Feeling the heat

Well, last week was a scorcher.

So much so, that I gave up on Fathers’ Day activities halfway through the afternoon and went to bed for a bit. The following day, I dressed for work, drove my youngest to school, and then turned round and headed back home I felt so rough.

Again, I had an hour’s kip during the afternoon. After this I felt brave enough to step outside into our south-facing garden with some crazy idea about hanging out some washing.

Stepping out of the back door, I felt sure, was pretty similar to stepping off an aircraft in Saudi Arabia.

I turned round and went back in.

I felt so fatigued, dizzy and achey that I even Googled to see if I’d given myself cyanide poisoning. I’d made elderflower cordial, and elderflower and gooseberry jam a day or two previously and the stems apparently contain cyanide (in the same sort of way that apple pips do).

To a paranoid, heat-addled, MS-scarred brain like mine, it’s pretty amazing how similar the symptoms of MS and elderflower-induced cyanide poisoning are.

Tuesday, I was pretty much right as rain, so I ventured back to the office knowing that I could leave any time I needed to, and on Wednesday I’d booked a day off anyway to attend school sports day.

My youngest daughter’s school sports day involves a lot of standing up and moving from one event to another. The weather reports said partial cloud.

After two and a half hours of hanging around in full burning sunshine, I ventured back to my car that I’d helpfully parked about a mile away.

It was then that I found it was incredibly hard to walk in any meaningful foot-in-front-of-the-other kind of way. As I was the first one out of the school gates, I wondered what the other parents thought of my stumbling feet; feet that felt like they were made from bags of sand, and legs that felt like they were wading rather than walking.

At least I’d had the forethought of deliberately parking somewhere shady. Slumping into the driver’s seat, I allowed myself a rare emotional moment – probably no more than a few seconds, but enough to release the weight of what I’d bottled up – before turning the key in the ignition and just getting on with the rest of the day.

When I eventually got home there was a letter from Big City Hospital waiting for me. It was my neurologist to say the results of my recent MRI were back. It showed new lesions, apparently.

Now here’s the interesting thing – my neuro’s exact words look designed to set my mind at rest: ‘a small number of small new lesions compared to the scan of three years ago’. For someone who proof reads as part of their job, the use of the word ‘small’ twice in the same sentence stuck out like a luminously sun burned neck. The scan of three years ago that he mentioned had itself shown no new activity since the previous scan when I was first diagnosed, so these are the first new lesions on a brain scan of mine in nine years.

Anyway, my neurologist didn’t think this ‘necessarily need prompt a change in treatment’, but he’s asked that I come in to see him anyway ‘to discuss’.

Hmmm… all well and good if I’m being summoned to ask questions and set my mind at rest, but there’s also a little part of me that feels a little worried.

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The brutal brilliance of bladder Botox

I’m away on holiday for a couple of weeks soon and this means taking two boxes of urinary catheters plus an extra box just to cover all eventualities. And that’ll take up a considerable amount of space in the case.

Recent experience bears me out. A couple of years ago, we spent four weeks travelling round Australia. This was an unforgettable experience that involved everything from snorkeling on the barrier reef to cuddling baby kangaroos. The whole holiday was marred only by a kidney infection in the outback (treated) and subsequently running low on catheters in my final week. I was still able to pee at that point, but unable to completely empty, which left me needing the loo more often. In the end, I had to make do by rationing myself to one catheter a day (middle of the night) to leave me enough for the flight home.

Last year things had deteriorated to the point where I was less able to ‘go’. At the end of a week in Spain I had one catheter left for the journey back. I decided to use it before the one hour drive to the airport as I felt the need and I knew I had a few spares in the boot of my car in the car park back home.

Stuck in traffic on the ring road round Barcelona, a text came through from the airline to say our flight would be two hours late leaving. On the one hand, this was good news because we weren’t confident we were going to make it to the airport in time, but it was also bad news for me as I knew I’d need the loo again before take-off. To say I was ‘bursting’ all the way home is the understatement of the year. I don’t think I’ve ever been in so much bladder-related pain.

I recounted all my experiences to my sympathetic MS nurse who laid out the different options. These mostly consisted of different medications to either augment or replace the Solafenacin I was already on.

Of the options presented, there appeared to be only one thing that would do the trick, and a subsequent visit to the urology department sealed it: Botox injections it was.

The theory behind this is you get twenty or so injections into the bladder wall; this causes the relevant muscles to contract and then the bladder can take loads more in terms of volume. The only catch is if you were able to pee by yourself before, you definitely can’t now, so you’re completely reliant on self-catheterisation.  Not a problem for me, of course.

Eventually the day came for my injections. I turned up on time after dropping my youngest off at school and driving the ten miles to big-city hospital. My name was called just as my bum hit the waiting room seat, which at least spared me the torture of the piped local radio.

After a quick, less-than-gentle, wash of the relevant area by what was apparently a sponge on a stick, the procedure itself involved a rod being inserted into the bladder. There’s only one way to get it there folks, but as the rod’s no wider than a regular catheter there’s no real discomfort. It’s wide enough just to enable instruments such as a fibre-optic camera and needle to be passed through.

First, the bladder’s inflated with saline solution so the camera can have a proper look round to make sure everything’s healthy. I had a peek on the monitor above my head to satisfy myself and everything was pleasingly pink with little red veins spidering the walls. Then once the two doctors were happy, handling what appeared to be long thin joysticks, they got to work – one advanced the needle to the next injection spot and the other deployed the Botox.

The injections were as you might expect: they hurt in the same way that dentist’s injections hurt and some more so than others. For some reason – possibly because I have to inject medication everyday into relatively fleshy, relatively pain-free areas – this came as an unpleasant surprise. I was a bit too much of a wimp to watch the procedure on the monitor, opting to grit my teeth and stare at the ceiling instead. I’ll save the joy of that experience for another time, when I’m an old hand.

After about ten injections, they let me know they were halfway through, allowing me to have a breather for a second or two, and then they were off again: 21 injections in all.

And that was it. I was led away to dry myself and get dressed and then my pressing need was to find a loo to empty the saline they’d pumped in.

Apart from me, there were three others in the operating room: two doctors (one female) and a student observer. I didn’t mind, I’ve long since lost any inhibitions about exposing my nether regions to medical staff. I just found it a short, relatively brutal experience. It’s over in ten minutes flat.

I don’t know if it was because it was my first time, but I immediately felt the need to be by myself and ‘lick my wounds’ afterwards. Not easy in a big city hospital with a concourse filled by wheelchairs, visitors, charity stalls, staff waiting for lifts, and people in dressing gowns clutching cigarette packets making a bee line for the exit. I didn’t even feel like sending the promised text to my wife to say that it was all over. I just wanted to shrink into a quiet corner. Even the chocolate I’d promised myself as a reward for being brave tasted flat.

But, boy! What a difference . . . I go to the loo as often as a ‘normal’ person now, four to six times a day, and only once during the night, depending on how tired I am (I’ve even slept through a couple of times). One exceptionally busy day at work, I only realised I hadn’t been to the loo all day when I was halfway home – a total of eight hours. This is a far cry from the bad old days of yo-yoing to the gents and back. I can’t tell you how much this has improved my quality of life. It was totally worth the ten minutes of discomfort.

So how long does the Botox last? I’ve been told it could be anywhere between three and 12 months with most people averaging at six. It’s been four months for me, now, and it still seems to be going strong, so I’m very happy so far. There are no side-effects either – from the Botox or from the medication that I no longer take.

All the better for me to enjoy my forthcoming trip and one more aspect of MS that I won’t be taking with me.

It’s been a while..

I knew I hadn’t updated this blog for ages but I didn’t realise the last time I had anything to say was September 2015.

I’ve been busy caring for an elderly relative (now in residential care) and editing a poetry journal (now resigned), so I’ve either been exhausted or lacking the will and free time to exert myself with anything less pressing unfortunately.

My MS could also be described, to nick Viv Stanshall’s genius description of Rawlinson End, as ‘changing, yet changeless as canal water’, so it might be a year or two before I realise that anything has changed significantly enough to report on.

So what’s new? Three things mainly…

Firstly, I had a relapse involving optic neuritis about a year ago which kicked me into safe mode for a few weeks and I took some time off work. It’s a symptom that hasn’t really bothered me much for over ten years so for it to kick in was a bit of a shock (and painful to start with). All better now apart from a bit of noise in my vision.

Secondly, I’ve lost a stone in weight. I asked my GP to refer me to my local council-run sports centre a while back to try and get myself in shape. I didn’t have the time to do that, though, as already described, so I just put myself on a strict diet of my own devising. This seems to have worked. I’ve also recently taken to waking up at 5am to go for a run round my local neighbourhood (just a couple of miles each time). It’s a good time of year to do this as you have to keep moving to avoid freezing solid. The only other people around at 5am are milkmen, gritter drivers and people who either commute long distances or care about their careers too much, scraping the ice off their windscreens.

Thirdly, I was referred to my big city hospital’s urology department to sort my rapidly deteriorating bladder problems which were a massive drain (‘scuse the pun) on my quality of life.

I’ll cover the last two points in forthcoming posts – bet you can’t wait.

Until then…

My other ailment

“You’re looking well.”

There’s a lot of messages on MS related social media sites from annoyed MSers who hate to be told they’re looking well.

Of course the reasoning behind this is that MS is an invisible disease and while I may look OK on the outside… blah blah blah – you get the picture.

Can I just go on record that I will never tire of anyone telling me that I look well, or have a healthy complexion or that I’m an irresistable sex god, because frankly it doesn’t happen that often.

One of my wife’s friends dropped by the other day to drop something off and she remarked about how well I looked. I’d spent a day of industrial action working my allotment plot and while I was still feeling the after effects in my limbs I’d caught the sun and, the risk of skin cancer notwithstanding, I probably do look healthy (I also probably glow in the dark).

If people think they have to complement me on how I look because they know I have MS, then let ’em.

One of the key afflictions for anyone with MS, quite apart from any physical symptoms caused by demyelination, is psychological.

On occasion, if I’ve had a bad day and I’m feeling nackered, and maybe my body hasn’t done what it’s meant to do, I can get quite maudlin. If someone wants to remind me that I look fabulous, let them. It won’t make the MS go away, but it will go a considerable way to healing my other ailment.

And by the way… just so you know… you’re looking fabulous.

The Beta Interferon blues – update

After just two injections I can feel the familiar feelings returning. Aside from the flu-like side effects (achey joints), I have been waking up, not suicidal, but with little enthusiasm for life shall we say?

One phonecall to my MS nurse later and I can announce that Rebif and I are officially no longer an item.

A(nother) month of no drugs should clear my system and by that point I’ll have a meeting with my neurologist about possible alternatives.

Of course, one of those alternatives might be a lower dose of Rebif, because whatever I say about it, it has done its job by keeping relapses at bay.

But I’m going to celebrate tonight. I’m looking forward to being officially completely drug free for the first time in six years with all the benefits that brings.

The Beta Interferon blues.

I’m about to go back on Rebif after a four week trial period of coming off it.

It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve done this, I tend not to take it on holiday (just a hassle) or over Christmas (to give myself a break).

So, have I noticed any changes?

On the negative side, I’ve noticed some extra dizziness and tingling arms and hands. A couple of days ago I woke up with a partially numb right forearm extending into my little finger, which isn’t usual for me.

And that’s it!

Of course I realise that a prolonged period off the meds increases the chance of a relapse etc, so I’m going to start injecting again tonight to see what happens next.

On the positive side (and this is a big one) I’m happier.

Granted, I’ve been on holiday to Florida over the last four weeks which might explain my improved Disneyfied mood, but I haven’t had the usual back to work blues this time.

I can quantify the improved mood as well.

A couple of months before I came off Rebif, my GP asked how I was feeling and handed me a mood questionnaire. The same questionnaire is available on the NHS website. I scored pretty highly: 15 out of 20, I think, which puts me bubbling under ‘severely depressed.’

If I complete the questionnaire now, I score 3 or 4, and I get those for MS related things rather than anything mood related. I might get up a lot in the night, for instance, because of my bladder.

Because my mood has improved, I’ve been eating less and been more energetic. I’m also sleeping better. My wife jokes that she doesn’t know many people who can go on holiday to the States and lose ten pounds, but I did. Ten pounds!! In two weeks!

Among the listed side effects of beta interferon 1a (Rebif and Avonex) is suicidal thoughts and depression, so it will be interesting to see what happens when I resume the meds. I’ll be monitoring my mood score and contacting my MS nurse if my situation changes.

The medication choices have changed in the six years since I was diagnosed, so if the worst comes to the worst I’ll have some research to do.

Anyway, wish me luck. Time to get those syringes ready.

The best drug

I’ve just had a weekend home alone while my wife and kids went to visit friends in the North East.

As usual I had a list of jobs to do and as usual I missed their company.

On the Saturday I made a concerted effort to finish everything. I tidied out our garage making a couple of trips to the tip. I chopped up some wood for kindling, I also changed all the beds and did all the washing, sorting out and putting away all the dry things from earlier in the week.

Jobs done, I treated myself to a curry and had an early night.

I didn’t sleep well, I never do when I have the bed to myself, and I eventually got up at about 7am with a blistering headache.

I had promised myself that I’d go for a run in the early hours as part of my gradual easing-myself-into-getting-fit campaign, but the headache was going to scupper that one. I’d probably slept funny, judging my the pain in my neck muscles, but it felt like one of those dehydration headaches that you get when you’re hung over. One that feels like your brain has shrivelled up like a prune.

I downed two ibuprofen, put the kettle on and ate a banana, thinking…

I was up early for a Sunday and I had time on my hands. If I couldn’t go for a run, why not go for a brisk walk instead?

I’m lucky enough to live on the edge of town and there’s countryside only a ten minute walk away.

So after I’d finished my cuppa, I put on my waterproof and I was out of the door.

Fab! Typically for a Sunday morning there was no traffic and no-one about, just a bloke jogging to start with.

It wasn’t long before I found an old farm bridleway that I used to frequent when I was doing my masters degree and needed to escape, some eleven years before.

At one time I had walked every footpath in that area, but it was so long ago, I’d forgotten half of them existed. I had to remind myself that the vicious looking dog that used to live in one of the farms was most likely dead by now. Some of the eccentric architecture of some of the buildings came back to me like a nice surprise as well, like the un-nervingly tall but thin house standing on its own on a muddy lane or the old rickety house with the stone tile roof.

It was lovely, the sky was still starting to brighten and with my headache now gone. A fine rain dampened my hair. The smell of mud and leaves filled my nostrils. The birds were singing, and a cow stuck its head out of a barn and watched me as I went past.

I said “good morning” to a handful of dog owners. I even shared a laugh with the owner of a large black Labrador that had run, leaping and body-checking me – something that would have frightened me silly at one time.

After about an hour of walking in what had become a steady drizzle, it occurred to me that a strange, yet familiar feeling was engulfing me. Something I seriously haven’t felt for perhaps years.

I was deliriously happy.

Half an hour later I returned home with a box of mushrooms from the local shop. I reckon I walked for about six miles. After cooking up brunch, I sat down, plate on lap, and opened up my Woody Allen box set. I watched Manhattan.

A while ago, I wrote on this blog about a sixteen mile walk I had once done in the snow, a few years before any big relapse and way before I was diagnosed. I wondered whether I’d ever repeat that, whether I’d ever just pull on my walking boots to hit the hills, pocketing an ordnance survey map on my way out of the door.

I’m not altogether sure I will, in terms of distance, but I have resolved, particularly as the days get longer, that if I can’t get back to sleep post-4am, I may just have to cut my losses and make the most of the early hours.

I’m not saying that I’m unhappy, but there are stresses and strains in everyday life that can build up and drag you down, particularly when you have a chronic illness and perhaps can’t manage everyday life in the same way that you used to.

I guess I’ve just resolved to take advantage of that me time while everyone else is buried beneath their duvets. Endorphins are the best drug and I fully intend to become addicted.