A year ago, I couldn’t have told you what the thyroid does or where it is in the body. Similarly, my only data point on gluten was that more and more restaurant-goers seemed to hate eating it and were sharing this distaste with their server. In the first half of this year, I’ve learned a great deal, more than I could have imagined I would in a lifetime, about both the tiny, butterfly-shaped gland along the front of the windpipe essential to various metabolic functions and the protein found in pretty much every item at the base of the food pyramid.
At first, I started feeling what I can best describe as off – kind of fatigued, worn out, achy, weak, restless trying to fall asleep. Basically, the same symptoms anyone can and does experience day to day from a head cold, a long work week, the seasons changing, or any other number of normal ailments that Advil or Claritin fix. They didn’t fix me though. Assuming I had some kind of bug or passing allergy, I’d try to carry on and suppress or ignore the symptoms. At first, I did ok-ish. Emphasis on the -ish because as time passed, the unpredictability of these sick periods made piecing together consistent, seven-day weeks much more difficult. For better and worse, I’m not really inclined to raise my own red flag when I’m not operating at 100% and so I limped along.
My first visits to doctors yielded little. From primary to urgent care, it was difficult to get much clarity on what was going on since sometimes my measurable test results didn’t necessarily diagnose a reason for how I described feeling. At various appointments, I was given an IV, recommended bedrest, prescribed antibiotics, and always a healthy dose of ibuprofen.
Gradually, my everyday fatigue and pains gave way to debilitating exhaustion, loss of appetite, insomnia, body temperature spikes and night sweats. Laid up often in bed, I pretty much felt like I was going crazy. I had no explanation for feeling so awful and so struggled to know how to communicate what was happening to anyone. I could still make fun of myself for wondering to myself: Was my body giving up on me? Can I hack it? Maybe I’m just passed my prime? But given such irregular bouts, my expected health outcomes became more and more bleak.
A breakthrough came after I switched primary care physicians (which took longer then I could have ever expected) and upon completing a more comprehensive set of labs screened on the positive range for the presence of celiac disease as well as a potential thyroid dysfunction. These results prompted a number of further acute tests and two endoscopies all of which eventually confirmed that I have both celiac and thyroid disease. My Idiot’s Guide explanation of both are that gluten I eat blocks normal nutrient uptake from anything else I eat and my thyroid gland creates incorrect levels of hormones that regulate energy production in my body.
I soon learned that while both conditions are autoimmune, the treatment is straightforward and symptoms are extremely manageable. With a few different endocrinologists, I explored a variety of treatments ranging from passive diet changes and hormone meds to proactive procedure to remove a part of my thyroid. After a few trial-and-error prescription cycles, we found the correct pill-based meds for my thyroid electing not to have the minor operation and I swore off gluten…
Unfortunately, my saga didn’t reach its peak until a recent Friday evening when I woke up feeling a heaviness and congestion as I was breathing in and out normally. I figured it was some type of intense heartburn but eventually checked myself into the hospital not wanting to sit awake all night waiting for it to subside. I found out in short order that my thyroid was inflamed and it was recommended to do the partial removal we’d previously considered right then. Just like the words disease and autoimmune, surgery and ER set an ominous tone for what was a remarkably painless and fast outpatient procedure. With an access point under my right armpit, the surgery ran a minimally-invasive 90 minutes and I walked out with three tiny stitches later that day once the anesthesia wore off. (I just got the stitches taken out).
While there’s relief in having these health issues under control now, I’ve had to miss, often unexpectedly, an upsetting number of experiences and time-spent with and for family, friends and colleagues who mean everything to me, from casual coffee meetings to weddings and birthdays. I intend to begin to remedy my absences starting with the writing of this post. I hope to see anyone who’s reading this and everyone else too as soon as possible and get on with feeling just fine and being there for everything that’s ahead.