When Cardiology Meets Obstetrics

When we were pregnant with our third child, we were told to attend a refresher Lamaze class as ten years had passed since our last pregnancy. Figuring a free tote bag and some diaper coupons would be worth it, we dutifully went. In the middle of the class, the nurse leading the group told us about a new doctor in the practice. Fresh off the obstetrics assembly line, no one wanted to give birth on his watch. They encouraged us, however, to make at least one appointment with him as we neared our respective due dates. Meet the man in case he is on duty when your water breaks.

We did and as we walked out of the office, we said to each other, if this was our first pregnancy, we’d be scared shitless! This guy gave us every worst-case scenario, told us to get every test in the book. He had new knowledge and he wanted to share it…he couldn’t help but share it. By the time we left, there was the potential for a real freak-out. He led with disaster.

As fate would have it, he was the doctor in the practice that was on call and ultimately, the guy we were glad to have by our side when an emergency c-section was needed. His gentle yet sure manner was a perfect counterpoint to this new development.

Today we have seen more specialists and had more procedures than one would think possible in one day.

After a full afternoon of waiting for the angiogram to be done Wednesday, it was finally our turn. The expectation the doctors (and we) had was that the pesky left bundle branch blockage would show to be a pesky nuisance, the root of all discomfort. They’d clear up the blockage, pop a stent in place, and voila! Our ejection fraction would adjust itself from its normal 40-45% from the early chemo days to a health 100% and we’d be running marathons in no time, despite the fact that we don’t run marathons.

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Waiting

We do, however, have one of Rich’s original goals in place… we’ve booked a trip to Ireland in September. In three short months we’d be, with friends, experiencing the often wild and awe-inspiring island country from top to bottom and round again. Waterfalls, rivers, mountains, ocean cliffs, ancient ruins, pubs, villages… the stuff of literature and dreams. With Arlene and Kevin doing the driving and, as before, our support and companions, we’d see our goal come to life. We find we’re telling everyone so they understand our personal goals… This little tune up of ours, is merely a tune up to complete our preparations before we’re flying off to the land of my fore-father’s birth. And one of Rich’s dreams. Will the results of this hospitalization affect those plans?

Rich came out of that operating room and, test not quite complete, we’re admitted for a stay in the cardiac unit. Our tune up is not so quickly done. Rich’s heart has had since March a mere 15-20% ejection fraction. Time has not improved it. There is fluid in the pericardium which is the congestive heart failure that was suspected. But not only the left side of his heart is weakened. The doctors are dismayed to find the right side is weakened as well. The low blood pressures he has been experiencing, this angiogram and the tests that are to come will show that heart failure is the right description of what he has been experiencing. His blood hasn’t got the oomph to make the circulation effective… the pump is broken. Our own cardio doctor is recommending that we be seen here by the cardiomyopathy group.

Rich has been given a double dose of Lasix and admitted to the cardiac ICU floor; the CCU. Once more, he in a hospital bed, me in the standard vinyl recliner, and we settle in for the night, looking forward to the morning rounds where we’ll get some answers. As always when in crisis, we’re glad to be where we are.

One of our first doctors to stop in is from the cardiomyopathy group. She gives us a brief rundown on Rich’s condition and how it applies to her specialty. She applauds and approves the ketogenic way of eating we do. She will stop in later in the day.

When we do see her again, her demeanor has changed. She begins discussing what our options for treatment will be for the heart failure Rich is experiencing. Her opening is about heart transplants. Wait, what?! We went from expecting a quick stent procedure to ripping out his heart? She discusses the benefits of having the transplant assessment done in conjunction with the other evaluative testing Rich is undergoing in order to have that all in place.

While it makes a certain sense, it reminds us of that obstetrician 26 years ago who felt the need to give us all the doomsday possibilities, so eager was he to impart his new-found knowledge. Instead here we are listening to grant money, no cost to us thanks to a grant and adding to the growing prestige of the heart program in this hospital. Wow, we hit the jackpot! She ends with “but of course, our goal is to leave you with the heart you were born with and find other solutions first.” Alrighty then. Better. Because a groupon for a transplant is just too bizarre.

We listen to the rest of the options including a heart pump which would entail another four week hospital stay or simple medications… the last being the treatment of choice. Visions of Ireland begin to fade.

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First try for swan catheter. Before it turned into a Dexter set.

In between that first and second conversation are the tests, procedures and consults. His ejection fraction still at 15% is confirmed. Next, they stop his current heart meds and begin with Milrinone which is to help the contractions of his heart so the flow of blood will be stronger. After a few hours to let the meds begin to do their work, they feed a swan catheter into the artery in his neck. They will use this, while it is all hooked up to a monitor, to measure his heart output or how well the pumping action is improving. Improvement being our person preference! Twice they try and fail. His room, set up as a sterile operating room, looks like a crime scene. It’s decided that they will go to the cath lab to use some radiography to guide them along. Turns out some scar tissue from his chemo port needed to be cleaned up and then they were set. We thought what he was getting would look similar to the triple lumen that was used in the stem cell unit. Discreet. What he now sports looks like an array of medals on epaulets; his shoulders dripping with access points off a slew of IV tubing. And the catheter’s end, coming out of his neck, forms a swan neck type curve and connects to all these medals of honor.

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just a portion of the medals of honor

There are x-rays, sonograms, attempts to insert an A (arterial) line in Rich’s arms for additional monitoring. His veins are too compromised due to his condition. The odds are they will plump up when the pulses are improved. It’s decided to wait 24 hours and try again.

With all the invasive procedures and contrasts used for helping us to find answers, as well as mentally processing the unexpected diagnoses and possible treatments, the night is uncomfortable on a number of levels. Sleep eludes us. But there are signs that these new meds are working. Belly bloat way down and breathing eased. It’s a busy night and we hope we’ll have time for rest in the coming day.

The good news comes early in the cardiac care unit. An x-ray is needed daily to check the placement of the catheter. The readings that are coming from the monitor hooked up to the swan catheter are more than we could have hoped for. The Milrinone is helping Rich’s heart and besides the expected changes that will bring, we’re thrilled that his oxygen levels, which had been anywhere from 80 to 100 are found to be a full on 100% O2 saturation without any supplemental oxygen. This truly proves that so much of what our pulmo doctors have suspected.

Finally, the daily weigh-in. In 48 hours, Rich has lost twenty pounds of water weight. The fluid around the heart in the pericardium and in his belly is lessened. Hydralazine is added to help open the veins to let the improved output flow.

The downside to these meds are that they give his creatinine levels a slight rise. All tests have shown that his kidneys are clear of any issues other than damage that is also chemo induced. Our nephrologist feels that the steady elevated numbers have been stable since his cancer treatment so our patient’s higher than the norm numbers is something we’ll monitor but will not interfere with. This added blip from the new meds is explained by her in a way that proves her compassion. “Our main concern is Rich’s cardiac health and his personal well-being. If his comfort and daily life as well as his cardiac health needs these medications, we can be comfortable with this new number for his kidneys.”
It’s also felt that, like his pulmo function, his kidney function will ultimately head in a healing direction and thus better numbers as his cardiac function improves. That this doctor is looking at the whole picture of living life confirms so much for us. This team of caring health professionals have blessed us with their knowledge and persistence.

The plan now is to tweak medications to optimum levels, currently adding in and create the balance Rich needs. Once those are set up using IV infusions, we’ll then transition to oral meds for home use. Making sure heart and lung function maintain improvement and reach the goals we need to go home is the next step. Monitoring and less and less invasively through the weekend, we expect optimistically to be here til mid-week.

Lastly, our cardiomyopathy doctor, the one with the heart transplant conversation stops by again. She’s thrilled with the turn-around that has occurred. Before she leaves, she enthusiastically said “Remember that horror we talked about yesterday? Forget it. Forget it all. Those needs are good and gone!”

Tonight we expect to sleep soundly.

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Loving all the good news. And Rich’s neck ware, the swan catheter that’s attached to the medals of honor.

You Can Only Come to the Morning Through the Shadows. ~ Tolkien

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The rain has ended and the night is quiet. The sound of the soft breeze in the leaves of the birch is the only accompaniment outside. Our windows are open.

We are once again sleeping in the little bedroom on the first floor. Stairs are near to impossible and small tasks leave Rich gasping. Oxygen levels are all over the place. Balance is a thing of the past. Thankfully, infections are not with us this night. But breathing is shallow,  difficult, and noisy.

Rich attempts sleep in his recliner; laying flat it’s impossible to breathe.  As the night moves on, the recliner isn’t working any longer. His breathing is labored. The night sounds are no longer quiet although his usual snoring doesn’t exist. Once again, doses are checked, timing discussed and more medications are considered. Days and nights are upside down. We settle into that now familiar routine. As Tolkien’s quote that gives a title to this post, we’re in the shadows.

Since Rich was discharged in March, we experienced a brief and very slight uptick and then a steady downhill trend.

We met with our specialists shortly after we left NSUH as the discharge instructions required. An additional follow-up with our immune doctor shows that Rich’s body does produce new B cells… however they don’t mature which means they do not protect him from infections as they should.  They do not produce the antibodies needed. Immunotherapy is suggested since his infusions in the hospital have protected him well. But we do need to also take into consideration the side effects that concerned our stem cell guru when she discussed immunotherapy as a possibility with us in March while Rich and I strolled the hallways on 7 Monti.

As the kidneys are most affected, we’ve added a nephrologist to the specialist mix. Creatinine level has shown to be elevated throughout our journey but with some thorough research on the doctor’s part, it’s concluded that the elevated number has been for the most part stable since his stem cell transplant. Probably a new normal from the intense chemo. We have a renal ultrasound scheduled to document and confirm no other issues, but are otherwise approved for immunotherapy and ketamine treatments as long as the dosages remain as they were before.

And here we are. Most answers are as we have hoped them to be or what we expected. And yet the breathing issues remain and continue their slow but steady downward trend. Our cardiologist had advised us to see him three months post hospitalization to give what he called the insult, the injury, time to heal. In two weeks we’re scheduled to see him. But our concerns peak and we contact him to let him know where we are.

Again, we are blessed with the health team we have. They listen and understand our concerns. This doctor, our cardio guru, understood our fears four years ago when we first went to see him.  Our oncologist recommended we see a cardiologist given the doses of chemo Rich had his first go-around in 2004, particularly since the MUGA scan showed some areas of abnormality that were not there in 2003 as part of that pre-chemo testing. When our guru told us in 2014 that we should consider an angiogram, we asked if we could refuse. Rich had been through so much with bone marrow biopsies and radioactive goop and port installations… the invasions to his body went on and on. At that point, to consider an allowing a catheter to be threaded from his groin to his heart was the tipping point for him. Our cardio doctor agreed it didn’t have to happen. He would get EKG records from our GP, and we’d come in for the followup tests between each cycle. We could get by that way. We were relieved.

Four years have passed and thanks to the doctor’s diligence, we’ve been able to avoid the cardio catheterization. But now it’s recommended once more. This time without hesitation we say yes. We need these answers. Our doctor explained that this will allow him to fully see the function of Rich’s heart, arteries and veins, as well as take a look at his lungs and how they are interacting with the heart. Answers. It will give us the answers he needs to diagnose any heart disease instead of the “probably” we have now. Therapy, meds and lifestyle changes will be clear. We agree. The time has come.  Let’s fix this!

It has been a long week waiting for the insurance approval. On June 6th, instead of the cardio rehab we had been scheduled for, we’ll be at NSUH for the angiogram and the answers we seek. In the meantime, I watch this very odd rhythm…the rise and fall of his chest … and I know that watching is certainly not as difficult as this breathing is to him, but it feels awfully close.

We look forward to those answers, we look forward to the solutions, we look forward to us both being able to take a deep breath and the night sounds to once more be just the night.  With Rich’s snoring… ya know… normal.

 

“Cut my pie into four pieces, I don’t think I could eat eight.”

Two days have passed since the Sunday we entered the chaos of the ER. Rich has been, the most part, reclining in his hospital bed, and it is amazing how busy one can be while motionless in a hospital bed. The long night in the ER gave us very little time for sleep and morning came too early. A virtual revolving door brought on a Q&A marathon with each specialty having their own focus. In many ways, this is a boon for the mystery we hoped to solve before our unplanned detour. Throughout the day the new doctors that have come on board since we’ve last been here have us repeat our history as well as what has brought us here this time. As well as the floor staff, our main gurus from each division that has been part of our journey have stopped in, ordered tests and discussed their differential diagnoses. More and more are we partners in this journey; having been managing Rich’s health outside of the hospital for the last two years. There is a comfort to the coordination that happens inside. This coordination also allows for the tests’ results to be further analyzed and lead to additional tests. Conclusions can be made quicker than on our own.

What seemed to be a huge step backwards is proving to be a blessing. Answers are coming fast and furiously during this admittance.

As always, once we reach a certain level of health, each consult ends with us requesting release. Yesterday was too soon but we did let our wishes be known. And we are heard. Our nurse advises us that for the most part, our intravenous meds are being discontinued… a sign of prepping for discharge. We are told that our pulmonologist is in the deciding vote… and we know his views on getting us out of here.

We work subliminally on our team. Rich is no longer in his bed, but we have breakfast sitting in the chairs with the hospital table between us. IV removed, he wears a t-shirt. We create a vignette of health; looking out of place in this hospital room. All indicators of illness are removed from view as much as is possible. Our plan is to take a stroll or two so the staff will see us up and about, as we do every day. It shows our determination to take our care back into our own hands.

This has worked for us before. We look forward to getting back into our own routine. Our own home. We know that once Rich’s health reaches a certain point, we need to be in our own space for the best healing.

We look forward as well to seeing the doctors this morning. We look forward to seeing them in the appointments made last week for the end of the month. We’re pleased that tests that we had anticipated for those appointments have happened already thanks to this admittance. Only the PET/CT scan remains; it’s scheduled for just days away. A delay may be needed as we do not want the pneumonia to give false readings. We consider making a second appointment for the following week just in case.

Twelve hours ago, Rich was given a three-hour infusion of Immunoglobulin. Amongst the tests administered since our admittance, we’re told that his immunology is off balance. We’ve always known the blood counts need to be on our radar and this one, as we’ve indicated before is the one we’ve been watching closely. It has been on a slow rise but never quite reaches the level we need. This infection brought it down by 100 since our last in depth bloodwork. We’re told that this indicates that he could have developed, since the transplant, an autoimmune disorder that creates that imbalance. And that a simple, periodic treatment of Immunoglobulin could be the answer we’re looking for. It’s something to keep in mind. We don’t need more side effects so it’s not a quick jump onto the bandwagon.

And now we do know that we will be going home today. Our determination for best impressions has paid off. Cardio came in and cleared us for discharge. Next was Infectious diseases. They are the kingpins this go-around… it is this group’s determination if the antibiotic that is only available by IV can be discontinued. We agree that we’ll contact them if there is any degradation at home. We laugh that we had plan B in place to convince him just in case and he feels, with the other antibiotics we’ll be supported by orally, we’ll be fine. Besides, we give him little choice.

The rounds by the other doctors will now be to discuss post-hospital plan for care. As we have appointments scheduled with them already, it will be more protocol than a necessity.

It’s just a matter of time and paperwork. Every hour, another confirmation of our leaving or another step closer.

We’ll be home by dinner. Sprung!

And in honor of today’s date 3/14/18 as well as the title of this blog post, credited to Yogi Berra as we enter baseball season, we’re prepared.

Happy Pi Day!

To Be Like A Lotus

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Our little pond in our tiny yard has been a source of calm in our lives. Each year we patiently wait for the leaves of our lotus to unfurl on to the surface. Later the flowers poke their buds up and spread their petals towards the sun. These same flowers retract under the water at night.

It is because of this rising from the mud that the lotus plant is associated with rebirth. From darkness, beauty. They teach us patience and show us we can rise above the miasma that sometimes finds us.

The past few months have seen us anywhere from the summit of mountains to the muddy muck of ponds. While our personal highs and lows have not been such a roller coaster recently, there have been moments where they felt that way.

Rich started his latest ketamine treatments in the middle May and went on into June. He had a small bout of pneumonia somewhere in the middle. Some antibiotics and six-day pack of medrol (steroids-lite), nebulizing over and over for months to come and we figure we’re good to go.

At the end of June, we reached a summit. Literally and figuratively. We set off for Maine by way of New Hampshire and Sturbridge Mass, singing in the car at the top of our lungs. Rich was at the wheel for the first time without another driver in the car to relieve him when he got tired. No more belt and suspenders… we were on our own.

Sturbridge has always been a place of peace for us. So many wonderful memories of family weekends… quiet winter mornings and hearty meals by the warmth of the fireside. Newborn animals in the spring, kiln fired pottery in the summer, the change of seasons and a chance to slow down. This was now just an overnight stop along the way as we traveled north, but, as always, it refreshed our spirits.

Rich’s feet were now renewed with ketamine and MMJ keeping the neuropathy at bay. The open road lay before us. The fog lifted from the White Mountains of New Hampshire as we drove, the peaks revealing themselves slowly through a haze. Adventure was in the air. Our plan for these next two days? Mountains… glorying in the mountains. We were not climbing and very few trails had our names on them.

Music blasting, open road, singing at the top or our lungs

As has been our need these last few years, we’ve made adjustments. On this day, we were traveling via train through the valley of the White Mountains and into the Notch. We would sit in a dome car, sheltered from the intermittent rain, and watch the waterfalls, gorges, woodlands and vistas through the windows of the vintage rail car. We would marvel as the walls of the notched stone closed in on either side before opening once more to the valley view below. We ate in the period dining car, reveling in the flavors and views.

The following day we found ourselves on the summit of the tallest mountain on the East Coast… Mt Washington. Here, the highest winds on the planet have been recorded. The old summit observatory and stage office displays a plaque on its exterior: 231 Miles Per Hour. We are awed to see this same building has thick chains that go up and over the roof in three places… secured into the granite to keep the roof, and the building, from flying away.

Despite our gear, we did not hike to this mountaintop. Rich’s feet and lungs, though so improved on his current regimen, are not up to the task. Instead we travel as others have for almost 150 years, we take the cog railway. Our fascination with trains has not prepared us for the wonder of this ride. It is not the view that captivates us. We can barely see through the clouds as we ascend; indeed, the fog itself rolls through the open windows of the car. It is the engineering that brings us such delight. What imagination!

With this help, we stand in the mist of the clouds at the top of our world. And we grin happily as if we had walked every step of the way. Success!

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Our weekend continues and we’re ultimately back home, tired but content. We have not seen the stunning landscape that the telescopes promise at the top of Mount Washington as the clouds never rose enough and we could barely see three feet ahead. But the journey itself was the prize. This could never have happened within the three years since Rich’s diagnosis.

The wheezing, though, never quite went away from the pneumonia. We check in with our pulmo doctor who recommends, cautiously, prednisone. A small dose. Rich agrees… it is time to hit this with all we can and get it gone once and for all. And so once more our beneficial bane is back with all its accompanying side effects. The second day on this med and Rich has had enough. The doom and gloom of the adrenals is hitting and hitting hard.

The morning of the third day I leave what sounds like a rather hyperbolic message with the pulmo doctor. Quality of life is gone. We’re in the muck. She know us.  She know we don’t exaggerate. We’re to stop prednisone immediately and to continue with the regimen of nebulizing. No need to wean off as the dose was so small and for such a short period of time. We’re relieved. Ready for that lotus to push through and blossom once more.

That relief is short lived. The two days later Rich is on his way to pick me up at the train station and his eyes are full of tears. He admits, it’s been a rough day. When we get home, the truth of that statement shows how inadequate it is.

Prednisone has many side effects and we’ve dealt with most. For whatever reason, it now manifested itself as it had never done before. As he drove down the street, Rich felt an overwhelming urge to open his car door and jump out into traffic in front of a moving truck. Again, his strength leaves me in awe.

The psychosis that prednisone can inflict has hit hard. He fought back and won. The doctors are stunned to hear this latest development. And yet, they nod. It’s a known problem. We spend the weekend on tenterhooks to keep this demon away.

By Sunday, in all ways, we can breathe a sigh of relief. This has passed us by. And so, we spent a weekend a month later celebrating Rich’s third year post-transplant. The roller coaster continues, but we honor our journey to date and give thanks for the life we live.

One of our celebrations found us in an apartment in Brooklyn attending class. Before us were a selection of mostly primary colored acrylic paints, some brushes, and canvases with dried lotus leaves applied. We spent the day mixing colors, some ending up the same color as the mud from which these lotuses grow, and applying the paints to our textured canvases. What a reflective and yet spirited adventure this was! We hang our masterpieces in our home proudly.

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A few weeks later, we spend some time once again the mountains, this time in the Catskills of New York. Our weekend is one of appreciation. Appreciation of the journey we’re on, the light and life we’ve been given and the beauty around us.

Some of that beauty in the amazing meals we enjoy by chefs who know what they are doing. Some in the architecture of mansion along the Hudson that we visit. Most of the beauty we celebrate is that of artisans, certainly more skilled than ourselves, who show their work at a juried festival we attend.

On our way back to Long Island, we stop at the botanical garden in the Bronx where we enjoy the artistry of Chihuly and of nature in bloom. There we find, within the garden’s, ponds displays of lotus, rising through the murky water, from their roots in the muck of mud, to reveal the light and color to which we humans can only aspire to replicate. From the depths comes beauty that raises us up to the light.

And for that reason we continually celebrate.

Rebirth.

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Be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm.

Abraham Lincoln was quite right when he offered that advice. And it has not been as easy as one would think!

As January came to a close, the little twinges of neuropathy that had lain dormant since October began to show themselves. Rich’s balance was starting to once more resemble the sailboats we watched on the lake last summer… there was a slight list and occasional stumble. We met with our ketamine team and they advised another five-week session. And asked if we could wait until April so that we had a six-month span between treatments. Not a problem.

There is a certain frustration that most patients have with their health care and that is either waiting in offices forever or waiting for an appointment itself. When you aren’t feeling well, in whatever shape that discomfort takes, that frustration is magnified. We’ve found medical offices each work differently and sometimes the doctors themselves are not aware of how theirs truly work. We were told the insurance approval and appointment scheduling was under way when we saw the K doctor in February. We would start at the beginning of April.

Long story short, when we called in mid-March to find out about our appointment we were told it would be mid-May… they were booked til then and they had just gotten Rich’s file. We asked to speak to the doctor himself. Now, Dr Ketamine is a very nice man. He treats his patients with respect and care. His manner suits our ways. He’s direct. And he took our concerns to heart and is very much a partner in our journey. Rich was immediately scheduled for a one-time four-hour infusion, a booster, right away. There were no other appointments to complete the once-a-week-for-five-weeks infusions but this small gap existed for us to slip into to hold Rich over until May.

As we thanked him for this, we also admonished him, he needs to change his dialogue with his patients… his office does not run the way he thinks it does and to present that expectation is to set patients up for disappointment. He agreed. We learned a valuable lesson. We had gotten complacent with our stem cell team who took control of our appointments once we were in their hands. That time is now past. Another milestone slaps us in the face and tells us to wake up!

As I have often said of Rich, I am in awe. The pain he dealt with before these ketamine treatments or every day when the ketamine wore off is astounding. And he always handles it with humor and stoic resolve. But in March just before the infusion booster, as he pulled off his socks at night, the internal screaming was beyond containment. That moment when he would sit and lift his foot to prep for bed was put off until there was no recourse but to get on with it. And hope the meds he just took will kick in soon. His shoulders would shake in an effort to control the sobs. It was impossible for us to wait two months. As Rich said today in wonderment “I didn’t know it could be so painful under your toenails!”

That booster in March eased the pain slightly but was indeed just a stopgap. It was not long before the nighttime rituals were dreaded once more and the cane was again needed to keep him upright. We are determined to maintain a strict six-month rotation on the schedule to avoid this gap going forward.

Abe is also quoted as saying “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” Indeed. Throughout our journey Rich has had such humor about each situation we have found ourselves in. He has made up his mind, as that man whose likeness is now carved on Mount Rushmore has said, to be as happy as possible. And it manifests itself in so many positive ways, despite his ongoing neuropathy.

Two days ago, my brave and strong-willed husband began the road, once again, to relieve this pain that plagues him. We’ve started, as we did seven months ago, the four-hour infusions once a week for five weeks that will ultimately have him without pain on his radar. As we left the facility, we couldn’t help but laugh at how this building has no hand rails on the steps leading to the sidewalk. They house this ketamine group as well as a spine institute… wheelchairs to assist in the lobby for patient use. And yet… no handrails? Feet and brain were temporarily disconnected as we attempted those rail-less stairs. We roared in amusement looking as if we just left a late night of imbibing at the bar; holding each other up. The cab driver looked at us warily, hoping, I’m sure, that we were not his fare! For a couple of days, Rich will have this loopiness but we hope once more that instead of those blade-like stabbing spikes and internal screams, he will soon glory in the feel of texture on his feet… warm sand, fresh-mown lawn, cool stone. Or as he did in January, the feel of his grandsons vying for his attention as they clamber to his lap, his feet their boost up.

Mr Lincoln was also known to say, “We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.” I do know for certain Rich will meet the future as he has done so far, finding the roses and not the thorns despite their efforts to prick.

An Eternal Light

Growing up, there were always kids in the streets…. Playing stickball, riding bikes, chalking out hopscotch boards on the sun warmed cement. In the winter, snowfall brought sleds to the few hills we could find on the flat Hempstead plains, later farmland, that our town was built upon. So the sumps that reclaimed our rainwater or the woods nestled in the curve of parkway exits provided us with the vertical we needed to get some good speed on our flexible flyers. Building forts, snowball fights… voices carrying in the wind. Memories.

We were a loose ragtag group that all lived in the development of houses on the edge of our town.

We were separated from the next little village over by the remains of Old Motor Parkway. Part of Vanderbilt’s 1908 motorway that criss-crossed Long Island, it was now a kid’s paradise of wooded thickets and fields with intriguing bits of cement and macadam that reflected its earlier use. It defined us.

Bordered by what were then considered busy roadways, we were insular as a group. We were on “that side of town” so otherwise removed from the rest of our hamlet until we were old enough to brave crossing Glen Cove Road. It was, therefore, of no surprise that any kid in our neighborhood could and would be called on to fill out a pick up team or invited on an adventure.

Rich and I grew up in that same neighborhood together.

1471870_641700512553800_626832523_nMemories of knowing each other go back to his earliest cub scout days when he and my brother were in the same den and my mom one of the leaders. Billy and Rich grew up together, graduated high school together, and through our marriage, became family together. In 2014 as Rich left his stem cell cocoon, my brother began on his own series of cancer treatments complicated by the diabetes he had for forty years. Conversations that used to be “remember when we…” now became “what do you do when…” Billy’s treatment and its effects has never been my story to tell. His decisions and twists and turns on his path were never mine to relate. Forever, though, will his journey be entwined in ours.

15002360_10153519774067824_929218720042702253_oAs I lay awake at 3am those early post-hospital nights, finally back in our own home, my cell phone would ping a message “Are you awake? Can we talk?” and moments later I would answer my buzzing phone and we would be whispering to each other; shades of those times when one of us would tiptoe across the upstairs hall in the house growing up and sneak into the other’s bed to giggle and connive well after lights out… feeling like we’d pulled off a great coup in fooling our parents. The subject matter as we chatted was now more serious but the connection of those days when he would tease me by singing out to me “Missy-mou I love you” in a tangle of our Irish and Greek heritages, that connection was still there.

There came a time last year when physically we could not be together. With both Rich and Billy having compromised immune systems, the passing off of random bugs made it impossible. Nick and I tried but despite our best efforts to decontaminate ourselves on getting home from a visit, as if we’d been exposed to some sci-fi outbreak, Rich would end up in the hospital. It was a very difficult decision, but the consequences were too severe to allow. Our doctors had to finally put their collective feet down. But as Rich traveled some interesting roads to relieve his neuropathic pain, we always, at the end of each consult, discussed Billy’s own pain and his current treatments with our gurus to see if what we were about to explore could be viable for him. Always, his health and possible options were with us on our own journey and we’d share our findings.

As with many who find themselves in the world of severe and/or chronic illness, the concept of the “right” way to go, the “correct” treatment to take, the “proper” protocol to follow, is ambiguous. At first diagnosis you are overwhelmed. There are so many questions, there are so many days of anxious waiting, there are so many different answers. Finally, you connect yourself to a group of experts and you are then tasked to determine how much of a partner you will be with them. Do you question decisions or accept without hesitation? Do you research, explore, delve or leave it to their expertise? Do you conserve the energies you have or do you push past the ever-present fatigue? How much do you have to immerse yourself into your cancer life and how much of yourself can you continue to hold on to?

In reading forums and blogs these last few years, it’s been very apparent that there are as many ways to take on this illness as there are people who have been diagnosed. These decisions are very personal. Not just by agreement between caregiver and patient, but ultimately by the patient themselves. Many times have the discussions between Rich and I been lively as we weighed the options before us. Mostly we’ve been in total agreement, but as the one who has to deal directly with the consequences and effects of our decisions… there have been compromises for the sake of Rich’s comfort while balancing the needs of health… always, ultimately, he has had final say.

Have we sometimes pulled a few slightly unauthorized bits and pieces from our bag of magic tricks to get him the peace that he needed… absolutely! But overall, our group of gurus has been stellar in listening to what our concerns are and working with us for, not only the best possible outcome, but for the best possible quality of life. Are these decisions the same as someone else in the same situation would have made? Nope. Our journey is ours. We cannot speak of nor judge choices that others have made, only our own.

But having been on the other side of that mirror, we can understand the frustrations and pain of those who are bystanders with hearts firmly entrenched. It isn’t easy to see those you love struggle with these choices. As we have continually been lifted up and given strength by those who follow and support us, we have also been alongside and supporting those who are finding their path to health, recovering from treatment or, sadly, have left us too soon.

Names that are still on our list of guests here and elsewhere on social media belong to some who are now gone from this life except as cherished memories. The Greeks say “May their memory be eternal.” They live on within us all. One of those names on this list now belongs to my brother.

billy-miller-portrait-credit-Eilon-Paz-2016-billboard-1548

On November 13th of this year, he peacefully died in his sleep from complications of multiple myeloma and diabetes. While others have celebrated and given tribute to his life and career in music, Rich and I find ourselves celebrating the boy we both grew up with. When we rejoice with his music, we remember him singing at our wedding. When we give tribute to his career, we remember his “job” as uncle to our kids that he was so successful in achieving and the love and laughter he brought them. We mourn the loss of our cohort who shared so many memories with us both. No longer will there be those “remember?” moments from him. We now carry the light of his memory within us. We are the sum of the people who have touched our lives. That they are gone does not diminish that sum, but increases the light within us. May it always shine brightly.

In this season of lights, we celebrate life in all its glory and cherish the memories of days gone by. Peace.

What’s-a matta you?

14138074_10153343859622824_8850222710769546087_oWe look out the bank of windows that are at the back of the home we rented for the week. At the end of the dock are our kids and their kids. Across the water, the sun sets behind the hills and the clouds sending rays of light and bands of colors into the sky. This has become a nightly ritual of appreciation. Drinks are poured and seats found as the time comes close. The littlest ones may spend just a little more time in the water while their parents enjoy the changing light. There is a peace that speaks to the soul. It gives us comfort.

On Canandaigua, we have all come together and the week is full of food, drink, laughter and family. Moments of joy are found everywhere. When two year old Bean sings the alphabet song to his baby cousin who smiles and laughs at the attention. When my mom is cooking in the kitchen with her grandson-in-law helping to lift and carry. When Richard tosses his nephew high in the water and Boober comes up out of the lake with a huge smile. When the game of Monopoly just never ever seems to end. And if it does, it will not end well. It never does.

14115514_10153343861857824_44245202119329942_oThe house hums with joy. Sun, rain, stars and clouds… we watch it all from hammocks, chairs, kayaks… fireworks greet us up the lake the first night. On the last, we give thanks. The next day we are to leave the lake and it is also the second birthday of Rich’s stem cell transplant. So the last night, in gratitude for the support we’ve had and the care we’ve been given as well as for his ever- improving health, we each of us send out a small candle lantern onto the lake as the sun is setting. One by one they bob away from the dock. One additional lantern is sent out for all of those who are on their own paths to finding health with prayers for it to come to them. The little lights glimmer as the lake begins to turn golden from the reflection of the sky. Our last sunset at the lake.

All week we had been having another celebration of sorts. The cymbalta that Rich had started had reached a plateau of helpfulness halfway through week two of use. The generalized neuropathy was improving and the spiking pains had lessened, but not to the extent we had hoped. We did not want to spend the week at the lake with exhausting pain as such a companion. We have an appointment to speak to a new pain group about ketamine, but with only a week to go prior to our departure for our trip, we needed a more immediate solution.

Medical marijuana was next on the list. New to New York as a legal option, there was little on the internet and what was there described a drawn out process. We had days before we left. Grace was on our side. We called our stem cell and pain management cohorts to inquire only to find that yes, our doctor was approved by the state to certify patients for the Rx. The response was near to instantaneous. Via email, we received Rich’s certification. We logged onto his NY State account that had been opened years ago for student loan applications. On the appropriate tab, his certification number was entered and the rest of the fields populated. We hit submit. And were approved. Within twenty minutes of our inquiry, we were approved. In two days, Rich would receive his necessary state issued card and we would make an appointment at the dispensary to fill the prescription.

In a rather nondescript medical office building, we buzz the intercom at a rather nondescript door. Rich is asked to hold his ID to the camera; we’re let in. The men in suits at the front desk resemble either bodyguards or hit men. We remind ourselves this is legal.

After a consult regarding options and procedures, we left with a few bottles of what was basically a pot-laced syrup similar to cough medicine. Rich began with the low dose as recommended and which seemed to have a slight effect within an hour. At about three hours, it seemed to have increased the pain relief tho’ it wasn’t a complete fix. We didn’t expect it to be since we’re just starting on the lowest dose. But it was an excellent beginning.

In a few days, we found we needed to change from the syrup… the amount of sugar was wreaking havoc with Rich’s stomach and he blew up like a balloon. We were able to consult with the dispensary’s pharmacist and nurse over the phone and it was decided the pure oil would be a better option. And so far it has been. Each increase in dosage has had an effect the first day with feeling drowsy… dopey. After that, it continued to do its job with better effect and a clearer head.

We do meet with the ketamine group… our special K’s. They give us more complete information during our consult than we had gotten from our pain management cohorts and it is less intrusive than originally explained. Rich would go once a week for a five week period, four hours per session for a ketamine infusion. He would be monitored as if he were under anesthesia, which in effect he would be. If necessary, he would go back after six months for a booster… a single four hour infusion. While the medical marijuana has less potential side effects, Rich has to take it in a timely manner three times a day for it to remain effective. And, to weigh all variables, we do have to consider that the potmeisters to not accept insurance. But the ketamine treatments would be covered. And, most importantly, the success rate is very high.

We decide that once the insurance approval process is completed, we will give the ketamine a try. The special K group requires Rich to have his cardiologist give his blessing as a precaution based on his heart issues during chemo. We will always have our reefer madness as a backup if the side effects are problematic and the infusions are stopped.

14102969_10153343860012824_5070539038206384639_oIn the meantime, our nights are less interrupted by the painful spikes of neuropathy. Instead, our week at the lake was spent, after those splendid sunsets, with our littlest grandson sleeping in the same room with us. As we drifted off each night, and looked over to him sleeping, we couldn’t help but smile at the lullaby that has once more filled our family songbook. It’s the same one we sang to this little one’s father. Life truly comes full circle.

And we accept its life lessons with gratitude and joy as the ditty runs through our head…

“What’s-a matter you? Hey! Gotta no respect What-a you t’ink you do? Why you look-a so sad? It’s-a not so bad. It’s-a nice-a place. Ah, Shaddap-a you face!”