The Other Side of the Nightmare

Posted on March 18, 2010. Filed under: Ehlers-danlos syndrome, Life's Lessons, Treatment, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , |

Twelve months ago I was forced to face an idea that terrified me.  Our local orthopaedic surgeon who was treating my son for the ACL tear in his right knee was telling me – in front of my son no less – that surgery was the only way to stop the worsening damage, keep my son out of pain, and keep him out of a wheelchair in adulthood.  He may as well have loaded a pistol, cocked it, and pointed it at my son’s head.  That was the feeling – that was the terror I felt all the way to my toes. 

“Surely he’s not serious”, I thought to myself, trying to maintain my composure.  “He doesn’t understand . . . . surgery could kill my son . . . he’s supposed to know that”. 

The dialogue in my head was  nearly audible; like trying to carry on a conversation with a radio blaring right beside me.  All my sirens, all my warning bells, red flags, you name it – were on high alert and that whole “fight or flight” mechanism we still carry around in our DNA was in Warp-Speed-Turbo-Drive-Mama-Bear-Mode.  The doctor continued talking calmly, telling us what “bad shape” the knee was in; that the injury had  worsened and his knee would continue to deteriorate unless we fixed it. 

Surgery was the one thing I feared more than anything else for my son.  Having lost my husband eleven years earlier, the geneticist who’d guided us carefully through that awful time gave me sobering, direct instructions with regards to my son’s care once he was diagnosed with the same life-threatening disorder. 

“Never allow him to have surgery – of ANY kind – unless it is to save life or limb; surgery is every bit as life threatening for your son as it was for your husband.” 

His words have been my mantra for all these years.   I learned some terribly difficult lessons during my husband’s illness – this is one I would make sure to remember.

Having surgery is so dangerous to my son and thousands of others like him because of the disorder he inherited from his father, Vascular Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (VEDS).  For patients with VEDS, the soft tissues of the body – the skin, ligaments, etc. – and most importantly the veins and arteries that make up the vascular system are seriously compromised and weaker than in the rest of us.  The skin may not hold sutures, the tissue could tear severely, and even minor trauma could cause rupture of vessels, arteries, or organs.  Many VEDS patients are living with serious aneurysms and dissections and are NOT having surgery because of that risk.  How could I possibly consider surgery for a knee injury?

Two months and about five specialists later, including a surgeon at Children’s Hospital in Boston at Harvard Medical School, I was getting one clear, consistent message.  If I did nothing, if he continued to live with a torn ACL and torn meniscus, the outcome would be very poor.  Most likely, more tissue would tear, he would have more pain, less mobility, and start developing arthritis as early as his late teens.  As it was then, his knee was going out on him almost daily; with torn bits of tissue getting wedged between the bones in his leg preventing him from either straightening or bending it completely.  He could be standing perfectly still, turn to go in another direction, and be on the floor in a moment with no obvious cause. 

Figuring out what to do and then doing it was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever faced.  However, once I started to research a little, I found some groups online for families with EDS, and I reconnected with old friends whose lives are touched in one way or another with Vascular EDS.  Some are patients who live with serious complications; some have survived unbelievable surgeries – procedures that were unimaginable when my husband was alive.  Many are parents just like me; raising kids with this horrifying disease and fighting like hell to get good information and find a cure.  Some are parents who’ve already lost their kids because there wasn’t enough information, or worse, because there was no diagnosis.  And yet they fight on for the rest of us, and for our kids; they put their hearts back out there on the line and risk getting them broken all over again just to make sure we and our children have a chance.

From where I sit now, safely on the other side of that nightmare, I am filled with wonder and gratitude.   I am filled with wonder at how I even got here; how such terror and late night panic attacks actually led me to the bravest group of people I’ve ever had the good fortune to know. 

My husband, my family, and my friends all have always given me their full support; but no one understands the heart-stopping reality of this disease better than someone who’s had to bury someone they love because of it.  Or someone who lives life everyday not knowing if the pain in their side is just a pain in their side or if the aneurysm they’ve been carrying around for years finally giving way.

In twelve months’ time, I’ve learned more about the possibilities of science and of the things regular people can accomplish when completely committed to a cause and to each other.  I’ve met more people living “normal” lives with Vascular EDS than I ever dreamed.  People I have never seen face to face and whose voices I’ve never heard – have fought this battle with me – cheering me on; giving me crucial information that in some instances probably saved my son’s leg if not his life.  So much of surviving Vascular EDS depends on the patients themselves and their support of one another.  As much as medicine and science is doing to help us all, without the open, loving support I have witnessed and experienced first hand, far more people would be lost. 

Years ago, before my son’s knee got worse and I found this dilemma staring me in the face, I debated the question of how involved I wanted to be with other EDS families; whether or not it even made sense to open up myself to more hurt.  Plainly put, whether or not I could handle getting close to someone who I could lose.  Could I survive that kind of grief again?  Did I even want to try? 

What a stupid question. 

It is only through opening my heart and risking that pain that I have found comfort; that I have found solidarity and been freed from the loneliness I lived with all those years.  Yes, it scares me.  And yes, it hurts – but isn’t that the point?  Being scared and being hurt are part of life – whether disease is in your life or not.  Being alone doesn’t have to be.  Why on earth would I choose that?  My life is indescribably richer, fuller because of  people who opened their own hearts, who willingly risk getting hurt themselves. 

Without them, without their late night emails, their obscure medical articles, their understanding, their crying with me, laughing with me, setting me straight when I needed it . . . I would still be terrified and alone.  I know enough about this disorder now to understand that undoubtedly there will be times in the future that I will again be forced to face my worst fears, that I’ll experience the paralyzing terror that comes when your child is in danger.  But now I also know, when that time does come –  I’ll not be facing it alone. 

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5 Responses to “The Other Side of the Nightmare”

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Debbie,

Your writing just gets better and better. Griping detail, such heart stirring sharing you are able to do. God Is Good!
Thanks for sharing w/ us. Hope you, and the family have a better summer this year and have lots of FUN! No hospitals.

Love Your Blog,

Peggy

Another wonderful read. You are truly an amazing person and writer Debbie. You have so many wonderful gifts and I’m so glad you’re sharing them with us.

And I am so glad to have you, your knownledge, gift for words, and life experiences as part of our ‘team’ too. You’re awesome!

The sad part of this article is that once again a doctor; an orthopedic at that, gives surgery as an only option. ACL Reconstruction is a horrible decision for anyone with EDS. Surgery in general is a poor option because we don’t heal well from surgery (which I know from my own personal surgeries). There are ways to repair meniscus and any other tear to a ligament or tendon called Prolotherapy and PRP (Platelet Rich Plasma). I really hope that doctors begin to educate themselves about this life changing procedure and if it is too threatening to their Orthopedic practice than I hope people begin to circulate this information themselves. It has kept me out of a wheelchair and I’m working out again. Injury is inevitable with EDS Hypermobility, but at least it’s a possibility to exercise and keep walking. www. getprolo.com

Thank you for your comments – and yes, it is sad that an orthopaedist would recommend surgery for a VEDS patient – especially one who was only 11 at the time. Because of that, I took my son to three other prominent pediatric orthopaedic/sports medicine surgeons for their opinions. I also contacted Dr. Hal Dietz at Johns Hopkins and Dr. Nazli McDonnell at the NIH so they could weigh in as well. By the time my son actually had his surgery, we’d flown from Atlanta to Boston and seen probably no less than 12 specialists. In my son’s case (each one is so unique), his injury was so severe after three years of non-operative therapy, our only other option was to let it continue to deteriorate. Believe me, it was the hardest decision I’ve faced so far in his care. I doubt it will be the last. Thank you for the info on Prolotherapy – I will certainly keep it handy for future reference.

Best wishes,

Debbie Vaughan


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