Lymphedema can cause problems when you run out of veins.
Kathy LaTour is a breast cancer survivor, author of The Breast Cancer Companion and co-founder of CURE magazine. While cancer did not take her life, she has given it willingly to educate, empower and enlighten the newly diagnosed and those who care for them.
Last week, I had to go into the hospital because of a urinary tract infection (UTI) that got out of control. It had been awhile since I had dealt with the ER, and I remembered half way through the admitting process why I will never be admitted through the emergency room again.
I have bad veins. I had bad veins in my left arm before I had chemotherapy. They only put in a port for those women who were going to need extensive chemo, but I think they have changed their tune in the past 30 years. Since no one could use my right arm, I have had no sticks there since 1990, which was the year I got lymphedema – but that story is part 2 of this blog. Suffice it to say, I could only use my left arm for sticks or IV or blood pressure.
The right arm has been off-limits – I would write on it – “Don’t use this arm,” anytime there was a chance I might be out or not able to tell someone not to use it for blood draws, etc. I haven’t even had blood pressure taken. It is drilled into you that to have sticks or blood pressure or anything invasive can lead to another bout of infection.
So back to the story. I was in the ER being admitted for antibiotic IV for an infection that had left me septic.
Since having chemotherapy in that arm, every time someone came close to me with a needle, I would say, “How good are you? I have bad veins.” They would either say, “I am great!” or they would put down the needle and go get someone else.
But in the ER, time is of the essence so when the nurse came in to start the IV, I was ready – sort of. They drew blood when I arrived at the ER to confirm I had an infection. It was an OK stick. It wasn’t great because any time someone comes toward me with a needle I go back to chemo and cancer. But my left arm was holding up – not great, but OK.
But it was running out of options. Did I say I have really bad veins? They are tiny, they roll and they are slippery. The few good ones have been used so much they blow easily and are filled with scar tissue. OK, sorry, I had nothing to do with it.
This nurse seemed to know what she was doing, and after slapping my arm what felt like a few thousand times, she turned my wrist over. I said, "Where are you going with that?" just as she jammed the needle into the worst vein I have. It is filled with scar tissue, and I told her that as I was clenching my whole body, tears running down my face. Then she just punched through the tissue, which left me crying on the table. But it was in. But I was sobbing and it hurt, as did the antibiotic she began administering, which must have had molecules the size of raisins. This IV hurt the whole two days it was in, and it hurt really bad when they were administering the antibiotic.
By the time they got me upstairs into a room, I was calmer – until I learned they would have to take blood again since they need it from two sites when you are septic. I started crying and told my nurse what a terrible week I had had and how it had all started with me driving back from my kids house three hours south of me after a great week at the beach.
The UTI had begun while we were at the beach, and I took my usual cranberry pills and lots of water. The symptoms had gone away, but evidently the infection had not, and it flared up when I was driving home. I had not had much sleep the night before, so I took a nap when we reached my son's house. Then I left for home.
I fell asleep at the wheel and woke up as my car was leaving the highway and heading for a corn field – thank God for corn. If you are going to hit something, it is very forgiving. But I digress.
My sticks started in the ER where the paramedics took me after I got back on the highway and stopped at a gas station. I was really sick. So, this was my second trip to the ER in four days. My brother and sister showed up at the first one and took me home after I was hydrated. I digress again.
Back to the present. I am now in my room at the hospital and the nurse has told me she will have to draw blood again. I started crying and she started SINGING. She had one of those amazing low alto voices and after I told her it was spirit that saved me in my trip to the cornfield, her song had to do with why I was saved in so many ways during the whole breast cancer journey.
And then, as she was slapping my poor left arm again, I said.
“USE THE RIGHT ARM, I DON’T HAVE ANY GOOD VEINS LEFT IN THAT ONE.”
She looked at me and asked, “Are you sure?” I said yes. I can’t take another one in the left arm or it is going to pop and while I had had a second breast cancer on the left side, they only took the sentinel node so go for it.
And she did. And, so far so good. I broke a cardinal rule, but I had to. And admitting it here makes me feel better.
I will always try to get blood in the left arm, but if they can’t find a vein, I am now willing to let them use the right arm. I have to and I think that after about 15 years since my last infection, it will be OK. I will keep you posted.
I don’t recommend this for you or anyone else who has had all their nodes removed. But in my case, I had no choice.
And maybe the nurse will sing to you.
d Read my next blog on lymphedema and you will understand why lymphedema can happen to anyone at any time when their lymph nodes have been removed. I will also give you a list of don’ts.