Friday, February 19, 2010

Pain in The Butt

I haven't been feeling well for a while now. My tolerance for sitting up in my chair has been decreasing, ever since I had that pressure sore on my thigh a couple of years ago. I used to be able to tolerate sitting eight hours (or more) every day. Now I typically feel wiped out after only four hours. Even though I'm paralyzed, with hardly any sensation, my body compensates by presenting me with certain signals: chills, cold sweat, profuse sweating on only one side of my face, tingling sensations, fever and tightness in my chest. The signals are called autonomic dysreflexia (common for people with high injuries like mine), and are my body's way of alerting me to a problem. The bad thing, is the fact that dysreflexic symptoms are secondary symptoms and I have no real way of knowing what the cause is. I tend to go down a mental checklist and try and rule out common possibilities: blocked catheter, wrinkle in clothing, a pressure area, my feet, bowel issues and my position. It's normally one of the things on the list and once it is resolved, the dysreflexic symptoms go away.

Most of the time, dysreflexia is only a minor discomfort, that I've learned to deal with. However, there are rare occasions when we (my caregiver and I) can't figure out the cause or I know the cause, but don't have help nearby. It is especially frustrating when there is nothing to pin it on and I end up feeling sick for long periods of time. In many cases, I think it is caused by urinary tract infections or indigestion. I try to avoid taking antibiotics at all costs, because they reek havoc with my bowels and sometimes cause nausea.The dangerous and/or scary part aboutdysreflexia is the fact that the majority of the symptoms are caused by my blood pressure rising. Since I can't feel the pain my body feels, it elevates my blood pressure and that's what causes the secondary symptoms. If the problem causing the pain or discomfort isn't found, then my pressure will continuously rise and I risk having a stroke. When it gets very high I feel as though I have a vice grip around my ribs, squeezing me and an immense heaviness where my ribcage meets. If you've ever had pneumonia, you are familiar with the feeling, although in my case it has nothing to do with my lungs. I do run low grade fevers quite often; always starting in the late afternoon, after I've been sitting a while. I can tell as soon as they come on, because I begin to feel very lethargic.Thankfully, I haven't had any high fevers in a long time. The first year after my accident I had a few potentially lethal fevers, that hit 106 degrees Fahrenheit or more.

Normally, I chalk up my crumby feelings to my catheter and try not to let it bother me. Lately though, I've been getting the tightness in my chest too often. It forces me to feel as though I have to lay down, because that's the only thing I've found that helps the symptoms subside at all. The tightness doesn't go away until I've laid down awhile. Aside from the discomfort, it's been really annoying not being able to pinpoint the cause. In a lot of cases, even the doctors have no way of knowing why I experience dysreflexic symptoms and they tend to blame it on one another. My urologist is always blaming my bowels, my physiatrist often thinks it's urological and my general doctor usually has no answer. Honestly, I know my body better than all of them and I often feel like it's a waste of time to be seen by doctors, since it's all a guessing game. I find doctors (at least mine) look for pills to solve everything and are quick to write out prescriptions. Most of my doctors are willing to give me prescriptions for specific things, as long as I ask. I'm sure it's because they know that it's impossible (in most cases) to know for sure what wrong with me and they rely on me to help figure out a diagnosis. During my first year post accident, I was easily taking over 20 pills each day. The bulk of my medicine is bowel and/or bladder related. In fact, I ran into problems a couple years back, because I was constantly taking antibiotics forUTIs (urinary tract infections). The antibiotics in turn, caused issues with my bowels and that's what led to my sore. It is so aggravating when the solution to one problem creates a new problem.

People with quadriplegia require bowel regimes or colostomy bags to go to the bathroom. It's a subject I've rarely discussed with anyone, besides my friends who are also paralyzed. Although, I'm not really comfortable talking about it, I think it's important that people learn all aspects about paralysis. I want people to understand exactly what I go through and why it is so crucial that we find a cure. I share things, at the expense of feeling embarrassed, because I want people to see the whole picture. Going to the bathroom (bowel movement) is my least favorite subject and yet, I find my life revolving around the bathroom, these days. What's worst is that I have had issues with using the restroom my whole life. I don't know why and I'm sure psychologists would give me some complex Freudian theory as an explanation. All I know, is that it is a part of life that I've never felt comfortable about. In a way, I feel like it's the epitome of un-ladylike behavior.

I realize that going to the bathroom is not something one can choose to do or not to do and that everyone does it. I've just always seen it as an embarrassing part of life; one aspect that was acceptable for others, but not myself. I put myself through a lot of physical pain through the years because of my issues (paranoia, disgust, embarrassment) because I absolutely could not bring myself to "go" just anywhere. I'd rather have stomach cramps, than use a public restroom or a friend's bathroom. I used to treat going to the bathroom like some covert operation; the objective being not to leave evidence behind. I know it probably sounds silly to most people, never the less, it's hard to change how you feel towards something, especially when there's not much you can do to change it. I still hate going to the bathroom, more so than ever, because I no longer have any privacy. It's like my worst nightmare, having to have someone else assist me in this area. There's also the constant worry over accidents, since I have no control or sensations whatsoever. Having a bowel regime is supposed to keep your body on a schedule and is designed to prevent accidents, however nothing is full proof. I can't even begin to explain the stress related to never knowing or worrying about the fact that your body can decide to do whatever it wants, without warning. It's always in the back of my mind.

Being paralyzed (especially quadriplegic) often requires having people in your face much more than you might want or like. It's hard to have any true privacy when you need someone helping you with ever single aspect of life. Given the fact that I've always been extremely independent, it can feel suffocating at times to hardly ever have time alone. On top of that, there are so many personal hygiene things that adults normally do for themselves that I need help with. At times it can be very embarrassing or uncomfortable accepting help. There are tons of "simple"ADLs (activities of daily living) that I need help with that the average person might not even think about, because they are second nature: shaving, blowing your nose, going to the bathroom, bathing, trimming finger/toe nails, cleaning your ears, dressing, applying cream/lotion, getting an eye lash out of your eye, scratching an itch, brushing your teeth, brushing/styling your hair, applying make up, using a napkin when you eat, changing pads/diapers/soiled clothing, eating and so on and so forth. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn't have dreamed of asking for help with most of the things I mentioned. Being healthy and able to care for one's self is something most people don't think about and take for granted. I'm also guilty of thinking that way, prior to my accident. It wasn't until after my injury that I realized how lucky I was before and how many little things are effected by paralysis. Paralysis has changed my entire perspective on life.

For me, the bowel regime is the ultimate torture and most embarrassing thing that I need help with. It's been over four years since my accident and it still hasn't gotten any easier to deal with having other people involved in such a private aspect of life. The worst part about it, is the fact that I have absolutely no choice in the matter. If I could have some sort of nutrient injection and just give up food, I would. I realize how crazy it sounds, but it's an example I use, to demonstrate how much it bothers me. Food is one of the few pleasures I have left and I'd still give it up, if it meant never having to go to the bathroom again. Unfortunately, I need to eat to survive and my body needs to get rid of the waste. It just stinks (no pun intended) not being able to control the most basic functions. Being a woman adds even more things to the list of things I can no longer control or be able to care for myself. I can't help but think about how unfair it all seems. I sometimes ask God why he/she couldn't give me a little bit of a break. Is it too much to ask to not have a menstrual cycle? I lost it for six months post accident and wish it wouldn't have come back. I mean, so many other functions were lost, why not that one too? It's not like I'm going to be having children anytime soon. Having to have other people help during that time each month ranks second in terms of embarrassment.Is it too much to ask to not have to constantly worry about incontinence? The whole point of a bowel regime is to prevent accidents and yet they still occur from time to time. It's hard to explain how awful I feel, when accidents occur. Most of my aides, nurses and family try to down play it, like it's no big deal, but I have a feeling they'd think differently if it was them.

The entire subject of incontinence upsets me. It is not easy to cope with the knowledge that I have no control over my own body, or that I have to endure a bowel program for as long as I am paralyzed. I won't even consider the idea of having a colostomy bag. It is not an option. I already know that having a colostomy bag would bother me even more than having to go through a bowl program. The thought of having a bag filled with feces strapped to me, makes me sick to my stomach. As it stands, a nurse comes every other day for three hours and I have to take six pills a day, to keep my body functions working on a routine. Although it can be tedious, I feel as though I'm left with no choice, but to grin and bear the situation the way it is. Having a bowel program (I'll try and spare you from as much detail as possible) consists of having another person manually stimulate your body into going to the bathroom. Someone like me (quadriplegic) no longer feels the sensation of needing to go to the bathroom, nor the feeling of going, nor the ability to control the required muscles. The person assisting with the bowel program is in essence, giving your system a jump start to signal it into doing what it needs to do. It is also the assistant's (usually a nurse) job to make sure that the bowel regime was a success, by manually checking to ensure that your body has no more waste it needs to get rid of. If it's done on a set schedule and you take your medication and watch your diet, it's supposed to be pretty consistent and give you the peace of mind that you can go through your day without having to worry. When things are going well (usually only ever lasts a couple of months at best), I do a decent job of coping and try to block out the situation as best I can.

It's frustrating and depressing when I do everything I'm supposed to do and problems arise regardless. It makes me want to scream. Why I am going through all this, if I'm still having to worry or feel on edge?! Not to mention, there are secondary issues that come along with the fear of incontinence that are not only embarrassing, but also unhealthy. As I mentioned early, if incontinence happens too frequently, the person risks having skin breakdown and sores. My latest discovery, is that people with spinal cord injuries are also prone to getting hemorrhoids. Oh joy! Yet another embarrassing thing I can add to my list of things I wish I didn't need help with. I never realized how common hemorrhoids actually are. Apparently, most women get them after childbirth. At this stage in my life I would probably be dealing with them anyway (from having a child), even if I never got injured. The difference now, is that there is no way of getting relief, other than topical treatments, like creams. So although hemorrhoids may be a common problem, it becomes a much more complicated issue for people with paralysis. Unlike the average person, I don't have the luxury of being able to stand or tolerate long periods of time laying on my side. On top of that, the very thing I hate the most (bowel program) is one of the main causes and primary irritant to hemorrhoids. I feel like I can't win.

Some people are better than others at dealing with needing to have help with hygiene and toileting issues. I suppose it all depends on individual personalities and how the person dealt with that aspect of life, prior to their injury. I've always had bathroom hang-ups and being paralyzed just magnifies those feelings ten fold. In general, I find that men are much more laid back about topic. Statistically speaking, there is a greater percentage of men, versus women with spinal cord injuries and the vast majority of my paralyzed friends are men. By comparison, men also seem to enjoy toilet humor and talk more openly about the subject, whether injured or not. Women with spinal cord injuries have additional issues that can add to the stress and depression, often related to paralysis. Men don't have the potential to bear children or the burdens of menstruation. It's heartbreaking to know that I might never experience pregnancy (Technically I can carry a child, but I'd have no sensation and it would be high risk. Not to mention, I'd have no ability to physically care for a baby), breastfeeding or holding my own child. These are things I've dreamed of and imagined, since I was a young girl. Men with spinal cord injuries don't have to deal with all the extra problems that women face. I'm not saying men have it easy. No one living with paralysis has it easy. I'm merely demonstrating the obstacles I face as a paralyzed woman and my difficulties dealing with the care I need.

Not all people with paralysis will agree with me, in terms of how they feel about the care they need. Like I said, each case is unique: every injury, every body, coping skills, treatments and attitude. Despite how poorly or well a person deals with living with paralysis, I'm certain that 100% of the people in the spinal cord injury would give anything to have their health back. I doubt anyone would choose help over the ability to care for one's self independently. I think it is absolutely vital that people understand paralysis, especially given the fact that a spinal cord injury could happen to anyone, at any age. 

The things I dream about now, are the most basic abilities that most people never even think about. So many people are wrapped up in trivial problems and materialistic attachments . I think it's important to help others understand how lucky they really are and to help them re-focus their priorities. As embarrassing and disturbing my conversations, blogs or interviews are at times, it is all worth it, if it opens the average person's eyes to what it mean to be paralyzed. When I think about the out pouring of generosity Americans have shown towards issues of human suffering (like Haiti, New Orleans,Darfur , etc.), I know that people will support a cure. I think two of the key factors to curing paralysis are awareness & funding. That is why I feel it is important to be open and honest. It's not about pity. It's about raising public awareness. People need to know the true, everyday obstacles that paralysis poses, so that they we be motivated to find a cure. Sugar coating my life by talking about all the things I can still do will not help bring a cure. Yes, life isn't over after paralysis, but why should I have to settle for compromise for the rest of my life? My injury has taught me to value the core things in life: love, family/friends & health. If I could regain the ability to care for myself, I'd be a happy person the rest of my life.

To learn more about Autonomic Dysreflexia, check out this link: Autonomic Dysreflexia

Monday, February 8, 2010

Art Education: Bringing Light to Contemporary Issues

Although it's been four years since my accident I still think about my "old" life on a daily basis. I can't speak for other people in my situation, but personally I find it impossible to not be reminded of everything I had and lost. One of the aspects of my old life that I miss the most is my career. It saddens me to think about all the years I spent in collage and all the time and effort I put into my work. I was truly blessed to know what I wanted early on in life and to have the motivation and talent to achieve my goals. So many of my friends floundered through college and/or chose career paths that they are unhappy with. I genuinely loved my college experience and my career. Not many people can say they enjoy their job. I have pictured myself as an art teacher ever since I was in junior high and although I always believed I'd create art on the side, I never envisioned myself as a "starving artist." I chose teaching because I wanted the stability of a steady job and for my love of children. Being an art teacher was the perfect profession for me, because I got to create art every day and inspire children to love art just as much as I do. It was also greatly satisfying to see the children creating and to see their finished artwork. Children's art is special because it captures the world from their perspective. I couldn't help but feel happy and re-energized when I would see all my students' work. Displaying the finished projects was one of my favorite things to do, because I was so proud of the work and wanted everyone to see how wonderful it was. Hanging displays also gave me the opportunity to teach the concepts or history behind each lesson to the larger school community.

It was (and still is) important to me to teach children to appreciate art and understand the vital role art plays in our every day lives. All of my lessons included historical examples of art work and highlighted the reasons behind each piece of artwork or specific techniques. This way, my students could learn about practical uses for art as well as understand how art impacts humanity and how all cultures use art as a form of expression.

I suppose there is a certain irony to my life, in the sense of how my career path changed. Most art majors in college would probably say their dream is to be a successful artist in terms of exhibiting and selling their work. In fact, it irks me that a lot of people use teaching as a "fall back" career option. My dream has always been focused on the teaching aspect of art education and never so much on my own artistic fame or success. That is why I say it is ironic that I find myself outside of the classroom and "working" as an artist.

Once I began painting again, after my accident I focused primarily on skill and technique. I joined the AMFPA and the paintings I give to them I create with the intention of them being able to reproduce them and raise money for the organization. I paint mostly still-lives for the AMFPA and working on them is great practice and skill building for me.

As many of you already know, my personal artwork focuses on my feelings and struggles with paralysis. I choose not to sell my work at this time and rather use it as a teaching tool. Although I am no longer in my classroom, it is my hope that I can educate others through my art. The paintings I've had in exhibits all touch on different issues that impact my life. Some of my work is highly person and depicts specific challenges I face or events that were traumatic. Creating each painting helps me to flush out certain emotions and thoughts I've kept bottled up. In this sense I'm sharing a small part of my burdens with the viewer. It is my hope that when people see my work they walk away with a new perspective on paralysis and desire to help raise awareness. Anyone is subject to injury and I think it's crucial that people understand that they could very easily end up in my shoes. Empathy is more important to me than sympathy. I want people to have a greater appreciation for what they have and to think about how they might feel in my situation. Many of the struggles I face are general issues that all people with disabilities can relate to. I also think it's important to shed light on the big picture and to highlight current events that impact my life, both directly and indirectly.

So, I guess you could say I am still teaching, just in a different way. I'd prefer to still be in my classroom, but am grateful that I still have an avenue for inspiring others to love art and to use art as teaching tool. I've been fortunate that people have taken an interest in my work and have supported me in my goals. I'd like to exhibit more in the future and will continue to grab opportunities to raise awareness whenever I can. For me, fame is not a concern. If I can help educate others about paralysis and in turn help find a cure, that's all that matters to me.