10 Ways That Living with a Chronic Illness is Like Training for the Olympics

Update 8/18/2016 – This article was featured on  TheMighty.com website on August 9, 2016, which is such a huge honor. Thank you all for your continued love and support.

If you’d like to read the shorter, edited version of this post on The Mighty’s Website, please visit https://themighty.com/2016/08/how-training-for-olympics-is-like-having-a-chronic-illness/


As a patient who has not only been diagnosed with multiple rare forms of chronic illness and as a former athlete that competed on the national level in swimming,  I feel that I offer a unique perspective as to how some aspects of day-to-day life are quite similar between the polar opposites of having a chronic illness and training to compete in the Olympics. Here are some of the

Top 10 Ways That Living with a Chronic Illness

is Like Training for the Olympics:

10. You’re friends and family don’t understand why you never hang out with them. 

Obviously, training for the Olympics requires a great deal of  time and dedication. In an effort to become one of the top athletes in the country,  sacrifices have to be made and one of the first things to go is generally your social life. Spending months at a time at training camps or traveling for competitions takes you away from your family and most days it was far too tiring to even think about going out and socializing with my friends, let alone actually doing it.

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Now that I have a chronic illness, there are days when I can barely walk to the bathroom by myself, let alone take a shower. I’m lucky if I make all of my scheduled doctor appointments or medical tests even though I have assistance in getting there since I can no longer drive. Having a social life on top of it – that’s honestly asking too much of myself. The majority of people can’t understand how truly difficult it is to do the basic things that many people take for granted, such as going to the grocery store or cooking dinner. When you become sick while still young, though, the discrepancies between living a so-called normal life and that of “the sick life” are far more dramatic in comparison. Friends just simply don’t have the capacity to comprehend why their formerly “fun friend” is suddenly stuck at home on the couch. As they say – you don’t really get it until you get it.

9. You’re always tired, regardless of how much you sleep. 

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When you’re working your body hard, either to make your Olympic dreams come true or to merely make it through the day, fatigue seems to have a tendency continually build up to the point where you don’t know what it’s like to NOT feel tired anymore. No matter how much you sleep – it could be 8 hours, 12 hours, or 2 hours – it all feels the same.

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Professional athletes are likely to suffer from a condition called Overtraining syndrome (OTS) if they work themselves too hard over a long period of time. As Kreher & Schwartz (2012) explain, “athletes train to increase performance. Performance increases are achieved through increased training loads. Increased loads are tolerated only through interspersed periods of rest and recovery—training periodization. Overreaching is considered an accumulation of training load that leads to performance decrements requiring days to weeks for recovery. Overreaching followed by appropriate rest can ultimately lead to performance increases. However, if overreaching is extreme and combined with an additional stressor, overtraining syndrome (OTS) may result. OTS may be caused by systemic inflammation and subsequent effects on the central nervous system, including depressed mood, central fatigue, and resultant neurohormonal changes” (p. 128). However, depending on the pathophysiology and etiology of the condition, a number of treatment options are available, including hormone therapy, cognitive or physical therapies, stress management, and prolonged periods of rest.

Prolonged fatigue in chronic illness generally comes from the medical condition itself but other factors that come along with  the illness can also influence a person’s physical, emotional, and social lifestyle in a way the creates additional fatigue as well. For example, sleep patterns can be affected by conditions like dysautonomia or autoimmune disease. While there are some strategies available for managing the fatigue that result from the various conditions of having a chronic illness or pain, once again it really just depends on the type of condition that is causing it. Delegating duties to friends or family members, practicing stress-reducing technique or and good sleep behaviors, and taking a lot of breaks throughout the day can help to a degree. In most cases, though, chronic feelings of fatigue cannot be cured or treated unless  the underlying condition is cured or goes into remission.

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8. You’re usually awake to see the sunrise.

Olympians often start training in the early hours of the morning, long before the rest of the world is even awake.

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Those with a chronic illness are often awake this early in the morning as well – mostly because they haven’t gone to bed yet due to high levels of pain or because they spent most of the evening lying on the bathroom floor.

7. You’ve become really good at hiding how you  really feel.

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In order to be seen as a “good sport”, athletes sometimes have to cover their disappointment in their performance by shaking the hands of their opponent.

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Those with chronic conditions tend to hide their illness by responding that they’re “fine” while they keep a smile on their face, even though they may feel like they’re dying on the inside.

6. It’s just like having a full-time job but without the weekly paycheck.

Potential Olympians train both day and night to achieve their dreams of competing in the Olympics. When I was in training, I’d have practice in the morning before school, strength and/or weight training immediately after school, and then practice again in the evening before I went home to do homework and rush off to bed. Also, I either went to practice or to a competition on both days of the weekend as well.

As a chronic illness patient, I spend most of my time calling doctors offices, faxing recordings, fighting insurance companies, researching treatment options, and recovering from various surgeries or treatments that are often difficult in and themselves. I also spend a lot of time going from one appointment to another, shuffling from one specialist to another, going through this medical test or that treatment plan, one hospital visit after another hospital – it’s exhausting.

5. You make plans way ahead of time.

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When you’re training for the Olympics, everything is planned months ahead of time – sometimes even years in advance. This includes everything from what competitions you’ll compete in and the travel plans to go to such events to the training schedule you follow throughout the year.

Making plans when you have a chronic illness also requires a lot of preparation. As a rule, I try not to commit to anything unless I absolutely have to. On those rare occasions that I do make plans to hang out with  friends or family, every detail is planned out way ahead of time and every potential or possibility needs to be accounted for. However, considering that most of my symptoms can change substantially in the blink of an eye, most efforts to plan anything are basically futile. More often than not, I have to cancel these plans at the last-minute anyways – leaving me to feel guilty or worthless because of my illness.

4. Proper nutrition and hydration are imperative to your ability to function.

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One of the most important elements of training for the Olympics is good nutrition. If you want to reach your peak performance, it’s import to follow a well-balanced diet. It’s  also important to stay hydrated both before and after practice so that you don’t become ill or injured simply by losing important nutrient and electrolytes from pushing your body passed its  physical limitations. According to an article in Men’s Fitness Magazine (2014), “for Olympic-level performance and off-the-chart energy, you must eat properly including eating a breakfast of complex carbohydrates and lean protein, then eat again every 3-4 hours and within 90 minutes of working out. Consume half your bodyweight in fluid ounces of pure water and if exercising intensely or for long duration, consume a sports-drink to replenish electrolytes” (para. 2).

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Similarly, some of my diagnosed conditions require extreme effort and dedication to dietary guidelines in order to thrive. For instance, my vascular surgeon identified that has malnutrition after years of not really eating due to a combination of pain and early satiety caused by a rare condition called Superior Mesenteric Artery Syndrome (or SMA Syndrome). In order to survive the life-saving surgery that I need in the upcoming months, I was sent to a dietician to bring up my nutritional blood screens so that I could have the surgery to fix the compression of my SMA, as well as the other three rare vascular compression syndromes I have as well, including Nutcracker Syndrome, May-Thurner Syndrome, and Pelvic Congestion Syndrome. However, because the third portion of my duodenum is being compressed by the SMA, food becomes obstructed as it tries to move into my small intestines.Therefore, the dietician had to be somewhat creative in prescribing a diet of foods that could move past the compression. Currently, my daily dietary regimen consists of:

  • Multiple “shots” of either a protein shake or Carnation Breakfast Essentials (I do “shots” because I can’t drink 8 to 16 oz a day in one or two sittings without getting sick).
  • 2 small jars of organic baby food – levels 1 and 2 only.
  • 1 pouch of pureed baby food
  • 2 tablespoons of peanut butter.
  • 2 high-calorie coffee drinks from Starbucks (to maintain/gain weight).
  • 1 yogurt packet.
  • As many pretzels, crackers, or chips I can handle.
  • Popsicle or Italian ice – only if I can manage it as well.

For another condition, Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (or POTS Syndrome), I require a high intake of  both water and electrolyte drinks (e.g., Pedialyte) to help increase blood volume and prevent dehydration, along with a high sodium (or salt) diet to keep my blood pressure  high enough so that I don’t faint multiple times in a single day .

All day long, all it feels like all I do is eat and count calories. One bite here, another sip there – it’s honestly exhausting! Especially when you spent years actively avoiding food since it was the source of so much pain.

3. You prepare yourself to be strong mentally.

In any form of competition, you have to be strong not only physically but mentally as well. According to an article by Sports Psychology Today (2011),”mental preparation helps athletes achieve a focused, confident and trusting mindset to help them compete at their highest level” (para. 2). While some athletes use meditation, others prefer to listen to music for motivation. I always preferred visualization when I was able to compete. As Handel (2012) explains, “in preparation for a game, athletes will run through different situations in their imagination as a kind of mental rehearsal. This way, when they are confronted with the situation in real-life, their mind is already primed to respond to the situation in an effective way…Contrary to common misconceptions, visualization is most effective when athletes focus on the process rather than the outcomes” (para. 11 and 13)

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Essentially, I use this very same strategy to manage life as a professional patient as well. After years of doctors telling me that my symptoms were caused by anxiety or depression, I mentally prepare for all appointment by preparing notes and deciding what I want to say ahead of time. Then I formulate counter-arguments based on current medical research to make sure that my concerns are taking seriously. Sometimes I need to prepare myself mentally before I gain enough courage to go ahead  with a certain medical test or an experimental treatment plan simply because it makes me nervous for whatever reason. There are some days that my symptoms can be so bad that mental preparation becomes necessary just to make it out of my bed.

2. You can handle high levels of pain like a champion.

For the most part, nearly every competitive sport out there involves feeling pain in some, way, shape, or form. For instance, pain and injury could result from overworking yourself during practice or you could suffer a really bad head injury during competition. Although I never personally got severely hurt in competitive swimming, aside from the ocassional ear infections and a pulled muscle or two, other sports I did over the years did result in extreme forms of pain and injury. In cheerleading, for example, I suffered from 6 concussions, a broken nose, a fractured jaw, and two broken ankles – all in the span of a single season. Even with broken bones, though, I still performed  because I was the captain and I didn’t want to let my squad down.As the old adage goes, no pain – no gain, right?

It is the same with chronic illness. Often we feel pressure to do things we know we shouldn’t do but we do anyways because we either feel guilty or think that it’s an expectation. Additionally, since we experience high levels of pain almost each and every day, we have learned to handle our pain much better than the average person. When I started receiving Botox injections for migraines, for instance, my neurologist commented about how I was her favorite patient because I didn’t even flinch once as she injected needles into various places across my face, forehead, and neck. I’ve also had nurses surprised that I would barely move when they would blow a vein during a catheter placements or the fact that I didn’t cry when I had a biopsy taken from my scalp without any form of sedation (not even a local), which was later cauterized with colloidal silver instead of the normal placement of sutures. Really, it’s not that you don’t feel the pain anymore – it’s just that you handle pain better now because you’ve dealt with it for so long.

1. There’s strong camaraderie between you and your team members/fellow spoonies.

When the entirety of your life is spent training and competing, often the only people you get to see regularly is your fellow team members. Basically, they become your new family since you spend every waking moment together and they understand what you’re going through.

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When you’re sick, it can be hard to relate to people who are healthy. We feel judged by others because of our illnesses and most people can’t understand what it’s like to be chronically ill. This includes the majority of  our closest friends, family members, and doctors as well. The only people who get it are other spoonies or warriors that have gone through what you’ve gone through, and therefore  understand where you’re coming from.The chronic illness community offers a lot of support to members because we all know what it’s like to be alone or afraid. We’re so tight-knit that we have developed our own language, laugh at our jokes, and establish rules that most outsiders are unlikely to be conscious of unless they’re given an explanation. Even then, it’s hard to understand because they have experienced as much as we have. In a way, it makes up for all that’s been lost to chronic illness. Like a secret society, but one that nobody chose to join by their own accord – it’s simply involuntary recruitment into this life.



References:

Edger, M. (2011). Five tips for mental preparation. Sports Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://www.sportpsychologytoday.com/youth-sports-psychology/five-components-of-mental-preparation/

Men’s Fitness Magazine (2014). Fitness Secrets of Olympic Athletes. Retrieved from http://www.mensfitness.com/training/pro-tips/fitness-secrets-of-olympic-athletes

Handel, S. (2012). The Emotion Machine. Retrieved from http://www.theemotionmachine.com/4-mental-exercises-olympic-athletes-use-to-gain-that-extra-edge

Kreher, J.B. & Schwartz, J.B. (2012). Overtraining Syndrome: A practical guide. Sports Health, 4(2), 128-138. doi:  10.1177/1941738111434406

A Very Merry Dysautonomic Birthday

Yesterday was my birthday.

I received so many birthday wishes, from both friends and family,

as well as some pretty amazing and thoughtful gifts.

The weather was even perfect today- sunny and warm.

I was able to even eat a cupcake, although it took me about 6 hours to finish it.

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There’s something very nostalgic about birthdays. I dunno what it is about this “special day” but it’s like somewhere inside of you says, “maybe now you should reevaluate your life because your older or wiser than you were [only] yesterday”. Am I honestly any wiser today? Even if I was, wouldn’t the same hold true then for every other day throughout the year and not just on the anniversary of our births? Still, I found myself last night looking back over my life over the years; about all that has come and all that has gone. Again, very bittersweet.

Birthdays were always such a big to-do when I was younger. As you get older, though, they just don’t mean the same as they once did. Add ongoing symptoms, new medications (again), and enlarged lymph nodes for seemingly no reason and it makes partying on your birthday nearly impossible. Plus, I’m tired. Plain and simple. T-I-R-E-D. Rest at this point is like an unexpected gift all on its own.

Obviously, I wasn’t up for much this year. In fact, I wasn’t up for anything last year either, although it felt more understandable – at least in my own head, anyway. I was just getting back to work after being on medical leave for a month, despite still being sick and undiagnosed at the time. I was still fighting insurance and undergoing nonstop medical testing. Yet, here I am – a year later, still is nearly the same position (sigh).

I can’t shake the feeling that there was supposed to be something more. That, somehow, this year was going to be different and 2016 was going to be MY year. I honestly felt guilty that I didn’t want to do anything for my birthday as weird as that sounds – like I was a disappointment because of it. I felt guilty that I didn’t want to do anything as if  I was a disappointing everyone by not doing something super-spectacular to celebrate this year.

“What did you do for your birthday today?”

“Oh, you know. I got to sleep in. That was nice. Then I ran a couple errands with my husband. I didn’t work on too much homework today. I tried not to focus on any healthcare stuff. You know, I really gave myself a break today. I even ate a cupcake – It really was a great day.”

“So, you didn’t do anything…?

It’s not like no one offered, of course. It’s just that doing nearly anything these days feels like a chore. My stomach always hurts, my hair keeps falling out, I can’t drive anywhere anymore, my lymph nodes are swollen, I can’t eat anything, and the new meds make me so dizzy and I’ve been having extreme vertigo in addition to the all the other “normal” (a.k.a. everyday) symptoms. Plus, I keep falling over. It’s embarassing. I have a nice bump on my forehead from “kissing” the wall the other night while trying to go up the stairs (I guess the wall wanted to wish me a happy birthday too!). Regardless, today was exactly what I needed and asked for this year. To me, it was the perfect birthday.

A very merry dysautonomic birthday, indeed.

Among a ton of really good gifts, I also received some dysautonomia gear that followed along with this year’s dysautonomia birthday theme, including the following:

Like I said, it really was a great day.

The good days are hard to come by lately,

so thank you to everyone who wished me a happy birthday.

Life After Venography

Recovery from the venogram was much worse than I expected. Originally, they told me I’d be in pain for the next 48 hours and then I’d be fine, but put me on restrictions for 7 days. I guess I didn’t realize how much you actually use your neck, as I could barely move at all for the entire week following. All I could do was sleep. The day after the procedure, I started coughing up blood, as well as blowing it out my nose, and my pelvis hurt more than it had even before the procedure. I also couldn’t see clearly either. It was as if my normal vision (even with glasses) suddenly changed overnight. Worried, I called the hospital, but the on call doctor thought my symptoms were unrelated to the venogram. Just weird they started the morning AFTER the venogram. Not long after I get off the phone with him, the hospital calls back letting me know that I have an appointment for a follow-up in two days (which I didn’t make – I was told to call to schedule). At that point, it was now the weekend, so I called bright and early that Monday morning to reschedule, since I was already scheduled with cardiology (at a different hospital) at the same time.

When I go to the follow-up a week later, the receptionist checking me in tells me that they’ll be calling me shortly for my ultrasound. Confused, I questioned her about it and she said, “Oh, never mind. It is an appointment, but there is no doctor written on the schedule…how odd!Um, okay… that doesn’t sound good, but she doesn’t act concerned so we (my husband and me) take a seat in the waiting room and actually get called back to the exam room rather quickly – I think it was in less than 5 minutes from sitting down. After the nurse does her thing, she says it’ll be just a few minutes until the doctor comes in. After an hour goes by of us waiting in the exam room, the nurse finally comes back in to check up on us, saying that she just realized that it had been just over an hour since we checked in and that the doctor was scheduled for surgery at the time of the appointment… but he should be almost done. About 10 to 15 minutes later, a doctor that looks familiar, but is not MY doctor, walks into the room.

He introduces himself and says he will be helping Dr. J with my surgery and that he assisted with my venogram. Okay, so that’s why he looked familiar. He proceeds to go over the findings of the test by drawing me a picture and telling me, in the most basic way possible, that I have Nutcracker Syndrome. Um, yes, I know. It’s already been confirmed multiple times by multiple doctors. I don’t think he knew anything about me, really. This became more apparent when he then tells me to they want to do surgery to stop my hematuria – only I don’t have hematuria as a symptom and I haven’t since I was in my teens and early 20’s. He seems confused by this and asks me what, exactly, are my symptoms.

I tell him the list (ULQ abdominal pain that can also radiate to the right or pelvic region on both sides, constant nausea, dysphagia, pain after eating, alternating diarrhea/constipation, rectal bleeding with or without mucus or undigested food in stool, dizziness, syncope/pre-syncope, occipital neuralgia, skin rashes, burning sensation under skin, insomnia, sleep apnea, chest pain, asthma/allergies/anaphylaxis, olfactory hallucinations, hair loss, incoordination/balance issues, severe fatigue, heart palpitations, arthralgia and myalgia, muscle and eye twitching, livedo reticularis, nevus anemicus, random swelling of my lymph nodes, and abnormal menstrual cycle before endometrial ablation). I also tell him my current diagnoses aside from the NCS (SMAS, MTS, IBS, Hypoxemia, POTS, Pericardial Effusion, Ventricular and Sinus Tachycardia, Cardiomyopathy, Alopecia, SIBO, and some underlying autoimmune/infiltrative disease that is tricky to diagnose, but the doctors are fighting about it being lupus or not). Maybe it was the number of symptoms/syndromes I named off, I don’t know, but he just kind of brushed it all off since none of it fit with the Nutcracker diagnosis.

Instead, he moved on with the conversation by showing me where all the collaterals are forming (where the body develops new blood circulation pathways to flow through since my renal vein is essentially blocked) and we watch some video from the venogram.

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Photo retrieved from Dr. Scholbach’s Website, 2015

Basically, a lot of my blood is flowing into my lumbar plexus and pelvis, causing the pelvic congestion syndrome.

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Photo retrieved from RIA Endovascular Website, 2015.

The blood that is making it through the renal vein is then going up into the hemiazygous vein.

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The rest of the blood, however, is flowing retrograde toward the IVC, and the doctor says that it’s not likely May-Thurner Syndrome but the retrograde flow instead (although, again, Dr. J said I absolutely had MTS based off my CT Angiography, which we watched together during my consult as well).

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Retrieved from the University of the Cumberlands website, 2015

This doctor then tells me that I have two options to fix the Nutcracker Syndrome; a stent (which I interrupt him and tell him that’s not an option) or the LRV transposition surgery, which they believe, due to my age, would be the best option. I ask him about the SMA Syndrome, which Dr. J said I had based on the CTA as well, but this doctor tells me there’s no way I have that. I tell him that GI surgeon confirmed the angle for SMAS and wrote it down as a diagnosis in my chart, but said he wouldn’t treat it without other proof.

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Retrieved from Dr. Sathaye’s Blog, 2015

Basically, this doctor says that since I have no confirmed blockage they won’t treat it and that they can only treat what they have confirmed – the Nutcracker Syndrome and the Pelvic Congestion Syndrome (they plan to “tie off the vein” where it goes into the pelvis). Great…

We go over the surgery, recovery, etc.  My husband asks him if surgery will treat any of my primary symptoms. He basically stutters, saying there’s no way to know if it’ll help at all, but it may decrease any flank pain, hematuria (which, again, I don’t have) or pelvic pain caused by the PVCS, and that it has to be done. “So none of her primary symptoms?” – “Not likely”. I ask him if this could be causing any of the problems with my heart or the POTS. “Not likely influencing any of that either. I don’t suspect that this surgery will help those problems, but you never know.” We basically end the conversation there.

As the nurse is getting us checked out she says, “For someone with as many symptoms as you, you look really good.”  Excuse me?

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After 20 years of pain and no diagnosis, you learn to hide it pretty well…

 “We have another patient with all the same things as you and she doesn’t look well at all….She is horribly skinny and sick.

Wow.

I didn’t know how to respond to that, so I just said,

“Well I keep my weight up by drinking 1 or 2

high-calorie Starbuck’s drinks a day.

Starbucks?

She doesn’t understand how that’s even possible.

“It’s 500 to 600 calories a drink. Keeps my weight up

and is the reason why I don’t ‘look sick’.”

She’s in shock.

You mean, you don’t eat food?

No… I CAN’T eat food.”

She’s speechless for a moment and then tells me that the doctor’s scheduler will call me to set up a surgery date, before walking us out. Before we left, though, she was nice enough to print out my venogram results so I didn’t have to wait for medical records to send them out by mail.

So, after all of this, I’m at a loss about what I should do.

Primarily, the biggest concern is having a major surgery without fixing my primary complaints first– you know, the ones that have taken away my ability to work and live a normal day-to-day life.

My husband doesn’t want me to have it done because he knows I can’t handle any additional pain on top of what I already have going on (that surgery won’t fix) and he doesn’t think it would be worth it. He also doesn’t trust the hospital, as I do after this whole affair. When the hospital called to schedule a few days later, I told them I would have to call back after I’ve gotten my affairs in order, talked with my other doctors and moved some appointments around, and talked with my school about taking at least one semester off. I also plan to call around to some other doctors out of state to see if they can review my tests, as well as my other doctors, although I obviously didn’t tell them that.

When I called my cardiologist to see if he had any objections or concerns I should be aware of about surgery, he recommended that I wait until my cardiology testing is done because he can’t guarantee I’d be okay with such an intensive surgery or recovery. Still, I need some opinions or input as to how to move forward once I am cleared for surgery. I don’t want to be noncompliant, but this is an invasive surgery and I want to make sure that I don’t do anything to make myself worse or choose the wrong thing. So far, this is one of the biggest medical decisions I’ve had to make.

Nonetheless, I’m losing hope that I’ll ever feel better as it seems to only be getting worse over time, and honestly don’t know what to do about anything anymore. I was so ill last week that I lost 8 pounds in three days from not being able to consume coffee (or food, obviously), but I am running out of tests that can prove the SMA Syndrome in a way that they would accept in order to treat it.

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So what do you think?

Should I move forward with surgery at this location after how they’ve handled everything else?

Is it even worth having the LRV Transposition if it won’t likely help any of my primary symptoms?

 

 

Invisible Illness Week and Updates

It’s almost here!

September 28-Oct 4, 2015 is Invisible Illness Awareness Week.

2015’s theme is MY INVISIBLE FIGHT.

Your fight is noticed. You are seen. You matter. And someone knows how hard you are trying.

When we fight daily, silently, without any signs of our battle it can be exhausting. Join others who also battle invisible illnesses and increase awareness at the same time.

This annual event, started in 2002 by Lisa Copen, features a variety of ways to get involved including some chat sessions with special guests.

With nearly 1 in 2 people living with a chronic condition, about 96% of those people are suffering silently with invisible illnesses.

I’ll be sharing My Invisible Fight. 

Will you?

In addition to blogging, the Undiagnosed Warrior Facebook Page will be filled with even more fun, including updates, shares, pictures, stories, and more. To join, follow me at https://www.facebook.com/undiagnosedwarrior.

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For more information see InvisibleIllnessWeek.com



Undiagnosed Warrior is going through some page updates as well.

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Please be patient as I add additional tips and research to the page.

Thank you.