If only I knew

If only I knew back then what my new life would be like, would I have chosen it? Probably not.

The summer of 2007 was a very exciting one for me. I had just met an amazing man of God and had established myself in a beautifully decorated condo in one of the nicest suburbs west of Chicago. I had a great job that paid my bills along with some extra resources that I inherited when my Mother passed away. The grief associated with her death was complicated by navigating the affairs of her estate. Regardless, a new love makes everything nicer, lighter, and bearable even exciting. In due time I would come to understand my Pastor’s advice not to marry in the same year that I lost my Mother to her complicated health issues. Steve and I married at the end of the year anyways and I was off and running in Indiana with my Intended Beloved. God was so good!

Before long I was completely overwhelmed by all of the changes in my life. When I worked in mental health, we used to give our patients a Stress Management Scale to check off how many changes they had experienced in the year prior to hospitalization. Life events were given weighted scores, tabulated, then matched to a scale predicting susceptibility to illness. Yeah, my score was over 300 which is ripe for a stress-related illness. But thankfully, it didn’t happen. The adjustment to a new family life, State, house, church, job, pet, grocery store, bank, yada, yada, and husband was still completely overwhelming. Then I had to leave my new job in Indiana to find another because of ethical issues. Holy cow. It was a lot of changes in a very short period of time!

Then my Dad, who had been estranged from our family for 27 years, contacted my brother in Michigan. Mike was still living in our Mom’s house so my Dad was able to use our old phone number to reach him. Soon I was in touch with my Dad as well, catching up and trying to figure out how to deal with the sordid memories and circumstances of his leave-taking from our lives so long ago. Overall it was a good process. He was kind and generous. He shared stories, many of which I hadn’t remembered. After a few years of slowly getting re-acquainted, it was time to meet in person at his home in Florida. Mike was invited to go separately but never accepted the offer. I did. Steve and I went under an extremely stressful set of circumstances with my job at the time that would later magnify how important that visit to see him would be to my future. It was really good to see my father again.

Less than 2 months later, my Dad passed away. Mike never got to see him. My own visit and especially having shared it with Steve, were instrumental in figuring out how to manage my Dad’s affairs from where we lived in Indiana. We had a dinner with my Dad’s “tribe” of friends along the Forgotten Coast (so telling, eh?) of Eastpoint, Florida instead of a funeral per se. And over the next year, it would take dragging my brother through endless legal procedures to settle our Dad’s estate especially the selling of his truck. Later on with the inheritance that I received, I bought a newer truck like my Dad’s and became a woman who drove a truck — NOT a compact SUV or car like every other woman I knew drove! After all, I now lived in Indiana. Seems like every 3rd person here has a truck for work or various projects where ya gotta haul something from here to there! I liked gardening so it worked better for me than my Hyundai Tuscon. Over the next 4 years I finally had an opportunity to take the class to become a Master Gardener. Perhaps the truck was part of the overall uniform? It sure hauled a lot of soil and mulch, paddling gear and other stuff. How did I ever live without a truck in the suburbs of Chicago? Well gee, back then I lived most of my years in a townhouse then a condo!

My life drastically changed at the end of the same year of 2011. I was barely past the grief and memories stirred with the ordeal of my Dad dying when I contracted a serious illness kayaking in a local reservoir. Perhaps this stressor finally broke me down. Viral hepatitis became the first domino in a cascade of serious health issues that challenged even our brilliant family practice physician. Sure I had some hormonal and orthopedic issues in the past, even chronic pain, but nothing compared to the daily convulsive episodes and myriad of severe symptoms that beat up my body as I practically crawled through 2012. By February, I could no longer work. I felt that I was putting both my occupational therapy patients and myself at risk should I continue. I struggled to concentrate, to function, to sleep, to complete basic activities of daily living. When my Doctor thought I had underlying chronic Lyme disease, the treatments he prescribed felt like they nearly killed me. Then came the first of a series of alternative medicine treatments. It was the Beam Ray Rife machine that triggered the daily tics, the seizure attacks that escalated into the worst hell I could ever imagine. The episodes wouldn’t be diagnosed as epilepsy but they were equally as devastating. It felt like my life as I knew it was over. Actually, it was.

If only I knew that I would become seriously ill just 4 years into my marriage with Steve, would I do it all over again? To me that is a rhetorical question. Who would choose the extreme stress of almost complete social isolation? This included separation from Steve’s wonderful adult children and family who hadn’t had enough time to get to know me from their homes out-of-state or out-of-country, let alone my own friends and family. Who would choose re-injury of chronic pain issues every day and every night when the involuntary, violent convulsive episodes would start about 10:00 pm every night and return upon wakening every morning? At one point I noted over 30 symptoms to my complicated, serious illness that baffled specialists in-state and out-of-state. Over the course of the next decade, over $100,000 of savings and income would be spent trying to find answers. Treatments would diminish the worst symptom but not remove it or the episodes would increase again after a few months of a reduction. It would take almost 9 years to find cranial nerve, especially trigeminal and vagus nerve roles related to a condition diagnosed as Autonomic Dysfunction. We found tools more recently to stop them after a period of time but not prevent them. The grief and frustration were crushing to both of us. Steve had support from his family and friends, work and church. My support circle caved in with each passing year. I made a few new friends online dealing with similar issues. I knew I wasn’t alone because of their friendship and prayers from them and believers who became distanced; the constant companionship of the Holy Spirit kept me alive and going most of all. He alone re-started my breathing hundreds of times . . . I now longer feared death but saw it as a type of relief should it come.

We simply cannot know what lies ahead of us in our little lives. The Bible tells us that man makes his plans but it is the Lord who orders his steps (Proverbs 16:9). The Bible tells us that He has plans for us, to prosper us and not to harm us, to give us a hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11). The Bible tells us to trust in the Lord and not in our own understanding, that He will make our paths straight (Proverbs 3:5-6). The Bible tells us a story where He restored the years that the locusts had eaten (Joel 2:25). And so much more. When the months rolled into year after year after year of serious illness for me, when the convulsive episodes and tic attacks racked up into the thousands, when people close to me started to doubt their medical origin even when confirmed by tests and experts, when the money ran out for aggressive treatments, when the illness alluded three large research medical centers in the country and several specialists out-of-state . . . I hit terrible periods of despair. Then I planned my suicide in October of 2019. When I realized to follow-through on my plan would be to believe the lies of Satan himself as he smiled in my mind’s eye, I realized that I was being deceived. Death, like divorce, is not an answer but a new problem. Believe God’s word and promises instead. I chose to accept that I am simply too finite as a human being to fully grasp these Bible verses, God’s real plan for my life, what I cannot see, what my life is really about. I chose to follow Jesus.

All I have is here and now with you Gentle Reader. It’s not up to me to end the timeline. It’s not up to me to write the next chapter of the story of Just Julie Writes at Hope Beyond. My hope and future are in the hands of the Lord. I pray that my hands type as unto His grace, His redeeming power to overcome.

It is up to me to choose to enact a faith in an infinite God Who is beyond what I can see. He knows I have seen and endured a lot of horrible things in my life before I ever met Steve. What I could not even imagine before this past decade was what it would be like to go through it all with a man who loved me more deeply than I knew existed in life. He was often my Jesus with skin on. He is loyal and yet human, strong and tender, God-honoring and God-fearing, loving and still driven to pursue his own dreams too; Steve is my provider of all I would need in my earthly husband. I am truly blessed. We did reach a crisis point in our marriage twice during this nearly 10-year journey within our over 13 years together. We got through them and healed the pain of potentially losing each other. More intimacy grew between us as a result, along with trust. The spiritual battle that came along with each test melted away as unto the Lord. Only the Lord knows what those moments were really all about.

Only the Lord knows what all of the changes, the stress, the spiritual battles, the strife in our lives are really about. I’m sure that each of us would freak out if we really knew what the trials in our lives were really about. One day all will be revealed. For now tis better to lay down our swords and pick up His along with His shield of faith. Put on the entire armor of God while we’re at it. This life is not for wimps, I tell you. JJ

Don’t Wait!*

If ever your skin starts to itch in a mysterious way

Don’t wait to get it evaluated when you have a history of chicken pox or shingles.

The clues I missed were that it was one-sided and itched without pain

Yet it was the re-activated virus of herpes zoster in a new spot but related just the same.

My Doc practically shamed me for waiting so long to get treatment

But hey, another Doc said she couldn’t even see it the week beforehand

But there it lain underneath the skin where I could feel the bumps

Itching day and night, burning some too . . . I guess the stuff of life got in the way.

Anti-virals need to be administered within the first 72 hours

A fact I had forgotten since the last bout earlier this year and in 2016:

Three years ago it was hell on earth, screaming for 6 hours straight

Followed by a 3-day hospitalization, 2 emergency room visits, and a few minor complications too.

Shingles Rescue by Peaceful Mountain and liposomal glutathione help with the lesions

Taking all of the prescribed medication is simply what you must do

Don’t wait by trying this herbal stuff or that supplement unless you like to suffer

I already have had enough of that. Give me drugs already. Shingles is simply no fun.

The stress of life can worsen with the holidays and it did so in a big way for me

I’m only human I guess and so are we all. By the grace of God, we’ll get past it once again.

So press on, Gentle Reader, and find the goodness amidst the itching, pain, or whatever it may be

Joy and happiness will return one day: there is much to be thankful for even in this mess of late!

(*Just a little public service announcement of sorts.)

I need a makeover for sure!

Who gets this?

Don’t be this gal!

There have been many times when skills above being a “patient” have helped me navigate the mess that is our American healthcare system. While I am better understanding what it means to be pre-diabetic for example, I am convinced that it takes at least some college education to get the basics done! The following skills are critical.

Organization

Get lots of manila folders in January every new year and label them by categories that make sense to you. For me that means Medications/Supplements, Clinical Summaries, Insurances, Test Results, and one for any new, major diagnosis. Then I have a master notebook with the latest test results that I developed in preparation for a comprehensive evaluation at the Mayo Clinic. While most major healthcare organizations have online patient portals with all of our test results, sometimes your provider (Doctor or other skilled professional) will not be able to access them. Streamline each medical consult by having copies of pertinent reports with you at each appointment. This is particularly true when crossing over from one healthcare organization to another to see a particular specialist. GET YOUR OWN COPY of scans on DVD and go to medical records for the paper reports after each major test, test procedure, or medical procedure. Consider scanning them into Word files for when you are communicating with providers online. Searching for test results on your smart phone via the respective organization’s patient portal could be helpful but you will waste precious time with said provider. Your appointment may be over by the time you log in and access the data!

I first learned about organization when organizing ceramic molds for an occupational therapy department in a mental health hospital as a high school graduate. The patient groups ran more effectively thereafter and my supervisors were thrilled. As time went on it became clear that my love for office supply stores, blank CDs/DVDs, then little thumb drives were good things.

Put Stuff Away

For us, each year of non-medical records gets put into the same box as the same year of tax records. We keep only the past two years of tax record boxes in our home office and the rest go into the attic. After seven years the boxes can get shredded, burned, or otherwise destroyed (if we ever get around to it!). Pertinent folders relating to test results and medical conditions get filed in 4-drawer file cabinets that are alphabetized. Yes, this includes if our files spill-over into more than one file cabinet (as we have 5 of them!). A to C now takes up just one of these cabinets and may change when folders that are no longer needed will get purged. Yes, we don’t buy more file cabinets anymore; I just purge outdated information at least annually and especially when there is no more room for new records. Think it is outdated to worry about paper records? I disagree. There will always be important mail, receipts, reports, legal documents, and other pieces of paper to manage.

Any documents stored on our desktop (or laptop if we had one) should get dumped into an extra, external hard drive (our preference). These can be programmed to backup automatically weekly or to a cloud service in real time.

The importance of filing paperwork for quick access became a critical asset just 2 months ago that could serve to extend my life. I was filing some CT scan reports one weekend when I noticed that NO ONE had followed up on the finding of a new pancreatic cyst. This type of finding requires swift and specialized follow-up which began two days later. I am now in a 6-month surveillance program to make sure the particular type of cyst does not advance into cancer (that is highly fatal). Keeping-and-following good records is as important as the healthcare you seek and doing so could save your life!

Take Notes

We all probably have our favorite place to record information, whether it is on a smart phone app, calendar, daily planner, etc. The key is to be consistent: use the same method all of the time. My Mom was the queen of taking notes on partial slips of paper scattered on the back half of the kitchen counter! Her address “book” was a drawer beyond the sink filled with torn corners of paper, some tucked into the address book with a rubber band around it and some just stacked above or below it. She took out the piles each December to write her Christmas cards and vowed to update the address book before the holiday returned the next year. She never got it done. It was through these handwritten notes we combed when she passed away to make sure that important people in her life were contacted. And it was only then that I came to appreciate seeing her penmanship on pages yellowed, torn, stained, and re-used, that her system really did work for her over her entire life.

Date everything. Write down who you talked to and the phone number you called. Record the prices quoted, deadlines, and most importantly: what to do next. This way the next time you see your note-taking system on a particular topic, you can pick up and continue where the activity last ended. My Mom was an office manager and would probably find me to be a bit compulsive to include all of these data points in my note-taking and filing systems. But I submit to your that our healthcare and the complexity of life require it these days.

I learned the importance of good note-taking when trying to get some specialized cranio-mandibular care covered by any one of 3 insurance companies. I spent dozens and dozens of hours with what became a 2-inch thick folder of notes, letters, and statements accumulated over a year and a half to account for over $5,000 in out-of-pocket charges. I just knew that if some of the charges were coded correctly and sent to the correct payer, we could get such specialized care covered. I was wrong. We have received around $300 in reimbursement! I didn’t know that nearly all of my efforts would be wasted when the original provider offered to help but would not bill insurance directly . . . then did bill two of them . . . using either incorrect or out-of-date codes . . . over and over again. It was a nightmare for all of us involved.

As I write this, there’s a pile of 5 1/2 pages of billing statements, flyers, and notes stapled together and sitting next to me covered with handwritten notes regarding some new medical equipment. So the saga continues yet already I have had $20.28 in charges reversed. Along the way I asked to talk to a supervisor. Yes, I’ve learned who gets what done, aided by my 30+ years working in healthcare myself followed by 8 years of battling a serious illness and its subsequent paperwork. Organize, put stuff away (but not without looking at them first and periodically thereafter) and take notes. Then blog about it or comment below. I’d love to hear from you Gentle Reader. :JJ

Navigating the Mayo Clinic

Just like consulting a new bride is not the best person to go to for wedding planning advice, a new patient is probably not the best person to advise on how to navigate the Mayo Clinic. But I’magonnadoit anyways!

Expansive receiving area inside the Mayo Clinic and Gondo Building

Two weeks ago I was exceedingly stressed with the immense planning required for me to make an extended medical trip let alone to the enigma of the Mayo Clinic! It was all I could do while battling a serious illness to collate a pile of medical records into a tabulated notebook, make hotel reservations at a place that could accommodate chemical sensitivities AND a dog, make Clinic appointments, complete the pre-registration and questionnaire requirements of the Mayo Clinic App, clarify insurance issues, grocery shop for my special diet, oh and pack my stuff! Each person will have unique preparation tasks to consider when making the decision to go ahead and make your way to the Mayo Clinic. Here is my brain dump from our first trip in February of 2019.

Before You Go

Plan on hand-carrying any related medical records with you to each new consultation/appointment. (We overheard patients complaining that their faxed records were never received by the right place at the right time.) Condense and organize your paperwork so you can retrieve pertinent test results, CT/MRI/xray scan disks, insurance cards, etc. quickly.

While there are numerous transportation options and (limited) shopping in the underground subway, bring your favorite snacks and drinks with you from home.

Bring extra medications, treatment supplies, (dog food?) and personal products in case your stay is extended, which happens quite often.

If you are driving, consider staying in an Airbnb house/apartment or hotel with a kitchenette. Bring the first few days of groceries with you, even if healthy convenience foods, and especially if you have any dietary restrictions. Appointments can be exhausting and you will want nourishing foods to sustain you until you can get to a grocery store. Most hotels offer breakfasts but do they meet your needs? Contact the Travel and Concierge Desk at MC who can email you lists of hotels with their amenities.

Rest assured that practically everything in Rochester, Minnesota is geared towards the patients and staff of Mayo Clinic. Hotels have shuttles and shuttles-and-buses run in every configuration possible from airports to local attractions. Check with the Travel and Concierge Desk at MC for details.

Pick up a map in your hotel lobby that covers the MC and surrounding area to get familiar with things before your first day. Take a drive by the St. Mary’s and Mayo Clinic/Gondo campuses. Both campuses are huge yet there are central access doors for each to simplify things. There IS NO information desk inside the front doors of MC/Gonda building but there are 2 valet desks just inside the front doors that are very helpful.

If you are a Facebook user, reach out to others with the same medical condition who have gone to MC for tips and collaboration. Just learning from another patient that all of the buildings and hotels around the main campus are connected by an underground “subway,” eased our concerns about travelling to MN in the dead of winter.

Go in the Winter if you can. It’s less crowded and, if there is really bad weather, you may have access to more last-minute consultations due to cancellations. This helps condense your schedule to make the most of your visit. Having said this, the MC shuttles may be late in a blizzard but never stop running and the Clinic doesn’t close! And no, hotel rates are not cheaper in the winter but they can be during weekdays.

First Day

Purchase a multi-day parking pass if you plan on accessing the patient parking garage for more than 2 days.

Bring nutritious snacks and water with you. You will use them!

Wear comfortable shoes and layers of clothing to navigate the long hallways with ease.

Note that wheelchairs and transporters are available from the curb when you arrive. Just alert the shuttle bus driver or valet staff as to your needs and make arrangements ahead of time when possible.

Arrive early to every scheduled appointment. Complete Check-ins via the MC App or Online Patient Portal to save time. Alternate: Check-in kiosks at the entrance to every wing of the MC and Gonda buildings.

Note the computer desks available in the expansive waiting areas, MC WiFi that we found helpful in upper floors and internal offices, and the special check-in kiosk at the entrance to the huuuuuuge lab. Or you can wait in line at the lab.

Very likely you will receive a personalized schedule after your Initial Consultation which details everything you need to know. You can go to the front desk of any department as a “Checker” to see if they have any openings that would allow you to move or change an appointment to streamline your scheduling. Repeat this Checker periodically as things change quickly and you may or may not be notified when an opening occurs.

Gather business cards of your healthcare providers after each appointment as phone numbers and provider names are NOT ALWAYS listed on your patient schedule!

Check periodically via either the Patient Online Portal or MC App for test results, and messages from your healthcare providers. Test results and reports are processed very quickly in comparison to our local healthcare services.

Visit the subway on the lower level even if you don’t plan on stopping at the cafeteria. It’s an amazing place buzzing with activity! The glass atrium in the cafeteria is beautiful too.

Ongoing Tips

Utilize the Airbnb host or hotel desk clerks as a resource for just about everything. Meet the other folks on your shuttle who will usually and gladly share their experiences, recommendations with you. Most folks you meet will be from out of town!

Message your healthcare providers via the MC App with non-medical questions or anything that can help maximize your stay at the MC. They usually reply within a day or two.

Plan follow-up appointments as soon as the need is identified. Staff do their best to work you into the schedule of your healthcare provider when they know that 1) you are travelling to the MC from out of town and 2) when you are scheduled to leave town.

That’s it for now, end of brain dump! Take care, Gentle Reader, and fellow sojourner to the Mayo Clinic! Please contact me with your tips and suggestions and I will add them as needed.

Just Breathe

The stress is crushing

Into my chest, my frame in flare

Old issues still wanting to be a friend

Screaming with the new ones, a symphony of suffering.

The stuff of life

Crowds every moment and then

The smart phone dies and hours are sucked up

In this Verizon store, that kiosk, then hours with online tech support.

My checkbook sighs

From neglect then a balancing act

Or nightmare as the expenses of preparation

Smell poorly like the “unscented” shampoo at the dog groomer!

Alas I confess

I have been here before:

A medical trip on the horizon

Brings hope but making it so: invites a nightmare.

For how does one prepare

With a brain on fire and infections too

Each vying for attention in the hours that remain

Before departing to the fabulous Mayo Clinic very soon?

Just breathe little one

The one inside that is afraid

Come to my rest my Jesus calls to my heart

Lay here your worries, your burdens; the time remaining is mine.

How fitting after Valentine’s

When I barely got to see my amazing love

That the Author of love would also come to my rescue

And all I have had to do is let go: let Him add the increase for the rest.

The rest. Hear that!

For the opening of this door

Was ordained for this season in life

The last medical records will arrive today. Go take a nap already JJ.