“Heroes didn’t leap tall buildings or stop bullets with an outstretched hand; they didn’t wear boots and capes. They bled, and they bruised, and their superpowers were as simple as listening, or loving. Heroes were ordinary people who knew that even if their own lives were impossibly knotted, they could untangle someone else’s. And maybe that one act could lead someone to rescue you right back.”–Jodi Piccoult, Second Glances
“When you hear the sound of hooves, think horses, not zebras.”
This phrase is taught to medical students throughout their training.
In medicine, the term “zebra” is used in reference to a rare disease or condition. Doctors are taught to assume that the simplest explanation is usually correct to avoid patients being misdiagnosed with rare illnesses. Doctors learn to expect common conditions.
But many medical professionals seem to forget that “zebras” DO exist and so getting a diagnosis and treatment can be more difficult for sufferers of rare conditions. Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome is considered a rare condition and so EDS sufferers are known as medical zebras. This identity has now been adopted across the world through social media to help bring our community together.
This morning I am keenly feeling my stripes.
My husband says I’ve had “rock star” access to almost every specialist you could find for my complicated Ehlers-Danlos condition. My neurosurgeries have been performed by arguably the most skilled and compassionate leader in the search for the most whole life for EDS patients. I see the best cardiologist. I’ve explored all the other aspects of this DNA mess including genetics, hematology, gastroenterology, mast cells, gynecology and autoimmune disorders. This list is not exhaustive, but it gives a small window into how systemic this disorder can be in some patients, especially those of us with mixed type EDS. Because of Danica’s early Chiari diagnosis and her first brain decompression failing I was thrust into a life of research and battles in a war I would have gladly given my own life for. I call Danica my first angel in this journey, because if it were not for her suffering and her bravery I may have never found my own diagnosis explaining the decades of pain I had already walked. I call YOU my second angels, because you helped my family and I untie impossible knots by listening, loving, praying, supporting financially and always Hoping.
I sometimes wonder what it was like to be chronically ill before the internet. It has really only been in the last ten to fifteen years we have been able to search our symptoms before a doctor’s appointment or run to WebMD after a diagnosis and then find a support group immediately of people who have the same illness we have. We have access to medical research and journals that were only available in print and to a select few prior to the information age. We’ve become experts in ways even our best doctors cannot. More recently social media emerged. In addition to the wealth of knowledge we also have countless facebook groups, public and private, to ask questions about our diagnoses, share information on the best physicians and our experiences with them, post imaging and swap medical articles related to our illnesses. We have hashtags for our conditions. We create YouTube videos to raise awareness and give others outside our sick community a window into what day to day life is like. We create fundraising pages to share and be shared in an effort to pay some of the exorbitant price of continuing our fight for the most whole life. We have caringbridge pages to keep family and friends updated during surgeries and treatment and some of us have chronicled our journey with great candor through personal blogs. Just when HIPAA is cracking down even more harshly in medical settings, we, as patients, are going further and further down the road of willingness to open up about our personal health information with anyone and everyone who will listen.
I was one of the early ones in some of these groups. There were just a few zebras who had gone before me. Now, there are thousands and more are being diagnosed every day. The awareness is working. One by one our general practitioners are learning through us we do not just have fibromyalgia, migraines and psych issues. We are fundamentally broken at the cellular level in a way that affects every part of our bodies.
My old blog Team Danica had thousands and thousands of visitors because I was writing faithfully about our journey diagnosis by diagnosis in a narrative that explained this life in the reality of the pain but also through the lens of Hope. It documented the progression of comorbid conditions and the fight to see specialists who believed in their connection to EDS. Google search engines brought almost anyone typing in key words related to Chiari or EDS. People began emailing me and finding me on facebook and asking for help. I will admit in times when I was most ill I could not support all the people who needed help. I felt guilt but also sadness there was no place for them to go. A dear fellow Zebra created a private place on facebook called “Beyond the Measurement. Chiari, EDS, & Chiari w/EDS.” When I joined I know we had under 100 members. Today there are 2,609 members and exploding. It is a place of heroes rescuing heroes. I am proud of Robin Armstrong Griffin, her vision and the countless hours she donates to keep this safe and nurturing place going.
My book, Gauntlet with a Gift, will be the first book in narrative form taking a newly diagnosed person through the journey in medical diagnoses and specialists but also through the mental, emotional, relational and financial struggles we fight daily. It is a beautiful and sometimes unbelievable story meant first for my fellow warriors, second for the people who walk along side us trying to understand, and lastly for anyone wanting to be inspired by hidden gifts in a gauntlet of suffering that truly has no end in sight.
When I was in Texas on retreat one of the first people I met was a dear mom who has four children in the early stages of diagnosis and treatment. I was praying for affirmation from God about the direction of Gauntlet with a Gift. One of the reasons I wanted to attend this retreat was knowing Marilyn McEntyre was leading sessions. Her background in medical humanities made her a perfect resource for this work of love. Once again God answered exceeding, abundantly above all I could have asked or thought through this connection. The last day of the retreat, after we had spent rich time together on Saturday, she brought me her book Patient Poets. Illness from the Inside Out as a gift. She did not know I purchased this book from the Laity bookstore and had been pouring over it. I have already bought copies for friends and am giving one away here today. It explores the emotion behind our lives of pain and our fight for being just a little more well.
The past week I’ve spent time on many phone calls with people all over the United States looking for the wisdom I’ve gained because I am steps before them in this fight. I have directed two local woman referred to me from friends who are very sick and desperate for a real reason. I know they have connective tissue disorders. Last night I logically walked a friend through the next thing she needs to do. She is a woman who knows all I do but has less support and different circumstances making her battle more fierce. When you can’t lift your head off the pillow it’s so hard to do the next thing. I am also watching my younger sister finally realize she has many of the same conditions. Months ago I bought her an Aspen collar. She is waiting for a May appointment with my neurosurgeon. Every time I see her I feel a form of post traumatic stress, because I want to give her all the access I’ve had. Her story may look very different than mine. Knowing all I know I just want to hand her any relief I can.
I am feeling compassion fatigue. God is showing me the best and most beautiful way I can help is finish this book. This is why I stopped writing at Team Danica and moved here. It is also why at the beginning of the year I will have to turn off notifications from the support groups, silence my phone and do the very hard work of retelling our story along with detailed medical information and vignettes of the caring physicians and other patients who have saved us, all heroes untying our knots.
I was blown away by the nominations posted in the comments of my Big Box Giveaway. If you haven’t read them take a stroll over there. I know I said no more giving this year, but I was inspired to do one more after all the talks I had last week.
Included is a beautiful piece of Kelly Rae Roberts art framed and behind glass with the message “I choose hope.” A copy of Marilyn Chandler McEntyre’s book Patient Poets, mentioned above. A Zebra mug like the one my sister recently gifted me. It has a zebra on the front and our motto on the back, “Nothing is ever black and white.” Also my favorite Tazo tea, Joy. a perfect blend of black and white tea and a little zebra ornament for the tree. Oh how difficult the holidays are for us!
Here’s how to enter for the special zebra gifts you see here to be mailed to one of your own heroes.
1. Comment below on this post about an EDS or Chiari hero who has inspired you and helped untie your impossible knots. I will be randomly choosing a winner after midnight Thursday so I can mail this care package on Friday.
2. Many of you are personal friends on my Monica Roberts Snyder facebook page or followed Team Danica. Click on the facebook link at the top right of this blog and “like” my new writer page. This is where you will get updates on the progression and publication of Gauntlet with a Gift. Subscribe to receive new blog posts by email on the right side of this post.
3. Share this with your zebra friends! Our Hope remains!