Crystal from LivingWellWithGastroparesis.com commented recently that she has a standard answer when people ask her how she is: "It's been a lot, but we're hanging in there."
I say the same sort of thing, and wonder how many other people gloss over the difficulties inherent in living with a chronic illness of any kind.
One of the problems for me is that I smile a lot. I don't drop the smile for many people, even for my doctors, so the general consensus tends to be that I am doing well. As a result of this, I somehow managed to slip through the net of follow-up with my gastroenterologist. I thought that I was doing ok, and that I could cope without any help. My doctors thought that I was doing ok because I didn't contact them to find out why I hadn't been sent an appointment.
By the time I did see my doctor (at least nine months later than I should have seen him) things were not good. I was severely anaemic, acidotic, and almost bedbound. I told my doctor that things were not good, and he immediately arranged for me to be admitted to hospital. I couldn't even cry with relief because I felt too ill. Instead, I lay across the seats in the waiting room and concentrated on not vomiting while I waited for a bed on the ward.
How did things go so wrong?
I think it started when I left hospital. I had been in hospital for almost a month, and was desperate to be allowed home because we had guests coming to stay with us. This deadline meant that I absolutely jumped at the chance to be allowed to leave, and didn't make sure that everything was in place to support me as an outpatient.
When I left hospital last year, on a Wednesday or Thursday night, I didn't even have enough medical supplies to get me through the weekend. I had no follow-up arranged with either my Gastro doctor or dietician, and couldn't get hold of my GP at such short notice. I was being sent home on tube feeding, having not reached any of the feeding targets set while I was in hospital, and without any clear guidelines.
How will this admission be different?
While we know more about the problems this year, and have a clearer diagnosis, the situation isn't that dissimilar. I am actively losing weight (one of those rare situations in which this is not considered a good thing!), am malnourished, anaemic, and experience severe pain, nausea and bloating in response to even the lowest rate of tube feeding. Last year we tried a number of different feeding preparations (low calorie, high calorie, semi-elemental) and lots of different ways to increase the rate. We tried feeding at a very low rate, 24 hours a day, and gradually increasing. We tried increasing rapidly in an attempt to shock my body into cooperating. We tried regimes that involved timed increases and decreases in rate. Nothing really worked, and nothing has really changed.
Currently, I am on TPN (complete nutrition, given to me through a drip into a large vein). It's great as a short-term solution to stop the weight loss and provide my body with some of the nourishment it so badly needs, but there are serious risks and complications, so we are all working towards getting my gut working!
Before I go home, I need a plan to follow - how we are going to increase the rate of feeding (or how I'm going to stay nourished and hydrated), and I need to know who to contact if things go wrong. Going wrong is something that also needs to be carefully specified - I want to have clear goals so that I know if I'm not meeting them. I want to have a time frame in mind, with an appointment booked for the end of that trial period.
I've talked about 'SMART' goal-setting in the past (as described by Paul Meyer in Attitude is Everything), and this is something that I intend to use again when we're discussing how I'm going to manage when I leave hospital.
1. Specific goals, and a specific plan telling me how to achieve those goals (e.g. increasing the rate of feeding by 1 ml/hr per day, up to a target rate of 80 ml/hr)
2. Agreed parameters for me to Monitor/Measure so that I know if things are not going according to plan. This is important. Doctors (and other medical professionals) are often vague about this, saying "Get in touch if things get any worse (or if things don't get better)". This leaves people with the dilemma of knowing that things have deteriorated (but maybe not enough to bother the doctor), or not improved (but maybe they should give it another day or two). Numbers are helpful, e.g. body weight, calories per day, pain score.
3. It is important for the goals to be realistic and Achievable. Nobody benefits if I go home from hospital intending to gain 1 kg every week and increase my feeding rate by 20 ml/hr every day. We know that my body can't tolerate that sort of feeding rate. Setting unrealistic goals is one of the surest ways for me to get disheartened, and probably end up back in hospital, sicker than I was before.
4. The goals and things to monitor must be Relevant to the situation. Monitoring my blood pressure or body temperature, for example, are useful things to do, but aren't directly relevant in determining whether I'm meeting my nutritional goals. Try to narrow down the list of things that can be measured to ensure that you focus only on the most important. Anything else just clouds the issue.
5. Set a Time limit on your goals, and be sensible about it. When I leave hospital after this admission, I hope to have gained weight and to have increased my body stores of various nutrients. This might be enough to keep me alive for several months, even if I fail miserably at tube feeding, but it would be far better for me to meet with my gastroenterologist or dietician after 3-4 weeks to discuss progress than for me to keep plugging away at my goals, independent of medical supervision, until I am a skinny wreck! Timely progress assessments will allow me to modify my goals and methods, and to put extra support in place if necessary, before I crash and burn.
In addition to the SMART categories, I will ask my team for their 'deal breakers'. These are the things that cause all other plans to grind to a halt. In my case, getting a high temperature has its own set of rules. If I start to run a fever, the SMART plan goes on the back burner and I have to seek urgent medical help. A more relevant deal breaker might be if I drop below a certain body weight, or fail to meet my daily calorie target for a specified number of days. These things are important enough toindicate that the current plan is not working, and that we need to regroup more urgently and come up with a new plan.
It is helpful to have these 'deal breakers' written down and specified, with a plan of action in each case. This is often presumed to be in the realm of common sense, but I can promise you now that my common sense goes out of the nearest window when I'm trying to avoid a hospital admission. Having a written (and agreed) protocol in place means that I have no 'wiggle room' to pretend that I didn't understand, or didn't think it was that serious.
I've been quite specific in my examples, referring to my own struggles with my digestive system, but this could just as easily apply to someone with rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, asthma or diabetes. Or pretty much anything else. Substitute your own symptoms and goals, and there you have it!