Mar 25 2013
This butterfly was from one of our caterpillar kits. Something went wrong while it was emerging: If you’ve seen a butterfly breaking out of its chrysalis, you’ll know that it also produces a bloody-looking liquid, which is supposed to be waste material. Our butterfly lost its balance and fell into its own sticky liquid while it was trying to shake out its wings. The wings were soaked and they later tore when I tried to remove the butterfly from the container where it was being housed. It was really sad! I brought it to the grass but the ants were already all over it even though it was still alive. I picked it up again, dusted off the ants, popped it in my bag pocket and carried it around so that it could die peacefully. It lasted a few more hours, but it couldn’t have been very comfortable.
I think about that butterfly sometimes, and about how easy it is to be thrown off the path of a normal, healthy existence. I started writing this story to join other local moms in sharing their personal trials, but it took a while because the topic (physical health) isn’t something I like to discuss at length. It makes me feel old… and boring, but I’m making an exception here! Are you ready yet? This is a long story, which has its beginnings from right after I birthed Layla.
I had a lot going on from the time Layla was born, in 2006. Besides getting used to being a parent, I mean. I was back in night school after a month, trying to complete my counselling diploma. When Layla was three months old, I started taking up freelance proofreading jobs. I wrote papers, studied for exams, clocked 100 counselling hours as a trainee counsellor, and continued accepting all the editorial assignments that came my way.
There really was no time to address the strange bubbling in my tummy, which went on all day and night, whether I was hungry or full.
Later, I didn’t stop to wonder why the bubbling stopped and a new sensation took over–a pressure that seemed to be building upwards, towards my chest and throat.
Then came a night where I remember being hungry as hell and at my favourite pasta joint. They usually heaped my plate with double portions because I was a regular–it was also one of the reasons I kept going back! That night I tried to shovel food into my mouth as I usually did, but I couldn’t ignore the pressure any longer because it felt like my chest was closing in on me and I could barely breathe, much less eat.
Still, I waited till early 2009 to have a gastroscopy done–this is a procedure where they stick a tiny tube down your throat all the way into your stomach to look at what’s going on. It’s a three-minute job and they give you an injection to relax you and suppress your gag reflex. I remember the shot, and I remember being wheeled out after for Milo and biscuits, but nothing in between. It seems incredible to me that I could’ve been put to a light sleep for minutes, or that maybe I was semi-awake but the whole thing took place without my knowledge. (The power of drugs, and imagine these falling into the wrong hands!)
The test was inconclusive, and the specialist dismissive. He asked about stress levels, diagnosed me with IBS (short for Irritable Bowel Syndrome), and sent me away with a prescription for some very expensive stomach acid blockers.
The medicines didn’t help and in late 2009, I was back in the emergency room after getting a polyclinic referral–the GP was concerned enough about my chest pressure symptoms to insist that I get checked out on the very same day. It was late in the night by the time I reached the A&E ward but I’d come prepared to waste a few hours: I had my laptop with me to surf and chat with and I’d brought along a DVD but was too embarrassed to pop it in lest someone should think I was enjoying myself!
This time they scanned my lungs and the results were clear too. The medical staff suggested a heart exam but from what I’d read, my symptoms didn’t point to heart trouble. They gave me an appointment with the heart centre but I let it lapse.
At this time, Alf was still a teacher so I would pay for check-ups and scans with my civil service spousal card. Or rather I’d hand over my card and the counter staff would record the fee and deduct it from Alf’s salary eventually. In a way, I didn’t feel the pinch.
I didn’t refill my prescription or consult doctors in 2010. I can’t remember if I was feeling better or if enough time had passed for whatever I was feeling to become my “new normal.” But I know that during the latter half of the year, I was preoccupied with selling our home and buying a new one, and that was exciting enough to distract me from most physical discomforts.
Sadly I wasn’t distracted for too long, because in end-2010, I developed a cough that seemed more persistent than usual, but I thought it’d fade off in time.
In February 2011 I discovered I was seven weeks pregnant. My cough grew in intensity alongside the pregnancy, and while my gynae prescribed me cough-suppressing and phelgm-ridding medications, he encouraged me to get a chest x-ray. I decided not to while I was still pregnant. Instead I contacted my herbalist for some natural cough remedies, which I used briefly. None of it worked and I kept on coughing and running out of breath. Towards the tail end of my pregnancy I needed a regular supply of Ventolin, which is used by asthmatics to open up the airwaves for easier breathing. By this time I had googled my problem extensively and it seemed that many other women were coughing through their pregnancies as well, so I thought my best bet was to grin and bear it until after the delivery.
Z was born in September 2011 and once he was safely out of the way, I got another chest x-ray and again it didn’t show up anything abnormal. Knowing this was a relief, but it didn’t change the fact that it felt like something was permanently camped on my chest and weighing it down. Or that I’d officially been coughing for over a year.
It was more of the same in 2012, except that my chest hurt when I pressed on it, even lightly. Friends who had noticed and expressed concern about my cough had by now stopped asking, since it was always there. I spent hundreds of dollars on GP consultations, nasal sprays, inhalers, allergy pills, gastric medications, and traditional cough mixtures. There were a few good days where I didn’t feel the need to cough every other minute. Sitting down and drinking caffeinated drinks seemed to make it worse, but other than that there was no pattern. I wasn’t sure what conditions contributed to the good days so I couldn’t replicate them at will. On bad days it seemed like I coughed more than I breathed, and if I wasn’t coughing I was thinking about it! I already knew the common causes of chronic cough, such as allergies, post-nasal drip, or acid reflux. I’d also read about other less common reasons for a prolonged cough, like poor posture or plain habit. Was one or more of these factors contributing to my long-running cough? I couldn’t tell and I didn’t know how to begin searching for answers.
I probably wouldn’t have told this long and winding story if this next bit hadn’t happened: A breakthrough. It’s almost the end of March and I’ve had a good month. My chest no longer hurts. I still cough a little, but it’s eased up considerably and I have remedies on hand that seem to help.
Since I’ve been coughing for so long, I’ve also become hyper aware of all the coughing I hear around me. I think it’s a common affliction, but from my own experience, I see that it can be hard to treat and you could have a debilitating problem on your hands over time. I’ve always felt that I was wrongly diagnosed with IBS when my symptoms are more consistent with GERD or acid reflux, which probably caused the coughing. I’m happy that I can at last say this is what worked for me:
#1 A Traditional Massage
A couple of weeks ago, I decided to take a vacation from my pills and stop consulting with the GP. The relief I’d experienced from my most recent three-month medication stint wasn’t significant enough and I wanted to move on. But first, I had the overwhelming desire to be kind to my body for a change. I’d read about massage therapy for GERD patients and I got a recommendation from a neighbour and made an appointment at the Traditional Javanese Massage Hut. I chose the hour-long Hut 67 massage, which is supposed to be a healing massage, and I came out feeling like someone had punched me in the back many times over. But it cleared the chest pressure significantly–it seems almost like a miracle because I’ve only been there once! And when the chest pressure eased up, so did the coughing. I’m not saying this will work for everyone because others might experience reflux AFTER massage, but it’s worth a try and I’m planning to keep this up with once-a-month massages.
#2 Essential Oil Remedies
On the same day I had my massage, I gave myself a day off and went out to meet a mom to collect some essential oil products from her. To be honest, I was wary about the brand: It’s a multi-level marketing brand and it’s listed on Quackwatch. (You can read more here.) But several moms have mentioned this brand to me on separate occasions, without trying to sell me anything, and they seemed like happy customers so I was game to give this a try. In all, I bought four products: peppermint oil to provide cough relief and bring down fevers, “thieves” oil for germ killing, lemon oil for reflux and a lemon oil-based fruit salt that claims to balance the body’s pH levels. Now when I feel tight around the chest, I rub peppermint oil on myself and the warmth provides instant comfort. I also drink a cup of water with the fruit salt mixed in, and it’s seemed to help. I’ve tried inhaling the thieves oil straight from the bottle and it leaves a pleasantly hot feeling at the base of the throat, which is soothing if there’s a tickle in your throat or if you feel the constant urge to cough. However I’ve also found that the effect is less pronounced the more often you use it, so I think essential oils should be used sparingly, only when necessary.
#3 Daily Walks
Almost every day, I put Z in his stroller and we go on a 1-1.5 hour walk around my neighbourhood park. It originally began because I was trying to give Alf some peace and quiet to prepare dinner and make his work calls. Coincidentally, a friend told me recently that park walks can boost your immune system so I’m glad this is now part of my routine! I did this even when I wasn’t feeling well and a walk won’t cure you of anything but I almost always felt slightly better after.
That’s it! Just three simple steps, and I hope this continues to work for me because I’ve seen too many instances of conventional medicines failing to treat the problem or even mask the symptoms, and I don’t want to go back there.
Before March, I was actually dreading the school holiday week. It’s just over now and I’m very happy to report that I’ve spent four days at the park and a day at the zoo, and I’ve been upbeat and energetic through it all. I’m frankly stunned by the about-turn and I’m not sure how long it’ll last, but for now I want to revel in the fact that I’m enjoying a spell of good health for a change.