Monday, July 21, 2014

Mick McKellar Update -- Day +1246

This morning began with the usual pills and potions. I consumed the medications requiring an empty stomach, snorted the Flonase, and inhaled the Flovent; before preparing Dante for our stroll. It was nearly 10:00 A.M., and my fuzzy friend was anxious to be on our way.

Dante can be quite a handful when our walk first starts, because he has so much energy. It was very hot this morning -- 80°F -- and the sun, though often hazy, was bright and burning on my fragile skin. It felt as though the sunblock (SPF 50) was functioning as barbecue sauce. I thought for certain I would return as my crimson alter-ego: Chris P. Vermilion!

Dune, in Florida

However, it appears I passed my Bene Gesserit death-alternative test of human awareness, for my sunblock prevailed and apparently no damage was done. I will not have to face my personal gom jabbar: a flare of cGvHD (or worse, a visit from the melanoma fairy). It’s three hours since our walk, and still I could audition for a role as a vampire…

Our morning constitutional starts at home in Florida Location and usually ends somewhere uptown in Laurium -- mainly because the village provides several collection boxes for blue baggies of Dante doodoo -- which means I don’t have to carry them all the way home. Now, if I could just convince seagulls, starlings, and pigeons to use the little blue baggies…

Training Day

Everyday is training day for Dante. His natural exuberance and his fierce need to protect his home and his pack (that’s us) make him a small dog with a big attitude problem. For most things, he is learning that he is NOT ALPHA. Our walks are becoming more pleasant as he increasingly follows instead of trying to lead. This is a good thing, for my arms grow tired of reaching backwards to enforce his place at my side and slightly behind. Making this more difficult for me, is my perpetual forward motion speed: Dead Slow.

Still, despite our ongoing wrestling matches over who should lead in our daily dance out the door, he loves the walks. He knows my morning routine and watches me take my meds. After the meds that require an empty stomach, I wait at least an hour to take the rest of my tier 1 medications.  When I inhale Flovent, I must rinse my mouth. Dante sees this as his cue, and he (very loudly) heads for the front door and paces, waiting to be rigged with his harness. He waits impatiently for me to don my hat and sunglasses. This is the time for our adventures in watering power poles.

Most mornings, he will hear me rattling about in my bedroom as I strive to achieve an upright and semi-stable position and dress for the day. When I open my door, he is sitting right there, waiting for me to get the day started. He even follows me down the stairs, one slow step at a time, and is visibly relieved when I get to the bottom safely. He does not want me to screw up his day by falling down the stairs.

Whatever his reasons for his behavior, most likely different than those I ascribe; Dante’s desire to sally forth on our morning marches moves me off my apprehensive arse and gives me impetus to improve my physical condition -- or at least, delay its decline. For that, (after we return, of course) I am grateful.

Good day, and God bless,


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Mick McKellar Update -- Day +1234

Growing Up Breathless

After conversing with an old friend last evening, and explaining about my illness, my transplant, and my journey since that life-saving event; I was pondering what it meant to grow up nearly always short of breath, and how that translates into surviving my current situation.

I was five years old when my life-long nemesis, bronchial asthma, first made its presence felt. On vacation with my family at the shore of Lake Erie, my first severe reaction to ragweed (probably goldenrod) triggered my first overt asthma attack -- requiring medical intervention. My parents, already overprotective because of an accident at age 18 months that left my feet and hands severely damaged, were stunned by this latest development.

Stand Up Drowning

I remember that attack, which happened when I retired for the night, after a full day of splashing about in the water and reading all the magazines in the rented cottage. It felt like my lungs were filling up with water and I was trying to breathe that water. The air seemed to have the consistency of a liquid and I was drowning while sitting on the edge of my bed. Later, when I was beside my parents’ bed and pulling on their sheets to wake them up, I could barely get any sounds out of my throat, other than a terrible, whistling wheeze. I felt helpless and afraid.

Smoke and Mirrors

In 1955, there were few asthma treatments that provided immediate and measurable relief. One of the most interesting was breathing deeply the smoke and vapors from burning belladonna (aka deadly nightshade), which my mom or dad set on fire in an ashtray. It smelled terrible, and the fumes burned my throat and stung my eyes. Yet, the cloud of vile vapors also numbed and relaxed the bronchial tubes, allowing some air to pass -- replacing the terror of anoxia with a sore throat and a nasty odor in my nose. It was as close to the now debunked treatment of asthma with “asthma cigarettes” as we ever came.

Inhaled corticosteroids were available if hospitalized, but that was emergency treatment. I had no inhaler in my pocket. Therefore, I experimented with whatever made me feel better. I found that beating on my chest sometimes helped open the airways. Vick’s Vaporub sometimes helped. Early on, I found that sipping hot tea and later, coffee was very effective at soothing an attack.

During these years, I learned a great deal about the psychosomatic nature of asthma attacks and began meditating and practicing a childish form of deep relaxation I called “floating.” I centered my thoughts on an image of myself in an imaginary mirror, noticing how every move and gesture appeared backwards -- as if I stepped outside my body into the image in the mirror, which could float and move about with no effort and, of course, no shortage of breath. Images felt no pain.

I still use a version of that imagery to help control pain.

Extreme Trade-offs

Sometime later, over-the-counter medications containing ephedrine (and usually, guaifenesin -- an expectorant) helped control the one-two punch of hay fever and bronchial asthma. There was, of course, a trade-off. Use of medicines like BronchAid and Primatene came with side-effects like sleeplessness and hours of shaking and quaking. Frequent use also lead to tolerance and reduced effectiveness.

What finally helped the most was moving in 1967 from the Detroit metro area to Dollar Bay in the Keweenaw Peninsula  of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The cleaner air and abundant oxygen made breathing a pure joy for the first time in my life. I learned to push my limits and improved my stamina, but also took care not to push it so far I triggered an attack.

The Silver Lining

For many years, I identified with a cartoon character named Joe Btfsplk from the Li’l Abner strip.  A small, dark rain cloud perpetually hovered over his head to symbolize his bad luck. Every time I tried something new, there was my personal rain cloud, my asthma, teaching me my limitations. In 1997, I decided that enough was enough and signed up to act, sing, and dance in the Calumet Players production of South Pacific. Shortly after that, I auditioned for the chorus in a Pine Mountain Music Festival opera -- the geezer and the wheezer was singing tenor 1 in an opera chorus. These wonderful challenges were central to my life until my diagnosis in 2010.

All those years of fighting for enough air to function taught me how to breathe and gave me an accurate sense of my oxygen levels in my bloodstream. I could do a creditable job by simply remembering my lines, my blocking, the lyrics, and the music -- while navigating around “breath bombs” -- mistakes that would leave me gasping and dizzy.

Now that I must function with 27% lung capacity, those skills are instrumental in making life without an oxygen tank possible. I can no longer sing (except in very short bursts) and all my dancing is done with my eyes, yet I get around without hardware and breathing support. There was a silver lining in my personal rain cloud after all!

I realize now that all those challenges over all those years prepared me to confront and conquer an even bigger challenge. 

BTW, I love that today is day 1234 since transplant. I just think it's cool, that's all.

Good night and God bless,