For my birthday last August, I got one of these:
This is a GOMCO suction machine, designed for suctioning things out of your stomach. It has three settings, one off and two on. The two separate on settings are for two different levels of suction: 90 mm Hg and 120 mm Hg.
From that box where the pump lives and the on/off switch lives, a tube goes to a jar. The jar is glass and can be cleaned and sterilized easily. This is the jar:
There’s another tube coming off of the jar. That tube connects to my G-tube.
What does all that mean?
Since my stomach is partially paralyzed, it doesn’t drain into my intestines properly. Some days it drains too slowly. Some days it doesn’t drain at all. All days this means that fluid builds up in my stomach and tries to travel up my esophagus. Then I am likely to aspirate that fluid. I don’t mean a little silent aspiration, although I get that too. I mean I wake up choking on bile, spend hours coughing it out, and end up with either aspiration pneumonia or aspiration pneumonitis as a result. My life was in danger and I got my feeding tubes partially to address this problem.
Unfortunately, while the feeding tubes helped the aspiration a lot1, the bipap made the aspiration worse. Anything that came up into my esophagus far enough, the bipap would blow straight down into my lungs. This is dangerous and has to be avoided at all costs. At one point they were even talking to me about a trach2. This happened every night that I used the bipap. Back to that later, it becomes important.
So the way the drainage system works, is I have a G-tube, a tube that goes into my stomach. It attaches to something with suction. The suction pulls the fluid out of my stomach, into some kind of storage device.
Until now, I was using one of two things that amounted to the same thing: A suction drainage bag, or a Jackson-Pratt drain. They’re both things that you squeeze. And then they slowly expand. And that produces suction. Which drains all the fluid out of my stomach. They’re built differently (one is an accordion attached to a bag and some tubing, the other is a bulb attached to some tubing) but they do roughly the same thing.
But the problem with both of those is you have to be awake to squeeze them.
So the moment they filled up, I’d aspirate, and all the stomach fluids would overflow out of the drainage system and all over me or my belongings. I put up with this, but I didn’t enjoy it, and I couldn’t use my bipap.
This GOMCO pump is amazing because.
It produces suction electronically. Constantly. You don’t have to keep hitting buttons or squeezing bulbs or accordions.
And it dumps into a giant container, compared to what i was draining into before.
So as long as the tubes stay connected there’s much less leakage.
I’ve worn my bipap for 3 nights now, as well as part of the daytime (I have a very irregular sleep schedule without medication).
I have not aspirated once.
This is me tonight:
You have no idea how grateful I am that this is even possible.
Thank you to everyone in my family who helped me get this vital medical equipment.
Being able to wear a bipap has saved my life more than once. The three most memorable times:
- When I stopped breathing and landed in the ICU, they found other ways to keep me breathing and had my caregivers grab my bipap from home to use as a vent. They knew that its central apnea settings would make it detect absent or shallow breathing and provide the breaths for me, so they let it do that.
- One time I went to an art gallery opening because I was one of the artists. Being around crowds of drunk people is stressful to me. They were all poking and touching me. Then when I got home, I got involved with a developmental disability self-advocacy event where we were put by the moderators into the position of having to justify our own existence. It was a debate where the other side literally wanted to make it legal for parents to kill children with developmental disabilities. Adults with developmental disabilities were pissed off about this and said so. It got heated, I was already stressed, and the effect on my adrenal insufficiency and myasthenia was muscle weakness (both conditions are made worse by severe stress) including some of the muscles involved in breathing. i had to wear the bipap to breathe deeply enough, for about a week. My pulmonologist said I did the right thing.
- Just before I was diagnosed with adrenal insufficiency, it got severe enough that I stopped breathing entirely every night, for hours. This was due to severe weakness at the same time of day that you have the least cortisol in your body — around three to six in the morning. It wasn’t just my lungs, I couldn’t move any of my body. I’d wake up with my head flopped onto my chest and horrible pain shooting down my neck because I couldn’t lift my head and the muscles weren’t holding it up. Without the central apnea settings on the bipap I flat-out wouldn’t be here. There was nothing else that could’ve saved my life, because as hard as I tried, I couldn’t even push the wrist button I had to call for help.
Most people hate their bipaps. I love mine.
I love my bipap because it keeps me alive.
I think I am going to come to love my GOMCO drainage pump in the same way. It lets me use my bipap, which also keeps me alive. And the effects of untreated sleep apnea are so wide-ranging and severe I can’t even begin to cover them. I would take some aspiration risk over the risks of untreated sleep apnea. It was just that every night was too much risk.
But the untreated sleep apnea has been our biggest medical problem to solve, and if this keeps up the way it’s going, my doctor is going to be as thrilled as I am. It’s nice to have good medical news for a change. It’s too bad I had to do all the research and my family had to pay out of pocket for this, though.
And that’s a part of disability-related injustice I should talk about here:
We are not offered what we need.
I needed something like this years ago. Not only did nobody offer it, nobody even mentioned it existed. It was taken for granted that I just couldn’t wear my bipap anymore. My doctors didn’t have enough knowledge themselves to offer me the stomach drainage pump. This simply wasn’t offered even though it might save my life and I could’ve died in the meantime from aspiration or complications of untreated sleep apnea.
There’s something wrong with a medical system where this can happen. And does happen. All the time. Especially to disabled people.
Before this, I was literally thinking I’d need someone to sleep nearby me in order to squeeze any of the drainage devices I used up till now. Now I can just turn this thing on and as long as someone helps me dump it out and clean it (easier and safer than the drain bags and drain bulbs I used to use) I can do this.
I’ll still need the other drainage system for more portable purposes. Like I’ll still need drain bulbs when I go out of the house. (Or I can drain manually, but that carries its own risks.) But when i’m in one place, sitting there a long time, like when I sleep or an in bed for other reasons, then this drain machine is perfect.
Also, this should tell you something: I got this in August and was only recently able to set it up and use it. We have been fielding so many minor and major crises medically, that we’ve had very little time and energy to spare. Not even on answering emails. I’m very sorry about this but right now we’re operating so close to capacity that it’s either hard or impossible for us to take on more a lot of the time.
But I’m really, massively excited about the combination of the pump and the bipap actually working. Most people hate their bipaps but I love mine and have been utterly frustrated by being unable to treat one of the most treatable conditions (sleep apnea) out there. I was starting to have all kinds of extra sleep problems including parasomnias, including confusional arousals3 that were terrifying both to experience and to witness.
But basically, if it took me this long to put together something this important to me, understand that my inability to get back to people isn’t because it’s not important to me. This is literally as important as breathing and I couldn’t get to it for months.
1 Yes, feeding tubes overall make aspiration worse. Please don’t “inform” me of this, it doesn’t apply to me. I’ll explain.
Aspiration is any time that you get things in your lungs that you shouldn’t, like food, water, fluid, etc. When you “swallow wrong” and choke food down the wrong hole, that’s a mild aspiration.
But aspiration comes in many kinds and severities. Most people are familiar with aspiration associated with difficulty swallowing (called dysphagia). Most of the time when people talk about using feeding tubes to avoid aspiration, and how it doesn’t work, they’re taking the overall statistics of everyone using feeding tubes, so most aspiration they talk about is from dysphagia.
I have some dysphagia. But most of my aspiration is from a combination of:
- Gastroparesis: paralysis of the stomach
- Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD): When stomach contents flow backwards into your esophagus.
- Laryngopharyngeal Reflux: When things flow backwards even further up the esophagus into the throat and windpipe.
Meaning, it’s not coming from difficulty swallowing. it’s coming from fluids that are in my stomach. Some of those fluids are manufactured by my stomach. And then anything i swallow (and I try not to swallow anything other than spit, but sometimes in a moment of weakness I’ll eat or drink something). Anything that makes it to my stomach, just kind of sits there. And after it sits there for awhile, it builds up to a larger amount. And that larger amount is much more likely to travel up to my throat and down into my lungs.
I have mixed central and obstructive sleep apnea. I also have conditions that have required the central apnea settings on my bipap as a noninvasive ventilator. It is vitally important to my health that I wear a bipap. I have not been able to wear a bipap in years. Because as bad as the complications of sleep apnea? They’re nothing like as bad as the complications of a bipap blowing all your refluxed bile and stomach acid into your lungs every single night.
So what my G-tube (the feeding tube that goes to my stomach) does, is drains my stomach at the source. Anything in my stomach then goes into a drainage container of some kind, which must be emptied frequently. It has to be suction drainage, no other kind of drainage has worked for me at all. But it does work.
So my situation is not the situation of someone trying to use, say, a nasogastric tube, to avoid aspiration associated with difficulty swallowing. And our situations should not be considered the same statistically or otherwise. There are many kinds of feeding tube and many kinds of aspiration, and to understand whether a feeding tube will help your aspiration, whoever you are? You have to understand a lot about the reasons for the aspiration, the form the aspiration takes, the kinds of tubes available, and so forth.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
And people who say that all uses of feeding tubes to fix aspiration are wrong, have a little knowledge.
Mind you, I don’t understand every part of this either. I’m not claiming medical expertise i don’t have. But I know enough to know why my aspiration and tube situation is different from using some other kind of tube (or any kind of tube) to treat dysphagia. I don’t know whether there are more effective ways to use feeding tubes against dysphagia and lss effective ways, or whether there’s no way. I just know that two tubes — G-tube to drain the stomach, J-tube to put food water and meds into the intestines — is pretty standard for gastroparesis and can when the conditions are right prevent aspiration. And of course this won’t be reflected in overall statistics on aspiration and feeding tubes, because most people who aspirate and have feeding tubes don’t have gastroparesis.
2 We decided against the trach for many reasons, but there was one big one. Apparently there’s a mechanism in a trach that keeps reflux from getting into your lungs. Apparently the amount of reflux I had meant that it would basically just go right through the mechanism and into my lungs and then I’d be aspirating anyway, plus dealing with all the risks that a trach involved. Even when I need a vent, which I sometimes do (not just for sleep apnea but also for congenital myasthenic syndrome, central apnea while awake, and a few other things including when my adrenal insufficiency makes my muscles weak during cortisol lows), my bipap works better anyway.
3 It’s where you wake up completely disoriented and often, for some reason, angry. I don’t remember what I’m like when this happens, but apparently I’m grouchy and rude most of the time. So I wake up to people who are already mad at me or scared of me and reacting to things I don’t remember doing but that certainly sound unpleasant. Or I wake up in the middle of shouting at someone. Whatever it is, I hope it goes away when the sleep apnea is better treated. It may not be as dangerous as breathing problems, but it’s scary.