The MastAttack 107: The Layperson’s Guide to Understanding Mast Cell Diseases, Part 18

I answered the 107 questions I have been asked most in the last four years. No jargon. No terminology. Just answers.

27. Can mast cell patients travel? Can they fly?
• This is very individual and dependent upon your personal health situation, your ability to manage bad reactions on your own, where you live and where you want to travel. I have been fortunate enough to be able to travel widely through exhaustive preparation.
• You should always talk to your care team when you are thinking about travel. You must have a detailed understanding about how to recognize when you are headed for trouble, what you should do if you get into trouble, and when you should pursue emergency care.
Always carry rescue medications, your emergency protocol on provider letterhead, and a sheet listing your diagnoses, daily meds, rescue meds, and any special precautions. List over the counter medications as well.
• Make sure that all of your medications are legal in the country you are traveling to. Importantly, diphenhydramine (Benadryl) is illegal in some countries.
Get a fit to fly letter detailing what medications you need to bring onboard with you on letterhead from your doctor.
Call the airline directly to describe your needs. If you need to use medical equipment during the flight, tell them when you call and have the model number/ serial number ready.
• Also notify the airline if you need them to refrigerate medication for you.
• If standing is a trigger, or you have difficulty lifting luggage or carrying your bags with you, ask for a wheelchair to meet you at check-in and take you through the gate. It is my experience that when bringing a lot of medications through experience, it is easier to do this when you are in a wheelchair being escorted by airport personnel.
Identify safe foods at your destination. Many countries do not allow you to bring food in from another country. However, you can often bring solid food through the security to have on the plane.
• I premedicate heavily and many other mast cell patients who regularly fly also find that helpful. Speak with your providers about what protocol works best for you.
• Flying is unbelievably dehydrating. Hydrate well in the days before flying, the day of the flight, and while flying.
• Keep in mind that if the flight crew is uncomfortable with you flying, they can refuse to let you onboard. Emphasize that it is safe for you to to fly and that you have a fit to fly letter. If you are not able to manage a bad reaction alone, please do not fly alone.

For more detailed reading, please visit these posts:

How to travel with mast cell disease

Achilles

When Achilles was an infant, his mother was told that he would die young.  She carried him to the River Styx, the dark water that separated Earth from the Underworld, and dipped him in its waters to make him impervious to harm.  Achilles grew up without fear of injury until a poison arrow landed in his heel, where his mother had held onto him many years before.  He died and became a warning – there is always a weakness, no matter how strong something seems.

I have an Achilles’ heel, and it is airports.

Since July 2014, I have travelled by plane to the following places: Seattle, Colorado, Orlando, Los Angeles, Hong Kong, Beijing, and Colorado again.  I talked to lots of people who are more intrepid travelers than I am and got their advice.  I talked to my doctors.  I got all the paperwork and all the notes. I organized everything and made sure I had enough meds, port supplies, ostomy supplies and safe foods in case we got diverted or delayed or cancelled.   I called the airline the day after booking tickets several weeks before travel.  They were always very courteous and attentive and assured me I would not have any trouble.

The problem happens at the airport.  Specifically, it happens at the check-in counter.  I always ask for a wheelchair to meet me at the counter because while I am certainly much more stable than I was a year ago, standing up, especially in one place, pulling heavy things, is not my strong suit.  So I get to the counter and identify myself and ask for the wheelchair.  Then, while we are waiting for the wheelchair to come, it happens.

They tell me I can’t bring on my two luggage containers of medical supplies and insist that they will make me gate check one, and also that my bag holding my infusion pump and medication WHICH IS ON AND ATTACHED TO MY BODY counts as my personal item and has to be stowed overhead.  So I can only take half of my medical supplies and the bag with a line pumping medication to my body has to go in an overhead bin that will close on the line.  And so it begins.

The last eight flights I have taken were with Popular American Airline That I’m Sure You Can Guess.  I like Popular American Airline for a few reasons: their seats are bigger, they understand that I have a legitimate need to have more space (to juggle IV meds), they eventually agree that it is impossible for me to stow my pump because it is attached to my body, and they have movies and Wifi.  I pay more to travel with Popular American Airline because once I am on the plane, I generally don’t have huge problems.  I expect to get questions, I expect for people to not know things, that’s fine.  But once we have a brief exchange, they agree that what I was told by their disability services people is accurate and I have a pleasant flight.

That is not the case with the people at the check-in counter.

I have been told many tales by the people at the check-in counter: that I cannot bring all of my necessary medical supplies onboard (which is not true); that I can only bring one medium sized piece of luggage with supplies; that I have to bring multiple small pieces of luggage with supplies; that I can bring one small piece of luggage and then the rest have to be in “compressible” bags; that I can bring one small piece of luggage and it has to meet the weight limit; that I can bring one small piece of luggage and it doesn’t have to meet the weight limit; and so on.  So I never really know what I’m going to get, and calling ahead of time never helps.  I get a different answer depending on who is behind the counter.  They eventually call a supervisor, and then the supervisor tells me whatever they happen to think, which is also inconsistent.  It’s always a nightmare, and for the last several flights, I have literally started crying within fifteen minutes of being at the airport.

No amount of preparation or education helps.  Popular American Airline will not give me a letter explaining what I can bring that I can show at the counter.  They cannot “keep notes about me” so that they have a copy of my fit to fly letter on file.  They will not put in writing that I can use the pump.  Best of all, everytime this happens, they send me an email that says that they are sorry that I did not have a good experience but that they “respectfully deny” that they violated any regulations.  I don’t call them everytime this happens because I know they don’t care.  They just automatically send me an email that is basically an enormous fuck you.

What I find really funny about this situation is that sometimes, the people at the check-in counter will tell me that the reason I can’t talk those supplies with me is because TSA won’t let me.  TSA is much maligned and I have to tell you that I have not had a bad experience with TSA since I started travelling again in July 2014.  They know what PICC lines, ostomies and ports are. They are courteous and efficient. I plan to get patted down and have my bags opened and my things and my person swabbed for explosives because these people are trying to make sure no one blows up airplanes and I am carrying large amounts of liquids, glass vials, syringes, needles, adhesives, medication bottles, an endless amount of pills, a clicking infusion pump, packets of cromolyn and a partridge in a pear tree (sung).  They are always very careful to be sure they don’t contaminate any of my line supplies or medications.  TSA is not the problem here.

So I get all excited to go on these trips and see people and do things and I premedicate and call and call and jump through all the hoops and then I get to the airport and within minutes, I am so frustrated that I am crying.  And then that’s it, I’m the girl who cries at the airport and you can never un-be that girl.  And it has gotten so bad that it makes me not want to travel.

In my heart, I have always been a traveler.  I have always wanted to get on airplanes and go places and see new things, even mundane things, even by myself.  Before I got sick, I would board planes with my iPod or Discman (I know, I’m dating myself here) and a small journal to write in.  I would write and listen to music while looking out the window.  I didn’t just like being in different places.  I actually loved the change of the environment, the little lights below at night, the reddening of the sky as the plane chased daylight.  I was a good traveler.

Being at the airport now is a reminder that my experience in the before matters very little.  It doesn’t matter that I used to be a good traveler, because now I’m just a crying woman who needs a wheelchair and wants to bring too much luggage onboard.  I have had some incredible, life changing victories in the last two years, but it has been hard won.  It takes such a toll on me, both physically and emotionally.

Last week, I went to visit one of my best friends in Colorado (hi, Priscilla!!!!).  I stayed for four days, which is pretty short for me, but I couldn’t take more time away from work right now.  We stayed over in Denver, hung out at her place in Summit County, went to Garden of the Gods and drove back to her place through mountain backroads.  I have been to Colorado ten times in the last nine years, and that drive home was the most stunningly beautiful landscape I have ever seen.  Purple mountains, blue skies, unblemished snow fields, no clouds.  So beautiful it feels like I am different for having seen it.

The day I flew home was one of the longest days of my adult life.  They right away started with you can’t take all this stuff on the plane, then there was a mechanical issue with the plane after we had boarded and we all had to get off and then they cancelled the flight.  One of the gate agents really put her ass into making sure I could get home that day and I got a seat on a direct flight with another airline that night.  By the time I got home, I was really in bad shape.  I literally couldn’t stand for more than a minute or so at a time.  Bad.

I want to be a traveler again like I used to be and my Achilles’ heel is airports and I’m so fucking sick of this shit.

 

How to travel with mast cell disease

My travel tips:

1. If you stopped traveling for health reasons, talk to your health providers when you want to start again. If you would receive emergency care at another hospital, it’s important to discuss exactly what that should look like.
2. Get fit to fly letters that detail what medications you need to carry onboard with you and emergency protocols on letterhead from your doctor. If possible, get multiple originals (with original signatures) rather than an original and copies. If traveling abroad, it is helpless to have them notarized.
3. Always carry rescue medications, emergency protocol and “Greatest Hits” sheet listing your diagnoses, daily meds, rescue meds, and any special precautions. You should do this everywhere, but it is especially important if you are traveling. If you take over the counter meds, they should be listed as well.
4. Make sure that it is legal to transport all of your medications to the destination. Some medications are illegal in certain countries, regardless of whether or not it is for your personal medical use. Of note, diphenhydramine (Benadryl) is illegal in some countries.
5. Find out if your medications are available at your destination. If they aren’t, identify an alternative.
6. Call the airline directly to describe your needs. Many airlines have seats with more space (bulkhead) that are preferentially given to people with medical issues so you have more room for meds/supplies. If you have need to use medical equipment during flight (like an infusion pump), tell them when you call and have the model number/serial number handy. Airlines will refrigerate medication for you if you tell them in advance.
7. If you are triggered by standing for long periods of time, lifting your carry-on, walking, etc, ask for a wheelchair to meet you at check-in and take you to the gate. In my experience, if you have a ton of meds/liquids with you, going through security is easier if are in a wheelchair.
8. Get to the airport early. I always go at least an hour before recommended. If you have made requests for assistance (like a wheelchair), you will not be able to check-in online.
9. Expect to have to tell your story at the check-in counter to at least one employee and their supervisor. Even with the notes added when you called the airline, you may still get push back when you check in. This most often occurs in the form of restrictions applying to your carry-on.
10. Remind them that you are allowed to bring extra luggage onboard if it contains medication/medical supplies. I infuse while flying so I have to wear a backpack at all times that holds the bag attached to my port line. Sometimes, they will count this backpack as one of my carry-on items and say I can only bring one more piece aboard. Again, you are allowed to bring extra luggage aboard if it contains medication.
11. Be reasonable with the extra luggage. Only bring aboard what you really need. When I flew to and from Hong Kong, I had a carry-on packed with all my meds in labeled containers, supplies to access/dress my port, and three days worth of IV bags and supplies to spike and remove air from IV bags. This would be enough that in an emergency where everything else was lost, I would have enough IV meds/supplies to fly home.
12. Pack medical supplies in hard shell luggage so that things don’t get crushed or broken.
13. Pack everything you need for the day in a separate bag and keep it in your purse. This is much easier than getting the luggage down in flight.
14. Bring safe foods. Do not expect to be able to eat on the airplane if you have severe food issues. You are allowed to bring some foods through security.
15. Expect that going through security will be time consuming. It will be. If you have medical implants/devices like central lines or ostomies, tell them before you go through the metal detector.
16. They will definitely pat you down, open your luggage and swab everything for explosives. Show them the letter stating that you need to bring these medications/supplies onboard.
17. When you arrive at the gate, ask at the counter to board early.
18. If you are sitting in the bulkhead row (no seats right in front of you) and you have an infusion pump/backpack, tell the flight attendant when you board. What happens next depends on the flight crew. Sometimes they will want you to switch seats for take off and landing since you can’t stow the backpack under the seat. Sometimes they will let you hold the backpack like a baby. Sometimes they will let you buckle it into the seat next to you.
19. If your pump will be on during take off and landing, if the flight attendant asks about it, tell them that you spoke to the airline previously and that it is medically necessary. It is safe for the pump to be on during take off and landing.
20. Hydrate like it is your job. Flying is seriously dehydrating and can really exacerbate GI motility issues.
21. I premed 24 hours and 1 hour before the flight with steroids, diphenhydramine, ranitidine and montelukast, just like for before surgery. I am most reactive during take off and landing, so I am careful to premed with enough time for the drug to be active during these times.
22. If my flight is longer than the window of these medications (3-4 hours), I medicate again an hour before landing. Please check with your doctor to determine what is the best medication protocol for you to provide additional coverage for flying.
23. I infuse IV fluids while flying as it helps stabilize my blood pressure.
24. I take extra diphenhydramine (Benadryl) for at least two days after flying. I also do a short taper to get down to my baseline steroid dose (I have adrenal insufficiency).
25. I take extra stool softener for a few days before flying and a few days after to avoid worsening GI issues from dehydration.
26. Call the hotel before you book to discuss options for food and cleaning supplies, and anything extra you may need, like a refrigerator or safe. If you will be eating primarily at the hotel, speak with the Food and Beverage manager to identify some safe options for you prior to arrival.
27. Plan around your need to sleep. Flying is very triggering and you will likely need a lot of sleep to recover. Plan some days (or at least parts of days) with empty blocks of time for you to nap and rest as needed. About 1/3 of the days I spent in Asia were spent sleeping or awake but in bed.
28. If I am traveling domestically, I often ship supplies/meds to my destination so I don’t have to worry about carrying everything/luggage getting lost. You can ship medication to yourself in the US as long as you are the end user. For example, when I visited my friend Christen, I sent a package to Lisa Klimas c/o Christen [Christen’s last name]. Having done this with multiple operators, my best experience has been with the USPS. They were half as expensive as UPS or FedEx and the only operator to deliver the package on time (I ship overnight because I have refrigerated meds).
29. Discuss with your doctor whether it is appropriate to bring antibiotics/antivirals with you on your trip in case you develop an infection.
30. Identify a hospital at your destination in case you have an emergency.
31. If possible, have a copy of your doctor’s letter translated into the local language.
32. Try to be patient. Some days I am just so tired of fighting about shit with airlines but if you can stay patient, the likelihood of things working out better increases. It’s one thing to let a sick person fly, it’s another thing to let a sick and hysterical person fly.
33. If the flight crew is uncomfortable with you flying, they can refuse to let you on the plane. This is where having a fit to fly letter is very important. Emphasize that it is safe for you to fly and that if you have a severe reaction, you are capable of managing it on your own. If you are NOT capable of managing a bad reaction alone, I urge you not to fly alone.
34. Wear a watch that displays local time at your place of departure so that your med schedule doesn’t get blown up. If the time difference is substantial, you may need to take an extra med dose in the first 24 hours to align your nighttime meds with your new nighttime and morning meds for your new morning. Check with your doctor on how to manage this.
35. Have fun! Enjoy your trip.

River stones

The day I was diagnosed, I left the hospital holding a piece of scrap paper with notes all over it. I occasionally come across it again while looking for reports in my massive collection of medical documentation. The paper is soft along the folds, but the ink is still bright. Words jotted down haphazardly surround a crude drawing of a mast cell heavy with granules. Words to explain my disease and its accompanied wreckage.

These words meant more than too many mast cells, too much activation. They meant the pain and stress of being sick. They meant all the things I had lost. They meant fear and loneliness. They meant desperation and need for validation. They meant that this was real and that meant that it wouldn’t go away. The words were arbitrary. They had no power on their own. They had power because of what they represented in my mind.

In the weeks that followed diagnosis, I said the words out loud when I was home alone. I turned them over in my mouth until the edges were smoothed, the jaggedness smoothed like a river stone.

I arrived in Beijing on Tuesday afternoon. It was cold and raw there, the kind that makes every movement feel heavy and dully painful. The city was overlaid with soft fog, fluffy and moist. It looked sleepy. Our wonderful tour guide apologized for the poor visibility but I liked it, this ethereal dressing. In fairy tales, that’s where magic happens.

On Thursday morning, we went to the Mutianyu portion of the Great Wall. We walked up to a cable car that delivered us into the heavy mountain fog. We made a short climb up slick stone steps to reach the wall, visible only in glimpses through this wet cover.

The shrouding was so complete that I could almost believe that if I stepped off the wall into the fog, I just might disappear. We were high above the world. We were in the sky.

There was a sharpness to walking through the mist in this place that had borne witness to eons of man. I can’t find the right words to express how it felt to walk along the Great Wall. If let down was a positive feeling, it might feel like that. I was awestruck by this experience. It could not have been more amazing for me. It feels like putting down something I carried for so long that my body began to accept it as its own. It is the knowledge that after so long, I will never again see the Great Wall for the first time because I already did.

I saw the Great Wall after years of doubting I would see it at all. I did this impossible thing. I wanted to cry tears laden with the salt of all the impossible things I had hoped for in that place where it seemed the very mountains were crying, too. Hope is the only way forward, but it can be so, so heavy.

Our tour guide explained the function of the Wall, its amazing length and structure. It was designed to prevent invaders from returning, watchtowers manned with sentries. It surprised me that the mountains themselves weren’t enough protection without the wall. I’m not sure that the wall was ever any better than the mountains alone. But the people believed it did and that made them better. Maybe it gave them hope.

A lot has changed since I was diagnosed. The words I smooth are different now. They are still painful. But if I think of the coolness of the stone, the feeling of another world encroaching, the realization that dreams come true, maybe when I say these words, they can mean that, too.

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Just before waking

For most of my life, I have seen things in that creeping inertia toward sleep. Figures made of vibrating inkiness would move towards me until I screamed and jumped in the moment before we touched. I would shake my head from side to side and rub my eyes like an incredulous cartoon character while my pounding heart slowed.

The shapes I saw never existed outside of that thin slip of time that bounded waking from sleep, but logic is not enough. It didn’t matter that I knew that these were hallucinations. The panic was real.

From the moment I decided to visit China, I was panicking. I fretted about bringing medications, transporting IV bags, getting medical notes, dealing with the airline, the weather. Everything was a variable I could not control. The mental invention I could muster to frame worst case scenarios was impressive. Every obstacle brought fresh waves of anxiety until I believed I may never get there. I worried and worried and worried.

By the day I was set to fly to China, my fear had reached fever pitch. What if the airline staff wouldn’t let me carry my supplies onboard? What if I need an epipen? What if my port clots off? What if I can’t reaccess my port? What if all my IV bags pop? What if I have a severe reaction during the sixteen hour flight?

I had actual nightmares that I would arrive in China to discover all of my medication bottles were empty. In the half slumber just before waking, vignettes of my illness destroying this trip paraded before my eyes.

Late on November 2, I went to Logan Airport with my new matching luggage and checked in for my flight to Hong Kong. As anticipated, there was some trouble with getting approval to bring my critical supplies and meds as my carry-on luggage. Lots of calling supervisors and discussions. At last, a supervisor walked over to us. In his hand was the printout summarizing my health conditions and necessary accommodations. I could bring this small piece of luggage onboard with me.

Things went much better from that point. A wheelchair was brought to transport me to the gate. TSA gave me no trouble. I boarded the plane first to get medicated and settled. A flight attendant came over, holding a copy of my medical approval form.

“It says you have ‘mas-to-cy-tro-sis’, this is right?” she asked warmly.

“Yes, that’s me,” I said, fighting with my infusion pump.

“This word does not mean anything to me. How can we help you during this flight?”

“I’m fine, I can handle everything myself.” And I was fine and I could handle everything myself. I manage my disease everyday. There was never anything to fear.

After we took off, I laid back and fell asleep for nine hours. I flew over the North Pole and landed in Hong Kong without any trouble.

I have been in Hong Kong for five days. I am very tired. I am very sore from the flight. I am reacting mildly. It is hot and hazy here, the air like droplets of lead weighing everything down. I can eat almost nothing that wasn’t prepared at the house and need to nap every afternoon on top of sleeping 10-12 hours a night.

But I am here. I made it to Asia. I have seen the Star Ferry and the Peak, the bustling central area and the sun blazing through the fog over the South China Sea.

The nightmare is not that I would be sick in China because I am sick and will always be sick and being in China won’t change that. The nightmare is that I would wait so long to be “healthy” that I would never experience the blinding joy of going to the other side of the world. The nightmare is that my disease would prevent me from living a life of wonder and meaning.

You don’t need a good reason to pursue your dreams. It doesn’t have to be logical or convenient. You don’t need a plan. You just need to decide that you want things to be different and believe that they can be.

In a season when it feels like I have lost so much, I can no longer be controlled by these nightmares. And even when I’m queasy and sore, I am happy in those quiet moments just before waking.

Great wall

I have always wanted to travel. From a young age, I was fascinated by language and traveling seemed an extension of that, places to hear foreign words and see strange alphabets. When I was 19, while sitting at my desk one night, it occurred to me that there was no reason I couldn’t just save up and go wherever I wanted to. I planned my first trip abroad and spent 26 days in Europe the following summer.

Traveling made me happy in a way that I have never been able to replicate in any other way. Over the next several years, I spent all my money on travel. I didn’t care if I ate the same thing every day or drove a junkbox. Nothing mattered to me like the joy of being in strange, faraway places. I started planning my magnum opus: a nine month trip around the world that took me through six continents. It was slated for January 2011.

In 2009, I lost a lot of my hearing. I spent all of the money I had saved for the trip on medical expenses, much in an effort to stop my rapid march towards deafness. I lost my hearing anyway. I haven’t travelled out of the US since 2010.

For a while, I went through the motions, even when I was clearly in no shape, financially or physically, to go anywhere. I bought guidebooks, priced flights and drew maps of places I hoped to visit. I printed out pictures of every country in the world and glued them to cardstock. I hung them in my apartment, passive encouragement that I would once again be strong enough to see some of them.

Then my health declined rapidly and I was in massive pain and puking constantly and unable to go to the bathroom. I stopped everything. I couldn’t fly anywhere anyway, so there was really no point. I couldn’t even think about it. I was so tired and the pain was so bad and I was scared. My illness was this huge wall around my life and I couldn’t even try to climb out. I could only hope not to be buried by it.

Last year, I decided that it was time to try again. I flew to Seattle with my best friend, emboldened by my ready IV access and growing restlessness. I took a few other domestic trips, Colorado, Florida, California. My health was mostly fine and when it wasn’t, I knew how to manage it with medication to stay safe. Every new trip gave me confidence that I could be independent in travel, provided I had a predetermined, safe place to stay and eat, and someone to help me if I got sick. The majority of my luggage was medication and medical supplies and I didn’t care.

In less than a month, I will be flying to Asia and fulfilling a lifelong dream of seeing the Great Wall of China. It has been logistically complicated, with medical notes and forms and notaries and translations and all the doctors. I will be taking a sixteen hour direct flight from Boston to Hong Kong, where I will spend some time with a dear friend before we travel to Beijing and then the Great Wall.

I feel it again. And even though I’m scared, I am happy.

Happiness is a kind of fighting. It is a way of saying that maybe today was miserable and so were a lot of yesterdays but maybe tomorrow will be different. It is the refusal to be subjugated by pain and fear and uncertainty. It is the memory of joy and the knowledge that even if you don’t believe it, you could again. It is the way memories catch light in your mind, a technicolor feeling that goes on forever. It is the only fight that matters.

Some things are best viewed not as they are, but in the light of a prior incarnation and the hope that it could reascend to this splendor once again. It took years, but I climbed out of the high walled prison of this disease and next month, on the other side of the world, I will put my hands on another Great Wall.

The other side of the sky

I am the type of person who experiences memory through music. I cannot always remember the vividness of color or feeling when revisiting in my mind, but one verse immerses me in the rich details of sense memories. Three right chords and I am reliving it.

A few days ago, as I was stepping into the shower, Wagon Wheel by Old Crow Medicine Show came on. Immediately, I was in Portland, Oregon last July. I was going for a walk well past midnight, my Epipens in my dress pocket, clanging against my thigh with each step. The air was still warm, humid, but not cloying; just sort of close in the way summer sometimes is. I signed along to the song in ASL as I walked, an old habit from when I was learning.

Driving across the bridge into Portland was the culmination of surviving years of surgeries and shocks and lost pieces of myself. I felt amazing there, filled with this lightness, but also sad around the edges. This disease is so unpredictable. I loved it there so much and I don’t know if I’ll ever get there again.

Last week, I scheduled an appointment with my colorectal surgeon for January to discuss the removal of the end of my GI tract. It no longer has any function and causes me a fair amount of grief. That same day, I booked my flights to Colorado. I was not feeling great emotionally because frankly I’m tired of surgeries and procedures but physically I have been feeling much better. I am sleeping at night and not vomiting every day and don’t feel like a zombie all the time. Anything better than normal feels like such an improvement.

In the next three months, I am planning to visit Florida, Minnesota, California and potentially Hong Kong. It’s a lot of travel for anyone, let alone someone like me. That’s the thing about feeling better – it gives you this artificial bravery to do things you normally wouldn’t. It makes you feel like you can do things you know you can’t. What if I could, though? What if I could do all things I think I can?

I had one of those cries in the shower that night, when Wagon Wheel came on, the kind with wrenching, full body sobs. It had been building all week. Every morning that week I woke up feeling okay and all day I waited for it to get worse. I was afraid of how bad it would feel when this good went away. I was afraid I would remember that I can’t do all these things I want to do, and I was afraid that I would be right.

When I have a really good day, I tell people that I feel like I could fly, like I could touch the sky if I wanted to. Feeling good after not for so long does strange things to your mind. It makes it feel like you can bend the limits of your reality.

Standing in the water, I had an image in my mind of me touching the sky only to have it break apart under my hand. And on the other side of the sky, there was this other place, with no limits, and it terrified me.

When I feel good, part of me is afraid of feeling bad again. But I think there is also a part that is afraid for another reason. I think part of me has no idea how to function outside of these confines my disease has built for me. I think if I was healthy tomorrow, I wouldn’t even remember how to live anymore.

 

Beautiful things I can’t have

I’m a Buffy fan girl.  I’m sure this surprises no one.  Strong characters, the supernatural and witty banter is basically a recipe to get me as a loyal fan.  I know all the words to the sing along episode and have been compared to Willow more times than I can count. 

There’s an episode in the fifth season where Xander and Anya go to look at an apartment.  She is upset because she doesn’t think they’ll get it.  Xander asks her what’s wrong and she says this:
“What’s going on with me is that my arm hurts… and I’m tired… and I don’t really feel like taking a tour of beautiful things I can’t have.” 
That’s how I feel right now.  I don’t really feel like looking at beautiful things I can’t have.
I have always identified as a traveler.  As a kid, I would take out language books from the library with the clear intention of learning the language for when I went there.  When I was 19, it occurred to me that if I saved up my money, I could go wherever I wanted.  I got some books and planned a trip and went to Europe. 
In 2007, when I was starting to get sick, I went backpacking in Scandinavia.  I went hiking and got really lost in this beautiful national park in Norway.  I got drunk on a ferry sailing between Estonia and Finland.  I felt tired and at the end, I felt sick, but I was mostly able to do everything I wanted to do.
In 2009, I bought tickets to Ireland and went for a quick four day trip with my boyfriend at the time.  I was exhausted and sick, but I was still able to go.  I needed a lot of sleep but otherwise it was fine.
I took a bunch of other trips.  In 2012, I went to Seattle and we all know how that went.  I came home to lots of serious news and slowly I stopped thinking of myself as a traveler because it hurt a lot.  I stopped reading my dozens of travel books and drawing maps and studying languages.  Doing those things felt like sticking my hand into an open wound.  It felt like trying to push through the looking glass only to find I was still in this strange facsimile of my life where I was sick and couldn’t do this thing that defined me.
In the last couple of weeks, I started feeling like maybe this was going to be possible again.  Maybe I could travel, if I had someone with me to help me.  Maybe I could plan trips again and look forward to them.  Maybe I could go to all these faraway places and feel this stillness in my soul that I only find when I’m away from home. 
I was supposed to go to Asia in the fall.  I was originally supposed to go in the spring but I was too sick.  So we decided to go in the fall.  We were going to fly through Dubai to Bangkok, spend a few days in Bangkok, take a private tour to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, go to an elephant preserve, spend a few days in Dubai on the way back.  I have been planning this for months, both the fun part and the not insignificant logistical shuffle of travelling out of the country with a ton of medication, medical supplies and large bags of IV solutions.  I was planning to book our airfare tomorrow.
But a few days ago I found that one of my best friends was stealing from me, and she was supposed to go to Asia with me.  She was supposed to help me to live this dream that has buried for years under the rubble of mast cell disease. 
I’m more upset about Asia than I am about the money.  Because I found out a couple of weeks ago that I could still travel, but only if I’m with someone who loves me and understands my disease and what to do in an emergency.  I cannot travel alone.  I wish I could, but I can’t deny that it’s too dangerous for me. 
The fallout of this woman stealing from me has been significant.  I have needed epinephrine and lots of IV meds and steroids, and even now as I type this, my skin is burning and my heart is racing and my insides are doing that cringe and shudder that means that with just a little push, I can be in trouble again.
When you have mast cell disease and people mistreat you, your choices are to move on quickly so as not to anaphylax or to get mad and risk ending up in the hospital.
It’s not as much of a choice as you might think.
If I fall down and scrape my leg, it is an emergency.
If I forget to take a single dose of any of my many medications, it is an emergency.
If I forget to put on the AC and fall asleep, it is an emergency.
If I get too mad, it is an emergency.
Around 4 this afternoon, I locked a syringe of 50 mg IV Benadryl into my PICC line and angrily uncapped my Epipen.  “I really hate that I’m so sick that I have to use epinephrine at home on a regular basis.  That makes me really mad,” I told my mother as I brought the tip down against the outside of my thigh.
There seems to be some confusion over whether or not what my “friend” did was wrong because she “tried to pay it.”  (I know, don’t get me started.)  So let me make it really clear.
I don’t care about the money.  If she had asked, I would have given it to her.  This is not about the money.
This is about everything else she took from me.
She took my right to feel like I can trust people to take care of me.
She took my right to feel like I can accept help without getting screwed.
She took a lot of my energy over the course of our friendship.  A lot. 
She took my safety because this was such a violation that I can’t help but feel angry and it is making living in this body even more dangerous than usual.
She took my ability to go on this trip.  She took my ability to feel like I can get this part of myself back. 
So disappointing.  I have never been more disappointed in a person in my entire life. 
And for the sake of being thorough, I want to deal with this: at least one person thinks that it’s okay that they knew about it and didn’t tell me because she wasn’t “being malicious.” (I don’t even know what that means.)
What she did is criminal.  Stealing is a crime.  Stealing from a very sick person is a more serious crime.  This is not the personal opinion of Lisa Klimas.  This is the opinion of the criminal code of the State of Massachusetts.  If you know someone is preying upon an ill person, and you do nothing, you are just as guilty.  You are not a “good person” who is getting “blamed by association.”  You are a loser.    
My friends are closing ranks around me.  I have received over a dozen offers to do my food shopping, all with the added promise that they will not steal from me.  They are making me laugh.  (Quote of the day:  “’How does one pay a credit card without the bill?’ ‘Oh, I just write credit card on cash and throw it out the window, does that not work?’”) They are reassuring me that they will not betray me.  They are reassuring me that they will take care of me and that they love me.   They are letting me know that they will support me however this plays out.
They are really angry that this happened to me.  Honestly, I am a little surprised at how angry they are.  But I get it.
I’m tired of looking at beautiful things that I can’t have. 
And they’re tired of watching me. 
So disappointing.

The danger of travelling

My life has gotten to be a lot of work in the last couple of years.  My chronic tendency toward dehydration via third spacing means that I’m at high risk for repeat bowel obstructions.  I anaphylax a lot, sometimes without a trigger.  I have a colostomy.  I am pretty much guaranteed to have a variety of medical supplies, syringes, IV meds, epipens and alcohol swabs on me at all times.  I finally have a reason to have a huge purse. 

I am good at advocating for myself and getting my needs met, in all venues of my life.  I knew that travelling would exercise those skills, but I honestly didn’t worry about it very much.  I am very, very familiar with FAA and TSA regulations and how they apply to someone travelling with a chronic illness/ medical device/ lots of medication.  The bottom line is that they are required to accommodate you provided you have the appropriate documentation.  Which I have.  In spades.
I called my airline last month and explained that I had mast cell disease and required several accommodations.  These accommodations included a wheelchair from ticketing to the gate, gate checking my larger suitcase (which also contained medical supplies), boarding early so that I could administer IV meds and set up my infusion, and that I needed to infuse for the duration of the flight.  The person I spoke with was extremely helpful.  She asked some questions about my infusion pump and the volumes and types of medications I would be bringing.  She asked that I bring a letter from my treating physician stating that these medications needed to be with me while travelling and that I needed to infuse for the duration of the flight.  No problem.
I arrived at Logan Airport and had a very painless experience.  They opened up all my bags and swabbed my hands and my meds for explosives. They patted me down.  They were very courteous and helpful.  When it came time to board, I was the first one on the plane and was happily infusing fluids when we took off.  It was really easy.
Then I arrived a week later for my return flight and it was a mess.   It made me really mad, especially in light of my previous positive experience.
The first problem was with gate checking my bag.  I explained to the agent that it had medical supplies and she tagged it appropriately and said it was all set.  Then another agent came up to me and told me that I couldn’t gate check my bag because it was too big.  I told her it contained medical supplies.  She argued with me.  After about two minutes, I told her again that it contained medical supplies.  “Oh, well you didn’t tell me that!” she exclaimed, rolling her eyes.  Whatever, lady.  Gate check my bag.
I got on the plane and pulled out my stuff to give IV meds.  A flight attendant came over and told me to put my backpack containing my infusion pump and meds under the seat.  I told her that I couldn’t because it was going to be attached to my body and I didn’t want there to be tension on the IV line.  I told her that I had spoken with the airline and that the infusion pump/meds are not considered luggage and can be with the passenger in their seat.  “The FAA isn’t going to let you do that,” she said.  I explained that I had infused on the flight from Boston to Seattle.  I offered her documentation and she talked over me.  “Well, you can let me know when you’re done and we’ll take off then,” she told me.  “It’s an eight hour infusion,” I told her.  She shrugged and walked away. 
A few minutes later she came back and told me that “the FAA sees things like this in black and white, and [I] can’t expect them to see things in grey because of people like [me.]”  I didn’t reply and she said, “I’m trying to be sensitive here.”  I do not think that word means what she thinks it means.
So I didn’t start infusing until I was flying.  This is important to the story.  When I started infusing, I noticed there were a lot of bubbles in the PICC line extension.  I realized that the extension was cracked and air was getting into the line.  This is very bad.  I stopped the infusion and had to trouble shoot the situation at 30,000 feet where I couldn’t just call my IV service and ask.  The fact that I couldn’t start infusing while on the ground turned a manageable situation into something very scary. 
While I was trying to identify the best course of action, the lady came over and asked if I felt okay.  I told her that I feel like I always feel.  “Do you need help?” she asked pointedly.  I just looked away.  Her behavior was making me mad, which was causing me to react while I was managing this situation.  I was really not amused.
I ended up disconnecting my extension and connecting the infusion directly to the PICC line without a clave to keep the end of my PICC line sterile.  This required some changing of hardware in the obviously less than sterile environment of an airplane.  I kept the clamps on the line and did not infuse fluids, which guarantees me a bowel obstruction in the next day or two, which guarantees me anaphylaxis.  I bought Wifi and messaged all of my PICC knowledgable friends because I didn’t know what else to do.
I’m now going to have to have a conversation with my doctor about this in the morning and the line will almost certainly be pulled and a new line put in because of infection concerns.  After I had to have IV meds administered to me by my friend (since I can’t access my PICC line without an extension), I put the cap directly on the line.  It is unusable until I get someone to come out to my apartment and fix it.  Thanks, airline lady!  I was so hoping to have more surgery this summer.  I also really enjoy having a line for emergency meds that I can’t use. 

The really unfortunate part of travelling while you’re sick is that it doesn’t matter if you know your rights if everyone else doesn’t know them too.  This woman’s behavior put me in danger.  It remains to be seen if I get a central line infection, but at the very least, she made it a serious possibility.  I am going to get a bowel obstruction because of this situation, which is massively painful and causes anaphylaxis.  This is unacceptable.  I don’t want this experience for anyone else. 

I am reaching out to the airline and hope they will do something about this.  I will keep you all posted.