Wednesday, 30 November 2011

That Fine Line

Those of us with chronic illnesses live with symptoms day in and day out. The severity of those symptoms may vary, and some of them may go away from time to time, but we never feel 'well' in the way that we would like.

In order to manage these daily symptoms, many of us have medications and treatments available to us that would usually require hospital admission: home oxygen, intravenous medications, nebulisers, strong medications. These are not cures, just ways of maintaining the status quo and allow us to stay at home with a reasonable quality of life.

Difficulties arise, however, when things deteriorate despite all the medications that we have in our 'chronic illness toolkit'.

How far should we allow things to deteriorate before we 'give in' and accept that we need extra help and support? How long do we wait for the 'rescue' medications that we have to kick in? It may be that the deterioration is gradual, and insidious, and it can seem hard to know the point in the downward trend at which we should seek advice. Worse still, we can get so caught up in just dealing with each moment as it comes that we stop looking at the bigger picture and asking how we are going to improve things.

These are difficult questions for anyone reluctant to 'bother' their doctor (or other health professional), but even more so for people with chronic illnesses. Often, our illnesses are rare, and may be complex. While the necessary treatment may be simple, getting it may be another matter.

Flare-ups often seem to happen at night or at the weekend, especially if it is a holiday weekend. This poses yet another question of whether we try to wait until we can get in touch with our own specialists, or whether we need help sooner than that. I feel as though I am treading a fine line whenever I am in the position of needing to make this decision.

Emergency Departments are not really set up to treat those of us with complex medical conditions. They are very good at what they do, which is to treat accidents and acute illness. It is unfair to expect them to be able to handle rare medical conditions.

Of course, the ideal is to be able to contact one's own specialist for advice and treatment. They are far better placed to be able to tweak routine treatment and instigate new therapies than any healthcare professional meeting you for the first time.

But what happens when you really can't get in touch with your own doctors?

Alternative communication methods:
Telephone and email can be excellent ways to get in touch with your doctors. Email, in particular, allows you to give all the relevant details, taking time to write carefully and accurately, without the panic of an emergency conversation. It also allows you and your doctor to have a written record of the enquiry and any advice given.

Having a written protocol in place for emergencies:
If your illness is of the type that might require emergency treatment, you could ask your doctor or nurse specialist to write a protocol for you to take to the Emergency Department with you. For example, if you are known to have a certain type of seizure that responds well to particular medications, this could all be put in writing, with a copy given to your local ED and another copy for you to carry around with you. In the UK, it's possible for patients to be 'flagged' with the local ambulance service, so that any paramedics called out are prepared with relevant information. MedicAlert tags and cards (and equivalent) also provide valuable information if you're not able to give details to those treating you.

Be prepared:
If you can, try to predict things that might go wrong. It's not unrealistic to think that someone with gastroparesis might have a bad flare in which they can't eat or drink, and so need IV hydration and anti-sickness medications (and possibly also gastric decompression and artificial nutrition).

The more difficult cases arise when those unpredictable flare-ups occur. Either unrelated illnesses that worsen the underlying condition, or new symptoms.

In this case, it is important to act as sensibly as possible. Get advice, either from your own healthcare providers or from someone who knows you well, rather than from an overworked out-of-hours or emergency physician, in the first instance.

If the answer is that you need medical intervention (or at least assessment), the next question is when? Can you wait until you are able to see your own doctor? Is there anything more that you can do at home to keep things as stable as possible while you wait?

If the answer to 'when?' is 'now', then you have to ask 'where?' -
1. Out of hours GP service
2. Walk-in (or minor injuries) unit
3. Emergency Department (perhaps by ambulance, if necessary)

So, what are you waiting for:
Do you need help?
When do you need help?
Where are you going to get this help?

And with that, I am going to take another dose of my rescue medications now in the hope that I can delay needing help from my own doctor until tomorrow, when she is next in clinic.

Wish me luck!

This post was written as part of NHBPM - 30 health posts in 30 days:

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