Wagon Train Part One: The Organizational Tools

As promised, I’m going to be writing about my circle of wagons – the things I do (or don’t do but want to do) to help me manage life with RA. Some of these things are purely practical, some are mental, emotional or spiritual, and some are physical. I’m writing this mostly for myself, as a reminder of my own goals, but maybe some of the ideas will help you too! And I’d love to hear yours along the way.

When you are managing a chronic illness, there’s a lot of information to organize. Call me crazy, but I enjoy reading about other people’s organizational systems – I sometimes pick up new tricks, and sometimes just find validation for what I’m already doing. So here are some of the things I do.

Wagon #1: Health Journal

 Boy, did I resist this one at first.  I think it was my old friend denial again – I didn’t want to admit how major a part of my life my illness had become.  But when I was at various doctors’ offices, I had trouble remembering how long specific symptoms had been going on, how long I had been taking certain meds, etc.  I tried keeping a loose sort of log of symptoms, but found that my information was incomplete – I would often overlook or minimize things that turned out to be important.  So I finally gave in and bought this:

Health Journal

For a long time (and even now sometimes) I jokingly called it “The Hypochondriac’s Dream Journal.”  For each day, it provides two pages of space to write down all kinds of specific information, including front-and-back drawings of a human body for marking places that have pain, skin issues, etc..  My worry was that it would make me intensely focused on my symptoms, and sometimes I think it does do that.  But on the whole, it keeps me organized, and it’s been really useful for those doctor visits.  There’s a section in the back that lets me make notes about questions I want to ask my doctor, so I always go in prepared, and anything he/she asks me can easily be looked up.  It also doubles as a diet journal – there’s a whole section for recording what you eat, with blank columns so that you can choose to track whatever you wish (calories, fat, fiber, WW points, carbs, etc.).

Here’s what the inside looks like:

Health Journal inside

Since it’s designed for people with a variety of conditions, I don’t use all of it – for example, I don’t need to monitor my blood sugar.  I don’t write in it every day, either – just when things change.  Unfortunately, it’s one of the wagons I tend to fall off, especially when things are going badly.  It’s ironic – when I’m flaring, I seem to lose the will to keep this journal going, and that is EXACTLY the time when I most need to be keeping track of symptoms.  Anyway, I’ve started it up again, and ordered a new one for the new year.  I am also making it a goal to view the journal differently – instead of worrying that it will put too much focus on my symptoms, I would like to see it as a place where I can record them so I don’t have to think about them again.  Close the cover of the book and get on with my life…

Now, on to Wagon #2:  Managing my Medications

I haven’t fallen off this wagon, amazingly enough.  It’s been tricky lately because I recently had to start two new meds that must be taken twice a day on an empty stomach, while my other meds are taken twice a day with food.  Since “empty” is defined in this case as “no eating 2-3 hours before or 1 hour after taking,” this means that I now have to remember to take pills FOUR TIMES a day.  The morning dose of the new drugs is easy to handle – I just take them when I wake up and don’t eat for an hour.  The night dose, though, is no fun to schedule, especially if I end up eating dinner late. 

I’m pretty organized with my medications.  I take about 20 pills on an average day; some pills are daily, while others might be taken four times a week, once a week, or once every several weeks (like the Zyrtec I use to pre-medicate before Remicade infusions).  Then there are the “wild cards,” like the times when I have to do a pred taper or take an antibiotic.  I didn’t enjoy opening all the little bottles every day, so I decided to buy a pill kit and stock it every week.  I haven’t gone to a four-a-day one yet – I just keep the bottles for the empty-stomach pills next to my bed.  This is the pill kit I use for all the others:

Pill kit

Rheumatoid Arthritis Guy has a much cooler one, which he shows in this post.  Maybe for Christmas…  (Okay, that was a little depressing – I don’t want a pill kit for Christmas!) 

I found that all of the different pill schedules were getting confusing, so I also designed an Excel spreadsheet to help keep them straight.  I make a new spreadsheet every month – across the top are columns with the names of all the meds, and down the side are the dates.  Then I fill in the quantities of each pill for each day.  This also doubles as a medication record – at a glance, I can know exactly how many months ago I took that antibiotic, or how long I’ve been on a specific med.  I was going to show a picture of one of my spreadsheets here, but it was too big – and besides, I’d rather not post a list of my medications on the internet!  (If you really want to see one of the spreadsheets, you can ask me.)  On Saturday nights, my husband and I get out the spreadsheet and all the bottles and we stock my pill kit together – he opens the bottles for me, hands me the pills, and tells me how much of each one to put in.  Then he double-checks it for me, in case my brain fog has taken over!  Doesn’t that sound like a romantic date?  😉   

To help me remember to take my pills, I have recurring alarms set in my cell phone.  (Fortunately, my phone lets me store 5 different alarm times!)  The music I chose for my pill alarms is pretty, almost elfin.  Cheers me up a little, especially when my son dances to it.  Most of the time, I am home at the times when I need to take pills.  For those occasions when I have to be out, I bought myself this pretty little pill box for my purse:

Pill box

When I went onto Amazon.com to buy one, I was amazed by the incredible variety of available pill boxes.  They had them for just about every conceivable interest, and I considered ones with pianos on them, or cats, or ones with amusing photos of bad girls that double as condom holders.  In the end, I picked this one because I liked the image of the healing hands – I’m interested in things like Reiki and other energy healing modalities, and I thought it might be nice to store my pills in a place that gave them a little extra good energy!

Now for Wagon #3:  Keeping Track of Medical Expenses

This wagon could use some serious patching.  Before I had RA, this was something I never thought about.  A bill would arrive from a doctor’s office and I would pay it – simple.  I never thought to look for mistakes, and never looked at the EOBs the insurance company sent – I don’t even think I knew what they were for.  When I started developing multiple medical problems, all of this changed.  Also, we opened a Flexible Spending Account with a credit card attached, and the FSA people started asking us to provide receipts and/or EOBs to justify our expenses.  So it became important to pay attention. 

My insurance company’s website allows clients to download all of their EOBs, so I keep them in my computer and shred the paper ones that come in the mail.  I’d like to go paperless on this, but they haven’t offered that option yet.  Every Monday, I check for new EOBs, look through my inbox for new bills, and compare them.  And yes, I have started to find mistakes.  One doctor billed me twice for the same visit, one for procedures I never had, and the insurance company has occasionally failed to cover things they should.  So there can be quite a lot of work in tracking these things down.  I keep my bills, receipts, and other paperwork in an expanding file folder, which gets bigger all the time.  The FSA information is also online, so I check that too, making sure my payments have cleared and don’t require receipts.  If they do, I get them together for faxing.

I have to admit that I didn’t enjoy starting to check the EOBs.  The first time I saw my Remicade appointment listed as “chemotherapy,” I got pretty upset.  But reality has to be faced…

Even though I’ve gotten better at this, I’m still not good at keeping track of visits and remembering what happened.  My rheumatologist’s billing office is regularly MANY months behind, so by the time I get the bill for a visit, I can’t remember – did I get shots?  Have blood drawn?  Was it a Remicade visit or a regular checkup?  The bills are usually full of mistakes when I compare them to the EOBs, so it would be good to know exactly what really did happen. 

WarmSocks over at ∞ itis recently shared a snippet of the spreadsheet she uses to keep track of her medical visits.  (She has great organizational systems – she’s shared others before.)  What a good idea!  Given that I have spreadsheets for my pills, you would think I would have considered doing this before!  She keeps track of the date of visits, the provider, the purpose, charges, etc.  I’m going to borrow this and start one in the new year.  Since every insurance company handles things differently, I might modify the columns – for example, I have a PPO which covers only 90% of most procedures, so it’s important for me to have a column showing exactly what was done in the visit so I can see if it was charged accurately.  Anyway, thanks, WarmSocks! 

 I also keep copies of all of my lab reports, but have fallen apart a little on this – I designated a binder for them, but keep forgetting to put them in…

By the way, Jenni over at ChronicBabe.com offers a “Chronic Babe Toolkit” that has all kinds of useful suggestions for organizing your information, as well as a weekly “Goodie Bag” newsletter.  You can sign up for them here.

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2 Comments

  1. WarmSocks says:

    That health journal looks like it could be pretty useful. Good job circling the wagons :-)
    (Thanks for the link, too)

  2. Helen says:

    That journal looks really useful, although I would have the same worries about it that you did. But like you, I often overlook symptoms or forget how long they have been occurring, or minimize them when it comes time to discuss with my doctor. My hip has only been bothering me for about it a year, but I think it may be time to start journalling when/how it flares.

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