As part of last year’s Health Activists Writer’s Challenge we were asked to find a “quotation that inspires you”.
The quotation I chose is probably not an obvious one for a health blog. You might have been expecting me to have trawled through the “inspirational” websites to find some relevant, life affirming words. I hope you’re not disappointed. I actually used this quote….
Here goes. Over to that well known US philosopher, Donald Rumsfeld. It’s the quote he was ridiculed for it at the time, unfairly in my opinion, as it makes perfect sense. In case you don’t remember what he said :
“…as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns- the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
Bear with me, it will become clear. To illustrate the point I’m using one of my favourite subjects – bile acid malabsorption (BAM). Maybe “favourite” isn’t the right description, make that “a subject I have felt the need to write about several times before”. There’s barely a day goes by when I don’t see a comment, on one of the IBD or BAM forums, from someone who has just been diagnosed with BAM and many times the post goes on to say that their doctor had never heard of the condition before. That’s the first hurdle to overcome.
I am a fellow sufferer as a result of losing my terminal ileum. (I had an ileostomy back in October 2010). Before the operation I was offered the chance to take part in an Enhanced Recovery Scheme at one of the top London hospitals. Part of the ethos behind this regime is to fully inform the patient of what will happen at all stages of the process – pre-op, during the hospital stay and beyond. Was I told about BAM before the operation? I’d have to answer “maybe” and this brings us to the point of this post. Let me explain….
I was told that after the operation absorption of vitamins and salts would be much reduced due to lack of a terminal ileum. The surgeon repeated this message on his ward round post-op. If someone told you that your body wouldn’t absorb salt properly what would you take that to mean? I took it at face value, I would need to up my intake of salt to compensate and take supplemental vitamins. I didn’t see the need to question the statement as it seemed very clear.
It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with BAM (4 years after the ileostomy) that I found it has an alternative name “Bile SALT Malabsorption”. Suddenly the comment about not absorbing “salt” took on another meaning. You can see the problem.
This is where Donald Rumsfeld comes in. I heard what the Enhanced Recovery Nurse and the surgeon told me. I understood what the words meant – to me. I didn’t know that I didn’t understand what the words meant to them. From their point of view – they were using their everyday, medical terms to describe a potential problem to a patient.
From this experience I have learnt that you must always question what you are being told and do your best to get the doctor or consultant to explain, in simple terms or non-medical terms, exactly what they mean and what they perceive the implications to be.
I keep coming back to those particular words in the quote “there are things we don’t know we don’t know.” Try repeating them to yourself as you enter the consulting room…..
The theme for this year’s “World IBD Awareness Day” on 19th May was “Improving quality of life for people with IBD” and in particular the importance of Specialist IBD Nurses who can make such a big difference to patients’ lives.
My own experience of IBD Nurses is fairly limited. I have been lucky enough to only need to contact them with simple questions by ‘phone or email. I know, from conversations with other IBD patients, just how much support some get when they need help. I say “some” because not all patients have access to a specialist nurse and/or a helpline. A fellow IBD’er ran a poll on Twitter and as you will see from the results a significant percentage of patients are missing out.
I’ll return to this point at the end of the post.
Last week saw “International Nurses Day” (12th May). It was an opportunity for patients to take to social media to express their thanks, publicly, to nurses for the care they have received. (I would hope that patients thank their nurses face-to-face anyway).
I would usually fight shy of naming my nursing heroes. Patient confidentiality works both ways but there are two nurses who made a huge difference. If you will indulge me over the next few paragraphs I will explain their significance.
I’ve broadened the definition of “specialist IBD nurses” slightly to include stoma nurses as it neatly allows me to combine both the subjects of this post.
Whilst stomas are not the sole preserve of IBD patients it is a sad fact that many of us will end up with one, temporarily or permanently, at some point. I’d like to explain how the right support at the right time made a real difference to what could have become a very difficult period of major adjustment – getting stoma’d.
In August 2010 I had already been warned that I might come out of the operating theatre with one and to that end I had met with Fiona, the first of my nursing heroes, one of the stoma nurses based on the 12th floor at St.Thomas’ Hospital. She had spent time with me during the pre-op period explaining just what wearing a “bag” involved, some of the challenges I would face, answered my many questions and then marked the optimal site on my abdomen for the surgeon to aim for.
Coming round in Recovery, post-op, it wasn’t a great surprise to find the worst had happened. For those first couple of days after surgery you are so high on a cocktail of drugs that seeing your own, living stump of intestine poking its way through your abdominal wall is somewhat surreal. It’s at the point when your consciousness returns to some form of normality that reality hits and you need all the support you can get to start coping with this alien being and alien lifestyle. The thought of carrying round a bag of s*** fixed to your waist…..
Calmness and confidence are the order of the day. Fiona provided both in pouch loads. Nothing flustered her and that positive attitude transferred across. (Well, I like to think it did, but reading her ward notes from the time proved that reality may have been slightly different). She patiently visited me each day until she was confident that I could manage on my own.
Wind forward to the day of discharge and suddenly you’re home, alone (metaphorically speaking). It’s down to you to manage without the immediate support available on the ward. Fiona gave me a follow-up call to make sure everything was going OK and at this point my care was handed over to the local stoma nurse. This was Julie, my second nursing hero, based at East Surrey Hospital. She made contact shortly after my discharge and came to see me a couple of days later. She immediately put me at my ease and like Fiona was calm and unflappable.
I saw her on several occasions, not always in the best of circumstances. There was the time when my bag started filling with bright red blood, and the time when the stoma started prolapsing, oh, and the odd leak. Each of these problems could have knocked my confidence for six but each time Julie had a solution and some comforting words. By the time I was ready for the reversal operation I had become completely at ease with my lot.
There was never any question of a stoma nurse not being available either in person or at the end of a ‘phone. Why should it be different for Specialist IBD Nurses? I wonder if it comes back to the old idea of IBD being the “invisible” disease. Stomas are visible; tangible. For many IBD patients, those who have not undergone surgery, you really wouldn’t be able to tell they were suffering from IBD just by looking at them. Maybe that’s why IBD is not given a universal high importance.
You would think that providing these services would be a “no brainer”. Even if we ignore the advantages to the patients themselves then surely they must make sense on purely economic grounds. They act as a filter between the patient and the consultant. This will alleviate some of pressure on consultants’ time and potentially avoid the need for booking short notice outpatient appointments which inevitably means overloaded clinics. They may even reduce the number of visits made to the frequently beleaguered Accident and Emergency Departments.
I guess that it is all down to squeezed budgets and IBD not being sufficiently high profile to make it a political “hot potato”. This is why we need IBD Awareness Day.
19th May – IBD Awareness Day – and my blog is in a sort of remission. It’s not cured as we all know there is no cure for blogging. Achieving the next big milestone of 50k hits may prove difficult if it goes into deep remission although the steady stream of Russian porn site spiders searching for “anaesthetic fetish” stories (yes, honestly!) may help get there.
The days of weekly, sometimes daily, updates seem like a distant memory. Clusters of outpatient appointments and procedures have been thinned out to 6 monthly intervals. The next scoping session will be late October and there maybe a colonoscopy just before Christmas.
How does this make me feel? Mixed emotions oddly enough. I am obviously pleased to have reached some stability healthwise but I’ve grown so used to having to think about medical matters, given 2 or 3 years of intense medical activity, that it feels strange to have more time to devote to other aspects of life. Producing this blog has greatly helped me to get my health issues into perspective and the very regular appointments/procedures have proved to be a rich source for writing posts. This blog was set up for the specific purpose of recording “the rich vein of experiences along the Crohn’s highway and some of its detours.” I’m hoping that some of the content might just strike a chord with other Crohn’s sufferers and they will realise others understand what they are going through or maybe give them some warning of what could lie ahead.
My health related creative efforts have now been redirected into writing a book based on this blog. It’s nearing completion which, as my wife would point out, is the status of most things I start. (Anyone familiar with the Belbin Theory will understand the problem – low score in the Completer/Finisher category)
I still have some health concerns. The diagnosis of severe Bile Acid Malabsorption late last year has given a name to, and a reason for, the continuing dashes to the bathroom. Now I have this explanation I can visualise what the problem is, what is likely to exacerbate it and what can be done to manage it. I’ve become strangely relaxed about the issue.
My other health concern is keeping fit. Statistics show that if you’ve already had surgery for Crohn’s it is likely that you will end up under the knife again. The speed at which you recover is, in part, helped by being fit and up to weight at the time of the operation. My first operation was 1979, the second 2010 – a 31 year gap – who knows when it will happen again but I want to be as prepared as possible. My chosen regime is to walk whenever possible. I’m trying not to become too obsessive about the distance I walk each day but it does feel good when the app on my phone announces “All-Time Record” (currently 17.6 km).
The impetus to keep walking is helped considerably by working in London. There are so many possible routes to get to and from work that it never becomes routine or boring. There is always something new to see and photograph. At 7:00am there are very few people about. I’ve set myself a challenge of posting at least one Instagram photo a day (account name = crohnoid) with either a new angle of an existing view or something transitory or a new experience.
Having rambled on so long it’s time for another appointment……………
Tuesday 5th May 2015 – Gastroenterology – St.Thomas’ Outpatient’s Clinic
The forecast said 50 mph winds and I could vouch for that. Crossing Westminster Bridge was “interesting” and made more so by the polar bear halfway across. I think it was the continuation of the PR stunt for SkyTV.
This was to be a routine, six monthly appointment. I had prepared a short list of questions to ask.The visit started as normal. Get weighed. Wait. Go to Room 18 – see Registrar. Explain that I would like to see usual consultant for the sake of continuity. Return to waiting area. Wait for new message to appear on laser display screen. Go to Room 19. (Appointment time 2:50pm, in with the “right” doctor by 3:20pm. Not bad).
I knocked on the door, list at the ready, and entered. I got a warm welcome from my usual doctor who had a medical student sitting in with him. My notes were on the desk. The file was so thick it looked like it couldn’t take one more sheet. “We need to get a new one of these”. I replied that I might just have the solution as I had written a book covering my medical history and experiences including the treatment at St.Thomas’. He seemed genuinely surprised. I assured him it was for real and that I was currently going through the final stages of editing and proof reading. I reassured him that he wasn’t mentioned by name and that it was all positive anyway!
That prompted a discussion on doctor/patient communication and how patients react to what they are told. He considered himself to be a good communicator (I’ll second that) but was concerned that without him realising it a seemly innocuous remark, made in passing, could take on far more significance to a patient. We then went on to discuss when and where it is appropriate to tell patient potential bad news. I mentioned that there were two things I wish I had been told about prior to surgery, and that they were on my list…….
1) I had been quite tired over the last couple of months and even the B12 injection three weeks ago didn’t seem to have made a difference. He suggested that next time I had a blood test I should get checked for iron and vitamin D levels. I did mention that last week I had walked nearly 50km to and from work and at lunchtime, so maybe I should be cutting back a little. That lead off at a tangent to the merits of exploring London early in the morning, or on a Sunday, when the streets were quite deserted. I couldn’t resist mentioning the Sky Garden (at the top of the WalkieTalkie building) that we had visited a few weeks ago. (There are a few photos at the bottom of the post).
2) As ever the ache around my anastomosis (join) comes and goes. It was worse after physical work or with a full gut. We had previously agreed it was probably just a mechnical issue as the recent colonoscopy had shown no sign of inflammation. He wondered if there might be some inflammation in a part of my small intestine that neither the colonoscopy or the previous endoscopy had reached. There was a technique, called a balloon assisted enteroscopy, that allowed the scope to propel itself right through the small bowel…….that’s enough thinking about that one. I asked if a capsule endoscopy would be better but he replied the disadvantage for some patients was the possibility of the capsule becoming stuck if there was a stricture along its path.
Maybe it was time for another MRI scan as the last one was three years ago. He recalled that it had suggested inflammation but the subsequent colonoscopy had shown nothing. He said that sometimes you could get conflicting messages with no explanation as to why the difference.
3) The plan going forward. The current monitoring regime consisted of six monthly calprotectin tests (with possibility of a colonoscopy if high reading), yearly upper GI endoscopies to check for growth of esophageal varices and six monthly appointments with haematology to keep an eye on my low platelet count/PVT. Were there any other tests I should be having that might be age related? “No.”
He set the next appointment or six months but I will fine tune the actual date, nearer the time, so that it is after the annual endoscopy. It will also be down to me to make sure the results of the calprotectin test are available.
4) BAM. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that Bile Acid Malabsorption is a subject that not enough patients, who have been through IBD surgery (ileal resection), know sufficient about. This was one of the two subjects I wish had been discussed prior to surgery. It could be part of the pre-op assessment with either the Enhanced Recovery Nurse or the surgeon.
The other thing I wish I’d been warned about was ileus, or the lockdown of the digestive system, following surgery. I explained that unless you have suffered intense nausea you have no idea how bad you can feel. I wasn’t joking when I said that it was a good thing the windows on the 11th floor surgical ward at St.Thomas’ were non-opening. I really would have jumped! Both of them looked surprised.
5) This one was more out of curiosity – is there a link between shingles and having an IBD flare-up? In preparing my book, I had found a reference to the bad attack of shingles I suffered in 2005. As I read on I realised that a flare-up started shortly afterwards, breaking the remission I had been in for quite a while. He wasn’t aware of any link, in his experience, but there were common factors such as stress that might cause a trigger.
6) Getting involved. I’ve been cutting back on work recently. For the last six months I’ve only working three days most weeks. Whilst I have plenty to keep me occupied in my spare time I felt I could at least use part of it to give something back to the IBD Community but wasn’t sure how I could help. He ran through a number of ideas that they had been discussing at Guy’s/St.Thomas’ – research, patient panels – where they would like to include “lay” representatives. I asked him to bear me in mind for such an opportunity.
Appointment over and a chance to brave the high winds again. By now they had died down a little and the sun was shining so I decided to take a slight detour on my route back to Victoria and walk down the Albert Embankment. It’s not a walk I often do but will certainly repeat it.
If all goes to plan the next post should be to announce the completion of my book. Still need a decent title though. Suggestions welcome.