Ten Feet Tall… and Bulletproof!

November 15, 2010

“People always told me be careful of what you do…” – Billie Jean (1982) Michael Jackson

Here’s a post by blogger Doctor D about growing up as a Sick Kid. Here he is writing about children living with Diabetes, so what are parents of  Cardiac Kids who just hit the teenage years supposed to do? Give them room? Lock them in their rooms? Who knows? I can promise you one thing, life will not be “normal”… after all, what is “normal” to a teenager going through puberty?

Oh, goodness what a time. The hormones are fully in control and you just don’t want to hear a word your parents say. Whatever they want, you try to do the opposite, and you feel just like the title of this post: Ten Feet Tall and Bulletproof. Throw a Heart Defect into the equation and things could get crazy.  Sick Kid? Naw, that ain’t me! I’m just like my friends, I can go where I wanna go and do what I wanna do, and never feel “sick” at all! Medication? Who needs medication? If I miss a dose that’s OK, because I don’t feel any different.

There’s a problem brewing right there. A lot of times, you don’t feel any different when your heart is causing trouble. A worsening heart can steal your energy and your stamina, but not all at once. It does it so slowly that it is hardly noticeable… and then suddenly, you realize that you can’t do what you used to do and your energy level is way down. Here’s a newsflash for our teenage CHDers: You were born with this problem and you will have it every day you live. So you’ve got to pay attention to your health… every day you live. You are right, it isn’t fair. But rather than whine and cry about it and let your Heart Defect win, why not learn how to fight it?

The teenage years are just the time when they don’t want to follow your advice, so you got to get ’em when they are kids, not teens. When they are teens, you are THE PARENT and your opinion carries very little weight. When you and your teen have a conflict concerning their illness, it might pay to follow Doctor D’s advice and have a neutral party step in. So you gotta catch ’em when they are young.

And this leads to an incredible balancing act: exactly how much do you tell a CHD child about their heart? First things first, you don’t want to scare them, but you do want to help them know that taking care of themselves is so very important. Cardiology appointments and checkups and doing all the “little things” right will help them live longer and better. But you don’t want to drop that knowledge on them all at once, or when they are too young, because they will almost certainly start looking at the other side of the coin. It’s an uncanny ability that kids seem to have. And you certainly don’t want to hang the “I’m different!” thoughts on the child – we want him or her to fit in, to be a well-balanced kid who grows into a great member of society. If you approach every new situation with an “I can’t” attitude you’re going to miss out on some wonderful life events. And we don’t want that to happen, either.

It’s almost like a valve: you have to decide how much information they can handle and open up the information faucet just enough. Not too much, and not too little. In a few years when they are older and understand more, you can open the faucet just a little bit more. And hopefully, by the time they reach the rebellious years, they understand enough to know that their health is not the place to issue a challenge to parental authority. They can make you scream, run in circles, and even pull your hair out, but those medications are not to be missed and you see your doctor when you need to. Because you have taught them how important it is.

I do not envy Heart Parents with children on the brink of puberty. Those folks deserve a medal!

Balance

November 14, 2010

My Congestive Heart Failure (CHF) is worse.

I think the problem is correctable. When I was having the Gout flare-ups a few months ago, my Cardiologist took me off of one of my Diuretics. One of the side effects is that it can cause Gout, and I haven’t had very many problems with the Gout since.

But recently I’ve noticed swelling in my ankles, a constant cough, and I feel run down most of the time. So I asked my Cardiologist for permission to start taking that drug again… every other day. That ought to be frequently enough to help me, without causing the Gout.

With a heart defect everything seems to be a balancing act. We discontinued the drug to keep the Gout at bay, but it seems that I’m feeling worse. So I’m taking it again – at half the dosage I was originally taking it. So if my self-diagnosis is correct and resuming the drug will straighten me out, it will take twice as long for it to work (since I’m taking half the dose). If it doesn’t seem to be the solution, I’ll have to talk to my Cardiologist again, and we’ll have to figure out a Plan B. And there is always that thought in the back of your mind: What if Plan B doesn’t work? Plan C might, but even if it works wonderfully, that’s one more option off the table.

Stay hydrated… but with your CHF, don’t drink more than 2000 millilitres (2 liters, or 67 US liquid ounces) per day. Normally that’s more than enough to drink, but what if I pick up a stomach bug that keeps me in the bathroom constantly? Then you can break the 2000 ML rule – but be careful! We don’t want to start having too much fluid in you. You also need to limit your salt intake to no more than 2000 milligrams per day. But when you get that stomach bug, Oral Rehydration will help tremendously… and Oral Rehydration is mainly (you guessed it!) water mixed with sugar and salt.

The goal is to try to keep everything in balance, to give your medications the best opportunity to help your body. If your doctor says to exercise, do so. (I’m one to talk! I have walked very little since hurting my knees in my July fall.) Don’t just fill a new prescription, question the doctor about the medication. What is it supposed to do? How will it help me? And what side effects should I look out for?

And be sure to ask the most important question: What can I do to help myself?

CHD Pioneer passes away at 101

November 13, 2010

Dr. Richard J. Bing, who was profiled on this blog back in April, has passed away at the age of 101.

 

Back to School

November 12, 2010

“Trouble is, there’s not enough of us to go around – we’re spread thin, so sometimes, important things get ignored or don’t get said.” – Judge Tolliver (John Goodman), The Jack Bull (1999)

Yesterday I had the chance to go back to school – I went back to my Alma Mater to our School of Nursing!

I asked for directions just to be sure – when I graduated the School of Nursing didn’t exist. And I didn’t want to assume I could find it only to discover that it was in a back corner of the campus. But it wasn’t a problem; as soon as I turned off of the main highway and scanned the campus, there it was. Everything was exactly as described, which usually doesn’t happen – more often than not, I get twisted up and turned around but everything went perfectly.

After meeting the instructor for the first time, we went upstairs and into a classroom where I met the students (about 30 of them) and talked about myself and my heart defect. If you’re a reader of this blog, you know I usually post the printed text of my presentation. Not the case this time – as I told the students, when I make a presentation to Heart Families, I’ve got a plan and am pretty sure what I will say. With them, I wasn’t sure what they wanted or needed to know, so I’d just talk about myself. If they had a question, feel free to break in.

Someone had a really good question about did I need oxygen. Technically no, I don’t need oxygen, but I sleep with a flow of four liters per hour. It was originally prescribed to keep my Hemoglobin down, and I can skip it for several days without problem. When I take a weekend trip, I don’t take it with me. But I’m like a rechargeable battery and the O2 is like my charger – after about 4 days of sleeping without oxygen, I feel run down.

After I talked about myself and the Question and Answer session, we moved over a larger room set up as a hospital ward. When I walked in there was a bed to my right with a medical mannequin in the bed, tucked under the covers neatly. I saw him/it out of the corner of my eye and for a moment there I thought it was a real person!

We didn’t bother Earl (or whatever the mannequin’s name was), he looked comfortable. I took another bed, and in pairs and threes the students came in and examined me. My heart was listened to more times than I can could count, and everyone took a close look at my blue fingernails. My right hand is a little more blue than usual because of the swelling associated with my wrist, but my left hand is better suited to observe Capillary Refill (press down on the fingernail until it turns white, then release. Observe how long it takes for the blood to flow back.)

More than one student seemed to be very interested in the fact that you can’t read my pulse in my left arm – a side effect of the Blalock-Taussig Shunt, the surgery I had in 1977. In the Blalock-Taussig, the Left Subclavian Artery is cut and sewn into the Pulmonary Artery. The Left Subclavian normally passes near the shoulderblade (the Clavicle), and down the left arm. Because it has been disconnected, you can’t get a pulse in my left arm, can’t take an accurate blood pressure reading, and blood draws and vaccine injections should be done in the right arm.

(NOTE: If you have the Modified Blalock-Taussig Shunt, a small artificial connection is used to connect the Subclavian Artery to the Pulmonary Artery and the Subclavian is left intact. You usually can feel the pulse bilaterally on a patient with the Modified Blalock-Taussig!)

When the students weren’t listening to my heart, the instructor was – with an electronic recording stethoscope. I’ve had this done before, back in 1977 at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (recounted in this post.) But back then it was a Stethoscope head connected to wires that ran to a machine the size of a toolbox, that recorded my heart on a cassette tape. This one looked like a regular Stethoscope, perhaps a little thicker around the head. It would record (sensitive enough that it recorded a cough!) and then transmit the recording to a laptop computer via Bluetooth! My Geek side started getting the best of me, and I was developing a very, very bad case of STEVE WANT! But I knew that if I asked how much it cost, the instructor would inject me with 1000 cc’s of reality. Reality is a difficult drug to take – it’s good for you, but can make you feel pretty lousy.

I enjoyed my visit to the Nursing School and I’d like to thank everyone for making me feel so welcome. Even if none of the students chose to work in Congenital Cardiology, they’ll bump into other patients like me – it’s estimated that in the United States, there are slightly more adults living with a Congenital Heart Defect than there are children. Adults with Heart Defects are living longer and better, and we’ll have “normal” medical problems in addition to our bad hearts. And today’s Cardiac Kids are growing into tomorrow’s Heart Warriors.

So its important for those of us with a heart defect to “meet the public” – and not just to raise awareness, but to educate. To guide new Heart Families through this scary world we never expected to enter, but also to give the professionals who will be taking care of us a chance to learn from us. it doesn’t matter if someone is the best Heart Surgeon, the best Cardiologist, or the very best Cardiac Care Nurse… sometime in the past, these people had no idea that Heart Defects even existed.

Someone had to teach them.

Hammerin’ Hank hits a homer!

November 11, 2010

“It’s gone! It’s 715! There’s a new home run champion!” – Milo Hamilton, WSB-TV, April 8, 1974

The Atlanta Heart Walk was held not in Turner Field itself, but was spread throughout the parking lot. When Fulton County Stadium was torn down in 1997, the area was leveled out and paved – the old stadium is now the new stadium’s parking area. One small section was left standing: the outfield wall that Henry Aaron’s 715th home run cleared when he broke Major League Baseball’s lifetime home run record.

Good Nurses

November 10, 2010

NOTE TO READERS: We’re off on a Secret Mission tomorrow, so there may not be a post on Thursday. You’ll hear all about it later, though!

I was looking through my 1967 Johns Hopkins records and especially looking over the nurse reports. The nurse reports make up over half of my total file – neat sheets with handwritten measurements gathered at certain times. This was long before electronic records and most monitoring equipment. Nursing was really a hands on profession, not that it isn’t now. I’ve been cared for by some awesome people over the years, and a lot of them are nurses. You see and interact with the nurse a lot more than you do with the doctor, so when you are assigned a really good nurse it is a Great Thing and a Big Deal.

A big part of the job is observation and reporting, and in the ’60’s you were doing this constantly. There weren’t many automatic alarms that would go off when something was wrong; it was the nurse’s job to almost see problems coming. You were looking, observing, and making notes on every patient, so a good nurse had her head on a swivel. The nurses reports in my file I’ve nicknamed my “pee and poop sheets” because that was a major part of what was recorded: My temperature, amount taken in (input), amount expelled (output), and what I was doing at the time. Remember I was five months old; at any time of day I might be “playing”, “sleeping”, or more than likely, “crying”. Hey, I was a baby, and you people had just cut my chest open and tinkered around in there. You’d cry, too!

The order of the day was “Observe the patient.” You can almost hear the nursing department answer OK… what are we looking for? Trouble is, Cardiac Surgery was only about 25 years old then – they knew they had to prevent Pneumonia but after that, no one was really sure what to expect. So the Surgical Department just told them to observe the patient closely.

I had a fever on my 3rd day post-op. Hopkins called in a doctor who specialized in combating fever. “We see this a lot,” he told my parents. “Many patients spike a fever on the third day after their surgery, we don’t know why. If this is a 3 day fever, it will last about 24 hours and then it will disappear. We don’t know why that happens, either.” And he was correct – it was a 3 day fever, and it was gone 24 hours later. But he also told the nurses to keep a close eye on me, just in case it wasn’t a 3 day fever.

How do I know? The nurses report for that 24 hour period is crammed with notes. The best I can figure, they were checking on me every fifteen minutes for almost 30 hours.

Good nurses are lifesavers – literally!

 

 

 

From the outside in

November 9, 2010

There are several thousand worthwhile causes and just as many ways to advocate for them. But if you want to be effective, occasionally you have to turn things inside out. Look at what you are doing from the perspective of an outsider.

First, how would you describe what you do? Personally, I write about living with my heart defect, and occasionally I am asked to speak to others who are facing the same problem. You may notice that the letters CHD did not come out of my mouth. Because 85% of the general population does not know what those letters mean. So why confuse them? And the majority of people “switch off” when they hear jargon. Many a Heart Parent can tell you, when the doctor first described what was wrong with their child’s heart and he/she used “Doctor Talk”… they were more confused than informed. So to be a good advocate, you keep the jargon to a minimum.

Using jargon implies an extra level of knowledge – one that those new to your organization may not have.  We all know what a Left Subclavian to Left Pulmonary Artery anastomosis is (Hint: That is the medical description of a Blalock-Taussig Shunt) but others might not. And they might not know who Blalock or Taussig are, or what a shunt is. Some may see all this jargon as a secret handshake – you’ve got to be “in the club” to understand it. That’s a turnoff right there. But the Heart Defect world is full of medical language and jargon, so it could be very valuable for your organization to provide a list of acronyms to every new member or worker. Welcome to the club; here’s the secret handshake.

What’s your group doing? Defining the mission quickly and clearly are important points. And it needs to be a specific goal – “Fighting CHD!” is too vague to be a goal. You need a mission statement, something that can sum up your activities in one sentence. Everyone needs to know it, and everything done on behalf of the organization needs to be done to meet that goal. A good mission statement keeps you on target. Whenever your group does something that accomplishes your task, write about it and take photos. Video is even better – and a good compact video camera is pretty reasonable these days. Don’t let Earl write the story just because he’s been here since the organization started; hire a writer if you need to. And don’t take “Grip and Grin” photos – get photos of your people doing something to advance the cause. Photos are proof that you are actually doing what you are saying that you are doing.

What do you want from donors? If the answer is money, we’ve got a problem. Even the best organization can sully its good name if it seems that they always have their hand out. People will give to a cause they support, but not every single week. A better thing to do is to figure out how to involve the donors. If there is a donor who seems to have no connection to the Heart Defect Community that you can determine, why not ask him/her to be a part of the next hospital visit?  Odds are that you will not lose the next donation – and you could turn him or her into a full-time supporter, helping out as much as possible. Get the people out on the edges involved… they may be your next group of leaders!

Heart Defects and the 2010 Midterms

November 8, 2010

With the recent victory by the Republican Party in the 2010 midterm elections, another, larger issue looms: The Republican Party ran on the promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with other forms of health care reform. If they can’t do that (And most likely they can not), they will refuse to fund it. And with Republicans in control of House of Representatives – where all bills that allocate money originate – this is a threat they can make good on.

This is not good news at all for Congenital Heart Defect patients. The Congenital Heart Futures Act which was once a stand alone bill, was “folded” into the Affordable Care Act. So if the Affordable Care Act is repealed, there goes the Congenital Heart Futures Act. And if it is unfunded, the Congenital Heart provisions won’t be funded either. In an ironic twist, the sections dealing with Congenital Heart research and funding never were funded to start with. We wouldn’t have lost anything, because we never had anything to start with. Just words on a piece of paper.

Tell George Washington that the Declaration of Independence is just words on a piece of paper, and let me know how that goes for you.

We can go to Washington, meet with our legislators, and request funding, but there is no guarantee. Every other worthy cause will also be in DC, trying to make sure that they get their money, too. And since we were never funded in the first place, that puts us way down on the list. After all, if we never received any money at all, there must not be much to these heart problems. If it were serious, we’d be throwing cash at it! (They don’t call it an invisible disability for nothing, folks!)

The new legislators won’t take office until January 20, 2011, so we have a little time to prepare. We can’t really prepare a strategy yet, but we can get set in our minds what we are working for.

This isn’t a party issue. It is not Republicans vs. Democrats. People of all political walks have heart defects – an unborn child’s heart begins to develop early, and often the heart is forming before the mother even knows she is pregnant. This doesn’t benefit this side or that side, it benefits people. Because a house divided cannot stand, and a house united cannot fall.

This isn’t for us. This is for our children and their children. This is for the parents who sit in the Intensive Care Unit and fear that their child’s next breath may be the last one. This is for those who have to live with medication, scars, blood draws, and the knowledge that they are different, outsiders, alone.

A lot of people believe that Conservatives and Progressives are so far apart that they can’t even order lunch together. I choose not to believe that. I think we can all work together to bring Congenital Heart Defects under control and eventually condemn them to the dustbin of history.

Grunt Work

November 7, 2010

I was in Philadelphia last April, helping out at the offices of the Adult Congenital Heart Association (ACHA) as they prepared for Lobby Day 2010.  On Lobby Day ACHA members – joined by members of the Children’s Heart Foundation and Mended Little Hearts – gathered in Washington, DC to visit the US Capitol. Our goal was not a sight-seeing trip, but to visit our legislators and convince them to fund Congenital Heart Defect provisions of the new healthcare law.

Knowing the ACHA office would be swamped with work (we had a total of four people in the office at that time) I volunteered to come to Philadelphia a few days early and help out any way I could. Unusually enough, “any way I could” turned out to be…

…. copying, sorting, and stapling.

Wow – that was a classy assignment there, Steve. They must not have needed that much help, after all!

Hardly. The ACHA staff was still setting up appointments with the legislators or their staff when I arrived. 48 hours until we left for DC; 72 hours to Lobby Day, and things hadn’t fallen into place yet. When we weren’t making appointments we were on the phone with our Advocacy Director working out final details. There was also a small crisis with the host hotel that wasn’t resolved until the last moment.

Making legislative appointments for 100+ attendees, smoothing things out with the hotel, working with the Advocacy Director to make sure things were just right… I don’t know how to do any of those things. So I was copying, and folding, and sorting, and stapling – so that the people who do know how to do those things didn’t have to worry about it. Or stop what they are doing to do it.

It’s “grunt work” – the repetitious, mindless type of job that no one wants to do. Everyone there could have done it, but they had skills that I don’t have, so I did the job. My best guess is that I handled 500+ separate sheets of paper. If you attended Lobby Day 2010, your informational sheets were assembled by me. (Don’t worry, I washed my hands!)

This is what advocacy for any worthwhile cause is – the willingness to do the little tasks, the grunt work, the behind the scenes activities that makes everything flow smoothly.

On the cutting edge

November 5, 2010

Do you think my child needs one of those medical information bracelets? He had Transposition of the Great Arteries but his doctor said he was fixed after his surgery.

Yes, I would certainly get a Medical Information bracelet. I personally use MedicAlert, because you aren’t limited by whatever you can squeeze onto the bracelet. MedicAlert is a little more expensive – you have to pay for both the service and the jewelry – but you can have so much more information. I don’t just have a heart defect, I’m also in Heart Failure, you can’t read my pulse, my blood pressure, or give me an injection in my left arm because of my Blalock-Taussig shunt, and I take a small bucketful of medication every day. A “bracelet” that listed all that would be as long as my arm! (just try getting it through airport security!) With the MedicAlert bracelet, you discuss your detailed health information with a nurse over the phone and your bracelet comes with a telephone number and a numerical code. If something happens and you can’t speak, emergency personnel can call the number and enter the code, and they will have instant access to all of your information. Most of their bracelets are waterproof, so you can wear them in the shower – after all, it can’t do you much good if you have passed out in the bathroom and your bracelet is lying on your bedside table.

The Medical ID bracelet is important and could save your child’s life… but that isn’t the reason for today’s post. The second part of that statement made my hair stand up: He had Transposition of the Great Arteries but his doctor said he was fixed after his surgery.

Holy cow! Read this carefully, it is very important that it be understood: A heart defect can not be fixed. The word “fixed” implies that it is good as new. It isn’t. A heart can be repaired through surgery, which means that it can be made to function – perhaps not in the normal manner, but it is functional.

It is hard to believe that there are still doctors who tell Heart Parents that their kids are “good as new!” They used to tell them that, back when I was growing up – because they didn’t know any better. There weren’t that many Cardiac Kids around, so no one really had any idea what the future held for these children. But this child had been born with a critical health problem, had survived a delicate surgery, and would get better. He or she might not have as long or as full a life as the other kids, but we had won this battle. Now go, get out there and enjoy your life! And for years that was the common practice, because kids with heart problems didn’t live as long as other children. As an example, Cardiologists at Johns Hopkins Hospital told my parents that if I needed a second operation, it would probably have to happen ten years in the future. My parents asked what kind of surgery I would need, and after a long, uncomfortable pause the doctors admitted that they didn’t know. “That operation probably hasn’t been invented yet.”

But then something totally unexpected happened: Cardiac Kids grew up! As we grew, we had more heart problems – some of them related to our original defect, and some of them new. Doctors had new tools they could use to help us out, either a new drug or a better surgery. They could do a lot more with Catheterizations, too. And while we were proving that we could grow up, doctors were discovering that those heart problems were still popping up, sometimes years after we had been “fixed.” And their thinking started to change.

Today, most Cardiologists will tell you that your child’s heart has been repaired – and he or she will always need specialized cardiac care. Their heart is misshapen, blood vessels run the wrong way, it has holes where there shouldn’t be any, and has been altered by surgery. Even after they grow up, Heart Children will always have to make allowances, take medication, go see their Cardiologist, and stay on top of their health. And they will have to do this forever – because even though their heart is functional, it isn’t normal. No it isn’t fair, but this is the way it is.

And if your Cardiologist is telling you your child is “fixed”, you seriously need to consider finding another Cardiologist. Because this one is living in the past.

And Cardiac Kids live their lives right on the cutting edge of medical science. We always have, and we always will.