“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” – Maya Angelou
I started this blog at the start of January 2015. For a while I had wanted to write. But in all honesty I was scared.
“What if I write and nobody wants to read it?”
I soon learnt that writing isn’t just dependent on others reading it. It’s a great form of self expression in its own right. It’s the attempt the find the right words to tell our own stories about our lives.
One of the first momentous, yet deeply personal stories that I shared was the first anniversary of my Mums death in a post called ‘A Journey Through Grief and What I Have Learnt.’ I had felt that in telling my own unique story, people might just connect and maybe they could relate as they struggled through their own story of grief.
Little did I know that the same week I started this blog and wrote the above piece, would be another life altering week for me.
That was the week that I sustained a brain/ spinal injury I am still battling now –
21 months later.
That day I was painting and needed to reach high up near the ceiling. So I used a relatively small step ladder to stand on, but it was resting in a place that wasn’t completely stable. I had already used it that way for hours and felt confident it was ‘stable enough.’
But my confidence was misplaced.
I took a seemingly small risk, the type that we all take everyday. But on this particular day my risk taking didn’t pay off. It was that day I had an accident. It was that moment where it felt like so much went wrong.
I have been living with the consequences of that decision ever since.
In one horrible moment the whole ladder had toppled over and took my feet from under me with it. I fell onto my back and hit the back of my head….
I am fine!
A bit dazed!
A bit bruised!
No real damage done!
Or so I thought!!
So I finished that painting. Exhausted & aching all over, but obviously to be expected after painting all day and having a few bruises from the fall. But within 48 hours it became obvious,
I WAS DEFINITELY NOT OK!!!
Two days later I was diagnosed with a concussion.
“You should be better by next week.” they told me. But I wasn’t….It got WORSE!!
So we went down to A&E.
“I am sorry Mrs Hill you have Post Concussion Syndrome. You are looking at about an 8 week recovery time.” they said.
No surely, not me.
Give it four weeks.
It can’t be that bad.
That is such a long time!!! (I confidently, yet naively thought!)
I’m sure I can bounce back like any other time I have been ill for a few days.
Eight weeks later of being pretty much bed bound, in a dark and quiet room, and things still getting worse.
We head down to A&E for the third time since my fall.
I was finally admitted that time because I was so unwell, in severe pain and vomiting after being given morphine which didn’t touch the pain, only made me feel even more ill. I was finally seen by a Neurologist the next day and she moved me to their ward to look for evidence to support their initial diagnosis of low pressure headaches caused by a spinal CSF leak.
I am not going to list all my symptoms because I have done that all before. But what I will say here is that I am so very, very grateful to a handful of people who in the midst of their own pain and struggles decided to help others like me.
I have to tell you about the wonderful team at www.csfleak.info who helped me to understand more about my injury and helped me to realise that the fact I ONLY ever felt remotely well LYING FLAT IN BED for those two months, was not due to post-concussion syndrome after all,
It was probably due to a SPINAL CSF (Cerebrospinal Fluid) LEAK!
This meant that somehow the accident had caused a small tear in the membrane in the centre of my spine (the dura) that holds in your spinal fluid. This means that my spinal fluid leaks out and is absorbed my body.
So when I am upright sitting or standing, due to gravity, my brain drops in my skull, because it lacks enough fluid to hold it in place.
Twenty One months after my fall.
I am still not better!
I have had some ups and downs along the way. Bad months in 2015 of being almost fully bed-bound. And other months after epidural blood patches (I have had 3) of being mostly upright.
But since that fall I have never had one single day of being…
Such is the journey to full healing with this unusual and often under-diagnosed condition. Many people do get diagnosed, receive treatment, get well quickly, and never look back.
But many others face constant battles, discouragements, set backs and difficulties throughout their journey of being diagnosed and treated. Often a lack of knowledge by the medical profession makes getting fully better hard for many.
Recently, I have become so acutely aware how little many doctors, and the general public, know about spinal CSF leaks. I have heard so many stories of people struggling to get a diagnosis and, even when they do, facing many barriers to treatment.
There are many hospitals that really don’t know what to do with ‘these rare patients’ and this often makes delays in treatment an unfortunate reality for many.
I am so grateful for an amazingly supportive and well informed group of CSF leak sufferers who form an online community through the ingenious invention of Facebook groups. Many of us cannot imagine how we would have faced this journey without one another and I honestly think that some people in those UK and US based groups would not be alive today without that wonderful resource. Despair and suicidal thoughts are very prevalent within this group of patients.
Having someone tell you “I get it” whilst you both spend yet another day staring at the ceiling, flat in bed, can mean everything to someone really struggling. Even when that other person is half way across the country or even the world.
We face the daily struggles together!
It can be a lonely and difficult road battling a chronic illness. That road sometimes feels impossible when you slowly begin to realise how little knowledge a lot of doctors have about your condition.
I recently watched a very moving video, that is on the wonderful US spinal CSF leaks charity website. www.spinalcsfleak.org/resources/patient-stories/ About a lady who got a spinal fluid leak from a very badly placed epidural for the birth of her second child. She got two dural tears from the needle which caused spinal fluid to leak from her spine.
It took her 2 1/2 years to recover (she had a new born and 4 year old at that time) and she had to have 11 epidural blood patches (where they inject your own blood into the epidural space in your spine) and two surgeries to get better.
But what struck me the most was that even though everyone knew the area of her spine the leak would have been in (which is half the battle with traumatic (or spontaneous) leaks like mine) time and time again doctors refused to listen and often implied that there is no way she could be leaking CSF, and perhaps it was instead, ‘all in her head’ or something she would ‘just have to live with’.
I cried so much watching it because myself and many other leakers have faced similar battles to hers.
I find it heart breaking when people are suffering and needing help and support. And yet due to a lack of knowledge and understanding by the medical profession AND the general public, people are often told things like;
‘We have got nothing left to offer you,’
‘Try your best to get on with your life’
‘Perhaps you should try and get out more.’
Which is just a slap in the face when you are literally stuck lying flat in bed!
And yet, it doesn’t need to be that way!
There has been so much research done about spinal CSF leaks already. There IS knowledge out there. There are specialists who are leading the way, publishing medical papers and providing hope that many people CAN fully recover and perhaps don’t have to just learn to live with it after all.
Peoples minds need to be opened.
Medical professionals need to know that there is more information out there than they might realise. That there are a whole range of diverse symptoms. That people can still be leaking and debilitated, yet still function (well sort of) upright most of day. That there are many different kinds of treatments available and things that can be done to help.
- Recently I have been thinking; how I can spread awareness?
- How can I do my bit to help make the way clearer for those patients coming after me?
- What skills can I offer the cause that might make a difference for both me and others?
One thing I have chosen to do is write. I can use my words to draw attention to this condition. I can tell my story in the hope it eventually reaches the people who need to hear it.
“Well, everybody’s got a story to tell and everybody’s got a wound to be healed.” – Plumb
So today that’s what I want to do. I want to welcome you in to my world. I want to share with you a snap shot of what it is like living with a chronic CSF leak. So that you might have some more understanding yourself.
These days I am so very thankful that I get more hours upright than I used to. It really does make it that much easier to deal with. It helps me to feel more a part of the world around me and connect better with my kids. But it is still very very hard and debilitating to live like this.
Here is a typical start to my day….
I got up about 7:30am this morning. Lying in bed in the mornings I can actually feel pretty normal. But that feeling never lasts for long!
I get up, shower, get dressed and have breakfast, including a cup of tea and 2 pro plus caffeine tablets (because I can’t stand coffee!!) – which can help to give me a bit more up time (although I often find it can be an artificial type boost feeling). During this time I already feel the neck stiffness and occipital (bottom back of the head) pain beginning to build up, but it’s manageable and relatively mild.
I drive part way and then walk my youngest to school. Chat to the other parents/ carers, go back to the car. Then this morning I decided I would pop to the shops.
My head is getting worse bit by bit, the pressure is building, the pain in my neck/ occipital region is increasing and my head is beginning to feel more full and a little cloudy.
I go into the supermarket – only to get a few things so it’s not too heavy. I don’t use trolleys, I don’t use a basket. I don’t take a handbag – only my purse – so that I can get as many things as possible and carry them without making my symptoms much worse.
So depending on what I have that might be 4-8 lightish items that I can hold in my hands/ arms without dropping them. If I do drop one of them (like the other day), I have to leave it or ask a shop keeper to pick it up for me. (Because bending down might make my leak, and will certainly make my symptoms, worse. At home I use a grabbing stick like the one below).
The nausea is setting in.
I pay for them on the self service check-out which is at an awkward angle so you have to bend a little to put them on the counter once scanned.
This increases my symptoms.
I bag them up and pay and by this point – just carrying the weight of those few things is making the nausea worse, so I start gagging in the lift to the car park, feeling like I want to vomit (although I don’t think I am ever fully sick).
Thankfully there is no one else in the lift with me!
I drive the short distance home – put the things away. Talk to my husband while he’s making a cup of tea (he is working from home today). During our conversation my head and neck is getting worse (I feel like someone has whacked me round the back of my head with a baseball bat!!) and I start gagging again uncontrollably – but thankfully I don’t actually vomit.
So my husband says, “you’d better go and lie down.”
I walk up the stairs and can feel my legs beginning to get very weak, I have to think about the steps I am taking, willing my legs to keep moving. The cloud in my head thickens. That feeling of not being able to cope with the intensity in my head floods over me!
It’s 9:30am – I have been up two hours and can no longer function upright!!
I am now lying down flat in bed – feeling a lot better and writing this. I will stay here for probably an hour or two before getting up again to do some more jobs at home for maybe half an hour to an hour before the same thing happens and I have to lie down flat again.
That’s how it goes throughout the day – every day – although later on in the day the up times are often less and the down times can get longer.
If you saw me at the school at 8:30am, even though I had symptoms, you would think I looked fine, chatting to people (which is great because some days I don’t get to see many people).
So this is me on a good day – last year during my worst times the above would all happen with my symptoms within about 10mins of being upright.
I couldn’t even have a shower.
I would have a shallow bath once a week which I would have to lie completely flat in. As soon as I got out I would have lie on the bed with a towel round me, with my wet hair on a towel. It would take at least 1/2 hour to 1 hour before I might manage to be upright enough to put some clothes on and dry my hair a bit with the hairdryer. Or often my husband would help try and dry it whilst I lay flat.
When I was in hospital, a year ago, waiting and battling for more treatment (a second epidural blood patch) – I was in a bad way. I would spend all day lying in a head tilted down bed to alleviate symptoms and keep my brain in the place it should be. I could only manage about 5-10 mins upright at a time which makes things very hard.
We were facing lots of barriers and delays at that time (which I write about here), because the anaesthetists didn’t want to blood patch me a second time (after 5 much better months following the first) they instead wanted me to try an occipital nerve block done by the pain management team. (I did have the nerve block, it didn’t work at all, but it did leave my head, neck and hair covered in the sterile cleaning stuff.) Following that it took me two whole days to find the strength to get my husband to take me into the shower in the hospital bathroom so that he could help me wash all the chemicals from my hair and neck and help me get changed. He then dried it with a hair dryer whilst I lay flat again. (That would pretty much do me in for the whole day!!)
It’s an utterly debilitating condition. It’s not good for anyone’s physical and mental health to have to lie flat in bed all day. And yet some people are left that way, long term, because doctors don’t know what to do with them. They don’t understand how to treat them.
They do not seem to realise how impossible it is to live like that!
People are just not aware that many spinal CSF leak patients end up feeling suicidal (as I did at Christmas and write about here) because of the physical and psychological toll of the condition. Which is often exacerbated by the battles to find doctors who understand the condition, show compassion and actually do their best to help you.
There can still be an ‘old school’ mentality at large in the medical profession, even following correct diagnosis, of trying one epidural blood patch (and sometimes not even one) but if it fails to fully get you well, then they recommend that they should just try to help you manage the pain.
‘Manage the pain?’
I don’t have a sore leg, or a mild headache that goes away with some pills or a even a worse headache and stiff neck that is solved through a nerve block.
My brain drops in my skull when I am upright, wreaking all sorts of havoc in my head and body until I literally can’t physically or mentally cope. You can’t just ‘manage’ that kind of pain. And actually I wouldn’t always describe it as ‘pain’ – it doesn’t do it justice. It is an intensity that can actually only be described as a sensation that is ‘beyond pain.’
(And just to add here that no painkiller I have had (Including IV morphine) has ever touched it)!
BUT – IT IS TREATABLE!
Things ARE changing, patients are speaking out and coming together as a force to challenge conventional thinking about CSF leaks. And thankfully, little by little there are more wonderful doctors who are meeting enough well informed leak patients to see how great their suffering is and are slowly beginning to offer them new opportunities for diagnosis and treatment.
When someone with a leak meets a doctor who understands, or at least tries to understand, it’s truly a beautiful thing. It honestly means so very much to us.
Those doctors will never be forgotten.
We don’t expect miracle workers. We know we may not be easily fixable. But to meet someone with a willingness to try, an ear to listen, a humility to learn and a compassionate heart can make all the difference to someone on such a difficult road.
In February this year (2016) a video was posted on You Tube that is doing so much to help change people’s minds and hearts about spinal CSF leaks. In the video Professor Ian Carroll from Stanford University Hospital in the U.S. gives a passionate lecture in which he is trying to enlist the help of doctors and medical professionals to help find and treat those suffering from spinal CSF leaks.
Through this video Dr Carroll has become our spokesperson, bravely, boldly & passionately challenging conventional thinking in the medical profession at large. And joining others in the quest to change current practice and stop people suffering unnecessarily from a mainly treatable condition.
I know for me, and many other longer term suffers, Dr Carroll’s video on YouTube is a breath of fresh air that reminds us that we are not going completely mad. So many patients have taken great hope through the impact it, and other recent information, is slowly having on awareness, diagnosis & treatment of spinal CSF leaks.
I am so very grateful for this wonderful resource from a doctor who is wanting to reach both doctors AND patients. I have gratefully been able to share this resource with some of the many doctors who have cared for me over the last 21 months. Some who have gone to great lengths to understand the condition more and do their best to support and treat me.
It is always a special moment when you meet a doctor who does watch the video or reads though the websites. People’s hearts and minds CAN be changed and it is wonderful when you see that happening.
Change does not often happen instantly. We are not all going to wake up tomorrow in a world where every person with a spinal fluid leak is going to get properly diagnosed, treated and fully recover. These conditions are complex and it takes time for understanding, research and practice to filter through.
But we can all play our part!
So today I want to ask sufferers and their families to think about;
- How could you speak up and tell your story?
- How can you be part of raising awareness too?
We might not all be able to write blogs, create websites, volunteer for the charities, fund raise or spread the word on the street. But perhaps we could post on social media, share a link, wear a t-shirt, or tell something of our own story.
Or perhaps you could respectfully share with a medical professional a medical paper on leaks, tell them about the UK and US CSF leak charity websites, or send them a link to Dr Carroll’s video.
You never know, they might just take a look – especially if you approach it well.
“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” – Mother Teresa
Change will only come;
little by little,
step by step,
patient by patient,
doctor by doctor,
hospital by hospital.
By individuals and groups choosing to raise awareness and helping to challenge and transform conventional perspectives and opinions.
Perhaps we can all work together to enable patient and doctor to compassionately help one another to understand this debilitating yet treatable condition. So that even if we have had a tough and difficult journey ourselves, we can seek to build bridges with others that can open lines of communication. That might just change people’s hearts and minds for the future.
That way, we are building a legacy for the future. We are making the road that bit clearer for those following behind.
Mindful of the fact that they may never fully know the difficulty, struggles, sacrifices and battles of those who went before.
“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson
For more posts about my story of living with a spinal CSF Leak please look at the subject heading on the menu bar above.
Here is a brilliant 2 min animation about Spinal CSF leaks.
For more information about spinal CSF leaks please see the UK charity website at www.csfleak.info or the US charity website at www.spinalcsfleak.org.
Here is the link again to Dr Carroll’s video.