Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Luck of the Irish

“If you had the luck of the Irish, you’d be sorry and wish you were dead.
You should have the luck of the Irish, you would wish you was English instead.”  Lennon/Ono

I have taken the day off and resolved (again) to start writing about my life as a housecleaner with Grave’s Disease.  Yesterday was a day of worrying about what my customers think of me.  When my neurology customer asked me how I was feeling and I said fine but shaky, he took my pulse and said it was “a little fast but strong, no fibrillation.”  

To a person free of all but the normal anxiety about paying bills and getting the kid into a decent college that news would be reassuring, but in my case I was robbed of the one physical explanation I had for the mysterious feeling that haunts me under the breastbone and grows to an intense pain in my neck, head and eyes in irregular cycles.  I spent the rest of the day in circular thoughts wondering what was causing the sensation in my chest if it was not related to the heart and resisting the impulse to defend myself against the logical conclusion that I have hypochondria.   By the end of the day I returned to the Wikipedia article on Grave’s Disease that I’ve read twice before and was reminded of the tears that popped from my sore eyes the first time I read it.

It has been my plan for several years to write about my life as a house cleaner and tell the story of how I grew up in the nurturing atmosphere of my customers’ homes, strengthened by their kindness and inspired by their patience.  Now that I have been living for 3 years with the knowledge that I carry this chemical difference, and have had some time to consider the various ways it has affected my moods and behavior, I realize how important it is for someone to tell the story of what it’s like to live with Grave’s Disease. 

Today the awareness that shines most brightly for me is my appreciation for both this condition and modern medical science.  I sometimes say condition because calling it a disease contradicts my feeling that I am lucky to have it.  I am reminded of the students at Gallaudet University who protested the hiring of a hearing person as leader of their institution in 1988, beginning the ‘Deaf President Now’ movement; their demands for a deaf university president raised awareness of a culture that chooses to regard difference as an opportunity rather than a disability.  To receive a diagnosis of Grave’s Disease at the age of 51 after the body has been revved up by the effects of an over active thyroid for many years, is the same as being diagnosed with a mental illness that bears a shameful stigma.  It is handled very much in the same way that people once handled the diagnosis of cancer back in the days when it was a death sentence carefully guarded from the patient.

In other words, I was never told I had Grave’s Disease.  I had to put the puzzle pieces, which by mere chance fell in front of me, together.  If I had not repeatedly sought out available literature and asked questions of medical professionals, and if a friendly radiology technician had not told me the story of a fellow soldier’s mental breakdown, I would never have received an explanation for the wild mood swings and intense bouts of pain that I have lived with for years; I would be just another confused woman unable to control herself.

Mother without a License

When I discovered that I was pregnant at the age of 36, without health insurance, savings, or any other trappings of the corporate dream, I went to the county clinic.  Other than STD clinics I had never patronized medical establishments, but I liked the waiting mothers’ clinic; I liked seeing the various parents and guardians with infants and toddlers that circulated every month, just like me, through the waiting room and lab stations.  Eventually, I even liked being called ‘mom’ by the workers in the clinic, after wrestling with the inner conflict of feeling like a comrade in a state reproductive program and deciding that I could resist the repeated appellation as a social rank or let it help me prepare for the new life I was trying to fathom.  How in the world one of those small turkeys would come out of me was too frightening to consider.  I chose instead to meditate on the variety of women progressing through stages of abdominal growth and scolding restless children, and trust that if they could do it, somehow I would manage too.

Every month I was given two pages with a drawing of the corresponding developmental stage of the fetus.  I loved studying all the information and projecting where I was in my journey to motherhood, I loved telling my guy about the latest scientific gem that I had gleaned from the handouts or a book from the library.  I was uncomfortable accepting the WIC coupons that I was automatically signed up for and found the bureaucratic labyrinth I was subjected to every three months to collect them tedious, but like an embedded journalist I never missed an opportunity to sit in the waiting room and go through the experience of being told how I should plan and prepare meals for my family.  I learned a lot about government funded prenatal care and became a big fan of Jimmy Carter.  It was the last 2 weeks of the pregnancy and delivery that opened my eyes to why the American medical institution is casually demonized by the same people who can’t seem to get enough of it.

Ever since I was literally restrained in a hospital bed for the birth of my son I have been engaged in an uneasy standoff with the institutions that are the pride of the average American and yet the first target for blame when lives are compromised or lost.  This account of my life with a difference called a disease is not an indictment of science, American health care, or the medical community.  It is the story of my effort to make the best of the body I was given, and take pride in the woman I am.

Name Your Poison

Grave’s Disease is a name commonly used in America for the autoimmune condition which causes the thyroid to produce thyroid hormone indiscriminately.  Robert Graves was a revered Irish physician of British ancestry who published a two page article in 1835 describing 3 women suffering from heart palpitations accompanied by enlargement of the thyroid gland.  There are, however, earlier descriptions of the condition in medical literature, including one in the 12th century Thesaurus of the Shah of Khwarazm by Al-Jurjani.

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