It's difficult to communicate to others, including to our families and ourselves, that there is no fix or cure for this awful disease, at least not yet. Depending on your individual cause, improvement may be found when the reason (other illness) is effectively managed. For the rest of us, at the moment anyway, it is all symptom treatment and management. Medicines to treat, or minimize, some symptoms that can in return create horrible side effects. Medicines to treat the side effects that were created by the medicines we were taking in hopes of alleviating symptoms. Surgery interventions that make us face a risk of making our illness worse in the off chance that it may possibly help use improve. I admit, I get frustrated with myself and others at times because I'm doing everything that I'm supposed to do, yet still sick. I know that too many of you can relate.
Everyday, I deal with troublesome symptoms. I used to be an active mother and teacher, a career I absolutely loved, but unfortunately had to eventually resign from due to my health. The evening of February 16, 2013 I went to bed as a "normal" 35 year old and woke up the following morning to an unexpected life of chronic illness. One where food was no longer a pleasure, but instead a nightmare of pain, nausea, and vomiting. I spent months unable to eat anything at all, in and out of ERs and doctor offices dehydrated, in pain, and in need for someone to listen to and actually willing to help me. However, I was unable to find any answers or relief with the exception of IV fluids, usually accompanied with blame for allowing myself to become dehydrated. According to them, I just needed to drink more water, what they didn't understand was I couldn't take in anything without drastic debilitating symptoms. It took numerous different doctors and two hospitals before I FINALLY found someone that understood the reality and severity of my health issues, took my condition seriously, and admitted me for the first of many hospitalizations. Even today, I still fear meeting new doctors as a result of some of the negative, degrading, and hopeless experiences I have been through. Thankfully, through determination and God's grace, I currently have an awesome medical team of doctors that authentically care about me, my quality of life, and that I can actually feel comfortable with trusting.
At this time, the majority of my nutrition literally enters my small intestines through my GJ feeding tube I've had since 2013 and then exits my small intestines through the ileostomy that I've had since 2016, when I had my colon removed due to colonic inertia. Due to chronic dehydration, I have had a few PICC lines and PORTS. Both are types of central lines that are threaded through a vein to the entrance of the heart, but differ in the location they are placed and how they are accessed. I, personally, have a PICC right now to infuse Lactated Ringers at home throughout the week and for a couple of iron infusions when I am anemic. (Other people may use central lines for things such as saline hydration, TPN, antibiotics, and/or chemo.)
Having central lines can most definitely be beneficial but also come at a great risk for central line blood infections and sepsis. I have been hospitalized numerous times for infections that required removal of my line, broad course antibiotics while inpatient at hospital for at least a week, sometimes longer, and then having a new line placed. I have had friends, likely you have as well, that died as a result of central line bloodstream infections. It is a scary risk, but necessary for some in order to have any kind of quality of life.
Daily I deal with pain, nausea, and fatigue. The majority of all of my health problems can be labeled as chronic GI motility disorders, (recently being rebranded as Disorders of Gut-Brain Interaction by Dr Drossman and the Rome Foundation). The Research Enhancement Act is a bi-partisan bill that we are currently trying to have co-sponsored and passed in the House of Representatives. It is also known as H.R. 3396. If passed, it can help increase research and awareness for GI motility disorders including but not limited to gastroparesis, colonic inertia, GERD, achalasia, and pseudo-obstruction. Even if our problems are not cured in the immediate future, better awareness, more effective treatment options, and improved understandings of the causes and impact of these illnesses on our lives and our family's lives can. Our successful #DCgreen2019 Gastroparesis March on Washington patient rally, our Facebook live Virtual March on Washington event, and our attendance and participation in legislature meetings with IFFGD (International Foundation for GI Motility Disorders) at their Hill Day event show that together we can, and will, make our voices heard to make a difference.
In closing, I want to encourage each of you to never give up. Keep advocating for yourself and/or your loved ones. Find a doctor that is right for you. If you're not getting answers or aren't satisfied with the care that you are receiving, keep searching. You know your body best. When plagued with chronic illness we learn very quickly how important it is to actually create a medical team, one that knows and understands us and wants to work WITH us on devising the most effective plan for our personal best quality of life. Communication, empathy, and compassionate care are all beneficial along with medical knowledge.
Learn from your experiences, allow them to make you stronger. Remember you are NEVER alone. You will have difficult days, we all do. You may have days that you feel like giving up, I know I have. And that's okay! If you need to take it one day, one hour, or heck even one minute at a time - do so. B-R-E-A-T-H-E. Reach out for a supportive hand or a sympathetic ear when needed. Nothing is wrong with that. There's a whole community of people that care for you and are here for you, whether it's family and friends nearby, ones you connect with online, or both. I promise you are not alone. On more tolerable days, if possible, offer helping hands or ears to others. It doesn't matter if it's in person, by mail, over the internet, or by phone. Small actions can make a positive difference in someone else's day or even life, just like they can for you. Find a way to have your voice heard. Whether it's by social media, writing, talking, attending conferences or events, contacting your legislators, or something else - you have a purpose and you have a message that can make a difference. You may even discover that sharing your experiences helps you feel better mentally and emotionally. To me it helps bring the feeling of purpose and meaning to my life.
I know that I posts more online, whether blogs or other social media platforms, about my illness than many would like read or hear about. I try to post positive comments & pictures, usually family related, as well. The negative ones are not because I want pity or attention, it’s simply because though I am not my illness, my illness is a huge part of my life. How can it not be?? It’s because social media & blogging are an outlet for me, especially since I don’t get out much anymore. Being a private person, I usually don’t share anything at all on my worst days, I don’t go into detail about all of my continuous symptoms or struggles, but at times I do need to get things off of my mind.
Advocating, which I know some are tired of as well, is a POSITIVE act. Since having to resign from teaching due to my health, which is still difficult & painful for me to think about, I struggle with purpose and meaning to my life outside of parenting. Advocating gives me a sense of helping & making a difference, even if it’s small scale. Smiles and laughs caught on camera are positive glimpses, sometimes internal happiness, but not the entire picture.
For example: I spent 2 days with friends across the US in DC last week - both inside. Only 1 of those days (day with legislators) required me to be on my feet for extended amounts of time as we walked between offices. Lots of pictures with smiles, because it WAS a special and monumental time. But, physically it was more demanding than I would let myself believe. Nights were sleepless due to pain & over-exhaustion.
I’ve been home for 1 week and still have not returned to my “baseline”. Up until Monday, my kids were trying to convince me to go to ER or at least see one of my Drs because they were worried about me. I was worried as well, but didn’t have energy or strength to go anywhere & knew that there was nothing that could be done to help. I already have IV fluids regularly at home along with tube feeds & medications. My body just needed lots of patience and rest, still does.
The way my body reacts to what used to be a “simple” day is not caught on camera, is not usually shared, yet is my reality & is extremely frustrating. Keeping my reality bottled up all the time is destructive to mental health. I try to portray positivity, but at times break down and share the negativity of gastroparesis & chronic illness, because if I didn’t I would not remain in a safe state of mind. You don’t have to understand, only those that live with chronic illnesses truly can, but please be respectful & mindful of the need to express negativity at times. I used to try and teach myself to “force positivity” all the time, but found myself sinking deeper in despair. Being “fake” or “wearing a masks” , which I still catch myself doing to prevent others from seeing my pain & how bad I feel, is often much more draining & isolating in the long run and can lead to a more dangerous path for oneself.
Therefore, I apologize if my posts get on your nerves, are negative or sometimes even depressing, but I do not apologize for being real, being human, and looking after me.
On June 24, 2019 gastroparesis patients from across the country came together as a united front to spread awareness and make our need of more research and better medical treatments known. This was not an easy trip by any means for me, but I felt that it was a meaningful and worthwhile trip for not only myself personally, but for so many in the gastroparesis and GI motility disorder communities.
I am extremely fortunate to have had support and encouragement from my family, online friends, and even my therapist to remind me that it may be a risky and difficult journey physically, due to my health, but also had the possibility to be a unique, purposeful, and special opportunity to me mentally and emotionally. So with fears in the back of my mind, curiosity and the desire to meet others in my online support group, the focus of possibly making a difference, and the determination to follow through on my responsibilities as a patient advocate and friend, I traveled to Washington, DC with my father and teenage kids. Not only did we go to DC to attend the #DCgreen2019 patient-created Gastroparesis Rally on June 24, but also for me to attend IFFGD's (International Foundation for GI Disorders) "Hill Day" event which included a short conference and a day of appointments with US Senate and House of Representative offices.
I spent the morning of June 24th with a few friends that have similar health issues as me, as well as with other digestive motility disorder advocates. Some of these other advocates were parents, medical professionals and IFFGD staff members and volunteers. The speakers during this morning conference were very interesting and informative as they shared with us the reason for advocating, important medical related information about doctor-patient communication, and how patients can be more proactive in raising awareness and pushing for legislative bills that can improve patient healthcare and treatments. Some of the speakers that we listened to were Ceciel Rooker (IFFGD president), Dr Baha Moshiree (GI motility specialist), Hayley McCorckle (IFFGD's public relations), Dr Frank Hamilton (chief of Digestive Disease programs branch in Division of Digestive Diseases and Nutrition at NIDDK), Peter Herzog (Washington representative for IFFGD), Dale Dirks (Washington representative for IFFGD, and Susan Chittooran (Patient Engagement Project Manager of FDA).
At lunch, those of us in the Gastroparesis Support Group who were attending the rally, left to go to our rally location. Originally planned to take place on the Capitol Grounds at Union Square, the rally was moved to an indoor venue, Ivy City Smokehouse, due to the threat of severe thunderstorms.
The energy level increased as everyone began arriving at the venue. Hugs of joy, physically meeting friends met online, and making new friends that actually understand and share the desire to inspire positive change for our community led to a comfortable, exciting, and personal atmosphere. Often feeling out of place, like a "freak" due to health issues or awkward because of health accessories needed such as feeding tubes, ileostomies, central lines, etc - many found this environment allowing each of us to feel "normal" as we were not alone and could truly understand and empathize with each other. As great as uniting and visiting with each other was, the afternoon would consists of even more encouragement and motivation.
Melissa Adams Vanhouten, an amazing friend and advocate welcomed everyone to the rally and shared a moving, inspiring, and focused speech, which is linked below. Dr Michael Cline of the Cleveland Clinic spoke next, sharing important and beneficial facts about gastroparesis, treatment options at the present time, diagnostic tests that he finds most helpful and that should be done by all patients to check the motility of the entire digestive tract as well as autoimmune testing was suggested. He was kind enough to stay and answer questions from our patient community. His informative speech is also linked below. We also heard from a fellow gastroparesis advocate, Debbie, as she read letters of support and encouragement that the Rome Foundation and Dr Pascricha from Johns Hopkins sent to our patient community for this occasion. A dedicated, loving, and grieving father, James shared his daughter Nicole's personal story. He shared beautiful memories of her, the heartbreak of her illness, her love for life and her desire to make a difference and help others even during her own struggles, as well as his determination to keep her dream and memory alive by advocating for the gastroparesis community. A beautiful memorial service was then led by a fellow gastroparesis patient, Kristine. The rally ended with numerous brave patients sharing their stories. They included a child, a young adult with active sepsis, support group members that overcame obstacles to make it to DC, and a daughter expressing concern for her mother while also explaining that they are fighting so hard to advocate not only for her but even more so for the young children that are having to live and deal with this debilitating illness.
Two of the speeches can be heard here by clicking on the speakers name:
Melissa Adams Vanhouten
Dr Michael Cline
Many gastroparesis members attended the #IFFGDHillDay event the following day, June 25th, alongside IFFGD (International Foundation for GI Disorders) staff members and other GI motility disorder advocates. We were divided into small groups based on our state prior to our arrival at our scheduled appointments with US Senators and House Representatives (or their staff). My North Carolina group had a busy and meaningful day meeting and talking with the offices of Senator Burr, Senator Tillis, Representative Butterfield, Representative Price, and Representative Walker. We were supposed to also meet with Representative Foxx, but due to unforeseen circumstances in the schedule, we just left a packet of information with her staff. During each of the meetings, we discussed the house bill 3396, also known as the Functional Gastrointestinal Motility Disorder Research Enhancement Act of 2019, that we hope will be supported and passed, as well as why it is important to our health community. We personally shared a portion of how GI Motility disorders has impacted our lives. (Unexpectedly, tears escaped when I was sharing my personal story with them, especially when I spoke of how it affected my kids and my career.) Other discussion points, besides HR 3396, were our pleas for them to increase NIH (National Institute of Health) funding, increased Department of Defense Gulf War Illness funding, and a FGIMD program for the CDC (Center of Disease Control).
By far, regardless of how purposeful, meaningful, and powerful these two days were, it did not come easily. It took a lot of energy that many of us struggle for daily. As people living with chronic illness, attending these two important events required us to put our health at risks. Many of us chose to power through debilitating symptoms and add additional physical stress to our already worn bodies, all with the hope that our sacrifices would be worthwhile and make a difference, if not for us, for the gastroparesis and GI motility disorder community as a whole.
In conclusion, we left feeling a sense of pride, encouraged by new connections and deeper friendships, and inspired to continue forward with our advocacy efforts. Feeling a sense of accomplishment, we are now in the process of determining what our next courses of action will be.
A proud mother, educator, Gastroparesis & GI Motility Disorder Advocate,
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