Sunday, July 26, 2015

More on the Mystery,Ticks and Safety Nets

Yesterday, I wrote about living with uncertainty, dealing with illness – both human and animal -- and the Mystery.  When I posted what I had written in the Creative Group at Bedlam Farm on Facebook, it started a lively discussion.  After sleeping on it, I realized that I had some things to say that would take more than the comments section would hold.  The conversation branched off in three directions – caring for our animals and pet insurance, treating Lyme Disease and accepting the Mystery in our lives.  

I was asked why I decided to put Stella through the series of diagnostic procedures – the MRI, spinal tap and bone marrow test.  Jon Katz, who has written and thought more about the relationship of humans and animals than most people, wanted to know what were the limits in my mind, either in terms of the procedures the dog was to undergo, the trips, the cost or the emotional toll.  Our decisions about how to do what was best for Stella were based on past experiences with our other dogs and on the financial safety net that pet insurance gave us.

When we lived in California, our neighbors put poison in their garden to kill the snails that were eating their plants. Then, they turned on the sprinklers and the poison washed into our yard.  Not knowing any of this, I let our dog, Pepper, out in the morning, and the snail poison got on her paws.  It burned, she licked her feet and started having seizures. I raced her to the vet, who luckily knew immediately that it was snail poison and pumped her stomach. Ten minutes longer, and it would have been too late to save her.  Unfortunately, the nerves on the lining of Pepper’s stomach were permanently damaged, and I had to cook special food so that she could eat for the rest of her life. This happened when she was four years old, and she lived a good long life to the age of 14.   We did not have pet insurance, and there were many times throughout Pepper’s life that I wished we did in order to help with the vet bills.

After Pepper died, we really wanted to get another dog, but it was during the recession, and we did not feel that we could make a financial commitment to bringing another animal into our family.  Owning animals is expensive. I’ve had two horses for almost two decades, and many times, in order to take care of them, we’ve had to go without for ourselves.  I believe that once I have taken responsibility for an animal's health and well-being, I have committed to doing whatever is necessary to avoid having my animal suffer ( even if it means that euthanizing is the most humane answer). 

When we reached the point where we could afford another dog, I researched pet insurance companies carefully.  They are not all created equal. Some are worthless because they don’t cover conditions that are common problems. I found a company called Embrace Pet Insurance, who even covered hip dysplasia, had reasonable monthly payments and paid promptly.  I signed up for it the day that we brought Stella home, and I’ve never regretted it.

Stella is my constant companion, especially since my husband and daughter are away from home a lot. She goes everywhere with me, sleeps on our bed, is a dearly loved member of our family. So, when she got ehrlichiosis and suddenly became extremely ill, and the vet felt there was another underlying infection that he couldn’t identify and needed to be treated, we decided that we would use the pet insurance to determine whether it was cancer or not.  If it was, we also felt that we would not put Stella through the painful and expensive chemo and radiation required to treat leukemia or lymphoma.  I’ve worked with the Leukemia-Lymphoma Society and know many brave humans who have survived, but my dog doesn’t have the cognitive abilities humans have to understand what and why and the treatment is very painful.  Luckily, at this point, the neurologist vet does not see signs of cancer, and has called Stella’s illness “idiopathic”, meaning it is a mystery.

Now, I think that he is side-stepping the larger question of whether ehrlichiosis, Lyme disease and other tick illnesses do greater damage to humans and animals than doctors are willing to acknowledge.  Living in the land of Lyme, I know many people who suffer from arthritis, memory loss, respiratory problems and even blindness that they believe have been brought on after being bitten by ticks.  It’s a parasite and it’s systemic. Once it’s in your body, it will always be there, even if it’s dormant for years. 
Stella’s doctor, who is regarded highly by other vets, is not willing to go out on a limb and say that an ehrlichia tick is causing such a life threatening illness.  

For some reason, the medical profession, both human and animal, refuses to give tick illnesses serious consideration or research.  While Stella was in the hospital, I went on-line and investigated most of the major vet universities to try to find a researcher who was working on Lyme or ehrlichia, hoping to find someone who could shed more light on her illness.  I could only find three doctors, and none of them were studying aspects of the diseases that had any relation to Stella’s symptoms.  So, why aren’t the doctors and pharmaceutical companies and the federal government interested in funding research and finding the answers that could help so many sick people and animals?  The tick problem keeps growing, but they all put their blinders on and deny it.

Ten years ago, my horse, Silk, went into shock and almost died after an ehrlichia tick bit her.  Three years ago, my husband was bitten by a Lyme tick and he almost died when it caused a heart block.  Last Sunday, when Stella was a dazed, zombie dog, growling at me, obviously in so much pain, I knew that the only hope for her was to intravenously pump the antibiotics and steroids in her as fast as possible.  We were lucky, and it saved her. Back in the mid-1980’s, when so many of my friends got sick with AIDS, I witnessed a similar denial and also discovered the power of standing up and demanding action. 

So, even though I don’t really want to get back on the soapbox, I’m reaching the point where I believe that it’s time for all of us to stand up and make some powerful noise.  Why should an insect the size of a speck of dirt cause so much pain and ruin so many lives?  I’m not saying that the Mystery doesn’t exist, but let’s not chalk it up to that because we’re trying to hide what’s really going on.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Living with the Mystery

“Idiopathic” is the word of the day, the week, the month, the summer. It means “arising spontaneously or from an obscure or unknown cause” and also “peculiar to the individual”.  It comes from the Greek words “idios”, meaning one’s own personal, and “pathic”, meaning feeling or suffering.  In other words, there is no reason, no answer, no visible cause for what is happening to you.

Whether it is my recent illness with Lyme Disease, the unexpected death of a much loved friend or the latest health crisis with my poor sweet dog, Stella, this summer has plunged me deep into the waters of not knowing.   Years ago, a friend of mine told me, “You’re allergic to not knowing.”  And it’s true.  When confronted with a problem or crisis, I usually immerse myself into investigating what I can do to make things better.  Only sometimes, I’ve learned, I just can’t.

When my dog’s mouth dropped open and she began drooling and was not able to eat or drink last week, I rushed her to the vet. She tested positive for ehrlichiosis, a frightening type of tick disease.  I was no stranger to it since Silk, my horse, almost died from it about ten years ago.  We were sent to an amazing vet who is a neurologist, and he told me that he believed it was “idiopathic trigeminal neuritis”. Stella’s jaw was paralyzed, and it might take weeks, if ever, to resolve itself.  We went home with doxycycline, the drug of choice around our house, and we tried to feed her by sticking our hands deep into her mouth, tossing food down her throat.  By Saturday, she had stopped eating and was growling at us, which was really unheard of since Stella is a total love dog.  I called our vet on Sunday morning, and he announced that he was concerned about rabies.  Trigeminal neuritis is a symptom of rabies, and even though Stella had very recently had a vaccine, the vaccine is 98 percent effective. What if she was in the two percent where it didn’t work?  I couldn’t imagine how she had been exposed to rabies, but he scared the crap out of me. I leaped into action.

We rushed Stella back to the insanely expensive vet specialty hospital, and she was going into shock by the time we got there. The admitting vet said it was definitely the right call to bring her in, saving her life.  They gave her intravenous meds, did an MRI, spinal tap and bone marrow test. No rabies, thank God. She was diagnosed additionally with “idiopathic thrombocytopenia and neutrophilia”, which meant her platelet count was dangerously low.  Two days later, they said we could take Stella back home since she was stabilized, but there was still no answer. The neurologist vet tells me that there probably never will be.  He said he has to live with “the Mystery” all the time in his practice. Just like my doctor told me that there’s still no answer to why I cough and have trouble breathing after I’ve finished my course of doxy and have been pronounced “cured of Lyme disease”.  Idiopathic, unknown, uniquely personal suffering.

I’ve been wrestling with the concept of acceptance for a long time.  Now, this summer, I am spending my days contemplating “the Mystery”.  This morning,  Siete had trouble walking across her stall to eat her breakfast. I can’t even tell which leg is lame. It looks like they all are. “ Oh, no,  Lyme again” flashed through my mind as I gave her a dose of banamine. It’s gorgeous weather today, and the green, flowering outdoors beckons us.  My daughter, who has never had a tick disease, is afraid to go out there, and who can blame her?  There’s almost no research being done to figure out how these deadly tick diseases work or how to treat or control them. It reminds me of the early days of the AIDS epidemic.  Denial and excuses from doctors and drug companies and the CDC.

I came into the house, and while drinking another cup of coffee, I opened a book by Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, a hero of mine who has written extensively about living with illness and accepting death. “Mystery is the presence of the soul. It’s the way that we encounter and experience the soul in the world around us. The experience of mystery strengthens us, changes us and awakens us,” Remen says. “Mystery cannot ever be solved or known and with its unknowing, it presents us with a dimension of life which might be considered sacred. Mystery is never solved. Mystery is lived.”

She’s right about that part.  Around here, we are definitely living with it. And feeling very grateful for good pet insurance.