Gosh, I hardly know where to begin. I've been wanting to update you for such a long time, but it's been an extremely difficult and traumatic few months. Five months. Gosh, it's five months since I last wrote here. I can't possibly tell you all that has happened in that time in one post, so I shall just aim to cover the immediate period following my last post.
I started the betamethasone a few days after last posting here, while I was still in hospital so they could watch for any immediate difficulties, and we did a straight swap from 60mg prednisolone to 9mg betamethasone. Thankfully the swap was uneventful and I was able to go home a day or two later.
It very quickly became apparent that I was absorbing the betamethasone very differently to the prednisolone. The first noticeable difference was that I was bouncing with energy. It was a false energy that I did know from previous very, very high doses of pred, but never to that extent. I easily managed on four hours of sleep a night, and this was immediately after the admission when I knew that my body was actually exhausted and needed rest, but I couldn't. I was bright and was eager to get on with a big declutter of my flat, starting with the bedroom. Every day was filled with sorting through everything in my bedroom - in the desk, in the wardrobe, under the bed, in files I hadn't looked in for years. I shredded years of old diaries, bank statements, old business paperwork; took bags upon bags of things to the tip; donated at least nine black bin bags full of things to the charity shop; cleaned the whole room to within an inch of its life; a friend ended up redecorating part of the room for me; I dismantled furniture and constructed new Ikea furniture; and then I started on the living room.
It was very hard work, but I had the energy so I got on with the decluttering while the energy lasted, because I knew that as the dose of betamethasone was weaned down the energy would begin to falter. Of course the activity made me sweat, but I sweated excessively, even sitting shredding hundreds of pages of paper a few sheets at a time would soak my clothes through with sweat. But whilst I was sweating, and sweating, and sweating my body was swelling, and swelling, and swelling with fluid. However much furosemide (diuretic) I took it did nothing to rid me of the excessive oedema, and I was/am on a huge dose of 120mg twice a day.
Then there was the hunger. Of course, using a lot of energy with activity meant that I needed more energy in the form of food, but not that much more, and my hunger was excessive for the energy I was using. I tried not to give in because I am already far too overweight and in desperate need of losing some, but it was incredibly difficult. My hunger was never satisfied. I could eat what I knew to be a normal-sized meal and I would feel as though I'd had a micro snack. I could eat what I knew to be a big meal and I would feel as though I'd perhaps had a light spot of lunch. It was awful to be permanently uncomfortable with hunger yet seeing the weight pile on, which combined with the excessive oedema to change my appearance significantly.
My face, my huge moon face, lost all definition. My nose shrank into my ever growing cheeks, and my chin and jaw were lost to the depths of my neck. This look is typical of someone on high dose steroids, and it is rightly named because the face becomes spherical like a full moon. Yes, I have been moon faced for many years, but never to that extent, never to the extent where it felt like a facial disfigurement. A whole body disfigurement with the extra weight and fluid too.
The disfigurement continued because my skin couldn't keep up with the rate at which it was needing to expand, and my whole torso, tops of my arms, and tops of my legs have become covered in huge, ugly striae. These are essentially stretch marks, but they are so much more than stretch marks. They are deep purple and red lines, some as wide as three or four centimetres, almost looking like huge lacerations snaking their way up my body and down the backs of my arms. The skin is so thin that in places I can clearly see the fine veins below. Sometimes they split and I bleed. They happen quickly too, so quickly that I feel them happening - the fibres of my skin ripping apart, forever damaged, and now that I've lost a little of the weight again, the skin hangs limp, wrinkled, flaccid, separate from the tissue below so that I can pull it with my fingers like stretched chewing gum and just about see my fingers through the two layers of skin pressed together.
This is not me, but it may as well be. This is what my torso looks like, except that the striae on the front of my body go all the way up to my breasts. It is at least a disfigurement that I can mostly hide under clothes, except those at the tops of my arms and the top of my chest that often peak out from under my T-shirts. Of course, there is no hiding them from a medic when I am examined, and although I warn them, and they are used to seeing such things, I still see the shock flicker across their face before professionalism hides it again.
I am told that over time the colour will fade, but I know that the skin will not, cannot, repair itself, and although they may become silvery, they will always be visible.
The plan was to try to reduce the betamethasone dose fairly quickly so that I could try to get to a more normal prednisolone-equivalent dose. I was nervous about doing this because of so many failures of dose reduction with pred in the past, and the resultant life-threatening asthma attacks, but given the rapid destruction of my body I was willing to try. In some ways this was made easier by the fact that each betamethasone tablet was a much smaller dose than each prednisolone tablet, so my lungs kind of didn't notice the reduction so acutely (although it also meant that to begin with I was taking eighteen betamethasone tablets each day!).
I thought that the quicker reduction in betamethasone dose would mean an equally rapid reduction in side effects, but in actuality, the only one that did subside as quickly was the false energy. That was actually something of a relief, because while it was good to be living more in the same time zone as everyone else around me, I could feel that my body was, in reality, completely exhausted. But one side effect that actually continued to increase was severe weakness in my thigh muscles in particular, but other muscles too. I quickly became unable to stand from a chair without pushing off something, and if I ended up on the floor (as is the wont of someone like myself with POTS) then I was basically stuck until someone could help me up or I could somehow clamber onto my footstool and from there shuffle onto the sofa, where I would still have to brace myself for the huge effort and several attempts to get to standing again.
I went to my GP in the end, not really because I expected him to be able to do anything, but simply because the whole combination of all the symptoms, and their rapid progression, was getting to me. I came away with an official diagnosis of Cushing's Syndrome. Of course, because I have been on such high doses of steroids for such a long time, and because I am aware of their many, many side effects, I have been known about Cushing's Syndrome for a lot of years. I have known that I have exhibited many signs and features of it at various times to varying degrees over those years, but there was still something rather shocking about receiving the diagnosis. One thing I have had particular difficulty with is the prognosis as fifty percent of people with untreated Cushing's Syndrome die within five years of diagnosis. My CS cannot be treated as the only treatment is to remove the cause, which in my case would be to remove the steroids. Remove the steroids I die either of an asthma attack or adrenal crisis, as my body is now dependent on the prescribed steroids because it can no longer produce any of its own. I can only hope that I am in the other fifty percent.
Whilst all of this was going on with the explosion of betamethasone side effects and the additional diagnosis of Cushing's Syndrome, another problem was developing. There was a supply 'issue' with the betamethasone at manufacturing level. I had been given enough in my initial prescription to keep me going for quite a while, but before too long I needed another prescription. My local pharmacy was able to honour the first three hundred tablets on that prescription, but that wasn't going to last me all that long, even though I was reducing the dose and therefore eking out the medication. I managed to get in touch with my consultant's secretary and Dr H wrote a hospital prescription for me that he hoped would tide me over until my local pharmacy was able to source the rest of the meds they owed me. The hospital out-patient pharmacy had some, but not enough, and they had to do some internal negotiations to borrow from the in-patient pharmacy so that prescription could be fulfilled. They normally wouldn't be able to do this, but as the problem extended into community pharmacies as well then they made an exception. However, this was not a problem that was going to be resolved in time for the next prescription, and before too long I found myself with only enough tablets to last about six more days and then I'd be without any steroids at all. This wasn't an option.
I had been keeping J, my Complex Respiratory Disease Specialist Nurse, informed all the way through as the problem arose and progressed. He liaised with my consultant, and the three of us ended up having a discussion about it in clinic, by which time I was about three days away from prescription crisis point. Dr H had to come up with a new plan.
One thing had firmly been established - that I clearly hadn't been absorbing or utilising the prednisolone as I ought to have been, and that I clearly was absorbing or utilising the betamethasone very differently. This added credence to the hypothesis that not all steroids are equal, and I needed a different one.
Dr H decided, as I hoped he would, that it would be foolish to go back to a reliance on only prednisolone as it obviously wasn't working satisfactorily. However, we also knew from the side effects that prednisolone had given me over the years that I had been absorbing at least some of it. So Dr H started me back on 40mg prednisolone alongside an injection of 40mg IM triamcinolone every three weeks, with instructions to reduce the pred relatively quickly to 25mg. I wasn't able to reduce it quite as quickly as Dr H had wanted me to, in part because my lungs did notice the reduction, though I did eventually get the dose down to 25mg, and then subsequently to 10mg. Ideally he would like me to get to 5mg pred, but so many things have prevented further reduction for now.
The other reason I was unable to reduce the prednisolone down to 25mg as quickly as Dr H wanted me to was because I ruptured my Achilles tendon. Most people get this injury through contact sports, or extreme adventures, or a vicious football tackle, or some other 'exciting' activity. I did it by slowly walking from my living room to my bedroom. I did nothing unusual. I didn't trip. I didn't fall. I didn't stand on anything, though I did go back to the 'scene of the crime' to see if I'd trodden on something. No, I simply stepped forward as normal and then crunch! Sudden extreme pain, followed surprisingly quickly by relatively little pain, but I couldn't walk properly and it felt 'all wrong.' Another trip to the GP and I came away with an 'urgent 24 hour referral' to an orthopod at the hospital. Only this 'urgent 24 hour referral' took almost two weeks to come through.
It transpired that the betamethasone/Cushing's Syndrome has also weakened my tendons and ligaments, and the orthopod took literally two seconds to confirm the diagnosis of a spontaneously ruptured Achilles tendon. Obviously with my lungs in the state that they are he was extremely reluctant to operate, so it is being treated conservatively - with a moon boot. For the first two months I had a hard moon boot (like that shown in the link) to wear through the day, and a softer, lighter one to wear at night. Since my check up in mid-October I have been able to stop wearing the night time boot, but I still have to wear the heavy, cumbersome one through the day when I'm up and about. Only now I have a matching pair of moon boots, because the stress put on the left leg by the heavy, cumbersome moon boot on the right leg has caused the Achilles in the left leg to tear. Thankfully it isn't a full rupture, but for the foreseeable future I have a pair of moon boots to go with my moon face and alien appearance of my torso.
This is far, far from all that has happened since I last posted, but it is enough for now. I will return very soon with a continuation of the update, but as you have now read some of the traumas of the past few months you may be able to appreciate a little of why I have felt too overwhelmed to write about it. Instead I have been living it and trying to muddle my way through.