Tests - Take Two!

Recently, my legs started breaking out again and I was soon covered in itchy red bumps from knee to ankle. Fun!

I quickly called my new found doctors in New York and asked them what to do. The response was "Get a biopsy quick". So I found myself back in the waiting room of my local dermatologist. It didn't take long to get shuffled back to a room by the nurse who carried my chart like a heavy suitcase. I was not new to this office.   

After the friendly nurse practitioner walked through my history she stepped out to pull the head doctor into the room. He recognized the name of my New York City specialist immediately and had actually trained under him at some point so he was happy to follow the recommendation and wondered how I'd managed to get in with him (I didn't mention the countless calls, prayers and flower deliveries it took... Ok the flowers might be an exaggeration).  

This time they wanted to be safe and we would take TWO biopsies (who needs pretty legs anyways - OVERRATED, that's what I say). I waited impatiently for the results which took two weeks. My phone finally rang as I pulled into the parking lot of Space Camp in Alabama (a long awaited vacation spot for my boyfriend and an entirely different story).  

"Ms. Miller, this is so and so from so and so's office and I have your results."

"Ok", I said as I sat rigidly in my car, bracing myself for the results.  

"It was actually a severe reaction to a bug bite. We don't know what type of bug, it actually could of been anything but we don't think it's related to Celiac and we can't really stop it from happening again because it's a very strong reaction to whatever it was. You may still have dermatitis herpetiformis too, we just can't be sure. We can only be sure that this was a bug bite reaction. And we'll have to biopsy any reactions in the future to determine what they are." 

I hung up the phone and my boyfriend who was sitting next to me reached out to grab my hand. "Are you ok? I literally watched your shoulders drop as you were talking to her." 

The problem was that I had finally accepted that I had dermatitis herpetiformis and as awful as it was, the diagnosis was mine. I didn't have to worry or wonder anymore what was violating my skin and my life, I knew. But the truth is nothing is ever final and I was back at square one. 

BACK at it!

The next round of testing was called patch testing. I was about to undergo a week long process, the first step being a review of allllll my products. That's right, I became an airport employee's worst nightmare. Liquids? Yes. Aerosols? Yes. The entire contents of your bathroom? Yes.  

The first day, the doctor and his team set off to find the ingredients list for all of my belongings. Which meant by visit number two, they would be ready cover me in tiny little activated samples of my own products and many many many more. Some of these patches would need to be exposed to light so along with being covered for days, I was also lead into a "light box" on day two. This was an interesting experience in and of itself because it's a tiny space and lined top to bottom with lights that heat you up. I felt very close to bread after this, imagining that this MUST be what it feels like to be stuck in a toaster. Poor little toast!

On top of that, your skin has to be (mostly) covered except for what you're purposely exposing. I was cool with getting a sheet wrapped around my feet and hands but then we got to the last step. The last step is is putting a pillow case OVER YOUR HEAD. Sure, that's not the least bit scary... I think it's very important to note that none of this was mentioned prior to my arrival in New York. I've learned you have to watch doctors, they are a bit tricky. 

Throughout the week I got a bit itchier but honestly the hardest part (besides exposing your bum to everyone - yes, they were on my bum too - yes, this is a teaching hospital) is that you can't take a shower from Monday to Friday. My dear sweet mom was willing to wash my hair in the tub daily thank goodness, but it's really no substitute for a shower. I'm not going to say people left when I got on the subway but Friday couldn't come soon enough! For now, here's a picture of exactly what went into this testing. Good times!

 

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NYC Round 2!

My second trip to New York for "research" was accompanied by my mom. I have never traveled with my mom and in fact, she has never (yes, in their entire marriage of 35+ years) spent as much time away from my dad as she would on this trip. They have done everything together (by choice!) including raising my siblings and then traveling together and even living abroad (possibly to escape my siblings and I, I'm still not sure about that)... So after the first day of getting delayed hours at the airport then trekking our bags through the subway after midnight, then getting lost because one of the connections had been shut down, I was not sure she would be with me for more abuse.. er, um... "Fun" come day 2. But, like the trooper she is, we slept our two hours and were up again to head to the Celiac Center for a "breath test". 

The hardest part about this test was the prep. For 24 hours before, there were no allowable fruits or veggies limiting the one meal I would have to plain white rice with plain salmon. YUM! As for the morning of the test, there would be nothing, not even the water and toothpaste to brush your teeth! 

The test itself simply involved breathing into a small handheld tube (similar to an asthma test) regularly over a period of three hours. That's it! Aside from avoiding boredom and trying to stop your brain from thinking about food, it is a CAKE walk (as you might have guessed, I had trouble not thinking about food!) 

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The point of the test is to measure bacteria in your stomach and see if perhaps it has gotten out of whack, causing symptoms that may be consistent with Celiac (bloating, gas, etc. - all the fun stuff!)

I'm still waiting on a call from my doctor to find out exactly what the results showed but the tech administering the test didn't seem to see anything of alarm. And although I should be happy to have "normal" results, as opposed to a gut full of bacteria,  I am not sure what it leaves as an explanation for the continuing symptoms. If you have Celiac and are still having discomfort regularly this may be something to ask your doctor about. It's not difficult, just don't think about food.... Or cake...

Let's Face it!

The worst pain and most disturbing physical side effect from DH was experienced on my face. So I was anxiously awaiting my trip to the dermatologist and hopefully some answers. I waited (not) patiently in the front room before finally being called back. The doctor was young (or maybe just looked young, you never can tell with those dermatologists!). Since I had lowered iodine in my diet, my face had for the first time in three months finally began the healing process! Fortunately, I had pictures! Many, many pictures!!

I will share one below but brace yourself - it's not pretty! And for heavens sake, don't show anyone else. I have a reputation to maintain. It's not going well, but still..... 

Within minutes, my baby Doctor had looked at my back (where a rash had just popped up), face and pictures, and confirmed three things.

1. I had a typical presentation of DH on my back.  

2. My pictures were terrifying (I tried to warn you)! 

3. My face was NOT a typical presentation of DH. 

WHAT???? 

To put it in her words, I could just have bad luck. Well, tell me something I don't know doc!  So just in case I wasn't feeling challenged enough with a Celiac and DH diagnosis, I could possibly have something else.

Like what you ask? Well.... Allergic to my hair perhaps? Fortunately, not "baboon syndrome"... Don't google it... But thank God we ruled it out! A hex from a disgruntled co-worker? Ok, she didn't actually suggest that one. But she did say it was improbable the iodine made it better because that allergy would be so unlikely, "I'd probably be dead by now". Now there's some good news!

More testing was needed and my "vacation" was coming to an end. Hence, in another week I will be heading back to NYC for round two. So my friends, more to come and as promised, a selfie like no other. The filter is there for your own good, swollen inflamed patches look much less scary when they are not bright blood red. You're welcome. 

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Celiac Center Lab Rat

The time had finally come. I was in New York and I had arrived at Columbia University, more specifically, the Celiac Center. I was ready to be poked, prodded and tested like a scientific lab rat. Whatever it took to get some answers!

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I got nervous as I walked down the narrow hall, dated by the carpet and dark brown chairs that lined the walls. Entering the tiny office with four desks I gave the usual personal information and was handed paperwork to begin the process. 

I sat down and waited a short time before being called back to a different office and introduced to my doctor. I started talking nervously, holding one hand in the other while trying to explain my struggle of the last few months and hoping she didn't repeat what I'd already heard from other doctors. "Eat gluten free and everything will be fine". I had so much hinging on this trip and it weighed heavily on the response of this young doctor with kind eyes and long flowing black hair. 

She listened graciously as she flipped through the mound of records I'd brought with me, asking questions where appropriate. I learned many things through the course of the conversation, a couple of them listed below.  

* I had a severe case and may be unresponsive to a gluten free diet, as a small percentage of celiacs are. 

* There was also a possibility I could still be getting gluten and there was a test for that! 

* I needed a bone density test to evaluate my current state and osteoporosis risk.  

* Healing could take a year to two and although my body was responding drastically to eliminating gluten, with time, the severity of my symptoms should lessen.  

* My family was at risk and needed to be tested. 

* There would be some poking, some prodding... But most importantly. There would be help. 

They may not have been all good, but they were answers and hope for real solutions. They were help. And this was only my first appointment! 

Eat Worms

I saw an article this week that caught my eye. That was because for the very first time it mentioned a successful treatment for Celiac Disease! Everything I’d been told up to this point is that a strict gluten free diet is one’s only hope to surviving and although I’ve been avoiding gluten like the plague, the fact that my symptoms had not improved in over four months meant things like cross contamination were seemingly impossible to avoid.

So I eagerly jumped into the article and hoped, prayed, fantasized that maybe a cure was on the horizon. I would gladly give up gluten free foods for life but it was really relief from painful and disfiguring symptoms (like blisters all over my face) that I would trade my left arm for.

And although the article did give hope to those suffering from Celiac, the excitement I should have felt was short lived. This “miracle” was accomplished by apparently creating a small wound and applying a band-aid to that area filled with worm larvae. That’s correct, the option (and mind you the ONLY option I’ve heard of) available to those of us braving this Celiac territory is to fill your body with worms.

Just let that sink in…

I’m still letting it sink in actually… this may take a while...

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Why Me

This past week was a good reset button for me. Albeit, I hadn’t intended to push it just yet! After traveling to Tampa, FL for work I had planned to visit my parents for dinner and then head further South for another work trip. By the time I arrived to their house however, I was a heavy footed, bleary eye “patient”, struggling to make it to the couch. By the next morning my mom was driving me to the emergency care center nearby.

Given that my system is in a state of constant inflammation, be it acute (Celiac = stomach distress) or delayed (Dermatitis Herpetiformis = skin distress), it comes as no surprise that a simple cold bug infected my chest in record time, leading to difficulty breathing. I went from sounding human to sounding like a raspy goose overnight!

The frustration as I lay comatose on the coach for the next two days was palpable. I was already struggling with painful stomach cramps and blistering skin rashes daily,hourly even. Now this…

My parents continued to take excellent care of me, which I was exceedingly thankful for. And my work was supportive, calling to check in and make sure I was still alive (and coming back!).

But it was when I returned home that I asked “why me” and not in the way you might think. As I sorted through the stack of mail that had piled up while I was gone, I noticed a card. It was unexpected, as most personal mail is these days, and from an employee of mine. I read through the note where she shared she was praying for me, how she knew we were only given challenges we could overcome and how much she admired that no matter what I always had a smile on my face, even when it cracked skin to do so. It made me think.

If I was given this challenge, I wanted to rise to the occasion. I wanted to overcome it and be the positive force she thought she saw. Why do we go through something if not to help others? I couldn’t make it most days without the support groups online that chatted with each other, shared their experiences and encouraged each other. And I definitely couldn’t make it without the bloggers sharing recipes and restaurants willing to risk liability to create some tasty options for those of use stuck in the celiac boat. Most days I feel like I could do without my doctors since they seem to be limited in their knowledge, but truth be told, even they give me some comfort.

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So, with that mindset I went through the next few days eager to see the challenge ahead of me. How could I help someone else? What could I learn? Why was I given this disease? I know everyone suffers from something, and everyone has a story. But don’t stop at asking “why me” with sadness or despair, take some time to ask “why me” with a focus on the positive. You may never know who is watching you go through your journey. But it doesn’t mean your life and your strength is going unnoticed. So, go ahead and ask, why YOU?

Lips Like Mine

The hardest part about this celiac and DH journey is that you never really know when you might be on the receiving end of a tiny trace of gluten. Did someone in the house have a sandwich and forget to wipe up? Did a waiter accidentally set your plate down for a second while grabbing a loaf of bread for another table, somehow dropping crumbs onto your meal?

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How can you ever stop all the chaos of gluten particles from entering your world?!?! The truth is, unless you want to live alone as a hermit (which I have considered!), you can't!

So, the best alternative is to find humor in the inevitable whenever possible. One such opportunity came when I woke up and discovered my lips had blistered again, this time swelling massively at the same time. I had literally turned into Daffy Duck! If EVER a reason, this was the best reason to call in sick! You can't really imagine what you might look like with a botched Botox job but now I will never have to!

And I got this, for FREE

This is Dermatitis Herpetiformes folks. You don't choose it (and never would), it chooses you...

Extreme Makeover, Part 2!

The hardest part about throwing away everything in your bathroom is the realization that you bought a lot of products along the way that have never seen the light of day. It quickly became obvious that I had made at least a couple dozen product purchases that were completely wasted. As excited as I must have been on their respective purchased dates, they sat in the dark under my sink, completely undisturbed from that day on. I blame T. J. Maxx! 

Regardless, my mom and I began the arduous process of sorting through each and every one toiletry, be it an old favorite or still sealed. 

There were three categories.

1. Clearly identifiable as gluten free on the packaging or through a quick Google search.

2. Clearly NOT gluten free, and

3. Possibly Gluten free AND a favorite product. Meaning at the end of my detox trial, adding them in one at a time might be worth it. There were very few products left in category three...

By the end of the process I had a large pile of products to give away, a fair amount to trash and a few I packaged up to check in on in a month or two. Bonus, I had a VERY clean bathroom.  

In the midst of this Celiac journey, I've realized a couple of things. Priorities really come into focus when they involve your health. Something so easily taken for granted until it's no longer there. I had tried to clean my bathroom out from this mountain of products for years. I knew I wasn't using them all! But at the time they each seemed so important. And I hoarded them accordingly. This time however, I threw that crap away like it was diseased itself. And the next morning when I pulled out my new products, just a few, I used every one. In fact, I enjoyed using every one! There was a genuine satisfaction in the simplicity.  

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The following day an email from Ulta arrived. I was now a "Platinum" member  (I guess that's what a $700 purchase gets you!). But instead of running out to use my new $33 in points, I hit delete on the email. I had everything I needed for now. And I was happy with that. 

 

 

 

Extreme Makeover, part 1!

Have you ever stopped by your local make-up store and picked up a couple fun new items to try? I have! Except instead of a FEW items, I decided to restock every beauty and toiletry product I had.

Why the insanity? Because after weeks of dealing with the constant pain of DH on my face, the embarrassment of looking like my skin was constantly falling off and the final humiliation of my CEO asking if I had "kissed a blowfish", I was willing to try anything.

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Medically, the solution is not to change makeup and shampoos. "Gluten is not absorbed through skin", you'll hear from well intentioned doctors. But practically, shampoo and makeup can accidentally find its way into your mouth when washing your face or hair for example. And after numerous accounts from online blogs and Facebook pages with people saying it helped, why not? I was preparing for a detox diet and  detoxing my products seemed like a logical part of the deal!

So one late Saturday afternoon, my boyfriend and I strolled into Ulta. He carried around a shoulder shopping bag while I started perusing products. Soon we had an army of employees helping us, everyone pulling out their phones to google innocuous ingredients in between squinting at the tiny ingredients list on each product label.

$700 (yes, that's $700 U. S. dollars and no, Ulta does not take promises, Monopoly money or tears as forms of payment)... and three hours later, I was poor AND ready to go home and purge my old product demons.... But that's another story.... 

Firebirds ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

It didn’t take long to fall in love with a new restaurant in the Mills area of Orlando. Firebirds stands out as you drive past it, boasting a modern brick design and large outdoor patio. With my good friend in town from San Diego, I decided to give it a try, hoping it would be up to the “foodie” standards of California.

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When you walk in, the high ceilings, impressive bar (with items organized by color along the back wall) and bright pops of orange throughout make you feel like you’ve stepped into a place designed with every detail in mind. My friend and I chose a high top table with bright pillows and a nearby built in fireplace. From start to finish, we were catered to by a friendly and knowledgeable staff (one of whom shared tips from his training), “Never say no to a customer”.

The separate menu full of gluten free options was amazing. I decided to start with a fruity mojito (it was happy hour after all), which definitely made it to the top ten list of best drinks I’ve ever had. And for dinner, I chose a strawberry shrimp salad and side of mashed potatoes. This would be a great time to share a picture with you, but it looked so fantastic I dove right in and was NOT disappointed. If I had to find any negative, I’d say the salad was a little heavy on the dressing, but the taste was so delicious it would be hard to fault having a little extra.

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So, if you like good food, a friendly staff, amazing drinks or just sitting down in a relaxing and beautiful atmosphere, Firebirds is the place to be. You’ll probably see me there, right next to the fireplace. If not, that’s ok… more for me!

Two steps back... maybe

Like my ability to swear off sweets, my iron infusions were short lived. I had been told a couple would be required to get my iron levels to normal. Unfortunately, after the reactions I experienced, albeit not as bad as they could have been, the doctor said she didn't feel comfortable giving me another dose. Walking through T.J. Maxx, holding my cell phone in one hand and a cute spring dress in another, I leaned in to push the red cart with my elbow and make sure I was hearing properly. "But I don't understand. Isn't it more important that I get the iron? I can go through the side effects again". My pleas were not successful as the nurse on the other end explained, "I'm sorry but if you react at all the first time, the reaction next time would be much more severe. We just can't risk it."

My shoulders dropped and suddenly the dress didn't seem near as cute as it had just minutes earlier. "So what happens next?" There were a few seconds of silence followed by a quiet response, "We'll figure it out next time you come in."

"Figuring it out", didn't seem to be anyone's speciality in my Celiac journey. But I soon realized hope was not completely lost... yet. Out to dinner a few days later, I went to fill up my cup with water. Pushing the plastic cup into the water spout, I paused. I had filled up my cup without ice. I lowered the cup to the grate and stepped back, awestruck. In the last year or more my standard routine had been to fill any cup I have to the brim with ice and douse it with whatever liquid could trickle down around the squares of frozen water.

 

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Pica, as it's known, can cause extreme cravings for chewing ice (among other strange items) and is common among people who are anemic. Which I am! Or was perhaps? It may have been a fluke but in the midst of more frustrating unknowns, I smiled. Anyone at the little hole-in-the-wall Greek restaurant that night probably questioned the sanity of the woman who stopped to contemplate her life in front of the soda machine. But that's ok with me, I had found a reason to hope that the one iron transfusion I received would make a difference.

It will be weeks before I know for sure, but in the meantime my teeth may, I'm praying, seemingly be in for a break!

Iron Woman!

A team of doctors has been trying to determine the source of my low iron for years. Iron supplements were too hard on my stomach and until being diagnosed with Celiac, it was always a bigger concern to determine the "why" rather than replenish the "what". 

It was after my level dropped to a five (the hematologist said 50 is what they want to see....hmmm just a tad off), that I was told I needed to begin "iron infusions".

 INTERESTING!!!!

I immediately went to Google! Although there were a ton of medical commentaries, they varied so much I soon was more concerned and less informed than I had hoped. I decided to give up reading others experience and just wait for my own. 

The morning of, I checked into the outpatient cancer ward (which apparently is where they give infusions) around 2pm and took a seat in the lobby, waiting for the call to go back. I'd been told there was a relatively new product that would be infused in around 15 to 20 minutes instead of the alternative, which was a four hour drip! Within twenty minutes or so, a friendly nurse called my name and I followed her (since running away would now be quite obvious). She helped me get settled in a comfy recliner and brought me a thin blanket while I signed forms acknowledging the pages and pages of risks. A half dozen humans were lounging in chairs around me, hooked up to i.v.'s and in varying states of health. The woman closest to me had thinning hair and alternated between hiding under her blanket and sleeping with headphones. It made me realize something very important.

What I was about to endure was going to be ok. It had been easy to focus on all the pain, the hunger, the general frustration of Celiac and fear of this new procedure until I entered that room full of cases seemingly much more life threatening than mine. Don't get me wrong, Celiac can be dangerous if you don't adjust your life, my doctor had been very clear about that. But cancer is a whole different animal and my reality paled in comparison.

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The infusion itself consisted of an i.v. - first a saline drip, then a bag of steroids to assist with reactions, then the iron, more flushing with saline and finally an observation period. Start to finish, around three hours. And I did have some reactions for about 48-72 hours including headaches, stomach pain and severe flushing accompanied by hot flashes. It wasn't a picnic. But at the end of that period, things slowly subsided. I still had skin problems and headaches and stomach frustrations. I still have Celiac after all. But just like when I looked around that room and saw the group of patients next to me, I found a way to be grateful.

 

And Now We Wait...

After the spots started duplicating in rapid succession, my gastroenterologist decided I should visit a dermatologist to confirm exactly what was going on. He suspected DH (celiac's dermatitis herpetiformis) but a biopsy would confirm. Fortunately, after only a little pleading they scheduled me the same day. 

I was really over sitting in doctors offices and by the time they called me back, I felt bad for "Ruth", my sweet usher through the office maze. I tried to smile and be happy to rattle off my "medical history" but it was obvious spending time with her wasn't top on my priority list. I was even less thrilled twenty minutes later when the doctor finally came in. 

She thought this was just a follicle rash, brought on by shaving or something but "A-Ha!" I hadn't shaved in days! Now, before you judge, I have fine blonde hair and after a week, I still can't visually identify whether or not I have grown anything successfully. Shaving is more of a cultural habit than necessity. I have to pencil in my eyebrows in for heavens sake!

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She could tell I was hoping for an answer rather than a guess and offered to do a biopsy as what seemed to be a peace offering, most likely out of pity. Unfortunately for her, I don't mind pity! I would take it!

It will be two weeks before I hear back and in the meantime, I wait. Not patiently mind you. And not happy to have only a wash and cream to soothe my itching and achy legs, but nevertheless, I went for twenty plus years without being diagnosed with Celiac so two more weeks won't kill me. I hope.