Through the years I’ve shared our stories of managing food allergies (in our now college age son). Rarely have I shared stories about our adult daughter with celiac disease and mast cell issues. This time, I’m going to share about her recent experience, since there are so many things we learned.
Earlier in July, Michaela got overheated while being outside in the Colorado sun enjoying a festival. She was mostly inside a tent, but since there was no electricity, the air was stale and approaching 100 degrees. She estimates she drank 8 bottles of water during 4 hours of being at the festival trying to keep herself hydrated. She knew that she needed to keep pushing the fluids, even if it activated her interstitial cystitis. It’s a constant balancing act for her to drink enough to stay hydrated, but not end up in the bathroom every 30 minutes.
She began to feel drained and went back home and drank more water thinking she was still dehydrated. Her first mistake, we learned, was to not drink fluids with electrolytes. With her mast cell disorder centered in her gut, she is very careful to eat only organic foods and pure water. She doesn’t drink Gatorade because of the coloring in it, but there are electrolyte alternatives, we’ve since learned!
A few hours later she began vomiting every few minutes and having diarrhea, and felt thoroughly awful. At that point, I felt she probably needed an IV of saline to help her body get regulated. On a Sunday evening, there wasn’t any choice but to go to the Emergency Room. At the ER, we told them about her mast cell disorder and wondered if she could be triggered by the heat of the day and having a mast cell reaction. The nurse on duty was somewhat aware of mast cell issues, which was nice. They put in an IV, gave her saline, and Zofran (to ease the nausea), and gave her oxygen since her pulseox was low. She still wasn’t feeling great, so they gave her 25 mg of Benadryl with some extra saline so it wouldn’t burn on the way in.
Shortly thereafter, she began saying “I feel so disconnected” over and over again. Then, within a few minutes, she had a grand mal seizure right in front of my husband and me!
We’ve been through a lot of medical issues with our children through the years, but nothing compares to the horror of observing a seizure of this magnitude. It lasted for about 20 seconds, which seemed like 20 years. She was frothing at the mouth, with a horrible guttural sound emanating. Her arms were drawn up to her chin, wrists bent, while her face and chest turned beet red. Her eyes rolled back into her head and she became unconscious. We screamed for help and the medical staff came running and gave her 2 mg of Ativan.
Once the seizure stopped, they took her in for a CT scan of her brain to see if there was something occurring there, and she had another seizure, from what we were told, during the scan and received another 2 mg of Ativan.
Since we were at an Urgent Care Facility that transforms to an ER in the after hours, they needed to get her to a hospital for observation overnight. She was transported by ambulance to St. Francis Hospital, and my husband joined her for the ride while I drove behind in the car. She was completely unable to respond to any commands during the ride to the hospital. My husband said that the EMTs kept talking to her trying to get her to squeeze a hand or say something. There was no sign of any cognition or awareness at that point.
I called our son, Morgan, during my drive to let him know what was occurring. He is in Denver working this summer, and by this point it was 10 pm. He jumped into his car to make the hour drive to the hospital.
By the time I arrived, she was processed into a room. We were told there was nothing on the CT scan that would indicate it was a brain disorder causing the seizure. The hospital doctor thought that it was too much water, and not enough electrolytes since her sodium count was at 126. (Her normal sodium count is 140 from previous blood tests).
Morgan arrived by 11:30 pm and walked into the room, got really close to Michaela’s face and called out her name. It was the first sign of any recognition or response when she mumbled “back hurts” and then a tear rolled down her cheek when he was talking with her.
She slowly was able to respond to commands, but was completely confused as to where she was and why. We would go through the entire story, and 15 minutes later, she would ask again, “Where am I?” It was frightening, and we worked on not jumping to conclusions.
My husband remained in the hospital overnight with her, while Morgan and I went home to catch a few hours of sleep. All night she was writhing in back pain as the doctor and nurses tried to figure out why. They took an x-ray, which showed nothing broken in her back, and they summarized it as muscle spasms from the seizures.
The next day Michaela was sent home with instructions to do a follow up with a neurologist and her primary care doctor. The chest x-ray showed no issues of aspiration, so we felt she’d do better at home getting some sleep. She had virtually no short term memory though. We were frightened that there was a serious cognitive issue occurring, and spent a lot of time Googling seizure side effects and the aftermath.
Within 24 hours of her release, she was running a 103 temperature, and back to the emergency room we went – this time to the ER attached to St. Francis hospital. The ER doctor was concerned about meningitis, so a spinal tap was ordered in the ER. It thankfully showed negative. Then the chest x-ray came back and showed that she had aspiration pneumonia. She was hooked up to an IV for saline, and put back on oxygen because her oxygen percentage was plummeting into the low 80’s.
There wasn’t one doctor or nurse who was aware of mast cell activation disorders, so we were explaining over and over again what medicine to give her and what not to give her. Thankfully, each person was receptive enough to listen and to learn.
She was put into the hospital overnight again. She began receiving IV antibiotics immediately. She cannot tolerate Tylenol or any NSAIDS (NSAIDS are a mast cell degranulator and not recommended for those with mast cell issues). Therefore, the nurses brought cool cloths and ice packs to bring her temperature down.
Her back pain was still horrific, so she was started on an IV pump of Fentanyl, the only pain medication suggested for mast cell patients, other than Tramadol. That began to help the pain subside, and to allow her to rest.
The neurological tests were ordered while she was in the hospital. She had an MRI and an EEG of the brain. Nothing appeared to be abnormal, which was an incredible gift. The short term memory loss, we were told, was a normal by product of the seizures and should get better over time.
An MRI of her lumbar spine showed two bulging disks, which were the source of all her back pain. It was postulated that the seizure caused these, which is amazing that the body can hurt itself so badly!
Since Michaela owns a pet sitting and dog walking business, she was trying to keep up with everything while in the hospital. The short term memory loss made for some interesting issues as I tried to work her phone and to ensure all the dogs, cats, and pet sitters were taken care of! At one point, I had to ban her from being on the phone unless I was there to ensure she didn’t schedule something and then forget!
While she was in the hospital, my husband and I were running home to cook her safe foods to eat and then transporting them to her room. There was nothing on the hospital menu that was organic. And the hospital had no refrigeration that we could use, so we were bringing coolers from home or getting ice from the nurse’s station and adding it to mini tubs in the room to keep her food refrigerated.
It was a very long week. By Friday, we were both so exhausted from tag teaming. I slept in the hospital for 3 nights (if you’d call 3 hours of interrupted sleep really sleeping!) and then went home for a short nap. After that I monitored her pet sitters and her business during the day. My husband slept at home and then cooked safe food for her. He worked from her bedside during the day, and continued to train doctors, nurses and CNA’s about mast cell issues and celiac disease.
The infectious disease doctor wanted to release her with oral antibiotics since she’d had 3 days of IV antibiotics by the time she was being discharged. We nixed that idea since she has had so many gut issues with antibiotics, and were thrilled that she was tolerating the medication as well as she was. The doctor agreed to have a PICC (peripherally inserted central catheter) inserted into her arm to her heart, and to have her Dad and I taught by a home healthcare nurse how to administer the antibiotic every 6 hours around the clock for another 5 days.
In the almost 4 days she was in the hospital on the second round, we ran into only one CNA who had heard of mast cell activation. She had just taken a biochemistry class in school where it had been discussed. There were so many conversations where we had to explain what could occur if she was triggered by, for example, contrast dye in an MRI. There is so much need for the medical community to be trained on Mast Cell Activation!
Once home, we began the around the clock antibiotic administration. It was almost like a feeding schedule of a newborn baby.
After being on antibiotics for a few days at home, she began to experience burning mouth – a sign of oral thrush. We then added Fluconazole to her list of drugs administered through her PICC line.
When she visited her primary care doctor, as a follow up to the hospital visit, he thought that the heat had triggered a mast cell “event” creating the massive purge of vomiting and diarrhea that she experienced. On top of that, her not drinking electrolyte water created a sodium imbalance. The two issues combined to drop her sodium suddenly, creating the seizure. That was his best guess as to the cause of the seizures. We may never know for sure. However, we’re very grateful that it doesn’t appear to be anything related to her brain function.
She visited a wonderful chiropractor that has helped to re-align her back so that the 2 bulging disks are slowly dissipating.
With mast cell issues, and the various autoimmune diagnoses that she has, keeping her body in balance is a daily struggle. She has learned that she’s going to have to be FAR more careful about being in high temperatures and getting overheated. She’s also discovering many electrolyte drinks to enjoy.
It’s amazing what the body can go through, and that it can heal! We so appreciate all the love and prayers you have provided to her and to our family through this harrowing episode.