Not every specialist can handle every problem

March 25, 2022

Me: “Do any of your practitioners specialize in PCOS?”
Receptionist: “Any of our ob/gyns can work with that.”
Me: “Ok, but do any of them specialize in it?”
Receptionist: “No, but they’ve all seen patients with PCOS.”

I had this conversation earlier this week, but I can’t even count how many times I’ve had versions of this same interaction. Why do offices just not understand that “we’ve worked with patients with X condition” is not at all the same as specializing in it? This would be like asking, “Do you specialize in brain injuries?” and being told, “Yes, we have patients with brains.” No, not the same thing.

I am so frustrated right now. Two of my main practitioners have recently left. One retired and the other left suddenly due to a family emergency. Between the two of them, they treated my thyroid issues, my adrenal issues, and my PCOS. They treated all of my most active conditions except for the sleep apnea. And now they are both gone. They worked in the same practice, a practice that is no longer as big and robust as it once was.

When I first began there 7 or 8 years ago, there were many practitioners to choose from. I went there because of the doctor who was recommended to me by several people for his thyroid disease treatments. He referred me to the other for my PCOS issues. But now there are few practitioners remaining, the ones who are there just don’t have the approach that I need. What made this practice so special is that they focused on integrative medicine. Integrative medicine combines conventional medicine and complementary medicine. For example, look at my adrenal issues. Conventional medicine says that I don’t need any treatment. Without treatment, I can barely function. Conventional medicine says that I should treat the problem with dietary and lifestyle changes, plus supplements. I tried this approach for years and had some improvement, but not enough, and was really struggling. With an integrative medicine approach, I’m taking medication that has given me back my life. Do I have the energy and health of others my age? No, I do not. But I’m doing a hell of a lot better than I had been without the medication!

Unfortunately, I keep running into roadblocks. There are fewer and fewer integrative medicine doctors around my area who take my health insurance. Many take insurance, but only private insurance. I’m on Medicare (federal health insurance) and Medicaid (state health insurance that mostly covers the things that Medicare does not.) Many don’t take Medicare and of the ones that do, they don’t take Medicaid. I’ve thought about paying out of pocket, but that would get very expensive, and I don’t know if I should attempt that. This week someone suggested that it might be worth it for me to pay for a private secondary insurance, but the enrollment period ends next week and I’m trying to research my options, but I haven’t made much progress.

I know the local hospitals will take my insurance, but they usually stick with conventional medicine and that just won’t work for me. But you never know, right? So fine, I set up an appointment at the office I mentioned at the start. Then I Googled the person I was supposed to see. I found her online easily enough.

Her specialties: cardiovascular issues and high-risk obstetrics.

My need: I haven’t gotten my period in quite a while and need someone to order an ultrasound to check my uterine lining. If it’s too thick, then we need to figure out how to induce my period without messing up any of my other hormones.

Any doctor can (and hopefully would!) order the ultrasound, but how would they induce my period? In my experience, they would prescribe birth control pills. That has disaster written all over it. I need someone with a lot of experience in this area. Is it possible the person whose specialties are cardiovascular issues and high-risk obstetrics can help me? Sure. But is it likely? I highly doubt it.

I cancelled the appointment and will go back to making phone calls. Finding a practitioner to treat my PCOS isn’t nearly as urgent as finding one to treat my thyroid and adrenal issues, but it should be easier, and I’m hoping that whoever I find for one issue my recommend practitioners to treat the others. I just hope they take my insurance.

Note: I am writing about this fairly calmly, but in truth I’m very upset. I have spent a lot of time stressing, crying, researching, and crying some more. I’m terrified that I won’t be able to find anyway. It feels as those my options have shrunk a lot in recent years, and I’m worried about that trend continuing. Maybe another day I’ll write about the emotional side of all of this. For now, I just wanted to discuss that it’s happening in general.


Sometimes the bare minimum is plenty

November 13, 2021

I’ve been wanting to write for weeks but it’s just been too much. I’ve been having a really hard time lately.

Thanks to medication changes, my adrenals aren’t being properly supported, so I have both less energy and lower tolerance for handling stress. And in a few days I have a colonoscopy and endoscopy.

Colonoscopies aren’t a big deal for most people. Not that anyone loves getting them, but you just deal, right? Well, thanks to a decades-long history of medical trauma, medical procedures can be triggering for me. And thanks to decades of undiagnosed gastrointestinal symptoms, GI stuff is also triggering for me. So knowing that in two days I’m going to have to drink a formula that will probably make me throw up, and that will induce the kinds of GI symptoms that I’ve struggled with for most of my life, followed by a medical procedure, where I’ll be up close with people during a pandemic…. yeah, my anxiety is at an all-time high.

Logically, I know it will be all be fine. But logic isn’t helping. My therapist gave me some breathing and thought exercises which help, and I’m just trying to make it through this period. It’s rough.

To make it a little easier, I’m doing a few things that I don’t usually do:

  • I cried. I spent a lot of my life learning not to cry because if I did, people thoughtI was just trying to get attention. (Yup, as a 12-year-old with chronic pain, that’s what I was told by several doctors and teachers. Thankfully, my parents never thought that.) Now, I don’t cry easily. For a week I really felt the need to cry, but I couldn’t let it out. Finally, though, I cried. And then I sobbed. And then I sobbed some more. I cried a lot that day, and it helped a lot. I cried a bit yesterday. I’m still having trouble crying as much as I need to, but I’m working on it. It helps to let it all out.
  • I asked for help. I don’t do this often enough. I posted on my Facebook page, asking friends to make phone calls to manufacturers for me. I was trying to find a gluten-free version of the easier colonoscopy prep. I had made a few calls, but it’s so stressful. For one thing, making any of calls for gluten-free stuff is stressful and exhausting and I’m tired of doing it. But then, doing it for this purpose…. it was just too much. A fabulous friend did the research. She called everyplace on my list, then did more research to find more to add to the list. She struck out, but if she hadn’t called for me, then I would have felt like I had to, and I would have been upset with myself for “failing”, thinking that maybe if I’d made the calls it could have been easier.
  • I asked for help again. Several friends had volunteered to help with the calls, so when that friend struck out, I asked for more calls. Since I couldn’t get the easier prep, I wanted to get an anti-nausea pill to help with the one I’ll be doing. Again, I needed something gluten-free. Three people called pharmacies all over my area to ask which manufacturers they used for this med (there are quite a few who make it), and then called those manufacturers to ask if the med was gluten-free. Again, they struck out. But again, if they hadn’t done it then I would have felt like I had to. It was so great of them to make those calls.
  • I asked to borrow a puppy. No, really! I have neighbors with two of the sweetest, most adorable puppies. Both are house-trained and don’t chew on stuff, so they’re not too hard to watch. I asked if I could borrow one, and the timing worked out that I took one for an hour. He cheered me up SO MUCH! Dogs are great medicine. Normally I would have felt silly asking, but I’m glad I did. And they were glad their dogs could help.
  • I’m giving myself a break. My to-do list is short right now. Really short. And even then I know it’s ok if I don’t get most of it done. In a typical week this amount would be easy to do (my list is usually twice as long), but not now. For example, today’s list is: laundry (already in the machine – win!), vacuum (if it doesn’t happen, that’s ok), prepare some work for my volunteer gig (they know I’m struggling and that I may have to cancel tomorrow’s meeting if I can’t get it done, but I think it will be doable), walk (fresh air is good for me), and watch YouTube videos while relaxing with my knitting. My hope is to get everything done before lunch except the last two. That way, I won’t have anything I need to do this afternoon except enjoy a walk and relax on the couch. And honestly, the vacuuming is unlikely. And that’s ok. The rest of my week is even easier than today.
  • I’m avoiding anything emotionally taxing. When a friend brings up a stressful topic that isn’t necessary to discuss, I ask to change the subject. Stressful movies and books are on hold. I’m keeping it as light and easy as possible. Last night I watched an animated Disney movie and that was perfect.

Is this all enough to make me feel great? No, of course not. But it’s enough to make me not feel worse, and that’s a win. I’ll keep spending time with dogs, watching easy movies, doing my crafts. I’ll keep my to-do list short. I’ll ask for help. I’ll spend time with dogs. (Oh, did I say that twice?)

In a few days, after the colonoscopy, I’ll feel better. Once my medication is back to working properly, I’ll feel even better. (I tried to time things so that it would be back before the colonoscopy, but my doctors were really slow to get back to me about how to proceed after we got the test results.) This isn’t the post I planned to write. That one has to wait. And again, that’s ok. But it’s one that felt right to write. We all have times where we’re struggling more than usual, and it’s ok to do the bare minimum for a while. That’s definitely my plan for now.


If only

February 8, 2021

Regrets over how my health was handled in the past aren’t new, but my sudden memory of some particular past conversations with one of my doctors still hit me hard recently.

So many times I’ve thought, if only I’d been diagnosed with Celiac disease as a child. If only my doctors had taken me seriously. If only it hadn’t taken more than a decade of symptoms to realize I had autoimmune disease. If only I had known that frequent diarrhea and cramps weren’t normal. If only my adrenal fatigue had been caught earlier.

Then there are the more specific instances. If only when I asked my doctor to test me for lactose intolerance, he hadn’t lied and said there was no such test. If only I’d realized then that I need to find someone new. If only I hadn’t been stuck in crappy HMOs and had had more options when it came to choosing doctors. If only the gastroenterologist I finally visited hadn’t labeled me with IBS and then written me off. If only the doctor I went to with complaints of fatigue didn’t tell me to “give it more time” even a year after it began.

But then a few weeks ago I suddenly remembered something. It started simply enough: I was curious to know if my hydrocortisone, which I started in 2019 for adrenal fatigue, was putting me at higher risk for severe Covid. I looked up the prednisone dose that’s considered risky, then found an online conversion to hydrocortisone. Both are steroids, and HC is basically a very low dose of prednisone, which I’d been on many times in the past. When I was on prednisone in the past, it was always to treat pain, but I was thrilled with the extra energy it gave me as a bonus – I felt so much better! Of course, I didn’t like the other side effects so much. It messed with my memory, made me very emotional, gave me severe brain fog, caused me to gain a lot of weight, and more. But the energy was fantastic!

I realized eventually that the energy boost had been a clue. I’m sure many people have extra energy on prednisone, but I had a huge boost when I took even tiny doses. Even 2.5 mg helped and 5mg felt great. My fatigue had begun after a virus in 1999 and never got better, but it was mild for many years. The first time I had the extra prednisone energy was in 2006. It wasn’t until 2011 that I became too disabled to continue working. My guess is that I would have left work a year earlier if I hadn’t been on prednisone for many months prior. It wasn’t until 2013 that I learned I had adrenal fatigue. These dates are about to become very relevant to the story.

I can’t count the number of times I wished the adrenal fatigue had been caught earlier. It’s by far my most disabling symptom. It’s the symptom that is stopping me from working, the one that’s stopping me from getting a dog. When my naturopath diagnosed my adrenal fatigue in 2013, she started me on supplements that helped a lot. But then that company went out of business. We tried a different supplement and it helped, but it never worked as well as the first one. I struggled for years, and just couldn’t quite increase my energy the way I needed to. Feeling “better” felt just a little bit out of reach – far enough that I longed for it, but close enough that I kept trying.

Eventually I switched to a new primary care doctor, a functional medicine practitioner, and he acknowledged my adrenal fatigue. My previous PCP hadn’t. He immediately recommended hydrocortisone, but I didn’t want to be on steroids at all, and definitely not for the rest of my life, which was a very real possibility. So I continued to struggle. Eventually, my naturopath also thought that HC was necessary but still, I resisted. I continued to adjust my diet, change my exercise, alter my supplements. I tried so hard. And finally I had to admit the truth: it wasn’t working.

In August 2019 I started HC, compounded for me at a pharmacy that makes it gluten-free and corn-free, something that wouldn’t be available through the local pharmacies. The difference was noticeable. I felt a lot better. I also gained a lot of weight and my hair started to fall out. It took a while to adjust the dose, but finally, it seems to be right. My energy isn’t what I want it to be, but it’s a lot more stable. I still can’t work. I still can’t care for a dog. But I can generally function better, and I’m no longer having the “episodes” that I previously had when my adrenals became too stressed. I lost most of the weight I had gained and my hair stopped falling out (aside from what’s normal, of course.) So it seems that where I’m at now is about the best I can achieve, at least for now, even though it’s not nearly what I want it to be. And that brings us back to now. If only I’d tried HC sooner, before so much damage had been done to my body.

I looked at the calculator’s output on the computer screen. My HC translated to a very low dose of prednisone. Low dose of prednisone. That was familiar. And then I remembered a doctor from all of those years ago. The one I never saw for adrenal fatigue, the one I saw before I even knew what adrenal fatigue was, the one who first tested me for adrenal fatigue nonetheless. I saw him for many years. First he treated my PCOS (polycystic ovary syndrome) and then my hypothyroidism. He diagnosed me with Hashimoto’s disease, which for some reason my previous doctor hadn’t diagnosed. As my fatigue persisted, he tested me for adrenal fatigue, but he only did blood tests, which did not show it. If only he had done the saliva tests, which are more accurate. Still, he didn’t blow off my symptoms, even while he wasn’t sure what to do. When I came off of prednisone at one point and complained of the renewed fatigue, he suggested that maybe I should continue taking a very low dose permanently. He said that even 2.5mg or 5mg daily could make a huge difference. I would be on it for the rest of my life.

I scoffed. Daily steroids? For the rest of my life? No way! I wouldn’t even consider it, and I privately questioned his judgment. I saw this doctor for about 12 years, so it’s hard to remember exactly when this was, but it was before I’d ever been diagnosed with adrenal fatigue, probably between 2008 and 2011. He’d run the test, and even though it came back negative, he must have suspected the truth. He offered me a treatment that I turned down but that, in hindsight could have helped so much. If only I’d listened.

The truth, of course, is that I can’t be sure. Maybe taking prednisone back then, before I had gotten so much worse, could have caused other problems. Maybe the short term side effects would have caused me to give up. Besides, I had real reasons to reject it. My short term side effects were bad, but I was even more worried about the long term side effects: brittle bones, cancer, vision problems, and more were quite possible. He had said the odds of those side effects were lower with such a low dose, but since I was only in my 30s, I would have been taking it for decades. That’s a long time to take a medication with such severe potential side effects. I had been misled, ignored, dismissed, and misdiagnosed by so many doctors, that I had good reasons to not automatically try whatever they suggested.

I had very good reasons for turning down the suggestion, so I am trying to remind myself that I made the best choice I could with the information I had at the time. And there’s no way to know what the outcome would have been even if I’d tried it. But still, sometimes it creeps back in: if only….

I looked at the computer screen. My dose of HC came out to 4.38mg prednisone. The doctor had suggested 2.5 mg or 5mg. He’d been right. Crap. If only I’d listened. If only I’d tried it.

If only I could learn to let go of the if onlys.


Symptoms, spreadsheets, and connecting dots

December 30, 2020

When did I start feeling crappy? Was it two days ago? Last week? When’s the last time I was glutened? When did I last need to use a cane or crutches to get around my apartment? When did I adjust that medication? These things would be hard enough to remember under the best of circumstances, but add in brain fog and days on end without with the structure of a full time job and suddenly it feels impossible to remember with any accuracy. Thankfully, I have my spreadsheet.

It feels like I started the spreadsheet recently, but actually it was September 2013. (Wow, 7 years already!) I had been researching how to treat my various health conditions, and tracking symptoms and medications was recommended so strongly in multiple books that I finally gave in and did it. There are many apps that can be used, but I like my spreadsheet. Everything is in there, I don’t have to worry about an app being discontinued, it’s easy to search for any words or phrases I want, and I can use my laptop’s keyboard to type everything out (that’s much easier for me than tapping on a phone.) When I have random thoughts about things I want to add to the spreadsheet, I record them in the to-do list app on my phone, then later put them in the spreadsheet. Every morning I check my email and look at Facebook. While I’m at my computer, I update the spreadsheet. Easy. Occasionally I’ll pop in some information later in the day, too.

I started with a lot of categories which, to be honest, I never consistently used. There are some blank days, too. Interestingly, as of now (December 2020) there hasn’t been a blank day since March 2019. During the pandemic it’s easier to stay on top of this, but clearly my tracking improved long before that. Still, while blank days are less helpful, I try to remember that making notes sometimes is much better than making notes never.

So what do I record? As much as I can, here’s what I like to track:

  • The length of time I use my ASV machine each night. (An ASV is a form of CPAP machine, used to treat my sleep apnea.) Every morning when I wake up, the machine tells me how long it’s been on. This is also a fairly accurate record of how long I slept.
  • Any delays to taking my medication on a given day. Maybe I forgot. Maybe I ate a meal late and so I had to alter when I took a medication. This doesn’t usually matter, but sometimes I feel off and it helps to be able to look back and see if this was the reason. I’ll also note if I took it early for any reason, but this is rare.
  • My period, and how heavy it is that day. (I also note this in my calendar, for easy access during medical appointments.)
  • Any changes to medications or supplements. I note names of medications and supplements, doses, and times of day that I take them.
  • Any unusual symptoms, or changes in the degree of my symptoms. I’ll note if my right knee hurts one day, and what makes it worse. I’ll note if my fatigue suddenly hits me hard. I always note gastrointestinal symptoms.
  • Any other changes that I want to track. For example, I use a blue light every morning. These are commonly used to treat seasonal affective disorder (and it’s definitely helped mine!) but I use it primarily to adjust my sleep cycle. At my last appointment with my sleep specialist, I mentioned my recent difficulty going to bed at a reasonable hour each night. He suggested that I adjust when I use my blue light in the mornings, moving it earlier by a few minutes each day until I reach the target time. This is a huge struggle for me, as it means I need to get out of bed earlier. That’s not something I’m good at. So now I am writing down what time I use the blue each morning to be sure that I’m more or less on track. It’s taking me ages to move the light, but I look at my notes each morning to get encouragement that I’m moving in the right direction. I can also use it to see if the change in time (and hence a change in my sleep schedule) is impacting how I feel in other ways. Once I reach my goal, I will stop tracking this, but those notes will remain in the spreadsheet for those days. There are many things I track temporarily like this.
  • Unusual activities and overall symptoms levels. I’ll note if today felt like an especially productive day, if I was out at friend’s house all day without getting tired (pre-pandemic, of course), if I took an unusually long walk and how it made me feel, if a short walk made me tired or caused pain, if I stayed up too late the night before and how I feel as a result. I will also note outside factors, like if it’s a dark and dreary day, I will note that because it impacts my energy levels (remember the seasonal affective disorder I mentioned before? Yeah, weather is a big one) or if it’s hot out and I had to spend time outdoors then I’ll note it because that increases my inflammation levels.

As you can see, there are certain things that I track regularly, and others that I track temporarily. Some things are obvious (a change in medication) and some less so (the weather.) The key is, over time I have been figuring out what tends to impact my health and those are the things I note. This has been incredibly helpful.

Recently I was fatigued. It hit me suddenly, which was odd, but I figured maybe I’d been doing too much. I blamed my adrenal insufficiency, which was a reasonable assumption. After a few days I knew that wasn’t the issue, but didn’t know what was happening. Eventually I realized I’d been glutened. My symptom tracking showed me that the gluten explained my previously unexplainable knee swelling and the intense brain fog.

And then there was the time that I suddenly realized that I was having less brain fog. My thinking had been clearer for several days than it had been in a long time. I looked at my symptom tracking and noticed that, based on the timing, this was probably due to stopping some supplements. I had stopped taking those vitamins because they contained corn derivatives in the fillers, and I had recently decided to get more aggressive about cutting corn out of my diet, since I knew I reacted badly to it in larger quantities. It had been immediately obvious that cutting out those smaller bits of corn was helping my digestive issues, but it was only thanks to my tracking that I realized its impact on my cognition.

I could give you dozens of examples of my symptom tracking spreadsheet helping me over the years. It’s not perfect, but for me it works. Ideally I would like to track a lot more information, but I have found that when I try to do more, I get overwhelmed and end up doing nothing at all. Something is better than nothing, so for now, I will continue to do this.

This works well for me, but I know it’s not the right approach for everyone. Please share what works for you, too, because it may give others some useful ideas. Do you track your symptoms? If so, what do you track and what program do you use? What would you recommend to others? I hope that everyone who wants to track their symptoms can find an approach that works well for them.


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