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

Don’t give up on a (limping) Zebra

You know that person in your life.  The one who always has a dramatic tale of woe?  The one who you tire of hearing from because all they do is talk about their health?  Because honestly all that doctor talk is quite depressing.  And I mean, you hate going to the doctor.  You just went last week and they made you wait 30 minutes past your appointment.  But, you gave them a piece of your mind, and you’re just not going back.  You are way too busy anyway.  You have other things to do, and a LIFE.  So you’ll get to it when you get to it.

So, it might be a little hard for you to process that your friend doesn’t have the ability to make the same choices.  And that one doctor visit, with the 30 minute delay, they do that several times a month. A 30 minute wait is a rarity.  Typical time round trip, including traffic and wait – often 5 hours. 

And over time you might have less and less to talk about with them.  Because, they missed the party, or cancelled on dinner.  They are so dramatic.  You’ve had that wrong with you.  Sometimes you have to get up and keep moving.  They spend too much time being sad.  What “trauma” could they possibly know?

While the Zebra is the Symbol for Ehler’s Danlos Syndrome- a group of inherited connective tissue disorders- it also speaks symbolically and metaphorically to the Rare Disease Patients we encounter daily.  In our house it is PTEN Hamartoma Tumor Syndrome, or Cowden’s Syndrome, and Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, for now. With over 7,000 Rare Diseases, it is not “rare” to have one.  It is rare for them to be properly diagnosed, managed, and understood.

From National Geographic  (BLUE PRINT IS CUT FROM THE ARTICLE)

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/p/plains-zebra/

ABOUT THE PLAINS ZEBRA

No animal has a more distinctive coat than the zebra. Each animal’s stripes are as unique as fingerprints—no two are exactly alike—although each of the three species has its own general pattern.

No two are exactly alike…

Zebra Stripes

Why do zebras have stripes at all? Scientists aren’t sure, but many theories center on their utility as some form of camouflage. The patterns may make it difficult for predators to identify a single animal from a running herd and distort distance at dawn and dusk. Or they may dissuade insects that recognize only large areas of single-colored fur or act as a kind of natural sunscreen. Because of their uniqueness, stripes may also help zebras recognize one another.

Stripes may help them recognize each other….

Population and Herd Behavior

Zebras are social animals that spend time in herds. They graze together, primarily on grass, and even groom one another.

Plains zebras are the most common species. They live in small family groups consisting of a male (stallion), several females, and their young. These units may combine with others to form awe-inspiring herds thousands of head strong, but family members will remain close within the herd.

They can combine to form a herd, or a small group called a “dazzle.”  Seems fitting though…

I used to be social.  I mean not overly social.  I never traveled in large groups, but I used to dine out.  I used to see friends.  At least sometimes.

I learned of the old concept taught in medical school many years ago when we were starting to live this overwhelming life full time.  It goes “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.”  The professionals we look to have been trained to explain us away.

Our medical system is so deeply broken, that our best and brightest are in debt they can barely see past, and in shackles to the facilities they must work for, who are often managed on bottom lines and drug companies pockets as they overbook them and take away the time to look at the whole patient.  These doctors are often cognitively capable of doping their job.  They are just not allowed.

Some theories on the progression of that quote can be found clicking this link.

When You Hear Hoofbeats Look for Horses Not Zebras

But the reality is this.  We are Zebras.  In this rare disease community at large, we are a herd of them, as many as 10% of the world’s population.

( And other Rare Facts here… https://globalgenes.org/rare-facts/)

RARE Facts

And we are trying to get treated by many doctors who have been trained, for whatever the reason, to categorically deny the existence of zebras!

It’s easier to diagnose and treat a horse I suppose.  It is easier to open the text book, or the app and find the segment on their current malady, remedy it, and send them on their way.

I rarely meet a zebra who doesn’t WISH they could be a horse.  We don’t want to be hard to diagnose and treat.  But, we are.

I am currently in my 11th month treating a foot injury.

I fell at work and it was handled to the letter of the law there.

My insurance company denied the MRI I needed for my pain.  I waited and walked on it for 2 months.  When I could stand the pain no longer I received a diagnosis of a partial lisfranc tear, a zebra type of foot injury if you will.  I was put in a boot, taken out of work and rested.  Then I was taken out of the boot, not because there was proof of healing, but because I’d been in it too long.

A second opinion told me to be patient.

My local podiatrist running point on the case has been wonderful.

I have seen him every other week since March.

It hurts. Still.

I tried Physical Therapy and was sent away after 5 visits because he felt something else was wrong.

I tried ignoring the pain and walking through it.  It got so much worse.

Another visit back to the second orthopedist left me feeling like a fool as he told me it was all good.

An MRI 2 days later showed stress changes in the cuboid bone, another “zebra” foot injury.

Unfortunately, those results came my way after 6 days in Orlando.

The boot was on again.  This time with a scooter.

Another opinion and another MRI in September progressed the fracture to “non-discplaced” cuboid fracture and sentences me to another 10 weeks in the boot.

My original podiatrist, a stand up guy, suggested Hospital for Special Surgery.  He could not get another MRI approved.  My insurance had tired of me trying to get better.  He thought HSS had a better shot.

In the mean time I had to come out of the boot.  Not because the pain was better, but because there is only so long you can stay in before you have other risks.

Countless hours trying to schedule, I ended up with an appointment 10/31.  His diagnosis was made without ever having me take a step.  “You have too much pain in too many places.”  Go see pain management.  My husband strong armed him into ordering another MRI, which he did.  Except for reasons I’ll never know he ordered only the forefoot…

The results of that MRI showed swelling, chronic fracture of the sesamoid, and a neuroma(that one is fairly common) among other things.  He backpedaled a great deal when he called with those results.

My foot is in no shape to return to teaching – yet.

I went to neurology locally.  Prior to me getting my sneakers off he diagnosed me with a pain syndrome, because “it has to be.”  I did a nerve function test, was told to take a “tri-phase bone scan” and seek pain management. Again, no exam.

So, I scheduled the bone scan and started looking at pain management.  Except no one at Hospital for Special Surgery will treat me, even though their doctor was also sending me.  And the one specialist I was referred to locally does not take my insurance.  I am awaiting an answer for another suggestion.  My second call to the local office was at 9 this morning.

 

I have a ‘hail Mary’ pass going to a PT tonight who I PRAY will think he can help.

It sounds luxurious to be a zebra, right?  Spa treatments all day.  HA! Because what else would you do when you’re not at work?

It is easier to think someone is being lazy.  It is easier to think they don’t care, or they aren’t trying.  It is easier to find the green grass in someone else’s yard.

It is easy to judge.  To say someone is “taking advantage.”  It is so much easier than hearing the truth.  Often the truth is hard.  And just not as interesting.

I can assure you I have been schooled once again in the value of the lesson “Everyone has something.”

When you are rare, you are left on your own.  A lot.  Doctors will not, or can not, or are unable to troubleshoot an abnormal/multidisciplinary diagnosis.

I will wait.  I will continue to seek answers.  I will pray that all the bones in my foot stay in one piece.  Because this, this was supposed to be the “normal” injury in the house.  It was “just a fall.”

But, apparently as I’m learning, when you’re a zebra, you are a zebra through and through.

Thankful for my “dazzle…”  You know who you are.

And some days I feel like its even a little more unique…

#beatingcowdens

#hEDS