What happens to your body after 3 years on the cortisol pump?
I lost my adrenal glands to cancer and became adrenal insufficient in September 2014. I was told by my endocrinologist at time it was no big deal. Just take two pills a day and you’ll be fine! (She’s not my Endo anymore btw.) I wasn’t fine. I was weak, sick and miserable. I tried 3 different oral steroids, and increasingly complicated dosing schedules attempting to replicate what healthy adrenal glands do. Nothing I tried was quite right. My health was declining. I was catching illness after illness. I spent nearly everyday in bed. I was watching life pass me by. I was 27, and elderly people had better quality of life than I did. This took a heavy physical and emotional toll on me. The most heart breaking part was how it affected my family. My children were very young and they were already getting used to mom not being involved in their lives. I was devastated.
The day I started my pump I was on 188mg of hydrocortisone. I had been sick with respiratory illness for 6 months straight, and could not seem to recover. Any less steroid would leave me unable to breathe and spiraling into adrenal crisis. I was suffering with symptoms of BOTH over and under replacement of cortisol. Something had to change.
This is where I was most of the time before the cortisol pump.
Though most people have a slight increase in their steroid dosage when they initially start the pump, I was able to reduce my dosage from 188mg to 84mg right away. (Side note– that dosage has continued to decrease as I have gotten healthier. I’m at 30.2 daily milligrams as of fall 2019.) My body was responding well to subcutaneous hydrocortisone.
I saw immediately improvement, but didn’t see dramatic results right away. The first day, I was able to get out of bed, do simple things around my house– cook dinner, spend time with my children, clean up the dishes. I felt different though– no more roller coaster of peaks and crashes as each pill kicked in and rapidly wore off.
The pump is not magic. It took tedious adjustment of the delivery rates, which was almost completely trial and error. The pump enabled me to get my tired body up and make myself exercise my atrophied muscles. It took work and determination. In time, I could drive myself, I could walk around the block. It took nearly a year of adjustments before I could sleep like “normal” people do. I still woke up with a pounding headache every morning, but even that was still an improvement.
So where am I now?
You can tell I’m sick in the first image. I was sedentary, had constant respiratory problems, and was about 30lbs heavier.
It’s important to realize that the pump will not cure adrenal insufficiency nor any of your other health conditions. I’m still battling cancer and I still deal with a few other issues, but my life had changed dramatically for the better. With years of hard work, titrating delivery rates, training my body I can now pass as a “normal” person. I can be active all day most days (there are always good days and bad days with any chronic illness). I can drive. I can exercise- I walk, run, bike, do yoga. I have a social life now. I volunteer at my kids’ school a few hours a week, I serve at my church, and we’re active in scouting.
It’s still a fight. The struggle doesn’t end when you switch to the pump. You’ll always have to deal with things like insurance companies and pharmacies fouling things up. I still occasionally see doctors that are completely clueless about this treatment. Most are intrigued, a few are critical of it. I’m happy to educate them! (Side note– they aren’t always happy to be educated, but I’m going to do it anyway! 😉)
I can see why the cortisol pump might not be right for everyone, but I truly feel that everyone with adrenal insufficiency should have this option available. Some of my doctors at both the National Institutes of Health, and at UT Southwestern have mentioned the possibility of opening a new study on the cortisol pump, and while I’m not going to hold my breath, even just the fact that they’re seeing the benefits is a huge step.
If there’s one thing you take away from this it’s that the pump is a tool. More like a musical instrument actually. If you buy a guitar for example, it does no good if you don’t learn how to play it. The more practice you have with your instrument the better it sounds. This concept holds true for the pump as well. It all comes down to how well you program and use it. If your basal rates are junk– you’ll feel like junk. If you refuse to bolus, or bolus too little too late, you’re still going to feel awful. The pump is a tool to help you manage your AI. It doesn’t do it for you.
I am grateful for the cortisol pump every day. It has given me my life back. No longer am I stuck withering away in bed while life passes me by. I’m up and out and making memories.