into the search engine again, bearing in mind 5 years had lapsed since I last consulted Dr Google after it was first mentioned. I could not believe the information before my eyes, it was me. Joint dislocations, gastrointestinal problems, bladder problems, chronic joint pain, back pain, fatigue, insomnia, headaches, palpitations…I went through the list, methodically ticking the symptoms off in my mind-tick, tick, tick. The information was MUCH more advanced than 5 years previously.

I took to social media to hunt down EDS support groups. As I sat reading posts from other sufferers for the first time in my life I could relate and connect my broad ranging symptoms to theirs. Even more evident was the commonality of years of anguish before a diagnosis was made, a very late diagnosis. I built up enough courage to write a post outlining my current situation with symptoms and my history. Many people came forward offering excellent advice and support. The one piece of advice that came up numerous times was getting booked in at The hospital of St Johns and St Elizabeth’s, London to see one of the country’s leading experts in the condition. After discussing with my family, we came to a unanimous decision that I must go and consult with this expert.

“Alison Turner” Oh heck, that’s me. In I went.

The consultant was a very warm mannered man. He listened attentively as I discussed my symptoms over the course of my life from joints, fatigue, pain, tremors, palpitations, insomnia, stomach etc. Of course, to be thorough I had sent my medical history over in advance so he was armed with all information whether relevant or not. I was asked if he could do a thorough examination of my joints. Each joint was meticulously examined, moved, and even listened too. Next I was asked if I could perform a series of movements with my joints, this is known as the Beighton scale and is used to quantify joint laxity and hypermobility. See images below-

Beighton Scale

 

Image 1- Elbows bend backwards more than 10   degrees.

Image 2- Thumbs bend back onto the front of your forearm.

Image 3- Fingers bend at a 90 degree (right angle) to the back of your hand or little finger bends at a 90 degree angle.

Image 4- Knees bend backwards more than 10 degrees.

Image 5- Hands placed flat on the floor with your knees straight.
I then had to stand straight whilst my spine and posture were assessed. Following this my skin and scarring was examination, my skin was pulled at various places mainly my neck, hand and elbow. Finally finishing up by listening to my heart.

After the physical examination, we discussed my symptoms further and family history. I felt quite uneasy with mixed emotions at this point, I had no idea what he thought and I wrestled with ‘If I’m diagnosed at least its finally an answer Vs I don’t want to have a chronic condition’. “Without doubt you have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome Type 3 with classical cross over and Marfan habitus features. I kind of froze at this point whilst the consultant discussed why and how he came to this conclusion. On examination he said hypermobility was demonstrated at the CMCs, fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders, hips, ankles,mid foot and patella with subluxation and mal tracking. Repeated dislocations and subluxations of numerous joints (knee and wrist in the consultation as well). Recurrent soft tissue injuries and Arthralgia. Scoliosis of thoracic spine.   He noted bruises on my skin, wide thin scarring and hyper elasticity. Gastric dysmotility, local anaesthetic resistance, postural symptoms of pre-syncope and syncope suggestive of cardiovascular autonomic dysfunction, tachycardia, headaches and urinary issues suggestive of pelvic floor weakness and bladder wall elasticity.

The consultant created a plan of action. I would need to see a cardiologist for my tachycardia to be assessed, urologist to have my bladder symptoms investigated, he recommended isotonic drinks in the interim to try and help with the syncope. A physiotherapy rehabilitation programme, possible neurologist to get the new and crippling headaches investigated. He sign posted me to educational and supportive resources of the condition. On leaving we shook hands and he told me if I needed anything this was an open appointment and not to hesitate to contact him and a report would be sent over to my GP.

The waiting room had filled up in the hour I was in the consultation, I gave my partner Nick the nod and made a speedy exit to the door. “I’ve got it” was my response to being asked how it went. We sat outside the hospital, the busy London hustle of people and traffic I rang my dad “I’ve got it” there those three matter of fact words again. My dad was upset, I found myself going into more detail about what the appointment entailed. I was very weak at this stage exhausted from the travel, lack of sleep and emotions we headed over to the Beatles café across from the hospital and had a quick cup of tea we didn’t have long before the train home and all I could think about was getting to the station in one piece. I wanted to go home.

As soon as I found my seat on the train my headphones went in, I didn’t want to talk, just think. I stared out of the window the entire way home, random mixed emotions infiltrating my system. I felt sad, relieved, validated, angry, exhausted, worried and back to sad again. I couldn’t compute the emotions, I just went with them. I shed a few tears but on the whole I was very quiet and composed.

A few days after arriving home my consultation/diagnosis letter arrived, seeing everything in black and white I suddenly felt quite aggrieved. I wanted to photocopy it and send it to every doctor who judged me. I knew I had to keep myself together as a new battle was ahead in obtaining help for my symptoms and investigating the new headaches that had seen me in hospital on several occasions with suspected strokes and bleed on the brain.

Little did I know at this time, just what lay ahead of me.

 

A Gut Feeling

Its 1.30 am, hello ‘painsomnia’. I toy between catching up with Line of Duty or writing my next exert. I have so much I want to write about before my surgery, however monumental Line of duty is it’ll have to wait.

Considering my head is falling off and I’m like a real life rag doll, it may seem a touch unusual my next post being about my gastro intestinal system. It was one of my first symptoms and manifestions of EDS, going right back to age 11 and 21 years later nothing much has changed.

I’ve had a bad relationship with my GI system for over two decades. I have a deep destain for it and it for me. It’s relentlessly let me down. The unremitting nausea, abdominal pain that has seen me for hours on the floor wailing for it to stop, passing out from pain, hospital admissions, A&E trips, heartburn, reflux, uncontrollable bowel to now a none functional one. You name it, its happened and the worst part- it NEVER leaves. The only difference is some days/hours it’s more bearable than others. Do I know when those more bearable days/hours will be?  If only … it can strike at any given time.

Living with chronic GI issues has most definitely changed me as a person. It dominates all aspects of living almost like it’s screaming and vying for my attention all day, everyday. Some moments I can mentally switch off from those screams which I’ve learnt through years of practice and other times the screams are all consuming and there’s no getting away from them.

In the early days I tried to hide my symptoms as best I could. There were times I’d physically gag on food and struggled with swallowing. I’d roll my food around my plate mushing it up to try and make it a consistency easier to take. What I now know to be oesophageal spasms. Often putting my hand over my mouth so people couldn’t see me trying ever so hard to actually swallow.  The pains were far too often unbearable and I’d take myself off to lay down or have to avoid eating at certain times if I knew I had a work commitment or such like. Over the years I had unknowingly created my own management plan. If I knew I had a meeting at 2 pm there was no way I could have lunch before then or I would never make the meeting no matter how wobbly or hungry I felt. I was always the girl with the rumbly tummy in those meetings. Don’t you just hate when that happens?

This rigorous planning also rolled out in my personal life, if I knew I was going out I couldn’t eat for at least 4 hours before it or I definitely wouldn’t make it. Going out for meals was a thing of the past unless I wanted to roll around a restaurant floor or toilet (which happened) for all to see. The pains could last anything from a few agonising minutes into hours upon hours feeling like my bowel was being stabbed, ripped out, burnt out, often the pain that severe it would actually silence me. The worst part is not knowing again, when this will strike?, where you will be? and who will see? There’s no pattern, no trigger and often no warning.

Every aspect of living became a problem, hardwork, had to be planned and thought out. Even with the most stringent of planning there was no guarantee I’d make work, an event etc.  It was always the same flakey answer “Ill have to see how I am”. I always felt quite paranoid of what people thought, at the end of the day I had a set of symptoms but no name. Going to gigs was one of my biggest enjoyments, over time I found myself watching the person/s I went with and seeing how much they could enjoy themselves often with a tinge of sadness of why I couldn’t be like that.

Add to the unbearable pain unremitting nausea, a massively underestimated symptom. We’ve all had it either the precursor to a stomach bug, eaten a dodgy takeaway, drank a little too much its a nasty symptom with many cross over causes for me now the one common denominator being it’s always there, to differing degrees. Then we add in the generics- heartburn, reflux, diarrhoea, constipation, oesophageal spasms, and what a cocktail of treats that is.  My very own  gastric-mojito!!

I have had to change my diet dramatically over the years due to increasing difficulty with breaking down and digesting foods. My diet now consists of around ten foods on repeat, all gluten and soya free. My mouth waters at the prospect of steak, chunky chips and peppercorn sauce 😉 and there again comes the tug of war between mind and body.  The thing is I LOVE food, always have, sadly that feeling isn’t reciprocated.  One of the hardest aspects to begin with was how alone and different I felt. I couldn’t take part in what are probably the two most popular and social aspects of living food and drink. As hard as it is not being able to eat the foods I love and more annoyingly so that my limited diet still doesn’t take my symptoms away I do still hold onto the fact at present I can eat. Many EDSers have sadly gone into intestinal failure and are unable to manage solid food what so ever.  I know this is a possibility for my future given recent events but I don’t dwell, why worry about something that hasn’t happened yet?

Aged 23 me and my GI system had fallen out on a whole other level. I unknowingly jumped aboard what would be the bumpiest, unsettling and frustrating of journeys.

A seven year uphill hike trying to navigate the health care system began. It opened my eyes……

Like anything in life there is good, bad and indifferent and the same goes for healthcare professionals. Before I go on I would like to point out that I am a huge advocate of our National Health Service which is clearly being run into the ground (I’ll save the politics for another day). Being so heavily entrenched in it for so many years it was impossible not to see the chaos and dysfunction deeply embedded within it.

I stopped counting at 60 the amount of GI investigations I’ve had. Multiple cameras, catheters and balloons (that was an interesting day) in every orifice, MRI’s, CT scans, drank litres upon litres of barium, bowel prep, pill cameras, hydrogen breath tests, tracer studies, infusions, motility tests and so on.  For those reading that have gastro issues of any nature and have undergone investigations you will know how unpleasant gastro testing is in particular.  Your dignity is well and truly left at the door as you pop that hospital gown on and head into yet another invasive procedure/investigation.

Ironically the aforementioned tests were never the most painful aspect, it was the attitudes of GI consultants in the early days before I had a solid diagnosis that was the most damaging of all.

I had mentioned that I was experiencing pins and needles in my extremities,  feeling breathless and unwell . He looked at myself and my Mum with a puzzled expression and said my blood results were clear, absolutely nothing wrong with me. I left the appointment in floods of tears, this wasn’t the first time I hadn’t felt believed and I knew it wouldn’t be the last.  My legs were becoming increasingly numb and weak yet I walked back to my dads car hanging my head with distain, all these symptoms very real and happening and yet again not being believed. That weekend I collapsed at home, my legs were numb, lips grey and I felt extremely confused. I was rushed to hospital to find out the bloods I had were NOT normal and that I had dangerously low B12 on which treatment commenced.  At this stage we made a complaint which we had never done before only to receive a back dated letter from the consultant reporting that my bloods were not normal and I need to commence on intramuscular injections of B12 with immediate urgency.  The sheer cheek, back dating a letter to cover ones back.  Id of had much more respect with an admission of a mistake and a quick apology. Done. Did that ever happen …..nooooo the complaint seemed to disappear into the ether.

I can fully accept mistakes, we all make them.  Crikey Ive made a lot in my time.  Often I received clinic letters addressed to a different name, clinic letters that bared no resemblance to what the conversation entailed, inaccurate information which I can accept, to a certain extent. An overflowing NHS system mistakes will happen but when its your life and wellbeing at play its very worrying.

A new pair of eyes, it gave me hope. This time after years they would get to the bottom (no pun intended) of what was happening. When I was first investigated after explaining my symptoms to gastro No 2 his view was set well and truly on Crohn’s disease, everything fitted in he said. Chronic diarrhea, weight loss, joint pains, mouth ulcers, B12 deficiency “TEXTBOOK CASE” , he said. After many investigations no inflamation was found and the tide rapidly turned.  I couldn’t believe the shift.  Suddenly it became about my mental health, am I stressed? depressed about anything?…..”only my stomach ” was my answer to that.  Here we go again. I was then inadvertently accused of being anorexic, my eating habits questioned and weight loss. I could not believe this switch it was like talking to a different person.  Granted Crohn’s disease may not be the cause but something had to be and to jump to psychosomatic causes was rather damaging.  Around this time I had infusions as my iron was dropping and I was not absorbing the tablets, id even had surgery and adhesions were found wrapped around my bowel, gastritis had been found x3 times and various bacterias yet no pieces were ever put together I was only told “If we keep testing we are inevitably going to come across things”.  Id absolutely had enough, the appointments ended up causing anxiety in the lead up.  Knowing you were about to enter the lions judgement den, made to feel like the symptoms were in your head over and over yet I couldn’t give up, I knew how I felt, I knew this wasn’t right, I would NOT give up.  

Sadly I know of many more stories like my own and not just exclusive to EDS.  I am sure some people reading this post can relate. It seems over the course of time we’re going to healthcare professionals for help and being greeted with such questions as “What do you think it is?’, “Are you depressed or stressed?” it seems to be the first port of call which is costing lives.

Not feeling believed by the very people I was turning too for help put a question in my mind as to whether other people believed me.  Do people think this is in my head?  Over the course of years it was genuinely very hard to keep plugging on often hearing comments “Have they not found out what it is yet?”. “They need to sort you out”,” They need to move quicker”. Sadly the health service doesn’t have the fluidity it once did.  Things are missed, not joined up, mistakes happen, books need to be cleared ready for the next cohort of patients who have been waiting over 6 months for an appointment. Almost like the conveyor belt on The generation game.

Fast forward to gastro number 3- The Messiah. I am extremely fortunate to finally be under an excellent consultant.  He specialises in neuro-gastroenterology and is the most understanding and supportive consultant to date. Over recent years through having the correct tests its been proven I don’t absorb my nutrients adequately so no matter how much of the 10 foods I eat I cant gain weight like other people and struggle maintaining it.  I have been diagnosed with gastric dysmotility which sadly has progressed in recent months resulting in many A&E visits and further tests. Essentially the nerves in my bowel are not firing properly nor are the muscles. What should be a smooth rhythmic action is that of a disorganised, uncoordinated and beyond sluggish.  This explains why loading up on laxatives didn’t even work as its the nerves themselves. This causes a great amount of pain as food can back up and the fear with EDS is that obstruction or perforation of the bowel can occur as our tissue is weak.  I will soon be meeting with my bowel function nurse to discuss a neuromodular medication which they want me to try which acts directly on stimulating the nervous system alongside another medication.  I have this same dysmotility throughout my digestive system causing the above mentioned symptoms but much worse now in the bowel. Its essentially a failing colon.

It transpires that gastro-intestinal manifestations in EDS are rife.  Connective tissue is throughout our digestive system and is essential to the passive mechanical movements needed to complete digestion.  Connective tissue is also present around the nerves of the digestive system.  With our connective tissue being weak, fragile and abnormally produced this can create a variety of problems anywhere in the digestive system.

To read more about the gastrointestinal manifestations in EDS, please click the link below.

Gastrointestinal manifestations of EDS-

Now if you’ve got to the end of this extremely long blog post, THANK YOU and go and have a refreshment 🙂 This was always going to be quite a lengthy post which I found quite hard condensing (believe it or not). All my posts won’t require an interval and loo break, I promise.

Much Love

Ali xxx

Next Stop- EDS Diagnosis Day.

A Zebra Life…but why the blog?

First blog post Ali…….NO PRESSURE!!

I guess at this juncture I should explain why I have chosen to blog, my reasoning behind it and what I endeavour to achieve by opening myself up in the public domain.

Since being diagnosed with EDS, POTS, CCI and AAI my world has become smaller, as my capabilities have deminished due to ever increasing symptoms. There is a constant tug of war between my mind and my body.  My broken body is unable to keep up with my minds desires.  With that comes a minefield of emotions whereby these emotions can and do detonate at any given moment.  The unprectitblity of symptoms and capabilities adds further explosive devices to the field and before you know it you’re gently tip toeing through each day hoping a device doesn’t set off.  Essentially each day is dangerous, unpredictable and exhausting.

Through blogging I would like to address the emotional turbulence of  living with a variety of chronic illnesses.  How I feel, how I manage these feelings or don’t in some cases, what are these emotions and what triggers them?

The journey to diagnosis was far from smooth. It was 10 years of constantly being let down, judgements, deflation, anger, upset, fear and exhaustion. There were many times over the years i felt like giving up, at times i lost hope.  I knew something wasn’t right, I knew my body did not function like that of the majority. We spent 7 years intensively going round in circles within the medical world. Sometimes my hopes were raised when something was found “This is it, Im going to get better” only for treatment to fail or have no effect on symptoms and back to the drawing board I went.

When you don’t have a name for your symptoms it makes it even harder for people to understand and to some extent believe.  I found myself keeping a lot of my symptoms to myself, I became a master in disguising my symptoms.  Socialising became increasingly difficult.  I could make a plan with the best intentions but have to cancel due to my health.  I often felt people didn’t understand or thought I was picking and choosing what i wanted to go too.  I began to stop socialising as it was easier than constantly feeling like you are letting people down.

Work became increasingly difficult and I found myself adapting my days, eating certain things at certain times of the day in order to try and reduce symptoms, napping in my car and shorter days. Every single part of my life had to be planned with military Precision, yet I still didn’t know why. I really gripped onto my job for as long as possible but in truth I struggled for a lot longer than I let on.  I loved my job, I didn’t want to lose it.

I hope that blogging will give me the platform to be able to reflect on the past from constant testing, people not believing me, trying to act normal and keep up with others, the loss of my job and at times what feels like the loss of my identity.

From diagnosis to beyond!!  I will never forget ‘diagnosis day’ from the trip, to the consultation itself to all the emotions that came instantly and thereafter.  The diagnosis finally gave me validation and the jigsaw was finally put together. Once diagnosed with EDS in some respects medical doors opened for me and in other respects it became quite apparent of the limited knowledge within the medical community of such a complex condition.  Another battle then began.

I would like my blog to be a true reflection on what living with EDS is like day to day, my experiences of testing, appointments, medical professionals and things I have learnt along the way. I would like to go back to diagnosis day and certain tests with the main aim of helping others who are facing similar.

The hammering as I like to call it!! Shortly after my diagnosis of EDS came what felt like an endless stream of further diagnosis’s within a short period of time.  I remember at the time thinking ‘how unlucky can one person be’ spending 30 years with symptoms and no diagnosis and then they don’t stop coming.

The diagnosis of CCI and AAI was my biggest blow to date.  I really did struggle and still do accepting this.  Having a potentially life threatening/altering condition gives you a constant unease.  Not just an unease of symptoms but an unease of ‘am i going to wake up in the morning’, ‘ am I going to die at 32’, ‘will I be paralysed’, all very real feelings.  A further blow came when it became apparent how the operation was not carried out in the UK on EDS patients.  The only one positive that came from this is that it opened a door whereby I have met THEE most amazing people suffering with the same conditions from all over the world.  Now that I am forever grateful for.

I hope my blog reflects what living with CCI and AAI first hand is like.  I would like to post about the current situation in the UK on this surgery and the position patients are left in.  I would like to discuss the importance of having a strong network of people that really do ‘get it’.

In October 2016 fundraising began.  I personally had a mental struggle with exposing my story and vulnerability.  It did not sit well with me to begin with and I felt very anxious at the time of launch.  The response has been phenomenal, breath taking and overwhelming.  So many people came forward from friends, family, old school friends, past work colleagues and total strangers and have organised the most amazing events, offered support and love.  I will never forget this for as long as I live and has been a huge driving force in keeping me moving forward.

I would like to blog about the daunting prospect of fundraising, everything it entails behind the scenes, media and the power of people.

Rods and bolts in the neck you say???  All being well May 2017 will see me and my family take the journey over to Barcelona to undertake the biggest surgery of my life.  I will be having my skull fused to the top two vertebrae in my neck.  This is a high risk operation given the junction of where the surgery takes place and the spinal cord and nerves involved.  The operation will be tough, the recovery long yet necessary to save my life and ultimately eventually give me some quality of life back.  I will be away from home for 5-6 weeks before its safe to return to the UK where recovery will continue.

Documenting this journey is very important to me as a reflection of hopeful progress.  I would like my blog to discuss in more detail what the surgery entails and my trip to Barcelona for consultation. After surgery my partner will take over the blog  for a time documenting first hand the experience.  I hope to blog thereafter.

In essence my blog will be a little bit of passed, present and future sprinkled in for good measure.  I really do hope you enjoy my blog and walk alongside me on this journey.

Much Love

Ali xxx