Paul's Heart

Life As A Dad, And A Survivor

This “Left” Seems Right

Many times, I will get the subject of my posts from questions asked or comments made by fellow long term survivors. This will be one post, that not only benefits long term survivors of cancer, but those who have been fortunate to never have seen the inside of an oncologist’s office.

This is a very popular meme image that circulates around the internet. And since it fits in with my topic today, I thought I would make my own meme with the picture.

I am sure you have heard of the condition “reflux,” commonly referred to as G.E.R.D. (gastroesophageal reflux disease). It is the body’s reaction, a very acidic reaction brought on and aggravated by diet and stress. It is a fairly common condition, and its severity depends on the individual. Not sure if you have ever had to deal with it?

Comedian Rich Hall, gave a very clear and vivid description of reflux, using a term referred to as a “sniglet” decades ago on HBO during one of his comedic segments. A “sniglet” was simply a made up word, describing something that there was no other word for. In the situation of my post, he referred to a “vurp.” Care to take a guess at what “vurp” represented? It describes what happens with reflux perfectly, the combination of “vomit” and “burp” at the same time. If you have ever experienced this event, then you have had reflux at least once in your life. It is not pleasant, and the acidic aftertaste left in the mouth is just awful.

But there are those who must deal with this regularly. And its level of severity is determined by many conditions such as diet, stress, and other health conditions. Treatments can range from eating a diet with less acid (no tomato or orange products), or not eating fried or spicy foods, to daily routines such as not eating by a certain time of the day prior to going to bed or sleeping in a certain position, to using over the counter medications such as TUMS or stronger prescribed medicines.

A single event of reflux may not be such a big deal. However, if it is a situation that is repeated time and time again, it can be something quite serious. As I described above, if you are burping, and instead a small amount of vomit comes up instead of air, this is very acidic. We all had science in school, and know what acid does, eats away at things. Well, the more acid you have to deal with, the worse it will get. And for our bodies, in particular our esophagus, our throat, our mouth, and our teeth, this is a very bad situation. Because of the issues I deal with from my treatments for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, this situation also almost killed me.

When most deal with reflux, it is often following a meal. We have an opportunity to do something about it, pop a TUMS or some other medication. Assuming we have not eaten just before going to bed, we are likely to stay vertical for a number of hours, allowing gravity to do what it needs to, to keep the stomach acid from creeping up into our mouths. If lucky, just a burp occurs or perhaps, a little bit of “vurp.”

If it advances to its worst timing, at night, while in bed, many problems can occur. Sure, your quality of sleep will be affected as you toss and turn, trying to get the GERD to stop. In my situation, I have two issues that I have to struggle with. Because of damage done to my esophagus from radiation therapy, I have a condition that not only traps food and particles in my esophagus, but also this stomach acid. This twice has led me to the emergency room with something called aspiration pneumonia, the trapped product bacteria gets breathed in to my lungs. My first episode of this, I went full septic, nearly dying. The other issue, is that I can actually “choke” myself out in my sleep as the acidic content fills my throat area. The problem is, I sleep through this event when it happens. So unless someone is around to hear me gasping, or my breathing gets interrupted that it startles me out of my sleep, the episode will not end well. Once I am woken up, it will be hours before I can fall back to sleep, and get the symptoms of the reflux event under control.

So, what can be done to help with this condition? Believe it or not, pretty much! As I mentioned, diet plays a major role. In spite of me being a picky eater, a condition that has me desiring the very acidic products that would aggravate the situation (tomato sauce, orange juice, buffalo wings, etc.), over the years, I have learned to do without these things. This does not mean that I no longer eat them, but it better well be damn worth it if I am going to pay the GERD price. And I do imbibe occasionally, and almost always will pay the price.

Stress, reduce and/or eliminate it. I do not need to go into detail. You know what this means.

Medications can help from over the counter TUMS and Pepcid to prescription level such as I have to take. Unfortunately, I am at a point where I take both, definitely not good to do, and certainly not as long as I have been taking them, nearly fifteen years now. But without taking them, this is not hyperbole, my quality of life is gone.

Timing, as I mentioned earlier, do not eat if you are going to be going to bed soon after. It is best to wait to go horizontal at least two to three hours, allowing for your food to travel where it needs to go, without coming back up.

And the final thing that can help with “vurping,” positioning. To prevent an attack coming on in my sleep, I have actually had to adjust the level of my bed, by about two inches, the headboard end of the bed only, so that my bed is in a downward slant, which allows for gravity to do what it must, to keep the acid where it belongs. All this takes is a simple piece of wood under each foot of the bed at the headboard. But, of course in my situation, this is not enough for me, and that is where the meme above comes in. This is also not the first time, the position that I sleep in, dictates my comfort level.

Back when I had my first heart surgery, done open heart through the breast bone, I was forced to lay on my back, just from the discomfort from the destruction of my chest and rib cage, not a position I normally sleep in. My favorite position has always been on my stomach. In the hospital, my bed was elevated, so being on my back did not bother me. Once at home, sleeping on my back did not work at all. And so, I began to lean to my left so as to change my position enough to get comfortable. A pillow would be placed behind me to hold me in that position. Seemed simple enough, just enough lean, not to be flat on my back.

Then terror struck. No, I had done nothing to my incision or rib cage. I felt as if I was on the verge of a heart attack, as if my heart were going to explode. The beat of my heart was pounding against my rib cage. I began to panic. I removed the pillow from behind me, allowing me to return, flat on my back. Odd, the pounding stopped. I really cannot explain why I did what came next, but I leaned to my left again. Again, that pounding had returned, and I leaned back flat again. Ok. This was weird. But at least I no longer thought I was having a heart attack. Now I was curious. I decided to lean now to my right. This time however, there was no pounding. I would return to my back, and once again, turn to my left. Sure enough, the pounding resumed. Flat, nothing. To my right, nothing. So I was not going to make an emergency phone call or a trip to the emergency room, but clearly someone forgot to fill me in on a very important detail. What the Hell was done to me, that my heart “shifts” when I go to lay only on my left side, that it feels as if it is touching my rib cage, making me feel as if I am sleeping on a bass drum?

An article on “” explained that the apex of the heart being closer to the wall, when sleeping on the right side, the mediastinum (a thin lining), holds the heart in place separated from the lungs. Sleeping on the left side, the heart will shift slightly. Combined with my surgery, and things likely moved around internally, this is exactly what was happening. Though it has been studied, the website did not cite the study, but expressed that according to ECG (electro cardiogram) readings, there was a noticeable change in the heartbeat, when laying on the left side, and none, when laying on the right side. There is nothing reported if side sleeping is dangerous or not, nor does it contribute to any kind of heart ailment. For the purpose of this post, that is where I am ending this part of the left side sleeping discussion.

With reflux impacting my sleeping position, I found another discovery about me sleeping on what has become my dominant position now (with me ignoring the pounding heart beat). In spite of the prescription I take, watching what I eat and when, and position of the bed, all too often, that has not been enough for me to get through a night without either choking myself out from the rush of stomach acid, or worse, as mentioned above, developing aspiration pneumonia. I have found, sleeping on my left side, I do not have episodes of reflux. When I begin my night trying to sleep on either my right side, or even attempting my stomach, flat on my back has never been a consideration, my reflux fires up, and sleep is impossible. The problem for me occurs, if I successfully fall asleep on my left side, and if I fall deep enough, I have a tendency to roll flat on to my back, and then, you guessed it, my reflux acts up. This becomes a major issue, because I do not always wake up when this happens, hence, not until I am basically choking on my vomit, I normally wake myself up. If I am lucky, someone hears the gurgle and gasping for air before it gets worse. Once awake, I end up, getting up from the bed, going into the living room, and sitting in a chair for the next few hours, trying to get my chest and throat to settle down.

So of course, I am curious about the “left side thing” in regard to my reflux. According to a the NIH actually confirms the difference between sleeping on the left side versus the right side( ). One hypothesis holds that right-side sleeping relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter, between the stomach and the esophagus. Another holds that left-side sleeping keeps the junction between stomach and esophagus above the level of gastric acid ( ).

There you have it, something from a long term cancer survivor that can actually benefit someone who has never had cancer, but has the nasty torture of reflux and lack of sleep. So yes, if I am laying on my left side, this is exactly what I am thinking about as I go to sleep.

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