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 healthy and normal 65% 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 with a hiccup in between … and I know that watching is 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.

Adding Insult to Injury

In the month since Rich’s hospital discharge, we’ve met again with all our specialists; this time in an outpatient setting. The appointments set up prior to our trip to the ER …set up by chance… become perfectly aligned for follow-up. One by one, each one gives us their opinion on where we are and what direction we should go.

First up is our PET/CT scan. Once more Rich is drinking radioactive goop and getting injected with a lead protected syringe that is delivered in a lead box. Biohazards galore. We’re thankful that this test has been approved. For the first fourteen years living with cancer, our insurance has never denied a single test or procedure. Then last year we were thrown for a loop… No PET scan. We were informed that, despite a peer-to-peer review with our stem cell guru, Rich was eligible for a CT scan only. The near to continuous pneumonia bouts that have been our life since the holidays four months ago is the blessing that has brought this change. It is only a few days after coming home from the latest stay in the hospital hospital that we have the PET/CT scan. It is sure to light up the lungs a bit as there is still a lingering pneumonia, but the gurus all determine that it’s ok to have the test.

We have also brought new specialists into our world. In December, we visited, at our pulmonologist’s request, an allergist/immunologist. We thought that perhaps, like his childhood vaccines, the stem cell may have reset and lost the efficacy of the allergy shots he received in the 1980’s. The test showed those shots were still doing their job. These infections were not allergy related. As an immunologist, the doctor also ran a panel to check Rich’s immunology levels. Antibodies that are known as immunoglobulin, are proteins that are used by a well-functioning immune system to ward off bacteria and viruses. You know, all those that we’ve been having difficulties with for so long. She said, in January, that Rich’s antibodies are where you would expect them to be. No worries.

But now, a week after our hospital departure, as we’re in consult once again in her office, we know from the recent hospital tests and the accompanying Immunoglobulin (IgA) he received in the hospital that his levels at the time of admittance last month were low. This latest panel she takes will help us determine Rich’s reaction to the recent IgA infusion and the worth of therapy. IgA, is, not coincidentally, the antibodies that help protect the body’s mucosa. It’s no wonder that infections manifest in the lungs. She suggests we wait three months and see her again to check the IgA levels again. The infusions as therapy might be an option. She says “You are a mystery!”

Directly from the immunologist, we go to see our pulmonologist. We first were introduced to this practice in the summer of 2014… four years ago. Rich was in the middle of his pre-transplant chemo and we found ourselves in the hospital with a pneumonia diagnosis. Dr Kz introduced himself to us and over the course of our journey, we’ve welcomed his advice as he is not one to limit his concerns regarding a patient’s health to his specialty. He looks at the overall patient and can see gains and losses when he walks into the room.

One of our favorite memories of him came about a year after the transplant… 2015 being the year of pulmonology. It seemed like we were in the hospital every month with some kind of lung infection… PCP, RSV , hMPV as well as the generic viral, fungal, or bacterial pneumonias and infections. Rich was not progressing well. Our Dr Kz, at one point in a hospitalization, advised to be patient. In a rather long discourse, he advised sticking with the Robitussin instead of opting for the cough med with codeine. He admonished us that the codeine would slow the lungs from clearing. “Use codeine only when the pain is unbearable.” He explained the why of it in intense detail. We agreed.

Trying to stick to his plan, we found we had to resort to codeine in the middle of the night. Knowing we would have to wait for the pharmacy to fill the prescription and that at night could take a significant time, Rich asked me to give him a dose of the meds from my bag. Seeing the pain in his face as he coughed, I gave him the dose. His conscience must have been on duty… no sooner did I get into my recliner than a team rushed into our room. Apparently, his guilt manifested as wonky readings on all the leads sticky taped to his body!

Come morning, the codeine unrecorded, Dr Kz comes checks Rich and finds him much improved. He credits the Robitussin protocol and launches once again into his speech on its benefits and the why of it.

Finally at the end, he says to Rich, “You only had Robitussin right?”

Rich: Nope

Dr Kz: Bastard.

It had been two years since we had seen him… he had sprung us from the ER when Rich was about to be admitted for the flu. Now he walked into Rich’s hospital room a month ago, looked at Rich with a smile and shook his head. “You look better than I expected from reading the ER reports. I don’t understand you!”

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The directness of this doctor gives us strength. His compassion and willingness to work with us is a common trait with his office partner Dr J-R. She tells us, when we see here, that Dr Kz joked with her, “I gave him to you two years ago. What did you do to him?!”
I mention to her that he was supportive of us going home as soon as advisable but, when it came time for us to leave, he seemed skeptical. “Dr Kz was scared with this admittance. He wanted you home, but at the same time, the reports from the ER and Rich’s numbers were extreme. He hoped we were all making the right decision for you to leave, to come off the vancomycin.” The first few days, we wondered if it was the right decision, too!

She also advises that, as we know she suspected, this appears to be infection by way of cardiac issues. Congestive Heart Failure. Of all the reasons for the continual infections, she says this would be the most treatable and could be considered curable. Her explanation is that the congestion… brought on by his heart issues which were in turn brought on by chemo… builds up and it is then that the fluid builds up in amd around his lungs where an opportunistic bug makes its home. The fluid also bloats Rich’s belly which restricts the amount of room his lungs have to take a deep breath. Treat the CHF and the rest will take care of itself. Lasix as needed is prescribed.

Part of that is in direct contradiction to the immunologist, but it makes us think perhaps this is a combined issue.

Another week goes by and we’re meeting up with the cardiologist. While we were in the hospital, the ejection fraction of Rich’s heart was further depressed… lower than his average. Both doctors seen last week brought up that problem, so we’re anxious to see his take on things. We’re first scheduled for an echocardiogram followed by an EKG. Surprisingly, our consult is short. The tests indicate Rich’s heart function is indeed not exactly status quo to where it has been throughout this journey, but is what he would expect given the recent events. He tells us that he wants to reconvene after three months, that Rich’s heart needs to “recover from this insult.” There has been an injury and it needs to resolve. We ask to be more proactive, we ask that Rich be prescribed cardiac rehab. Approved. Continue with the Lasix as needed, he says. Further tweaking of meds will be reviewed when we meet again. We always have to keep his liver and kidney function, particularly with CHF, in mind. Patience.

One week more and we see our stem cell guru. By now we have as many answers as we could have wished for. Blood work is taken and vitals checked. As we have been told by each of the doctors during these weeks, the PET scan not only shows no evidence of disease but a few spots that everyone was watching for inflammation have resolved. We breathe a sigh of relief. So many symptoms this year are part of the list of NHL. We’re glad to have a recurrance off our list of concerns.

At this point in our journey, this is the shortest stem cell consult of all. In many ways, we have moved forward into the realm of other specialists for the issues chemo have brought. We will meet for only for 6-month follow-ups and testing. The consult ends with hugs and a reminder of the Celebration of Life dinner. It will be good to see our fellow HSCT patients and the angels in scrubs who guided us through an incredible month in August of 2014 and celebrate living our new lives.

With one month down from our date in the ER, we have two more to go to see where we stand. But we’ve been contacted by the rehab group and this next month will see the start of evaluation and rehabilitation with a staff that has experience and certification for working with cardiac and pulmonary patients.

The recovery from this latest insult, this injury, this one worse than any before, has been understandably slow. Rich says it feels like he’s taken a jump back three years. Pneumonia in and of itself is not a quick bounce-back. Rich’s condition in the ER was not like any ER admittance before. Three years ago, Rich had his doubts about coming through one of his infection hospitalizations. This time it was my turn to have my doubts while he was in the ER. We’re blessed that deep down is a strength that pulls him through. We’re blessed with our family and our friends who are family to us that support us and are with us along the way and especially there when we need them most. We’re blessed that those who partner with us in the health care system are indeed partners and listen and voice their truth and guide us well.

Well heck, we’re blessed!

“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!

Now is the Winter of Our Discontent

The winter of 2017/2018 has welcomed a number of storms…. From arctic blasts to bomb cyclones, from nor’easters to those unnamed wind and weather events that took us by surprise. On Long Island, our weather truly does rely on which way the wind blows. The jet stream, gulf stream, and offshore weather patterns dictate what will fall where and when. And if!

We too are finding ourselves unexpectedly being tossed from one infection to another. In many ways, there is no pattern beyond chills and fevers, wheezing and coughing. And always, always the sly announcement; the stumble. The when and why of them is a mystery… a mystery that we need to unravel and eliminate the cause.

Back again are added nebulizing protocols, cough meds, antibiotics and, of course, our beneficial bane, prednisone. What started as an “oh, we’ve just been so busy with the holidays so of course he’s got a little something going on” morphed into, “what the hell, didn’t we just finish with this?”

And so the cycle has been for the last three months. A very short period of feeling better followed by a sudden onset of chills, odd temperatures and horrible breathing. A test… pneumonia; bacterial. Next time, a virus. One lung lobe. The other. Random.

Deciding to get to the bottom of this, tired of seeing the pulmonologist every couple of weeks, we make appointments with all the key gurus: stem cell, pulmo, cardio, immuno. And they in turn, will order tests. The middle to end of March is going to be when we look this head on, put together the puzzle pieces and solve this mystery.

Until the mystery comes and hits us head on before we are ready. We found ourselves yesterday in the ER. Our at-home vitals showed a low O2 level of 79. Temp 94. And shaking chills are all but rattling Rich’s teeth. For the first time in over a year, we flash our red card that fast tracks us to a room in the ER. Unlike the more laid-back evaluations when we’ve come to Emergency in times prior, Rich is immediately surrounded by doctors, nurses, interns, residents, specialists galore… everyone seems to converge on this one room and this one man. Numbers and differential diagnoses fly around the room. Temp begins to rise. Alarm fills the room when his temp is 104.3 as determined by a back-door temp taking. Not Rich’s most comfortable moment. He’s hooked up to supplemental oxygen with a face mask only for it to be swapped out for a BPap for added support as he starts to de-sat. The noise is deafening but he begins to pink up.

Tests… CT scan, x rays, sonograms of the lungs… and at my request, his heart… bloodwork, more bloodwork, nasal swabs. Vitals, always vitals. A few prove informative. Coronavirus… the common cold. And, yes, another pneumonia. Hit with a number of strong antibiotics, prednisone, fluids, oxygen, and two tylenol. Rich starts to stabilize. The long watch begins.

A theory, known to us, is that the repeated, long, and high doses of prednisone, that drug that allows Rich to breathe, has also compromised his immune system and making it impossible to avoid getting a severe reaction to whatever slight bug comes our way. This idea circles through the staff.

Ultimately, we find ourselves now settled in for the night. We are back on the floor where we spent so much time four years ago. The Monti Pavillion’s Leukemia and Lymphoma ward. Down the hall from our room is the door that took us to another door, that took us to the little room in the little hallway where our patient accepted and regrew his own stem cells. Four weeks in the room no larger than the cabins on the Amtrak trains that we love so much. Two rooms from where we sleep tonight is where we spent an overnight for chemo, Rich’s incessant hiccups sounding more and more like a walrus. Around the corner is the room where a post-transplant infection found us. There are changes, but there are also familiar faces and a type of comfort to have the care we have come to know. Lying side by side… me in a vinyl recliner, Rich in his bed, the soft susurrus of the machines keeping track of our patient. Support. The history of our journey through cancer is all here. Reminders of our path surround us. We have come full circle.

When the sun rises today we will meet with our team and perhaps begin the process of taking this mystery apart. The mystery of how to reach our goals, move forward and glory in living. We’ve made plans. Enough. Camus wrote ” In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.

And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.”

Let the pushing begin! We are ready for the invincible summer indeed.

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.

/bləd/

Blood: The fluid circulating through the heart, arteries, veins, and capillaries of the circulatory system. Blood carries oxygen and nutrients to the cells of the body and removes waste materials and carbon dioxide. What a simple definition for an amazing thing! Along our way these last three years the one constant has been the importance of blood tests. Vial upon vial has been drawn and analyzed.

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At various point in time, our focus on the different parts of the reports that have been generated with each drop that has been put on a slide has differed depending on where we were on our journey. Rich’s first blood test gave us the initial indication that there were concerns.

Three years ago when we came back from welcoming our little Bean into our lives, Rich was so tired that he went to get some blood work done. Our primary care group, as we have reported here at the start, were brilliant in putting a few clues together and sending Rich to his gastroguy and the rest is our history. Once chemo started, our focus was on those white cells, red cells and, particularly, platelets. When the counts got too low and chemo delayed, platelets and iron-rich red cell infusions were added to our schedule. As we got closer to the end of outpatient chemo treatments, everyone kept their eye on the stem cell count so as to catch the best chance of harvest. Once admitted for isolation and the week-long bombardment of high doses of chemo cocktails, the red/white/platelets were back on the daily reports.

We knew the day Rich’s bone marrow died. We knew also the day that those precious stem cells engrafted, eight days after the transplant, and began making new marrow… a day of quiet celebration. Since that point, the blood work has been an indicator of Rich’s continued recovery. Finally came the time that the platelets were stable; slowly getting close to where they need to be. Anemia gone. Still we watch liver and kidney function… those poor organs whose job it is to clean the body of the beneficial poisons that were so crucial for ultimate health are still struggling to catch up. They’re still on our radar.

But when we look back to the time after we left the hallway within a hallway, our little room that reminded us so much of our Amtrak cabins, our focus has been on Rich’s immune- suppressed system. Every blood work since has been a study of the immunoglobulins… the antibodies that are found in our blood. These can tell us where Rich’s immune system is up to… or, as has been since his new birthday, down to. Our reports show the three of most concern, IgM, IgA, IgG continue their very slow rise.

As anyone who has followed our journey here knows, the first year after leaving our stem cell cocoon, Rich caught any bug that happened near him. Pneumonia being his illness of choice, we became well versed in protocol at the ER. Our pulmonary gurus went so far as to forbid him to sit in their waiting room but had a clean room set up for him whenever we had appointments. The blessings of health care providers who really care have been with us on our path.

Our latest bloodwork shows that Rich has gone from a low of 345 in September for the most important (to us) immunoglobulin, two years after his transplant,to a much improved 656 mg/dl this month. Normal range is 694-1618 mg/dl… so close! Our doctor had said she’d be pleased as long as it was above 400. While we look to be comfortably in the middle of the range, we’ll take our new number with gratitude.

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This improvement allows us to continue in a way that we thought was yet another year in the future. Rich has been having his childhood vaccines re-administered for the past year. Stem cell transplants reset the body and many of the titers for childhood diseases are no longer there. On a carefully timed schedule, he’s had his HiB, Polio, Diphtheria, Tetanus and a few different pneumonia injections. Live vaccines were not on our radar. His immune system would not allow us to have those which include mumps, measles and rubella. With the latest outbreaks of these diseases due to the anti-vaxx contingent, it’s been nerve-wracking. The herd protection that comes with a large percentage of the population being inoculated has been lost. No longer are those who are too young for vaccines or those whose health precludes them protected. We’ve been lucky to avoid them. The results could have been devastating.

We are told now that in a few days Rich will receive his MMR shot… a live vaccine. This milestone is one to celebrate… the numbers are lining up the way that they should. So carefully have the live vaccine administrations of our grandsons been timed with our family visits as per our team’s instructions. No longer will this be a concern. While platelet numbers are still low, while immunoglobulin counts are nudging but not quite in the normal range, we can have a little breathing room. We have gone a full year without a hospitalization. The red card that gains quick admittance to the ER and takes us straight to a private room has not been used in over twelve months. Asthma and bronchitis have still been with us, but with less devastating effect.

We’re blessed.

Blood.

The new life Rich has been given has come from his own blood. The stem cells were his own, harvested through apheresis over the course of two days. That science has been able to define these procedures to break down and then renew the body is a gift. That it comes from one’s own body is a miracle. An anonymous quote says “If power is defined as the ability to do anything and create anything, then the stem cell is the most powerful ‘known’ life force.” We are made of that power. That power flows through us all every second of every minute of every day. We are composed of approximately 125 TRILLION cells. With that kind of power within us, what is not possible?