“Post transplant, you’ll have a weakened immune system”
Quick! Live in a bubble to protect the weakened immune system. The thing with a weakened immune system, even when I am told that my blood counts are misbehaving, I cannot see or feel any evidence of supposed misbehaviour. My knee bone is connected to my thigh bone, but how is my immune system connected to the stranger who coughed as I walked past them last week? I can feel my back pain, Graft Vs Host Disease and my daily bouts of nausea. I can care about those things because I can see how it all connects in the world of My Myeloma. I take a pill and the pain reduces or if I walk too far, the pain increases. What makes one person with a sniffle the epitome of mortal danger when a person with a passing cough is a mere annoyance?
A weakened immune system means I am more likely to catch bugs and sneezes than a healthy person. I apologise for stating the obvious, but sometimes, I need the reminder. It also means that once I catch a disease, it takes much longer than I would wish and expect for my body to fight it. An added disadvantage of getting one of these spread diseases is that my body might not even be inclined to fight it. Instead, it might just welcome a few other dirty friends into my cosy camp of a body and then I’ll be stuck spending the next few weeks being reminded that there is a reason I am prescribed two inhalers.
Regarding my immune system, I might not give it too much attention, but I do what I am told. I do not go to public swimming pools and lick the tiled surfaces and I will not eat without washing my hands. I avoid public transport during rush hour and I avoid touching people if I know they are feeling unwell. That said, my concessions to my immunosuppression has their limits. I am sensible yes, but I refuse to walk round with a surgical mask and gloves on.
My theory on this subject is that exposure to some germs is good for my repertoire. Also, I want to live a reasonable life and living in constant fear of the common cold is not normal, and seriously, how dangerous can a stranger’s cough be?
The answer to that question is, of course is ‘quite dangerous’. I have discovered this the hard way. To my embarrassment and severe frustration, I have recently discovered that despite not being able to feel it, smell it or even notice it, my immune system can bring my life to a standstill. What started off as a cold, has brought my life to a standstill.
Approximately 21 days ago, I developed a light sniffle and a sore throat. Two days after that, I experienced a few days of sickness and diarrhoea. The latter are not out of my ordinary, so I assumed it would pass soon enough. A fortnight ago, with my bowel seemingly back to normal, I spent my weekend suffering from lethargy, a loss of appetite and what appeared to be a throat full of knives. Every day, I would convince myself that I was improving.
After 10 days of feeling slightly rotten and once again, spending too much time in bed, I thought I best inform the Medically Trained People. The symptoms I had, could have been an infection or Graft vs Host Disease, so I thought it was about time I was sensible and got a second opinion. I loathed the idea of a second opinion. If I did not have myeloma and if I had not had three transplants, I could have just moaned about feeling poorly until I did not. Maybe I could have talked my friends through the varying colours of my sputum on Facebook. I would not have had to go to the hospital for tests…
The following day however, I did just that and took myself to St Bartholomew’s Hospital for tests, because I do have myeloma. Upon arrival, I christened the building with some red tinged vomit and was informed I had a temperature of 38.5. I was poked, prodded, x-rayed and I was told that I was going to have to be admitted and given intravenous antibiotics as a precaution. I thought it was all a complete overreaction, so I bartered with them. I got the Medically Trained People to let me go home, after I had some fluids and antibiotics, and all but pinky swore that I would come back over the weekend if it got worse. I promised them that I was a very sensible person and I was most definitely capable of looking after myself…
… It turns out, I am a liar.
That Friday evening, I got home shortly after 18.00hrs, climbed into my pyjamas and then my bed and I did not get out again until Monday morning. The only times I did venture out of my pit was to run to my bathroom and produce some vomit that contained blood. I drank and ate nothing. On the Saturday, the hospital called and told me one of my tests had come back and I had Influenza B. Proper flu. As I had the ‘official’ flu, I had to come in the next day to collect some medication. Sunday morning came and I could not get out of bed. Housemate said it was pathetic. I did not need him to tell me I was being pathetic. I really could not get out of bed. Who knew the flu could completely floor me? I have had transplants, I should have been made of sterner stuff than that.
It’s just so ordinary.
By the Monday morning, I had drunk less than a litre of water since Friday. I was groaning. Literally groaning. What had started out as something small, something I did not want to make a fuss over, had somehow become something that required actual, real life, medical attention. Seeing that simply willing myself to improve was no longer working, with Housemate in tow, I made my way back to St Bart’s. I had an appointment I failed to brush my hair for, let alone source lipstick for. I did not not look my best. The lack of hydration had caused my lips to crack and the inside of my mouth to bleed.
To cut a short story even longer, we went on to see a Medically Trained Person who looked at me and simply said “oh, Emma” and promptly told me that I was going to be admitted. I had lost over a stone in a fortnight. I was transferred to a private room on a ward. And in that room I stayed for four days. I vomited more blood, I had several bags of fluids and I rediscovered the joy of Mackie’s vanilla ice cream after the anti sickness tablets had kicked in.
Apparently, it was necessary for me to be kept in isolation. I did not see a member of staff who was not wearing a surgical mask for the length of my stay. The flu had not only taken me down, it had heightened all my GVHD symptoms. It meant more drugs, more waiting and more lost days. Wasted time, spent alone in a hospital bed. Bar an hour a day, my only company was my laptop and the faceless staff who interrupted my sleep.
I have been out of hospital for five days now, and I am still a pathetic little weakling. I am still embarrassed and angry that I have a body that required hospital admittance for the flu. I resent the fact that even though I am out of hospital, I have been told it is going to take a few more weeks for the infection to go.
To put my frustration into some sort of perspective, Big Sister experienced a similar illness to me at the same time. She was coughing and sleeping and generally feeling unwell. Sound familiar? Like most otherwise healthy people, she went to her GP and was prescribed a course of antibiotics and was sent on her merry way. I’m jealous that that was her experience compared to mine. In addition to my hospital stay, I required two chest x-Rays, daily blood tests, multiple bags of fluids, nasal and oral swabs, two different types of antibiotics, an inhaler, thrice daily nebulisers, steroids and ice cubes.
It’s experience right? Hospitalisation for the flu will one day be a funny anecdote I can tell my friends’ kids about. When I tell it, I’ll leave out the part/s about me feeling sorry for myself that at the age of 31, I am considered a vulnerable person who cannot tend to herself. In the future, my story will also include something about being lucky that the NHS cared for me and, with acknowledgment to my stupid weakened immune system, an awareness that it could have been much worse. There are many people, far braver than I, fighting seemingly unrelated side effects of cancer as I type and you read.
We might be lucky enough to get a remission, but, having ‘cancer’ never reallygoes away.
Please note that real flu and a cold/other bugs are very different beasts. The memory is raw, liken them in my presence at your own risk… My cousin said they always say the difference between real flu and a cold is whether you would get up to pick up a £50 note! Take that with you.