No Child Should Have to Hurt Like This

 

One of the hardest things about the past 11 years battling chronic pancreatitis – harder than the gut wrenching pain, the nausea, the inability to eat without setting off a chain reaction of symptoms – is the loneliness. Even surrounded by family and friends who love me, and who have been there for me over and over again, I often feel alone.

Chronic illness does that to you because much of what goes on when you’re sick happens internally. And I’ve gotten very good at keeping a lot of that hidden. I don’t want the world to see me only as this “sick” woman. I don’t want people to give up on me, and so I put on a face to the world that is often far from the woman I feel. 

Now imagine being a child. Imagine experiencing all these horrible symptoms from a disease that has no cure, and trying to understand why your body is failing.

The loneliest people I see are those whose child (or children) are battling pancreatic disease. Their faces reach me like a beacon of despair, their pain hits me squarely in my heart.

There are few things more difficult than taking care of a chronically sick child. A child who is looking to you for the answers. That aching loneliness becomes a part of you.

Which is why this year I’m raising funds for the National Pancreas Foundation in honor of children with pancreatic disease and The Pancreas Care Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.

The National Pancreas Foundation (NPF) provides hope for those suffering from pancreatitis and pancreatic cancer through funding cutting edge research, advocating for new and better therapies, and providing support and education for patients, caregivers, and health care professionals.

Founded in 1997, the National Pancreas Foundation is the only organization dedicated to a cure for all diseases of the pancreas.

The Cincinnati Children’s Pancreas Care Center is one of a handful of centers in the United States dedicated to caring for children with pancreatic diseases. Their multidisciplinary team treats patients from around the world, taking a centralized approach to provide diagnosis and effective therapies, including pain management.

In addition, Cincinnati Children’s is one of only a few hospitals in the country offering total pancreatectomy and islet auto-transplantation (TPIAT) for children with debilitating chronic pancreatitis.

According to their website: “Patients come to the center from across the country and around the world to receive expert diagnosis and advanced care for acute, recurrent and chronic pancreatitis, as well as pancreatic tumors, pancreatic insufficiency and pancreatic birth defects.”

The center works closely with the National Pancreas Foundation and is part of the #4 ranked GI Division in the nation by U.S. News & World Report.

My goal is to match the $5000 I raised for the NPF in 2015, but to do that, I’m reaching out to my village for help.

I need you.

The kids need you.

I’m asking you to join me by clicking here to donate to my campaign. There is no amount too small. No effort insignificant. I thank you, thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

Please feel free to share this post with my gratitude.

I heart your heart! 💜💜

Life Interrupted Part 3: A New Normal

As my disease progressed and my symptoms worsened, I became a “frequent flyer” at the ER – the term some ER staff use to refer to patients they believe are drug seekers.

The humiliation and lack of compassion I often encountered during those Emergency Room visits meant I would do anything to keep from going there unless the pain became unbearable.

My breaking point came at a family friend’s viewing. I vividly remember standing in front of his casket, looking down at this 82-year old man who had passed away, and wishing with all my heart it was me in there instead of him.

It was a watershed moment. That tenuous thread that held me to life was poised to break, and I was so very close to letting it take me down, take me away.

I don’t know what pulled me back from the brink of suicide. Certainly my love for my family and friends was a primary reason. But here’s the thing many people don’t understand: those of us who’ve walked that razor’s edge feel an overwhelming despair that we’re causing those we love to suffer. That we’re a burden.

Because sometimes we are.

In that moment I chose to get counseling before it was too late, because somewhere, deep inside me there remained the faintest hope.

Hope. Hope. A tiny, beautiful seed…There’s an old Mexican proverb that says: “They tried to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.” 

I clung to that hope and a chance for a better quality of life when, in November 2011 – six years since my life was dramatically interrupted – I went for a consultation at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center with a brilliant, well-respected and humble surgeon by the name of Dr. Syed Ahmad.

He offered me that chance, with no false promises. He was clear about the fact that the total pancreatectomy with islet cell autotransplantation surgery was meant to reduce or eliminate my pain.

It was not a cure.

He was clear that I could be trading one disease for another called diabetes.

Door #1 – stay the course.

Door #2 – take a chance.

I chose the door out of pain, knowing I might be diabetic, knowing it meant a 9-10 hour complex surgery where they would remove my pancreas, spleen, duodenum, part of my stomach and restructure my entire digestive tract. Knowing it meant days in the ICU, weeks in the hospital, and a full year of recovery with no guarantee it would be successful.

I chose Door #2.

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December 1, 2011 following my 10-hour surgery.

December 1, 2011 was the beginning of my “new” life. When I came out from the fog of anesthesia, despite the epidural, despite the pain medication, I knew something was different.

That deep, gnawing, blow torch, intractable pain was gone. It was gone.

They had me sitting up the next day.

They had me walking.

I walked every inch of the 9th floor of UC Hospital over and over and over again, dragging along my cumbersome IV pole as company. 21 laps around equaled a mile. It took me more than a week to manage that.

I had to learn how to eat again. Much of my digestive system was damaged, removed or surgically altered. “Food” through an IV caused me to vomit immediately and often.

Stop. Start. Stop. Start.

Until finally, I had my first real taste of food in months. And it stayed where it was supposed to stay. And I rejoiced in the magnitude of a body so resilient, so strong.

I left the hospital and made it home two days before Christmas.

I’d spent my 53rd birthday hooked up to IVs, monitors, and enough wires to make a giant bowl of spaghetti, and now I was home celebrating the holidays with my family. Best birthday present ever!

Seven months after my transplant surgery I was able to travel to Zurich for a month to be there for the birth of my daughter’s second child. Grandchild #4. Alice Mabel.

I was elated. I was scared. I was grateful. I was exhausted. But I was there.

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Me in a field in Zurich, Switzerland.

It was the beginning of living a new normal – a life somewhere between the once healthy me and the woman who had physically hit rock bottom.

Now, nearly five years later, I’m totally off Fentanyl and Oxycodone. It took a year to wean off these powerful narcotics – and no, I didn’t have to go to rehab to do it. Without the excruciating pain, I just didn’t need them anymore.

I still have pain, but for the most part it’s manageable, and related more to the damage the disease did prior to the surgery. I still have digestive issues and difficulty absorbing nutrients, which means I’ll be taking pancreatic enzymes and managing my symptoms for the rest of my life.

I am an insulin dependent diabetic, but my sugar levels are fairly well controlled – something that wouldn’t be possible without the islet cell transplant.

My motility issues due in part to prior damage and the restructuring of my digestive tract, means I have days when I can’t do much more than hug a heating pad.

My husband ended our marriage in 2012, not even a year after the surgery, and I’ve moved to a new state to be closer to my transplant team.

But I’ve gained so much more than I’ve lost, and there’s real beauty in that – in hitting the wall and deciding to take just one more step. And another. And another.

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A new normal

Am I the same as I was before the surgery? Before chronic pancreatitis took hold of my body?

No. I’m not.

I’m me, but different.

It’s a new normal I’m still learning to navigate, but it’s one filled with grace, resilience, and extreme gratitude.

Because, if nothing else, this disease has taught me that I am a Warrior. Those of us with chronic illness and chronic pain are all Warriors.

Missed reading Part 1? You can find it here. Part 2 is here.

******

Would you be a love and click here to support my fundraising efforts on behalf of kids with pancreatic disease and the National Pancreas Foundation? I’ve set a lofty goal to match the $5000 ($5057 actually) I raised in 2015, and this is so personal for me. 

Any amount you choose to contribute will make a tremendous difference in the lives of those who are suffering. It does take a village. It does take a tribe, but each of us sows the seeds of hope and can make a real and lasting impact. 

I heart your heart. Truly.


#pancreaticdisease #chronicpancreatitis #npf  #lifeinterrupted #youdontlooksick #thesekidsneedus #nationalpancreasfoundation

 

Life Interrupted Part 2: Down the Rabbit Hole

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By late fall 2005, my physical symptoms began to dramatically affect my day-to-day life. I couldn’t continue to tell myself it was just stress or that I was “run down.” I began my quest in earnest to discover what was happening inside my body.

It’s also when I discovered that even doctors don’t have all the answers.

And so, I began my journey down the rabbit hole.

The next two years were spent going from specialist to specialist, each of whom ruled out whatever common disease they thought I was suffering from. The usual suspects: IBS, diverticulitis, gall stones, ulcer, stress.

A few doctors listened, but most were trying to fit my symptoms into a neat little box, and when that didn’t give them the answer they expected, I was suddenly off their radar.

According to a friend of mine who is a cardiologist, doctors are trained that when you hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras. The doctors I’d seen were looking for a horse, but maybe, just maybe, I was a zebra.

Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro was a walk in the park compared to the mountain I was scaling now.

I felt like I was free falling: in unrelenting pain, scared, forsaken, defeated. As time went on though, I got mad. There’s nothing like a little righteous anger to help you garner some strength.

After the removal of my gall bladder in the spring of 2007, and things became worse, I’d had enough. I went online and researched the top Gastroenterology hospitals in the U.S. The email I drafted explaining my symptoms, tests I’d had done and their results, and my recent surgery, was sent to the department heads of five of them.

While my own local doctors wouldn’t return a phone call, four of the five department heads replied to my email within 48 hours offering to help.

Hope.

Slowly, ever so slowly, I was making my way out of the rabbit hole.

Johns Hopkins was the closest of the five top hospitals to where I lived, and in the early summer of 2007 I made the first of many 3-hour drives to see if they could help me find an answer.

They did, but it wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear, since it meant discovering I had a progressive, incurable disease. After more that two years of acute, debilitating symptoms, my disease had a name: Chronic Pancreatitis.

Between July of 2007 and 2010, I went through a half dozen endoscopic procedures, a sphincterotomy, several stent placements in my pancreatic duct which promptly occluded or migrated to who knows where in my body, an open abdominal surgery to exclude cancer, and a bilateral dissection of the nerves around my pancreas in an effort to diminish the pain.

I was taking pancreatic enzymes to help me digest food, higher doses of narcotics to try to dull the incessant pain, and eventually was being fed through a PICC line in my arm. Drip. Drip. Drip. 12 hours at a time.

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My life no longer felt like my own. Who was this now 100-pound woman who had to give up her career because she was too sick to even sit behind a desk for more than a few minutes; whose hair was falling out; whose nails were weak and brittle?

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And there were losses that stretched well beyond my career

There was the loss of friends, many of whom grew tired of my “always being sick” and canceling out on plans at the last minute.

There was the loss felt within my family, who tried to understand and be supportive, but who wanted the “fun” me back. I felt the loss of intimacy with my husband, who was drifting farther and farther away.

I’d lost the ability to be spontaneous or plan for the future.

There was so much grief

For the active woman I once was, who now spent her days lying in a fetal position, heating pad over my stomach, praying for the pain to go away.

Grief for the times I couldn’t spend playing with my grandkids. Grief for my “me-ness.”

There was so much shame and guilt

For not pulling my weight.

For needing others to do for me what I used to do for myself.

For wanting to give up.

Hope was a slender, slender thread and I was white-knuckling my way through each day, each hour, each minute.

Even with high doses of Fentanyl and Oxycodone, my pain hovered around a 7 out of 10 on the pain scale. A really good day was a 3. But there were fewer and fewer good days, and I had begun settling for a few good hours.

Part 3 coming next…

Missed reading Part 1? You can find it here.

******

Would you be a love and click here to support my fundraising efforts on behalf of kids with pancreatic disease and the National Pancreas Foundation? I’ve set a lofty goal to match the $5000 ($5057 actually) I raised in 2015, and yes, it’s personal. 

Any amount you choose to contribute will make a tremendous difference in the lives of those who are suffering. It does take a village. It does take a tribe, but each of us sows the seeds of hope and can make a real and lasting impact. 

I heart your heart. Truly.


#pancreaticdisease #chronicpancreatitis #npf  #lifeinterrupted #youdontlooksick #thesekidsneedus #nationalpancreasfoundation

Like a Phoenix Rising (Again)

I’m sitting in the waiting room at my doctor’s office, something that’s become more and more a part of my routine than I’d like to admit.

Most days I genuinely feel I’m on a Shero’s journey and I’m grateful to be alive, despite the numerous health challenges that have plagued me for the past twelve years.

Most days I go about the doctor visits, hospital admissions, tests, blood draws, and I.V. infusions as if it was just something I do, like brushing my teeth or taking a shower. Just part of life. My life anyway.

But as I sit here this morning, waiting for my name to be called, I’m feeling a weight heavy on my heart. I pick through the various adjectives, trying to lay claim to the one that fits what I’m feeling. And then I realize what it is.

It’s grief.

Bone-crushing, heart-wrenching grief.

Grief for the life I used to have before the diagnosis that changed everything.

I want to lay down my armor and sink into the sorrow. The regret.

I want to cry.

But of course I don’t. And not because there is a room full of people (many dealing with their own significant health challenges), but because I rarely give myself permission to be vulnerable. Especially around my illness. I soldier on and tell myself I could have it so much worse, or that I’ll be letting others down, or that it’s self-pitying to allow the negative feelings room to breathe.

These feelings are further complicated by the messages I received as a child.

The tape that plays for me says I only receive love and attention when I’m hurt or sick. It’s not true, of course, but it was definitely the case as a child, and throughout my life I’ve let that internalized belief impact my ability to see myself as healthy and whole. There’s been a push-pull relationship with that little girl who got attention the only way she could and the woman who knows I am worth so much more than that.

And if I’m honest, there is a residual shame that surfaces when I remember those times I sought out solace, looked for love through the lens of sickness.

I worked hard as I moved into midlife to rid myself of this worn out tape. Climbed Mount Kilimanjaro at 41 (after more than a year of intense training), cut back on my beloved Mike and Ike’s (and all sugar – much more difficult than climbing a mountain), began eating organic fruits and vegetables, enjoyed protein-rich shakes and probiotics.

I was 45 before the image I carried of my inner self finally felt congruent with that of my outer self. I thought I’d outrun my past, but life surely loves irony, and at the peak of my ‘health’ I became seriously ill.

Being sick brings up all kinds of vulnerabilities for me.

Shame.

Doubt.

Insecurity.

Self-blame.

In our current culture so much credence is placed on positive thinking and the Law of Attraction and, of course, in my work as a coach I’ve heard my fair share of well-known experts espousing the belief that we bring to our life what we really, truly want.

I’ve even been known to tout these mantras a time or two (or three). But couched within these well-meaning belief systems is a more insidious message: That if bad things happen, somehow we’ve asked for it. And that’s too close to blaming the individual for what are often experiences well beyond our control.

The reality is people get sick, bad things happen, and no amount of positive thinking or willing prosperity is going to change that. What we do have control over is how we choose to deal with what life brings to our door.

Sitting in the waiting room as I work through the grief that hit me like a tsunami, I open up to the understanding that being sick also means I’m human.

I’m human.

I’m not getting out of being in this imperfect body for the duration. And really, I wouldn’t want to.

Despite the vulnerabilities that come up. Because of the vulnerabilities that come up.

I realize it isn’t about preventing life from happening – in all its glory and pain. It isn’t about thinking of ourselves as weak or damaged when life throws us a major curve ball. It’s about what we do with what we’re given – how we choose to rise above, how we choose to be fully human.

I realize it’s no better to see the glass as ‘half full’ than it is to see it as ‘half empty.’ The reality is that it’s both. The wisdom comes in seeing both sides, and becoming empowered to deal with the whole glass effectively.

And with that understanding, I free the tears that have been aching to be released. I free myself.