At first glance, Caryn is living an enviable kind of life: she is 56 years old, living in South Florida and is the Director of Imaging Services for a national radiology group. In the short time, I spent talking with Caryn, her positive disposition and tremendous strength were evident through all that she said. So, while she certainly seems to be living a great life, I suspect that not many people know how hard Caryn has fought to build this life or how much she continues to overcome to achieve it. At age fifty, she was diagnosed with neurocardiogenic syncope (NCS) after a harrowing medical battle that involved misdiagnosis, emergency surgery and nearly losing her life. Even more, all of this happened not long after she overcame thyroid cancer.
Caryn’s syncope began in childhood. She regularly passed out at doctors’ offices and during anxiety-evoking experiences. She was diagnosed with epilepsy at age sixteen and was given anti-seizure medications. She continued for nearly three decades believing she had epilepsy. Then, in 2003, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Her thyroid was removed, but cancer returned two years later. She recovered after a second major surgery and months of rehabilitation. By age 45, her cancer was in remission and she thought her battle with illness was mostly over. However, she discovered she was originally misdiagnosed with epilepsy during a routine neurology visit, and the physician proceeded to help her off the anti-seizure medications. She did not experience any seizures after that, though her syncope-related symptoms that began in childhood remained.
In 2011, a particularly difficult syncope episode caused her heart to stop, which was followed by several more similar experiences. She had a pacemaker surgically implanted to stabilize her heart rate, but she felt severely ill shortly after the surgery. When she returned to the hospital, she found she had contracted MRSA accompanied by pulmonary embolisms, an infection in her heart and fluid in her lungs. Thankfully, she recovered after months of medical care and rehabilitation, but not without difficulties. She sensed the panic in the eyes of her physicians and family members during her battle with MRSA, and she knew she was near death. Even as she recovered, she feared losing her job as an MRI technician because she could not be around the equipment with a pacemaker. Her story began to turn when she saw a cardiologist who was able to diagnose her with NCS at the end of her first appointment. As he handed her a pamphlet about the condition, she could not believe that her extensive medical journey was culminating in a diagnosis that was “just that simple.”
Caryn’s diagnosis was empowering because she finally had the knowledge to help herself cope. She has learned to prioritize activities that are important to her, like exercise. She knows she will be tired after workouts, and she now trains based on her heart rate. She did lose her job as an MRI technician, but this led her to build new dreams and now has a career she loves. She knows to talk herself through the particularly difficult moments and listens to her body when she needs to lay flat. Her experience of dysautonomia has taught her to live in the moment, and to use her own voice to take care of her needs. She has also learned to keep a small circle of support around her including family, friends and supportive colleagues.
Now, with a diagnosis of NCS and her cancer in complete remission, Caryn reflected on her experiences: “I thought cancer was hard until this hit me.” Cancer is hard. Individuals who experience it are heroes in their own rights. But, Caryn’s comment made me think—what component(s) of her NCS experience made it harder than her cancer experience? Caryn shared that there was always the possibility that her cancer could be cured, that same possibility does not exist for NCS. She has to think about NCS every day, and every day she knows NCS will be with her tomorrow.
As I continue to resonate on this point, I see that everyone’s experiences of illness, no matter the origin, are harrowing in their own way. But, one major dissonance I can see between the cancer community and the dysautonomia community is the level of awareness, research and education about the respective diseases. I hope the future brings a cure for cancer just as much as the next person, yet I also see the tremendous strides our society has achieved regarding cancer treatment and prevention over the last several decades. This type of relative success in the cancer community is motivating and inspiring. Perhaps one day, with continued efforts in awareness and education, dysautonomia will be better understood by the medical community and the general public, too. I hope such awareness and education will minimize the misdiagnoses, improper medication treatments and surgical complications experienced by many dysautonomia patients. Until then, we will continue to share the heroic and inspiring stories of individuals, like Caryn, to work toward that goal.
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