The hospital stay: part 2

Continued from yesterday.


The spinal fluid leak and post-dural puncture headache.

During the lumbar puncture they were instructed to get fluid for diagnostic testing, but also since they were so sure my problems were caused by increased intracranial pressure, to both measure said pressure to prove that theory, and to drain some extra fluid to see if my symptoms improved. But, they were really surprised to find when measuring my pressure that it was well within the normal range. I was confused, surprised, and worried. They were also confused and unsure what to do next, so they decided to drain some fluid anyways just to see if my symptoms improved (something that I also thought was a good idea at the time). Now I should mention that before the LP another big concern of mine was a potential complication that they call Post-dural puncture headache, and the continued leaking of spinal fluid from the puncture site. My connective tissue disorder puts me at a higher risk for this because my tissue is weaker and doesn’t repair or heal itself properly. Within hours of the LP it was clear that I was suffering from exactly that. The pain from the headache if I’d sit or stand up came on quickly, and severely. Likely made worse by the spinal fluid that was already drained during the LP and the fact that it was drained despite my pressure being perfectly normal to begin with.

While most leaks eventually seal themselves and the headaches and other symptoms then resolve, I knew that in my case my tissue likely wouldn’t be able to do so by itself. When this happens they do another spinal injection, called a blood patch, where they inject some of your blood into the area around the puncture site, which triggers an inflammatory response and usually successfully seals the leak. Despite my telling them that my connective tissue disorder would almost certainly make a blood patch necessary, they said that they won’t do blood patches until it’s been a week because by then most leaks have resolved. This brings me to something that I noticed often in the hospital: when mentioning my connective tissue disorder, those who even knew what it was, would act as if it changes nothing in the way that they handle my case. This can be both frustrating and scary because your connective tissue is everywhere, and when it’s weak it has the potential to change nearly everything big and small about how your body reacts to virtually anything that done to it from a procedure to surprisingly medications. For instance, as I observed and pointed out near the end of my hospital stay, my tissue was necessitating the frequent changing of my IVs, because otherwise the IV would fail and my vein would end up inflamed and sore. Up until that point, they’d been trying to leave the IVs in for as long as they would with any patient, and my weaker tissue couldn’t handle it. This happened many times without anyone taking into consideration my disorder, despite me frequently mentioning it.

As for waiting an entire week for a blood patch; the thought was terrifying for me. The pain in my head was nearly unbearable at times, and even laying down didn’t fully resolve it. But what made it worse was that with my chronic pain, particularly my back issues, having to lay flat on my back for very long without being able to change positions is very painful. And now that was the only way I could lay. I couldn’t begin to imagine having to do it for a week, yet there was no other position that I could tolerate from the severe headache.

Pain, vomiting and frustration.

The next morning, I was told that my doctors had decided that they wanted to do an MRI. The MRI didn’t show anything that could be causing the swollen optic discs either. It did show that I had an enlarged pituitary, a sign of intracranial hypo-tension, resulting from the spinal fluid leak and confirming that the severe headache I was experiencing since the hours following my LP were from that. Considering all of the information my doctors in the hospital had on how my ICP hadn’t been increased, was now far too low, and continuously lowering still from the leak, and the fact that I was in that much pain because of it; I still can’t understand why they would ever think that it was a good time or decision to start me on a diuretic in order to further lower my ICP (which can be dangerous!). Given that my first dose of the medication was that evening (after doctor’s rounds) and I wasn’t aware that they were planning on putting me on it and hadn’t been spoken to about it, my nurse essentially gave me the option of either just taking the medication until my doctors could talk to me and authorize them taking me back off of it, or she could write down in my file that I was uncooperative and refusing to take my medication. So, since I’m not a very confrontational person and I was too tired and sick to argue it further, I took the medication, knowing it could likely make a nearly unbearable problem even worse.

Once I saw my doctors the next day they said that they agreed that I shouldn’t begin taking the medication yet (you think?!), with no explanation as to why they didn’t just agree with that in the first place without making me worse off with it instead. My pain was pretty excruciating at this point and I hadn’t really slept much in the past week with everything going on. My mom wasn’t a whole lot better off but she was there for me no matter what, and it was a lifesaver to have someone there to help advocate on your behalf because frighteningly at times, my treatment in the hospital (supposedly one of the best in Canada) was dismal and at times bordering negligent. I was left to deal with the horrible acute pain of everything going on with little more than what I take at home on a daily basis to begin with, and for the first few days because of some mix up with my medication forms, they couldn’t even give me ibuprofen. They eventually, after prodding, started to give me what they called a “headache” cocktail every 8 hours, which I was relieved and hopeful about. The cocktail was an IV anti-nausea medication, followed by an IV drip of an NSAID (ketorolac). I thought maybe I noticed a slight improvement at first but soon – maybe from the still lowering ICP – it wasn’t doing anything but making me sick.

One of the things that they say is incredibly important with a spinal fluid leak is to get plenty of fluids. But by this point the low ICP (and the ketorolac) was making me vomit even just from trying to drink water. Despite being well aware of that, it wasn’t until I told my nurse that I was probably getting dehydrated and should be put on fluids that she said she’d mention it to my doctor. A few hours later they had eventually hooked me up to fluids, and I continued to not be able to eat or drink without throwing up. But still, after 24 hours of not having to urinate once, I was pretty sure that I was still dehydrated, perhaps severely at this point. This was when I found out that the amount of fluids they had put me on was equivalent to about a cup of water a day, which is well under the needed amount for an average person, never mind someone who’s both leaking spinal fluid and continuously vomiting. I told my nurse that I couldn’t drink anything and wasn’t getting enough IV fluids and despite all signs clearly and obviously pointing to that being a major problem, she still seemed unsure about it. So, instead of upping my fluids immediately, instead, to see if that really was the reason that I hadn’t been urinating, she insisted on first scanning my bladder for an obstruction. I had to so strongly point out all of the reasons that dehydration was going to be the problem that I was starting to get weepy and exhausted because I couldn’t understand why I was having to fight for this in the first place. It’s hard to explain how this feels; when you’re in severe pain and unable to move, frequently throwing up, and having to literally argue the importance of the most basic human need (water) to the people who are supposed to be taking care of you. I felt like I was constantly fighting for the simplest things in the hospital.

I want to say here that I’m a very easy going, compliant and non-confrontational person, often to a fault. I have a difficult time sticking up for myself, even when it’s right and needed. I also understand that being a nurse is a very difficult job. They deal with an incredible amount and they do one of the most important and demanding jobs that there are, often without thanks. But, that being said, there’s also a standard of care in hospitals, and it’s frustrating, and frightening when that standard of care is repeatedly not being met, or when the simplest things are made difficult simply because you’re not being thought about as a human being or listened to. It’s an incredibly helpless feeling to be bed bound, and in severe pain, and to have the people with power over you, who are responsible for taking care of you, often failing in the simplest areas of that job. To end up dangerously dehydrated while your in the hospital seems unacceptable to me, particularly when someone is repeatedly pleading with you to do something about it.

There were so many instances in the hospital that made me feel that way. There were days where I was informed that they hadn’t ordered a medication that I was on from the pharmacy yet (spoken as if it were no big deal) and was told that I’d have to miss a dose, and I’d then have to make a point of fighting just to get a medication that I had managed to never miss a single dose of at home. There was also the time that my IV machine kept repeatedly beeping in the middle of the night indicating a problem in the flow of my IV and despite me telling my nurse multiple times that I could feel fluid dripping down my hand, instead of simply looking at it she kept trying to adjust the machine or untangle the cords. Then she’d go away for a few minutes only to have to come back again when it would start beeping. I felt pretty badly for my room-mate that night. When she did finally turn on the big light to check, my IV was leaking blood and fluid down my hand which had been the problem, so now she had to try to do another IV in the middle of the night. Two hours since the first beep, two nurses trying, and 3 IV pokes later the problem was finally resolved when it could have been almost immediately instead.

Unanswered questions, an uncertain diagnosis and it’s connection to my disorder.

My neuro-ophthalmologist was surprised that my ICP hadn’t been high. He was certain that must be the problem because none of the other scans and tests had shown anything else that could be causing the optic disc swelling. He wasn’t entirely sure of what to do to help my eyes at that point, so decided (as mentioned earlier) that the easiest course of action for now would be to put me on a diuretic, just to see if there was any improvement and then to watch me closely in case my vision deteriorated. We decided that the med should wait until my ICP recovered from the spinal fluid leak, and then we would slowly begin the new medication (which can be difficult to tolerate). I felt really frustrated, not at anyone, just at the fact that here I was again, in a difficult medical situation with no clear answer.

Luckily for me, someone with the ILC foundation that I often correspond with and who knows and works with many others with my disorder, as well as with possibly the top neurosurgeon in the world dealing with problems related specifically to our rare disorders, helped me get some answers. I later found out that there is indeed a link between both high and low ICP, and connective tissue disorders such as mine. It seems that for whatever reason (they haven’t been able to figure it out yet), our bodies can’t always regulate our spinal fluid flow and “draining” system properly, which can result in an ICP that can fluctuate between being normal, to too high, to too low. This can cause symptoms like headaches that can come and go, and when the ICP irregularities are prolonged this can cause symptoms like swollen optic discs. And while I’m not happy to have another rare, often unknown side-effect, of an already rare, often unknown disorder, I am glad that I’m not the only one and that there are some answers out there. It made sense as to why my ICP was completely normal when it was measured despite all of the symptoms and signs I’d been experiencing pointing to it being too high before. This problem, whatever the cause, can be difficult to treat, but that was a bridge I would cross once and if I got there.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it but slowly each day dragged on and ultimately passed by. My symptoms briefly improved enough for me to walk up and down the halls outside of my hospital room a few times, holding on to my mom, but they quickly went back to how they had been, picking up new symptoms along the way. I started having problems with my hearing in both ears which I was certain was from the low ICP, but at the time the resident neurologist, who I saw the most during my hospital stay and who tried to do my LP the first time, told me that it was physically impossible (not even just unlikely, but impossible) that my low ICP and my ear problems were related. This scared me because he said it with such certainty, and I was now thinking that either something else was now wrong with me, or that I was losing it and it was just in my head. Frustratingly, we later found out the ear related symptoms I was experience were in fact one of the most common symptoms of low ICP and was absolutely caused by my spinal fluid leak. Which strikes me as the kind of thing that he should know, and if he didn’t know then I wish he would’ve just said so instead of telling me that the thing I know that I’m feeling is actually impossible.

Blood patch and being discharged from the hospital.

Eventually, when it was finally nearing the week mark since my lumbar puncture, it was decided that it was time to do the blood patch to seal the spinal fluid leak. I can’t even begin to explain what an enormous relief that was to hear. I was also a bit afraid, knowing that they’d have to do another spinal injection in the same spot, but without radiology. Luckily for me the anesthesiologists had a much easier time than the neurologists had. It took him three attempts, but he interestingly used the nerve pain it was causing to help him find the right spot. When he brushed a nerve (unfortunately for me) the first time, he asked me which leg I felt it in, and when I said the left, he seemed to move the needle over to the right side, and when I felt the pain again, but this time in my right leg, he moved the needle ever so slightly back to the middle, which worked.

Blood patches are not a guaranteed fix for a spinal fluid leak which scared me. I was told that they work about 80% of the time, but I felt like it was doomed to fail after everything else that had gone wrong. They often work immediately but as much as I wanted to say that it had worked when the doctors asked me, I noticed no improvement whatsoever in the hours following. So, we were told not to give up hope and that it was very important that I lay flat on my back and not move, because that just might get it to work. And eventually, ever so slowly, I started to notice a gradual improvement. By then, I was so desperate to get out of the hospital and so happy that I could see a light at the end of the tunnel, that I played up how well I was already feeling as much as possible and told them I was certain I was good enough to go back to the hotel. Even then I was fully aware that I should have waited at least one more night in the hospital, but that stubbornness kicked in again. I was still in pretty bad shape, and both sitting and standing for too long were still incredibly painful. By the time I exited the taxi and made it to my bed at the hotel it was nearing my limit of tolerance, but every hour I found myself able to sit and stand a little longer each time I tried.


Saying goodbye to my hospital bed!

We had one last appointment with my ophthalmologist to see how my eye infection was doing, which was also pretty hard to get through pain-wise, but it also signaled the longest that I’d been able to sit and stand since my lumbar puncture, and that I really was on the mend.

Getting home, and how things are a year on.

Before long we were on an airplane home, finally, a few weeks after we’d left. But frustratingly, we were returning with a lot of unanswered questions and uneasiness, on top of the incredible relief. My optic discs weren’t better, and the lack of a concrete, simple explanation for what was going on left us worrying about how or if we’d be able to treat it.

During my hospital stay, because of the trouble we’d had with my IVs, I also ended up with thrombophlebitis which is an “inflammation of the wall of a vein with associated thrombosis”. It was in the hand that 2 (out of 4 or 5) of my IVs had been in, both of which ended up having problems and leaking. The veins on that side of my hand have hardened and were at first red, visibly inflamed and often painful. While this condition can usually be avoided by changing the IV once a week, it seemed that with my fragile tissue even a couple days of an IV in the same spot ends up being too long.


The residual redness and inflammation in the back of my hand and veins.

All in all, things have been up and down since then. The medication has been very hard to tolerate at times particularly in regards to my P.O.T.S. It takes many of the difficult symptoms of that and exacerbates them, particularly the fatigue and faintness. Often at times it can cause very painful pins and needles in my legs, but as my dose has decreased this symptom has nearly disappeared.

We travel to P.G. to see an ophthalmologist, at first once a month, but since my eyes have been relatively stable, now we go every 2 months. Then we travel back to the neuro-ophthalmologist in Vancouver first every 3 months and now every 4. Sometimes my ICP doesn’t seem to be too high and sometimes there are signs that it is indeed too high again (like a lack of pulsations in the back of the eye caused by increased ICP). The swelling in the optic discs tends to still be there, though this last appointment in Vancouver it was decided things were looking really good so we could try lowering my medication to see how things went. Now I’m waiting for my followup appointment in Prince George to see if lowering my medication caused a worsening of the swelling or pressure.

It was a bit of a difficult and scary year at times. And by the time I finally got home I was covered in bruises and reminders of everything that I had been through. But now, it’s hard to believe that’s how long it’s been since all of that kicked off. I can’t imagine going through any of it without my incredible mom. She was there every single step of the way, no matter how awful she was feeling or how difficult things got. I’m so, so lucky to have that support through things like this.
And, thank you to all of you for sticking around, and to the amazing few who actually made it through this novel of a post (I don’t blame you if you didn’t!).

– Katie ♥