The gift that keeps on giving!!

Many on long term oral prednisolone will be familiar with the saying that it is the gift that keeps on giving. It is the one medication that gives those who are taking it life but also results in many secondary conditions resulting due to the side effects and the prolonged side effects.

I have written before that I have a love hate relationship with oral steroids. My lungs need them but the rest of my body certainly does not. Recently I have felt that the prednisolone just keeps on hitting me in the face with one thing after another from destroying my adrenal gland meaning unless there is a miracle I will never get off steroids, my bones have been leached of all their goodness and now have osteoporosis, my pancreas is affected meaning I have constantly high blood sugar levels, I have had issues with my eyes as well but never to the extent I do now.

For a good number of years now I have had swollen optic nerves. This has not caused me too much bother other than some pretty bad headaches, these headaches have been getting worse and more often to the point a few weeks ago it floored me. I was in bed the entire day, feeling sick and being sick. I have not had a migraine before but thee headaches are what I imagine they are like.

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I went to my optician last October- I was early for my annual check but I kept getting blurred vision at night and the feeling of having a film over my eyes which no matter how much I rubbed them or put moisturising drops still did not ease the discomfort. At this appointment we discovered I was missing a large chunk of my peripheral vision. I did the visual field test a number of times but each time I kept missing a full 1/4 of the circle in my left eye. Obviously this is not normal so I was referred on to the eye hospital with the final consultant visit the other day. I have been having a variety of scans, tests and drops put in my eyes to try and establish what is going on and the appointment was going to be the reveal all and I was hoping it would be an easy fix and also (clutching at straws a little) it would be something other than an effect from the prednisolone.

Anyway I saw the consultant who needs to speak to another consultant because she doesn’t really know what it is that is wrong but there is something seriously wrong. This did not fill be with hope. You go to the consultant because they know these things and can tell you what is wrong but its more waiting for just now while she speaks to her colleague, she is also wanting me to have a head MRI so they can get a better view of things but Im not really sure how that will help them as I don’t think it will show them anything in more details than they already have but maybe it will.

The long and short of it is I have swollen optic nerves but also the outside of the optic nerve is being compressed so the middle of it is bulging out and there is fluid accumulating with it. They don’t know why or how. They are not convinced it is related to my brain as the headaches I get are not consistent with raised intercrainial pressure which is reassuring. So its back to the waiting game.

Coping with allergic reactions

I have written a lot about my allergies and how the affect me. Being allergic to salicylic acid is a nightmare. It is in everything from fruit and veg to toothpaste. I have been salicylate free for a good 10 or so years now. On days where my asthma is not too bad I can manage food that has a low level of salicylic acid in it but even then I still react a bit but just break out in hives, go bright red, itchy and get a really productive chest and upper airways. This is with 3 different anti histamines onboard, a H2 blocker and oral steroids. I hate to think what I would be like if I did not take all of that and had a reaction.

The physical impact of allergic reactions is not great and the left overs hang around for ages, the itching particularly and then the exhaustion which is not helped by the extra anti-histamines I have to take when I do have a reaction.

For me the effect an allergic reaction has on me mentally is fairly significant. For example today I had a reaction when having my lunch. I had a lovely morning down at Cramond with Ghillie followed by some formal obedience training for Ghillie. The afternoon was full with meetings at the university. I had a reaction at lunchtime which knocked me for 6. I tried to get on top of it quickly so I would be able to make it to the university for my meetings but it didn’t work. I had to cancel and bail out of them. This is the part of having an unpredictable condition that I find so hard to deal with and cant find a good way to deal with it.

My main concern that I think about is what others think. I know I shouldn’t worry about what others are thinking and today of all days I should not have worried especially as the meetings I was meant to be at were with researchers from AUKCAR who all know about allergic reactions. You see so much and hear so much about people who say they have allergies to things but they don’t, it might be an intolerance or something just doesn’t agree with them but it is not a real allergy. This worries me so much as salicylic acid is in so much and I think people must think I am a fussy eater. I also have heard so many times from people who say their friend or family has allergies but they still eat things so it gives this false sense of what an allergy actually is. I have this fear that people think I am a hypochondriac when I wont go near stuff etc.

I don’t really know what I am trying to say other than my salicylic acid allergy is really difficult for me to deal with and having to cancel things at the drop of a hat due to a reaction is so frustrating as there is nothing more I can do to keep them in check.

In this day and age I just wish people would understand what a true allergy is compared to what disagrees with them or is an intolerance etc. It seems like everyone has allergies particularly gluten just now. In restaurants every other person appears to be ordering things that are gluten free yet then tuck into the bread or when they don’t like the taste fo the gluten free option they switch and just have the normal food. If it was a real allergy you would not be doing that, you would be avoiding the food like the plague.

One day I am sure I will be able to get a better handle on things and manage them in a way that I can recover from them quickly so I am not having to cancel plans so often.

A take away I would like readers to think about is how the person who is having to cancel things feels. I never do it because I want to, I cancel because I have to.

Oral Steroids and Bone Health

Oral steroids like prednisolone come with a vast array of side effects. Some of these side effects can be very visible such as weight gain, or thinning skin but these are not the side effects to be worried about. It is the silent side effects that we don’t see that need to most attention and care. As well as steroid induced diabetes and high blood sugar levels one of the other potentially catastrophic side effects from prednisolone and other oral steroids is bone thinning and osteoporosis.

Over the many years of taking oral prednisolone I have gone from someone who really did not think about the side effects to being hit full force in the face.

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I have been prescribed bone protection for years. Calci-chew D3 Forte twice a day and then alendrotnic acid once a week. I have to be honest and until maybe 5 years ago I was not the most compliant at taking my bone protection. The calci-chew never bothered me and it was easy to take but it was the alendronate I used to always forget. I think it is because you only take it once a week and when you take it you must take it with a full glass of water, be sitting up and not take any other medication with it. Part of my morning routine I do on auto pilot which included taking my medication. I would just take it, and do my teeth etc without thinking. Often by the time I realised I was meant to take my alendronate I would be half way through my breakfast. I was not missing it on purpose but after several experiences of taking it after eating I was not going to do it again in a hurry.

A good consultant will make sure you get a DEXA scan regularly especially if you are on long term oral steroids. I had not had one at all until maybe 5 years ago when I was sent for one to check my bone health. The results were shocking. I had early stage osteoporosis with significant bone density loss. I was at this point not even 30 and had the bones of an old lady. I also knew at this point that my asthma was not likely to get much better and I would be on oral steroids for a good portion of my life so I needed to wake up and make an extra effort to take my alendronate. Which I did.

The one slightly daunting part of the whole thing was filling in the pre DEXA scan questionnaire particularly the bit about you diet where it asks how much milk you drink and how much daily you have. I had to count up the average amount of milk over a week and I was pretty shocked!!! But I guess when it comes to bone health the more calcium the better!!

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Now it is the anxious wait for the results to be processed and sent back to my consultant. No matter what the result is there is not much more I could have done. Since finding out I had the early stages of osteoporosis I have been religious in taking my bone protection medication which is all I can ask for.

I do wonder that is the reason I have osteoporosis now because I was started on bone protection late but also because once started I never really took it as thought I didnt need it as I was young and my bones would be ok. I can’t dwell on it now because it has happened and I cant change things. I can only now stop things from getting worse rather than hoping to cure my bones.

If anyone reading this is on oral steroids and not taking calcium supplements from your GP, Asthma Nurse or Asthma consultant then please ask for them. Steroids can have an awful effect on your bones. One friend is now wheelchair bound due to the adverse effects of steroids on her bones.

Never underestimate the power of the humble oral steroid. They do some wonderful things and as a result mean many are alive but they do have some side effects which can be equally as devastating as not taking the drug themselves in the first place.

The uniform that saves me, is it drowning me at the same time?

Since my attack at the end of November/ December I have really struggled mentally and physically. The initial recovery was good, my lung function returned to my normal fairly quickly and my energy stores were up, I was able to get about and get on with my daily routine without much limitation. Reducing steroids was a bit hairy but with the help of my consultant and asthma nurses we managed to keep on top of things although the reduction has only got as far as 30mg but hey its better than 60mg.

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I was confident this speed of return was due to the new treatment I am on but now I am not sure. I think a lot of it probably was at a basic level. The treatment helped me get back to my baseline to function quickly but Im not sure it got me to the baseline for work. I was excited to get back to work but I wonder now if it was too quick and the timing didn’t help. Looking back now despite reduced hours apart from the first week I was never able to get away on time because there were patients who needed to be seen and I was the only one about. I already arrive 30 mins early for work (this is my choice) because I have worked out that this is when there are the least number of people smoking outside the doors mainly due to breakfast and drug round on the wards! Many say that I can get the ward to see the patients etc but being a patient and having had this done to be it breaks the patient nurse relationship and you lose confidence in them so for me it is not an option.

But i now need to put my own health first. I keep going round in circles with it and I love my job and love working with the patients etc but then I get my body into such a state and I often don’t realise it until I am told. Last week I noticed patients commenting on how awful I looked and should I be in work, the people I was in the lift with would ask if I was ok because I was so wheezy, the finally after spending a weekend in bed and thinking I felt better I went into work to be sent home by one of the other charge nurses because I felt so awful and sounded it.

Part of living with a chronic illness is that you don’t often know how bad you are feeling until your on your knees. I know a lot of patients have said the same that they didnt realise how unwell they were until we got them on a treatment and it is once they are established on this that they really see how unwell they were. I think is how I feel that things just decline slowly and it takes a huge attack or event to stop the downward spiral and start getting better again.

Going back to the title of this post. I love putting on my uniform, I worked hard to be able to get it and then be able to keep wearing it. It is also the uniform the nurses who look after me wear as they get me back on my feet and my lungs working a bit better. But then I also wonder if my drive and love of work is also what is causing me to not get to my full potential of wellness. I am really torn with what I should be doing and need to stop and evaluate what is important to me and what is in my best interests.

I have an appointment with my consultant this afternoon where I am going to ask his opinion as I really cant continue as I am. I am back to the point of living to work and that is it. I love my job but need to have more to life than work.

I wish my lungs felt as good as these ones do!!!!

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It’s ok to not be ok.

This past week has been really tough. Asthma is one of those conditions that is on a spectrum. Going from those with the mildest of asthma to those with the most severe and life threatening asthma you get everyone across the board and you can not pick out the one person with mild and the one person with severe asthma. You can’t see asthma, sometimes you can hear it depending on how wheezy you are!!!

Recovery from this last hiccup has taken a lot longer than I ever anticipated. It was not the worst of attacks but equally was not the mildest either. I was only in hospital for a week yet it has taken me a good 3 weeks to get back on my feet and still Im not there yet.

I have been so fortunate this time to have the support of my consultant. When I say support I mean that should I have issues he has said so many times that I just need to call his secretary and she will get him to call me back or the resp reg on call to give me a call. Having that support is so reassuring to me it makes life that little bit easier. Also being seen in clinic every month (which is a faff but won’t be forever) and then on top of that I am at the ward once a month too for my mepolizumab injection with the asthma nurse specialists so if I have any issues I can ask them too.

As much support as there is they cannot speed up the recovery process and help with the everyday symptoms that just take time. The never ending fatigue that no matter how much you rest it just doesn’t go away (Thanks to prednisolone contributing to that), and no it doesn’t help by getting a good night sleep. It is a fatigue that is unlike no other- a fatigue that having a nap won’t fix, it is a feeling where your whole body feels double its weight, you are not tired and sleeping doesn’t help, but you just cant do anything. Until you have experienced it (which I hope you won’t) you have no idea what it is like. This is the really hard bit. Fatigue you cant see, and asthma you cant see.

Keeping your mind motivated is really hard when your body is preventing you from doing what you love. This is the challenge I keep facing. This time of year its all about Christmas, Christmas Parties, going out with friends, shopping and enjoying the festive period, but I feel like I am sitting watching the world go by and seeing photos of people enjoying themselves but I haven’t been able to join them. Just going to the shops to get the messages is hard enough leaving me exhausted.

One big thing that I am really finding hard and one friend who is also on biologic therapy said this can be a side effect is speed of recovery as well as joint and muscle weakness. Speed of recovery has been slow but as I keep trying to tell myself slow and steady wins the race- but truthfully its getting really wearing now. The other thing is the joint and muscles weakness. I always have some weakness after being in hospital as for most of it I am bed bound and not able to get up due to the inability to breath and also the number of IV lines I have which are often in my feet making walking a challenge. Building up slowly isn’t helping. The only way I can describe it is having DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) but having DOMS that won’t go away. Normally lasting 48 hours this has been 2 weeks now and my quads feel like they are ripping in half every time I go to sit down or stand up, occasionally jerking as I walk too, stairs are an interesting experience- thankfully I have a lift in my building so can avoid the stairs!!!

I am desperate to get back to work and my consultant knows this. I see him tomorrow to hopefully get the ok. I know it will be tough going back to work but I need something to mentally challenge me. I having been doing bits and pieces of research and evaluation of research conferences too. Evaluation forms I find are so hit or miss especially when there has been positive or negative things that you want to acknowledge etc- there is never the room and I end up putting a covering letter along with the form.

This whole recovery process and hospital admission this time has taught me a lot. The main thing I guess I have finally accepted is that it is ok to not be ok. It is ok to ask for help and admit when you are defeated. Over the years I have been made to see a psychologist to help me deal with life with severe asthma. You could say I was a bit resistant to it initially. I think it was the stigma I associated with it. I felt that if I was seeing a psychologist then something was wrong with me mentally and actually my problems were psychological rather than physical. I think I made this assumption because I was young (this was over 12 years ago) and at the time there was really not much openness about mental health and it really was stigmatised. In more recent years as my asthma has impacted my life in ways I never thought it would and prevented me doing more than I ever thought I have been so thankfully to have access to a psychologist  who I can see regularly and help deal with the restrictive aspects of living with such severe asthma. What I have found though is that I have focused so much on adapting life to cope with my asthma and the majority has been on pacing. I didn’t realise that a major area which we never worked on or spoke about was the severe life threatening attack that comes out the blue much like this last one was, and also the trauma after it. It has almost felt like a mild version of post traumatic stress because even at clinic last week I got this huge sense of fear when I saw those windows of the ICU again.

So tomorrow I have a variety of different appointments all at different hospitals. The morning I have the asthma nurse specialists for my mepolizumab injection and review with my consultant, then the eye pavilion to have tests done on my eye that has lost its peripheral vision and then over to the royal infirmary to see the psychologist and will go up to see work and discuss coming back.

I hope that getting back to work and routine will maybe improve the fatigue I have and give me a purpose to my day again.

The Verdict!!

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I have been fairly quiet recently mainly because I was terrified. I have had 3 doses of Mepolizumab and was due to attend clinic and see my consultant for the verdict and find out if I am staying on it or not.

The good news is that I am staying on it for now.

Clinic went well. I am so glad that I had that horrific hospital admission that made me decide to change consultant because it has been the best thing I have ever done. It has come with some issues but overall it has been one of the best things I have done.

I had lung function and FeNo both of which were marginally better but what I have noticed is that I am more stable overall. Recording my peak flow has been super helpful and I can identify what causes were when they dropped whereas before I had no idea and it was all over the place. I would love my peak flow to increase but I am happy for stability over gains (gains are unlikely due to the fibrosis in my lungs now).

The other difference this consultant has decided on is with regard to my steroids. Previously it has been a rush to get me down to the lowest dose possible and see how I go but that has always ended up badly and I spend more time on higher doses and it felt like I was on a rollercoaster all the time. Now, as much as we want to get me down to a reasonable dose and hopefully off prednisolone (wish me luck) we are acknowledging what has happened in the past and he kept me on 20mg which felt like ages (3 months) and then alternating 20mg and 15mg daily (2 months) and now I am to stay on 15mg until February March time and then we will readdress reducing it further.

So many people have asked me if I think the mepolizumab is helping. It is so hard to stay. I think it must be as I have been more stable but I worry that this is due to the prolonged prednisolone and super slow reduction but what I am hoping that it is a combination of both. I guess the time to tell what is doing what is if I get unwell (touch wood I don’t) and I can see how quickly I can respond to treatment and not need invasive treatment. I am aiming for this as know hospital is going to happen as my consultant has said this. He said he would have no worries about admitting me to hospital if either he or myself thought my asthma was not great.

We are also changing one of my inhalers. For the first time in as long as I can remember I had an outpatient clinic where my medications were reviewed and we looked at what I needed to keep taking and what could get binned. The only change he wants to make just now is removing the seretide inhaler and replacing it with Relvar a newer once daily preventer inhaler. He wants me to continue taking some extra fluticasone at night to tide me over as I still have quite significant dips in my breathing at night.

Im happy I now have a plan. Know roughly what is happening with my asthma and asthma care. Over the winter period I will be seen every 2 weeks. Monthly clinics with my consultant and then in-between I will be up with the asthma nurse specialists getting my injection and review there. Also should there be an issue I just have to call in.

The one thing out of all of this which I cannot let go of is why did it take throwing my toys out the pram and move consultants to be able to get in control of my asthma or have a plan to get control of it. I just want answers and I know I won’t get them but I am now trying the treatments I have been asking about for a good number of years. I know dwelling on it won’t help but when its your life that has been suffering it is hard.

Chronic Pain with Chronic Illness

I get my medication each week in a dosette box made up by my local pharmacist. I take so many medications that when I am not well I find it hard to work out what I have taken and what I still need to take. I now don’t need to think about what I take, I just pop them out the relevant space and swallow them down in one.

Today I noticed something though. There were 5 unopened pods from this last week. The 5 unopened pods were all my lunchtime doses of pain killers. I had not been aware of deliberately not taking them but because I was not aware of not taking them then that means I was not in pain and needing them.

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Chronic pain is one part of my health that I shunned for so long. I had always had this perception that I was weak because I was in pain and also was very aware that the Dr’s may think I was just attention seeking or drug seeking. I think I thought this because of the number of times I have seen and heard the conversations had when people come in to hospital with abdominal pain with no real cause and the suggestion of it being psychological or drug seeking.

For many years I lived with pain in my chest specifically the left side of my chest/lung. Part of me didnt want to acknowledge it and if I didnt then I would be ok but then it was harder and harder to function due to the pain I was experiencing. It was one hospital admission when I was in ICU and due to staffing I was being looked after by an ICU advanced nurse practitioner. I think her experience of being a nurse and seeing patients in pain she could tell what was real pain. I had not been asking for pain killers but she could see me wincing and struggling. It was only after she spoke to me about it that I finally admitted to the pain and feeling I had when I took a breath in, the pain was not nearly as bad when exhaling but felt like something rubbing and stabbing when I inhaled. It was from then I spoke up about it and we looked into what was causing the pain. From then I have reluctantly taken painkillers regularly.

Further investigation was done into the area of my chest where I had the worst pain. X-rays showed I had previously fractured some of the ribs- most likely occurring due to coughing and my slightly weaker bones but it didnt show anything major that would explain the sharp, rubbing pain I would get when breathing in but didnt hurt if you pressed on it. I had a CT scan which revealed why I was so sore. A lot of scarring in that part of my lung but also the pleura didnt look normal and the Dr thinks this is what is causing the pain and rubbing feeling. I have never really had a bad bout of pleurisy but the Dr said the way I was describing it the pain made them think it was pleuritic even though I didnt have the infection etc to go with it. I was told that the cause has most likely been due to the infection, trauma and recurrent asthma attacks over the years that have never really had much time to recover before the next thing hit.

Managing pain with a lung condition has really been a big struggle. Certain drugs are out of the question- non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are a total no no and I learnt the hard way when I decided to try ibuprofen gel on my skin but had a full allergic reaction to it (I thought it was just if I took the pills). The aim with pain control is to eliminate pain and allow everyday function which is what I tried to achieve but have never been able to do. To get optimal pain control meant side effects which often meant feeling dopey. I got onto a regime using co-codamol and nefopam which helped although during the week I would use a lower dose of co-codamol due to it making me feel like my head was in the clouds but this meant by the end of the day I was in so much pain. It would feel like the outside of my lung was on fire- no matter how gentle you were you when you took a breath in the pain was the same. To control this part I had oral morphine that I could take at night before doing nebulisers and physio. I went with this regime for a few years until I saw a Dr who decided I should be switched to prolonged release morphine rather than the nefopam, co-codamol and oromorph mix. I was reluctant about this as had a handle on what I was doing and although the pain was never gone it was far more bearable.

The Dr who thought outside the box was a consultant who I had not seen before but was a respiratory consultant. He asked me about the pain and what it felt like, and also what was important to me about everyday function and that if I could I didnt want to be taking painkillers you can get addicted to! I was only 30 at the time and was already taking more painkillers than I liked and it was a worry for the future if I did something that needed pain relief I had this image that they would think I was a junkie because would need a higher dose of painkiller than I should. The Dr said his main concern was getting the pain under control for me to function and be relatively pain free but I should not be on prolonged release morphine etc due to it suppressing your respiratory effort which I can afford to do. I was so happy to know I wouldn’t be taking the MST anymore but a little worried about what I was going to be taking as could not go back to the pain I once had.

The Dr suggested lidocaine patches to wear topically on my chest where it hurts to see if this helped the main as he felt there is most likely nerve involvement and the whole area is constantly irritated which is why it is always sore. He did joke that you cant rest your lungs like you can a sore leg to let it get better!!

So a new regime of painkillers started which was the lidocaine patch, co-codamol 4 times a day and then the oromorph for when my chest is really bad (they also use it for breathlessness to). Since starting on this regime I have been stunned at how the patch has worked. It doesn’t take the pain away totally and the Dr said this is good as it means it will let you know when to stop!!!

Most recently since moving to my new consultant and being kept on the higher dose of prednisolone the pain in my chest has been no where near as bad. Instead of going through 2 bottles of oromorph a month I don’t even use a whole one and as I noticed last week I have not been needing my lunchtime dose of painkiller either. I am so happy about this. I have always had at the back of my mind I want to get off all painkillers so having a week of less pain and not needing the painkillers is great. When I see my consultant next I am going to ask if we can maybe just drop down on the dose of painkiller with a view to stopping them and just having the patch and maybe the oromorph for emergencies!

The lidocaine patch has been life changing- I do not understand how it works really but it works so I don’t care. I try not to wear them at the weekend to have a break and just keep them for work and weekends when I have lacrosse or something.

With each day that goes by just now I am in no doubt that I made the right decision to move consultant. If I didnt I am pretty sure I would have been in hospital by now. Staying on 20mg of prednisolone has got me through a chest infection without needing to increase the dose just a few extra nebulisers and antibiotics. Obviously 20mg of prednisolone long term is not good but I am hoping that as the mepolizumab starts working I will notice the difference and we can reduce the prednisolone!!