Wednesday, October 31, 2012

With a thankful heart

Last November there was a bit of a trend on facebook called "30 Days of Thankfulness", or maybe it was "gratitude." The point was to challenge participants to post a status every day, each day writing a unique post about something you're thankful for. I participated in the challenge last year, and it was a lot of fun. At the end of the month, I found myself wishing I could commit to post something I'm thankful for every day, even in months that don't contain Thanksgiving. It made me sad that I didn't think I could do it- or that I wouldn't feel like doing it, or whatever. But for the last year, I have been looking forward to participating in this 30 day challenge again. This year, I will be posting on facebook, but I will also be writing a blog post each day (Lord willing) so I can go into a little more detail about some things.

So, starting tomorrow, I will be a regular, frequent blogger again, at least for the next month. I'm looking forward to sharing my gratitude with you, and it would be cool if you'd participate, too!

Shoe Box Season!

'Tis the season for giving, right?

Well, I like giving all year long, and I hope you do too, but this time of year provides some fun opportunities for helping others. One of my favorites is Operation: Christmas Child.

Many people have heard of OCC before, but here's a little explanation if you're unfamiliar with their work. OCC is an arm of Samaritan's Purse, an international relief program run by Franklin Graham. Samaritan's Purse has received top ratings from Charity Navigator, so you know they spend your money and distribute your gifts fairly and effectively. Samaritan's Purse provides aid to countries all over the world, including the United States, when there are natural disasters, health crises, political turmoil, and other problems that affect people. Operation: Christmas Child distributes boxes of school supplies, hygiene items and small gifts to children all over the world. The boxes are put together by regular people like you and me, and then are dropped off at designated spots all around the country, for collection and distribution by Samaritan's Purse.

This year, Brandon and I are sending off five shoe boxes full of goodies. We have put together as many as nine and as few as two in the past. I'm happy that we are able to send so many this year. OCC shoe boxes are a fun and affordable way to help others in need. I shop for my shoe boxes all throughout the year, picking up items on clearance and at great prices whenever I find them. I keep them in a shopping bag or a box somewhere in my home, and then start dividing the items up among boxes to donate to OCC. Sometimes I purchase inexpensive, clear plastic totes (the size of shoe boxes), which are sturdy and can be reused. Sometimes I send actual shoe boxes. This year, I am sending the easily-assembled cardboard boxes OCC produces, which you can order online, or try to find at a local church or shoe box drop-off point (one of my library patrons picked up a large order for her church, and I asked her if I could have a few. She sweetly obliged and gave me five shoe boxes from her church's order!)

OCC has some rules about what you can and can't send in the shoe boxes. School supplies like pencils, pens, crayons, and note pads are encouraged. Hygiene items have a few limitations: you can't send liquids like shampoo or sharp things like those super-pointy nail files, but you can send soap, wash cloths, floss, toothbrushes and toothpaste, band-aids and sanitizing wipes. You can send fun things like lip balm, hair accessories, sunglasses, and toys (as long as they aren't insensitive like toy guns.) Everything you can send in a shoe box is really inexpensive, particularly if you get them at rock-bottom prices. August is the perfect time to stock up on school supplies. You can find packages of pencils and erasers, pencil sharpeners, pencil cases, paint sets, and other things for as little as $0.10! Small toys can be found for great prices right after holidays like Easter, Valentine's Day and Halloween. Expanding "magic" wash cloths can be found at your local dollar store. Target's Dollar Spot section is full of fantastic finds, including little coloring books, fun sunglasses, hair things for little girls and all sorts of toys and activity sets for little boys (who can be a little harder to shop for.) 

As an example, here are the contents of one of my shoe boxes this year: 

  • A Christmas-themed coloring and activity book
  • A pack of Kleenexes
  • A children's travel toothbrush, complete with a tube of toothpaste and a clear plastic cover
  • A jump rope
  • Disney princess flashcards
  • Lip balm
  • A tiny "Miss Manicure" set, with a little emory board, plastic nail cleaner, and nail clippers (no file)
  • A box of crayons
  • Two gluesticks
  • Two erasers
  • A journal
  • A deck of Crazy 8's cards
  • A pencil sharpener
  • A pink pencil box, which I filled with glittery pencils (from a post-Easter clearance bin)
  • A plastic soap box with a bar of plastic-wrapped soap inside
  • A "magic" washcloth
  • a box of Jolly Rancher fruit chews (on clearance!)
My mammaw also made a bunch of drawstring bags from different kinds and colors of fun fabric. She makes them for her church, which puts together lots of shoe boxes every year. This year my cousin and I also have bags to include in each of our shoe boxes, so the kids that receive them can carry whatever they want to in their own unique bag. 

After I pack the boxes, I write a little note on one of last year's leftover Christmas cards, telling the child that will receive the box I hope they like what I've packed, and that I'm praying for them. I include my address in case they want to write to me. One year I did receive a letter from a 13 year old girl in Africa who got one of my shoe boxes! She told me about herself, and told me she loved what was in the box and that it would help her and her family a lot. She included her address so I could write back to her, but I had trouble reading part of it, and was unable to write her back, unfortunately. It did make my heart happy to know that my shoe box had safely made it to the hands of someone who needed it. 

When it's time to turn in your shoe boxes, you can either print off a form and include a check to help cover the shipping costs (it now costs $7 to send a box) or you can pay online. If you pay online, you can print a box label with a barcode, to track your shoe box. Later, you'll receive an email from OCC telling you which country your shoe box was sent to! Last year, my shoe boxes went to Angola and Cameroon. I can't wait to find out where this year's boxes are headed!

Shoe box drop-off points can be found here. I usually take mine to Lifeway, where my mom works. This year their collection day is going to be on November 10. My shoe boxes are packed and ready to go. I have paid the shipping cost for two of them, and will go ahead and pay for the other three this weekend when my paycheck goes through. That's one of the things I love about this giving opportunity- you can literally work on it all year long, so your wallet doesn't take a big hit (which can be pretty stressful this time of year!)

I hope you will consider packing a shoe box for Operation: Christmas Child, if not this year, then the next. You can also find dozens of inspirational stories about the shoe boxes on their facebook page. Some of the stories are downright miraculous! 

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Has she ever heard of Google?

I need to take a moment to vent some frustration that has been brewing for a little over a week. There is a personal update in here as well. I promise I'm not trying to openly complain, but I do find writing to be therapeutic, and I need all the "therapy" I can get at this point.

I already posted about my recent visits to the spinal surgeon and my impending back surgery. I don't think I mentioned anything about the pain medications I received on my first visit, though. After looking at x-rays, being told to schedule a CT scan and a follow-up appointment, my doctor asked me if I needed any pain medication. I told him it would be nice to have something fairly mild to take when things are really bad, because over the counter medications really don't help sometimes, and I have to be careful about how many of those I take anyway, because of the way they affect my hyper-sensitive stomach and shredded esophagus (now there's a lovely mental picture.) He told his assistant to write up a prescription for something "light", and headed on his way. Now, this assistant had asked me questions and done a lot of talking to the doctor, but she never actually looked at my paperwork, from what I remember. The people who looked at my paperwork aren't allowed to write prescriptions. I gather they're basically just fancy typists. I'm not kidding- at one point there were three or four medical professionals in the room with us. But I digress. I got my pain pills and waited almost a week before finally taking one, because I wasn't sure how I'd react. I found that they did alleviate the pain for about an hour, but despite being a (very mild) narcotic, they didn't make me tired or have any relaxing effects. I don't take pills to get buzzed, but that little side effect does help if you're feeling really badly. Like with my nausea meds: when I first started taking them, I don't know that they really made me feel better, but they made me too sleepy to care!

Anyway, all in all I maybe took 10 of these pain pills over the course of about three and a half weeks. I had increased anxiety (I have anxiety disorder and depression), more frequent panic attacks, and the episodes were stronger than I wish they were. My "as needed" meds didn't help too much. The absolute worst day was the Friday before last. I was at work. I took a pain pill with my lunch, because I was starting to get to the level of achiness where I have trouble standing up straight. I ate a little too much of my lunch (most of a vegetable sandwich. Not a feast by any means, but my appetite has been a little funny lately.) I went back out to the desk to get back to work, and I could tell that something was going to act up- whether it was my stomach or my anxiety. I made the decision to go ahead and take a pill for my stomach, because if I could get it settled, I could probably avoid the anxiety issue altogether. But then an unexpected variable was introduced, and some things happened at work that really stressed me out (they didn't affect me directly, but I was really concerned for a coworker.) I ended up getting sick anyway. This all started around 1 pm. I spent the next FOUR HOURS alternating between being physically ill and having some of the most severe panic episodes I've ever experienced in my life. My breathing was out of control, I was flighty and agitated, and I felt paranoid. I pinched and scratched myself more times than I could count (I do it out of unconscious habit- I don't have any control over it.) Out of those four hours, I spent maybe a grand total of 30 minutes at my workstation. The rest of the time I was in the bathroom, in the kitchen sipping Sprite to settle my stomach, looking for my meds, crying while sitting on the bathroom was just awful. Thankfully I was working with two very understanding people that day, and we weren't busy. Being riddled with guilt about not being where I needed to be didn't help me calm down much. And neither did the TWO xanax I took that afternoon (spaced out, but they should have helped.) Eventually my parents had to come pick me up from work. They arrived at 4:30 and we didn't even have any hope of leaving the building for another 25 minutes, because I was so sick and so worked up. The ride home was absolutely miserable. The next day I had some issues, too, and on Sunday as well. It was a rough weekend.

I just assumed that my anxiety has been in high gear because of the stresses I have in my life right now, with surgery coming up, appointments to be made and Christmas shopping that needs to be done (and is usually done by now) with little to no money in my bank account. All of these things have probably factored into my fragile mental state recently, but the main culprit is the stupid medications that people have been giving me. It turns out that the pain pills the doctor's assistant prescribed to me are not supposed to be taken with TWO of my medications! You know, the drugs that were on the extensive, detailed list they asked me to fill out. The one she never read. I was suffering from serotonin toxicity- which kills people.

Serotonin is a chemical in your brain that basically regulates your moods. If you don't have enough of it, you can be depressed. You can have panic attacks. My brain doesn't make enough of it, which is why I have anxiety disorder and depression. I take medicine every day to help my brain produce enough of this chemical, and to try to keep my levels steady. I have other medication to take on an as-needed basis when things are really bad. This medicine also affects serotonin and other chemicals in my head. If you google the names of my everyday medication and the pain pills I was prescribed, you get red flags all over the place. They are not supposed to be prescribed together, because the pain pills do not react well with the everyday medicine, and together they can make your brain produce waaaaaay too much serotonin. Beyond the amount that just make you feel buzzed. Symptoms include fast, irregular heartbeat, severe agitation, anxiety, paranoia, nausea, and chills, among other things. Serotonin toxicity can be fatal if left untreated, especially if you freaking keep taking the medicines you've been prescribed because your doctors are supposed to know what they're doing. After all, that's what they went to school for- so they don't KILL PEOPLE when trying to treat them. Sheesh.

As a result of this adventure, I've really been off my game lately. I've had more anxiety than usual. Yesterday was my first day in WEEKS that I didn't have to take some sort of medication to keep myself from absolutely losing it. I stopped taking my everyday anxiety/depression pills, because the ones I'm on currently do better for depression than anxiety (I have to switch back and forth every now and then) and can actually make my anxiety worse. The price I will pay for not having crippling panic attacks that keep me from living my life is that I am depressed and more emotionally volatile right now, but I can deal with that. I have before, and I will again. Depression is a lot easier for me to deal with than the anxiety. It has been overwhelming at times (I don't mean right now, but at previous times in my life), but it's definitely easier for me to deal with. And it's temporary. I have a doctor's appointment in a few weeks. We're going to have a long talk about my medicine. I had to switch to a lower dose of another medication I take for another issue, too, because the higher doses can also strengthen my anxiety and mess with my emotional and mental health.

It's been a really rough month or so, with all I've had going on, but I am really happy with the fact that I haven't had to take my "as needed" meds in more than 24 hours. That gives me a lot of confidence. I still haven't been able to get in touch with anyone at the spinal surgery office. I called on Monday because I felt that I should let them know they could have killed me by giving me those pain meds, and I also wanted to know if they could recommend something else I could do about my pain while I wait to have my surgery. I have a little over 2 months to go, and I'm not in any less pain than I was. They are very strict about prescribing medications, so I don't think they would give me another prescription without an office visit, but I still need to talk to them. I didn't hear back from them on Monday. Yesterday (Tuesday) I got a phone call on my cell phone from an unrecognized number. It was after 6, and my husband and I were watching a movie. He told me not to answer the phone because we'd already been interrupted once (boo hoo, who cares) and when I pointed out that it could be the doctor's office, he said "it's after 6. Don't they close at 5?" So I didn't answer. I listened to the voicemail as soon as it came through, and all it said was "hi, this is Mary Jane from Spine Surgery. Sorry we missed you....bye." Very professional, no? She didn't leave a call back number. Didn't mention my name. Didn't say why she was calling. If you didn't know any better, she could have just been calling to say "hi." I had mentioned in the message I left for them (after being looped through the phone system twice) that I had had this reaction to the medication, and all the other details. I was kind of surprised the message didn't say something along the lines of "we're sorry to hear you had this problem with the medication. We apologize for the mix-up. Please call us back when you can, and we'll try to help you out." I called the number back within 45 seconds of missing the call, and, since it was after 6, no one answered! I got a recording. Oddly enough, the recording didn't even give me the opportunity to leave a message saying that they had just called me. I called back this morning and yet again was unable to speak to a human being. I left another message, this time including the bit about how they had called me and I called them right back, to no avail. I finished with "again, I would really appreciate it if someone could call me back regarding this medication issue. It will be more than two months until I have my surgery and I would really like to discuss some pain management options that won't kill me. Thank you."

I still haven't heard back from them.

I'm a little concerned because, although I like my doctor very much, and he was kind and did good work the last time around, I have only had one single pleasant experience with his staff this time around, and that was when I spoke to the surgery scheduling lady. Everyone else has been either rude or clueless. Or unavailable. I am kind of concerned about the whole "switching horses midstream" cliche, so I don't think I want to go looking for a new doctor just yet, but it's definitely something I will be looking into if things don't turn around soon.

And another one gone

We lost another sponsor child recently. This year has been one of tremendous loss. I hope that 2013 is a year of gain.

Last week I went online to my Compassion account to double-check the sponsorship number of our newest correspondence child, as I was getting Christmas cards together for my kids. When I logged on, I noticed that we only had three correspondence kids listed. There should have been four. Little Jayid had completely vanished from our account. When Tae dropped out of the program, his information lingered on the account for a while, but his picture was gone. A nondescript grey avatar was left in its place. With Jayid, he was just gone.

I had to wait until the next morning to call Compassion to see what was going on, because I discovered that Jayid was missing pretty late in the day. The representative I spoke with did have a little more info on Tae, because he was showing up as a recently dropped sponsorship, but she had to do some digging to find Jayid. She said "his financial sponsor has decided they no longer want to sponsor him." I have had contact with other sponsors who write to kids, and in every case that I've run across, if it's a matter of financial difficulties (if the sponsor can no longer afford a monthly sponsorship), that's noted on the account. But Jayid's file says that he was "no longer wanted." I can't understand that. I am so sad that we have lost another sponsor child. I'm sad because I was just getting to know Jayid- we have only received three letters from him, but he is an extremely bright, warm six year old boy. His letters were exciting because he liked to show us what he was learning. He wrote out the English alphabet (he lives in India and his letters were written in Hindi) and the numbers 1-100, numerical and spelled out. One letter even said he liked to play chess! And now we won't get the opportunity to find out how this whip-smart little boy turns out. I just pray that his parents decide to make him available for sponsorship again, and that he will be picked up quickly.

There is another distressing dimension to this whole ordeal. Back in February, Compassion wrote a facebook post that said they had a sudden, urgent need for 500 correspondence sponsors, and that any interested parties should call right away. They said they would waive the Rule of Three (my term, not theirs), meaning that even if you already had the maximum number of three correspondence kids, if you called in time, you could get on the list for one of these kids. About six weeks later, we got Jayid. The phrasing of the request was so unusual that I assumed Compassion received a large "order" for sponsor kids- maybe like a corporate sponsorship? Then, when Jayid's info arrived, I saw that his sponsorship number was a really low digit- the center number followed by 0005- so I wondered if his center was new. The whole thing was unusual, but I was thrilled to have another sponsor child added to our Far Away Family.

Since Jayid has been dropped by his sponsor, though, that makes me wonder if the other 499 children that needed correspondence sponsors that day have been dropped as well. If that is the case, that's horribly, sickeningly sad. Jayid was only in the program for about 8 months before someone somewhere decided they didn't "want" to sponsor him anymore. Because of these unusual and mysterious circumstances, I find myself more angry than sad with this loss. I will miss Jayid terribly, and if I find his information on Compassion's website I will do all that I can to find him a new sponsor, but I hadn't known him as long as I've known Tae, and my feelings of anger and frustration are overriding pretty much every other emotion at this point. I pray for the other kids that became available for correspondence sponsorship at the same time as Jayid. I pray that this is all a coincidence, and they are still being sponsored, preferably by someone who loves them and cares for them enough to write frequently and make an emotional investment in these kids' futures, as well as a financial one.

So we bid farewell to little Jayid. I will still pray for him every day, and I look forward to the day when we will meet in heaven.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The countdown begins.

When I went to see my spinal surgeon a little over two weeks ago, I thought that the worst that would happen would be I'd need to wear a brace or something. The word "surgery" did enter my mind, but I dismissed that thought because I usually assume the worst in any given medical situation. I was a little surprised to learn that surgery might be in my future, depending on some CT scan results. I had my follow-up appointment this past Thursday, and I figured the worst possible news would be that I would need surgery. It turns out that two surgeries could be in my future! I was definitely not expecting that.

My CT scan showed that I definitely have a non-union (failed bone graft) in my back. So that needs to be fixed. The scan also shows that two of the screws holding the rod in place are a little crooked, and there's some narrowing around them (whatever that means), so they could be pressing on some nerves, causing my pain. We don't know that for sure, though, so we're going to do the bone graft surgery first. It's a smaller incision, easier recovery, less pain (I hope), etc. Within 3 or 4 months, if I'm still having pain, then we'll know that the hardware is messed up and will need to be replaced. That would mean taking everything out and starting all over. More hospital time, even longer recovery, more pain...ick. So we are praying that my problem is the non-union, and that I won't need more surgery. It would be painful and expensive, but there's also the added problem of my job. I will barely have enough sick leave and vacation time to cover this upcoming procedure. And I don't even know that my employer will let me use vacation time for medical reasons. I can't just not earn a paycheck. I can't take unpaid leave. We can't afford it. I think the only way we could manage that is if my husband picked up as much overtime as possible (assuming that he is still at the same job), which would be really hard on him, and then we'd need to try to put a hold on my student loans (or pay ahead a few months- that would be difficult.) Then I think we might be able to pull it off. I'm trying not to think about that too much right now, though.

My surgery is scheduled for January 14th. The two weeks I've spent home from work have been kind of interesting. My anxiety has been present more often than I'd like. I've had several panic attacks, and I feel like I'm on edge all the time. It's not the worst that it's ever been, but it's frustrating. Last Friday I was getting really worried- if I'm this upset and tense now, how much worse is November going to be? And December? And the first two weeks of January?

After talking to my mom about all of this, I've made some decisions. I know that right now, I'm vulnerable to "spiritual warfare", for lack of a better term. That vulnerability is just going to grow as January approaches. So I'm going to give more attention to my relationship with God, strengthening my spiritual armor. I've got some Christian non-fiction books to read, and I'm going to read my Bible more and work to commit more verses to memory. I have a lot of people that will be praying for me (and I really appreciate that.) The next few months are going to be a real challenge, but I know everything will be ok.