Monday, March 02, 2009

How Could I Have Been So Sick When the Tests showed I Was So Healthy?

The story I am about to write is one that almost didn’t get written! It is a story about illness. I do not like illness! I do not like to hear about illness! I do not like to talk about illness! I do not like to read about illness! And most of all I do not like to write about illness! The only reason I am trying to write now is that I have heard from a few people that have told me that I need to write about my recent struggles with environmental illness. It will be an excruciatingly painful and difficult task. I hope the pretty picture serves to diffuse somewhat the pain of what I am about to write.

What is environmental illness? Environmental Illness (EI) is a multifaceted illness characterized by a long list of symptoms affecting multiple body organs and systems. Triggers for EI are almost too many to count including a broad diversity of mycotoxigenic molds, plant pollens, animal danders, and other airborne dusts normally associated with common allergies, and the inexhaustible list of synthetic and toxic manmade chemicals which permeate our modern world. These things are found in the walls and floors of the buildings where we live and work, in the upholstery of our furniture, in the clothes we wear, in the air we breathe, and in the food we eat and drink. Many people slather copious amounts of toxic substances on their bodies and in their hair to mask odors, and they swallow toxic drugs to ease their pain. More toxic substances are used in our germ fearful culture to sanitize our surroundings. Toxic volatile chemicals emanate from the machines we work with and the vehicles we ride in. Little research has been done to effectively evaluate the impact of frequent and multiple long term low level toxic exposures on human health.

One of the most frustrating aspects of environmental illness is its diffuse nature: multiple symptoms which can vary tremendously from person to person and from time to time, and an often nebulous sense of what the triggers are and where they are coming from. The more common symptoms themselves—fatigue, dizziness, weakness, depression, anxiety, an indefinable sense of “just feeling bad” can apply to a broad range of illnesses and, of themselves, do not lead to a definitive diagnosis. Batteries of diagnostic tests can be done on persons suffering from environmental illness which show no or little evidence of organic disease. Therefore there are few doctors, who are knowledgeable of or interested in environmental illness and, on the basis of their medical training, are inclined to write off such cases as persons who are suffering from a psychosomatic illness and are in need of psychiatric treatment. Believe me! I have 20 years of experience with environmental illness under my belt and I am not about to believe any doctor who tries to convince me that I am merely mentally ill!

According to recent estimates, up to 15% of the American population could be suffering from some forms of environmental illness. Following is a list of frequently misdiagnosed illnesses which can be linked to environmental exposures:

Allergies of all sorts
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Clinical Depression
Cold extremities
Emotional instability
Fainting and(or) dizziness
Heart arrhythmias and (or) tachycardia
High blood pressure
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Frequent colds and flu
Lyme disease
Memory loss, confusion, inability to concentrate
Panic Disorder
Respiratory distress
Recurrent infections
Post Menstrual Syndrome
Reactive Hypoglycemia
Sleep disorders
Zoloft deficiency

I have tried to be fairly accurate with my listing of these illnesses which can be linked to EI but recognize that some of this information could be challenged as I recognize that I am not a medical expert. I have personally experienced many of these conditions and been misdiagnosed and medicated for some of them. My heart goes out to the thousands of persons who are, as I write this, being treated symptomatically for illnesses or conditions which could be resolved if the roots of their environmental exposures could be recognized and properly dealt with. This is my real reason for undertaking this difficult writing.

I will now summarize as briefly as I can my past and more recent journey through environmental illness.

Beginning in the early 1980s and continuing into the 1990s I suffered through several acute episodes of mold induced hypersensitivity pneumonitis and later chronic mold and chemical sensitivities which culminated in a four day hospitalization in late 1991 and my decision to liquidate a dairy farming operation.

In the years since 1991 I have repeatedly developed chronic mold and later chemical sensitivities during the winter hay feeding months resulting in respiratory discomfort and chronic fatigue symptoms. I have tied to resolve this by becoming more vigilant about wearing breathing protection while handling hay..

In the past month I experienced a three day hospitalization following several weeks of daily episodes of extreme weakness and fatigue, dizziness, respiratory distress, and sensations of shock radiating throughout my body. I suffered intensely through this time and experienced days of near total disability. The reasons for the several trips to the hospital emergency room and several days admission was to check out possible heart related problems. Most of these tests were negative or revealed minor abnormalities. We think that I may have experienced significant mold and bird dust exposure during the month of January while daily tending a small flock of chickens in an out building and some chemical exposure while repairing and refinishing a few pieces of small furniture. Though I thought I was using adequate breathing protection while feeding hay to livestock, this may need to be evaluated also. I am currently undergoing follow up diagnosis and treatment with a new doctor who seems to have a much more open attitude towards my illness and a desire to get to the root of the problem.

I am deeply grateful that medical tests done so far reveal that there is as yet no evidence of serious damage to my heart and lungs and that there is good hope that the neurological symptoms, as intensively distressful and frightening as they were, will resolve as my body heals. I am also grateful for the quality care given to me during the hospital stay and the financial assistance given by the hospital to defray some of my expenses. Things could be a lot worse.
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Friday, February 06, 2009

Five Reasons Why I Garden

Every once in a while I come across something someone has written that expresses my passions and philosophy more eloquently than I can ever hope to articulate here. Therefore I feel that it must be shared on this blog. The author of this essay was one of my farm subscribers last year who worked for part of her CSA share. One of the joys of operating a CSA farm is the realization of the truth that my farm and my business belongs, not just to us, but also to those who become actively involved, either as work share participants on the farm, or as volunteer help with the annual CSA organization process. Something similar can also be said on behalf of those who support our farm in other ways with their patronage. Without their contribution, the successful operation of this farm would probably be impossible. When I include the thoughts and words of others as a part of my blog, the blog becomes not just mine but theirs also. I like to think that when I include their contributions, the blog becomes that much the better than it would be if I was trying to do it all myself.

Five Reasons Why I Garden
by Anna Maria Johnson

I am not a gardening expert. I am, in all honesty, a fairly lousy gardener! But I do work at it, and if my actual garden fails to measure up to the orderly, weed free, and well mulched cornucopia of abundance imagined in my head, there is probably a good lesson in there somewhere.

Here are five good reasons to garden.

Peaceful Protest:

Gardening is a peaceful protest—my response to all that is ugly in the world; all that is cheap, easy, and gas guzzling; all that comes wrapped up in plastic after being shipped 3000 miles across the planet; all that causes cancer, social injustice, and oppression.

I am powerless to end these things myself on a global scale, but when I set my shovel down on my small plot of earth, I declare, “In God’s name, not here! Not in my back yard!”

Gardening keeps me hoping. It often delivers on its promises, such as the summer when our Tarahumara sunflowers reached mythological heights. In autumn we feasted on squashes and late harvested vegetables, and during the winter my fifteen quarts of salsa nourished us and warmed our tongues.

Gardening is, by its nature, grounding. There is nothing like physical work with our hands to bring comfort in times of disappointment. Anger can be a force for good, giving my measly 103 pound frame an extra punch as I throw my weight upon my shovel and churn up the dirt.

Digging is hard. After a couple of hours, dirty, sweat-soaked, and stinky, I feel cleansed. I ache with a good kind of ache.

To grow a garden is to marvel at creation. I drop tiny brown wrinkled things into the ground and every time I feel surprised when something eventually sprouts. I get so excited that I call my children and point to the tiny dicot leaves.

“Look, our food is growing!” I say.

We stoop down to admire its tiny new life, its persistence, its goodness.

Finally and most importantly, I garden for love. I love digging and the smell of rich earth. I get a kick out of compost—nothing wasted, just re-allocated, renewed, and regenerated. No death is so great that it cannot serve yet another life, another body. I am forgiven for letting those vegetables sit in the fridge until they rotted. Worms, soil, and detritus work together to make yummy vegetables and beautiful flowers. Gardening makes me strong, healthy, and whole. It is a relationship of reciprocity—I feed the garden and the garden feeds me. The food that the garden gives to me is physical, tangible, and tasty but it is also spiritual.

Gardening helps me to love God, who becomes less of an abstract theological construct and more the Surprising, Creating, and Sustaining force that I really do believe in.

The fruits of the garden nourish those I love—family, house guests, neighbors, and friends. Eating home-grown produce together is love in tangible form.

Anna Maria Johnson lives and gardens with her family near Broadway, Virginia.
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Sunday, January 11, 2009

What Does It Feel Like to be an Old Man?

A few weeks ago I quietly joined the ranks of that segment of our population identified by a variety of monikers—senior citizens, the elderly, old folks, geezers, etc by passing my 60th birthday. I remember when my dad had his 60th birthday roughly 30 years ago. One evening as I was milking the cows I answered the phone to find one of my aunts on the other end. Expecting my dad to answer, she yelled brusquely into the phone, “How does it feel to be an old man?” My dad had a gravelly voice which I could have easily faked and I have always regretted not playing along with her a little and having some fun.

Sometimes I like to reflect back on my life journey. When I entered first grade at the age of six I began to think of myself as a “big boy”. Seven years later I became a “teenager” and that coincided closely with entering high school. I missed the next common rite of passage of most teenagers—“getting their beer license”, as I didn’t start drinking at the age of 18. I didn’t have my first date until past 20 and somehow never thought of that as a significant marker of transition in my life as some of my peers were already married and having children. I did become aware, however, that somewhere in the distant future I would hit the age of 30 and become a hopelessly old fogy. I married at 28 and of course I saw that as a very major life changing event. The same also goes for my becoming a father two years later. I had just passed 30 then and no, I did not yet feel like an old fogy. The next ten years flew by ever so quickly and there I was looking at the big “four oh”, the boundary line in life (or perhaps the top of the mountain) where one crosses over from youth into middle age! From then on, the sages say, “It is all downhill!”

It did indeed feel like my life started going downhill as I entered the 40s seeking physical therapy treatment for chronic back problems and, a few years later, I began a gradual descent into a vaguely defined environmental illness which expressed itself in a manner similar to chronic fatigue syndrome. Fortunately, as one grows older and his physical capacities begin to wane, another force, the accumulation of hard won wisdom, is kicking in and that helps to level out the descent. By that time I had learned that I was strong enough to injure myself, that it really is a good idea to eat healthy foods and to protect oneself while working in dirty or toxic surroundings, and that it makes a lot of sense to work smarter instead of harder. By applying some of these principles, I eventually found the downward slope becoming more gradual and less slippery and at times even ascending a little once again.

It has now been 20 years since I crossed life’s summit and mathematically speaking that works out to half of the time it took for me to get to the top. That means I should be half way down by now! Something inside me yearns for the hope that I will get to stay high up on the mountain to work and to enjoy the view for a good while longer and that the best way down will be to drop off a cliff when the time is right.

So back to the question that was popped to my dad 30 years ago and was mine to field at a time when I perceived myself very much a youth, “What does it feel like to be an old man?” Well, I could begin by mentioning the various kinds of “itis” that seem to constantly pop up somewhere in my body all of the time or to hang around like mosquitoes or deer flies on a muggy day. It’s kind of like farting. Some people seem to get a certain pleasure out of yammering about their aches and pains just like they do--well you get the idea! But it is best not to do it any more than you have to because most people would rather not hear it anyway.
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