Making lemonade #2

Way back when I started secondary school, a rumour went around that all the boys would need a medical during the first term. This would involve a procedure where a nurse would hold our testicles while we coughed.

This never happened, of course, but a part of me believed it. It made the eleven year old me unduly anxious to say the least.

I often think about how cool it would be to be some sort of guardian angel to my awkward, shy, younger self. I’d put a supportive arm around my own shoulders and whisper something into my ear… some mature advice to make me feel better: “That thing about a nurse holding your bollocks? It won’t happen. It’s utter nonsense… ha ha! Just you wait another 30 years.”

Fast forward to the other week…

I’ve learnt a new skill!

It involves passing a foot long length of tubing into the most sensitive and private part of my anatomy.

The first time I did it, I had my trousers round my ankles, while a nurse (female), who I’d met for the first time barely 20 minutes previously, looked on, rubbing my shoulder in a supportive, encouraging manner.

Yes, I have to catheterise myself at least twice a day, now, due to the fact that I retain approximately one pint (500ml) of urine in my bladder, even after visiting the loo. The urology nurse who came to visit told me that anyone who regularly holds 400ml of urine is advised to catheterise (the MS Trust say anyone holding more than 100ml), so I fall (un)comfortably into that bracket.

I’ll be performing this procedure for approximately… hmmm… how many months? Oh wait!… The rest of my bloody life!

I’ll be honest with you. The first few days you try it, it isn’t easy to do. I winced each time at the prospect of threading the tube into such a seemingly tight space. I also had to change the type of catheters I was using as the initial bendy latex ones were causing too much pain and I was finding blood in my urine. Plus I found them as easy to hold as a live eel. But two weeks on, with stiffer, differently lubricated catheters, it’s a lot better, and I feel a lot calmer doing it.

So has it worked? Do I visit the loo less urgently? Do I go less often? Do I finally have an unbroken night’s sleep?

The answer to that is yes and no.

I can’t describe how crestfallen I felt on the first night. After painfully tubing myself before going to bed, I woke up at 2am, 4am, and then 6am desperate for the loo. It was as if nothing had changed. Nothing except for the fact that I now had to perform some sort of low level surgery on myself.

After a few nights of this, a phonecall to my MS nurse and a visit to the GP meant that I’ve started taking solifenacin tablets to relax the bladder muscle and reduce the urge to pass water.

It’s early days still, but I mostly wake up with my bladder just once a night now (and I catheterise when I do). During the working day I might make a trip to the loo, two or even three times in my six hour shift, instead of three times an hour, so to me, it’s an unbelievable turnaround. In the daytime I couldn’t be happier. I’m getting to be friends with my bladder again and it turns out he’s quite a nice guy.

There’s still the element of waking halfway through the night to contend with, though. I wonder if part of it is to do with learned behaviour. Perhaps my body automatically wakes up at regular points during the night and now needs to be retrained. I’ve tried to combat the night time loo visits by cutting down massively on the amount of caffeine I take in and the drink of water I have with my evening meal is often the last liquid to pass my lips every day.

It’s early days on the pills, though. Tomorrow marks one week of taking them and the GP told me it takes about seven days for them to kick in (the MS Trust says up to four weeks), so we’ll see how it goes. I don’t remember the last time I managed to sleep through the night without waking. The day I finally do, I’ll be partying.

Making lemonade

“To make lemonade out of the lemons life throws at you, you sometimes have to strangle kittens.”

Somebody tweeted that recently. Oh wait!… It was me! I tweeted it!

Why?

Because to aid a restful night’s sleep and to stop myself getting urinary infections, I will now have to self-catheterise every day, at least once a day, for the rest of my life.

Hooray! MS rarely gets sexier than that, eh?

Oh well, something else to put on my health CV.

So what’s happening?

I went to the hospital for my yearly check-up this week. I had to have a bladder scan after my usual neurologist appointment. Despite this, I needed a wee really badly when I finally got to the clinic and I used the loo before I’d even checked in at the desk. I’m sure you won’t mind me saying – it was a nice big wee.

45 minutes of waiting room passed as all sorts of MS patients came and went. Some who looked fitter and healthier than me to those in wheelchairs. MS waiting rooms are funny places. I always sit at the back, so I can look out over the city (the clinic is on the 11th storey of a hospital on top of a
hill). I always feel like I’m being weighed up by the other patients when my name is called and the very slight limp I have and the clumsiness I feel as I circumnavigate all the chairs seems amplified all of a sudden).

After my usual questions with the neurologist I got to see one of the MS nurses. Not my usual one.

He scanned my bladder – I had about 640ml of urine in it. I was just about ready for another wee, so he gave me a bed pan and off I went to the loo again. Again, it felt like a nice satisfyingly big wee. As it trickled to a stop I had a slight residual feeling there was more there but the feeling passed and I couldn’t go any more.

The reveal moment came when he told me that I’d managed to pass 120ml of that original 640ml and sure enough the follow up scan revealed that I had about 500ml of wee still inside me. To put it in context, a bladder can hold up to 1.5 litres, so that pint of wee I’m carrying around everywhere is about a third of a bladderful.

I think I can say I was mildly shocked.

Anyway, treatment options were discussed and we both decided that self catheterisation was the way forward. This will involve passing a thin lubricated tube, about a foot long into my bladder every day, once or twice (or more) a day.

It sounds potentially painful, but to his eternal credit he intimated that he’d tried catheterising himself to see how it felt. Just so that he could talk honestly about it to his patients. I felt completely reassured about it and I’m sort-of looking forward to the nursing team who will visit me in the next
week or two to show me how it’s done.

Actually, I’m not looking forward to it at all, but if it needs to be done, it needs to be done, and I’ll have a follow up appointment with the MS nurses in a month or two to see how I’m getting on.

A lot is said about specialist MS nurses and how great they are, but let me say this… I have received care from my MS nursing team for about five years now and going to see them is like going to see a good friend. Even though I’d only met this nurse for the first time, we had a long chat about music, bands we’re both into, cycling, drumming, vegetarianism, local neighbourhoods I wanted to explore after my visit and so on… He even made me a cup of tea. Despite the white coats and the technical equipment hanging from the walls, I completely forgot I was in a hospital.

I said as much on the online hospital feedback form the next day – credit where it’s due, and all that.

Travelling the ten or so miles into the big city and the usual pains of parking spaces, students and traffic congestion put aside – it’s always a pleasure to visit. Long may it continue to be so.

Three cheers for MS nurses!

Incidentally, I nearly chose “Taking the piss” as the title for this post, but felt that would have been unfair.

More soon…

PS – the shaking I experienced recently, didn’t tick the boxes of a fit, but may have been some residual dream-movement, like I thought.

Back to Blighty blues

I’m just back in the UK after a fabulous trip to Australia and Singapore.

I don’t normally do this, but while I was away, I re-evaluated things a little. What I should be doing to make myself happier, more comfortable and healthier.

The thing about Australia is that there are so many similarities to home – the food is similar, they drive on the left, they seem to have a similar dry sense of humour – that the differences really stand out. Here are a few things I noticed:

  • Jogging is a big deal – I counted 100 joggers on one stretch of path within a couple of minutes from my Brisbane hotel window one morning, and everywhere we went, I’d see people in lycra shorts, tracksuit tops etc just going about their business.
  • Families and social life are a big deal. Parks, green spaces, football stadiums, museums – they all have little huts with barbecue equipment underneath for anyone to roll up and insert a coin or raised wooden picnic platforms.
  • Friendliness – I was only there for a couple of weeks, but they couldn’t have been more accommodating. Even the supermarket shelf stackers were matey when pointing out the milk aisle.

Arriving back to the 70s monstrosity of Manchester Airport, the racist cab driver and people with a weary chip on their shoulder, accentuated things even more and brought me back to Blighty with a bump.

It might just be my holiday state of mind and the places we stayed, though, because I’m sure that Australians can be as grumpy, un-fit and unhappy as the best (worst?) of us. With the wide-open spaces and the better weather, though, it certainly seemed that the quality of life down under outstripped anything we enjoy.

It also probably helped, that I’d deliberately left my medication at home.

After popping that first injection when I got back, I felt a familiar weariness in my limbs that wasn’t anything to do with jet lag. My clay legs couldn’t bear to climb the stairs any more times than they had to and the energy I’d had exploring the streets of Singapore had been sapped. A day or so later I had my first big argument with a misbehaving daughter. The idea that I might get up early and start a pre-breakfast jogging routine seemed more and more unlikely.

It’s been a few days since I got back, now. I wisely took a few days off work to get over jet lag and this has been achieved more or less. But the idea that a week ago I was walking through a humid Singapore with a backpack creating a sweaty square on my t-shirt and a camera that immediately fogged up as soon as we’d leave anywhere air-conditioned, seems almost unbelievable. Particularly when you consider that I was striding through the streets with the rest of the family lagging behind and begging me for a rest.

So what can I do back home?

The biggest issues for me that I can do something about, MS-wise, are fatigue and the pain due to muscle spasms in my legs and feet. Of course, the pain feeds the fatigue and most certainly, vice versa.

I don’t take any pain medication as everything I’ve tried so far (gabapentin and amitriptyline) has given me unwanted side effects ranging from more fatigue to hallucinations. I met my wonderful MS nurse before I went away and she suggested that I give pregabalin a try, so I may do that. I guess it works on the same centres of the brain that gabapentin does though (?) so that’s something to bear in mind. She also mentioned a muscle relaxant, but that might be a bit full-on at the moment and could be a last resort.

The fatigue could be combatted by changing from beta interferon to the relatively symptom-free copaxone with the added complication of daily injections (which, perversely, might be easier to remember).

More importantly, a major contributing factor to both of these symptoms is the fact that I spend seven and a half hours of the day sitting at a computer. I don’t want to keep taking sick leave, but I easily could, I feel dreadful at the end of each working day and even worse by the end of the week.

It’s taken a long time to consider my options, and I’ve spent more than a year weighing this up as it’ll inevitably lead to a drop in wages, but I’ve requested a reduction in work hours to a four day week spread over five days. This would effectively give me a six hour working day. When you consider that I work flexible work hours anyway, this would be a dream come true, give me some much needed space and improve the quality of my life no end.

It would give me the space I need to move at a less hectic pace, to drop the kids or pick them up at school without worrying about making up the hours at work. I would be a less grumpy dad in the evenings and I’d have more time to take up some gentle exercise. I could even water my tomatoes and weed my allotment plot before heading to work in the morning. When I think of the possibilities, the image I have is suffused in a golden glow… an ideal world.

I have requested this as a necessary adjustment to my working life under the Equalities Act. I work in a large public sector organisation and everything they have done regarding my MS to date has been exemplary. I even have paid time off to attend meetings of our disabled workers group if I want to (I don’t, but that’s another story).

I made my request two months ago to the day and apart from an occupational health appointment before my holiday, I’ve heard nothing so far. No letter from human resources, no email in the inbox.

It’s a bit disappointing, but I don’t work for the DVLA, so I expect I’ll get results when I chase it up. I’ll look forward to it opening a new chapter in my life. I’ll keep you all posted.

As if by magic, a support network appeared

Two items of fantastic news here in North Derbyshire. Firstly, our wonderful MS nurse has teamed up with the local MS Society branch to organise a series of weekly talks/discussions/lectures titled “Getting to grips with MS” for the newly diagnosed. Topics are to include exercise, benefits, developments in treatments, coming to terms with the diagnosis, fatigue management, employment issues amongst others.

A lot of ground that these talks cover, will be stuff that isn’t relevant to me, things I already know or things I think I already know. I think the main benefit for me, will be the chance to meet people in a similar situation, share experiences and feel a little less isolated.

In another new development, my local branch of the MS Society is organising a series of monthly drop-in sessions at a local surgery for people with MS or their partners/carers to have any queries answered, access MS Society literature or simply to network with others over a cuppa.

I don’t normally interact with my local MS Society as the people who attend the social evenings tend (this might be a little unfair) to be in an older age bracket. This is an issue that the MS Society has recognised nationally, judging by the voting slips that were sent round recently. I guess the EMYAMS facebook group is one outlet seeking to redress this.

It would be interesting to see if other areas have similar schemes for reaching out to people, or if there are any innovative ideas out there.

Health talk online

Even with all the support in the world, diagnosis of a chronic illness can be a dreadfully lonely experience. While the MS Society and the MS Trust and the nurse assigned to me were all utterly wonderful when I was diagnosed, I think what I needed (need) more than anything was to connect with other people who have MS and share experience.

Ultimately, health professionals specialising in MS can give you the lowdown on the disease and tell you everything you need to know and more, but it is extremely unlikely they have the disease themselves. It is like a NASA engineer telling an astronaut what it will be like flying in space.

So it is only natural to turn to the web for advice. But it’s also widely acknowledged that the web can be a wildly misleading and biased source of information (I did Health Informatics as part of my Masters degree, so trust me).

For the most part, I have connected with others so far, through YouTube, various Facebook discussion boards and blogs such as this one.

When I heard about www.healthtalkonline.org on the BBC1 Breakfast show this morning my ears pricked up. This is a new resource primarily for people diagnosed with chronic illness.

The idea behind it is that you can access interviews from other people with the same condition as you or your loved one and hear their experiences of diagnosis and living with the conditions. The patients interviewed are a representative sample from across the UK and the site is managed by experts from Oxford University.

“Sounds interesting,” I thought “must remember to check it out later.”

The BBC feature has obviously increased traffic to the site crashing it’s servers as it was unavailable for much of this morning, but I have just accessed the site and I can report that there is NO information on MS. Clicking on “nerves and brain” brings up dementia, epilepsy, motor neurone disease, parkinson’s disease and stroke, yet there is no information on the UK’s most common neurological condition. Even clicking on “living with disability” only brings up
information on autism.

The only relevant info is on chronic pain where apparently one of the interviewees has MS.

I know, I know… early days… give it time…

…but it’s very disappointing.

One year on …

Today is the first anniversary of my diagnosis (see MS History – part two).

Health professional bodycount so far.

Starting with the first GP visit last year, the bodycount is as follows

  • GPs 4
  • Practice Nurses 2
  • MS nurse 1
  • Ward nurse 1
  • Occupational Health nurse 1
  • Phlebotomists 6 (estimate)
  • Physiotherapists 1
  • Neurologists 5
  • Neuro-psychologists 2
  • Radiologists 4

If you consider the medication as well, I have probably cost the NHS more money over the last year than some of it’s employees.

Symptom recap:

Current symptoms:

  • mild optic neuritis (since Jan ’09)
  • doublevision / nystagmus / intra-nuclear opthalmoplegia / oscillopsia
  • fatigue
  • tingling / pins and needles
  • neuropathic pain in legs

Symtoms that have cleared up for now:

  • L’Hermitte’s sign
  • vertigo
  • muscle weakness
  • involuntary muscle movement

Of the current symptoms, the fatigue and optic neuritis aren’t quite as acute as they were at first onset, so I feel much better, relatively, than I did last year. I think it is important to stress that I still have bad days, though (I nearly fell asleep in a meeting yesterday). Things are also helped by friendlier medication.

My MS History – Part Five

Between visiting the two consultants, I needed to do my research and also go for a lumbar puncture. I hated the steroids, they had the dual effect of causing severe heartburn, while simultaneously making me incredibly hungry.

At the time it seemed that they didn’t do me any good. Particularly as in the following weeks, I developed a rapid oscillation in my eyes when I looked right (nystagmus) and a strange creeping pain in my feet and legs which for all the world felt like they either wanted to curl up inside themselves and shrivel up or on other days like they wanted to run away on their own. The pain would start in the evenings or on hot days and when I was tired, as early as midday.

After diagnosis, you enter a whole new world. Support networks are everywhere. The MS Society and the MS Trust sent me reams of free information to get my poorly head round. I joined the MS Society for a minimal fee and spent an hour talking to the local rep over the phone.

I found the web awash with discussion forums – some more useful than others.

YouTube seemed to be a mix of useful advice and people moaning about how ill they are.

I was assigned an MS nurse who was to become my contact with the hospital as well as a source of advice and information. She came to visit me at home. I also had a meeting with one of the Occupational Health Nurses at work and my workplace also has a Disabled Workers’ Group who corresponded with useful and supportive advice.

With the information at my fingertips I was able to piece together incidents from my past and build up a picture of my MS history. The most interesting find was a diary entry from four years previously that documented “everything that has gone wrong with my health since starting work at (my employer)” This modest list was as follows:

  • Vertigo. My local practice nurse had told me this was some sort of postural hypotension because it occurred when bending or lying in certain positions. I had a mental image of my aorta being squeezed, every time it flared up.
  • Eye problems. I had flashes and flickering lights in my vision and pain when looking round. I went to my GP, an optician and eventually my local hospital as an out-patient over this and was told that I had symptoms consistent with a detached retina, but apart from that, they were stumped. I pictured the present-day me, in a white coat, leaning over the opthalmologist’s shoulder: “Hmmmm…. how about optic neuritis??”
  • A four week headache that wouldn’t shift with painkillers.
  • Pins and needles on one side of my head.

So there you had it. I had unwittingly documented my first major MS relapse.

Evidence of further MS activity cropped up in other diaries. My diary from the year before diagnosis documented a nasty spell of vertigo. It also showed evidence of fatigue where end-of-the-day diary entries spouted random gibberish and sometimes spiralled off into unintelligible squiggles.

The lumbar puncture wasn’t too bad. The nurse performing the procedure reminded me of someone I knew, so that put me at ease. The local anaesthetic being administered was the most painful bit.

I felt the pop of the needle entering my spinal column and I was surprised to see that my cerebro-spinal fluid was completely colourless. Other than that I didn’t feel any discomfort. Everything had been explained in great detail. I remarked that I had pulled a muscle round lumbar number 4, six years previously and the nurse commented that it was still rock hard and impossible to get the needle through. She did physio for one of the city’s top sports teams, so I guessed she knew what she was talking about.

I was one of the 10 per cent of puncturees who had bad headaches for the next few days and on the third day afterwards (my third day in my new job), I vomited.

Seeing my new consultant was a world of difference the old one. He popped in to yet another session of symptom observation with students in tow, listened to the low-down from his registrar (who amusingly became all flustered) and declared that I obviously had active Relapsing Remitting MS, that I had probably had at least two relapses that year already and that he should put me on some disease modifying drugs as soon as humanly possible.

I had one of those amusing moments like the good vibrations in the MRI. The consultant, wanted to demonstrate to his registrar and his two students how my eyes were moving. I had intranuclear opthalmoplegia as well as nystagmus to demonstrate, so while I followed the path of his pen, I was aware of four pairs of eyes leaning forward and concentrating closely on mine.

I was also set up with a series of testing with the neuro-psychologists to assess the extent of any cognitive problems I might be having, and appointments with my local physiotherapist to assess bladder control. By the time these appointments rolled around, I was well into remission, and seemingly OK, so if anything they will serve as “a useful baseline” to assess any “future degradation.”

One of the marvellous things about a neurological diagnosis is that you get to fly through the MRI of your brain. It is an odd experience and, probably because I was in a vulnerable spot emotionally, quite moving. Seeing it nestling snug inside the thin skull wall, is… dare I say it as an agnostic… an almost spiritual experience.