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It’s been two weeks since I started Plaquenil, the DMARD that will hopefully get my undifferentiated connective tissue disease under control. (That’s just fancy doctor speak for “undiagnosed autoimmune disease.”) I’ve also been taking Prednisone, a steroid. It’ll take up to six months for me to notice any real difference on Plaquenil, so the improvements I feel are all thanks to Prednisone.
Already my morning stiffness—haha—is down by like 90%. I’m still stiff, but I can move, which is amazing. When my alarm goes off, I don’t have to lay in bed for an hour before my body will cooperate. I now usually just lay flat on my back for a few, because my lower back has been killing me lately—especially when I first wake up. Once I’ve taken my morning dose of Prednisone, though, things start to calm down.
I’ve had minimal side effects with Prednisone. I’ll get a couple hours of hot flashes, but those go away. It doesn’t keep me awake at night, either (though I have plenty of painsomnia to keep me company). Usually, once it kicks in, I’ll change into shorts and a tank top—I kid you not. It’s been like 20°F outside and I’m wearing shorts in my house. (That’s -7°C for my non-American friends. Brr!)
These past couple weeks have been relatively smooth sailing. I even got back into a human schedule; I’ve been trying to be in bed by 10 p.m. and up by 8 a.m. Getting up is easy. I have so much work to do—that I’m excited about—and can actually get out of bed, that I can push aside any fatigue. The sleeping part… not so much.
Once Prednisone wears off for the day, the pain comes rushing back in. Plus I may have pushed it a couple times these past two weeks. Last weekend, I helped with my godson’s birthday party. We had 20 kids. 20! It was insane. I also ran after my littlest godson, who asked if he could go to the car, then the poor kid went the wrong way. He was technically doing right. We just didn’t consider that we all moved the cars around and that he might get confused. So Auntie went tearing after him in a total panic (even though my goddaughter was already almost to him). Talk about an adrenaline rush! Which I promptly paid for.
Still, it’s kind of cool to know I can still run; thinking about having kids always freezes me up, because I’m a little scared I won’t be able to properly care for them. Well, adrenaline is my best friend! If I do have kids, I’ll be just fine.
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I did yoga the other night—the easiest, most gentle three poses I know. Well, I don’t know whether it’s the super cold temperatures or what, but my joints did not like it. My joints have always snapped, crackled, and popped my whole life, but it doesn’t usually hurt. Well, these past few days, it’s been agony every time. And within minutes of my little yoga sesh—which I was so excited about, because I finally felt physically up to doing it—I was deeply regretting it. My hips, knees, and lower back were screaming. And making sounds I’ve never heard! So, suffice it to say, I’ll hold off a bit longer before I get on the mat again.
I’ve also come down with some kind of cold thing. The most annoying part about being autoimmune is that I get every sickness double. Meaning, if I get a cold, it knocks me on my ass. It also usually attacks my joints. It’s like my immune system gets ultra confused and goes completely haywire.
Thankfully, it isn’t too bad. My joints are actually relatively okay. It’s my throat that isn’t having fun. I’m also ultra-fatigued, and kinda wandering around in a cloud. We all got sick after the party, and my poor goddaughter was miserable the other day. At one point she said to me, “I think I took your suggestion and made ramen, but I don’t remember.” Now I understand why; yesterday, I was all kinds of foggy. I was still able to get some work done, though, and today I plan on tackling even more. My couch is my other best friend; I just pull up the recliner, put my MacBook Pro on my lap desk thing, and work in comfort. The recliner keeps the pressure off my lower back, hips, and knees.
Honestly, I’ve been pretty content lately. That’s probably a whole other post, but I just feel very grateful for the way my life is. I’m still going easy on my wrists. Instead of doing any writing, I’ve been working on administrative things (like my annual inventory, which needed to be done anyway). I’ve also been writing for Textbroker, but limiting myself to one article a day for now. (Textbroker is a freelance platform for copywriters; I can look through all of the assignments, choose what I’m interested in, write the article, and get paid within a couple days. The pay isn’t the greatest, but it’s working out perfectly for me and my situation—plus I’m earning extra money without leaving my home.)
Lately I’ve been missing social media, so I don’t think it’ll be long before I’m back. However, I’ve decided that when I do come back, I’ll be limiting myself to about an hour a week. I have to rest my wrists as much as possible, and it’s also been really nice to take a break from all the negative headlines. This is also a whole other post, but I’m an empath and need to practice lots of self-care so that all the bad news of the world doesn’t completely rip my heart to shreds. I accidentally heard about Aleppo and I’ve been intermittently sobbing ever since.
All in all, though, I’m very optimistic that Plaquenil and Prednisone are going to help me. Unfortunately I can’t stay on the Prednisone for long. I see my rheumatologist next week, so I’m sure we’ll discuss that then. From experience, I know that within a couple days of stopping it, the flareup is going to come raging back. But I have faith that Dr. S will take care of me. I’m in good hands—especially after advocating for myself.
I never followed up on my last health update (the one where I found out I was once again looking at a Lupus diagnosis). Since that post, I’ve gone into a full-throttle, super nasty flareup.
My pain has been steadily at 10/10 (8/10 at the lowest, with medication). I thought I had it under control after breaking up my Tramadol dose. Usually I take 100mg at bedtime, but I started taking 50mg in the morning and another 50mg at lunch instead, using my herbal medicine before bed to get me through the night. I got the idea to split my Tramadol from a friend, whose pain management doctor told her that Tramadol isn’t great for treating pain; you have to take it ahead of the pain—which I’ve long suspected. The downside to all of this Tramadol? TMI alert: I’ve been a little constipated, which I’m pretty sure is making my back pain worse.
Joint pain is symmetric, meaning both sides hurt. So both of my thumbs are painful and stiff, both knees, both elbows, etc. Oddly, my right side hurts more than the left in some cases; my right big toe, right hip, and right thumb have consistently been more swollen and painful than the left side. I suspect these joints all have bone spurs (Dr. Memet said she thought my toe did [both in the toe joint itself and the other nearby joints]—, my hip x-rays showed bone spurs, and my thumb feels exactly the same as the other joints do).
The pain is a hot ache and it radiates. But it also feels… bruised? There’s almost a throbbing, too; I can feel my joints swelling. It’s really hard to explain. Regardless, it feels fucking horrible.
My lower back is equally painful on each side, and very stiff. This morning Mike had to help me get dressed and put my slippers on. He had to help me sit and stand up multiple times. And every time I need to get something from one of our cabinets, he’s had to do it for me (our cabinets are underneath our counter—no overhead ones).
The pain wakes me up at night, multiple times. There have been a few nights where I couldn’t get comfortable and so didn’t sleep at all.
On top of the pain, I’m drained—no matter how much sleep I get. I’m not usually a napper, but I’ve been caving and taking naps. I’ve also been chugging Emergen-C like it’s my job. Neither that or coffee really help, though, so I’ve mostly been drinking plain water.
The only place I’m truly comfortable is on the couch. It curves nicely against my back and reclines, so I can get the pressure off my hips and knees too.
I need my cane while out and about—if I’m even up to leaving. I stayed home instead of going to a wedding reception this weekend. Today I basically haven’t moved from the couch, because walking and standing are sucky.
Since my last post, I found out that my anti-dsDNA was positive and pretty freakin’ high. A positive anti-dsDNA means:
there’s definitely something autoimmune going on
there’s a pretty good chance it’s Lupus
the immune system is attacking the DNA
the person is currently or about to be in a flareup
the higher the levels, the worse the flareup
My rheumatologist’s lab measures anything over a 10 as positive; my anti-dsDNA measured a 24. That’s more than double the normal level.
My rheumatologist said he doesn’t want to diagnose without a positive ANA, but I’ve found several medical journal articles that said doctors don’t need more than a positive anti-dsDNA to diagnose Lupus—especially with presenting symptoms. My rheumatologist said he was calling in Plaquenil, though—or so I thought. When I went to pick it up at my pharmacy, it wasn’t in. I checked the pharmacy several times, and they even checked other locations. No dice.
Honestly I’ve been so exhausted, not to mention tired of the medical merry-go-round, I haven’t called my rheumatologist’s office yet to see what happened with the ‘script. I was on the phone multiple times with them before and after my blood work came back, trying to resolve my bad appointment. I’m just sick of having to do all of this.
I have, however, been reading up on the anti-dsDNA, Lupus, and some other things.
What Arthritis Pain Feels Like—It’s possible that I have both OA and RA (or Lupus). Dr. M told me I have bone spurs in multiple joints. However, some articles indicate that bone spurs can be caused by RA/autoimmune. It really depends on the author, as rheumatologists all have different opinions. Either way, this article describes my pain to a T.
New Findings with Eppstein Barr Virus—I know one thing for sure: this all started after I had mono, which is caused by EBV. I thought this article was interesting, because even though it didn’t mention Lupus, it did mention some findings. For example, researchers believe that a healthy zinc level may keep chronic active EBV disease at bay. I’m wondering if my EBV is slowly evolving into Lupus. If so, could taking some of these supplements help keep flareups away? Or maybe it’s CAEBV? Chronic Fatigue Syndrome? Rheumatoid Arthritis? Lupus? Some combination of multiple or all of these? Can someone please get me some answers before I lose my mind? 😜
Anti-DsDNA is more specific to lupus than ANA and can be very valuable in making a diagnosis of lupus. […] If the anti-DsDNA levels are high, the disease is more likely to be active. There is either a current flare or a flare may be imminent.
I’ve long been complaining about Connecticut healthcare. Recently I found another spoonie living in CT who, after years of getting nowhere, went to see a rheumatologist in Boston. Within a single office visit, he diagnosed her and began treatment. I’m starting to think it’s time to get an out-of-state opinion.
She also has a post all about filing for disability, which really gave me hope because I thought after being rejected that there was no way I could get it. I know many people get rejected the first time and have to try again, try again, but I thought since I lost my diagnosis, I definitely didn’t have a chance. But it seems like, as long as you can prove your illness is affecting your ability to work—which it is—you can get disability.
I know I should’ve called both my primary and rheumatologist days ago, because even if they don’t feel like doing anything about it, at least this will be documented. It’s nearly time for a followup visit with my rheumatologist anyway, and I’m scheduled for a followup with my primary for November 17th. (Long story short: My primary wants me to come in every month in order to have my Tramadol refilled.) And my rheumatologist wanted to check my levels again in another month.
I’m out of ink (and can’t afford more right now, sigh); I’d really like to print off these articles as well as a list—my current symptoms, things I’ve tried, goals that I have, etc—and bring them in with me. I’ve started looking for rheumatologists in Boston who take my insurance (spoiler: there aren’t many), and I’m considering picking one and calling to make an appointment. But it’s a three-hour drive there, and we’re barely scraping by—never mind able to afford a trip to Massachusetts and back. I’m really starting to think it’s worth the risk, though.
I also need to get my medical records from Dr. Mongelluzzo (my former primary) and Dr. Greco (my first rheumatologist who retired, which was why I started seeing Dr. M); those records have blood work showing positive anti-dsDNA (and I’m pretty sure a positive ANA, too). I’d like copies for myself, rather than transferring them over. For one, it’s just good to have them. And two, I don’t trust Dr. S to actually read through them (nor do I trust Mongelluzzo’s office to actually fax them over, as I’ve had so many issues with them in the past; they’re very nice but extremely busy). I’d like to make copies of my copies for Dr. S, and highlight things that fit into the puzzle. Basically, I have to be my own detective and advocate.
The problem is, I need to get into Waterbury and sign a release form for each of them (the offices are across the city from each other). This is also a gas money issue. And, I have to pay for copies of my medical records from Dr. Mongelluzzo (I’m not sure about Greco’s office). A friend got copies of hers, and it was something like $2 a page—so I know my records are going to be hefty, since I was there for several years.
So maybe now you can see why I’m so doctor-fatigued. 😂
It’s all got to be done, though, if I’m ever going to get anywhere. I’d really like to start moving forward, because I’ve been in limbo for the past nine years. I mean, I dropped out of the university I was attending for my B.S. in Elementary Education because I was so sick. And I never went back. I’m still paying off those student loans. Even though I really love being an author, it’s not enough. We’re drowning here; I’m frustrated because I can’t work, and Mike is frustrated because his job doesn’t pay enough and he can’t seem to find anything else. It’s kind of funny because we both really want to take care of each other.
He insists that he can handle everything if he finds something better; I insist that, if only I could get better, I could work too and he wouldn’t have to stress it.
I keep hoping that if I work hard enough, write better books, and write enough books, we won’t even have to worry about it anymore. But the reality is, even if I became the best author in the world with the most published books ever, it’s not always possible to make a living. I mean, maybe I’m being cynical and negative, but someone has to be on the low end of the spectrum. Not everyone can be a NYT/USAT bestselling author or even mid-list.
It’s been nine years since everything changed. I went from mostly healthy to being unable to get out of bed during the worst of flares. It all started with a numb arm, then joint pain and fatigue. I got passed from doctor to doctor—none of whom could figure it out. At best, they’d scratch their heads. At worst, they suggested my problem was psychiatric.
This whole thing has been enough to drive me insane, and today nearly pushed me over the edge.
Last fall, I was diagnosed with Reactive Arthritis by my rheumatologist, Dr. M. She said it could still be Rheumatoid Arthritis, but since I’m seronegative and my arthritis seemed to be enthesitis-related, she decided to treat it as ReA. She started me on Sulfasalazine and for the first time in nearly a decade, I started to feel hopeful.
That’s all been ripped away.
Over the summer, I found out Dr. M was leaving the practice. I saw my new rheumatologist, Dr. S, in September, and the appointment did not go well. I still really want to stress that he was very nice. He just didn’t listen. I called the office to complain and after a bit of pushing, was able to switch to another rheumatologist—as long as Dr. S okayed it. In the meantime, I was supposed to get my blood work done.
I finally did last Thursday. It took me a while, because as usual, my life was blowing up. I was dealing with pain and fatigue, financial stress, and my Biz Noni passed away. But I went, even though I didn’t have any expectations. “Everything came back normal” is a string of four words that I’ve come to loathe. However, Dr. S called me back personally yesterday evening. I missed the call, so he left a voicemail asking me to call back as soon as possible.
I knew right away that something had shown up.
I got the voicemail after office hours, so I called first thing this morning. And Dr. S told me that one of the antibodies for Lupus came back positive.
I’ve done this dance before. Anyone who’s been with me since my blog was called Perpetual Smile knows that my previous primary care physician was convinced I have Lupus. But because my blood work is always borderline, that diagnosis was dropped after seeing a rheumatologist. I was with Dr. G for years until he retired, and he always told me that my blood work is at the bell curve—that something is brewing. But “something” isn’t helpful, and if it’s only brewing, I sure as fuck don’t want to know what full blown feels like. Dr. G didn’t want to diagnose me with or treat me for anything until we had something definitive—which could take years. In the meantime, I was miserable.
This whole thing has been maddening.
So here I am again: maybe Lupus. No diagnosis. I can’t work a normal job because my illness makes me flaky, but I don’t qualify for disability because I don’t have a diagnosis. (And even then, when I did have one, I got denied.) Because Dr. S didn’t think I could possibly have arthritis, I was taken off Sulfasalazine. All I have is Tramadol, and it isn’t enough. It tones the pain down to a 8 or 7 out of 10, but often it barely makes a difference. And I can’t function on stronger painkillers.
I’m back to square one. The entire past nine years of labs and doctor’s appointments are meaningless. And while part of me is kind of all “See, I told you so”—since Dr. S kind of dismissed me—the rest of me is seesawing between shock and… I guess denial would be the best word.
I don’t want this.
But I do have to admit, ReA never really fit. SSZ helped at first but then I felt worse. And ReA is not triggered by mono, whereas Lupus is. Lupus explains the weird labs, the painless sores in my mouth, the joint pain, the fatigue…
Honestly, though, I don’t know if I can go through all of this again, only to be told “Nope, sorry—we still don’t know what’s wrong.” I don’t know if I can do another eight years of this. I’ll do it anyway, of course, because I need to feel better and I want to know what’s been completely ruining my quality of life.
Late Monday morning I finally gathered up the nerve to call my rheumatologist’s office. I was super anxious about it because, in the past, I’d asked to see another rheumatologist in the practice and been denied. Apparently they have a policy that patients can’t switch doctors.
I’ve never heard of any policy like this, but no matter how hard I pushed at the time, the office staff refused to let me see the other rheumatologist—even though Dr. M had suggested I see a psychiatrist and sent me on my way. Even though my weekend was very calm and relaxing, by Sunday night I was a ball of nerves again. What if they wouldn’t let me switch? What would I do then?
It wasn’t until I got to my best friend’s house that I was able to call. Sometimes, you just need a buddy. We sat in her office and, while she worked on something for a client, I got on the phone.
“Hi,” I said when one of the receptionists picked up. “I need to speak to someone who I can leave a complaint with…”
I explained everything that happened last Thursday. Calmly. Even though my hands were shaking. The woman I spoke with was very nice. She listened. She didn’t interrupt me. When I finished, though, she explained that it’s against their office policy to let patients switch doctors.
It felt like the floor had suddenly dropped open underneath me and I’d plummeted through. Still, I took a sip of ice water and a deep breath. I was in control, and I wasn’t taking no for an answer.
I reiterated my concerns, that it just was not okay for Dr. S to come in and change everything when I’d been doing so well. Even if sulfasalazine was giving me nasty side effects, it had been helping—which was what Dr. M was hoping. Seeing the results told us that she’d been right, that I have enthesitis related arthritis. We just had to try another DMARD.
I explained that I had really wanted this addressed before it gets much colder, since that’s when I really have trouble with my arthritis. (And I’m already having a really hard time with the cooler temps, but I guess that’s another blog post.) She repeated their policy and explained that, since it’s not really a complaint and “more a difference of opinion,” they wouldn’t ordinarily have me switch. Plus, Dr. C is not currently taking new patients.
Again, I felt the ground giving way beneath me.
But, she said, it just so happens that a new rheumatologist is joining the practice at the end of the month—and she takes my insurance. (Which is state insurance, and boy, do patients on state insurance get treated differently. But that’s also a post for later.) The receptionist told me that she can talk with Dr. S and she’s sure that he will okay the switch. In the meantime, she asked, “You are going to do your blood work, right?”
“Yes,” I said. “Of course.”
She asked if I wanted her to wait to talk to Dr. S, and I said no—I’d rather her speak to him right away. So she was going to send him a message and then the office would call me once they got the new doctor’s schedule. I thanked her and, mostly satisfied, hung up with her.
When I got off the phone, Sandy—who’d been sitting there the whole time—told me that she was really proud of me. “You handled that conversation really well.”
Unfortunately, it just comes with the territory. For the last near decade, I’ve had to learn to advocate for myself. Doctors and their offices are busy, at best. At worst, they don’t want to listen for whatever reason. I’ve been steamrolled by so-called professionals many times—people telling me there’s nothing wrong with me or it’s “just” this or that. It’s hard not to feel beaten down. Throughout my early life, I got spoiled with a pediatrician who usually knew the answers and always listened to my parents and me. I could trust that he would help me feel better, or at least take the time to try.
I could get into all of the things wrong with the medical system—especially when it comes to being a chronic illness patient and a woman—but I honestly don’t have the spoons right now. I’ve spent the last nine years feeling invisible in so many ways. I don’t want to be erased. This is my quality of life, and no one else is going to fight for it.
I’m the only one who can.
I have a young family member who is in the DCF system and placed with another family member. He is special needs and, through DCF, has an APRN social worker who oversees all of his medical and occupational needs. She keeps track of everything and assists his foster parent with setting up appointments and getting different issues resolved. The other day I was thinking about all of this, and how helpful it would be if all people with chronic illnesses were able to have an APRN like that.
I know my body really well, but I don’t have all the knowledge that an APRN does. And since they understand the medical system as well as various illnesses, they can help you accomplish quite a bit.
I don’t know what it would take to get something like this rolling in the U.S. Hell, maybe it already exists. But it sure would be amazing.
Anyway, I’m moving forward. I’m nervous because, for the next month, I don’t exactly have a rheumatologist. I can’t call the office with complaints about my knees, hips, and elbows and expect any results (since Dr. S insisted that I can’t possibly have arthritis, that I don’t need “those medications,” and that I “should be grateful”). It makes me both angry and uneasy. It’s not fair.
But for me and so many others, this is the way it is. Not only do we fight our bodies, but we also fight for our rights as patients. And I get that rheumatologists have polarized opinions on seronegative arthritis. There are countless medical journal articles and research about both opinions. Dr. M was strictly of the “arthritis has to show up in blood work” camp—until I refused to stop coming to appointments and kept reiterating my symptoms and issues. She finally decided to treat me based on my symptoms rather than blood work.
It took me almost ten years to find someone who would.
I can’t afford to spend anymore time working with another doctor who doesn’t believe in seronegative arthritis. Dr. S was very nice and is very much entitled to his opinion. But this is my life, and I refuse to continue being miserable in order to hold his or anyone else’s hand through ten more years of jumping through hoops.
It’s been over 24 hours since everything went down and I’m still processing it. Everyone processes things differently—even from experience to experience. Sometimes you need to talk, even if you’re relaying the same information over and over. Other times you just need to quietly mull. I’ve found, in this instance, I’ve needed both space to just absorb and room to articulate.
Even though I’ve talked about it a bit on Twitter, written in my journal, ranted (like a hundred times) to my husband, vented to my sister-in-law, and tiredly filled my best friend in, I still keep running through it over and over again. And, even though technically I’m on a weekend-long social media cleanse, I really felt the urge to sit down and blog about it.
So here I am.
Part of me is in shock, enveloped in complete and utter disbelief. And then there’s the wide-eyed anxious part of me that is all, “See, I told you so.” I’ve been through this before, though, so many times. It’s not really surprising. It’s kind of just my norm.
This past summer, I got a sudden letter in the mail from my rheumatologist’s office, telling me that Dr. M was leaving the practice. I had a panic attack while reading the letter. While I’ve had a complicated relationship with this woman—during my first ever appointment with her, she suggested I see a psychiatrist and that was that—I’d made a lot of progress with her. She was listening to me, she’d given me a diagnosis, and she’d started me on a treatment plan. I spent years jumping through hoops trying to prove to her that I am not a drug addict or crazy. And finally, after nearly ten years, I was making progress in my medical journey. I was getting my life back.
I have joint pain. Often it is debilitating. There is radiological evidence of it; I’ve had several x-rays, MRIs, and even a bone scan that showed bone spurs and some other things in my joints. My illness causes marrow-deep fatigue. It flares from time to time, especially during periods of high stress or sudden changes in weather (like winter, rapidly increased humidity, or a drop/rise in barometric pressure). It behaves like an autoimmune disease—which runs in my family. However, my blood work is always inconclusive. I am seronegative for RA and I’ve had borderline results for ANA and double-stranded DNA.
Dr M determined that I have enthesitis-related arthritis, meaning the join pain is caused by inflammation in my tendons, where they connect to my joints. She explained that ERA doesn’t show up in blood work. She told me that she would treat me as if I have Reactive Arthritis, but that it could still be Rheumatoid Arthritis. She started me on a DMARD and, when it helped a little but had some nasty side effects, urged me to give it another shot. If it still gave me headaches and fatigue, she said, we would try something else.
And then I got the letter.
The letter informed me that she was being replaced by Dr. S, some guy I’d never heard of. I was immediately anxious because I’ve had so many specialists—most of them male—over the years who have brushed me off. I’m anxious in general when seeing a new specialist, but the thought of losing Dr. M and having to start over with a stranger was terrifying. Still, I tried to be brave about it.
I scheduled one last appointment with Dr. M, where she gave me a cortisone shot in my right big toe and explained that she thought I had bone spurs there and in my other big joint in my foot. She said I might possibly have RA and osteoarthritis. And she urged me to give SSZ another shot, even though I asked if I could try another DMARD.
She instructed me to schedule a followup with the new guy for my toe. Cortisone shots don’t always work, and she really wanted me to see a podiatrist if my toe continued to be painful. It was so stiff and hurt so much, I could barely bend it. I couldn’t put weight on it at all and basically had to walk on the ball of my foot—which of course aggravated the pain in my other joints.
I couldn’t schedule my followup yet because the office didn’t know Dr. S’s schedule. This kind of irritated me, but I talked myself down and told myself to give him a chance. I was supposed to call the office to schedule it in a few weeks, but I got super busy with book stuff and it was summer. I always have very minimal pain in the summer, plus the cortisone shot helped and my toe was better. Plus, if I’m going to be honest, I was still super anxious about seeing the new guy. As summer wound down, though, I knew it was time to get back to my health and bite the bullet. So I did it. I was super proud of myself.
In the weeks that passed while I waited for my appointment, my arthritis started flaring. I felt fatigued every day. My joint pain increased. I’d stopped taking the SSZ again because the headaches and other side effects far outweighed the benefits, though it did help a little so I knew we were on the right track. I’d talked to other spoonies with similar diagnoses who’d recommended some DMARDs, so I knew for sure I wanted to try something else.
On the morning of the appointment, I got up early. I was anxious the night before so I didn’t sleep well, but I did sleep. I ate a tiny breakfast even though my nerves were shot. I treated myself to a coffee from Dunkin Donuts. I showered, dressed up—which is special because I’ve mostly been wearing shorts or leggings—and did my makeup. I made a huge effort to make myself feel good. And, I’ll be honest: I also went to great lengths to look like a responsible patient.
Though I’m ashamed to admit it, I’ve been mistreated and accused of drug seeking so many times, I often dress up when I go to the doctor’s—unless it’s someone who is familiar with me and someone I trust. Then I break out the sweats but still rock the makeup. 😉 I want to stress here that I know people who struggle with substance abuse are patients, too—patients who deserve medical care and kindness and respect. So many doctors make assumptions about chronic pain patients, too, which often makes it difficult for us to get those same things that we also deserve. No matter what the patient’s experience, they are a person who should be treated like a person. It’s a messy, outrageous issue that calls for an entire blog post of its own.
I brought a notebook to takes notes in and my agenda so that I could schedule my next appointment. I gave myself a pep talk and even wrangled Mike into coming with me for support, because just his mere presence eases my anxiety. Those blue eyes and the warmth and kindness that he radiates are 100%-natural Ativan, you guys. We arrived a few minutes early. I smoked a cigarette to further calm my nerves. Then we went in.
I checked in as usual and then waited a little longer than normal to get into an exam room. Or maybe it just felt longer because I was so anxious. I’m not sure. Dr. M’s medical assistant was the same woman, which was a huge relief. She took my weight, pulse, and blood pressure, as always. We went over my medications and I let her know that the SSZ wasn’t working out so I’d stopped it. I admitted I was nervous about meeting Dr. S but she assured me that he was very nice.
And he was. He was soft spoken and very gentle during his physical exam. But he completely ignored everything that was in my chart, everything that Dr. M had told me. He brushed aside my questions. He insisted that I couldn’t possibly have arthritis because my blood work is negative. He told me that ERA would also show up in blood work. When I asked him questions and explained that Dr. M had told me otherwise, he brushed me off. He told me that I probably have fibromyalgia—something I’ve heard a thousand times from other specialists who either couldn’t figure out what was wrong or didn’t want to listen. When I explained—patiently—that I’ve been determined negative for fibromyalgia several times because I do not have the tender pressure points, he brushed me off.
I know several people who have fibromyalgia, who have told me that their experiences are completely different from mine. They have muscular and nerve pain, not joint pain. I have joint pain, not muscular or nerve pain. And when I tried Neurontin, a medication for fibromyalgia, I had an extremely adverse reaction to it. I asked Dr. S if fibromyalgia affects your joints, and he gave me a completely hedge-y answer.
He also kept asking about my Tramadol prescription. He asked me like three times where it came from. (My primary care doctor prescribes it, and it is a low dose—only 100mg at bedtime.) Dr. S kept pressing me to consider a pain management clinic.
If the word fibromyalgia turns me off, pain management clinic really makes me tense. I’m sure they help a lot of people, just like I know fibromyalgia is a valid chronic pain illness of its own. But I do not want hard painkillers because they are only a temporary solution to my pain. Plus, to be totally honest, they hit me too hard. I can’t function on them. I’ve only ever wanted a DMARD because they are a long-term treatment for my arthritis. I’ve literally never walked into a doctor’s office and asked for pain medication. NEVER. Because not only do too many doctors automatically assume that’s what chronic pain patients are looking for, but because it’s an automatic death sentence if you have a chronic pain illness and want to be taken seriously. In fact, I’ve asked to be taken off both Percocet and dilaudid because I did not like how they made me feel. It scared me, for example, how quickly my oral dilaudid dose stopped working and how I had to increase the dose literally the second time I took it to the prescribed two tablets a day—when one had worked fine the night before. I told my PAC at the time that I just wanted to go back to Tramadol.
But at that point in the visit, I couldn’t articulate any of this to Dr. S. I just sort of froze. Tears were at bay and it was all I could do to not start sobbing in the middle of the exam room. Panic closed in around me and I could barely breathe.
Dr. S said something about running blood work one last time, but that I can’t possibly have arthritis and it’s probably fibromyalgia. He told me that he didn’t want me to take SSZ anymore, that I didn’t need those medications. And he again recommended a pain management clinic.
I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
Tears were rolling down my cheeks as I hurried out of the office. Running down the stairs, I focused on sucking down the rest of my iced coffee because it helped hold the tears in. By the time I hit the parking lot, though, I ran out of coffee and was sobbing. I was walking so fast, my body so pumped with flight adrenaline, that I couldn’t even feel my normal joint pain—and Mike could barely catch up. I tried really hard to keep it together, but I could barely get the words out to ask for a cigarette. As I lit it, I completely broke down. Mascara lines down my face and everything.
Hello, full blown panic attack.
Once it was over, this weird calm numbness washed over me. I’ve never experienced that before. It would be super cool if panic attacks could always end that way. I focused on helping a much-loved family member with her own doctor appointment. In a way, it was kind of good that we had back to back appointments in separate towns. In my numb state, I was calm enough to be there for her and it also took my mind off things.
But of course, it didn’t last.
Wave after wave of anxiety hit me once Mike and I got home, even though I’d taken pain medicine, which always helps relax me in both body and mind. It didn’t this time. I’d had a headache all day because I was nervous, but it intensified as the day went on. I’m pretty sure it was a mixed tension migraine because by 10pm, I was nauseous and had light sensitivity, plus my neck and shoulders hurt. Even though I tried not to, I kept bursting into tears, which of course made the throbbing pain in my head worse. And my joint pain was also sassy.
Between that and my mind racing, still trying to process everything, I didn’t sleep. I felt completely lost and even though I didn’t want to give up, couldn’t see any other option. I’ve exhausted every resource. I’ve seen every specialist possible. I’ve literally tried everything.
I spent most of today in a numb stupor. Mostly out of fatigue but also because I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Mostly I focused on helping my family, which also ended up being a huge help to me because I couldn’t wallow.
By later this afternoon, though, I started to feel incredulous. Indignant. Completely fucking pissed. I realized that I deserve better. That, just because Dr. S is a doctor, I don’t have to take his word as gospel. And it is not at all okay that within minutes he undid everything Dr. M did for me—everything I’ve worked for over the last decade. I’d really started to make progress with Dr. M and DMARDs were helping me get my life back. How dare he waltz in and take that away from me.
I decided that I wasn’t going to let him.
As I drove to pick up Mike from work, I realized that I needed to go to bat for myself. I was not going to let this doctor make me feel this way. He might be a great doctor, but he clearly wasn’t the right doctor for me. I decided, as soon as I pulled into the parking lot of Mike’s job, I was going to call the office and complain. Make my voice heard. Insist that I start seeing one of the other rheumatologists in the practice. Make them understand that it was not okay for him to treat me like that.
I was so proud of myself. More and more lately I am rediscovering my voice—and using it to advocate for myself. Not rudely, but loudly. Strong. Steady. Calmly. I was so excited when I slid into a parking spot. I grabbed my phone and speed dialed the office number. It rang and their normal announcements began.
“You’ve reached the offices of Dr. C, Dr. P, and Dr. M. The office is now closed. Please listen carefully as our menu options have changed…”
I felt my heart sink. I’ve never felt so deflated so fast. It wasn’t even 4pm yet, and their office hours have always been 8am to 5pm, Monday through Friday. It felt like someone’s sick joke.
I’m still angry, but I’m also exhausted. These last couple weeks—and especially the last couple of days—have drained me physically, emotionally, and mentally. I’m so grateful that the weekend is here, that I can unplug from social media and just relax. Cleanse. Give myself love.
And then, first thing Monday, I’m making that phone call again.
All of my persistence paid off—I got my shot today. However, after this afternoon’s visit, I’m even more confused and concerned about my illness.
Excuse me for a minute while I haul out my giant binder with all my medical records…
Last summer when my rheumatologist diagnosed me with Reactive Arthritis (ReA), she mentioned that it could still be Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA). Because I’m seronegative, though—meaning my rheumatoid factor, sed rate, double stranded DNA, and HLA-B27 blood work is always either borderline or in the normal range—she decided to treat me as if I have ReA.
Side note: I need to start tracking my blood work levels; even though they’re always in the normal or borderline range, I need to chart them to see if they’re increasing at all—even if in small amounts.
This afternoon, while my rheumatologist prepped me for my cortisone injection, she said she felt bone spurs in both the small joint of my big toe, as well as in the large joint (that giant joint right under your big toe). I’ve been having trouble with both of these joints, so it makes sense.
While I was chasing doctors trying to get my right hip taken care of, scan results showed bone spurs in that joint, too. At the time, I was seeing an orthopedic. There was talk of surgery, and then all of a sudden I was told I wasn’t a candidate.
Nothing was ever resolved. I simply got used to the severe pain. And I got myself a cane.
Around the same time, x-rays showed a sclerotic lesion, AKA “bone island,” on my left ankle. I had a bone scan done to make sure it wasn’t anything cancerous and everything came back normal. According to the Department of Radiology at the University of Washington, “bone reacts to its environment in two ways — either by removing some of itself or by creating more of itself.” Sclerotic lesions occur when whatever is happening to the bone in question is occurring over a long period of time (as opposed to rapidly). “If the process is slower growing, then the bone may have time to mount an offense and try to form a sclerotic area around the offender.”
What might be eating away at my ankle and causing my bones to armor up? I can safely rule out cancer and injury to my ankle. UW’s radiology article lists several causes, two of which are autoimmune and inflammatory diseases.
The puzzle is starting to come together.
All of the signs are pointing toward something degenerative. My rheumatologist mentioned something about osteoarthritis (OA) while she all but ran out of the exam room. (She’s leaving the practice at the end of this month, so at this point she’s just done.) I asked how that was possible, since I’m 27 and definitely not a runner. She basically brushed me off and suggested that I might have OA as well as ReA. I don’t think this is the case.
My gut has been telling me over the last decade that my arthritis is degenerative (like RA). One of my biggest concerns has been my joints deteriorating as my autoimmune disease progresses. I’ve been questioning whether I actually have ReA since last year, but even more so as I chatted with other ReA patients in a Facebook group. My symptoms are similar to theirs, but there are a lot of inconsistencies.
For one, most of the ReA patients could connect the onset of their arthritis with or right after an infection of some sort. I had mono before I got sick, but that was a whole year prior. There’s very little research on mono and ReA, but most articles cite strep, bacterial intestinal infections, and STDs as causes of ReA. Not mono.
Since I just got the cortisone injection in my toe today and I’ll be transitioning to a new rheumatologist at the practice, there isn’t too much I can do about this puzzle right now. My rheumatologist insisted that if the toe doesn’t get better, to follow up with a podiatrist in the meantime. I don’t love the idea, but my best friend made a great point: a podiatrist specializes in all of the tiny bones of the foot. If I end up needing surgery, he will be the one to do it. He’ll also be able to give me fast relief. While it’s true that a podiatrist can’t treat all of my other aching joints, I can’t screw around when it comes to my feet.
I need that specialist—especially if this is RA and it continues to progress.
She’s right, of course. I’m just frustrated, and tired of seeing nineteen doctors every time another joint goes. I guess I just thought I was done playing the doctor hop game; I thought once I had a diagnosis, I’d just have to do regular followups and keep taking my SSZ like a good girl.
But of course it’s not that simple.
My rheumatologist said the shot could take a couple of weeks to work, and to go easy on my toe. No flip flops—or at least, not cheap ones that lack support. I’m to wear sneakers and take it easy.
It’s been a busy last few weeks while I’ve been trying to get things rolling again. On top of editing, writing, and marketing, I’ve also been having trouble with my arthritis.
My joint pain is migratory, which means that it can affect any and every joint, often at different times. Sometimes it decides it’s comfy and moves into a particular joint for the long haul. For the last couple of years, I’ve had a lot of trouble with my right hip. Nothing was ever really done about it, despite the many specialists I saw for it—including my rheumatologist. I basically went ’round and ’round the medical merry-go-round—which is nothing new.
Throughout the last decade, this has been my experience over and over again.
So when I started having trouble with my big toe on my right foot, of course I totally, naively thought things would be different this time. After all, my rheumatologist diagnosed me with reactive arthritis last year and started me on treatment. I’ve been taking 1,500mg of Sulfasalazine every day for several months, but it really hasn’t made much of a difference. Lately, my joint pain has changed from a deep ache to an almost bruised feeling on top of the ache.
When I went to my rheumatologist for a followup, I let her know about all of this. Since she’s leaving the practice this summer and her spot is being filled by another rheumatologist, I figured we’d probably come up with a transition plan. I asked her about trying something else, and she said she wanted to continue the SSZ. Since there were periods of time when I’d stopped taking it for one reason or another—insurance lapse, hospitalization, total brain fog—I was willing to give it another shot.
She didn’t seem too concerned about my toe, though, and sent me on my way. No transition plan. No mention of trying another DMARD.
Doctors are overbooked. I know this. It’s usually prudent to stick to just one issue during office visits, otherwise things get lost in the midst. So I called the office and spoke with her medical assistant, reminding her about my toe.
I can barely bend it, and definitely can’t put weight on it. It feels just like my hip did for all that time. The thing is, my hip didn’t just magically stop hurting. It’s still there. The pain in my toe makes my hip look like a walk in the park—which I’d never imagined could feel any worse.
This is how it goes. I get used to one particular pain level, only to have my body say “Challenge accepted,” and throw something else at me.
My rheumatologist’s solution was Aspercreme with lidocaine.
Instead of facepalming and arguing, I replied that I’d give it a shot. Her assistant told me to call back if it didn’t work.
Here’s the thing: I have an entire box full of things I’ve tried that didn’t work, or worked a little but then stopped. I’ve got lidocaine patches somewhere in my house that I tried on my hip. I have half empty tubes of Voltaren. Tiger Balm does help quite a bit, but if I reapply too often, it loses its effect.
My rheumatologist is very by the book, with a light touch as far as treatment goes. I really appreciate the fact that she doesn’t send me off loaded up with prescriptions. I once had a primary who did just that, and it almost killed me because their office didn’t pay attention to interactions and I blindly trusted them. But it’s starting to get really frustrating that, with every new achy joint, I have to start from square one with her.
It never goes this way:
“Ah, yes, another trouble joint. Well, we’ve tried X, Y, and Z in the past, so let’s not even bother with that. Let’s move up to Plan B and not waste any time.”
I understand why she does it. But I almost wish she was a bad-ass like the attending in the ER who smashed the inflammation in my body with a super dose of Prednisone and a shot of dilaudid to tide me over while the steroids got going.
Instead, I had to play the game. Every chronic pain patient is familiar with this game. I already knew Aspercreme, Icy Hot, etc don’t do much of anything for me. But I still had to do things her way. I called back and let the office know that it didn’t work, and my rheumatologist personally spoke with me and told me that she wanted to try a week of Mobic (an NSAID). If the Mobic didn’t do it, she told me, she’d have me come in for a cortisone shot.
Thankfully, this was a prescription so my insurance covered it. Still, I’d already tried Mobic in the past, several times. It doesn’t work. But again, I did things her way because she’d told me she’d give me the cortisone shot; I knew ahead lay some kind of relief, even if I had to spend another week alternating between icing my toe and wanting to just rip the damn thing off my foot.
I did the Mobic for the week and, as expected, it didn’t help.
When I called the office, I was told that they would speak with my rheumatologist and find out when she wanted me to come in. Because I was still in editing land and doing a whole bunch of other marketing/administrative things (and I don’t get a signal for my phone inside my house, sigh), I missed the callback. I didn’t get to listen to the voicemail until Saturday morning. It was not good news.
In the voicemail, my rheumatologist’s assistant told me that she wants me to see a podiatrist and that I have to set up the referral myself. There was no mention of my cortisone shot.
I cried for a good solid thirty minutes, and then on and off throughout the rest of the day.
I know that steroids are controversial in the chronic illness community (for both patients and doctors), so I really don’t want to hear “That’s what you get.” My issue is, I was told I would get one. I was promised relief. Instead, I was passed off to yet another specialist. This has been the pattern for the last nine years.
I’m tired of this. I’m tired of feeling like my doctors either don’t believe me or don’t know what to do with me. I get that my rheumatologist is leaving the practice and probably just doesn’t have the time to squeeze me into her schedule before she goes. I get that. I really do. I’m crazy busy, too. But what I don’t get is why I had to go through all of this—the office visit, the phone calls, the Aspercreme, the Mobic—when I was only going to be handed off anyway.
I’m sorry, but I won’t be seeing a podiatrist.
I have autoimmune arthritis. Next month it’ll be my elbow or my hip again. I shouldn’t have to see a different specialist for each body part, going through the entire thing all over again: the consult, the battery of tests, the waiting, and then maybe some treatment. Emotionally, I can’t continue coping with the strain of this pattern. It’s exhausting. Physically, I can’t wait an entire summer before I get this taken care of.
Summer is supposed to be for getting outdoors, doing what little physical activity I can. It’s not supposed to be like winter, where I sit on my couch with my pain meds and heating pad, missing out on family functions.
I’ve been doing this for almost ten years; I’ve been doing everything their way. Only when I push back—insist on treatment—do I ever get anywhere.
So, this afternoon, I called my rheumatologist’s office again. I got the front desk’s answering machine (it’s Monday, so they must be crazy busy after the weekend), and left a message asking for clarification and repeating that I’d been told that I would be able to come in to the office for a cortisone shot.
And I’ll call again tomorrow.
And the next day.
Every day, if I have to.
I’m putting my foot down (but with all of my weight on my ankle, off my toe, of course).
I think I’ve patiently played the game long enough.