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I will never forget the day my hair loss went from “God, don’t I leave a lot of hair around the apartment” to “F***!!!! ”. I’d always considered my hair as one of my best features, it was long, wavy, strong, shiny and I loved it! When I started to see handfuls coming out in the shower it was terrifying. I was like a chemotherapy patient, it was unstoppable and devastating. I saw up to three GPs (Family doctors) who all only seemed interested in the level of stress in my life. Not one of them really took me seriously, I did a couple of blood tests, out of my own persistence that something was wrong, but nothing jumped out of these results to my doctors. I kept being told that my hair was falling out because I was stressed but I was stressed because my hair was falling out!
To be fair, this was a particularly stressful time in my life. I had just finished a year working abroad, in Portugal, which I’d found very lonely and isolating. I’d just returned home to Cork but things didn’t pan out the way I had hoped they would on my return. I was living on my own and trying to reacclimatise to something which wasn’t the same. Around the week leading up to the extreme hair loss I’d found myself in a particularly stressful situation. After about two weeks the hair loss settled down from terrifying to worrying. Since no one seemed as bothered by it as I was, I let it take a back burner. The doctor told me it was normal, the hairdresser told me it was common, I fell into accepting that there wasn’t a problem.
Flash forward five months and I’m sitting in my bosses’ office for a meeting. I look down at my arm, both my arms are covered in purple spots. It’s not itchy. It looks like a rash. I run a glass over it. The spots don’t disappear. I let out a loud exhale “phew it’s not meningitis. I’m fine”. I go to carry on with the meeting. My boss is having absolutely none of it. She knows that whatever is on my arm is weird. So she bundles me into a taxi and sends me off to an urgent care clinic. Since I was working as a chemist at the time for a pharmaceutical company, the obvious questions were “were you in contact with any chemicals?”, “are you allergic to anything you’re working with?”. I knew I hadn’t been exposed to anything so I decided to tell the nurse about my hair loss. I can’t thank this woman enough for the next question she asked me. This was a moment, although I didn’t know it at the time, that went onto change my life. She asked me “has the shape of your face changed?” To this I went ABSOLUTELY!
I’d put on weight in the previous year. It had started when I was living in Portugal. I’d put it down to a diet of beer and white bread. I hadn’t known, but any friends who’d come to visit me had thought that I’d put on a very noticeable amount of weight in a very short time. But this hadn’t made sense to me. I was working out at least 5 days a week and even up to 7 days a week. I was lifting weights and getting weaker not stronger. My diet was excellent (except for the booze and cigarettes) but my face and middle just kept ballooning while my arms and legs were turning into sticks. My clothes weren’t fitting. I was ashamed of my face and belly. I wouldn’t let myself be photographed. I was disgusted by my own body.
So, this nurse spotted something which no one had spotted before. She believed me, she knew that something was wrong and she (along with my wonderful boss) started me along the road to diagnosis and recovery.
Next comes a tremendous mistake from me. My attitude of “era it will be grand” nearly ruined my life and landed me ill in a very serious way. If I’d done what I was supposed to do at this point my disease would have been diagnosed and treated before it started to run away, with me dragged along behind it. I know why I didn’t pursue diagnosis. I was lazy about doing the testing, the hair loss had calmed down, I still just thought I was fat and I didn’t realise how sick I was because I had so many symptoms which came on so gradually that they just became normal to me.
I had my first appointment with an endocrinologist in April 2015. Turns out she knew from one look at me what was wrong. She recommended a 24 hour urine test but I had to be at least 6 weeks off of oral contraceptives for the test. I went off the contraceptives but by the time the 6 weeks had passed I just didn’t bother. I didn’t want to carry around a pee bottle for the day and besides the hair loss had settled down and I wasn’t sick was I?
How did I not realise I was sick?
I’d almost gone bald
I was constantly covered in bruises for no reason which didn’t heal
I never got to the bottom of my strange rash
I was swimming in a constant brain fog
I couldn’t sleep at night but I was tired all day
I put all of my symptoms down to sessioning too hard, being hungover all the time and injuring myself when I was drunk.
That was until I woke up one morning at my friend’s house, admittedly after a night of drinking, without the use of my arms, legs or hands. I woke up really early in the bed with stiffness in my limbs. When I got out of bed my legs were no good to me. I dragged myself to the bathroom on my hands and knees and sat in the shower to wash myself. I went down the stairs on my bum, got into my car and tried to drive home to my mam’s house. It took me about an hour to do a 10 minute drive. I couldn’t get out of second gear because I couldn’t press the clutch, which was just as well because my right leg was no good for using the brakes. Once I got home, naturally I was a bit concerned but I’d loosened out after a bit of movement and strangely wasn’t all that bothered by my period of paralysis!
Once I walked in the back door of my house, with my mother behind me she spotted one of the oddest things! It was like someone had thrown a cup of coffee at the back of my head and it had dried on the back of my neck. At this stage my hair was so thin that the only way I wore it was in a bun at the back of my head. This strange staining was there for all the world to see! I’d no idea how long it had been there given it’s not a part of my body I spend much time looking at. Turns out it had been there about a week and I could even see it growing and spreading up into my hair line and around the front of my face.
Mam wanted me rushed to the emergency unit. I wasn’t so keen on that, so we compromised. It being a Saturday we went to the on call doctor. Now starts the saga of doctors prescribing me steroids, steroids and more steroids. Little did I know that my problem was having too much steroids. I hadn’t heard mention of the term “Cushings Syndrome”. Nobody had brought this up. I took the steroids I was prescribed. I went downhill. I wasn’t experiencing the paralysis but I was having horrendous joint pain. I would watch as my hands, elbows knees and ankles swelled to size of large oranges. I couldn’t use a pen with my swollen fingers. Stairs were a struggle with my swollen knees. I hobbled around like an old woman. I didn’t understand what was going on with my body. I was panicking. I went to my GP in Cork, she prescribed a higher dose of steroids. It was only worse I got. She prescribed higher doses of steroids again. I felt this doctor wasn’t helping me, she wasn’t listening to my concerns and her only idea was to keep upping my dose of corticosteroids. What a disaster!
Luckily, my aunt is a docotor in the major hospital in Cork. She got wind of my problems, pulled some strings and had me admitted to the acute care clinic in her hospital for the following day. This was the first of my “holidays to CUH” as I started to call them. Here I saw what I can only call a plethora of doctors. Consultants that take months to years to get appointments with were calling to check on me willy nilly. I saw emergency consultants, rheumatologists, dermatologists, radiologists and finally the endocrinologist. We were all working to the assumption that I had some strange sort of viral arthritis which was causing my joint pain and swelling.
It was here in hospital that someone got to the bottom of the strange coffee stain on the back of my neck. It was merely a fungal infection (tick off the symptom of persistent infections).
After having received a very stern talking to from the endrochronolgist I proceeded to do a battery of tests including 24 hour and 48 hour urine samples, dexamethasone 24 hour and 48 hour, several trips and “holidays to CUH” all culminating in a MRI to confirm that I had an adrenal tumour producing far and above the natural and required levels of cortisol. This was the answer to everything.
After my diagnosis I started reading up on the symptoms of Cushing’s Syndrome. I realised that I had every single symptom on the list. Things that I hadn’t even realised were wrong with me until I gave myself permission to be ill.
I had the stretch marks on my arms, sides and legs. I’d though these were from my weight gain but who gets stretch marks on their arms? Turns out my skin was so weak it was tearing.
The cognitive deficiencies. I am someone who had always prided themselves on their intelligence, ability to think on my feet, to understand things rather than learn them. I’d always been a high achiever. I’d noticed myself getting stupider. I would be looking at someone talking to me and I’d be trying to figure out what day of the week it was. I found holding a conversation extremely difficult and very stressful. I wasn’t able to engage with people.I wasn’t able to listen, concentrate or respond. My memory was non-existent. Trying to think was like trying to swim through a thick, gloopy soup. I had put this drop in mental ability down to the partying and finding out that maybe I wasn’t as capable as I thought I was in the working world.
Bio, Continued: The bruising. I was bruising my arm from putting my handbag on my shoulder. The purple dots were actually tiny bruises. My legs were constantly just purple. I couldn’t heal. I was doing so many blood tests that the skin on my arms was constantly purple and wouldn’t heal.
Lack of libido. What libido?!
Irregularities with my period. I wasn’t getting periods at all since I’d stopped using oral contraceptives. I knew I wasn’t pregnant, see the point above and thought that I was just skipping some periods.
Brittle bones. I was diagnosed with osteoporosis at 24.
Joint pain. I wasn’t able to bend my knees to get up or down stairs. My bedroom is three flights of stairs from the kitchen. More than once I ended up stranded in the kitchen, not able to get back upstairs to lie down on my bed and feel sorry for myself.
The swelling wasn’t confined to my joints. There were days my face was so swollen it was hard to see out my eyes as my cheeks inflated and rose to meet my brow bone.
Sleep. I’d turned into an insomniac who wandered the house late at night not awake enough to do something but still unable to sleep.
Body hair. I was managing to grow a beard despite going bald! I started to get my cheeks waxed thinking this was a normal cosmetic procedure that other girls just didn’t talk about.
Stress. The choice between two different types of cheese could cause me so much anguish as to leave me in tears.
Up until the point where I was diagnosed, I hadn’t allowed myself to be sick. After the diagnosis I never let myself feel sorry for myself. I just got on with it. Planned for surgery and that was it.
In October 2015 I underwent a full left adrenelectomy to remove a tumour from my adrenal gland.
After the surgery I’d a whole new condition to learn to deal with. My right adrenal had been suppressed while my tumour was active. This left me with no natural cortisol in my body. A 180 deg turnaround from being pumped up on steroids 24 hours a day. I was on replacement steroids but my body was readjusting. I slept most of every day. I couldn’t pick up a carton of milk. If I didn’t take my medication I was in serious trouble.
I was back at work the week before Christmas. This was much too big a leap! I’d been frustrated by the speed of my recovery. I recovered from surgery quickly but the recovery from Cushing’s was slower. I’d expected everything to just go back to normal after the surgery and hadn’t anticipated the gradual decline in symptoms. I ended up getting very sick with a virus and really thought my family would have me admitted to hospital. There are two days that all I can remember is lying on the couch sweating. I lost 8 lbs in a day! I’d pushed myself too far.
And yet I still didn’t learn! I’m not someone that likes to be inactive. I also just wanted life to go back to normal. I returned to work again in January on half days and gradually built myself up to working full days.
Slowly but surely, I was taking less and less medication. I was able to stay awake a little bit longer every day. My mind was coming back to me. I was losing the bright red colour from my face. One day I woke up, looked in the mirror and suddenly had cheek bones again. I looked like my old self. By January I’d gone from a dress size 14 to a 6 with hardly any weight loss. It was just like someone had stuck a pin in me and I was deflating back down to a regular size. My hair was growing back but still had horrible wispy ends so I chopped all the sickness out of my hair. By April I wasn’t taking any steroids. I’d again pushed myself to the limit and instead of tapering slowly had gone down in major jumps. Weeks where I was doing a major jump involved lots and lots of tears. And then some more tears.
By June I noticed that I hadn’t had a day where my joints were sore since I couldn’t remember when.
Things like falling down the stairs because my legs couldn’t support me won’t be forgotten. Standing at the top of the stairs and knowing I can’t get down. My hands turning into claws. Or accidentally going into steroid withdrawals a few days post surgery (I was the crazy patient running up and down the hospital corridor screaming and crying in the middle of the night). These won’t be forgotten but they will fade in importance. The things that won’t are my little brother coaching me through all the tubes I woke up with after surgery, my friends bringing me bottles of diet coke and fancy hummus in hospital, the friend who came to see me every day in hospital, the one who picked me up and took me home, my mam who told me I was brave and that I’d gone through a lot, and the boy who listened to me cry when the pain still hadn’t gone away.
As of today I have been declared fully recovered bar one more hurdle. My repeat bone density scan. In two weeks’ time I have to repeat this to see if I still have osteoporosis. Whatever about having a tumour at 23, being diagnosed with osteoporosis at 24 just isn’t on! I’ve been drinking plenty of milk and tons of cheese though so fingers crossed.