I recently got asked a question by a CFer who was worried about her upcoming evaluation for lung transplant. She wrote me a very thoughtful and articulate email about the subject in which she noted that she did her vest 2-3 times every single day, took every enzyme and pill exactly as prescribed, and worked out 3-4 days a week on average despite her steadily dropping lung function and ever more frequent lung infections. She also noted that she sees her doctor at least monthly and goes on IVs every 3 weeks or so, during which time she carefully schedules her infusions to be exactly 8 hours apart and makes sure to follow any additional treatment instructions (such as extra rest or spacing out her calcium from her cipro) that her doctor might recommend. She follows a detailed dietary supplement plan worked out in consultation with her nutritionist and, in her own words, she "tries very hard not to let [her] mind make excuses for any lapses in [her] responsibilities to [her] body." She told me all of this, and then she posed a simple question: "Should I be worried that the lung transplant team at my hospital will decide I'm not a good enough candidate for lung transplant?"
Faced with this sort of question, my first reaction was exactly what I hope all of yours was too, meaning that I basically just sat there staring at the email in shock and then started to re-read it to figure out what part of the puzzle I must be missing. "Good enough candidate" was her exact term, and for the life of me I couldn't understand why she was questioning herself like that. After all, the entire message leading up to that point was basically a textbook description of the perfect patient, someone both mentally and physically committed to fighting her disease and maximizing her chances for survival even in the face of some pretty tough obstacles. I thought surely she must have some other underlying health issue or random skeleton in her closet (did she smoke? was she secretly selling her antibiotics on the black market?) that she wasn't telling me about. Otherwise why would she possibly be worried that her transplant team would reject her? What would drive a diligent, motivated, and obviously smart young woman into a crises of confidence so severe that she was, essentially, wondering whether a panel of doctors would deem her "good enough" for a life-saving procedure?
So I asked her.
Turns out this young lady was worried not because of her compliance record or her past medical history or anything else having to do with her behavior either as a person or as a patient. She was worried precisely because, as she put it, "I keep reading stories about how people saved themselves through exercise, compliance, and changing behavior. I feel like I've tried everything, but my FEV1 is in the toilet and it keeps sinking lower even when I do everything I'm supposed to do. How do I know the doctors even believe me at this point that I'm trying my hardest to make things better? How do I even know I'm not missing something?"
Okay, I'm gonna say it again: wow.
The moment I read those words, I started crying. I feel like this young woman summed up perfectly the frustration, self-doubt, and fear that a lot of CFers unfortunately feel when they suddenly start to lose control over their health. CF is a crazy disease in that it is controllable, to a point, through proactive care, self-responsibility, and treatment. But that whole "to a point" caveat is where things start to get tricky, because for some people the "point" seems to be around 90% control, whereas for others it seems to hover much lower. We're all pretty used to hearing that each CF case is different and that genetics, compliance, environment, and lots of other factors all play into our personal progression with the disease. But what about the fact that even two people with the exact same mutations, same FEV1, same bacteria, and same exercise program can still experience different results? How do we account for that in a medical system that, understandably enough, has to quantify things like Lung Allocation Scores and the risk of non-compliance after transplant based on general assumptions like "people with a 45% FEV1 are less sick than people with 29%" or "these treatments work, therefore patients who take them appropriately and as directed should see improvement"?
I think this email also struck a personal chord with me because of my own recent experience post-transplant. It's weird, I feel like I've been relatively healthy, but I'm also not blind: I can see that most people at my center don't seem to spend nearly as much time on IVs or fighting weirdly yo-yo like PFTs as I do. And if I'm 100% honest, hand on heart, I'd also have to admit that I've had a few "what the heck am I doing wrong?!" moments -- times when I have literally freaked out at myself for the perceived "sin" of getting another infection, or having a low prograf level, or not blowing hard enough during the testing. I actually had one moment when a PFT tech asked me if I understood the proper technique for the test and I very nearly forgot that I've had close to 30 years experience with this stuff before I stammered out a meek little "um, I'm pretty sure I know how to do it."
For those of us who might be dubbed "crazy control freaks" by others (I personally prefer the term "highly motivated, results-oriented individuals who might admittedly be somewhat crazy"), accepting that there are parts of our bodies that might not be 100% cooperative is challenging, to say the least. We have faith in the power of individual action, and when it fails we feel judged and inadequate. For others who are good at grasping the uncertainty of life with a progressive, chronic illness, the challenge might instead lie in keeping a sense of personal responsibility in the face of what seems like an invincible enemy. There's judgment there also (probably as much by the control group as anything), as well as a sense of powerlessness. Oddly enough, both of these approaches can eventually lead to the same point: a deep-set fear that our disease is in charge, and that nothing we do will ever be "good enough" to stop it. In the worst case scenario, both approaches might even cause actual non-compliance, with patients adopting the mindset that nothing we can do as individuals actually matters when it comes to fighting CF. (And yes, I know this from personal experience. I spent a good part of my teenage years convinced that if I couldn't fully control every single aspect of my CF then I was failing and should more or less just stop trying. I'm embarrassed to admit how long it took me to snap out of that trap.)
This is somewhat of an oversimplification, of course. As lifelong patients, most of us will fall into both camps at some point or another, switching sides seamlessly as we get older, or sicker, or go through different life phases -- or even adopting different views for different issues (those who might be hardcore when it comes to doing treatments, for example, but nonchalant about the power of exercise). It's more of a spectrum than a true dichotomy, in that sense, with a whole lot of middle ground in between the two extremes.
So since I couldn't really answer the question (well, sort of -- I did write that I would personally go down there and tell off her transplant team if they dared decide that she isn't "good enough" for new lungs), I've decided to put it to a panel of experts in an official "Matter of Life and Breath Blogger Challenge: Personal Disease Perspectives Edition." Here are the rules of the game:
1. Write a blog explaining your personal thoughts and experiences in dealing with CF control and progression. This could include your views on whether CF is in fact a "controllable" disease, your personal definition of compliance, your thoughts on whether (or how) someone with CF should be judged in terms of "good enough" self-care (what makes you feel judged? do you think those fears are justified? is judgment ever useful in this context?), your own struggles with control vs. unpredictability, and how you keep motivated in the face of so many questions. Or, you know, whatever you want to write about really. It's your blog.
2. Comment below with a link to your blog so that all of us can read your response. YOU DO NOT NEED TO LINK TO MY BLOG IN YOUR ANSWER. If you'd like to do so, please feel free, but this is about starting a discussion, not publicity.
3. Encourage your own readers to get in on the conversation by posting the same instructions on your blog. Remember, the more responses, the better the conversation. Let's see if we can get this one going as much as with past challenges.
4. If you don't have a personal blog (or just don't feel like going through steps 1-3), feel free to still make yourself heard by simply leaving a comment with your thoughts below.
5. Non-CFers are 100% welcome to participate, either by pulling from their own experiences or simply by offering their perspective as people, friends, and loved ones.
Much love, light, and healthy debate to all of you, beautiful people.
- I am a 33-year-old wife, sister, daughter, friend, law school graduate, CFer, lifelong student of public service, blog writer, patient, Sagittarius, reader, Top chef fan, double-lung transplant recipient (twice!), and dog owner living in Colorado's beautiful Mile High City. I love all things colorful, funny, inspiring, or needlessly sarcastic. I share my city with about 2,500,000 other remarkable people, share my disease with 70,000 other beautiful souls, share my life with some unbelievable family and friends, and share my apartment with one very handsome guy and one really fat mutt with a kick-butt personality. We make it work.
About This Blog:
This blog is about me, my life, my sometimes craziness, my disease, and my current journey as a double-lung transplant recipient. It's also a celebration of everyone out there with CF (and other chronic illnesses). It's for you, inspired by you, and dedicated to you -- the community that keeps me writing, living, and breathing.
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