A CALL FROM THE HEART GUY – Marilyn Armstrong

I hadn’t heard from the heart doctor. Having not heard anything, I eventually concluded that there must be nothing important to talk about because if there were, someone would have mentioned it.

This evening, the doctor called.

So it turns out — by the doctor’s reckoning — there’s not much to discuss.  From my point of view, a bit more to talk about.

My heart is as good as one can expect it to be — given how much surgery has been done and its condition to begin with. Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy is a big deal and I had it for a long time before I knew about it.  I’ve had two replaced valves — aortic and mitral, as well as a replaced artery and an implanted pacemaker that will — in maybe four or five years — need a new battery. Assuming I’m still kicking around in four or five years.



How is my heart doing? As well as can be expected, thank you very much. The atriums are oversized, the ventricles are over-muscled, but all things considered, the heart is pumping reasonably well.

“So I’ve got another year you figure?”

“Probably.”

“That’s good. I don’t have to start packing yet.”

Of course, I don’t have the results of yesterday’s test yet, so who knows?

SLEEPLESS ELECTROENCEPHALOGRAM TOMORROW! THE FUN NEVER STOPS! – Marilyn Armstrong

I’ve got a “sleepless” EEG (electroencephalogram) tomorrow morning. It means I can’t go to sleep until midnight and I have to be up by four in the morning and be at the hospital by eight in the morning. No caffeine, but I can have breakfast.

I don’t know how to have breakfast without coffee. What am I supposed to eat? Without coffee, am I supposed to cook? Like … food?

I suppose it will be something to do while I have to wait to leave for the hospital. Do I need to tell you how much I’m not looking forward to this?

So please do not be surprised if I don’t make comments in the morning or write much. I am likely to go back to bed. Quite probably Garry and I will both go back to bed. Except I will have to take a shower and wash my hair first because they use a kind of glop to attach the electrodes to my head and I have to wash it out or it will turn to cement and I might never get it out of my hair.

Meanwhile, no one has called to give me information about last week’s echocardiogram. I called the office and she pointed out if there was anything wrong, they would have called me. So I can assume if there is anything amiss, I’d already know it.

I guess I’ll stop worrying.

Now all I have to do is worry about surviving without coffee and getting the goop out of my hair.

It’s going to be a really terrific day. And a great night, too. I can hardly wait. The high point of this day was that the hospital called me — a human BEING called me — to remind me about the test. A real live person called and asked me if I was going to be there. I said yes and she said “Great!” We both hung up.

Wow. A living person called me. How often does THAT happen?

PLEASE, JUST MAKE ME FEEL BETTER – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Health

I visited my favorite doctor last week. She is the only one of my original set of doctors I kept when I changed insurers. Despite her not being covered directly by my new insurance, she “gets me” in a way that only someone who has known you for a long time possibly can.

I hadn’t seen her in while — she was on vacation — so we had some catching up to do. We talked about me, her, life, getting older, and how things don’t feel like they did when we were young. Mostly, we discussed how important it is to feel better.

Anyone who has been sick for a long time knows what I mean when I say:


“I just want to feel better.”

There comes a moment in time when whatever is wrong with you has dragged on for what feels like an eternity. You can’t remember what it was like to feel good. You’ve done everything you are supposed to do yet still, you feel like crap.

Whether it’s cancer, recovering from surgery, anxiety, bipolarity, the pain of chronic illness — or any combination of the above plus all the other things I forgot to mention — there comes a day when all you want is to feel better.

You really don’t care how. Whatever it takes, whatever drugs, surgery, therapy, whatever. Please, make me feel better. I want a day without pain. Without anxiety, depression, or nausea. I want to feel normal, whatever normal is. Because I am not sure I remember “normal” anymore.

The problem is that feeling better isn’t considered a medical issue. As far as doctors are concerned, feeling better is your problem, not theirs. You can’t test for feeling better. You can’t plot it on a chart.

There is no medical value to how you feel. If you can’t put it on a chart or turn it into a statistic, it’s not real and not important.


To me, it’s the only important thing. Since feeling lousy isn’t an illness, feeling better isn’t a cure. If it isn’t a cure, the medical community isn’t all that interested.

Meanwhile, the doctor keeps telling you you’re fine. Except you don’t feel fine. You are tired, in pain, crabby, unable to sleep. Nauseated. Exasperated. Depressed. Fed up with everything.

Just three of my doctors believe feeling good is a legitimate medical goal. One is my primary care doctor, the next is my cardiologist and the final one is my shrink.

Her task is to help me feel better. “After all you’ve gone through,” she says, “that’s what I can do for you. I can help you feel more like you used to feel before all that horrible stuff happened.”

She understands. She gets it. I’m going to keep her. The hell with insurance.

NO ONE IS LISTENING – Marilyn Armstrong

When does the complexity of a problem exceed the original problem to such a degree that one would really rather run screaming into the snow than have to deal with all that “stuff”?

Let’s say it’s dinnertime. The shrimp isn’t defrosted and you can’t cook the potatoes because you are out of onions. Home fries without onions? Are you mad?

Or, it’s Thanksgiving and the oven won’t turn on. How are you going to make that big bird? Turkey stew? Seriously?

But those things are simple when compared to medicine, doctors, hospitals, and tests.

The Front Door at UMass Memorial where they said I didn’t have an appointment

Life is a mess of complications and complexities and misunderstandings.

I told you, but you heard something else. You told me everything, but I forgot what you said or I was too drugged to understand assuming I was awake but I’m sure I wasn’t.

So … whatever you said? I have no idea what it was and please don’t repeat it. I can’t hear you.

The older I get, the more simple I want my life to be. I want appointments at a time when I can get there comfortably. Nothing at 7:00 am in the morning after an hour and a half of bumper-to-bumper traffic.

There are tests they assure me I need — medically — that are so absurdly complicated, I think I’d prefer to die.

My favorite is the one where they want to examine my brain. It had taken weeks to even get the appointment. When I got there, they’d lost the appointment. It turns out they were looking in the wrong book because they really did have it — in the right book. Which they didn’t have at the lab.

They made me a new appointment, but this time, the test was ridiculous so I was glad when it rolled around, I was sick and couldn’t go. They wanted me to be in Worcester at 6 am. Get tested. Wait for two-hours for the second part of the test. Then wait several more hours until a doctor is available and he, without interpreting the test, tells me to go home. I’ll get a skeleton version of the results probably a week later. I will be told the result is “negative.”

What does negative mean? Is that good? Bad? Do I get to actually finally talk to a doctor? Or is “negative” the whole story. Since they aren’t going to tell me what they are testing for, what are they telling me?

More of UMass Memorial

I said “Why can’t I just talk to a doctor and explain what happened? Maybe none of these tests are necessary?”

“The doctor insists,” she said.

Au contraire,” I murmured because I am the patient and I insist I be allowed to talk to the doctor before testing starts. This is expensive testing because our government keeps raising the prices for tests and we are poor. So, unless someone is willing to explain what they want to test for, I’m not going.

In the end, I didn’t take any tests. My cardiologist thinks I might need them, but he wants to do some heart testing first. But he does think, as I do, that whatever is wrong is probably not fatal and not in need of expensive testing. More like a diagnostic visit.

The world is complicated. At least half the time, it’s complicated because everyone is doing what someone else told them to do. Or they think they are doing what someone told them to do, but they aren’t. Because no one is listening to anyone.

No one is listening. No one.

A GOOD NEWS-BAD NEWS KIND OF DAY – Marilyn Armstrong

Hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy.

That’s what was wrong with me.

I had my heart surgery 4 years 11-1/2 months ago. As far as I knew, I never got an explanation of what exactly was wrong with me or what was done during the surgery. I didn’t know I had TWO valve replacements until a few weeks ago and I don’t know which artery was bypassed during my bypass.

To be more technical, the surgeon apparently explained everything, but I was so heavily drugged I’m not sure if I was awake for the explanation. I know I missed the whole thing about the second valve replacement because my best friend knew about it, but I didn’t. She wasn’t floating on Fentanyl.

The good news? UMass and Beth Israel are now connected so they can get my medical records. Eventually, it might sift down to me.

The bad news? My son needs to be checked for the same problem. His father died from heart-related problems as did both of his grandfathers and only luck kept me from sharing the same fate. So he has reason to be concerned about the condition of his heart. His father was only three years older than he is now when he died.

So, you ask, what exactly is “hypertrophic obstructive cardiomyopathy”?


From the Mayo Clinic: Overview

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) is a disease in which the heart muscle (myocardium) becomes abnormally thick (hypertrophied). The thickened heart muscle can make it harder for the heart to pump blood.

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy often goes undiagnosed because many people with the disease have few if any, symptoms and can lead normal lives with no significant problems.

However, in a small number of people with HCM, the thickened heart muscle can cause shortness of breath, chest pain or problems in the heart’s electrical system, resulting in life-threatening abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias).


NOTE: I had no symptoms that I noticed — which is not the same as not having symptoms. If it weren’t for my primary doctor’s alarm at the sounds my mitral valve was making, followed by serious testing that I had done at another hospital because the cardiologist to whom she sent me suggested I not worry about it until I had serious symptoms.

In this case, the serious symptom would have been sudden death, so I’m glad I realized the man was a jerk and went elsewhere for care. Even after all the testing, no one had any idea how serious the problem was until I was already in surgery. At which point, it was oh so clear.


I did not have chest pains, but I did have serious
shortness of breath.

Since I had asthma, I assumed my shortness of breath was asthma acting up. But I was wrong. It was not asthma but my ventricle packing its bags and trying to leave home without me. This is one of the problems of having multiple issues. Symptoms can (and do) overlap.

It’s really easy to assume that the problem you’re having is something familiar — like asthma. Except — shortness of breath can mean many different things. Heart disease is only one of them.

I once badly misdiagnosed a dog who had a known problem, but her problem was not the one I thought she had but something else. She died. We never found out what killed her, even after an autopsy. We assumed it was Lyme, but we never got a firm diagnosis. Lyme is funny that way.

Moreover, I never imagined I had a heart problem because my father’s heart problem was asymptomatic. As mine was until suddenly, it wasn’t.


Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy may include one or more of the following:

            • Shortness of breath, especially during exercise
            • Chest pain, especially during exercise
            • Fainting, especially during or just after exercise or exertion
            • Sensation of rapid, fluttering or pounding heartbeats (palpitations)
            • Heart murmur, which a doctor might detect while listening to your heart
Causes

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is usually caused by abnormal genes (gene mutations) that cause the heart muscle to grow abnormally thick. People with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy also have an abnormal arrangement of heart muscle cells (myofiber disarray). This disarray can contribute to arrhythmia in some people.

The severity of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy varies widely. Most people with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy have a form of the disease in which the wall (septum) between the two bottom chambers of the heart (ventricles) becomes enlarged and restricts blood flow out of the heart (obstructive hypertrophic cardiomyopathy).

Sometimes hypertrophic cardiomyopathy occurs without significant blocking of blood flow (nonobstructive hypertrophic cardiomyopathy). However, the heart’s main pumping chamber (left ventricle) may become stiff, reducing the amount of blood the ventricle can hold and the amount pumped out to the body with each heartbeat.


Risk Factors

Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is usually inherited. There’s a 50 percent chance that the children of a parent with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy will inherit the genetic mutation for the disease. First-degree relatives — parents, children or siblings — of a person with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy should ask their doctors about screening for the disease.


Complications

Many people with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM) don’t experience significant health problems. But some people experience complications, including:

            • Atrial fibrillation. Thickened heart muscle, as well as the abnormal structure of heart cells, can disrupt the normal functioning of the heart’s electrical system, resulting in fast or irregular heartbeats. Atrial fibrillation can also increase your risk of developing blood clots, which can travel to your brain and cause a stroke.
            • Sudden cardiac death. Ventricular tachycardia and ventricular fibrillation can cause sudden cardiac death. People with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy have an increased risk of sudden cardiac death, although such deaths are rare. Sudden cardiac death is estimated to occur in about 1 percent of people with HCM each year. Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy can cause heart-related sudden death in people of all ages, but the condition most often causes sudden cardiac death in people under the age of 30.
            • Obstructed blood flow. In many people, the thickened heart muscle obstructs the blood flow leaving the heart. Obstructed blood flow can cause shortness of breath with exertion, chest pain, dizziness, and fainting spells.
            • Dilated cardiomyopathy. Over time, the thickened heart muscle may become weak and ineffective in a very small percentage of people with HCM. The ventricle becomes enlarged (dilated), and its pumping ability becomes less forceful.
            • Mitral valve problems. The thickened heart muscle can leave a smaller space for blood to flow, causing blood to rush through your heart valves more quickly and forcefully. This increased force can prevent the valve between your heart’s left atrium and left ventricle (mitral valve) from closing properly. As a result, blood can leak backward into the left atrium (mitral valve regurgitation), possibly leading to worsening symptoms.
            • Heart failure. The thickened heart muscle can eventually become too stiff to effectively fill with blood. As a result, your heart can’t pump enough blood to meet your body’s needs.
Prevention

Because hypertrophic cardiomyopathy is inherited, it can’t be prevented. But it’s important to identify the condition as early as possible to guide treatment and prevent complications.

Preventing sudden death

Implantation of a cardioverter-defibrillator has been shown to help prevent sudden cardiac death, which occurs in about 1 percent of people with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

Unfortunately, because many people with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy don’t realize they have it, there are instances where the first sign of a problem is sudden cardiac death. These cases can happen in seemingly healthy young people, including high school athletes and other young, active adults. News of these types of deaths generates understandable attention because they’re so unexpected, but parents should be aware these deaths are quite rare.

Still, doctors trained in heart abnormalities generally recommend that people with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy not participate in most competitive sports with the possible exception of some low-intensity sports. Discuss specific recommendations with your cardiologist.


If this wasn’t a good news-bad news day, I don’t know what would be. The good news? All things considered, I’m doing fine. As far as I know, the valves are doing their valve-thing.

I’ve got 8 years — 5, realistically — before I’ll need a replacement battery. I also learned why I will never be able to live without a pacemaker. I had thought that maybe my heart would start doing the job all by itself one day, but that will not happen. But, assuming the rest of the tests next month indicate that all is well, I need to worry about my son, not me.

I think I’d rather worry about me.

If there is a moral to this story, it’s don’t self-diagnose. If you think something is wrong, don’t assume you have the answer. The odds are, you don’t. The internet is a good place to look up an existing diagnosis, but a bad place to get a new one. If it turns out your best guess was right, congratulations, but this is one of those times when an error can prove fatal.

I still think this problem wouldn’t have become such a life-threatening issue had I not also inherited my mother’s breast cancer. The drugs they feed you when you have cancer … well … I’m not even sure the doctor’s know what they do.

For the avoidance of goriness reasons, I decided you don’t need more pictures. You can always Google this yourself and see all the gore you want.

INTREPID BY ROAD – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Intrepid

Intrepid will always be the name of one of Horatio Hornblower’s ships. Somewhere in my 20s, I discovered Horatio Hornblower … and that’s how I learned that there was an actual use for trigonometry! If only they had mentioned this in school, I might have had a clue what I was doing instead of random calculations used to reach an answer that meant absolutely NOTHING to me.

We probably should have named The Duke “Intrepid.” He is quite the intrepid voyager. Except he likes when we come out and let him IN the yard, even though he jumped out. I guess out is easier?

Today I am off to see the wizard, also known as my cardiologist. He’s a new one. I’m trying to finally shake off Boston and get all my physicians lined up locally. Boston made the news the other night as officially (who is the official calculator of such things?) having the worst traffic of any city in the U.S. Not in the world. I think there are quite a few cities in Europe (and how about the traffic in London!) that could compete.

Boston has gotten terrible. When I moved here in 1988, traffic wasn’t great, but you could get from one place to another and generally even park when you got there. Not any more. Not only can it be impossible to get there, but if you do parking will cost the price of feeding two people for a week. Or more.

Bad. Very, very bad.

We spent something like 50 billion dollars to remodel our road and I swear they are worse than they were before we spend more than a decade redoing everything. The thing is, they move things around, but they didn’t make them bigger. Just stuck them underground (cough, cough, cough) or straightened out the crooked pieces.  So we’ve got nice straight bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Boston traffic is only for the intrepid.

We’re away shortly. As we head for UMass, a mere 20 miles away, call us intrepid. Also, please hope they don’t find anything new or interesting.

SURVIVING WHEN YOU CAN’T PAY FOR DRUGS – A GUEST POST

Case Management

When you are diagnosed with an illness for which there is no cure, but long time survival is possible, you quickly learn that the most important case manager you will ever have is yourself.  You need to learn everything you can to survive — legally and, if necessary, illegally.  You tend to drop your concern for law when your life is at stake, especially when you will “First, do no harm” (Primum non nocere), the oath of doctors and others helping people survive.

Support group members will urge you to not merely educate yourself about the disease, but to get a good case manager. After you understand all your treatment options and the decisions you will have to make, your case manager can help you navigate the maze of health care bureaucracy. This is important for everyone, whether or not they have a job or insurance. Anyone can be taken advantage of by the system.

Illustration: NBC News

Early after an HIV positive diagnosis, I was laid off from the job which provided my health insurance.  The fight to start COBRA coverage was immediate.  Many states have programs to help pay for continued health insurance under COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act).  There may also be other drug assistance programs because the cost of medication, even with insurance, may be out of reach for those without jobs and even those with minimal jobs.

While state help was being lined up, my well-known insurance company was deciding whether to grant continued insurance.  Their basic argument was they were headquartered in another state and therefore were following other guidelines. The case manager got experienced lawyers familiar with this sort of trick to deal with the insurance company.  They finally offered COBRA and the state came through with payments.  This was the value of a knowledgeable case manager, but the process took time.

A Re-Purpose

The interval during the battle for coverage brought other concerns.  I knew I might be able to afford the multiple drugs for a month or two, but the extreme costs would quickly wipe me out.  That is when I learned about “other” assistance.  This kind of assistance is spoken of quietly by those who are desperate, but can be trusted.  It is the kind of help that takes place all over our region, and probably across the country too.

My case manager told me he might be able to help with some drugs, but not all.  When I came for an appointment one day, he told me to wait. He went to a pharmacy and came back with some of the medication I needed.  He took a black marker and carefully crossed out a name and gave it to me. He said it was mine now and not to say anything to anyone about this.  Ever. I left and kept quiet for years.  The agency he worked at is gone now, and I don’t know what happened to the case manager.

He had gone to a pharmacy that had secretly offered help.  When a patient did not pick up their HIV drugs for over a month, they did not put the item back in stock, but held it on the side for emergencies. If the item had been covered already by insurance, and the customer did not pick it up, they felt free to hand it to another. The drug company was paid and the insurance company was none the wiser.  This tactic is illegal, but many will run the risk to save lives.

Helping One Another

Not all managers are so resourceful or willing to run such risks.  Strictly speaking, it is against the law — dispensing drugs without a license.  There are individuals in support groups who are willing to assist with drugs, when no one else can.  For a while, there was an agency here that had acted as a go between to pass drugs from one patient to another.

In support groups, some would mention how they could bring unopened bottles of HIV medicine to the agency and they would keep it for those in need. Then if a member could prove they had a prescription for a particular drug the agency had on hand, they would give a month or two of the drug to the client.  That agency no longer does this or will even admit they did it for many years.  They could be shut down just like the agency referred to above.

Drugs are collected in many ways.  If someone who has gotten a three-month supply of medication, but then the drug was changed by his doctor, he would bring the unopened bottles to the agency to lock up in secret. If someone passed away, a mate might turn in unopened items to help someone else.

The fear of being caught helping to save lives has led many away from this type of help. Patients are left to do what they can for each other via contacts in support groups — or even “on the streets.”  Those fighting the disease can not imagine throwing out drugs that can help others.  Turning in drugs to be destroyed seems a bigger crime than “dispensing drugs without a license” for those who hold a prescription for a life-saving drug.

“Healing those who seek my help”

With the loss of agencies willing to help patients get drugs, legally or illegally, some doctors are willing to fill the void. There are those who collect back unopened drugs so others who can not afford them will benefit.  A doctor knows the prescription of a patient and will generally learn in private conversation who needs help.  If the drugs have already been bought and paid for, it seems a humane thing to do. In this country, this kind of help is unfortunately necessary.

The High Cost of Drugs

HIV drugs come in several classes and a patient is likely to take one or more from each of 3 or 4 groups per day.  Few drugs have generics and even those are expensive.  The retail cost in the United States for three or four of these drugs could run 4 to 5 thousand dollars per month.  Patients receiving various assistance programs are terrified of health care “reform.”  Out of necessity, we help each other.

When I was in Germany and discovered I had miscounted a medication. Of course I was panic-stricken.  I went to a pharmacy, who sent me to a local physician who spoke English.  I told her of my plight. When she was satisfied I had demonstrated I had such a prescription (I always bring proof if I travel), she wrote a new prescription. I went back to the pharmacy, prepared to charge to my credit card an outrageous amount due to my miscalculation. I knew my insurance card would not be honored overseas. The drug was reasonably priced, about one tenth what it costs retail here.

Aside from one doctor I know of, many who would otherwise be willing to help with drugs and health care services have been driven away –or at least underground.  Americans do not have the protections other countries around the world offer. In the absence of legal support, we do what we can to help everyone — not just with advice, but with life-saving drugs denied to many because they can’t afford them.


People without insurance die.
This is not a political opinion. It is a fact. 

NOTE: Since the author isn’t available to answer questions, comments are “off.”  I can’t answer questions because I don’t have any answers, sorry.