The Medical Bell Curve – Where do you fall?

Our healthcare system is broken. It is so desperately broken that I am not sure it can be repaired. But, I truly hope we are somewhere grooming a generation who will try. It is broken in so many different ways, but in the way we know best in this house, it is hanging by a very frayed and thin thread. And, truth be told, so are we. The question we ponder is what are we holding on to?

We have created sections, and subsections of care. I avoid the term “specialty” deliberately. We have crammed the status quo down the throats of exhausted and overworked doctors who are frequently jaded about their career choice before they have had the opportunity to size up the gargantuan pile of student loans they, or their credit, may never recover from.

Their jobs, at major hospitals have them double and triple booked for meager insurance payments. They are pushed to see more patients, and to do so faster. There is not time for inquiry, or for research for a particular patient. They are taught, “when you hear hoofbeats think horses, not zebras.”

And I get it – to a very minor extent. When I was in college I learned all about the bell curve, and how the vast percentage of the population, 68% fall within one standard deviation of the mean, or average. Which means the study of “normal” medicine answers whatever questions 2/3 of the population have.

If you take it a little further, by contending with some “odd” presentations, you have covered about 95% of the population by the second standard deviation, the bell part of the curve.

While this did not come off of a statistics site, you get the point.

What if you have a zebra? What if you are rare?? What if it is a way of life for you? Then what? Or what if you land in “mythical” and you have yourself a “rainbow unicorn zebra?” Do you want to know what happens then? “Medical Professionals” are so uncomfortable because you exist that they try to make you go away.

We live in a big city. We have always lived here. We have been dealing with my own medical challenges long before we knew of “Cowden Syndrome.” My girl came into the world a medical anomaly and little has changed. Except the unrelenting quest for answers brought us to a diagnosis of PTEN Hamartoma Tumor Syndrome, and hypermobile Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, and a Mannose Binding Lechtin deficiency, and and AVM in the knee, that on it’s own accounted for 7 surgical procedures, and one in the thigh, and a VM in each palm, and a lumpy thyroid that needed to be removed, and the same for the tonsils…. and…. and….

So, it’s summer. And while others are complaining about their jobs, we are doing ours. We are checking in with countless specialists as Cowden’s is a syndrome of constant monitoring. It is our job to catch cancer before it catches us. There are games I prefer. But, this is ours.

Over the years we have sought counsel from the most prominent, and the most “off the beaten path” doctors we could find in this city. And as my confidence grew I checked them. I checked their credibility. I learned more chemistry and biology than my 9th and 10th grade teachers could have imagined possible. I listened, I tried, I added and subtracted. And there grew a complex combination of prescriptions, vitamins, and compounded off label medications that make up a daily regimen in this house.

Do I have proof? No more than they do.

Monday and Tuesday we saw two of the best this state has to offer. One is a pediatric endocrinologist who looks at my child as a WHOLE PERSON. The other is an orthopedist who has seen her at her best and worst, and genuinely takes pleasure at helping her reach new heights.

Today. Let’s just say today I could have done without.

As a newly diagnosed PTEN patient Meghan was sent to a “specialist” who knew more of this disease. She was the one many of the others in our circle, (HUGE CITY, SMALL CIRCLE) referred us to as the guru. At the time she prescribed a medication that seemed to do a lot to slow the AVM under the meniscus of Meghan’s right knee. For a good stretch of time there was a respite from the vascular embolizations. We were on a good track. Then, there was that time she ended up in the hospital with a severe gastric reaction. It was assumed that reaction was from Celebrex, the drug with the off label properties that seemed to be slowing the progress of the AVM. Her esophagus was raw, and whether it was to blame or not, it was the likely culprit. I was cautioned we’d know within 6 months if it had been working.

Almost 6 months to the calendar there was a bleed in her knee that caused an emergency surgery. It was the AVM. And that time, enough blood sat there long enough to complicate a few more things. Had we been “Robbing Peter to pay Paul?” we would never know. The Celebrex left our life and knee surgeries resumed.

Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos, undoubtedly an issue since birth, made nothing easier. The pain of constant subluxations was taking its toll. We added what we could to provide some relief.

Ella, the service dog joined us finally in January after a 3.5 year wait. Ella provides her own medicine.

But a few weeks back I thought, let’s revisit this PTEN “specialist” from yesteryear to see if she could offer advice on an off label treatment for the newest AVM in the upper right thigh, dancing with the sciatic nerve, too deep to remove, deep enough that the effectiveness of additional embolizations are questionable.

Her office insisted on new scans, and MRI/MRA with contrast prior to the visit. We had to schedule them both the same day as the office visit so we could discuss the new scans.

So, for the third time in 4 days we left for an all day medical journey. We left at 9:15, started the scans by 11, finished by 12:15 and waited till 12:45 for the CD which, even though they told me I didn’t need, experience has taught me that, yes. I do.

This was the first time, after well over 40 MRIs that Meghan was in the room alone. Ella was mine to care for in the waiting room. Mixed emotions everywhere.

The pouring afternoon rain showers seemed to add to the gravity of the day.

Having not seen this doctor since 2014, we caught her up on the surgeries since then. She is new to the facility we were at, although not new to the field. She immediately began to question well researched decisions made by a doctor who left the facility last year. The hairs on my neck began to stand.

She knew we were there about the AVM in the thigh, and we were looking forward to hearing her take on the scans. Imagine our shock to learn the images mean nothing to her, and we were waiting for a report that was not destined to arrive that day.

She reviewed the medication list and openly criticized it. But, she would not speak to what she thought was excessive. In a few sentences she managed to demean and demoralize. We asked about medications for AVM, and she mentioned one we are well read on. But, she then dismissed it because Meghan will be at college next year. “It is hard to monitor. I don’t monitor it. There is another doctor who does it. And I don’t know if you’ll be able to do it remotely, or if you can even get the blood work in Pennsylvania. Plus, we don’t even know it works.”

We asked again about the Celebrex, but she was reluctant to try it again.

At which point Meghan, who had been so quiet, let the doctor know she was instilling zero confidence with her list of “maybe,” “possibly,” and “probably not.” Meghan was accused of seeking pain medication. Which she was CLEARLY not. Trust me. This kid values above all things having her wits sharp.

I expressed our frustration with the carousel, or rather the teacups is a more accurate description of this ENDLESS ride. As she began to mention more doctors I shuddered. I asked her if she understood the physical, mental and emotional toll on the patient. I asked her if she understood by the time we leave appointments like this we are unable to accomplish much. Hours in traffic and the emotional turmoil of more questions than answers, we are exhausted.

She felt compelled to remind me that the process is slow, and I must be patient.

Again, I am not in a small town.

I am in a huge city. With great insurance. Which is useless because I can’t seem to get much covered anywhere but here. And who wants to see us anyway?

She made sure to remind me the hardship it is to take on Rare Disease patients. She reminded me about the paperwork. Yep, I know.

I reminded her that I have pretty much lost track of all casual contacts trying to keep my head above water.

Either she didn’t understand, or she didn’t care. She was too busy telling us Meghan is a success BECAUSE of doctors like her. I guess, technically she’s not wrong. Meghan is a success and will continue to be her best self because she knows she wants to DO BETTER and to BE BETTER, for all the Zebras, and the “regular” people too. So yes, she is a success, not because of those like this doctor, but in SPITE of them.

I’ll mail the CD to the ortho. In case we have something we have to do. In the mean time I will continue to teach and empower Meghan to manage her care as best she can. She is amazing. She never stays down long.

What are you doing this summer?

We will be here…

#beatingcowdens

Exhale…

Meghan and Ella have been settling in so well together.  Jax and Ella are fast friends.  April and Ella will be polite acquaintances.  Ella is playing, running, eating, and sleeping.  She is adjusting to life in our home and seems to be enjoying it.

The most prominent lingering fear surrounded the lump on her side.

We gathered the notes from the vet in Indiana.  We put all her paperwork together.  The entire Ortega kennel had vet appointments today.  So, we headed out for the first time as a party of 6- 18 legs, and 3 tails.

Our veterinarian is thorough.  He has treated our dogs well.  April needed some lab work for a persistent problem we’re working on.  Jax needed to be caught up with some shots.  And, Ella, well, that pretty girl needed to get started in her next phase of life.

The vet took her in and did a complete exam.  He read the sparse notes we carried with us from Indiana.  He looked at the photos of the lump on her side.

He called to tell us that we should start her vaccinations, as he could only verify rabies.  He told us he did a heartworm test that was negative for heartworms.  He drew blood.  That “should be nothing” later this week.

And, since in these Covid times, all news comes via phone from outside the vet’s office, the three of us sat quietly while we waited.

“And the lump?”

“It’s her rib.”

Collective exhaling throughout the car…

“Her RIB?”

“Yes, if you trace along the bone it’ll take you to her spine.  Most people never feel it.  Ella is very lean.”

Fist pumping and smiling took place for a few minutes.

We live in a worst-case scenario existence.  It is so rare that it goes well.  And, yet, today, was a win.

Nerves shot for no reason. I have no idea what happened in that office, or why the vet said hernia 750 miles ago.  But this is a win.  I’ll take it all day every day.

It looks like the rest of life really does start now.

Meghan and Ella… onward.

#beatingcowdens

And it’s a…Hernia!

Now that I have your attention, I promise, you’ll get to the end of this episode of “You Can’t Make it Up!”

The day started with another successful training for Meghan and Ella at Barnes and Noble.  They are ready for their Public Access Test, and I am optimistic they will do well together before we get on the road to return to New York tomorrow.

We waited over 3 years for this dog.  There were many days we thought she was not meant to be.  There were honestly more days of feeling defeated than hopeful.

Early in the process Meghan interviewed via FaceTime in my car, before a swim meet, with Jennifer, the owner of Medical Mutts.  During the process we worked with Eva, director of client services.

Early in the process Meghan read everything she could get her hands on.  As the years went on she put the books away until they gathered dust.

In between there were countless emails between myself and Eva.  There was always a quick reply, and kind reassurance.  Although as I travel back through three years of email I can see more clearly now where there were some lapses in our communication.  Meghan is a very different human than she was in 2017.  Because of that, her needs changed.  At one point her dog was to also be capable of mobility assistance.  Over time, we dropped that piece as her legs got stronger. The one thing, the biggest thing that never changed, was TOUCH.

Meghan needs to sleep holding something she can feel breathing.  For a while it was me.  Then I was able to sub in some dogs, first April, then Jax.  The biggest thing, the first thing we wanted a service dog for was the sleeping.  A dog to sleep with her, and to help her wake to an alarm, would give her the first major steps towards independence.

During this past week many things have become evident.  Some were expected, and others unexpected.  Some were awesome, and others were just not.

One thing that has been solidly evident is that Ella’s trainer, Michelle, is true to her word at all times.  Michelle did not present as warm and fuzzy.  (Actually her intelligent, focused presentation reminded me a great deal of Meghan.)  She has proven to be awesome, and utterly effective.  As the week has gone on every thing that Michelle said she taught, every single behavior has become evident.   Michelle has gone above and beyond this week to make sure that Meghan and Ella pair effectively. She has come to the hotel to practice elevator and long lead walking. She has met us on her days off.  She made it her business to meet up to being Ella closer to the touch Meghan needs.  Today she brought a blanket for Ella, talked through a plan with Meghan and once again amazed me with her genuine sincerity.

Michelle taught all she was told to teach.  And I’ll leave that right there.

Somewhere there was a breakdown in communication above her that led to confusion on Meghan’s needs.  It could have been due to the length of time, or the changes.  It could have been a mistake.  It could have been any number of things. But it happened.  Meghan will succeed building the rest of the behaviors Ella needs.  Over time.

And to some extent that time is normal.  No service dog team goes home fully functional. They need to learn each other. It is an arranged marriage where the partners need time to learn what generates happiness in the other.

So while we have mixed emotions about a bunch of things, HOPE prevails.

Even today.  Today I spoke to Jennifer, the owner, for the first time since 2017.  I spoke with her out of necessity.

By the third night we had Ella she was allowing touch.  It didn’t take Meghan long to point out the lump in her side.  We mentioned it. We were told to wait.  We mentioned it again.  Attempts were made to explain it away.  We mentioned it again and finally today we were connected to their veterinary facility.

The vet said it is likely a hernia.  He seemed unaffected. After a physical exam, and quite physical by Meghan’s description, he told Meghan to massage it, and take her to our vet if it got worse.

That was the icing on a slightly undercooked cake.

I spoke with Eva, who directed me to Jennifer. And that is how we ended up back on the phone today.  Odd bookends to this experience, really.

I received the reassurance that Ella  had been thoroughly checked by their vet.  I internally contemplated his ability to be thorough.  I was promised that the facility will pay for any medical bills related to the hernia diagnosis.

Ella meets our vet on Sunday.

This is not exactly the homecoming we were hoping for.  Maybe our vet will see something different, or be able to offer some reassurance.

My mind can’t go too much past that.

I’ve got three years to reflect on, a public access test to cheer my favorite team through, and 750 miles to drive before we introduce Ella to Jax and April.

We will continue to take this journey, as we have done so many others, one day at a time.

Ella, you’re one of us now.  Hernia or not, whatever comes your way, we’ve got you girl.

#beatingcowdens

 

Puppy Steps

It was a walk. Outside. On the long lead. And it went really well. Not perfect, but so very much better. The distractions are still a little disconcerting, but her focus and response to Meghan is improving all the time.

I am bothered that she doesn’t use the elevator, a problem compounded by our 4th floor room, Meghan’s nine knee surgeries and my very painful, swollen foot. And yet, I am super pleased that she trained today on the floor near the elevators, a floor she wouldn’t walk on days ago.

Her sporadic barking is a bit troublesome. Her trainers have told us it is the hotel, and noises we can’t even hear. I don’t love it, but they’ve been right on so many things this week. This week has been a huge learning experience. Yet another time in life where nothing is quite as you planned or expected, but there is a cautious optimism in the air.

I really expected when we got here that this Ella girl would hop right into bed with Meghan, and wake her up on cue the next morning. I did. I figured the leash would hand off and she’d be ready to do all the things Meghan needed. I expected she’d potty on command, and quietly tuck into small spaces. And I was upset when it didn’t go down that way at all. From learning to walk in sync, to finding the right spots for her to pee, it has been a labor.

I know lots of things. But sometimes it’s hard to accept that I don’t know ALL the things. Preconceived notions can be the undoing of many of us, and I am no exception. I did not realize at all that “Team Training” would mean that the dog and Meghan would be learning everything together. It actually makes sense. Ella is not a machine. Dogs don’t fit into “boxes” anymore than people do. Ella learned to work with Eva, and with Michele. Now, she needs to learn to work with Meghan.

Every time we have changed jobs, or bosses, we have taken with us the skills and work ethic, but had to tweak the way we performed. As the week has gone on it’s become evident that Ella was extremely well trained. She also works hard for really good food. As Meghan and she get to know each other, Ella has begun to transfer her learned behaviors and execute them with Meghan.

I was not totally sold on positive reinforcement training. I mean, I guess I used it to raise my kid, but certainly not with cheese and hot dogs! However, I have watched it work this week. And while I have no desire to train my otherwise happy pets like this, I see it’s value.


Tomorrow they practice, and Meghan gets to ask the rest of the questions. Well, the ones she has thought of already… I do hope they are prepared!

Tuesday she takes her public access test and we get on the road with our “plus one” for the 750 miles back to New York. This team has a lot going for them. Ella makes my girl laugh. The way the dog looks at her warms my soul. It’s like Ella understands she’s got someone really special in Meghan, and Meghan feels the same about Ella.


There are things that aren’t ready yet. We know there are no promises in life. We know it all too well. We are preparing to end the “Team Training” with tons of answers, lots of unknowns, and a giant pile of HOPE. I guess that’s about the best any of us can ask for!

Keep these two in your thoughts as they make “Puppy Steps” forward.

#beatingcowdens

Rare -ER? More Rare? Where to Begin?

A new diagnosis came our way this week.  On top of the existing one.  I have wavered between frustration and relief.  I have felt some questions answered and developed a lot of new ones.  My girl got her words together before I did…
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My name is Meghan. I am a 15 year old high school student. I just finished my second year of high school in a place I love. I am an A+ student, who loves to learn. I am in all honors classes. I strive to learn and grow as much as I am able. I live, laugh and love. I hang out with my friends. I lay outside and tan. I take my dog for walks. I swim for a competitive travel team where I work my butt off in the water 6/7 days in a week. I improve. I grow. I train. To anyone who only knew me superficially, it’d seem like I was living the dream. I’ve got a couple close friends, good parents, a nice house, a dog who loves me. It’s perfect. Right? Wrong.

Here’s the other side of my life most people don’t know; I’ve got some shitty genetic luck. Because on the inside, I am far from an ordinary high school student with the perfect house and parents.
I was diagnosed with my first- yes that’s right, my first- rare genetic disorder when I was eight years old. By then I’d already had so many surgeries it was hard to keep count, and a bunch of random medical problems that never seemed to add up. That disorder is Cowden’s Syndrome. It’s a mutation on the PTEN gene that causes benign and malignant tumors, increasing cancer risks and letting things pop up all over my body that hurt like a mother.
I’ve lived with this disorder my entire life. Hospitals, waiting rooms, specialists, MRI’s, and every other extremely uncomfortable medical situation you can think of became my life. To date, I’ve had 18 surgeries, multiple procedures, over 30 hospital visits, and 25+ MRI’s that have put wayyyy to much metal into my body. From countless medical traumas I’ve developed PTSD, anxiety, and depressive disorders. What doesn’t help that is the fact that I’m always in pain. I fight every damn day. I fight to live my life, and to get my body to the levels that others can reach with half the effort.
Now here’s the best part, so I’ve got a crazy smart mom, who wouldn’t stop poking around to figure out the other piece to this puzzle. Because, we both knew Cowden’s wasn’t it. There was something more, because this debilitating chronic pain in a relatively healthy 15 year old, plus other random symptoms that just didn’t add up, had to come from somewhere. So, we went back to my geneticist. And, guess what? We BOTH got our SECOND rare genetic diagnosis. hEDS( the hyper mobile sub type of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome). Fun, right?
I know it’s a lot to write at once. It may seem crazy to anyone else who lays eyes on this post. But guess what? One very valuable life lesson I’ve learned from living this life is to stop giving so much of a damn what other people think.
Just live. ❤

Until inspiration strikes again!
(Or I’ve got some unusual free time 😉)
Meghan
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#beatingcowdens  AND #hEDS…  I guess some updating may be in order…