Monday, 28 September 2009

Is it lupus who is the master of disguise, or is it me?

On recent occasions I have met up with friends I haven’t seen in a while and certain questions and remarks they made showed that they clearly don’t have a clue about how much lupus plays a part in our lives these days and the impact it has had on us. For example, it was flippantly implied that my having largely given up most my paid work for the time being was some kind of indulgence (something I’d like to go into in more detail in a later post). Although I was momentarily irritated as they’d hit a very raw nerve, I quickly realized that any insensitivity was entirely unintentional and most importantly, that I was at least in part to blame for their misunderstanding.

When I thought about it I realised that although friends and family have been told of bouts of illness, periods of hospitalization and we’ve been open and honest about the complications all this has brought to our lives, it really just amounts to ‘hearsay’ as only very few have witnessed evidence of it for themselves. In fact on the whole most of them have only seen me looking and acting well. When I meet face-to-face with others I find myself always doing my best to present myself as positively as possible both in temperament and appearance. Even when the lupus is trying to deny me and energy is running low I often find I just ‘dig deep’ and carry on regardless. So it’s really no wonder people have the wrong impression.

This led me to question whether it is just a façade and to ask, am I somehow being dishonest and just putting on a show for the outside world? Could it be that I have been using a ‘disguise’ of wellness and positivity to fool others and hide from the reality, in a similar way to which the lupus itself disguises itself as other illnesses to conceal its’ real identity?

After much thought I am glad to say I don’t think this is the case. I realised that it’s not that I’m being false or deceitful, quite the reverse: it is just part of me to be sociable and friendly. As those the closest to me would vouch, by nature I am generally a relatively cheery person who, within the boundaries of realism and honesty adopts a positive outlook. It is the way I find my way through life. Tony my husband is very much the same. So during times that I am ‘out and about’ talking to others and being part of the world what they see is not the lupus but just me being me and being so is interpreted as ‘healthy’ by others. Equally, perfectly healthy people who are negative and unengaged can seem unhealthy. So I suppose it is unsurprising that others can easily fail to appreciate some of the ongoing challenges and wretchedness that the lupus bring to life when it so chooses (and on a more frequent basis than many imagine) as these things are not visible.

As being the way I am requires a good level of energy, I have often surprised myself how I have managed to carry on ‘being me’ without it being obvious to others. Even when I am in hospital I manage to chat and befriend the nurses and cleaners I meet and I am sure they wonder what on earth I am doing there. I have even driven myself through high profile presentations for work which I’ve done successfully without anyone suspecting anything untoward only to find myself shortly after.

It is only in the very worst times that this ability to ‘shine on’ regardless has been affected. For me those rare occasions where I felt lupus had robed me of my personality were the most desperate and frightening. Only my very nearest and dearest have witnessed this as I retreat from the world.

So on reflection in some ways I am glad that others don’t get it. I want to be me and I am glad that I still can, even with the omnipresence of the lupus and all its many faces.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Avoiding appointment disappointment

I feel like dancing on the rooftop and shrieking with joy because something so strange and marvellous has happened. I have noticed that recently I have consistently started leaving medical appointments with a feeling of satisfaction

Yes, these days when I leave the consultation room after appointments with either my consultants or my GP I feel I have been heard, believed and given the best professional help available. Now, whilst I understand that your average person may not feel this is worthy of such a reaction of delight, because one might reasonably assume that this would not be too much to expect from a medical appointment, for many a ‘loopy’ this is often not the case.

Thinking back I literally get a shiver down my spine when I remember certain medical consultations. Other memories simply enrage me. There were numerous problems: feeling rushed, feeling that the doctor was distracted (one GP even took a personal call on her mobile in the middle of my consultation, so I sat there trying to come to terms with my new chemotherapy drug regime I was on, while she merrily planned her social arrangements for that evening with a friend!) or otherwise feeling the medical professional I was consulting was clueless about my condition. Feelings of intense frustration were also commonplace, especially when I was for a time undiagnosed after being diagnosed, only to be finally and satisfactorily diagnosed once again. But the worst thing of all I felt during these inadequate consultations was disbelieved.

When have enormous respect for someone because of their professional capacity, if they appear to doubt you, it is easy to doubt yourself. There were times when I started to believe that maybe I was just a hypochondriac as the attitude of certain doctors seemed to imply; maybe I was just imagining the headache and making a fuss about the other symptoms. It is odd to feel grateful for a seizure or for finding oneself unconscious in Intensive Care, but in some ways it did me a favour – it vindicated me, it got doctors to take me seriously and it confirmed once and for all I was no joker.

Having given the matter much thought, I have realised that there are a number of barriers which give rise to unsuccessful medical consultations and that blame lays at both the doctor and the patients’ door. I believe there are very few doctors who are truly ‘bad apples’, but there are a some whose bedside manner leaves much to be desired and rather more than there should be whose knowledge of lupus if very limited. This doesn’t have to be a problem unless they are one of a significant number that is dangerously constrained by professional ego. An otherwise decent doctor who is not fully au fait with the condition but who is open to learning is one thing, but one who is ignorant and arrogant is quite another; they can be very patronising and even dangerous. I have come across them all over the years.

Still, I recognise that patients can also make matters worse for themselves. Unless we allow ourselves to accept in our hearts that lupus is unpredictable, difficult to read and currently incurable we can go into our appointments expecting our doctors to be magicians who ‘wave their magic wands’ and instantly prescribe us the answer to all our problems. Sadly, the truth of the matter is there is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to treating lupus and doctors have to be given a bit of leeway. When I found a consultant that I felt respected me and was constantly endeavouring to try and help me find a way forward, I accepted a lot of what we had to do together medicine-wise was trial and error. Nothing he could do or prescribe was going to be perfect and provide a complete cure without side-effects, but with much ‘tweaking’ here and there, we were going to find the best possible solution.

This requires good communication which is another thing vital to getting a positive outcome from meetings with your doc. There have been times when I have had so much invested in a particular medical appointment, been so emotional and felt so much of my life rested on it that I have gone in and (quite uncharacteristically) found myself nervous, freezing up, forgetting to mention some of my key symptoms and to ask all my questions. I essentially turned into a passive, simpering ‘yes’ puppet! Realistically, when I was like this, how could any doctor be expected to deliver what I wanted and needed?

So what can we do to avoid these hellish experiences and start getting the best from our contact with the medical professionals? I have turned some of the things that I feel have helped me into the following list of tips
  • Have all the relevant information about YOUR medical history to hand to help enlighten doctors you are meeting for the first time and to validate what you are telling them (recently, in an appointment of mine, a copy of recent blood tests, an old MRI scan and a letter from another consultant proved very handy)

  • If you are going to a medical professional whose specialism is not necessarily lupus (e.g. A&E department, a GP) it can be handy to have some general information on the condition
  • However infuriated you feel ... never get angry. This is guaranteed to piss-off the doctor, who will instantly write you off as ‘neurotic’!

  • Be persistent
  • If it’s not working, CHANGE doctor or ask to see someone else. A lot of people don’t seem to think this is an option, but it is and you can. It may mean a bit of compromise like travelling a bit further, but believe me it’s worth it. After suffering a GP-practice-from-hell I switched to a GP-practice-from-heaven and haven’t looked back. Why I didn’t do it sooner amazes me ...

  • If you find a consultant / GP you like and feel you can trust, stick to them like glue – they are worth their weight in gold

  • When you are too ill or emotional to fend for yourself or just not up to explaining, take someone with you as your ‘spokesperson’. In some of my darkest hours the formidable combined force of my Mum and Tony was enough for any doctor to reckon with ... but they got the results

  • Show you are prepared to be reasonable and build a good rapport
Let’s not pretend that all this is easy. It has taken me many years and much work and support from my husband and family to get to a point that I’m happy with my medical care, but it is worth it. After all, getting the best from your doctors and consultants is vital to living well with lupus.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

What's been going on?!!

After a long, unexplained absence I am back. Let me explain the reasons for my online disappearance...

Firstly, the mundane and practical reason I have not been able to visit my blog is that I have been without a computer for six weeks. A long story I won't bore you, which involved the breakdown of our laptop and investigations that revealed that it would be more expensive to repair than to replace blah, blah, blah. The long-and-the-short of it is that we finally have a new laptop up and running, although none of the data from our old one (we are working on this). It has been a nightmare as I've only been able to pick up emails sporadically and not able to visit at all. Strangely, it felt like I'd lost one of my senses. Now I've finally had the chance to get back online, I have discovered a number of new messages and introductions from some fellow loopies out there who have stumbled across the site. Thank you so much. I often feel I am writing into the abyss so it is really motivating to have your support and to find that what I am writing means something to someone; to be reminded that I am not the only one trying to navigate the unpredictable minefield that is lupus. Now I am happily installed back in my little office which has stood empty for so long, I will be responding to each and every message so I hope you haven't given up and will be back to see.

Meanwhile life during this period has been far from uneventful. I discovered, mainly unexpectedly that I am pregnant - now 16 weeks (I told you the holiday in Italy was good) !!!!!!??????????!!!!!!!

Tony and I had planned to start a family after we got married in 2006, but thanks to lupus it was not to be. My doctors knew this was our wish, but until recently the medications controlling my symptoms meant that it was out of the question. Over the last six months they helped me juggle my medicines to find a way to make the prospect feasible (mainly by switching from MMF to Azathioprine and getting the steroids down as low as possible) which wasn't without its problems, but eventually worked. We'd all but convinced ourselves that after everything we'd been through over the last four years in particular, conception probably wasn't going to be straight forward but nature took its course far quicker and more easily than we'd expected, so we both went into shocked disbelief when the pregnancy test indicated positive. After four tests and confirmation from the GP we started to believe it may be true, but were scared of running away with the sheer wonderfulness of the possibility, because we knew matters relating to my health are rarely straight-forward. Sure enough week six into pregnancy the lupus decided to flare. Apparently this happens to approximately 30% of SLE patients, although I understand for many pregnancy also temporarily ‘cures’ symptoms. Things have been controlled and settled to some extent by an increase in steroids and generally I have been doing well. Fortunately, I do not suffer with certain key things that are known to complicate lupus pregnancies, such as sticky blood and so far I’ve been fortunate enough not to have had any kidney involvement. Anyway, regardless of how I am when we got to see the baby at the 12 week scan it certainly looked full of beans!

Managing pregnancy let alone new born babies when you have lupus is a whole new territory for me and is not something that our research explored (let’s be honest the fact that no respondents who were pregnant or with young babies volunteered to take part probably speaks volumes in itself!) so I guess learnings on this topic will be working progress. I have now stopped working entirely for the time being so have more time to dedicate to and plan more regular postings. So for now it’s a case of ‘so far, so good’, and we are touching an awful lot of wood and keeping fingers and toes crossed at all times.