Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Do You Have a Headache?

Think for a minute, do you have a headache?

Really focus. Any pressure, any sore spots?  That may seem like a silly question to ask you to think harder about.  But for seven years I dealt with almost daily headaches.  Seven years where that question was a reality where even on the good days, if I really thought about it, my headache was at least a 3 or 4 (on a pain scale of 1-10).  The good days were rare, so it was more common to walk around with head pain at a level of 6 or 7.

My neurologist blamed the headaches on three things: a Chiari malformation, problems with my neck, and migraines.  All three of those things are true; I do have those. But given that my headaches were often positional (improved when lying down) and also responsive to caffeine dosing, I kept asking about the possibility of a spontaneous cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) leak.  The possibility seemed so remote; my doctors were hesitant to follow that trail.

Through a chance reading of an MRI by an astute radiologist, we finally had some evidence that made the CSF leak theory plausible.  In August of 2011, through a painful thoracentesis to draw some fluid for testing, we got a definitive positive diagnosis of a CSF leak and I was referred to the chief of neurosurgery at UCSD for consultation (when you’re considered a high-risk, complicated patient, you get the top guy).  We decided on an epidural blood patch to resolve the leak and got on the schedule of UCSD’s blood patch expert.  In the meantime, I was at my lowest point. I had no energy, my head hurt constantly, I was dizzy, I felt like my brain was foggy, I was nauseated and motion sick just from normal life.  I stopped driving just to keep everyone else on the road safe.

In December, I went in for the procedure and left feeling hopeful. My energy levels were improving and I had headache relief! For 6 days it seemed like it was maybe going to work, but by the end of day 6 the familiar neck tightness was setting in, and by day 7 I had a headache.  

Attempt number one failed, but we had seen enough symptom relief to know we were on the right track.

In January, we took another run at the epidural blood patch procedure.  I was hopeful that this one would work because this time, we would increase the amount of blood used, deliver the patch across three levels instead of just one, and increase the amount of rest to see if that would help the patch hold in place. This tri-level approach unfortunately triggered a reaction in my nerves from T8 to T10, leading to extreme pain circling from my back to my chest/stomach.  I was given drugs and things settled down enough for me to be discharged to go home.

This was when things really got interesting.  

By the next morning I had an excruciating headache.  We called the doctor who was concerned that some blood had made its way up to the brain and he asked me to come back for a CT scan (blood around the brain = very bad).  Thankfully, the scan was clear and I was offered two options, admission for pain management or home with narcotics for pain management.  I chose going home, thinking that would be better.  This decision would soon reveal itself as a mistake as I woke up in the middle of the night with the worst headache of my life. I was dizzy, nauseated, and when I started throwing up my husband said it was time to head to the Emergency Room.  After ruling out a need for immediate surgical intervention, I was admitted to the hospital for pain management.  At first, I was on total bedrest. The doctors didn’t want me to move as they evaluated every angle to try and figure out what was happening.  I wasn’t too excited about moving either, because every movement increased my pain and usually made me throw up.  Over the next five days, several neurosurgeons on the team stopped by my room to weigh in with their opinion. 

Finally, the pain and nausea were under control with medication and the chief of neurosurgery stopped by to give his opinion.  He outlined a few possibilities and future treatment options, but with the pain under control, the best course of action was to simply go home to wait and see if the blood patch actually worked.

In the hospital, I was filled with regret that I had even tried to resolve the CSF leak.  Things were so much worse than they had ever been.  But now, a few months later, I am HEADACHE FREE.  They did it.  They actually patched the leak!  

Patching the leak, although awesome, hasn’t been completely rosy. But each day is a little better.  I still get migraines, my neck is still a mess and causes pain, and the resolution of the leak exposed the symptoms that come from Chiari malformation.  But now, tylenol usually takes a headache away completely.

The question I asked at the beginning is a question that I ask myself regularly.  After seven years of near-daily headaches, living without a headache is still so foreign.  At times, I'll have a rush of good feelings and when I pause to reflect on why, I realize it's because I don't have any head pain.  Being headache free is something that most people take for granted.  For most, headaches are the exception and not the rule. 10 years ago it didn't feel like a blessing to be headache free.  It just felt normal.

I think that's the way it is with our lives.  We can miss being aware of our blessings.  We live our normal lives not realizing how blessed we are just to be in it.  I'm not minimizing how hard daily life can be.  Jobs can be stressful, kids can be demanding, people can drive us crazy.  But my goal is to live my life aware of the blessings that seem so normal that I don't even realize they're blessings.  So ask yourself again, do you have a headache?  No? Then celebrate--because being headache free is a huge blessing.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Focusing on the Weeds

My sister, Diana was visiting in January and said "your garden looks so pretty."  I immediately said, "ugh, there are so many weeds but thanks."  A few weeks later I was sitting outside and I really looked at my garden.  It was beautiful.  We have jokingly called it our "gardening on a budget" project.  When we moved in, it was all ice plant and it was mostly dead.  The soil is rocky and full of clay.  It was so hard that there weren't even many weeds, nothing could grow there. So we ripped out all of the ice plant and started over.  I asked friends for starts and cuttings from their gardens and planted those.  (I also love to shop the garden section clearance at Lowes and Home Depot to see what plants I can rescue.  Then if they don't grow I'm only out a couple of bucks.)   Then we added gypsum and topsoil to soften up the clay.  Over the course of the last 6 years it has transformed into what it is now.   

It wouldn't win any landscape design awards.  But I love to sit outside and watch the birds and look at the flowers.  I love to walk out and see how my vegetables are growing.  I love that I have parsley, Greek and Mexican oregano, sage, thyme, rosemary and mint right outside my door to flavor my meals.  

As I sat outside, I reflected on my response to my sister.  It was a pretty good indicator of my naturally pessimistic bent.  The first thing I saw was the weeds.  I can do the same thing with my life.  When someone mentions how strong my faith is my first thought is about the ways that I'm faithless, the ways that I don't reflect Christ, or the areas where I need to grow.   Philippians 4:8 tells us to focus on whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, praiseworthy, and excellent.  4:9 goes on to say that the God who gives us peace will be with us when when we put what we've learned into practice.  

I think it's been pretty easy for me to just accept my natural bent.  When someone calls me a pessimist I argue that I'm not a pessimist, I'm a realist.  But do I honor God and the multitude of ways that he blesses me throughout the day by being a realist who sees all the negatives most clearly? As a realist can I change my natural bent to think about the real things that are lovely or admirable or any of the other qualities listed in Philippians 4:8 instead of the negative?  I think if it wasn't possible for everyone that it would just be listed as a suggestion for some people. Instead it's an exhortation, which means that it is advised or urged with a sense of earnestness or urgency.  Obviously, thinking on positive things is important to God.

It all comes down to my choices.  Every situation, every experience, can be viewed through either a positive or negative lens.   I want to be with the God who brings me peace, so I'm going to choose to think on things His way.

How about you?  What do you usually find yourself thinking/focusing on?  

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Never Enough

I'm part of the e-devotional team at my church.  Since I haven't posted anything on my blog for a while, I decided to follow my husband's example and post one of the devotionals I recently wrote.  If you want to listen to the message this was inspired by, go to EastLake Church and click on Invitation to a Second Chance Week 2 by Robert Flores.

Never Enough

Read: Galatians 6:4-5 (msg)

Reflect:  I went through a time when I felt like an accurate name for me would be “never enough.”  Everywhere I looked there were people who were more successful, attractive, healthier, better parents, less awkward…It carried over into my Christianity too.  I had friends who were super Christians in my eyes.  One had been on the mission field for several years and was eager for God to call them back (he did 4 years ago).  The other got up at 5 every morning to spend an hour in prayer before her family woke up.  They knew the bible and shared Christ with others better than I did, and I thought I needed to become more like them to please God. 
Pastor Robert reminded us that we can quit trying to be “good Christians” and we can stop comparing ourselves to others.  He emphasized that our right path and a healthy relationship with God has been designed by God especially for us.  It’s not going to look like anyone else’s because we aren’t exactly alike. 
God created each of us with a unique personality and giftings.  He knew us when he called us to follow him.  Whether we are spontaneous or methodical, introverted or extroverted; God has the perfect way to use our uniqueness.  My opinion of myself improved when I started asking God if he was pleased with me and what he wanted me to change instead of comparing myself to others. 

React:  Am I comparing myself instead of embracing the way God created me?  What is one way that I can embrace the unique path God has placed me on this week? 

Pray: God, help me to see myself through your eyes.  Help me to keep taking the baby steps you ask me to take as I walk the path you designed just for me.