Many of you that read my blogs, know that I struggle A LOT with bathroom related issues. Thanks to my accident, I've been living as a high level (C4/C5 complete) quadriplegic, for the last six years. I have no functional mobility whatsoever, and rely on help for EVERY aspect of my daily life. To complicate matters, I have a diagnosis of having irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), since before my injury. I'm honestly not sure if my IBS is still (considering my injury has left me with a "neurogenic" bowel and bladder) contributing to my daily woes, and discomfort, but am anxious to get some answers.
My regular doctor, and doctors I've seen at the hospital, only ever postulate and hypothesize, based on my theories, and descriptions, but never seem to have clear cut answers, or definitive reasons for why I'm so uncomfortable, and sick, so often. I realize that the fact that I can no longer directly feel what's causing my symptoms, makes it difficult for my doctors to draw conclusions, or pinpoint things, but honestly I feel like the vast majority of the time, they can't give me answers because they don't understand the nature of spinal cord injuries, and its effects on the body in general. I feel like, most times my doctors are treating me, like they would the average able-bodied person, and that is why I'm not getting any answers, or finding any relief. I'm not average, and my body no longer works according to the "normal" rules of science.
My spinal cord injury has severed the connection between brain and body. The messages I do receive are messed up, mangled and chaotic. When my body experiences pain or discomfort below my injury, it responds by signaling me with autonomic dysreflexic (AD) symptoms. AD symptoms vary (headache, sweating, chills, cold sweats, tingling, phantom pain, chest pressure, muscle spasms & fevers), but on the whole, I've come to recognize them, and have a handful of common known triggers. AD episodes can be life threatening, because quite often, my body reacts to pain I can't feel, by elevating my blood pressure. The elevation in blood pressure, is what creates the secondary symptoms, like sweating, headache and chills. When I begin to feel symptomatic, I know to ask for help, to try and alleviate the cause of the pain (such as my catheter being pinched, or my clothing being wrinkled). Gone unchecked, and unresolved AD can lead to stroke and/or death.
Unfortunately, one of the biggest causes of AD for me, is my bowels. I am stuck in a vicious cycle, of never ending discomfort, and pain. My spinal cord injury, and my paralysis have made me a literal prisoner to my body, and its needs. I must eat to survive. Likewise my body must expel waste. Normally, it's not something the average person puts much thought into, or has cause for distress. For me, I feel as though I have become a slave, and prisoner to the simplest of bodily functions. There is no escaping it. It has become so troublesome and uncomfortable for me, that something that is normally simple, private, and in the back of the mind, has instead become the center for which, my life revolves around and is dictated by. It is awful.
My paralysis leaves me with so few choices, none of which are pleasant. I must eat to live; that is a given. I must go to the bathroom; that too is a given. However, nothing in my life is that simple, because I cannot do anything on my own. I need help for everything, including eating and yes, even shitting. For the past six years, I've endured having a bowel program (BP), in order to get rid of the waste I must expel, in order to keep living. It's an awful ordeal, that involves a nurse manually removing stool from body, every other morning. Since I no longer feel the sensation of needing to "go," or the ability to bring myself to the bathroom, or even the ability to "push" it out, those ordinarily natural processes must be FORCED into action.
In order for me to go to the bathroom (shit), my nurse needs to insert a suppository, and digitally stimulate my rectum into going. I'm forced into sitting, strapped to a commode for one to two hours, while my nurse manually stimulates, checks, and rechecks my colon, every ten to twenty minutes, depending on how quickly I go (depends on amount, and consistency). Although I can't feel the digital stimulation directly, it creates AD symptoms. The process is both physically, and emotionally taxing. Every time my nurse checks me, it sends a chill up my spine, creates goosebumps, sweating, and discomfort (sometimes accompanied by chest pressure and nausea). On top of which, my overall condition and constant stimulation, has created chronic hemorrhoids. Again, even though I don't feel the pain of the hemorrhoids directly, I'm positive they contribute to my daily bouts of AD.
The frequency of having a bowel program, depends on the individual. When I was initially injured, I had to have it every night (policy at the nursing home I lived at). They made me do it in bed, after my showers, laying on my side. It was disgusting, painful (for my shoulders) and I hated it. Since moving to my own place, I switched to having it done every other morning, on the commode (over my toilet). Although it has been a big improvement, being able to do it over the toilet (in the privacy of my own bathroom- as opposed to in a bed, in the same room as my roommate) and before getting showered, it is still uncomfortable, and far from ideal. Needing to have ANYONE help me in the bathroom, or with personal hygiene has been horrific, and has never gotten any easier to deal with.
Unfortunately, I don't think I could get away with having it any less than I already do. I know a couple of people (with similar injuries) that do their BP every three days. I wish I could do that. The thing is, I suffer from AD symptoms every day; having several episodes each day (sometimes the symptoms last for hours- like sweating, chest pressure and chills). I've already ruled out a million more serious possible causes, through testing (EKG, ultrasounds, CAT scans, blood work & X-rays). Ninety five percent of the time, I have someone check me for visible problems, and we come up empty. That leaves me thinking that most, if not all of my AD is caused by something to do with my lower hemisphere. I know for sure that my hemorrhoids and gas are two big culprits; neither of which I can do much about.
I wonder if my IBS still has an impact on my body. No one has been able to give me a definitive answer. I'm going to see my physiatrist on Tuesday, in hopes of getting some clear cut answers. I know when I was on my feet, I went to the bathroom every day (sometimes several times). If my colon is still spastic, it could certainly explain why I'm dysreflexic so often. That said, even if she tells me, "Yes Christina, your IBS could be creating AD and offer an explanation as to why it's been so difficult for you to regulate your BP" it doesn't really offer me any relief. I don't know exactly what I expect for my physiatrist to tell me, except if my theory is right, or wrong. Either way, I'm pretty much stuck with the situation I have. I guess I just want to hear her say (essentially) whether I'm screwed, or not, and if she has any suggestions that I haven't yet tried (doubtful).
I've tried taking probiotics to help with my IBS, and prescription medication; neither did anything. I've tried pinpointing food triggers, but am never successful. The only definite trigger for my IBS flaring up, when I was still on my feet, was anxiety. I can't say that I've noticed a definitive correlation, since my injury. Given my condition, and everything I have to deal with on a daily basis, I'm pretty much ALWAYS under a high amount of stress and anxiety. Not to mention, my AD has seemingly gotten worse, and more frequent, as time has gone on. I would've thought if stress and anxiety alone were the causes, I would've had more issues when I was newly injured.
That leaves me thinking that my body has gotten to the point where it wants to "go" every day, and that's why my AD has gotten to be so unbearable. If that's the case, it would also account for why I have occasional "accidents", despite successful having BP (or why it's often hard to regulate at all-despite taking consistent bowel related medication and eating healthy). As it is, I've already had DOZENS of nurses have to help me with BP, over the past six years. Every time I lose a nurse and have to train a new one, it is stressful, and traumatic. I absolutely abhor BP, and dread it. Every other night, I'm full of anxiety and despair, knowing I have to do it the following morning. I've gotten to the point where, even if my body is demanding to go every day, I just can't handle it emotionally. This past year, I've gone through several nurses (I use an agency called Bayada- Medicare covers the sessions) due to circumstances outside of my control. In fact, tomorrow and Thursday I'll be meeting new nurses, because two of my regular nurses won't be here in July (personal reasons & vacation). That's two more people that have to see me naked, touch me and witness me going to the bathroom. I'm dreading it, and wish I could say "No! Go away and leave me alone."
Paralysis doesn't let me say "no." It doesn't leave me with many choices. I need to go to the bathroom, in order to live. I need help, in order to go to the bathroom. Knowing I'm going to be training with TWO new nurses, has just added salt to my wounds. Some people have asked me, "Why don't you just hire a private duty nurse, and not use a nursing agency?" One, my nurses technically are "private duty." The agency assigns them to my case, and Medicare covers the set three hour block of time, every other day. Two, in order for Medicare to pay for the service, it has to be done by a qualified nurse. I can't just pluck someone off the street and train them, like with my aides. A bowel program (at least in NJ) is considered to be a treatment, which involves "skilled nursing care." Having a nursing agency on my case, makes the most sense, because if a nurse quits, calls out sick, goes on vacation, moves, or has a family emergency (which have all happened to me already), there are backup nurses that are already trained. I have to have BP, regardless of my nurse's situation, therefore I can't afford not to have a backup in place. It's a necessary evil.
I have two options on the table. One, I can stick with accepting a BP: which involves nurses, which I hate which is long, which relies on a schedule, which is physically and emotionally taxing, and which is highly intrusive and invasive. Two, I can get a colostomy. I've mentioned in previous blogs why I don't want to even consider a colostomy. To me, it's not even an option worth mentioning. As much as I despise the idea of getting a colostomy, and have sworn to myself I'd never get one, the AD and BP are really wearing me down. I honestly don't know how long I can keep living this way.
Out of desperation, I decided to look even deeper (than I already have in the past) into what it would be like to get the colostomy. So many people have irritated me, by making it seem like getting one is such an "easy" decision, and better option. Sure, it's easy for OTHERS to flippantly suggest I undergo ANOTHER surgery. It's easy, when YOU aren't the one getting sliced open. It's easy when you aren't the one that will have to live every day, for THE REST of your life, with a bag of shit strapped to your side. It's easy, for the able-bodied people, who have told me about their personal experiences with having HAD (key word- their colostomies were eventually reversed- once I do it, the likelihood of going back to having a BP, is slim to none) a colostomy. It's easy for all the quads who talk about having one, that CAN TAKE CARE OF IT INDEPENDENTLY.
The more I've read about colostomies, the more I've discovered as to why, it would NOT be a better option for me. First, I would need to undergo surgery, which would require several days in the hospital, afterwards for recovery. The absolute LAST place I want to be at this point, is in the hospital. There is no guarantee that a colostomy would alleviate my AD. I'd be creating ANOTHER artificial opening in my body (in addition to my suprapubic catheter), that would need to be maintained, and could become infected. The bottom line is, I'd STILL need help with going to the bathroom. I'd need a nurse to clean the stoma, change the bags, and/or irrigate it. No matter what I do, someone else has to handle, and clean up after MY shit. It's not like the colostomy would care for itself.
As much as I hate BP, at least it's over and done with, in a set amount of time. Yes, I do occasionally have episodes of incontinence. However, from what I've read, there is nothing to guarantee that I wouldn't have accidents with a colostomy. One, the bags can bust or leak (as I've had happen with the catheter). I'd need help cleaning that up. Two, even though they'd be re-routing my colon, mucous builds up in the rectum, and needs to be digitally removed (at least once a month- most people fail to mention, or know about this). Three, did I mention, I'd have a bag of shit strapped to me, all day, every day?! Four, some people do "cap off" their stomas and prefer not to wear bags, instead they essentially flush the stool out (similar to an enema, but through the stoma). However this only works once your body has acclimated to having the colostomy (which depends on the individual and can be effected by diet). The other catch, is that this capping off can create AD (since gas and stool build up) and also tends to lead to more frequent accidents. Even the irrigation process itself, could potentially create AD. Not to mention, like I pointed out earlier, someone else would need to be doing all of the care for me.
So basically, I'd be taking a huge gamble, with the high probability of having to deal with most of the problems that I already have with BP. Only, I'd have the added nuisance of having another artificial hole, need to get (and rely on) more medical supplies, and have another bag of bodily waste strapped to me. I'd still need to have help in that area, and have strangers in my business. There's just no avoiding that. Instead of being embarrassed about wearing Depends, I'll be embarrassed by the bag. Oh, and did I mention the added "treat" I discovered about having a colostomy?! You pass gas out of your side, in addition to your ass. Lovely! Double the embarrassment, lack of control and shame. Thanks, but no thanks. It looks like I'm stuck with BP.