The Cathedral of Belief

I have a GI bleed. This isn’t new or surprising, I have had bleeds off and on for years. But this is worse. Worse enough that I called to ask at what point I should go to the hospital. After some back and forth, we decided I could stay home as long as it wasn’t enough blood loss to significantly drop my BP or to alarm me personally. So home is where I am.

After approximately 4,679 phone calls and emails, a scope was scheduled for me for this week. Similarly, I have previously had 4,679 scopes. I am a frequent user of hyperbole but I honestly can no longer remember how many scopes I have had. I have had several flexible sigmoidoscopies, several full colonoscopies, a few proctoscopies, several endoscopies and the very rare and elusive colonoscopies via stoma. It’s like my own demented version of Pokemon Go except they don’t happen outside and I have to drink two bottles of what smells like lemon Pledge and I never wanted to catch them all and it’s all bullshit.

Despite the general terribleness of my GI tract, which is, as a general rule, quite terrible, things are improving. I’m not sleeping all day. I am getting back into a rhythm of sleeping at night. My cousin found me a protein shake mix that I can drink safely and which tastes good instead of the least bad. I’m not bruising everywhere and haven’t had blistering hives for a while. I have gained back a few pounds which is a good sign.

I also finally feel like I have my mind back. For me, it has never felt that my actions were what anchored me to my place in the world. It is my thoughts that ground me. We are never more wholly ourselves than when we are in the labyrinth of our own thoughts. We are what we think because what we think turns into what we believe.

Belief is a powerful thing. Maybe the most powerful. It is that ether that makes us more than our bodies and that holds us together when those bodies fail us. Believing strongly in a choice you make confers upon you the ability to make the most of that choice. The power of the words swirling around your mind cast a magic upon it that makes that path stronger and you stronger for being on it. It makes it easier to be grateful and to be happy.

I struggle a lot with my personal outlook and how I portray my life to others. Specifically, I struggle with being happy and what that means for me. I am happy, often. But there’s a guilt there, that I know my experience is sometimes dissected and applied to other rare disease patients for whom this may not be their reality. I don’t want people to think this life is easy just because I’m happy. And there’s an anger there too, that I shouldn’t be happy when I am frequently so sick and my friends are so sick or the existence of rare disease patients is so very precarious. There is a sharp side to this happiness.

What if I had chosen this life? What if I had somehow chosen to have these diseases and the broken elegance of this struggling body and everything else that came with it? Would believing in that choice have given me the strength to feel happy without this internal conflict?

I didn’t choose this life. But recognizing that it is still a good life is a choice, too. A powerful one. Maybe the most powerful.

Beta blockers and epinephrine

Beta blockers (often styled β-blockers) are medications used primarily for their impact on blood pressure and heart rhythm. Given their low cost and relative safety, beta blockers are very commonly prescribed for a number of other conditions as well, including anxiety. They work by blocking beta adrenergic receptors found throughout the body and specifically interfere with the action of norepinephrine and epinephrine.

The use of beta blockers in patients with risk of anaphylaxis requires some special consideration. This is because beta blockers directly block many of the places where epinephrine works to mitigate anaphylaxis. This means that using epinephrine to treat the anaphylaxis may be ineffective. This particular topic has been heavily researched and has not always yielded uniform findings.

The largest and most robust study included over 5000 patients with a history of systemic allergic reactions. This study found that patient use of beta blockers increased the risk of severe anaphylaxis. Use of ACE inhibitors, another drug class that impacts blood pressure, also increased the risk of severe anaphylaxis but to a smaller extent.

However, the risk of severe anaphylaxis was most increased in patients who took both beta blockers and ACE inhibitors together. Both beta blockers and ACE inhibitors were found to both decrease the threshold for mast cell activation and to prime mast cells (make them more easily activated).

Ongoing treatment with beta blockers has been found to be a risk factor for fatal anaphylaxis in some studies. It has also been found to be a risk factor for biphasic anaphylaxis, a type of anaphylaxis in which you have a second anaphylactic episode in the hours that follow successfully treated anaphylaxis.

Patients who must take beta blockers may be given a glucagon autoinjector for use prior to using injectable epinephrine. The reason for this is glucagon is the antidote to beta blocker overdose. When epinephrine binds to the beta receptor, it results in the cells making a molecule called cAMP. cAMP is a very important molecule for cells and it sends signals within the cell to regulate bodily processes. When a patient takes beta blockers, epinephrine can’t tell the cell to make cAMP. Glucagon is able to tell the cell to make cAMP even if the beta receptor is blocked. This action effectively counteracts the beta blocker.

Mast cell patients are usually recommended to use other medications to manage blood pressure and arrhythmias, including calcium channel blockers or renin inhibitors.

 

References:

Simons FER, et al. (2015) 2015 update of the evidence base: World Allergy Organization anaphylaxis guidelines. World Allergy Organization Journal, 8(32).

Nassiri M, et al. (2015) Ramipril and metoprolol intake aggravate human and murine anaphylaxis: evidence for direct mast cell priming. J Allergy Clin Immunol, 135: 491-499.

Shephard G. (2006) Treatment of poisoning caused by β-adrenergic and calcium-channel blockers. American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy, 63(19): 1828-1835.

Tole J, Lieberman P. (2007) Biphasic anaphylaxis: review of incidence, clinical predictors, and observation recommendations. Immunol Allergy Clin N Am, 27(2): 309-326.

Kolch UW, et al. (2016) Cardiovascular symptoms in patients with systemic mast cell activation disease. Translation Research, x: 1-10.

Reitter M, et al. (2014) Fatal anaphylaxis with neuromuscular blocking agents: a risk factor and management analysis. Allergy, 69: 954-959.

More; or, Yzzy’s story

I can understand most things if you can drop it into a living system. If a body can do it, I can imagine it. But there is this thing about the inner dynamics of the human organism: that the more you study it, the less obvious causality is. There is no one way to arrive at an end point. There are dozens.

The body is clever. It is redundant. It learns. If it wants to, the body will find a way.

Mast cell disease is largely a consequence of this fact. Every patient has encountered this. If you treat a symptom with a med, it will crop back up a few months later. If you arrest mast cell production, your body finds a way to circumvent it. If you get stable at a certain dosage, you eventually need higher doses to achieve the same effect.

I think about the intricacies of my body and my diseases almost constantly. Every time my body does some new mysterious and irritating thing, I run through the various possible causes. I try to determine which pathways I have blocked and which can still be used to injure me. The body is cunning. It has many tools at its disposal that can be weaponized toward a singular goal.

But there is a flip side to this ingenuity: we are more than just our bodies.

I first met Yssabelle Eddlemon when she was airlifted to Boston from Oklahoma right before Christmas a few years ago. I had spoken with her mother both online and on the phone prior to meeting her. Yzzy and I had a lot in common. We both had major colon involvement, frequent anaphylaxis, persistent anemia, ports, an ever dwindling list of safe foods, and a short supply of treatment options not yet tried. But she also had mastocytosis in her skin, major liver involvement, and such severe airborne reactions that she mostly lived wearing a mask. And she was five years old.

I became friends with Yzzy’s mother in the way that you do when your lives are miserable in similar ways. I became more involved in Yzzy’s care in the way that you do when you don’t want a kid’s life to be miserable in the same way yours is. I spent a lot of time reviewing her labs and pathology reports and learning about her. She became one of my little people.

She was seen by a ton of doctors, all of whom agreed she was very sick but didn’t know what to do about it. Her implanted port remained used for months after it was placed because no one wanted to be responsible for it. She was in and out of the hospital with anaphylaxis that closed her throat in seconds on a weekly basis. It was a struggle to keep her alive.

Eventually, Yzzy was able to get into a pediatric mast cell specialist in California. Things changed a lot, in a good way. Her meds were revised significantly. IV meds were prescribed to help manage anaphylaxis. The difficult decision to completely remove oral nutrition paid off.

After a few months on TPN (nutrition given completely by IV), she stabilized a lot. A scope done before starting TPN showed that she had confluent sheeting of mast cells in her colon – literally wall to wall mast cells in her colon tissue, so many that they couldn’t be counted. After a year on TPN, her colon biopsy was normal. For the first time, Yzzy was stable enough to go to school for half days while her mom stayed close by. She made friends and loved school. Her quality of life improved dramatically.

Then something happened that I did not expect: she started having these bizarre episodes of crazy high fever and hemolysis. The first few times, we thought it might be her central line so it was treated as an infection. But it kept happening and it became pretty obvious that this was not an infection. There are so many ways for the body to arrive at a sudden fever. No one could figure out the cause, including me. There were too many possibilities and not enough evidence to justify any one of them.

Patients with central lines are advised to go to the emergency department if their fever is over 100.5F. Yzzy’s fevers were sometimes over 105F. She would be brought in only to be sent home in the morning with no treatment and no explanation. She was also deteriorating in other ways. She had to stop going to school. Bizarre symptoms and bloodwork abnormalities piled up.

All said, she was brought into the ED 22 times over the span of several months before anyone figured out what was going on. Last fall, Yzzy was diagnosed with another rare blood disorder: hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis. Her immune system was eating her blood cells.

Things happened fast after she was diagnosed. She had suffered significant damage because HLH had been untreated for so long. They initially tried biologics and high dose steroids but the episodes continued. Then they started chemo. It was around this time that we started to grasp the eventuality of the situation. HLH can be fatal. Treatment was slowing it down but it wasn’t stopping the attacks enough to protect her life. She was going to need a transplant.

The weeks after the decision to proceed with transplant were tense and grim. She was frail and the chemo was making it worse. She lost all her hair. She swelled badly from the chemo and steroids. She had a recurring upper GI bleed. She was admitted most of the time. Managing both her systemic mastocytosis and HLH was complicated. Coordinating care across specialities was difficult and frustrating.

Yzzy had a rare stroke of good luck then, one so good that I actually cried: the search for bone marrow donors turned up three possibilities, two of them a perfect match. The transplant was scheduled for just after Christmas. She was discharged so she could spend some time at home before being admitted for several weeks for the transplant.

In early January, Yzzy underwent a brutal course of induction chemo. She developed major clotting issues and severe anemia. A second central line had been placed and was constantly problematic. She was miserable. But she made it through. And on January 12, she had the transplant.

Bone marrow transplants are dicey for the simplest patients. Yzzy is not simple. The risk for serious complications and death were significant. But it was the only option to manage her aggressive HLH. There was also a silver lining, a big one. If the transplant worked, it could cure not just the HLH, but her mast cell disease.

It is impossible to overstate how much we expected a disaster. But there wasn’t one. The transplant went perfectly. In under a week, we started seeing signs that her the transplant was making blood cells for her. In under a month, the transplant had engrafted and replaced her old bone marrow. She stopped having mast cell reactions. She was weaned off her continuous benadryl drip. She started taking oral meds instead of IV. She started trialing things for oral feeds. Her TPN infusion time was decreased. For the first time in years, she was not attached to an IV line 24 hours a day. And her HLH was long gone.

Yzzy has never known a life when her body wasn’t trying to kill her. She’s not old enough. Her body has damaged her organs, caused seizures, and repeatedly sent her into shock. For seven years, Yzzy’s body found ways to work around every treatment, every medication, every change that was made to keep her safe.

But we are more than our bodies. When her team discusses her care plan with her parents outside the door to her hospital room, she plays video games. When she isn’t strong enough to walk around, her parents drive her around to catch pokemon. When she is puking constantly, she plans the menu for a day when she can eat. This is her life and she just lives around it.

Yesterday, fifty days after her transplant, Yzzy went home. She joined a Girl Scout troop and is aggressively selling cookies online. She is making plans for her birthday party in May. She is happy to be home and reunited with her little brother. She is having Nerf gun fights. She is strong enough to run around and can laugh without risking anaphylaxis. This is the dream.

Yzzy is more than her body. And her body was no match for her.