The absence

My port is currently deaccessed. It has been accessed in the same place, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for three years. Except when the needle is changed weekly, or it is briefly deaccessed for another reason, like to go swimming, it is accessed all the time. I feel much safer with it accessed as it gives me ready IV access in case of bad reactions or anaphylaxis. As much as I do not like needing a port, I am very happy to have it. It makes me feel much safer and more secure.

Last weekend, I accidentally tore the needle out of the port. I already have a permanent hole in my skin from being constantly accessed and it made the hole bigger. I was able to get it accessed again safely but something will have to be done about my access site. I may need to get a temporary line placed so that I can deaccess my port for a few weeks and give my skin a chance to heal.

For now, I’m deaccessing for three hours three nights a week and slathering my site with MML (magic masto lotion – recipe at the bottom) to soothe the skin and the site. Meanwhile, I just finished doing yoga on my living room floor, and am sitting here, thinking about my port, the absence of the needle, and the other absences my disease has rendered me.

 

I didn’t immediately realize what was happening when I started losing my hearing. I imagine it is that way for many people. It was springtime and I was training to once again walk 60 miles in 3 days for a breast cancer fundraising event. I walked a lot, 8-10 miles at a whack, people watching and getting lost in my head, music loud in my ears. When I noticed that the music wasn’t as loud in my left ear, I assumed my headphones were broken. I bought new ones and shortly realized that I had the same problem. Because I am not overly bright, I bought new headphones AGAIN, only to discover that I was being targeted by a complex conspiracy to deprive my left ear of sound.

It was still a few days before I realized that all of these headphones worked fine and that it was my left ear that wasn’t. I could hear in my left ear but it was dampened. I was also beginning to have balance issues. I will never forget the moment when I understood that I couldn’t hear well on my left side and that there was no obvious explanation for it. I somehow just knew that this would not be something that could be readily fixed. I felt this wave of panic, electric and silent, hidden under the beat of my quickening pulse. Always there, waiting without a sound.

I was pretty terrified while I was losing my hearing. Over several months, I lost all the hearing in my left ear and most of the hearing in my right. I listened to music compulsively, constantly. I noticed the blank moments where there used to be notes. I noticed the empty spaces in words. It grew. This hollowness grew and swallowed all these pieces of the world where there used to be sound.

You learn to live around absence. It is an instinct to adapt to your environment. And even though my environment didn’t change, it changed for me. It was both terrifying and fascinating. The way I interacted with the world was fundamentally changed. I was present in a world full of absence.

As strange as it sounds, when I lost my hearing, I wasn’t terribly “sick”. Like I lost my hearing but my overall, day to day functionality was still very good. It was over the next couple of years that things took a serious turn. And you get sick, like properly sick, you lost things. It’s not always a lot at once but it is steady and unending. You lost friends. Opportunities. Money. Jobs. Dignity. A million little things and a lot of big ones.

One of the big losses for many of us with mast cell disease is food. I didn’t start really losing foods in a significant way until late 2013/early 2014. Things picked up speed and soon I was down to very few foods that I could keep down that wouldn’t trigger mast cell reactions or anaphylaxis. I have regained and lost a lot of foods in the last few years. This past winter was the worst patch in a while. I was mostly limited to liquids, and very few liquids, at that. I was still eating plain potato chips because without any other solids, I would wake up because of the hunger pains. I lost a ton of weight, a lot of muscle, and a whole lot of hope.

I started Xolair injections in late February. My expectations were pretty tempered but it was worth a shot. Within a week, I could keep down some solids. My stomach has become a lot of smaller and I still can’t eat a lot of food at once but I can eat again. I can eat things I haven’t eaten safely in years. I still react to certain foods but I don’t seem to react anymore to the process of eating.

I am very aware that I could lose solids again at any time. For now, I’m just trying to be present.
*Magic masto lotion (MML): a cream applied to the skin for hives, itchiness, eczema, really any type of mast cell skin irritation. It is made by mixing liquid cromolyn with whatever your safe cream or lotion is. Some of us have prescription liquid cromolyn ampules while other people making it using over the counter Nasal Crom. I put about 3 ml of cromolyn liquid in a plastic bag, squirt some cream in there, close the bag, mix it up, and then slather it on wherever I want. Always speak with your health provider before adjusting your treatment plan.

The Provider Primer Series: Relevance of mast cells in common health scenarios

 

Symptom Cough
Role of mast cells Several mast cell mediators contribute to airway inflammation and subsequent symptoms including cough:

•             Histamine promotes bronchoconstriction, excessive production of mucus, and airway edema.[i]

•             Prostaglandin D2 promotes bronchoconstriction, mucus production, and airway edema.[i]

•             Leukotrienes C4 and D4 and chymase also contribute to mucus production and airway edema.[i]

•             Tryptase promotes overall increased reactivity of the airway.[i]

Chronic airway inflammation, as in asthma, is sometimes associated with increased mast cell population in pulmonary tissues.[i]

Mast cells remain activated in inflamed airways.[i]

Impact of condition on mast cells Mast cell activation can occur as a result of the physical stimuli such as coughing[ii].

Pain can trigger mast cell activation[iii].

Notes regarding condition treatment Dextromethorphan can trigger mast cell degranulation[iv].

Codeine and derivatives can trigger mast cell degranulation[v].

Beta-2 adrenergic agonists, inhaled and oral steroids, and inhaled cromolyn are frequently used in mast cell patients[vi].

Notes regarding mast cell treatment Antihistamines, leukotriene receptor antagonists, and COX inhibitors are routinely taken by mast cell patients and can provide relief.[vii]

Racemic epinephrine can provide relief of pulmonary symptoms.[viii]

Special considerations for mast cell patients Chronic dry, unproductive cough sometimes occurs in mast cell patients.[ix]

Mast cell patients frequently have reactive airways.[ix]

Mast cells can produce and release prostaglandin E2, a mediator that participates in asthmatic inflammation and cough[x].

Prostaglandin E2 can also downregulate or promote mast cell degranulation via binding at prostaglandin E2 receptors on mast cell surface[x].

 

Symptom Sore throat
Role of mast cells Pain can trigger mast cell activation.[iii]
Impact of condition on mast cells Mast cell driven nasal congestion can result in postnasal drip can irritate the throat.[ix]

Mast cell irritation of the throat can present similarly to infection by Streptococcus spp. or other pathogen. Cultures should be taken to properly evaluate for infection.[ix]

Viral, bacterial and fungal infection will activate mast cells through toll like receptors and through perpetuated inflammatory signaling.[xiii]

Notes regarding condition treatment Acetaminophen is recommended for pain relief in mast cell patients.[iv]
Notes regarding mast cell treatment Antihistamines and COX inhibitors are routinely taken by mast cell patients and can provide relief.[vi]
Special considerations for mast cell patients Angioedema of the throat driven by mast cell disease is always a consideration in mast cell patients. If angioedema secondary to mast cell disease impinges upon airway, epinephrine and subsequent anaphylaxis treatments should be undertaken.[vii]

Oral allergy syndrome should be considered.[ix]

 

Symptom Rash
Role of mast cells Acute urticaria is usually driven by mast cell and basophil activation through IgE or non-IgE pathways.[xi]

Mast cell mediators histamine, leukotrienes and platelet activating factor contribute to itching.[xii]

Impact of condition on mast cells Viral, bacterial and fungal infection will activate mast cells via toll like receptors and perpetuated inflammatory signaling.[xiii]

Non-mast cell driven conditions causing skin rashes can irritate mast cells in the skin.[xii]

Pain can trigger mast cell activation.[iii]

Notes regarding condition treatment Some -azole antifungals can induce mast cell degranulation.[xiv]
Notes regarding mast cell treatment Antihistamines and steroids, topical or systemic, and topical cromolyn can provide relief.[xii]
Special considerations for mast cell patients Mediator release by activated mast cells can produce systemic symptoms.[x]

In patients with a history of mast cell disease, mastocytosis in the skin should be considered.

o             Cutaneous mastocytosis accounts for approximately 90% of mastocytosis cases.[xii]

o             Cutaneous mastocytosis lesions demonstrate Darier’s sign, a wheal and flare reaction to touch.[xii]

o             A skin biopsy is necessary to confirm a diagnosis of cutaneous mastocytosis.[xii]

o             Patients with adult onset cutaneous mast cell lesions are usually later found to have systemic mastocytosis.[xii]

 

Symptom Fever
Role of mast cells Mast cells can produce prostaglandin E2.[x]

Mast cells can produce and release several pyrogens, including IL-1α, IL-1β, IL-6, IL-8, TNF, interferon-α, interferon-β, and interferon-γ.[x]

Impact of condition on mast cells Prostaglandin E2 can also downregulate or promote mast cell degranulation via binding at prostaglandin E2 receptors on mast cell surface.[x]

Pain can trigger mast cell activation.[iii]

Viral, bacterial and fungal infection will activate mast cells via toll like receptors and perpetuated inflammatory signaling.[xiii]

Notes regarding condition treatment NSAIDS can trigger mast cell degranulation. Some mast cell patients are unable to take them.[xv]

Acetaminophen is generally recommended for use in mast cell patients.[iv]

Notes regarding mast cell treatment COX inhibitors are routinely taken by mast cell patients and may provide relief.[vi]
Special considerations for mast cell patients

 

Symptom Earache
Role of mast cells Mast cells are involved in the transmission of pain stimuli, including nerve pain.[iii]

Mast cells are involved in sensorineural hearing loss and tinnitus.[ix]

Impact of condition on mast cells Pain can trigger mast cell activation.[iii]

Viral, bacterial and fungal infection will activate mast cells via toll like receptors and perpetuated inflammatory signaling.[xiii]

Notes regarding condition treatment NSAIDS can trigger mast cell degranulation. Some mast cell patients are unable to take them.[xv]

Acetaminophen is generally recommended for use in mast cell patients.[iv]

Steroids (local and systemic) can stabilize mast cells.[vi]

Notes regarding mast cell treatment COX inhibitors are routinely taken by mast cell patients and may provide relief.[vi]

Antihistamines can provide relief for vestibular symptoms.[vi]

Special considerations for mast cell patients Hearing loss, tinnitus and hyperacusis sometimes occur in mast cell patients.[ix]

Sensorineural hearing loss of unknown origin has been documented in mast cell patients.[ix]

Some mast cell patients also have Ehlers Danlos Syndrome which can cause conductive hearing loss.[ix]

Mast cell disease can also cause auditory processing disorder.[ix]

Red ears are a common sign of mast cell activation. Sometimes, only one ear is affected.[ix]

 

Symptom Stomachache
Role of mast cells Mast cells are commonly found in the GI tract.[xvi]

Mast cell activation is involved in a number of GI conditions, including inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis and food allergies.[xvi]

Mast cell activation can cause chronic diarrhea, pseudoobstruction, obstruction, dysmotility, constipation, nausea, vomiting, and visceral GI pain.[xvi]

Impact of condition on mast cells GI inflammation can recruit mast cells to inflamed tissues.[xvi]

GI inflammation can trigger mast cell mediator release.[xvi]

Pain can trigger mast cell activation.[iii]

Viral, bacterial and fungal infection will activate mast cells via toll like receptors and perpetuated inflammatory signaling.[xiii]

Notes regarding condition treatment
Notes regarding mast cell treatment Histamine H2 blockers and PPIs are commonly taken by mast cell patients and can provide relief.[vi]
Special considerations for mast cell patients Mast cell patients can experience a wide array of severe GI symptoms with or without dense infiltration of GI tract by mast cells.[ix]

 

[i] Cruse G, Bradding P. (2016). Mast cells in airway diseases and interstitial lung disease. European Journal of Pharmacology 778, 125-138.

[ii] Zhang D, et al. (2012). Mast-cell degranulation induced by physical stimuli involves the activation of transient receptor-potential channel TRPV2. Physiol Res, 61(1):113-124.

[iii] Chatterjea D, Martinov T. (2015). Mast cells: versatile gatekeepers of pain. Mol Immunol, 63(1),38-44.

[iv] Dewachter P, et al. (2014). Perioperative management of patients with mastocytosis. Anesthesiology, 120, 753-759.

[v] Brockow K, Bonadonna P. (2012). Drug allergy in mast cell disease. Curr Opin Allergy Clin Immunol, 12, 354-360.

[vi] Molderings GJ, et al. (2016). Pharmacological treatment options for mast cell activation disease. Naunyn-Schmiedeberg’s Arch Pharmol, 389:671.

[vii] Molderings GJ, et al. Mast cell activation disease: a concise, practical guide to diagnostic workup and therapeutic options. J Hematol Oncol 2011; 4 (10).

[viii] Walsh P, et al. (2008). Comparison of nebulized epinephrine to albuterol in bronchiolitis. Acad Emerg Med, 15(4):305-313.

[ix] Afrin LB. (2013). Diagnosis, presentation and management of mast cell activation syndrome. Mast cells.

[x] Theoharides TC, et al. (2012). Mast cells and inflammation. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA) – Molecular Basis of Disease, 1822(1), 21-33.

[xi] Bernstein JA, et al. (2014). The diagnosis and management of acute and chronic urticaria: 2014 update. J Allergy Clin Immunol, 133(5):1270-1277.

[xii] Hartmann K, et al. (2016). Cutaneous manifestations in patients with mastocytosis: consensus report of the European Competence Network on Mastocytosis; the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology; and the European Academy of Allergology and Clinical Immunology. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 137(1):35-45.

[xiii] Sandig H, Bulfone-Paul S. (2012). TLR signaling in mast cells: common and unique features. Front Immunol, 3;185.

[xiv] Toyoguchi T, et al. (2000). Histamine release induced by antimicrobial agents and effects of antimicrobial agents on vancomycin-induced histamine release from rat peritoneal mast cells.  Pharm Pharmacol, 52(3), 327-331.

[xv] Grosman N. (2007). Comparison of the influence of NSAIDs with different COX-selectivity on histamine release from mast cells isolated from naïve and sensitized rats. International Immunopharmacology, 7(4), 532-540.

[xvi] Ramsay DB, et al. (2010). Mast cells in gastrointestinal disease. Gastroenterology & Hepatology, 6(12): 772-777.

 

The normal

In the spring of 2009, I realized I wasn’t hearing as well in my left ear. Shortly after that, I started having balance issues. Literally would just be walking and would tip over. I went back to see the same ENT and got a hearing test that confirmed that I had some hearing loss in my left ear. I was referred to a specialty hospital and diagnosed with Meniere’s Disease. They prescribed a blood pressure medication to decrease the pressure in my inner ear.

In September, I got another hearing test. My hearing loss was worse and now noticeable in both ears. I was rediagnosed with autoimmune inner ear disease which is a real thing but they very poorly understood. I tried several meds, including high dose steroids. By November, I was getting steroids injected into my eardrums and could no longer understand speech.

The panic was immediate and fierce. I obsessed over my hearing and what I could and couldn’t hear. The world became strange and threatening. I had never understood how much we use sound for. We use it to tell how far away things are. If they are moving. How fast they are moving. If someone is upset. How hot water is coming out of the tap. The size and structure of space.

The speed with which I stopped understanding speech was staggering. I had no idea how to function in the world with significant hearing loss. I didn’t know about video phones and deaf alarm clocks and doorbells that turn on a lamp when someone rings it. I didn’t know about hearing aids and cochlear implants and a million other things. And I didn’t know how to sign.

As soon as I realized my hearing was never coming back, I focused all my available energy on learning ASL. I learned a lot online and by watching ASL interpretations of music on Youtube. (Warning: A lot of resources labeled as ASL are not ASL. They are other sign languages or poor fabrications. ASL is not a signed code of English, it is actually not even based on English.) I learned about resources for late-deafened adults and groups to practice ASL. I made Deaf friends and learned about Deaf culture.

I got lucky and the injections preserved some hearing in my right ear. My left ear hears nothing. My hearing fluctuates in my right ear, mostly as a function of blood pressure. With normal blood pressure my hearing is not great, but it is much worse with higher blood pressure. This means that my hearing can change rapidly which is both disorienting for me and confusing for people around me. Fluctuating hearing loss is like a fast track to people think you’re making it up.

I had several hearing tests over the years and stopped getting them because I was accused of inventing my hearing loss due to its inconsistency. Less than a month before I was diagnosed with mast cell disease, a neurotologist told me I needed to see a psychiatrist because I was faking. I called her bluff and saw the psychiatrist.

Halfway through the appointment, he said, “I don’t know what you have but you have something. If you’re faking, you’re not doing it right. You’re working and adapting to the world around you.” He wrote a letter and no one ever questioned my hearing loss again. I haven’t had any more hearing tests and I never will. I will never try to get a hearing aid again.

A couple of weeks after that appointment, I was diagnosed with mast cell disease. Mast cells are involved in sensorineural hearing loss, mast cell disease is associated with auditory processing disorders and EDS is associated with conductive hearing loss. My hearing depends on reaction, blood pressure, medication, a million things. The reason it seemed so irregular was because it was. Like everything else that mast cell disease causes. It is less variable now that I am managing my mast cell disease.

It has been six years since I lost most of my hearing. It doesn’t affect my day to day life terribly anymore. There are sounds I haven’t heard in years and will likely never hear again. Music sounds different. Speech sounds different. I can lipread okay if I know what the context is and I can see the face of the person speaking. In the last few years, my hearing has stabilized enough that I can hear on the phone if there is no background noise. I don’t sign every day anymore so I’m not as fluid as I used to be, but my ASL is good enough to be understood and to understand. All my devices have long since been closed captioned. I sit in the corner in public places, my deaf ear to the wall. I sit at the end of the table during meetings so I can look at people when they talk. The white noise that surrounds me when background noise is high is no longer disorienting. It is just part of me.

Losing my hearing was the original wound. It was the first thing I lost that I never got back. Long before I was having pieces of me removed, I went to bed one night and woke up with hearing loss.

Last month, a nurse said to me, “I would have never known you have trouble hearing!” She exclaimed it, eyebrows high, like it was a compliment. It doesn’t feel like a compliment.

There are things about my life that I think I will never get over. I am having some really serious lower GI issues right now that were supposed to be alleviated by the last few surgeries. Just thinking about it is upsetting and scary. Like I can never accept these things as my normal. And if I can’t accept them, this fog of despair will just get closer and closer until it smothers me.

Six years ago, I was struggling to sign and understand speech. I thought I would never be able to accept having severe hearing loss as my normal.

But I did. I sing in ASL while I’m in the shower. This is my normal. I don’t know how yet but I’ll get over everything else. And then that will be my normal, too.

On losing my hearing

I have this philosophy about my illness, that I’m not my illness and I’m not my body.  It keeps me sane a lot of the time.  It is easier to see it as something separate from me, an antagonist.  It is easier to not feel complicit in all this.

I started feeling that way when I lost my hearing.  I lost it in 2009, and never got it back.  I have no hearing in my left ear, some in my right ear.  The hearing in my right ear fluctuates.  I stopped seeking technological interventions when I was accused in 2011 of Munchausen’s by a specialist and referred to a psychiatrist.  The psychiatrist agreed I did not have Munchausen’s.  I never tried to get a hearing aid again. 
A few short weeks after the appointment with the psychiatrist, I was diagnosed with mast cell disease.  “We’re not sure why, but a lot of people with this disease have trouble with their hearing,” the doctor agreed kindly.  I cried when he told me.  It felt so final.  A tiny part of me had always hoped that once I was diagnosed, the treatment would give me back my hearing.  But it didn’t, and it won’t.  I am Deaf.  I will be Deaf for the rest of my life.
It is impossible to describe how it felt to lose my hearing.  It was like slowly bleeding with no way to stop it.  There was panic and anxiety.  I couldn’t focus on anything else.  And then eventually, it stopped.  I was damaged, and I moved on. 
The thing about your hearing is that you use it for everything.  I had never even noticed.  Very early on in my Deaf life, I looked both ways and stepped into the street.  A friend pulled me out of the way just before a car hit me.  I had seen the car, but because I couldn’t hear it, my brain told me it wasn’t moving.  It was a jarring realization that I used my hearing to keep me safe, and now it was gone.  The whole world felt different.  It felt alien.
Losing my hearing represents the first time in my life that I couldn’t make my body work through force of will.  In 2009, I was having joint pain, tiredness, fevers, rashes.  I had a few inaccurate diagnoses.  In spite of that, I could still make my body do whatever I wanted, even it hurt.  I could overcome the pain.  I could not will myself to hear. 
It was also the first time I had to demand accommodations.  I had to tell people to look at me when they spoke.  I had to get an earpiece to talk on the phone.  I had to request interpreters for medical appointments.  It was my introduction to self-advocating, and that has served me better in my adult life than any other quality.  I am not afraid to fight. 
I have adapted over the years to the point that I barely notice my Deafness.  I can hear on the phone if it is quiet; I sign well enough to use a video phone.  I watch the tv closed captioned, use a vibrating alarm clock and a lamp turns on in my living room when you ring my doorbell.  Learning to function as a late-deafened adult was hard but not impossible. 
In many ways, my hearing loss is hard to talk about.  It is still a wound, one that comes raw with too much touching.  The entire experience affected me and changed me in ways I could never have expected.  It was a loss I felt more acutely than anything else that has been taken from me.  It was the point of no return, after which I would never recover the health I had previously had.  My life is divided into two epochs: before and after I lost my hearing. 
But I owe a lot to my hearing loss, I think.  It forced me to learn another language, to become a part of a culture I had known nothing about.  I have made friends I would never have made otherwise.  I found out who in my life really cared about me.  It made me think differently about my health.  It made me realize that deafness was not a disability, but an attribute, a facet of who I am.  It made me realize that I could still have the same life I had before, if I wanted to work for it.
I recently went on high dose steroids to treat my mast cell disease.  It was a treatment I had been given for my hearing loss, one that worked, but was discontinued due to terrible side effects.  I woke up in the middle of the night a few months ago, and I heard a strange noise.  It was sort of a soft ticking, a sound I didn’t recognize.  I turned on the light and tried to locate the source.  I eventually realized it was the fan.  It had been so long since I had heard one that I had forgotten what it sounded like.  It was like being visited by an old friend.  My dosage decreased and this brief glimpse of my old life vanished.  The blades spun silently now. 
My life isn’t better or worse for being able to hear a fan.  It is a reminder of both my damaged body and the ways I have learned to live with it.