Science and the Scleroderma Girl: A Series of Serendipitous Events

 

Serendipity: the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.

Pincushion Flower.
This morning, while weeding the back wilderness, I found this transplant. Serendipity in the garden.

I can clearly remember the first event of historical significance that invaded my simple world of early childhood. I had been snuck into the big kids playground at our school by my rule-breaking older sister. Swinging on a high bar way too high for my little First Grade body, I listened to my sister and her friends talk about Sputnik; a scary object launched by the Russians orbiting the earth above me. I couldn’t see it, but evidently it could be followed because it was talking to the ground with radio signals.

Just like that I was gone. The world was round, there were things that happened in the world that I couldn’t see, but evidence could be collected that betrayed their presence. I was a science geek in that instant, and it never ever stopped for me.

Sputnik, and the ensuing space race, made money available for science education in the public schools. I was exactly the right age to benefit from this new emphasis on understanding the world around us through scientific thought. I was a curious child: I questioned everything, collected bugs, nursed baby birds back to health, begged for a microscope for Christmas (which I got), and read endless books.

Years later, married to a young serviceman in the navy, I ended up applying to the university near where he was stationed to study biology. That is how I ended up working towards a degree in molecular biology at UCSD. My professors were famous scientists and I was so lucky to learn from them. Stanley Miller taught me physical chemistry, and I learned immunology from Seymour Jonathan Singer. Ok, I took that immunology class from Dr. Singer because he was my advisor, and I was kind of scared of him. I couldn’t say no when he pressed me to enroll.

Because I had immunology under my belt I was hired at the Scripps Clinic and Research Foundation to work in the lab of Dr. Eng Tan, who conducted research that focused on the molecules in a cell’s nucleus that were the targets of the antibodies found in patients with rheumatic conditions such as lupus and, wait for it, SCLERODERMA. Yep. My first job in that lab was doing the ANA tests. Later on I was part of the research team that identified SCL-70, one of the molecules involved in the diffuse form of systemic sclerosis. Here’s the paper if you want to torture yourself. 🙂

I have to say, I loved working in research, but it wasn’t as creative and social as I needed my work day to be. I went back to school, got a teaching certification, and began to teach biology and AP Biology. Whew. I had to take lots of classes to stay up on things, and along the way I learned lots about human anatomy and physiology. Just as I was working into my comfort zone education transformed and educational standards were instituted. Good grief. Why do I have to keep on stretching my wings like this?

I had to teach students how to think and plan experiments just as scientists did in my classroom.  I created lots of open-ended research problems that they could investigate, collect data on, and then draw conclusions that I could use to link to biological concepts that they were learning about. Wailing internally at the extra work, I began using science notebooks in my classrooms.

Students doing experiment.
In this lab the students grew yeast in different conditions and then collected the amount of CO2 gas that they produced as a measure of growth in the attached balloons. These students were varying the amount of sugar the yeast had.
Graph of experiment.
Here’s the graph from a student team that varied the growth temperature. Those yeast sure liked water that was 60 degrees Centigrade! 

The kids liked the experiments, their ability to think scientifically grew by leaps and bounds, and along the way I really learned a lot of things myself. I ended up training other teachers on how to do science notebooking in their own classrooms, and eventually I helped write the inquiry science standards for my state.

Four years ago symptoms that I had been dealing with for years (and decades) overwhelmed me and I was diagnosed with a couple of the autoimmune diseases that I had learned about early in my professional life. Unbelievably, through no real choices of my own, I had been prepared with the background knowledge, resources, and experience that I needed for the fight.

Serendipity.

This is Science and the Scleroderma Girl, the mini-series project of blog posts about the adventures of a science geek in the world of chronic illness. June is Scleroderma Awareness Month, so I hope to put up a new post each day. I hope you’ll join me.

It’s June! Introducing Science and the Scleroderma Girl.

Okay, this is it. I’ve been fussing for over a year about writing a series about science, biology, medical decisions, and navigating safely through a world of alternative medicine and treatments. I’ve come close to launching into a block of mini-rants before, but never went there because it would just take too much energy…

June is Scleroderma Awareness Month. As luck would have it, June has also arrived as I sail back into calm waters following a 6 week storm set off by worsening symptoms, medical testing, and finally a collaborative consensus between my doctors and myself based on data that informs a new course of treatment. In other words, science, biology, and data-driven medical decisions have saved the day. I have lived a life of science in my educational and professional life and this training and way of thinking continues to save the day for me. I do have other skills, of course, but the foundation is always based in science.

I guess I think that it is time for me to share in case it helps anyone else.

Hot Cocoa Rose.
June has brought me the first rose of summer, too. Look at this cutie!

This month I am better. This month my energy is coming back, ideas for topics are swirling in my head, and I think that the time has come. I’ve started a planning grid with all of my topics and resources, and things are starting to come together. Since June is Scleroderma Awareness Month, this is the month that I should do this. If I can put this all together, there will be a post each day this month. With Star Trek quotes, of course!

I did tell you I was a science geek, didn’t I?

Scleroderma Awareness Month: Hard Word. Harder Disease.

Every year I get a note from the Scleroderma Foundation about Scleroderma Awareness Month. Take the pledge! Tell at least one person about scleroderma! Coerce your friends into joining the walk for the cure later this month.

Piece of cake. I can do that. Hand on to your phones, because here we go.

Scleroderma is a crazy sounding word, isn’t it. It is actually descriptive of the most obvious symptom of the disease:  based on Greek words, “sclero” means hard and “derma” means skin. Hard skin. My skin is interesting to say the least. Hard, shiny, speckled with white patches of scaring, tight across my cheekbones and knuckles: kind of typical for the disease.

“It’s just your skin”, I was told by my ex not long after my diagnosis. “It’s not a big deal, right?”

As it turns out, this actually is a big deal. The tissue under attack by the immune system is the connective layer just under the skin. You know, the layer of the skin that produces the collagen that gives skin its stretchiness and cohesiveness. Imagine what would happen if this tissue grew really thick, stiff, and then tightened down so badly that blood circulation was cut off and it became impossible to move correctly at the joints. The skin around your mouth can be too tight for you to open wide at the dentist, you can’t bend over to tie your shoes, and forget turning your neck. If your skin won’t stretch, you are in a fix for sure! Finger tip ulcers are a constant worry, and physical therapy to maintain flexibility becomes part of the daily routine. Or you can knit. Knitting is good for blood circulation and flexibility. 🙂

Best advice ever for the scleroderma girl.

This same connective tissue is also found throughout the intestinal tract, and in many other organs of the body. The lining of blood vessels also is impacted, and there is a lot of smooth muscle (like the muscles that work in your stomach) damage.  Some people with scleroderma will only experience it in their skin, but others will have damage occurring in organ systems of their body. None of this is nice; some people will lose the function of their hands, while others suffer kidney, heart, and lung damage. Intestinal tract damage is almost universal, and some of these complications can be severe. Check out this neat interactive chart of symptoms.

So, what causes scleroderma? The actual answer is… nobody knows. It is an autoimmune disease that is triggered by unknown causes, has no cure, and if left untreated in the systemic form is fatal 50% of the time. Right now there is no drug to directly treat the disease, but there are treatments to help with symptoms and to modify the course of the disease by impairing the immune system. With these drugs survival rates are way up. Seriously, hug the next scientist you come across. I personally plan to throw a bar-b-que for the next one I get my hands on.

As it turns out, this year the month of June arrives at a pivotal time in my scleroderma life. There is so much going on, and so much that I’m thinking about, that I’m gearing up to post a whole series of articles about the complexities of navigating through the world as a chronically ill patient. Seriously. I could write a blog post for each day of the month. My little notebook that I jot ideas for posts in is filling up quickly.

I need a catchy title for the series. It will be about science, biology, medical decisions, and navigating through a world of alternative medicine and treatments. You know, like fake news, but instead we are dealing with fake medicine.

Whatever is a scleroderma girl to do?

Stay tuned. I’m seriously gearing up for this. June is going to be a great month.

Hey, if you want to walk with me for a scleroderma cure, just let me know. 🙂

So Long, Farewell, Auf Weidersehen, Good-bye… to My Support Group

Okay, this is a rant. This rant is so long and complicated, with so many connections to other topics, that I have considered that I should perhaps launch another blog just to deal with it. Or maybe create an online course for people with complex autoimmune diseases. Something. Because I finally have snapped for sure.

It happened while I was attending my monthly Scleroderma Support group in July. I go to these meetings because I need to talk to people about my illness, become educated about treatments and coping strategies, and to get, you know, support! I want to flock with my peeps!! Usually in these meetings there are introductions, a little sharing, nice snacks, and a presentation by a guest speaker.

This is the problem. The speakers who have been coming are often involved in alternative treatment strategies. As in alternative medicine. As in flat out pseudoscience masquerading as legitimate methods of treatment for our complex health conditions.  These speakers have been trained in their “method” and faithfully parrot back what they were told in their training. They have little actual knowledge of human physiology, biology, disease, or science. They are connected to a product or system that they want to sell to us to help us “stay healthy”. They especially tell us that they can help us have “healthy” immune systems and/or take away our pain. Since I am in pain because my immune system is misbehaving it’s hard to not find their messages appealing.

Except… I was a biology teacher. I used to work in a research lab. I know science as a logical process with rules, and this information is so outrageous it causes me to wiggle around in my chair, bite my tongue, and often whip out my cell phone to fact check.

Me: Google, please tell me if Leaky Gut is a real thing?

Google: Are you crazy? Of course not.

Me: That’s what I thought…

But evidently I absolutely, positively need to take this essential oil to protect me from leaky gut. Or the toxins will leak out though the holes in my intestines. This is the cause of many complex illnesses. Research? We don’t need no stinking research. We have testimonials!!

Compression Points on Foot
This pressure point chart was so outrageous I needed to put down the knitting to take a picture!

How about the day I learned that I need to massage my hands and feet at specific pressure points to clean the toxins out of my liver, pancreas and other parts of my body? Really. I was informed that the problem is that the cells of my body get dehydrated, will form tough protective barriers, and the fascia then can’t move fluids throughout the body. This was such a garbled version of reality it was practically science salad.

Me: Google, please tell me exactly what fascia is.

Google: Sure. Fascia is the thin, tough barrier around muscles and organs. It is part of your connective system and made of collagen.

Me: Google, just to be sure, it doesn’t have anything to do with fluid transport?

Google. No, dumb ass. That would be the lymph system.

Me: Google, that’s what I thought. No need to cop an attitude with me, you wouldn’t believe what I’m dealing with here.

As if all this fact checking wasn’t exhausting enough, there is also a hint of “anti-science” in the room. Several other patients have become convinced that we need to stop taking our meds as they have unacceptable side effects. It is better, they argue, to control our disease with diet, essential oils and supplements. OMG! It isn’t possible to google fast enough to keep up with this stuff!

Me: Google, what is this alkaline diet all about?

Me: Google, is dairy inflammatory?

Me: Google, do I need to take massive doses of probiotics every day, or can I just eat yogurt? This speaker is telling me I have to buy their product since I can’t eat dairy anymore…

Me: Google, how quickly do bacteria divide? Every 20 minutes? So I don’t need a massive dose?

Me: Google, is there any research showing a positive benefit of essential oils in systemic sclerosis?

Google: Stop! I have smoke coming out of my ears! Let me direct you to this nice List of Topics Characterized as Pseudoscience. There. You’re welcome.

Lunch
Yep. This is my lunch. See the dairy? That yogurt has 8 live cultures in it and I am not giving it up!!

While loading up on gluten free snacks at the break I finally snapped and asked the group facilitator if she thought it would be appropriate to let people advocate going off their meds and using essential oils to treat their conditions if this was a cancer support group?

“Well, no…”, she replied. “But that’s cancer.”

I just looked back at her until I saw something click in her brain, and then I left. I’m done.

Since then I have been fussing around about why this is happening. I understand that this is a tough disease (in more than one way), but how awful it is that there is so much misinformation out there that people don’t know what is accurate, and what isn’t. Desperate people will clutch at anything that gives them hope. Sometimes these things are based in sound logic, reason and science (stem cell transplants), and sometimes they are not (amber beads for pain relief). Obviously people need to know more about the nature of science, basic physiology, immunology, cell biology, and how the medications prescribed by their doctors work. They need to know their Star Trek!!

Star Trek Meme
A no-win scenario, the Kobayashi Maru test was designed to be a test of character. 

That’s right. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn is what I needed to put this into perspective.  So many movie quotes, so many posts.

So, I feel a lot better after finishing up my rant, but I still think that I may need to launch a mini-series of posts relating to this. I mean, there are all those pseudoscience cures to debunk. All that biology to share. All those Star Trek quotes.

Stay tuned. If I start the new blog, I’ll let you all know where it is. Otherwise, a lot of my knitting friends are going to be exposed to some biology.  Feel free to let me know how you feel about that.J