Friday, 6 February 2015

PHighter Friday: Colleen S

In the PH community, I often hear people being asked what their life was like before diagnosis. I've been asked this myself many times over the years. The thing is, my life before I was diagnosed with PH was the same as my life is now. I don't know what it's like to breath normally. I don't have a clue what going from an active lifestyle to a PH lifestyle is all about. That is because PH has been my entire life. It's all I've known. I actually thought, as a kid, that it was normal to take hours to recover from running around with your siblings and friends. I thought everyone took naps when they were exhausted! And although everyone around me, family included, always told me I looked purple, to me that was just my thing!

I was diagnosed when I was 9 months old, but technically, I should have been diagnosed months earlier. My mom brought me to a free clinic to get my first set of immunization shots, and a doctor there thought something was up with my heart. My mom took me to the pediatrician, who didn't think anything was wrong. So at the same free clinic for my 2nd set of shots, the same doctor who saw me the first time told my mom that something was seriously wrong with me, because I looked blue. My parents ended up taking me to a children's hospital, and after many tests, they discovered I had a pretty bad congenital heart defect and pulmonary arterial hypertention. At that time (1975), the doctors couldn't do anything. It was too late for surgery to correct the holes in my heart, and there wasn't anything to treat PAH. My parents were told I might not make it to my first birthday, or I may possibly live til I'm 50. They weren't given much hope! But here I am, 39 years later, and I'm still living to share my story!

First Airplane Trip
I grew up with a lot of "cannots." I cannot participate in sports. I cannnot take gym class. I cannot go on rides that'll get your heart rate up too much. I cannot get pregnant. And so I lived my life following the "cannots." I often wonder if that really was a good thing or a bad thing, but I guess since I followed those rules pretty closely, and I'm still here, it was a good thing? I followed my grade school dream of becoming a teacher, getting my Bachelor's and eventually ending up in a preschool classroom. I loved it! But after only a few years, those preschooler germs started loving me. Too much. I was on my third major respiratory illness during my third year of teaching when my primary doctor came into the exam room with tears in her eyes and told me I had to quit my job. She wrote me a note that I took to my director right after the appointment. I was 24 at the time, and never even thought about quitting a career at that age. Who would??

A few years later after my PAH symptoms continued to get worse, I ended up going to the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. I was referred by my doctor to go for a transplant evaluation. At the time, the shortness of breath started happening more frequently (just getting dressed in the morning was becoming a 30 minute event), and an elephant had permanently moved in on top of my chest. That was one symptom I didn't have growing up, and it was not a symptom I particularly enjoyed! Being sent to Cleveland was very scary. Transplant was even scarier!! But my first visit, I was sent back home after so many tests with instructions to start taking Coumadin, a blood thinner, and to wear oxygen all the time. After several more visits to Cleveland in the following months, I was put on Tracleer. I had no idea what it was, or exactly what it would do. All I knew was that I surely hoped it would help my elephant to move on, and that I would start feeling better!!

My first shipment of Tracleer brought me not only the first medicine I'd ever try for PAH, but it also brought me into the world of the pulmonary hypertension community. I grew up knowing I had PH, but it was something that was never focused on. My heart condition was the central star all those years. Once I found the Pulmonary Hypertension Association website, my knowledge of PH started to expand. But what really hit me?? THERE WERE OTHERS LIKE ME!!!! I seriously spent a week reading the message boards and crying, because there were people I could relate to and totally understand!! It was like finding a miracle! 

Tracleer got that stupid elephant to move out several months after being on it, and I also didn't feel as short of breath doing certain things like I was always used to feeling. It was a pretty awesome feeling for a few years, until I felt like I needed to add another medication to the mix. Revatio was added, and the combination of the two is what I am still on today. Pulmonary rehabilitation was something I found out about from phriends (friends who have PH), and after inquiring about it, I started going twice a week at one of my local hospitals. It's been a little over six years since I've started pulmonary rehab, and I truly believe it's a part of what's been keeping my PAH stable in the last several years. Kinda hard to believe I went from no gym or sports as a kid/teen to working out a couple times a week at least! No, I am not running marathons or doing heavy weightlifting, but that is ok! Exercising at any capacity is beneficial, even if I can only do it a little at a time!

So after my PAH seemed to be stable for awhile, the next part of the equation was....what am I going to do with my life?? I couldn't teach. I knew I'd never go back to that. But I didn't know what else to do. Some days I had more energy than others. I'd have one day where I wish I could be at a job, to several days when I was thanking my lucky stars that I didn't have one. Then one day I got a call that started the ball rolling for me towards a direction I never thought about. I was asked if I'd consider starting a support group for PH patients in my area. At first, I was pretty terrified. I could handle being around kids, but to lead a group for adults??? I guess you could say that my shy background made the whole prospect a bit daunting for me! I really had to think about it. So, that's what I did. I spent a couple weeks thinking and praying and talking to my loved ones about the idea. I finally decided to go ahead! Yes, I was incredibly nervous about it, but I felt it was something I just HAD to do. How many years did I live with this disease by myself?? I just knew I had to at least give others the chance to not feel so alone after their diagnosis! 

In the 10 years since starting a support group in the Niagara Falls/Buffalo, NY area, I have really become involved with helping PH patients. I've had so many meetings, a large variety of topics and speakers, and phriends I care about very much. I have also become a big part of the online community for PHers, by being a PHA mentor, a chat leader, a blogger, and just a presence on Facebook. I had always wanted to teach in a classroom, but it took me awhile to realize that a "classroom" didn't have to be a place with 4 walls. It could be anywhere! I have even educated complete strangers during shopping trips about PH! And, in the 10 years since starting my support group, I have also learned to not be so shy with people. Sure, I can keep quiet sometimes, but more often than not, I put myself out there and let others know about this awful illness. Awareness is the key to so many answers, and I never know when one day I will talk to someone and they tell me they have PH, too!

My life with PAH is something I cannot change, and honestly, I think it has helped shape me to be the person I am today. Do I have days when I am angry about having it? Of course! I allow myself to have those angry days, or days of self-pity, but not for long. What good does that do me? I have learned to deal with this disease, and to cope the best I know how, and I have learned to help others going through the same thing. I have also not let PAH BE my entire life. I enjoy things like reading, painting glass, making jewelry, spending time with family and friends. In the last few years I have allowed myself to take on challenges I never thought I could do, because I always had that "cannnot" attitude with me. So I've gone on hikes, I've been on a jet ski, I took my first ever trip on an airplane! There are so many more things I've let myself try, even if I may not be able to do them again. I try my best not to let PAH take over my life, because if I did, I can't honestly say that I'd be living to the best of my ability!

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