So it’s that time of year again, when carrying tissues and hand sanitiser are as important as making sure you have your keys and purse. A shopping trip becomes a slalom course, as you try and dodge the sneezes and coughs, and sleeves are pulled down over your hands when you have to hold on to a handrail, rather than risk getting the germs on your hands.
I’ve only had the flu a couple of times in my life, along with swine flu a few years ago, and it is hellish. At the height of it, the house could have been falling down around me and I still couldn’t have ventured from my bed.
So, about five years, I thought I’d do the smart thing and have a flu jab. As a single mum I couldn’t afford to be out of action – who’d look after the kids and the house? I wasn’t eligible for a free one, so I handed over the obligatory £10, and let the pharmacist inject me with the vaccine.
24 hours later, I started falling asleep, anywhere and everywhere. I was sleeping 18 hours a day, 7 days a week. It was horrendous. I would manage to stay awake long enough to take my youngest to school, then go home and sleep until the alarm woke me at 3pm to pick her up again. Then I would fall asleep until it was time to make dinner, and after eating I would sleep again until it was time to go to bed. My days became a blur of alarms going off.
This wasn’t a choice. It was exhaustion, the absolute inability to stay awake.
After a few weeks of this, the fatigue started wearing off. But it was replaced with pain. Severe, unrelenting, intolerable pain. And it hurt everywhere. Worst affected was my spine and my hips. It took a couple of years, yes years, to finally have a referral to a rheumatologist, and after an MRI I was diagnosed with arthritis of the spine. The damage had caused spinal stenosis, which was squeezing the nerves, and the neural pathway which ran down the front of my thigh was affected. I also had a blown disc, and degenerative disc disease.
I was 42.
Further tests revealed joint damage in my hips, along with my knees, ankles, shoulders, sacroiliac joint…in short pretty much every joint in my body has been damaged.
And this all started immediately following the flu vaccine.
Of course, various doctors dismissed this. But I know my body, and I know that somehow the vaccine caused some kind of response in me, which caused the fatigue and the joint damage. I felt it happening.
My mobility was massively affected. At one point I even had a wheelchair. But I knew that once I got in that thing, I wouldn’t get back out. So I gritted my teeth, and drew on my stubborness, and went to crutches, then one crutch, then a walking stick. I was damned if this thing was going to beat me.
(Of course, I blinged the cane to hell – glitter, sequins, the lot. Hell, if I had to use one I would bloody well make it pretty!)
Blood tests always came back negative. Doctors refused to entertain the idea that I might have a sero-negative auto-immune disorder. They refused to send me for a blood test to check for a genetic marker which would have shown at least a possibility of AS (ankylosing spondylitis, an auto-immune arthritis which affects mainly the spine and sacroiliac joints), even though I was displaying the classic symptoms. I was told it was my age – 42. AS can lie dormant in people with the marker, and then flare up when it is triggered.
I became an advocate for my own health. I researched, I read, I studied. I learnt which foods are anti inflammatory, when to use heat, and when to use cold. I learnt to recognise when I was heading for a flare up, and on those occasions to be kinder to myself. I also learnt that I cannot take NSAIDs (essential for reducing the inflammation in arthritis) when I ended up in A&E with a suspected heart attack.
And all this because I wanted to make sure I was well enough to care for my children.
Oh the irony.
I was put on a diet of heavy duty drugs, highly addictive pain killers. Luckily I can take them or leave them, and I don’t have an ‘addictive personality’ anyway. They’re GREAT for insomnia though! I was also prescribed amitriptyline to deal with the nerve damage which affects my leg. If you can imagine the worst toothache you have EVER had in your life, and picture it in your thigh, you’ll have some idea.
Even those closest to me had no idea how much pain I was in, most of the time. I became good at smiling through it. But sometimes it couldn’t be hidden. Those were the days when I could only move from my bed to the door on my hands and knees. The times when I could only get downstairs on my bum. The occasions when it would take me 10 minutes to climb one flight of stairs because every movement felt as if broken glass was being hammered into my spine.
My children had to witness all of this.
I was supposed to be the strong one.
I suffered steroid injections into my spine. In desperation I underwent radio-frequency ablation, where the nerves in my spine were burnt – this is done when you are wide awake. That didn’t work for me at all.
Other medications were discussed – gabapentin and pregabalin (both epilepsy drugs) – but the side effects were something I just wasn’t prepared to risk.
Five years since that flu shot, and I still don’t have any answers. I still don’t have a diagnosis, apart from wear and tear. One doctor even told me I had arthritis in my wrist because I was overweight! I don’t sit on my bloody wrist!
Something systemic started the day I had that shot.
That shot cost me my health, days/weeks/months of my children’s lives, and it cost me my business. I had a successful therapy practice until then, but from that day on I was too sick to work.
I am not saying this is a usual response to the vaccination – in fact, research has shown me that it is rare but that it does happen. I would never advise anyone else on whether they should have it or not. As I said, the flu is a dreadful illness, and can in some cases be fatal. And that is what I was trying to save myself from.
For the record, I am pro-vaccine. I always had my children vaccinated. I believe wholeheartedly in herd-immunity. Which is why I had the flu shot.
Sadly, that 5 seconds changed my life forever.