This morning was an extremely difficult time, but I was closer to getting things more under control and was finally receiving the right care.
They woke me at 8.00am to take me down for an MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scan of my hips and spine; unfortunately, the porter collected me before the pain medications were dispensed and by the time we got down to Radiography, I was distressed and shouting out with the excruciating pain once again, especially after being ‘patslided’ numerous times (this is undoubtedly a useful way of manouvering immobile patients, but does not protect you from the pain of such movement). They had to call up to the ward to bring some relief down, since I needed to be still for the 40 minute scan and at this point it wasn’t looking likely. Even the Morphine didn’t really settle things down; I was realising that by the time it got to such extremes, it took repeated doses to get back on top of it. They asked me if I wanted to postpone the scan but I felt that it was needed to get to the bottom of what was causing the pain. The sooner we found that out, the sooner we could treat it properly.
So I told them I wanted to go ahead, grit my teeth and attempted to take my mind elsewhere.
The MRI Scanner
I’ve had many MRI scans in the past and usually find them quite relaxing, despite the noise. They lie (sometimes strap) you on a stretcher that moves into a tunnel, where the scan takes place. In the above picture it looks like the patient has gone in headfirst, but in my experience my head has been at the entrance – much less claustrophobic. Usually, they give you headphones (often with music), both to protect your ears from the noise and to communicate with you from outside of the room; they also place a buzzer in your hand, which you can press at any time you feel distressed or want to stop. The scan is not painful. It basically consists of rotating magnetic signals being blasted at your body as you lie very still – you cannot feel these but they are expressed as noise patterns that change with different frequencies etc. So for five minutes it might sound like you’re surrounded by knocking, the next five by drilling, the next five by clicking, tapping, zapping and so on… A lady I met even described one of the noises as reminding her of frogs croaking first thing on a wet morning in Borneo!
I tend to just shut my eyes and relax, as if going to sleep; but this particular scan wasn’t that easy though. It was torture just making myself lie still, as my body kept trying to tense up to protect itself from the pain; I had to consciously relax every muscle and breathe. I think I cried through a good ten minutes or so of it but knew that wasn’t helping, despite it being an automatic response. The pain was still severe but eventually I managed to distance myself from it; I can’t exactly explain how – I’ve read a few books on meditative practices, so maybe they came in handy? I knew that each change in the sound pattern meant a certain amount of time passing and soon enough it went silent and a voice in my ear was telling me it was finished. To say I felt relieved would be an understatement!
Obviously, it takes time for someone to analyse the MRI scan pictures and give a full report, but sometimes things are apparent straight away. For me, they noticed that I had a lot of fluid surrounding my left femoral head (ie. Left Hip joint) and a smaller amount around the Right. I was taken straight to another part of the department to have this removed by aspiration and ultrasound. By that point, I was allowed further pain relief and this dose worked enough for me to feel a lot calmer. It’s embarrassing to look back on now, but I caused quite a scene that morning howling like a banshee and such. Thank goodness the worst was now over.
I was quite nervous about the hip aspiration. I’d had it done as a child but they put you under with gas at that age; this time it would be an injection of local anaesthetic. The team of people with me were lovely and great at making me feel at ease; the Radiographer in particular had a very calming effect and I felt in very safe hands. He used the ultrasound scanner to examine my left hip first and to pinpoint just where the fluid had accumulated around it. This is similar to the scanners you see unborn babies with – a cold gel is placed on the surface of the skin and onto a ‘probe’, which the radiographer slides over the area in question, sending ultrasonic waves through the skin. These waves bounce off things inside at different levels (according to density I think), to create the pictures you see on the screen – the main thing I learnt is that fluid bounces back as black, so when he was looking for the fluid around my hip joint, it appeared as a large black shadow around/within the hip, which appears a greyish-white as that is denser.
Once he found the fluid, he needed to find a straight path to it from the skin surface without passing through any major blood vessels – there is actuallly a lot more time spent preparing the procedure than the procedure itself. Happy that he’d found a route, the radiographer then slowly began to administer the local anaesthetic by long needle; he did this in stages to ensure that I was as numb as possible, but as he came closer to the joint itself, he began to warn me that I’d feel quite a bit of pain but it would be shortlived. The pain didn’t come. He kept asking me “are you sure you can’t feel anything?”, while jabbing the needle further in, and I kept shaking my head. It was a bit like the movie ‘Death Becomes Her’ where the doctor can’t understand how her very broken wrist isn’t troubling her!
I asked him if this was something to worry about and he pulled that confused, thinking look that doctors do sometimes, as he explained that most patients find it at least uncomfortable to have a needle in the joint capsule. He said if I really wasn’t feeling anything, then he’d be concerned that I had some nerve damage to the hip itself and that this should be investigated too. For now though, we concentrated on the aspiration. With the needle in place, he was able to aspirate 5ml of fluid from the hip capsule; this didn’t look an awful lot to me – one small syringe, whereas my knees used to drain 2-3 much larger syringe-fulls as a child – but apparently it is a lot, as there is very little ‘spare room’ within hip joints. I was told that this explained the level of pain I was in and the lack of response to pain relief. He told me that they could have given me all the pain relief in the world, but as long as that fluid was stretching the joint out of place as it was, I’d have had excruciating pain. Hopefully, with it now gone, things would settle to a more bearable level.
I was confident that they would; in fact, I was pretty sure that I noticed an improvement as soon as the fluid was gone. I was by no means cured – the fluid needed to be sent for testing to rule out septic arthritis and we needed to find out if anything other than the Still’s Disease was causing the hip to produce so much fluid / get the full report on the MRI scan etc… I have had very fluidy joints in the past, but I can’t remember where it fits in with things. Since this has become a major issue this past week, I will look into it myself at some point. After the hip aspiration, I was also given an abdominal ultrasound; something I was due to have that day anyway. It showed that my liver and spleen were enlarged, but since this is common with my flares, it didn’t cause him too much concern.
The rest of the day blurs in with the rest; I was to remain slightly propped up on my back in bed to take the pressure off my hips until the full MRI report was back, but with no turning timetable; instead I had to be checked for pressure sores and, when developing the starts of them on my heels, had to rest them on an inflatable. The auxillaries had to do everything for me – wash me, dress me, toilet me, help feed me… but when you feel so poorly those things don’t bother you, you’re grateful for the help and they were brilliant at providing it. I slept a lot but my Kindle came in handy as I managed to hold it above me to read for short periods but then my friend downloaded some audiobooks onto my blackberry, which was even more perfect! People were always popping into my room to see if I was okay and I had plenty of visitors, so strangely, I never felt bored!
It was decided that we would go ahead with my fifth Tocilizumab infusion that afternoon; the initial feeling on examining the fluid from my hip was that it was ‘viscous and stringy’, a good sign that there was no infection present. If it turned out there was, I’d be hooked up to IV antibiotics straight away anyway… it was one of those ‘risk-weighing’ decisions and I guess there was more risk in leaving the Still’s untreated by this point. My infusion ward was only next door and my regular nurses took it in turns to pop round and check on the infusion and to see what ‘trouble’ I’d got myself into. They all have a way of making you feel that they care about you as an individual and they have a lot of patients going through their ward each week/month/year. I guess this is an example of how good care can be in hospital too – from one extreme to the other.
My consultant visited that afternoon but I don’t remember much about the conversation now. All I know is that I was pleased he took the time to see me and it again reassured me that I was on the right track. One thing that we both agreed though, is that I’ve had some nasty flares and some severe joint involvement over the years; but this hip pain was totally out of proportion to anything I’d ever experienced and we needed to get to the bottom of it fast.
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