Sunday, December 29, 2013

Turning Lemons Into Lemon Drops

I'm always trying to teach my son to be flexible. This Christmas break, I had my own crash course in going with the flow, and it was harder than I might have expected.

I was all set to take my M to visit family in St. Louis the Thursday after Christmas. But there was a major plot twist the Sunday before, when I turned my ankle and came down hard on it.

I figured it was a sprain. But it was so puffed and painful by Monday, I decided I'd better pay a visit to my friendly podiatrist, Dr. S, who I'd already seen too much in 2013. Of course, I'd hurt my right ankle, so there was no thought of driving. Instead, I had to call a car service.

Several X-rays later and voila!, lucky me, it was broken. Equipped with an air cast, aka Das Boot, I attempted to hail a car service. Dr. S was sending me to an orthopedist in case I needed a partial or full cast.

But in a scene straight out of an old black-and-white melodrama, it was raining and there was no car to be had for 45 minutes. Meanwhile, given the timing--it was the day before Christmas Eve--I had to get to the orthopedist before he took off within the next hour. Despairing that I'd never make it, I began to cry the ugly cry.

Finally, I went back into the office and told them of my plight, pleading with the receptionist, asking if I was close enough to walk to the orthopedist's. The receptionist, noting how distraught I was, asked Dr. S, who upon seeing me told me it was doable.

And so I set out limping and pitiful in Das Boot, tears streaming down my face even as the rain streamed over my uncovered head. Normally, the few blocks' walk through Brooklyn Heights from Remsen to Amity is a picturesque one, thanks to the gracious old New York brownstones and gaslights. But I was oblivious to them that day. I was, to quote my son, a hot mess.

I finally stopped crying when I landed in the orthopedist's office, despite the fact that it was situated in Long Island College Hospital and featured the word "surgery" on the door.

When Dr. C finally saw me after examining my emailed X-ray, I was relieved to hear that I could continue in the walking cast. However, I would have to have X-rays repeated in three weeks, would probably be in Das Boot for six, and would need a cane for the inevitable slippery January days. (When my concerned podiatrist checked in with his broke-down patient later, he was more conservative, urging me to "baby" my ankle with crutches.)

But I had other things to do first. When I wasn't icing my elevated ankle that Tuesday--Christmas Eve--I was soldiering on, planning a new line of attack on the St. Louis front. I called Delta and arranged for bulkhead seats and a wheelchair at the airport.

Then my Uncle J started calling. He and my Aunt F, both well into their 70s, were concerned about me coming with the boy in tow when I was in such a sorry state. I finally relented. I had to admit it: I had a bag full of lemons in my hands. Time for Plan B, aka Operation Lemon Drop.

I had feared how M might take news of the cancellation, but he was quickly appeased by Plan B. Now I just had to make sure it happened.

After postponing the flight without a penalty--the folks at Delta couldn't have been nicer--I recalled that M is still at the stage where a hotel with a free breakfast and pool makes him feel like he's king of the world. (If there's a hot tub, he's even more jazzed.) And so I began my within-cab-fare Brooklyn-Queens hotel search, not an easy endeavor within a two-day window and on a scant budget. (Much of the St. Louis trip had been arranged with frequent flyer miles.)

I scoured the discount sites for hours. Yelp reviews warned of bedbugs in one place, rude staff in another, and most New York hotels under $250 a night lacked pools. Finally, I found something.

Sure, it was near LaGuardia, where I had to brace for noise. But it looked nice enough. And not only was there the holy grail, a pool, there was breakfast (I would later find out it wasn't free but cost $10 per room per day, one of the many add-ons I would run across in a tourist hotel) and that piece de resistance, a hot tub. Also, remember: I was desperate.

With one room in my price range left, I booked a three-night stay.

Good omen No. 1 came when I called the hotel that Friday after Christmas and learned we could check in early. By 2 p.m., the boy was soaking in the hot tub along with three local men over the age of 80 who belonged to the hotel's health club. It looked like something out of Cocoon, save for my energetic 10-year-old. He was soon schmoozing away, beguiling the old-timers.

Before too long, he had ingratiated himself with one man and his caretaker, even helping with the man's walker and calling the caretaker his "babysitter." (Not that far off the mark, I'm afraid.) The caretaker offered M popcorn and then pizza delivered poolside, cementing the newfound friendship. I often worry that M attaches to strangers too hard and fast, but I agree with her--he made her charge's day.

Day 2, my friend S came over with her two kids, making a full day of it at the pool. There were some rough patches when my boy wouldn't stop splashing and jumping in a "no jumping" zone, but by the end he and my friend's little girl were swimming underwater like "dolphins" together.

Still, I needed to remember that lemon drops are sour as well as sweet. If I wanted to pick the hotel apart, I could complain about the scalding shower, the spotty internet connection, the TV charges, even the occasional, if expected, jet plane noise.

But balancing it out were the lovely staff including J, the bartender who brought up our dinner despite the lack of room service; the man running the cereal-and-muffins breakfast buffet, who allowed M to take eggs from the section reserved for the spiffily dressed Korean Air flight crew; and the obliging dad from Albany who tossed my child in the water, making him squeal with delight (after said dad got my OK, of course).

Meanwhile, the sound of the jets took me back to one of the highlights of my childhood in St. Louis, when my mom and dad packed my two older brothers and me into the VW wagon and took off for Lambert Field, now St. Louis International Airport.

This was a era when cars didn't have seat belts and they'd still let you throw a blanket down on the other side of the landing strip fence and watch the planes whoosh right overhead as they took off and landed. I can't say I grew up in a happy family--what was it Tolstoy said? But these are my own lemon-drop memories, and now I was making them for my kid...right near an airport. 

This break, both my son and I had to become as flexible as Olympic gymnasts. To my mind, we each scored a perfect 10.

To celebrate, I think I'll order up a Lemon Drop tonight, our last at the hotel--the kind with the vodka mixed in.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

My Body, Myself, Part 2

First, the good news: I don't have a double chin.

Now, the not-so-great news: I have an enlarged thyroid gland, aka a goiter. A goiter! Isn't that something people had in the Middle Ages? No, wait. That's gout. I don't have gout. Whew.

But a goiter? That still sounds so...ancient. I know, I know, I'm 53, in the midst of my own middle ages. Maybe I'm in denial; I don't feel that old, certainly not as old as my mom and her friends seemed to me when they were 53.

How did this happen? Who's responsible? I want names.

Anyway, I digress. As some of you may know, in my last installment, I wrote that a blood test had shown no markers for BRCA1 and BRCA2 genetic mutations linked to breast cancer. I was shocked; given that I was diagnosed at 39 and my paternal grandmother died of the disease at 48, I'd expected very different news. Instead, I had major reason to celebrate, but the festivities were cut short by some less positive news: my insulin level was sky high.

I knew that I'd had something to eat before the test, so I had reason to hope that had skewed the numbers. But given that I've had a dramatic weight gain over the past several years and my father had adult-onset diabetes and then a deadly heart attack when he was 56--a mere three years older than I am now--I got pretty scared.

I did my best to remain calm as my gynecologist, who had ordered the bloods, sent me packing to the endocrinologist. It's a good thing she did. After I had donated about 10 vials of blood and collected two days' worth of pee in huge orange jugs--what can I say, I write what I know--my kindly new doctor called me back into her office to share some utterly confusing news.

First, more good news: I don't have diabetes. (Collective sigh of relief.)

But she did have some confounding news. I have some pretty funky thyroid issues going down. I have two sets of antibodies waging war inside my body. One causes hypothyroidism--Hashimoto's disease--while the other brings on hyperthyroidism--Graves' disease). My doctor says the hyperthyroidism/Graves is winning out.

Her immediate response: Along with ordering a two-day scan that involved me ingesting a radioactive pill to show my thyroid function and another round of bloods, she put me on megadoses of vitamins D3 and B12--apparently, I was seriously deficient--and ordered up a gluten-free diet, saying it makes a lot of people feel better.

Of course, all this sent me to everyone's medical bible: the internet. Finally, I may have gotten some answers to much of what's been ailing me, much of which I attributed to stress. According to the Mayo Clinic, Graves' disease symptoms include fatigue--that's been a biggie--anxiety, difficulty sleeping. and even the fine tremor in my hands and fingers.

My luck, the only symptom I don't seem to have is weight loss with no change in diet. Perhaps that's the fault of whatever's going on with the hypothyroid/Hashimoto's antibodies, which may also be causing the fatigue and sluggishness I've been feeling for months, if not years.

I've been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support I've received from Facebook friends on this one, and slightly shocked by the number of women who's shared that they've had Hashimoto's and that they have plenty of tips for me if it turns out to be that. Interestingly, no one has mentioned Graves, but I'm sure there are sufferers out there.

So now I'm in a holding pattern till I get the test results back and see my endocrinologist after the first of the year. I wish I could tell you more; I will as soon as I know.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I never had any doubt that I would beat it. I was lucky, for real. It had been caught early and treated aggressively.

But I can no longer be blithe about my health. These thyroid issues have been taking me down, I don't even know for how long now.

One thing's for sure: After a long break, I've strapped the oxygen mask back on.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

My Body, Myself, Part 1

I've had some very good health news in the last couple of weeks, followed by some not so great news.

First, the good stuff.

In mid-October, my gynecologist suggested she draw bloods in her office, despite the fact that I'd had coffee with milk and a power bar that morning. I think she knew if she gave me a prescription to take to a lab, I might never get there.

She had good reason to doubt me: I've been letting too many things get in the way of taking care of myself for more than a few years now. (Oxygen mask? What oxygen mask?)

She also brought up the idea, again, of screening me for BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations, which increase the risk of breast cancer. The one caveat: whether insurance would cover the hefty bill.

I was already pretty sure I was a slam dunk for having them. Diagnosed with breast cancer at 39, I'm of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, making me more at risk for said mutations. My paternal grandmother died of breast cancer at 48. My maternal grandmother had it, too, though I've learned that since her main diagnosis was leukemia, her breast cancer "doesn't count" in the genetic Russian roulette.

So I vowed three years that I was finally going to have the testing done. If it turned out I was "a genetically loaded gun" at increased risk for ovarian cancer I would, as I wrote so elegantly, "cut those potential time bombs out of my body."

Instead, it turns out I can be a very big talker. I dawdled. I figured, why find out? Was I really ready to have my predisposition confirmed and then decide whether to have prophylactic surgery--the removal of both breasts and my ovaries? It's something Jewish Israeli women are grappling with right now as leading scientists there push for what may be the first national screening for cancer-causing genetic mutations.

Back in 1999, I had a lumpectomy, followed by chemo and radiation, and have been monitored closely these past 14 years. The one thing that did weigh on me was how much it would help my family to know about our genetics, but to me this vital test became just one more to-do that fell by the wayside in an ultra-stressed life.

But in that moment at the gynecologist's, she tossed out the screening idea so casually, I ditched my clearly genetic predisposition to overthink everything. "What the heck?" I figured.

I'm glad I did. A few weeks later, I was shocked to get a call from her office, saying that I didn't carry either gene mutation. I still need to think about having my ovaries removed per my oncologist--ovarian cancer is much more difficult to detect and therefore more deadly, and as a breast cancer survivor I have a higher risk. But my family is relieved by the news, and I have one less thing to worry about.

Except that the bloods turned up one more thing to worry about. Ah, life is always full of twists and turns, isn't it? ...

And with that cliffhanger, please stay tuned for My Body, Myself, Part 2.