My ALS Adventure – January 2018

This was when I had a feeding tube installed.  I explain how it was done.  Next month I’ll write about adjusting to the new way of eating.

Jan 3 – To contributors to Doma’s college education

Note:  Doma is an amazing young woman from Nepal whose education we’ve sponsored for the last ten years and who will graduate from Hampshire College in MA this May.

I haven’t said anything about myself during the long campaign on Doma’s behalf because I wanted the entire focus to be on her but now the funding is complete I’ll give you a quick update.

We’re happy here in farming country outside Gettysburg, close enough to visit our kids and four young grandchildren.  The pre-Civil War brick farmhouse, outbuildings and seven acres of land were extremely run down when we bought the place but we liked the area — looks a lot like where we grew up in England – and I thought I’d have fun doing a lot of the renovation myself and managing the work I lack the professional skills to do.  I was right: it has been very satisfying — and there’s more yet to keep me happy.

The negative news is, I was diagnosed with ALS at the start of this year.  It began in my mouth and throat but it hasn’t yet progressed to other muscles.  Because it’s now more than 18 months since the first symptoms, it’s increasingly likely it won’t progress, and a few months ago I was introduced to a doctor of Tibetan medicine who has cured many MS patients and more recently also cured a growing number of ALS patients.  ALS is incurable by Western medicine but perhaps the Tibetan treatment I’m getting will work for me, too.

I feel blessed to have been doing my Tibetan Buddhist practice for long enough that when I was told to expect rapid weakening of all my muscles and death within one to two years, I saw it as a great opportunity to train myself in equanimity.  Now it seems likely I will live longer, I’ve grown more frustrated by my loss of speech and the enjoyment of food, the amount of time and effort eating takes, and so on, which makes this a new opportunity to train in equanimity as well as in relishing my blessings.  If I recover, I can practice extreme gratitude 🙂

Jan 4 – To my Tibetan doctor

I don’t think my tongue has shrunk further and Felicity agrees, so the change in how things taste presumably does, as you suggested, result from the Riluzole saliva reduction medicine.

I slept 10 hours last night and woke feeling fine.  I haven’t had a recurrence of waking for no apparent reason as I did for a few days right after Christmas.  I felt on the verge of mild despondency and suspect it resulted from processing my isolating experiences at Christmas and perhaps fighting off a heavy cold from which Felicity is still recovering.  My morning hour of practice today felt restorative and illuminating in the same way as before Christmas.

Difficulty sleeping is an example of how each of the bulbar-controlled muscles has to work well for the entire system to function effectively.  I can’t blow my nose because my cheeks and lips are weak.  I can’t generate much pressure and my lips can’t contain it, anyway.  That results in my nose getting clogged, but I can’t breathe through my mouth without dribbling.  I can’t lie on my side because the upper cheek sags down between my teeth and gets bitten.  The only way I can sleep is on my front with one hand under my face applying pressure that keeps one nostril open.  So long as I keep my head elevated a bit, the saliva drains down my throat so I need to stay still, which usually isn’t a problem.

It takes a while to figure out solutions like that, especially because what worked a few months ago might stop working if the muscles weaken more, but it’s interesting to someone like me who enjoys finding solutions to problems.

Jan 17 – To my family

You know I’m getting a PEG (feeding) tube installed next Tuesday but I don’t think I’ve said much about it. I was recommended to get one several months ago because the big risk for patients with swallowing problems is food getting into the lungs and causing pneumonia, but I was always bad at taking advice 😉

I’m pretty sure I haven’t been getting food in my lungs but the weakness in my tongue, lips, cheeks and throat has made eating increasingly difficult.  I can take only small spoonfuls and I must wait for the last one to get to my throat before I can take the next.  Drinking is even more difficult and, like food, it must be a specific viscosity.  Also, for reasons I don’t understand, drinking provokes coughing fits that persist for up to an hour after I finish a glass of Ensure.

Eating has become all too much like working on the cross-trainer.  Pretty soon after I start, a voice inside my head starts saying, “You’ve done enough.  You can stop now”and I have to keep replying, “No, I haven’t finished yet.  I can handle another 5 minutes”.

Figuring out what to eat and how that changes is somewhat interesting.  I’ll probably have to start all over again with the tube.  ALS patients need more than the usual number of calories, presumably because of the subtle muscle twitching.  I don’t have that but I need 2,500 to 3,000 calories a day to keep my weight at 140 lbs and that is a struggle.

I didn’t feel hungry at all yesterday morning, for example, so I blended my usual 3 chicken patties and a cup of rice for breakfast but I didn’t add the usual two eggs that take the meal up to around 1,000 calories.  It turned out to be much harder than usual to swallow so I had to add a bunch of olive oil.

Anyway, I finally wised up.  The only reason not to get a PEG is because, who wants a tube in their belly?  I don’t, but it will be better for me than the way I eat now, and better for both of us because it will be so much easier to be away from home.  We can go on trips again 🙂

A PEG tube is a small plastic one through which I will be able to inject food and drink directly into my stomach.  The surgeon (who insists the procedure is not really surgery) snakes a camera and light down my throat into my stomach and uses the camera to maneuver the light into the center of the stomach, well away from other organs.  The light is visible through the belly wall so once it’s in position, he in essence stabs a little hole in its direction and inserts the plastic tube into the hole.  A few days later I can start injecting boluses of food down the tube.  “Gin and tonics, too, if you like” he said.

The risk of damage during the surgery is very low.  Infection is possible but unlikely.  I can shower and do anything else I want once I have the tube.  Because I will regain so much time that I now spend preparing food, eating and clearing up afterwards, I can start an exercise program again and begin regaining strength.

It’s a good decision.  Better if I’d made it a few months ago but I wasn’t ready then.

The only other thing I have to report are a couple of dreams.  The night before last I was playing on the floor with a composite of my grandkids.  The thing we were playing with had a tiny whistle that (s)he demonstrated.  We knew I couldn’t do it but we wanted me to try, so I put the whistle between my lips, pressed them together with my fingers and blew.  Air escaped but there was no whistling sound.  We smiled at each other.  It’s very cool that I know what’s going on with my body in my dreams.

Last night I was surprised to notice that I was replying to someone.  It was only a whisper but so encouraging.  Maybe I can do better than that, I thought.  I put my mind to it and rapidly regained normal speech.  That seems pretty unlikely now that I’m awake but it’s good to know my optimism remains deep rooted.

It should take only a few days to get used to the tube so I’m looking forward to seeing you all again soon.

Jan 23 – To my family

The surgery went well.  I’ll keep notes while I recover and send you an update in a week or so.

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