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Health Talk 02: Managing a rare disease: standing up and advocating for yourself

About Health Talk

Living with a chronic condition can feel isolating. Health Talk by Flowly was born from wanting to bring often isolated voices into the fold, and connecting different ideas, experiences, and tools to your own health journey. 

We talk to health practitioners and chronic health patients to deconstruct the chronic condition journey— from how many have managed the challenging diagnosis experience, to new tools and tips that might help you. We cover conditions including chronic pain, anxiety, autoimmune diseases, and more.

Hosted by Celine, the founder of Flowly, this weekly podcast will dive into conversations with world class researchers, practitioners, and even more importantly, chronic condition warriors themselves.

Search “Flowly” on Apple Podcast or Spotify to find Flowly Health Talk!

Highlighting Black Invisible Illness Voices with Whitney West.

We’re particularly excited to share Whitney’s conversation with Celine. Whitney West is a health advocate, a chronic illness warrior, and works to bring more awareness to her own rare but significant chronic condition: fibrosing mediastinitis. In their conversation Whitney shares how she’s had to navigate her own challenging diagnosis journey, the role that anxiety has played in her daily health management, and how her identity has a Black woman has impacted her relationship with health practitioners.

*This transcript is auto-generated

Hi everyone my name is Celine and I'm

the founder of Flowly as some of you

guys know we're doing a series

highlighting black voices in the

invisible illness community

in case you don't know slowly is a

mobile platform for chronic pain and

anxiety management

essentially we teach you how to control

your heart rate and breathing

to better manage your nervous system you

can find us on the apple app store or on

any of our social media

website but today let's

cut to

the more interesting part which is i'm

featuring whitney west

whitney is an incredible invisible

illness warrior

she's a health advocate and is here to

share her story with fibrosing media


so i wanted to start um towards the

beginning of your journey

with fibrosis mediastinitis it is a rare


so i'm not sure that everybody does know

what it is so if you wanted to share

briefly about

what that condition means yes like you

said it is a very

very rare condition only a few hundred

people um

are known to have it and most of the

cases um they

really aren't unsure where it comes from

some cases they can trace back

to around the mississippi and the ohio

river valleys where you get

a virus that comes through you get it

goes away in your body

um but your body doesn't realize that

it's gone so it continues from that

point on

to fight it so your immune system is

kind of overreacting and

under reacting to different things and

what it ends up doing is building a mass

in your media styling area and that mass

can be

big or small and then eventually it will

begin to calcify

and when it um starts to build and then

when it starts to calcify those are the

things that cause

issues in your body depending on where

it is and what it does

i started having issues

i believe like my senior year in college

and i was

diagnosed with like asthma so

automatically you know if you're having

a wheezing or like a breathing type

problem that's like the first thing that

anybody ever goes to

so i'm like okay asthma that's fine i

didn't really think much of it

um in terms of okay i grew up in the

country but now that i'm in like dc i

get allergies okay maybe it's pollution

as i went on um i had always been

overweight but then i had

begun to lose weight so i had lost a

substantial amount of weight

probably close to 100 pounds and in

around 2013

i started to have more difficulty


so i was pretty active in the gym

working out eating right and i live

on the second floor so i was constantly

walking up and down those stairs

but one day it came to the point where

walking up and down those stairs got

very tiresome so i'm like i've been

doing this for a long time

i'm losing weight there's an issue so

that kind of led me to start trying to

go to the doctor to see what was wrong

and from there you know i had some

issues with the doctor that i initially


but ended up being admitted to the um

hospital um for an emergency in 2014 to


my gallbladder removed which ended up

causing me to um serious case of


which led to them discovering how low my

oxygen level was

and i ended up having to be on a

ventilator for a little bit over a week

and is that when you did get the


um was it from that doctor or did you

have to kind of like move around to

different doctors to get that diagnosis

i had gone to the local hospital in the

town in maryland that i lived in

and luckily there was the pulmonologist

that they called in

he knew that since he was new there he

didn't really have the

ability to treat whatever it was because

they could not figure out what it was

so he worked with me very closely

and then suggested that i go to the

university of maryland medical center

because they had experts in the

cardiology and pulmonology

that could likely help me so i started

to go to

university of maryland medical center

for several months getting all different

types of tests

back and forth the doctors there in

cardiology and pulmonology

were discussing my case all over the

place at different conferences

different things because it was so weird

the only other health issue i had

was high blood pressure and being

overweight but

even in the end it turned out that blood

pressure was due to

the blockage that was building up in my

chest because

as i had been losing weight my blood

pressure never changed

and my primary doctor had noticed that

oh that that is weird it should have at


gone down a little bit but maybe it's

hereditary because i had no

other indications that something was

going on

um i ended up going back into the

hospital again

i actually ended up coughing up the

ventilator which is very

strange i had no injuries to my throat

or anything

during that stay my pulmonologist who i

ended up working with the whole time i

was in maryland

until i relocated to new orleans

he happened to talk to a doctor friend

of his in st

louis and he ran through my symptoms

and the doctor just so happened to say

oh i know exactly what that is

and he said it's vibrating mediastinitis

because a lot of the symptoms for it are

very strange like

you have the breathing issues you can

have the wheezing the asthma symptoms

and then also um hemoptysis which is

coughing of blood

um happens and i was having all of those

symptoms and so did you end up meeting

with that doctor

or the doctor you are currently working

with bring back the diagnosis

and kind of start from there he brought

back the diagnosis

and he kind of talked me through it and

he really wanted to do a biopsy just to

be sure

but i wasn't really comfortable with it


this was one of the points where i kind

of learned to advocate for myself too

i wasn't really sure and i was thinking

about it and he actually came in to talk

to me

um about it like a day or so later and


he just asked me he was like how do you

feel about it i was like i'm really


about it just by how i responded when

i've gone under

and i just don't feel right he was like

i actually agree and i think you're


um a little bit too unstable for us to

for me to safely feel comfortable and do

that for you i just like the way that

he kind of talked to me and he

and one of the nurses actually came in

another day

because i i just began asking for like

everything i needed

and he became like a very good advocate

for me

um one of the nurses i'd asked for a

breathing treatment

and she told me she couldn't give it to

me because it would affect my blood

pressure so

when he came back in i told him what

happened and i was like i feel like i

really need it

and he was like you're right that was

the wrong thing

because if you're not breathing it

doesn't matter what your blood pressure


so if your breathing is off and you stop

breathing that doesn't matter so that

made me realize that

what i'm feeling in my body and what i

feel that i need that i should express


because i know what i'm feeling and he

had to talk with me he was like

you're very aware of what's happening

with your body

you're able to spot what you need even

if you don't know

you know what it is medically you're

able to clearly express what's going on

so i trust what you say about what's

going on with you

so that really let me know the power of

advocating for yourself and what you

really feel

i i feel like that is a really powerful

story and experience because not many of


especially women and especially when

women of color

are educated and taught to advocate for

ourselves or even to listen to ourselves


i think that's also a powerful story in

that that shows what happens when

a doctor or general practitioner or even

a nurse actually takes the time to

listen to the patient

and how much that can actually change

the health and diagnosis journey

how do you feel like your identity as a

black woman

has shaped sort of that initial

experience you know when you're going

through all the different doctors

when this was a rare condition people

weren't giving you the right diagnosis

even let's say like when that nurse

wouldn't give you the oxygen treatment

that you needed

do you feel like it's it's been a factor

i play your identity

and if it is and how so yeah i

absolutely do feel like it's been a


um it's just also been great that i've

been able to find

great doctors who actually did listen to

me and

some of the turning points were actually

when i found practitioners

of color that pulmonologist was a white

man but

he was absolutely everything that he was

supposed to be doing

but um the first practitioner i went to

was the white man and

i think seeing me as an overweight black


was like okay automatically it's because

you're overweight

so i had to come back him to say no

i've lost 70 pounds so shouldn't that

make a factor and he was like well your

lungs are

reading normally my like your lung

functioning test but

if you do the test and then all the

x-rays and the ultrasounds you see the


there and so i had him order tests

i went to take them and it was showing

and i was calling and trying to get the

follow-up appointment for to have him

review them to see what was going on

and he would never make the appointment

or would cancel it and put it off and in

that time

i ended up in the hospital and then

finally while i was in the hospital i

got a call from his nurse to say

oh now he's ready to schedule the

appointment but it was at that point

it was just too far gone and so i

already had

other doctors so it's just like i could

have caught this

six to seven months and never had to be

hospitalized at least for that reason or

if i had

gotten hospitalized to have my

gallbladder removed

it wouldn't have deteriorated so quickly

because they would have known

everything else that was going on and


to even get to the point to see that um

pulmonologist i had presented at urgent

care a few times already

with the hemoptysis the um coughing of

the blood

and no one they were like oh you

probably just coughed too hard

or you know just gave general reasons

nobody really ever

kind of dug too deep until um i came


a black um nurse there and she kind of

said it could be the same things and


she came back in and she was like but

you know i really want you to go to