Welcome back to our Gauntlet Story Feast community.
This week’s story is from Pamela Fenner. Pam was my very first hero in this walk. In the initial research stages of writing Gauntlet with a Gift I went back to all the messages between Pam and I on Facebook and in email. As I read through them I realized over the years we had written a beautiful book of our own. She forged the way for me in her own neurosurgeries, and Danica, in many ways, paved the way for her daughter Eden’s surgeries. Through pages and pages of detailed medical research and information about doctors and hospitals, symptoms and diagnoses and medications and therapies there is a beautiful thread of faith and friendship. It is a sturdy life line held in the hands of two women who have intimately shared and grown through the most painful challenges. Pam is perhaps the most giving zebra I know. She is a support to many in their walks while at the same time tirelessly advocating for more research and better understanding of Chiari, Ehlers Danlos and other accompanying disorders among physicians and anyone else who will listen.
Pam will be heading back into surgery this coming Tuesday, April 7th, for fusion of her C5-C7. Please pray for her and for Dr. Henderson. Please pray for her dear husband and children. Please pray for strength and healing.
Life is a Gift
by Pamela Fenner
“Life is a gift. Regard it as such. Return the blessing through each life you touch. Every seed planted springs forth new birth. Allow your bouquet to cover the earth.”–Lorna Jackie Wilson
My world had been rocked to the core. One doesn’t imagine their life can change in the blink of an eye. I never imagined handing my daughter over to a neurosurgeon four times (now I know that number will only increase over the years). I never imagined that I would need a brain surgery, along with a spine surgery, to attach my skull to my neck just to stay alive five years ago. I never imagined more brain surgeries would be in store for my daughter and I. I never imagined more spine surgeries would be in store too.
Living with Chiari and Ehlers Danlos Syndrome teaches you to expect the unexpected. Be prepared when they check your heart they are going to find something major. Be prepared they are going to find something major in most of the other places too. EDS involves a defect in collagen which makes up the entire body so even your blood vessels will be affected. Be prepared to find out these conditions have no cure (surgery is only a bandaid) but worse, these conditions are poorly understood and lack research and funding. Be prepared to have to arm yourself with knowledge so that you can be the best possible advocate for yourself and for your children (you unknowingly passed this onto them) as it will become your job to bring everyone up to speed. You will fight for your lives until you make it to a doctor who understands and can help. There will be plenty of days when you can barely lift your head off of the pillow, but you will have to, because your child is suffering too and needs you. The surgeries, the daily pain, all of the medical appointments, dealing with insurance, the mounds of medical bills . . . they can suck the life right out of you. Just when you might start to see light at the end of the tunnel something else rears its head, and you are thrown right back into the abyss.
At some point in time you accept the hand that you have been dealt. You convince yourself that just because you have these conditions it doesn’t have to mean that they have you. You learn to put on a great game face, become quite good at suffering and smile to hide the pain. You become kinder as you realize that everyone faces battles. Theirs are just different from yours.
I have always had what I thought to be strong faith, but evidently God thought it could stand to be a lot stronger. The storms kept coming over the years and each time I would let worry, fear and stress consume me. I learned to live in “survival mode.” When my daughter’s Chiari symptoms were the worst I would go into her room several times a night to check on her just to make sure that she was still breathing. My son had blood sugar that plummeted (especially during the night), and I would go into his room and check his blood sugar while he was sleeping. I never slept back then. My daughter would have one surgery and start to do well, and then things would go haywire again, and she would develop a new problem. In my son’s case it took nine years to get to the root of his low blood sugar, a rare Carnitine deficiency. His doctor asked me if I was sitting down before she delivered that news to me over the phone. In the midst of things I had my own serious problems that needed attention, but we learned to survive daily by triaging who was worse. I squeezed in my surgeries when an opportunity would present itself, and the light at the end of the tunnel would start to dim again. The stories I could share are unimaginable to most, and unless you lived under our roof you really have no idea. Things never let up and the stress, fear and fatigue were draining. There was no end in sight. This was our life. This is our life.
Surgeries and treatments over the past few years have certainly been miraculous, helping so much, but when you live with chronic conditions, there never is an end in sight. The stories will remain unimaginable. Today, I no longer fear the storms. They have made me stronger and because of them, an indomitable spirit now resides inside of me. The storms have taught me that worry and stress won’t ever change the outcome, but that they will take away the day’s sunshine. I learned that fear doesn’t prevent death, but instead prevents life.
My faith is much larger now. It is impossible to endure difficult times without huge faith. There is no longer a reason to live in “survival mode” once you “let go and let God.” I have been given the opportunity to see life through a different set of eyes. I now see everything I didn’t notice before when I was too busy and too distracted. When you don’t have your health you learn very quickly what a precious gift life really is. You begin to not take one day for granted. You realize that the secret to having it all is already knowing that you do. Perhaps I have been given a gift wrapped up in a daunting medical diagnosis.
About Pam in her own words:
I spent years trying to figure out the cause of my headaches and other symptoms after my son was born fifteen years ago. I was diagnosed with “Migraines” and “Fibromyalgia” back then. I had gone from living a pretty healthy life to a life full of symptoms that snowballed out of nowhere. My head pain and symptoms became much worse after the birth of my daughter six years later. She had difficulty with crawling and walking and at two years old was sent for a brain and full spine MRI. The radiologist handed me the report before we left the hospital. I will never forget that day. That is when I heard the word Chiari for the first time. I immediately Googled it when I got home. It was at the moment when I realized what I had been suffering from for years, and it was not long after when I learned about Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. In 2009, all three of us were diagnosed with EDS by genetics.
I am so thankful for the amazing support system of the online community that has been created by patients and families living with these conditions. I have met so many wonderful people on this journey who have been there for my family and I even during some of the most difficult days of their own lives. They “get it.” Sometimes no words need to be exchanged. What a beautiful gift, to be carried by others, when life has knocked you down.
If you are walking a Gauntlet or are close to someone who is and would like to contribute to our Thursday community please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will send you the instructions for submitting. Share with anyone you know who might like to join our Gauntlet Story Feast. (Please use the hash tag #GauntletStoryFeast when sharing so we can find and follow one another.) Our Hope remains.
Photography by Cindee Snider Re. Used with permission.
Quote taken from Michele Cushatt’s new book Undone: A Story of Making Peace With an Unexpected Life.