Friday, June 11, 2010

Serum Sickness

If you have CF, you're most likely a little bit of a druggie. Or at least, here's hoping you are, because drugs and pills and medicines and pharmacies are, let's face it, just a way of life for most of us. Our pill organizers and neb cups runneth over, to borrow a phrase, and for the most part that's a very, very good thing. After all, that life expectancy doesn't just keep increasing itself -- it's all thanks to developments and breakthroughs in the therapies and treatments we use to stay as healthy as we can for as long as we can, God and that pesky pseudomonas willing.

But what do you do when the "cure" becomes, well, not so curative? What happens when the options available to help keep you healthy suddenly turn on you, and you find yourself getting ill from the very weapons you use to combat the illness?

Fasten your seatbelts, ladies and gentlemen, because you're about to get on board that delightful little ride we call serum sickness. And just to warn you, things might get a little turbulent in here before it's over.

Serum sickness, for the blissfully uninitiated, is what happens when your body becomes ill in response to a drug used to treat an underlying condition. It's similar to a classic allergic reaction, only the symptoms are more immune-system based (so think fevers, feeling ill, swollen lymph nodes, nausea -- all the good stuff). And the treatment, as well, is similar to a classic allergic reaction, only you're dealing more with corticosteroids (hello, prednisone!) rather than, say, a quick dose of benedryl. In other words, it is not. fun. at. all.

For some reason or another I seem prone to serum sickness reactions, especially when it comes time for IV antibiotics. I used to only use tobra and cephalosporins whenever I needed a tune-up, and I noticed that I would often get fevers, vomiting, and general malaise within a few days of starting the drugs. This probably should have been enough to tip me off that something was wrong, especially when the fevers started creeping up toward the 103 range and the vomiting became a near constant issue, but in addition to my CF I seem to have a self-diagnosed case of "tough it out syndrome." Meaning that, since everyone knows IV antibiotics make you feel like you've been hit by a MAC truck for the first few days, and since I can only assume someone who had just been hit such a truck might experience fevers and difficulty holding down food, I decided pretty much unilaterally that what I was experiencing was "normal." So, while I never hid the symptoms from my doctor at the time, I also never really expressed just how serious these flu-like bouts of illness really were. And because I would finish the IVs and immediately start feeling better -- no more vomiting AND no more stupid CF infection! -- I just assumed we had to be doing something right. All of which combined to make it several years (and a fever of over 104) before I actually voiced the somewhat perplexed opinion that something maybe wasn't so normal about all of these issues, at which point I was immediately removed from the cephalosporins and began discovering that medicine could actually make you feel better -- without first making you feel like you were dying. Call it a revelation, call it an epiphany, call it whatever you like. I just called it a major relief.

Unfortunately as my has CF progressed, so has the list of drugs that cause these types of reactions. It now includes zosyn (antoher previous go-to drug) and, in what has to be one of the most ironic twists of my disease so far, even merrem. I say ironic because I actually participated in a study at one point at my pediatric hospital to see if IV merrem was effective with CF infections. I was lucky enough to get the drug at that point rather than the placebo, and my PFTs skyrocketed from a baseline of about 85% to over 100% for the first time since I was a young child. My doctor immediately declared merrem our "ace in the hole" and from then on I had visions of merrem as a miracle drug, ever at the ready to swoop down and kick some serious PA (pseudomonas ass). More recently, though, my knight in shining IV armor has started letting me down, and although I still call him into battle every so often, I've started having to seriously monitor his behavior with -- yep, you guessed it -- more prednisone. It's a tricky situation for sure, and one which constantly challenges both my doctor and me to walk the line between controlling my CF infections and controlling the reactions that require more drugs that are, themselves, not so good for the body.

But hey, nobody ever said CF was easy, right?

I guess all of this is a really long way of explaining some of what happened yesterday at my transplant clinic appointment. Unfortunately, we got some startling news regarding my position on the list -- news that reminded us all, once again, that this is a delicate, frustrating, ongoing, and most of all unpredictable process. And there's no way for anyone to change that fact.

I know transplant is the right option for me given my disease progression and my personal belief system and philosophy. I also know that getting new lungs, like living with CF, is never easy. No one ever promised it would be -- quite the opposite, actually, as we were told over and over again by friends, doctors, and just about everyone else who's ever "been there" that the journey would be, at times, grueling -- and maybe it shouldn't be anyway. Maybe it's necessary to walk through some fire in order to truly appreciate just how amazing this gift from a stranger willing to rise from the ashes of personal tragedy and share his/her life with another really is. Maybe you need a little fire and brimstone to really grasp the miracle that is transplant. Maybe.

Or maybe not.

Because even though no one promised it would be easy, the two words that popped into my mind yesterday as I packed up to leave my center were simple and all too familiar to me as a CF patient: serum sickness. By which I mean that we have reached a point in this transplant odyssey where the process itself has become draining, leaving all of us feeling just a little bit sick and wondering if what we're going through is, in fact, "normal." Only this time there is no prednisone, there is no other antibiotic waiting in the wings, and there is no way to simply check into the hospital for a quick desensitization. This time we're left to find our own way off the ride and back on track to the healing process, and let me just say that the path is definitely not a clear one.

But you know what, that's okay. I'm actually okay with all of this right now, maybe even more okay than I was a few days ago. Because just like that moment when I finally realized that IV antibiotics don't have to come with a side of spiking fevers and uncontrollable nausea, I feel as though yesterday was a bit of an awakening for me. An awakening into a world where it's okay to talk about the fact that transplant isn't easy; okay to have long, drawn-out conversations with my CF doctor about what's truly going on in my life and my lungs; and okay to recognize that there is, in fact, a balance between being grateful for the "cure" and being aware that sometimes even the best things we can do for our bodies have unpleasant side effects.

Call it an unasked for lesson, but it's still, once again, a huge relief.


  1. Yuck.. I am so sorry, Zosyn give me horid serum sickness. I thought I was going to die on that drug. It didn't kick in till I was on it for 8 days but when it did.. Yick

    Feel better


  2. I have never heard of Serum Sickness, but I think I have it right now. I have chills and I'm on IVs and I'm nauseous. Hmm.

    Also, I feel the same way about this Long Day's Journey we are taking. I feel like I'll have to get sicker so that I can get better, and I'm not willing to just roll the dice and stop staying well, to get my transplant. I don't understand this sudden organ shortage, and I feel powerless.

  3. Oh wow Piper! Your post is so educational and informative - for that I thank you. But on the other side it's just awful that you have been enduring those nasty side FX of serum sickness for so long! I hope your new real pink healthy breathing lungs come soon! Gosh, such a heart wrenching journey. Thanks for sharing it with us. I know I can't begin to understand how this must be draining on your psyche... Wish there was something useful I could do. Guess I can only send along some {{{hugs}}}. ~Juliet