Monday, December 5, 2011

Baby Steps to Health

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
Lao-tzu, The Way of Lao-tzu
Chinese philosopher (604 BC - 531 BC

The following is part of a post I wrote for the Yahoo! Group I moderate, Native-Nutrition, which is dedicated to helping people better their health through incorporating the practices of traditional cultures into their diets.

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Just as the cultures Price studied had no two diets that were the same, there are a multitude of ways to incorporate traditional foods into one's diet. Here's my experience, which occurred over about 4 years, in a nutshell:

When we got started eating this more nourishing diet, we were transitioning from having been on a pretty strict elimination diet. I was very ill, and my son had sensory integration dysfunction (which was largely eliminated through avoiding gluten and dairy, but he still had anxiety). We weren't eating gluten, dairy, eggs, corn or soy, or chemical additives. We were eating a lot of very low-nutrient foods (I look back at that time as "the time when my diet revolved around "bread" that tasted like cardboard), as I was looking for a house at the time. After we moved into our house, I had the time to take charge of my health, and I did so with baby steps.

First, I stopped being afraid of animal fat. I stopped getting boneless breasts of chicken, and started buying thighs and legs (what a cost savings that was!). We started eating a lot more bacon.

Then, I got rid of all the industrial oils in my house. My biggies were canola oil and Smart Balance. That meant nearly all packaged foods, save a few. Out they went. Initially I used olive oil, lard and bacon fat for all my cooking

Then, I started making bone broths. I started getting whole chickens and roasting them, then putting the carcasses in my crock pot, covering them with water and a bit of vinegar, and making broth.

I was continually reading during this process, but around this time, Chris Masterjohn's article "On The Trail of the Elusive X-Factor: A Sixty-Two Year Old Mystery is Finally Solved" was released, and I began giving my family Green Pastures Cod Liver Oil/Butter Oil Blend (this was before it became an even more superior product through the addition of fermentation).

At this point, I also started figuring out ways to sneak liver into our food, on a weekly basis. It was usually via hamburger, and nobody was the wiser. But over time, I experimented making chicken liver pate' and frying grassfed bison liver (after soaking it in milk for a while) in bacon fat with onion.

After tolerating the butter oil for a while, we purchased a cow share and started consuming raw milk. Around that point, we also started eating butter, coconut oil and palm oil.

After that, I joined a CSA and started getting locally-produced vegetables and fruits. After a few years, I cared enough to become the CSA pickup point. When my husband lost his job, and we couldn't afford the cost of the CSA, we started our own garden (which cost more than joining the CSA the first year, but it's less and less expensive each year).

Then, I started soaking grains like rice and oats before cooking them. (We don't eat very many legumes, because they take so much time to soak and cook at our elevation, but when we did, I soaked those, too).

Finally, I delved into lactofermentation. I made a bunch of different cultured dairy products (kefir, yogurt, villi, creme fraiche, fil mjolk). I made sauerkraut. I made kimchi. I made sauerruben. I made pickles. We always had some sort of science experiment growing on our countertop. I tried making cheese, but then discovered that I have limits to my abilities. :) I also learned how to make kombucha.

Somewhere in there I made a conscious effort to get pasture-raised animal products (to go along with our raw milk from pastured cows), and found local sources. We purchased a quarter of a cow from a local biodynamic farm.

With each step, we became healthier and healthier, as measured by the number of times we had to visit the doctor, the number of times we would get sick, and our mood and general outlook on life.

When my husband lost his job, I tried to spend a lot less on food. We started eating bread again -- traditional sourdoughs. We still tried to avoid packaged foods, as they cost so much for so few nutrients. Also, I went through my freezer and cooked up anything that we had neglected eating (due to pure fear!), which included heart and tongue. They were delicious. We discovered that we love sweetbreads (thymus).

We tried eating a very low-carb diet for a while, and while we all slimmed down, we didn't feel well, and certain health problems returned (menstrual issues for me, acne for my husband, anxiety for my son, and night-waking for my daughter, to name a few).

So, we've added back carbohydrates and have gained the weight back, but we *feel* great again.

For a while, my kids were attending a school enrichment program, and I had to pack them a lunch. Because we don't eat gluten, I found this challenging. I packed things like crispy nuts (until nuts were banned in everyone's lunches), salami, cheese, fruit and vegetable slices.

Sometimes when we would go to the park, I would bring things like canned oysters, cheese, fruit, vegetables and kombucha.

One winter I challenged myself to make every one of Sally Fallon's soup recipes. After that, it became a tradition for me to make oyster chowder at Christmas each year.

Now, we are fairly well. So I am more forgiving about cheating now and then -- I am active in my community, trying to do various activities to promote food and educational freedom, so I don't always get the time to create beautiful dishes for my family. I feel like there's a fine line between being healthy, strapped to the kitchen stove all day, and getting out there exacting change. So, since our health is doing well now, we might end up eating out once or twice a week. Or sometimes more during a really busy week (we had a couple of those this summer!). As long as I keep the food in our house clean, everything else seems to fall into place.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Magical freedom

Here it is already... November. Wow. How did that happen?! That last post I just went ahead and published, written in July, was the last time I had enough focus on any one thing to actually write about it.

I guess this means I'm doing well. I feel better than I have felt in a long time. I do feel a little scared to write that, lest the bottom fall out of my wellness... but anyway, I have felt well enough to get entrenched in several large undertakings. These undertakings are large enough that I actually don't have time for them all! But I do love them each enough that I flit back and forth between them, not certain to which I should give priority.

Obviously, however, the kids are the first priority. That goes without saying. They have been immersed in playing Minecraft with each other and with their father. I was nervous about allowing them to play this online game, since I lifted restrictions on screen time for them about a year ago. We used to make sure that we didn't plug in until after 3:30 pm each day -- my rationale being that kids who go to school don't get to have unlimited screen time. Also, most of my homeschooling friends have pretty stringent limits on their kids' screen time. But, when Everett became passionate about computer programming, and would tell me with great delight about the next program he was going to implement when I was tucking him into bed, I wasn't going to be the gatekeeper to happiness anymore.

And, it's really amazing how much he has flourished in that time. Both kids have. This morning I surprised him with two new O'Reilly books -- Head First HTML 5 Programming and Head First Web Design. He became interested in HTML 5 back when he had first implemented his website and wanted to know how to get some of the programs he had designed in Python on his website. Back then (earlier this year), there were no books on HTML 5, and it wasn't for certain that HTML 5 would even become standard yet. We found the limited information that was available on HTML 5 at the time, and made it available for him. So, he was so excited to see that HTML 5 book there this morning. Perhaps it is a bit selfish of me, but I love seeing his enormous shining eyes and genuine smile when I've figured out just what to get to feed his desire for learning. It's a high I can't really describe.

Naturally, all of this has been trickling down. The desire to learn independently, the enthusiasm, the recognition of endless possibility. Lucy has been pursuing her own passions, as well. She has been actively participating in MIT's Scratch Community making animations, developing her drawing skills, connecting with friends, and just today, she made her first WordPress blog post. The kids are constantly chatting with each other, dreaming of new collaborative designs for Scratch or Everett's web site. Sometimes the negotiation becomes quite heated, and that's when I realize they are not only really passionate about these things they are doing, but they are developing valuable teamwork skills for the future. Lucy has even been composing stories with a local friend using chat.

Even I have been inspired by their willingness to take risks and explore technology. In a fit of frustration with my homeschooling group's current communications platform, I designed not one, but two different forums for testing -- the first one used phpBB, which was pretty easy to set up (with a tiny bit of hand-holding in the beginning from Everett) and then after wanting to learn more about forum engines, I discovered yet another one (Simple Machines Forum) and implemented it within just a few hours. I can't tell you how empowering that was. I turned some anger and frustration into a potential solution. And even if my group is not interested in using those platforms; I am still happy to have had the experience of getting to learn how to make them!

Even the challenges we have faced in computerland have been useful. Everett created a site called MyDog: Blog About Your Dog as a subdomain on his website. He figured out how to do all of it himself. He programmed it all using PHP. Not long after its release, it was found by SPAM bots. :/ What a way for a kid to learn about prescription drugs! First he started deleting the SPAM posts manually, one by one. I asked him if maybe there was a faster way to get rid of them, since there were hundreds. And just with that suggestion, he knew he had to create a search algorithm in his MySQL database to get rid of all the errant posts. At that point, he didn't know how to keep the posts from being entered onto his website in the first place, so he disabled posts to MyDog. :( For a while. He knew that he had to figure out how to enter a captcha code to eliminate bot posts, so then he implemented that. His remaining issue is that the text is too small, so it can be very hard for humans to tell what the pass code is to enter a post. Maybe he'll get that changed someday, when it seems important to him.

Because of this passion about computers, we do have trouble getting outside enough. For various reasons, we didn't make it to the park as much as we have in years previous when the weather was cooperative. Our yard is small and our house is large and comfortable. I got a basketball hoop on Craigslist, hoping the allure would create hours of sweaty fun. A skateboard and all associated safety gear has also entered our house. But alas, the new territory of creation on the internet isn't matched by the beauty of the outdoors. Yet. I know from experience that many opportunities that present themselves, sometimes just do so at the wrong time. It never ceases to amaze me that just when I think, "Oh, I guess they're just not interested in that..." I'll see them experimenting with it. Patience certainly has its rewards.

We did have a nine-day long hiatus from the computer. We took a trip to Washington DC with my parents, and it was nothing short of magical. Nine days was not nearly long enough. It is worth a blog post of its own, for sure. I'll comment simply on the relationship between the lifestyle we experienced there and our health, for now. We walked miles every day (we did not have a car), and we ate lots of wheat and vegetable oil, I am sure. And it didn't seem to affect the kids at all. It was sunny for the majority of the time, we got to breathe iodine-rich ocean air, did not have the challenges of high elevation, and were constantly moving. It was a little difficult to eat enough, I think, for the number of calories we were expending. I say that because I would be hungry upon waking (which is not normal for me), and would feel extremely nauseated if I didn't eat breakfast right away. This didn't seem to be a problem for anyone else. I have my ideas about why (hmm, what is something that I do all the time that neither my kids or husband do?).

Anyway, the hiatus just proved to stimulate creativity in all of us. Walking along the streets of Washington DC, surrounded in history, my family brainstormed about a world they would then create in Minecraft upon returning home. They wanted to re-create the impressive Metro system we took daily. They wanted to generate copies of the monuments. They came home and made a dream city, together.

Does it get any better than this?

How the Summer Flies, Achoo!

This blog is still in its infancy, and while I started it partially in response to folks telling me I should, and a desire to get my thoughts out of my head, I have wavered back and forth about how refined it should be.

I have a great big post planned, in response to my post on The Staff of Life, about all the potential problems with eating wheat. There are so many, really, that I want to be sure I take the time to reference what I write very well before publishing it for all the world to see. There are plenty of folks in my sphere of influence who want their information to be well sourced; they want it well-grounded in science. And I should be able to provide that, right? With my educational background, certainly that should be possible, right? Typically, I like to hold myself to that standard, and in some way, it makes me feel somewhat bulletproof, but it certainly does not make me bulletproof. Nor does it make anyone else bulletproof, because as anyone who has read or studied a lot of science (or statistics, for that matter), or walked a mile in any shoes knows, there are ways to lend support for one's argument, and still be wrong. Nothing is certain.

And fortunately for my constipated brain, I have other influences in my life who encourage me to write whatever it is I am thinking, because that too can be valuable.

I started writing my posts on wheat at the same time I decided again to attempt to eat gluten. At first, it gave me increased energy, and it aided in raising my body temperature (which had been significantly decreased after nine months on a very low-carb diet). I brought wheat back into my diet to help give my thyroid, brain and muscles the carbohydrate fuel I needed to warm up and move again. Also, I brought wheat back into my diet to provide a source of B-vitamins and choline that I was having difficulty getting from other food sources. However, as the months passed, I became tired again, and had signs of hormonal imbalance that had been well-managed while eating gluten-free. So now, I am playing detective with my health again, trying to understand how gluten might have these effects on me. As I mentioned, I'll share some possibilities in an upcoming post (possibly after the summer is over).

Summer for me and my family tends to be hot and heavy in every sense of those words. The days fill up, we are presented with so many awesome opportunities, typically more than there are days in the summer, and we need an equal amount of time to decompress. Typically, I take the winter to scale back and be less active, relax, renew and reflect. This winter, for reasons I can't even recall, was nothing like that. So, we rolled into the warm weather already somewhat drained. Nonetheless, even before life became so hectic and busy, I found that I tend to have problems with my health and energy levels at two specific times of the year: February and July.

February is a month when I typically want to be left alone. That may sound harsh, but it is true. My birthday is in February. I don't know if there is a connection there, but around late Janurary and early February, I start feeling more like reading and less like going places or even visiting with people I love. Because my birthday comes at that time, those wishes are very rarely fulfilled. I have investigated the possibility of the decrease in my mood and energy levels at that time being caused by Vitamin D deficiency in two ways. One year, I took, from October through April, several thousand IUs of Vitamin D3 most days, in combination with my very favorite Cod Liver Oil/Butter Oil blend. That year, I was free from illness all winter! It was fantastic! But I still wanted to be left alone in February.  This past winter, I tried an altogether new experiment; I went to a tanning salon 2-3 times per week. My mood was better, and although we had a couple of illnesses come through the house, my battle with them, as long as I was tanning regularly, amounted to no more than a slight tickle at the back of my throat and transient sinus problem, whereas my kids got sick. My mood, to my happy finding, was much better, and my anxiety surrounding having to see people was a bit better, but still not great...

Which makes me wonder if I just need some solitude at that time of year, and if trying to change myself to please others is an aggravating and futile effort.

Which brings me to July. Could there be a busier month? Aside from December, of course. July is a month that is jam-packed with fairs, festivals, birthdays and anniversaries -- plenty of reasons to celebrate. It's also a very hot month, which usually leaves me hiding inside, away from the sun, breathing recirculated air. We very rarely get sick in July, which is great! What July does bring, however, is the weed and grass pollen season.

The very first year Everett had terrible hay fever was a year that we were outside very regularly. We were visiting farms at least every week or two. His first allergy-related runny, stuffy nose came after a trip to our CSA at the time, Monroe Farms, to pick vegetables. That very first year was interesting; I noticed a direct correlation with his consumption of gluten. If he had gluten the day before, his hay fever was awful the next day. I was able to somewhat relieve his symptoms with a homeopathic remedy, Allium cepa. Avoiding gluten had the effect of eliminating his symptoms entirely.

So last year, when we were nearly 100% gluten-free, as we were on a low-carbohydrate diet, he still had allergies. That was one of several hints that the diet was not necessarily a cure-all. This year, his allergies are even worse, after having been on a low-carb diet (something about which I will blog, I promise), and having added many carbs back (mostly complex). Yes, from April through early July, however, we were eating gluten in all its delicious forms.

Some other things we have tried for allergy relief for him include drinking raw milk (there are testimonies of folks correcting seasonal allergies with this simple dietary addition), local raw honey, bee pollen, quercetin, Vitamin C, and this year raw adrenal glandular. Making sure the windows are closed before 5 a.m. and running a non-ozone generating HEPA filter in our bedrooms has been extremely helpful. I try to give pharmaceuticals only when it's clear he's miserable, and it is compromising his function. I have not given him Allium cepa in several years, because I was informed that its chronic use can lead to asthma, much in the same way suppressing symptoms with pharmaceuticals might (see, I can't find a reference for this).

But what does "compromised function" mean? This year Everett's allergies got so bad that he actually got head to toe hives whenever he stepped outside in the morning (before noon), or even if he touched something that had been near an open window, or if he sat by an open window. It seems like if someone is that sensitive, function is fairly well compromised. (As an aside, what does that mean for having dogs going in and out of one's house?)

Early on in our health investigation, when Everett was about three and a half, we went to an allergist (wow, that was so much fun, I feel for anyone who has ever had to take their very young child to an allergist). What did we learn? We learned that he was, at the time, allergic to absolutely nothing (except the histamine control scratch was the largest they had ever seen). I was also tested, though, and I discovered I was allergic to bluegrass, timothy grass, perennial rye grass, cedar and juniper. That would explain why, for so many years, I would lay on a grass lawn and stand up to find that I was covered in hives.

Our current house was surrounded in juniper when we moved here. Four years ago, I somewhat unwisely decided to remove one of the juniper bushes myself in order to plant a flower garden in the back yard. For three days afterward, I was bedridden with what felt like the flu (body aches, headache, plugged sinuses and fever). Last summer, a neighbor across the street had a landscaping service remove her extensive juniper bush (probably 10 by 20 feet of juniper), and while I didn't get a fever, I did get the body aches, headache, fatigue and plugged sinuses, just from going outside.

An important part of managing my own environmental allergies has been using a neti pot for sinus irrigation. It's not a lot of fun to use with a small child. But at one point, I did purchase a Waterpik system, with a special nasal irrigation tip, which was easier to use for Everett. We haven't re-instituted nasal irrigation for him; and perhaps it is too little too late.

So what in the world happened this year to increase his sensitivity so much? While we had changed multiple variables in our living situation leading up to this sudden exacerbation of allergy symptoms (adding back carbs, adding back wheat, not closing the windows, not getting as much time outside as usual due to a very rainy spring), there were some even more recent things that I sense could have contributed.

I, Fat4Thought, the detective, noticed that while eating gluten, long before this episode with hives occurred, Everett's level of general anxiety had increased. Also, he had been getting little spots around his mouth again. But then, we left the kiddos for a couple of days with their very kind grandparents, who we all love very much. Grandparents who give of themselves most generously in so many ways, and who we are so lucky to have in our lives. Grandparents who give of themselves so much that they have little time or energy left for cooking, and thus eat out at restaurants, a lot.

What this means is that my kids get to eat a lot of really wonderful and interesting foods, and that they are not picky eaters by any stretch of the imagination (except that one kid might be sick and tired of eggs and not care for chard, and the other doesn't like liver, but that hardly qualifies them as picky, IMO). The other thing that means is that they get a lot of vegetable oils and food chemicals when they visit. And the two times this year they stayed with (and had a magical beautiful time with) their grandparents, we picked them up and they had both visibly gained weight.

We can reduce their inflammation. They eat very well 95% of the time. They just may be ultra-sensitive to those kinds of foods because they were born to a mother with a toxic burden of vegetable oils and food chemicals. My concern is for their grandparents. My parents. Fortunately, they are people with a good nutritional foundation from their youth; better than what most folks who grew up in the 70's, 80's and 90's had, when frankenfood really took the scene.

It's hard for me to strike a balance between stepping away from the kitchen to contribute to the world, and relaxing, renewing and reflecting. I see from watching my parents that I am not alone in this struggle. They contribute to the world around them in so many ways, from volunteering at church, maintaining special hobbies and to watching their grandkids

Friday, June 10, 2011

Damned if I do, damned if I don't

For many people, this won't be new news. But for some folks who have had the cost of healthcare largely hidden from them through exceptional coverage provided by employers, it's hard to understand exactly what kind of crisis the rest of the nation is dealing with. I certainly didn't understand what the big deal was, anyway.

When I was pregnant with Everett, we were lucky enough to have the cost of that pregnancy obscured through coverage with Kaiser Permanente in California. We had no deductible, and no co-pay for office visits during my pregnancy. It was the magical kind of care I was fortunate enough to have through my childhood, and up until my graduation from college and marriage, then, with a $10 co-pay.

Living in the Colorado Springs area, pregnant with Lucy, we had health insurance with Guardian. It had a $200 deductible. Despite the enormous amount of complications I had during my pregnancy (polyhydramnios, then oligohydramnios, then hypertension, and partially abrupted placenta), and twice weekly visits to the maternal-fetal specialist from 20 weeks onward, the whole thing only cost us $200, that we could see. I kept all my Explanation of Benefits (EOB) forms from my pregnancy; they totaled just over $25,000 including delivery. It was certainly not the kind of cash we had laying around as young adults with a toddler, two car payments, a mortgage, and a financial setback from relocating to Colorado. No, sir. At least with this company, I was receiving statements, so rather than the cost being thoroughly invisible to me, I had an idea of what the initial and negotiated charges were.

When we moved to Northern Colorado, Erick's new employer offered several different healthcare options, through United Healthcare. One plan would cost us a significant amount of money every month, but would have a low deductible. Another plan cost less each month, but the deductible was $2000, and the company would contribute a significant amount to a Health Savings Account each year. Little did I know, when we chose the higher deductible plan, the extent to which it would change our view of healthcare in the United States.

Even before that time, I had seen a physician who dealt with kids on the Autism Spectrum for Everett and I. I wanted to know if these food intolerance issues we had (we were having significant issues with gluten, casein, soy, corn and egg, and they were very real) were reversible, and I was hoping to find a physician who would help us figure it all out.

I did find one, an M.D., who was covered by our insurance! Happy day!! No, wait. Only office visits were covered, because guess what? There is no such thing as food intolerance, according to insurance companies. In fact, I would discover through networking with other families dealing with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), that very few lab tests, vitamins, pharmaceuticals or even therapies helpful to those afflicted with ASD are covered by insurance. Practically none, in fact.

But that was just the tip of the iceberg. When we moved to Northern Colorado, it was a sudden and distressful move -- not a move by choice, at all. Erick had been laid off suddenly (as was the custom with this particular employer, and they were laying people off in that fashion for about 18 months before it was his turn, and shortly thereafter, the office was closed), so we had to quickly find other employment, put our house up for sale, and move. Nevermind that this was actually his second position in Colorado; the previous one had been for a very small company with a very high turnover rate, which he had left seeking security.

I had grown up in the very house my parents purchased in 1969. They still live in that house. Everything was very secure. We didn't live a particularly glamorous or shiny life there, but it was secure. My parents only purchased what they could pay for with cash, and they're still pretty much like that to this day. Maybe they sheltered me from any economic stressors they may have encountered, but I'm under the impression that economically, raising kids in the Reagan era and having government jobs, they didn't worry how they were going to pay the mortgage if one of them lost their job. I don't think they ever had to worry about losing a job, in fact.

So, upon moving here, I freaked out a bit. Okay, I freaked out a lot. While we were trying to sell our house, we attempted to live apart for a month. At the time, Everett was 4.5 years old, and Lucy was 16 months old. House showings were a nightmare; and keeping the house clean -- fergeddaboudit! So, we got the cheapest, smallest apartment we could find in Northern Colorado, in order to reunite our family, and keep our home in show-quality condition around the clock. As I stayed in that apartment, though, my mood sank. All my friends were in Monument and Colorado Springs. There were many friendly people reaching out to me up here, but my mom had told me that I would make my best and life-long friends through my kids when they were babies. Would I ever live somewhere long enough to have true friends who would really understand me?

I turned to the internet and became fascinated with alternative medicine. The only place I had space for a computer in the apartment was in the galley-style kitchen, so I would stand in the kitchen while the kids watched TV and played in the living room, the other side of which was only 8 feet from my computer in the kitchen. I kept a food diary and religiously avoided all my problem foods -- so I was eating tapioca bread, nut butters, jelly, chocolate chips, and green energy bars most of the day, all while nursing my toddler. I lost so much weight that I got down to a size 6 -- even in high school I was a size 10.

I sank into a deep depression, crying much of the time. I felt dizzy a lot, and I was having trouble remembering simple things like to pay the bills, or even my name. I had no patience for my kids, and I was constantly worried. The internet wasn't helping me figure out what was wrong. So, I found myself a therapist.

So, do you think our insurance plan covered mental health care? Bzzz. Nope. But with the state of my mental health at the time, $100 a week seemed necessary, so I went.

Around the same time, the physician I was seeing recommended an environmental toxin screen for me. It came back from the Mayo Clinic showing extreme levels of organophosphate -- yep, like the pesticide -- and barium. I was pretty much eating all organic, so I couldn't figure out why my levels would be high. My sister the doctor said that if they saw a patient come into the ER with organophosphate levels as high as mine were, they would be concerned for the patient's *life.* With all the weight I had lost recently, I became certain that I was detoxifying a life-long burden of pesticide, and I began taking fistfuls of vitamins to aid my detoxification every day.

I began seeing a local physician (an M.D.) who was also covered by my insurance, but who practiced holistic medicine. I decided with the abnormal test results I had, and my frightening symptoms, I needed to be under the care of a local doctor. I felt that I was having symptoms of stroke (loss of memory, inability to speak, dizziness and flashing lights). He diagnosed me with visual migraines, but ran some ordinary tests (which, at the time, were covered by my insurance). I found out that I had very low cholesterol, which is interesting for two reasons: low cholesterol is a predisposing factor for hemorrhagic stroke, and women with visual migraines are more likely to have a strokeIronically, my cholesterol level and weight at the time would make the insurance company overjoyed, despite the fact I had never been that sick in my entire life.

Fortunately, we lived in the apartment for about five months, and as soon as we moved into our house, things started to get better. I started incorporating more animal fat into my diet to raise my cholesterol and protect me from the risk of hemorrhagic stroke. While moving out of the apartment, we found that the dryer vent was not vented to the outside -- it was venting into the apartment all winter. I would find very soon after moving into our new house that I would only have migraines when running the dishwasher, doing the laundry, or being exposed to certain chemicals, and after switching to environmentally-friendly detergents (and doing some other nutritional interventions I will cover in other posts), I would never have another migraine, and my mood steadily improved.

It wasn't until last year, five years after all this happened, that I had an AHA! moment, and figured out that my organophosphate poisoning was probably from the Tide laundry detergent fumes we breathed for five months in that apartment. The Environmental Working Group would help clear it up for me.

And, that pretty much sealed the deal for me doctoring myself. I had a couple more failed attempts at getting help from physicians, but ultimately, I've had to do the work myself.

Nonetheless, the issue of insurance was still an issue. And, in 2009 when Erick's job in Northern Colorado would become defunct through closure of his division and sale of the intellectual property he had helped to develop to a Malaysian company, it would become a huge issue for us.

In 2008, when Lucy was going on four years old, and my health had mostly recovered, I became obsessed with the idea of having another baby. Obsessed enough that we would get an SUV in case my hormones got the best of me. With my first-dog-baby aging, I decided to see if a puppy would quench the desire for a baby. He did.

I had more than just a $2000 deductible to worry about when it came to the possibility of pregnancy. Erick's company had been downsizing in a significant fashion, even before he was hired. The speed at which it was happening made us unsure if they would even continue to have a facility in our town in 18 months. (They're still here, but not in much of a glitzy economically-stimulating manner). And, after all the complications I had during my pregnancy with Lucy, I found out that my hypertension had not been due to preeclampsia. I had never dumped protein in my urine (a hallmark of preeclampsia). What was discovered through ultrasound and confirmation by dye contrast CT is that I have a small right kidney. After ruling out various causes for my kidney to be so small, it was determined that it was damaged by an old infection. So, the likelihood of my super-duper nutrient-dense clean and healthy diet allowing me to have a non-life threatening pregnancy was, um, small at best.

Compounding the health-related financial woes was an incident in which my dear sweet Lucy put a bead in her nose on her brother's birthday. We took her to Urgent Care, where we were told they would be unable to remove the object ("And anyway, we have a three-hour wait. Take her to the emergency room."). While the emergency room here in Northern Colorado is uber-fast and friendly, with excellent service, a one-minute foreign-body removal from the nasal passage of a three year old costs $1200. According to a physician I know, I could have removed it myself by covering Lucy's empty nostril and blowing into her mouth. Apparently we had done this when she had put an eraser from a mechanical pencil into her nose the year before. Why didn't the people at Urgent Care know this?

Fortunately for us, the closure of Erick's division did not require another move. It did require a new adventure, though! We are self-employed, and have the luxury of learning about health insurance for the self-employed. Yep, here's where all that "pre-existing condition" stuff really matters. We have a new deductible -- much higher, at $5800. Basically, it matches the amount we can legally add to our Health Savings Account annually. And, it does not cover pregnancy. In the state of Colorado, legally, insurance companies only have to cover complications due to pregnancy; however, when my policy was issued, it contained a rider EXCLUDING any pregnancy complications I might have related in any way to hypertension.

And so, we decided our family was complete. Or at least, the insurance company did. A minor outpatient procedure finalized the decision.

Lucy would, shortly after our policy was issued, slip on the floor in the breakfast area and get a concussion, so we learned that an emergency room visit and CT scan cost $2400. I also learned that the leading cause of emergency room visits in children under the age of 18 are falls. A trip to Urgent Care to ensure that a sprained ankle is just a sprained ankle is $500 (that one's on me). And, most insurance is not covering orthopedic supplies these days (they make me sign a waiver at Urgent Care). And, because neither the doctor's office nor Urgent Care casts broken arms, we still spent $1000 bouncing back and forth between Urgent Care, the family physician and the Orthopedic Center trying to avoid the emergency room.

These things wouldn't seem so expensive if we weren't already paying $6000 per year for the insurance that isn't really covering these events.

Last year I found out that if I tried a low-carb diet (getting into the health insurance company's elite weight range), and it leaves me feeling yucky, I could spend $600 to have my B-12, Thyroid and Vitamin D levels checked. I didn't forget the important stuff -- you know, the cholesterol levels -- for another $155. Because the doctor was trying to be helpful, some other B-vitamin tests were recommended -- and yes, those did prove helpful -- but they were another $250. I was thinking maybe these were part of the "Preventative Health and Laboratory costs" that would be covered under our insurance plan, but eleven months after they were all run, right before tax-time, to boot, I got the $1005 bill from the laboratory!

So naturally, I'm not sure whether or not to be happy that I can afford my terrible health insurance. I have multiple close friends whose children qualify for government medical programs, and who themselves have no healthcare coverage, and, even with the government assistance, that is a terrible position to be in. Still, it feels like when it comes to health insurance and my pocketbook, I'm damned if I do, and damned if I don't.

In seeming celebration of my decision to doctor myself and save the doctors for emergencies, this April, United Health Care sent me a letter notifying me that by law, now, in the state of Colorado, they must cover pregnancy. Thanks.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

The staff of life, Part 1

Nothing smells quite as good as bread baking in the oven. I just had a delicious slice of homemade bread, made from wheatberries I ground myself, kind of as an experiment, but also as a reminder.


Back when my life was all diapers, playdates and naps, I first got caught up in the whole health food craze. Craze is really the best word for it; you don't have to go far on the internet or in the health food store to hear illogical ideas about which wholesome food is going to put your life in jeopardy next. Even before that, though, Kaiser had taught me about avoiding refined flour and sugar, so I was always out the outlook for a good loaf of bread which didn't contain white flour.

So when the opportunity presented itself to learn how to make bread from wheat in its purest form, I was all ears. My initial attempts to make bread yielded either flat or crumbly loaves. It was so frustrating. I borrowed a hand-crank grain mill from my mother-in-law, and I could grind about a half cup of flour in 5 minutes (I think -- it's been a while). Eventually, my entire operation would radically advance in technology with an electric grain mill and high-capacity mixer, allowing me to make five loaves of bread beginning from the grinding of the grain to their exit from the oven. I would make five loaves of bread once a week, and sometimes some of those loaves would become cinnamon rolls or pizza. Many times it was hard for us to not devour the first loaf right out of the oven.

The benefits of using freshly ground flour include the following:

1) Reduced cost. After the initial investment in equipment (of course), the cost for the wheat is about 27 cents per loaf, and a 50 lb bag of wheat yields about 83 loaves of bread. One pound of wheatberries yields about 4.5 cups of flour, and it takes 10-12 cups of flour to make 5 loaves of bread. These calculations are based on $22.12 for a 50 pound back of wheat, not including shipping.

2) Increased nutrition. Most of the nutritional benefits of eating wheat are from the germ, which is stripped from the grain in industrial milling because the germ oil goes rancid rapidly. The germ contains the full complex of B-vitamins, but according to the woman who taught me (and multiple internet sources), 90% of the nutrition has oxidized and been broken down within 72 hours of milling.

3) Reduced toxins. Have you ever read the label on a loaf of bread at the grocery store? I cannot even find a loaf of bread at my closest local grocery store, Safeway, which does not contain azodicarbonamide. In fact, even the breads baked in-house contain it because it is part of a dough conditioner that is put directly into the flour they use at the store. When I first discovered this, nearly eight years ago, there was very little information about it on the internet, except that it was an industrial foaming agent used in the manufacturing of plastics (like baby food jar seals), and had been banned in the United Kingdom. It is now banned for use in Europe and Australia.

So, I happily made my own bread, which contained just freshly ground wheatberries, water, yeast, honey, sea salt, Vitamin C and canola oil. We ate it at pretty much every meal. Grilled cheese sandwiches were an almost daily staple. Everett seemed able to tolerate cheese, even though milk and yogurt gave him digestive trouble.

In the early part of my pregnancy, I was very good about making bread weekly. Then, I developed sciatica, and it had been weeks, or perhaps even months, since I had made bread. We were eating out more and more, and during one trip to the chiropractor in Denver, we ate at my favorite restaurant (wide spaghetti and meatballs), and Everett and I both got a terrible case of food poisoning, which lasted nearly a week. I had been seeing a specialist during my pregnancy because I had polyhydramnios, which turned out not to be a result of a structural abnormality in the baby (thank goodness). After that week of food poisoning, however, I started losing amniotic fluid at a very steady rate.

I was placed on bedrest for a week at 30 weeks of pregnancy, and had visits to the maternal fetal specialist twice a week to monitor my amniotic fluid levels. I was told to drink at least 96 ounces of water per day, as well, and doing so didn't really seem to work, so I switched to an electrolyte beverage, and that did seem to work, with respect to the amniotic fluid. However, at 37 weeks, my blood pressure elevated again, and I was put on bedrest for that week, at the end of which, I had labor induced.

During one of my trips to the specialist, I had a friend watch Everett. She took him to McDonald's and got him some milk with his Happy Meal. When I came to pick him up, she was holding him in her lap, and he was crying in her lap. She explained that he just randomly became afraid in the Playland, and refused to play in there, crying and screaming. It was very much unlike him, and she was a close friend and neighbor who we saw very often, so he was comfortable with her. I took him home, and he was strange the whole evening. I actually had a high school friend come visit from out of town with her daughter, and he was totally bouncing off the walls (typically he was a pretty calm kid, though he had anxiety, he was not high energy). The entire evening he was loud, violent, his pupils were fully dilated, and his cheeks were bright red. I could not get him to listen to me or calm down at all. It must have made quite an impression on my friend (or my reaction to him did, because I really wasn't sure what to do), because I didn't hear from her again for several years. It was amazing to me that just drinking milk could cause him to have that kind of reaction. It had to have been the milk that caused the reaction; we ate at McDonald's at least once a week at that time, and had never had that kind of reaction before. That was my reasoning at the time, anyway.

In fact, before we eliminated milk from his diet, besides frequent illness I did have trouble getting him to acknowledge me, even though he was calm. He would kind of zone out and have a far away look in his eyes. Also, he frequently had bright red cheeks, and slept fitfully, waking if I wasn't right there next to him, and when he woke, he usually did so crying. He always sweat when he slept, leaving a moist spot where he lay his head.

After that episode at McDonald's, I was very concerned about him. I had him evaluated by the school district, and he was classified as having auditory, tactile, vestibular, oral, and visual sensory integration disorder. At 27 months of age, he knew all of his letter sounds, could count past 30. At that time, nine years ago, kids that young weren't getting Asperger's diagnoses (according to our family physician), but the school district Autism Team was entertaining the possibility. They came to see him at his gymnastics class and during a playdate, and ruled out Asperger's. Apparently, he was too social (even though it was difficult to get him to look me in the eye). According to the speech therapist, he had the vocabulary and speech of a seven year old, and she could see nothing wrong in that respect. However, she did suggest that we try removing gluten from his diet.

Okay, here it was again... gluten being a potential problem. But, I made bread every week, and according to traditional and historical wisdom, it was the staff of life! How could it be hurting our health? I would wait until absolutely necessary to make such a change. Instead, I would focus on eliminating all food chemicals from our diet after reading the book Fed Up with Food Intolerance by Sue Dengate (see also The Feingold Association).


Absolutely necessary came sooner than I thought it would. Lucy was born, and her reflux was worse than Everett's. It was not manageable with Mylicon (simethicone). I was already on a mostly dairy-free diet, but just even having a taste of dairy caused her to projectile vomit after nursing, and choke in the night. Soy would be a problem for her as well. I would try a trial without gluten, just for myself, for a couple of weeks.

The first time I had gluten, not only did Lucy's reflux return (she didn't even spit up once during the day when I avoided casein, soy and gluten), but my hands were achy, and I was so exhausted for the next 48 hours. Also, I would get pain in my right kidney, much like I had toward the end of my pregnancy with Lucy. So, there it was. I had to avoid gluten.

It was a lot easier to avoid gluten for Everett now that Lucy and I had such immediate and devastating side effects. The benefits that we saw from eliminating dairy with him just got better. His attention span increased, he was calmer, the wet spot from him sweating in the bed disappeared, and he stopped gagging at every meal. Many of his sensory integration issues (tactile, oral, auditory, vestibular, and visual) would disappear on a gluten-free, casein-free and salicylate (food-additive)-free diet.

Which of course, begged the question, WHY?!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

I met the enemy, and it was food (or so I thought)

We put our house up for sale on September 10, 2001, and moved back to Colorado a month later, even though our property did not sell for another month. In our apartment, I was the only other voice for his new ears during the day, so I read the first five Harry Potter novels out loud to Everett, while laying with him on the floor.


He somehow knew his father would be coming home around 5 o'clock, and would fuss in my arms until the front door cracked open, and a great smile would replace his consternation. Unless, of course, Erick had to use the restroom or have a drink of water before fully acknowledging this small person who had longed for him so intently. Mae, our bulldog, would jump around happily, performing what we called "The Rhino Dance" as her show of appreciation for Erick's return.

The week before Christmas, we moved into our first Colorado home (as adults). It was a "Spec Home" -- a brand new home which had been commissioned by another buyer. There was no landscaping in the back yard; and it was graded improperly, leaving a giant lake in the middle whenever there was any precipitation. The first time the tub in the guest bath was used on Christmas Eve, a missing solder joint in the soffit over the kitchen yielded a downpour onto the stove. The house had that new house smell, and I loved it, despite the surprises.

Slowly, we began to connect more to the community around us. It was more necessary than it had been in California or Ohio; something about having children made me need to make friends. Raising children in isolation was a challenge. Never before had I needed validation in the way I did as a new parent. I joined several mothers' groups in our area, and made a handful of good friends. I connected with two particular moms because their husbands worked with Erick.

One of these friends was really into health food. She was the kind of person who just when I thought I understood what she was doing, she was doing something new. When I first met her, she was baking fresh bread every week. It was absolutely heavenly, and made from fresh wheat berries that she ground in a mill in her home. We would buy a loaf here and there as her daughter was selling bread to make money to go to Disneyland with her step dancing group. She also coordinated a local food co-op through the Tucson Cooperative Warehouse, so I saw her very regularly. Eventually, I had to know how to make the bread myself.

I went to her house to learn to make bread the same day Everett had his first MMR vaccination. Before this day, he loved her and her kids. That day, he cried and fussed the whole time we were there. I kept wondering what happened to my sweet baby to make him so upset and scared. I ended up having to leave early to see if he would settle down for a nap. Things would not be the same from that day forward.

My baby was fussy. Erick called him "Little Ceasar." I was exhausted and lived for naptime. Through La Leche League, I would find Dr. William Sears' The Fussy Baby Book, and the chapter on Mother Burnout would be my salvation. The empathy I found in those pages would lead me to want to read every book Dr. Sears wrote, and much of the La Leche League Bibliography (where I first learned of Dr. Sears).

In the meantime, the advice there provided important coping mechanisms and the comfort of knowing I wasn't alone. There were other babies out there -- High Needs Babies -- who would be upset if their hands got dirty, or if they were overwhelmed by Wal-Mart, or if they were blinded stepping out into the sun without sunglasses, or if there was a slight breeze. I made close friends of mothers in similar positions. And it seemed they were everywhere.

After the MMR vaccination, he wasn't just more sensitive, he was constantly sick, after never having been sick. A mom who formula-fed her daughter actually remarked that she didn't see the benefit in breastfeeding since my son was constantly sick. He was sick for six months straight with nine different illnesses. We were constantly going to the doctor.

I was afraid to go anywhere after he caught rotavirus, which he had at 13 months of age for nearly four weeks straight. I have never seen so much vomit and diarrhea come out of one human being, and this particular human only weighed about 19 pounds. It would be this experience, when the on-call nurse told me that I was saving his life through breastfeeding him (most infants with rotavirus cannot digest formula or cow milk), that would convince me to continue to nurse him until he weaned himself. The nurse at the doctor's office, in response to my wondering where he would have picked up rotavirus, said, "It could have been anywhere -- even a shopping cart handle."

Again, I turned to Dr. Sears for help. I devoured his Family Nutrition Book -- the recommendations within largely agreed with what the Kaiser Permanente dietician had taught me two years earlier, with some important exceptions. Sears, in addition to recommending a diet very low in fat, high in grains and lean protein, would also recommend soy foods and very little sugar. I followed Dr. Sears' dietary recommendations to the letter.

Five months' worth of Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer later, I wrote to my local La Leche League Leader and asked what could be causing his frequent illness? "Perhaps a food allergy, like an allergy to dairy, eggs, corn, soy or wheat," was the reply. There it was. Again. Food as the Evil Villain.

My breadmaking friend lent me her copy of Is This Your Child? by Doris Rapp, MD, and the 2.5-inch thick tome convinced me it was time to entertain the idea of food allergies a little more seriously. So then, I bought Jonathan Brostoff's Food Allergies and Food Intolerances, and I was then convinced enough (Brostoff used citations) to do a food elimination trial. After reading a couple more books on the topic, I was a veritable expert.


Things did get dramatically better for Everett when we eliminated dairy at eighteen months of age. His sensitivities diminished greatly, and he stopped getting sick so easily. We replaced dairy with Dr. Sears' pet food, soy. Erick's mom gave me a copy of Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon around the time Everett was two years old. I read all the chapter introductions at that point, especially because she covered the topic of food allergies, but the cookbook contained a lot of ideas I considered strange and certainly lethal, if not plain disgusting (eating organ meat, making homemade stock, soaking legumes and grains, drinking raw milk, and, GASP! eating saturated fat). So, I would not reopen the cookbook for another three years (despite the fact that my own mother looked through it and said, "Wow! A cookbook with REAL FOOD in it! This is like the food my Grandma Edith would make!"). I guess I didn't consider it that strange, because around the same time, my food-savvy friend lent me a copy, so she had at least had a passing interest in it.

Nonetheless, we were eating fairly whole foods, and I was cooking most of the time. Things would become better enough that we would decide to have another baby.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Longing for the familiar

Back in 2001, I hadn't babysat, held a baby, or maybe even seen one for about a decade. And now, here I was, fresh out of a job dealing with technical equipment, volatile chemicals, and scientific jargon, caring for my own.

I tried attending a couple of La Leche League (LLL) meetings, but my local group was led by several homeschooling women, all nursing toddlers. One was even nursing her preschooler, and though they were kind and welcoming and did not project any sort of judgment, that early on in my nursing relationship, I found the ideas of breastfeeding a non-infant and homeschooling foreign. Scary, even.

Everett's reflux continued. It was the source of much interrupted sleep. He slept on a wedge in a playpen/bassinet next to my bed. Even if he didn't wake up wanting to nurse, I frequently woke up worried that he had rolled to the bottom of the wedge or that he had stopped breathing. Ironically (or not), my coworker who had given birth a month before me had a parallel experience with her son: trouble initiating breastfeeding, oversupply, reflux and apnea issues. Her son even required an apnea machine, a machine that would alert her to lengthened episodes of non-breathing, for sleep. I could talk to her on the phone, but trying to get together was difficult for either of us, with babies who did not like to travel (she lived 20 miles away), and chronic sleep deprivation.

I can't remember why, but I had called the local Medela representative, and, as many new and lonely mothers do, shared my experience with reflux. The spitting up was much less if Everett took a bottle rather than nursing. I would get a clue to the cause of this when he was around three months, when his diapers suddenly had a foul odor (unusual for solely breastfed babies), and a strange olive green color.

As it turned out, this particular Medela representative had a child who had apnea and reflux as an infant. When we left the hospital with Everett after his sleep study, the doctor (who had angered Erick) said that if the reflux was not better by 3 or 4 months, surgery could be done to tighten the top sphincter on the stomach. The daughter of this Medela representative had that surgery, and the woman shared with me the difficulties that had arisen because of it. Her then six year old daughter was unable to burp or even vomit, resulting in severe discomfort. She advised me to simply give Everett a drop of Mylicon about 5 minutes into each feeding to help all the gas bubbles conglomerate into a single one to help with his reflux.

After researching the safety of simethicone (Mylicon), this advice would end up costing me a lot of money on generic simethicone, but saving me a lot of time in laundry, and easing Everett's pain tremendously. At that point in my life, short on sleep and support, what I needed most was a pill to make everything better, and that's what Mylicon provided.

The information given to me on my call to La Leche League was overwhelming. Nurse more often. Finish the first side first before moving to the next side. Prop the baby up while he is sleeping. Burp him religiously. Try burping in many positions. Express some milk before putting him to the breast. Try nursing in different positions (including laying on my side in bed and draping the baby over me so gravity was not aiding let-down). And finally, the information that undermined my trust in these lactation experts: try an elimination diet.

I tried all the other reflux management techniques LLL had suggested, and they were exhausting. Eventually, over the course of months, and in combination with the simethicone drops, they would serve to more equalize my supply with his demand. My cessation of pumping would also help. Also, I learned to pay attention to his cues better, and ignore the clock. Like my daughter would be three years later, he was very sleepy for the first three months, and did not give many hunger cues. I had attributed this to all the drugs I had during childbirth, but I did not have narcotics when I was in labor with my daughter, and she still experienced this time of mostly sleep. This was amplified when Everett had his two- and four-month vaccinations, which gave him a fever and made him sleep for twenty-four hours straight. Try as I might, I had great difficulty waking him to nurse, and it was such an endeavor that nursing every 3 to 4 hours worked just fine for me. After three months, though, he was awake more often, and more likely to want to nurse more often than every 3 to 4 hours.

We had a follow-up from the sleep study with a gastroenterologist around 4 months of age. By coincidence, Everett had not passed a stool for several weeks, and I was concerned. This gastroenterologist said that it was normal for a breastfed baby to go as long as 28 days without passing a stool, which eased my mind.

Over time I would learn just how important it was to nurse "early and often." I would learn that the upper limit of a woman's milk supply was determined by the amount she nursed in the first five days after the baby's birth. My breastfeeding experience in those first five days was not at all natural, but my sessions with the surrogate baby (breast pump) apparently drove the upper limit of my supply up plenty. Supply was never an issue.

I would also learn that what is stored in the breast is foremilk, the "skim" part of the breastmilk. It is high in lactose and low in fat. The longer between nursing sessions, the more foremilk will be present in the breast. This foremilk is much harder to digest than the rich, fatty hindmilk which is made on demand after the foremilk in each breast is exhausted. Considering that an infant's stomach is about the size of his fist, and I was expressing about five fluid ounces per side during a pumping session, it's unlikely Everett was getting much hindmilk during that period of time. And that is how the foul-smelling green stools happened, ladies and gentlemen.


My mind kept drifting to the suggestion of food allergies (I would later learn these are called intolerances), with the most likely one being dairy. Really? I thrived on dairy. I was not a water-drinker; I washed everything down with a glass of milk. Running out of milk in college was the most likely reason I would request a ride to the grocery store from a friend. I attributed my lack of cavities to my milk consumption. How could such a health promoting food be the cause of so many problems for my son and I? This made no sense to me at all. I felt that viewing foods as trouble was a road fraught with peril, as is the wise and common response of many people who first hear the recommendation for a food elimination trial.

I had landed right on Mars, complete with little men who pooped green, cried to communicate, and didn't honor my body's need to sleep like a log for eight hours uninterrupted. Health-promoting foods were potentially danger-ridden. This was all strange for Erick, too, and in watching how quickly everything was changing, how quickly Everett was growing, we decided to move back to Colorado and share the experience with people who would care -- our family. We would leave Mars and go back to the familiar.

Friday, April 29, 2011

In the blink of an eye

Wow. I can hardly believe that it's been 10 years since Everett entered the world.

No one could have prepared me for any aspect of this experience. Nothing they would have said would have any meaning until I had this experience myself. No one could have impressed upon me the instant appreciation I would have for my own mother, or how my own concept of love would transform.

I chose to breastfeed Everett after my sister, who had studied anthropology as an undergraduate, sent me two books which would forever change my view of the maternal role: Kathy Dettwyler's Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives, and Janet Tamaro's humorous So That's What They're For! (a book I would later share with any friend who even mentioned the likelihood of pregnancy to me).

The first book served to instill in me a certain appreciation for the historical and cultural importance of breastfeeding and how it strengthens the mother-infant bond. Apes do it, hogs do it, even educated dogs do it, so why couldn't I? I would be doing my child a disservice to do otherwise.

Tamaro's book would convince me that it was anything but natural. Formula companies and the nurses in the delivery room would do their best to undermine my efforts to do the natural. And, even if they didn't, there were a host of problems that might creep up which would make me want to run to the nearby Kmart and get some formula, if I didn't already have some land on my doorstep with the aid of the mailman.

And, that's pretty much how it went. Everett was born early on a Friday morning. I can't remember if I knew it at the time, but breastfeeding success is in large part determined by the mother-infant interaction in the first hour after birth. I didn't offer my nipple in that first hour, as I was having some, um, mending done. After two hours, I had tried to get him to nurse once, and the young childless nurse who was tending to me, in her gentle way, started to freak out. She said that if I didn't get him to nurse, we would have to give him some formula.

I couldn't believe that within two hours the subtle advertisements had already shifted to overt recommendations. Luckily, being somewhat informed, I was able to realize that I could request a breast pump. They did not give me an electric model; they gave me the Medela hand model. I actually expressed about two teaspoons of colostrum. The nurses were awestruck. They had never seen anyone do that before.

The next day, a lactation consultant came to visit us in the wonderful family recovery rooms they had at Kaiser Permanente Riverside Medical Center. She helped me nurse using the football hold, and then she showed me how to nurse laying down. She had just left the room, and I was thinking how wonderful it was going to be to be able to lay down and feed Everett when my nurse came in and started screaming that he was turning blue. His lips were blue, and apparently he had aspirated on some breastmilk. I was advised not to nurse him laying down.

It seemed like anything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. I had inverted nipples, and they were big ones. I would read later in studying for La Leche League Leadership that breastfeeding success is not as great in overweight women.

Erick was fortunate enough to be able to stay home with us for the first three days, with us both lamenting over each and every feeding, debating over whether to supplement with formula. On the third day, I became terribly engorged, and the pain was so great I was in tears. This prompted my first call to La Leche League, where I spoke to a very patient Leader who informed me of my options (nursing more frequently, as opposed to the every 3-4 hours recommended at the hospital, hand expression, cabbage leaves, frozen peas, and ibuprofen). Because I was still having trouble getting Everett to latch on, I drove back to the hospital by myself on the following Tuesday to get a surrogate baby, er, breast pump.

Erick had returned to work on Monday. The company which employed him had fewer than 50 employees, so they were exempt from the Family Medical Leave Act. He had saved up enough vacation time to take two weeks off, but they claimed they could not be without him for those two weeks. They did this on Monday morning.

I pumped every 3-4 hours, and tried to feed Everett from the breast between those times. On Wednesday, I finally went in for the New Mom Clinic that Kaiser offered. The one on the weekend had been full, so my visit with the postpartum nurses and lactation consultants was about three days after the usual. At that Clinic, I would finally learn how to sit and nurse, using the Boppy pillow. I was sure that women in Africa didn't need such things, but I had four left feet, and even with my new La-Z-Boy recliner, I had to make sure that I had a phone, remote, and water bottle before I sat down to nurse the baby, because once I sat there, it was going to be a while before I was able to get up again, and nobody was there to help me.


Because I had been expecting to be home with my husband and son, I asked my mother to wait two weeks to visit. Fortunately, my dear mother-in-law showed up unexpectedly that next Thursday (if I remember correctly), and did all the things a new mom's helper should do. She cooked for me, she cleaned, she changed diapers. All I had to do was lay around with my baby. Unfortunately, I wasn't wise enough to do that, so I think I helped troubleshoot the sprinkler system that weekend. Or something like that. (Hindsight is 20/20). I remember feeling really uncomfortable with my in-laws around, because Erick's mom had not breastfed her children, and, well, I wasn't very adept at breastfeeding, so doing it discretely around his dad felt like an impossible feat. When I nursed (which I would put off each time), I would go hide in the bedroom to do it.

Nursing in the bedroom was difficult for me.  I felt like I couldn't lay down, because I wasn't sure if he would be able to breathe. Was I going to smother him with my gigantic knockers? Would he spit up like a drunken college student and choke on his own vomit? So, I had to prop myself up, put my knees up, and nurse him in my lap. It felt totally unnatural, and my legs and back grew very tired doing this. Nonetheless, it was how I nursed him most nights, because I was too tired to get out of bed.

Shortly after Erick's mom and dad left, I was reclining on the sofa, watching Everett who was in a breastmilk-induced coma. I noticed that he did not breathe very often, and I became concerned. I started counting the number of seconds between breaths, and called the doctor, who recommend that I come in to see her immediately. This resulted in him being admitted to the hospital for a sleep study, where he was hooked up to machines, and prescribed medications to control his reflux.

My mother arrived on the third day we were in the hospital. When we all went home, my Sleepy, Sweet, Pukey baby had become the Baby Who Would Not Stop Screaming. We looked at the informational sheets given to us with the prescriptions, and found that the main side effect was headache. We deduced that the way a baby would respond to a headache might be by screaming, and decided to discontinue the medicines. Within a day, our Sleepy, Sweet, Pukey baby had returned. My sister came a few days later, and she and my mom were tremendously helpful. We did a lot of sitting around and resting, and just being with Everett.

About 6 weeks had passed before the pain from my baby egress port subsided enough that I could get up from and sit down on the recliner without wincing. Around that time, nursing was getting a little easier, too. Between 6 and 8 weeks postpartum is when the supply and demand tends to level out, though that wasn't what happened to us, since I was still pumping a couple times a day so I would have the ability to feed Everett a bottle when we would leave the house on occasion. We did, however, have the whole nursing thing figured out, finally.

Early on, I didn't know anyone else who was breastfeeding. It felt strange and unnatural to me, and I wasn't confident enough to do it in public. So, I pumped. What an inconvenience this was. It created an oversupply which certainly aggravated Everett's reflux, required me to purchase endless types of nipples for him to reject that would all eventually end up in a landfill, and use lots of electricity, natural gas, and water to continually sterilize the supplies. The really silly part of the whole ordeal was that only a handful of times did someone other than myself feed him a bottle! I rearranged my entire life as a new mother to pump daily to not risk offense to theoretical judgmental people who lack the self-esteem to allow others to choose to do as they wish.

Anyway, wow, could this little guy vomit like a champ! Both of us had to change outfits several times a day, that is, until I decided that spit-up smell was not as bad as having to do laundry constantly. As the weeks went on, the spitting up was not just spitting up. There was high-pitched screaming, and lots of Erick and I taking turns holding a clearly uncomfortable baby. He was happy in a stroller, riding in a car, and being held certain ways, but not much of the rest of the time. I remember calling my mother in tears, telling her that he was not happy unless he was being held. She gave me some wise advice, which I carry with me to this day: "This will pass. You won't be carrying him down the aisle at graduation."

For some reason, that advice made carrying him seem like so much less of a task, and so much more like a gift. This was a time that would pass quickly. I began to see it all as something I would desperately try to record in as much detail as possible. I would try to catch as many granules of sand as possible as they slipped through the hourglass.

And here, I can tell you, that ten years later, I still carry this advice in my heart. It feels like his beautiful soul came into my life just yesterday. Every day with him has been the greatest gift. All the early difficulties now feel so far away. All the Mylicon, diapers, loads of laundry, backaches, lost socks, and Cheerios are gone, just like that. In the blink of an eye, he has transformed from a helpless infant into the sensitive, curious, kind and just person he is today. I will continue to treasure each minute I have with him, because this too shall pass.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Precious cargo, and my first birth journey

I had a feeling of such utter control after losing that weight. Mind you, I never did get my body to the stereotypical magazine cover state I had always envisioned, but I was able to tie my shoes, and walk up and down flights of stairs without getting winded. I was able to buy clothing in regular stores again.

I loved the freedom this new 'lifestyle' afforded me. It was 1999, and lowfat foods were everywhere. One of my favorite meals, suggested by the Kaiser Permanente nutritionist was two small hamburgers, and a large chocolate shake from McDonalds. No fries.

Lots of Snackwell cookies, within my calorie limit for the day, of course.

Lots of skim milk, boneless skinless chicken breasts, egg white omelets and whole wheat bread.

Margaritas.

Sushi.

I'm sure there were salads involved; I'm just remembering the good stuff, since this was a part of my life I remember as kind of a party. I was out of school, making a little money. We drove down to San Diego to hang out at the beach a lot and ate ceviche every chance we got. We had visitors all the time because we lived in a fun place.

Oh, there were a lot of avocados and oranges, because they were awesome and easy to procure.

I was working in vegetarian paradise, Loma Linda University Medical Center -- the origin of the research frequently cited by vegetarians as justification for their lifestyle choices. Loma Linda, California is a vegetarian city. Unless you bring in your meat (and as I mentioned before, I wasn't much of a lunch packer), you'll have to go to a neighboring town for your animal flesh.

Typically, I would have something like a smoothie for lunch, though occasionally the cafeteria would serve up a delicious meat loaf impostor called "Cottage Cheese Loaf." Once every week or two, a bunch of us would go to a local Indian restaurant in San Bernardino.

So, those are the kinds of things I was eating when I became pregnant with my first child, Everett.

I have to pause here and extend a big, heartfelt thank-you to my dear husband Erick, who immediately said that I needed to start drinking whole milk now that I was pregnant. You would think I would have known that, having studied neuroscience, but what I had read in books just wasn't translating well to real life.

Erick was worried about my nutrition when I was pregnant, and for good reason. I've always been somewhat obsession-driven, from the time I began cooking brownies weekly at the age of eight. So, I have always had something in my diet that has been a "thing" which I was unable to eat in moderation, crowding out the nutrition I would perhaps get from other sources. In one flurry of worry, he made me pasta with a tomato-sardine sauce. It was one of the only times I vomited during my pregnancy.

(A note to anyone out there cohabitating with a pregnant woman -- I think it's totally fair to maim or nearly kill anyone who opens a can of mackerels in the vicinity of a pregnant woman).

Working in a laboratory while pregnant was not easy. I really wanted to leave my job early on -- all the smells of the chemicals we were using regularly left me dizzy, and often gave me headaches. But, like many young families, we needed all the money we could save before the baby was born. We weren't even really sure I would be able to stay home, and our original plan was for me to go back to work when Everett was 6 weeks old.

I actually did try to find a different job, but I found job-hunting while pregnant difficult. Did I need to tell them? The immorality of it all left my stomach in knots.

I immediately researched the safety of working with said chemicals, and called the California Teratogen Information Service to find out if there was cause for worry. I was told, "With any of these things, the mother will have effects before there is risk to the fetus." I had decided to wait until I was three months pregnant before telling my employer about my pregnancy, so I had to work with everything I had been for that time. After that, all accommodations were made for me, which included having other employees step in and do the more risky parts of my job, and also purchasing a respirator for me to use for the less risky chemicals.

I worked in a very small department, and by coincidence, my girlfriend at work became pregnant about a month before me. She was an Adventist, and a vegetarian. She was well schooled in healthy nutrition, and her body was a temple. Or, at least she seemed that way when I compared her to myself. She became concerned that I was not eating enough -- she said my breath smelled like ketones (she was a chemist by training) -- and would regularly offer me handfuls of almonds.

Something was going on -- about once a week I had a very intense craving for meat, and would drive to nearby Redlands on a long lunch to get a Boston Market chicken sandwich. I had to cut back on eating out because we were trying to save up for my maternity leave, so I only ate out at the Indian restaurant twice during my pregnancy.

After the first time, I was extremely tired -- I went home and Erick noticed I was visibly larger from that morning. I weighed myself (I was compulsive about this as I had been warned by my obstetrician not to gain too much weight), and I had gained 10 pounds in just one day. The weight did not come off the next day.

The same thing happened the second time I went there.

Shortly after the second lunch, I became very tired. I was having regular problems with sciatica such that I could barely walk down the hall to the bathroom -- I had to prop myself up on the wall. I was performing tasks at work that ruined my appetite and distressed me. One night in late January 2001, I had a dream that my last day of work would be February 15th. I remember looking at the calendar in my dream and seeing the day. In the weeks before February 15th, in real life, I was increasingly tired in the mornings -- around 10 a.m. I would need a nap, and I had regular headaches. When February 15th really did come, I had an incredible headache that morning, and ended up going to see my obstetrician.

My blood pressure was 160/100. I was 30 weeks pregnant. I would be on bedrest for the duration of my pregnancy. So, February 15th really did end up being my last day of paid work.

Twice a week, I went into the hospital for a non-stress test. I was not allowed to drive, so Erick would take off work to bring me to the hospital. Fortunately, my blood pressure stabilized around borderline (140/90) with bed rest, so I did not have to take any medication. The worry about money was partially alleviated by the State of California's disability pay.

In retrospect, that time went so fast, though at the time, it went by so slowly. Days of watching A Baby Story on The Learning Channel and compulsively measuring my blood pressure crawled by in a lonely fashion. Weekends were spent reading and watching Erick play Gran Turismo 2. I have the soundtrack from that game burnt into my subconscious.

I was so tired of being pregnant. I really just wanted to get off that sofa and have my baby. My obstetrician decided to induce me at 39 weeks, but after a long night in the hospital with irregular contractions, I was sent home.

Several days later, I was told that I would likely be induced the following weekend, at 40 weeks, 2 days of pregnancy. However, at my 40 week checkup, my obstetrician informed me that she wanted me to check into Labor and Delivery for an "outpatient induction" -- she wanted to get my cervix ripened with some prostaglandin gel for the weekend. When I did check into L&D, the obstetrician on duty there wanted to induce me with a drug called Cytotec, which at the time was not approved for obstetric use.

I had done some reading about natural childbirth and risks associated with various interventions, but had kind of thrown in the towel when I was diagnosed with Pregnancy Induced Hypertension (PIH). I figured (and was correct), that I would be unable to walk around at all during my labor, and certainly I wouldn't be able to labor in water at all, and likely, I would have to spend the entire time on my left side.

When that doctor said, "Cytotec," however, I freaked out. He kept his composure -- and explained that the risks were very small, and he regularly used the drug without complication. "Besides," he said, "Prostaglandin gel didn't work for you last time. Do you really want another failed induction?"

No, not so much, I didn't. So I agreed, and around 11 a.m. a small tablet of Cytotec, also known as misoprostol, was placed on my cervix, and I got to spend quite a few hours chatting with Erick, laying on my left side, in the Labor & Delivery room.

(Knowing what I know now, perhaps I would have said "No" to the Cytotec, because the chances were a lot lower of having a failed induction at 40 weeks, with or without Cytotec).

It had been a long day, without any food, and we had regularly discussed going to the Stuart Anderson's across the street from the medical center on our many visits there. So, when I was checked at 4:30 p.m. and told that I had made no progress and would be discharged, I was excited to get out of there and have a nice big steak.

However, in waiting for the discharge papers, I felt a very strange kick. Well, more like a pop. "Wow!" I said. "I'll never forget how that kick felt!" And then... well, then, I knew that it hadn't been a kick, because I was fairly certain that I hadn't peed on the bed. And then I cried.

I cried because I knew I wasn't getting that steak, and I was hungry. I knew I wasn't getting to leave Labor & Delivery, and my baby wasn't going to be delivered by the physician I had grown to trust, but by some other who I had never met before.

After my water broke, things started moving along pretty quickly. Around 7 p.m. I was offered some drugs. All I remember is seeing the plunger go down halfway on the syringe the nurse was holding, and then I got some rest.

I can't even remember if I was on pitocin or not. After I awoke, I remember laying there on my side and shaking the bars on the side of the bed, shaking, shivering, and yelling, "Help me!!" I did not want anymore narcotics, because I wanted to be able to remember and experience my labor. I signed the consent for an epidural around 10:30 p.m., but there were multiple women in labor that evening, and it wasn't until after midnight that the anesthetist arrived.

After receiving my epidural (during which we nearly lost Erick), a new obstetrician came by to check me and discovered that I was fully dilated and effaced. Because I was so tired, she suggested that I sleep a little.

I was so exhausted, I knew I would need some sleep before pushing, but Erick couldn't sleep. "How can you sleep? This feels just like Christmas!" he complained.

I told him that I could sleep because I was exhausted. That was the finest half an hour of sleep I would have for several years.

A nurse came by and asked, "Is this your first baby?"

"Yes."

"Do you want to try to push?"

"Sure."

"With your next contraction, give a little push, okay?"

"Okay."

"Stop! STOP! STOP!! I have to go get a doctor!"

So, I waited for a while, and a new doctor came in to check me. "Is this your first baby?"

"Yes."

"Do you want to try to push?"

"Sure."

"With your next contraction, give a little push, okay?"

"Okay."

"Stop! STOP! STOP!!"

During the next 20 minutes, the nurse and doctor scrambled to prepare everything they felt they needed to catch Everett, and about eight thousand people filed into the little room.

"Okay, are you ready? Give us another push."

That was it. Everett was born on that third push.


He was so beautiful, so perfect. The joy overwhelmed Erick and I. We had waited so long to meet Everett. Never did I imagine how much this delicate yet strong being would change me. That feeling of control I had after losing that weight was short-lived.