If you have been reading my blog from the outset, or read my story in Christine Molloy’s book “Tales From the Dry Side: The Personal Stories Behind the Autoimmune Illness Sjogren’s Syndrome”, you might assume the best thing a doctor ever said to me was they definitely knew what was wrong with me.
Believe me, the day my first Rheumatologist told me I definitely had Sjogren’s I felt immense relief and a sense of calm. As memorable as that day was, the Rheumatologist’s words did not make my top three list. My top three are comprised of short sentences uttered by three different general practitioners, or family doctors, primary care physicians, or whatever word du jour they prefer these days.
Here they are in order not by significance, because I give all three equal weight, but in the order in which they occurred:
1. “It’s unfair you got sick.” My long-time doctor of twenty or so years said this to me at the first appointment I had with him after getting my diagnosis of Sjogren’s. I had to go tell him of the diagnosis myself, as he was not the one who had referred me to the Rheumatologist. He had insisted that I did not have Lupus or any other autoimmune connective tissue disease; hence he refused to test me. After a physiotherapist emphatically suggesting I be checked for Lupus, I went to a doctor at another clinic to describe my symptoms. It was this doctor who had never seen me before who sent me for blood work as he thought I should be checked for “Rheumatoid Arthritis and related diseases”. Blood work showing high Rheumatoid Factor (RF) is what led to a Rheumatologist referral, further testing, and ultimately a diagnosis.
When I told my usual doc of the Sjogren’s diagnosis, he said: “I am sorry”. I did not ask for further explanation. His face told me he truly was regretful. I assumed both for me having Sjogren’s, as well as because he did not pursue or make the diagnosis himself. Next he told me it was unfair I had become ill, as he knew I led a healthy lifestyle – eating right, not drinking or smoking, getting rest, exercising. Being raised Catholic, I am infused with guilt and self-blame when bad things happen. I needed to hear the doctor say it was unfair I got sick; it was not my fault. I needed to know I didn’t cause Sjogren’s because I should have eaten more carrots and less pizza, swam 64 laps a day instead of 32, and never miss church on Sunday. Sometimes “shit happens” no matter how healthy you were before, no matter what you did or didn’t do.
2. “You are courageous.” Not long after my Sjogren’s diagnosis my long-time doctor retired from general practice. I again returned to the other clinic to see the doctor who initially sent me to the Rheumatologist. Unfortunately, seven years after my Sjogren’s diagnosis I had blood labs that showed extremely elevated liver function tests. Without delay, the doc sent me to a Heptologist, who diagnosed me with Autoimmune Hepatitis. Yes, again another disease I, nor anyone else I knew, had ever heard of. Unlike Sjogren’s, AI Hep has a standard treatment protocol, but it too is incurable. Without treatment AI Hep is quickly progressive, advancing the liver from inflammation to fibrosis to cirrhosis then death. The standard treatment protocol begins with high dose Prednisone which is then tapered, but continued at a set dose for a full year, to be followed by Imuran, an immune-suppressant chemo class drug most commonly known as being given to kidney transplant patients to stave off organ rejection.
In my mind, there was no choice. I would do the treatment as prescribed. I wanted to live. The liver specialist was clear on the numerous negative effects the treatment could have on my health, how it could damage my body in other ways while helping my liver. Because of the dual personality of Prednisone, the good and the evil, I called it “my miracle poison”. At the time the specialist prescribed it, he did not inform me how difficult it is for many patients to wean off Prednisone entirely, but my local doctor did later. As I was tapering off Prednisone, while initiating Imuran at the same time, my doctor looked up from my file and told me I was courageous. Tears instantly filled my eyes. No one said that to me before; ever.
3. “It sucks balls.” More recently, in 2016, I spent several hours through the night hooked up to a cardiac monitor in the ER of our local hospital while having an episode of atrial fibrillation. Some people who have this do not even know it is occurring, especially the elderly and those with weakened hearts. I have had three episodes thus far; each one was sudden and beyond ignoring. Within seconds, my heart rate triples, blood pressure escalates, and my heart strongly pounds out of rhythm; you can see my shirt move as my heart flops in my chest. Prior to this episode I’d had another lasting from midnight to 8 a.m. when shift change came in successfully cardioverting my heart back into rhythm. It was done chemically via an IV infusion, but sometimes the paddles are used to shock a person’s heart getting the same result. During the 2016 episode they again tried cardioverting with the same drug that worked successfully the first time. I was not so lucky, I did not convert though my blood pressure and heart rate did diminish, they did not return to normal nor was my heart in normal rhythm.
The doctor who was in charge through the night decided I was going to be released with my heart still in a-fib. I was devastated to hear I would be taking oral medication to cardiovert, and sent home, my heart pounding out of rhythm for who knows how long. I was overwhelmed. I wondered… were not Sjogren’s, Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease (with symptoms of both Lupus + Dermatomyositis), and AI Hepatitis enough? The thought of having yet another complicated medical issue, especially after a night of no sleep and anxiety, was too much for me emotionally. As I sat propped up on the bed, alone in the room waiting for the nurse to remove my IV so I could leave, the doctor coming on for day shift came to my bedside. It was a young female doctor I had never met before. After introducing herself, she too explained I would be going home “as is”. Tears began to roll down my face. I told her I was crying because I was overwhelmed….having Sjogren’s, AI Hepatitis, and UCTD I thought I had “enough”; now I had to deal with a-fib too. She put her hand gently on my arm, looked into my tear filled eyes and said matter-of-factly: “It sucks balls.” I burst out laughing. Through more tears, I said: “Yes, it does.” What she said was unprofessional, immature, and entirely inappropriate; it was also perfect.