The Scleroderma Chronicles: The BLZ gets a CPET

The BLZ had some anxiety going into this test…

Last month I had a right heart catherization that showed an unexpected problem with my heart… there is a cardiac shunt that is allowing blood from the left side (you know, the one that is always colored red because that blood is rich with oxygen) to shoot over into the other side of the heart where it disrupts blood flow and adds pressure to the (blue) right side of the heart; that is a little tough on the right side because it isn’t built to handle the extra pressure. Houston, we have an explanation for all that blue panting that is going on.

Cool. Finally we were getting some answers and my doctors were taking my symptoms more seriously. My cardiologist ordered up some more tests to collect data and clarify the issue.

The test that I have been the most concerned about was the cardiopulmonary exercise test that was scheduled for last Monday. I hunted for some cool links to explain the test to use in this post and came up with a bunch of technical articles for physicians and specialists. Okay. Let’s not go there. I’ll try to explain what this test was all about. I was hooked up to a bunch of monitoring equipment that tracked my breathing and heart while I was riding a bike. As part of the test my lung function was tested, my heart monitored (like in an EKG), my blood pressure was tracked, my respiration rate, and the actual amount of oxygen I was using and the carbon dioxide that I was expelling for each mL of blood pumped. It was a lot!!

I was a little concerned because of my bad boy hip, but that wasn’t really a problem at all.

I shared my catnip with the Mother of Cats so that she wouldn’t have any trouble with the test.

The test went great for about 7 minutes: then there was an emergency stop. My blood pressure had suddenly zoomed up into the stratosphere at about 6 minutes into the test, and then 30 seconds later I began panting like crazy and the technician pulled the plug. Remember that cardiac shunt they found in the cath lab? When I exercise the direction of blood flow in that shunt reverses and blood from the right side is shooting into the left side where it interferes with the pumping of oxygenated blood to my body. No wonder I turn blue and pant.

The BLZ is both happy and sad at the same time.

The specialist who did my CPET was great at explaining the data to me; when he sent the report to my doctors he also included me in the email group. For the last week I have been reading the back and forth discussion by my doctors about the test and what the next steps for me will be. I am really pleased to be included in this process and feel that this option should be available to everyone; it is also kind of scary as I get a glimpse of what is coming down the road for me later in the testing department.

The gear and set-up for the CPET was pretty impressive. I joked with the specialist about it and he told me that there was an even more extreme version of testing that included a right heart catherization at the same time as the exercise test. Yep. You guessed it. That’s what my docs are considering to do next. It is clear that I have a cardiac shunt but they haven’t located it yet. The BLZ is pretty bummed. The word “profound” was used to describe my symptoms. There has also been some speculation about neuroendocrine tumors… The good news here is that no one is even considering sleep apnea or me needing antidepressants because, you know, I complain too much…

The BLZ is both happy and sad at the same time.

I keep my eye on the Mother of Cats while she reads her email.

So, it was a kind of tough week. I pulled myself together on Tuesday and went to a new yarn store for a little pick-me-up and was so distracted I missed my turn twice and had to detour through Starbucks before I actually pulled up in front of the store. I almost didn’t go in I was so worn out by then, but I did a little mental slapping to put myself into motion, pulled out my cane, and went in…

…to discover a woman dragging out three big bags of yarn that kind of screamed “community knitting” because they weren’t the yarn being sold in the store. “Hey! I want to community knit! Please, can I come play with you guys?” I immediately said.

That is how I ended up in a new local yarn store this morning knitting with the most wonderful group of ladies in the world. They are all current or former employees of the Kaiser medical system that I go to for my care, and they are producing hats for all of the Kaiser clinics that have infusion centers; I know those centers because they are the same ones that rheumatology patients go to. These ladies are all vaccinated and they all wore masks because they knew I was taking a risk to come. They had donuts! I have found a new knitting home when I needed it like no other. I actually cried a little with joy and relief as I drove away at the end of the meeting.

If I hadn’t made all those bad turns and the Starbucks stop this wouldn’t have happened.

My yarn stash is full of yarn that wants to turn into hats. Hats with happy colors and a dash of cashmere. I am on fire with purpose to produce as many hats as I can for other people who are facing down serious medical situations. I want to make them arm warmers and fingerless mitts. I have tapped into the best, most perfect group to produce useful gifts for other people like myself just when I needed to be grounded, inspired, and calmed by the peace of knitting.

The BLZ is happy.

The Saturday Update: Weeks 35 and 36, 2021

The heat is hanging on and the cats and I are totally over it at this point. Yesterday we set a new heat record in my state: 99 degrees Fahrenheit. The sun is a sullen red ball in the sky and the sky is slate white with smoke from the west. The heat is unrelenting, there has been almost no rain, and fire season is still going on, and on, and on… Should summer be ending soon?

“Not yet!”, say the plants and wildlife in the yard. The cats have been busy chasing late season houseflies and the trees are abuzz with pulsing cicada sounds. There seems to be wildlife everywhere all of a sudden as the lawn and garden recover from the intense sun (but not the heat) of July and August. I even had to chase a little garter snake out of my garage yesterday! Summer is being especially tenacious, but I am seeing some hints of fall as flocks of geese fly over my house and the first leaves on the trees are turning.

The baby bunny is now hanging out in the front yard entertaining the cats as they watch from the front door. Do you see all of that debris on the sidewalk and street in the picture of the bunny? That is the mess being left by the squirrels as they harvest the Russian olives off of my neighbor’s tree. There is a really cute squirrel with an exceptionally fluffy tail digging holes under my trees to stash food for later… not nice, little squirrel!! Speaking of fluffy tails, look at what is happening to Mateo’s tail!! This kitten is getting a lot fluffier than I thought he would…

Garden

Everything that is pink is just flourishing at the moment.

My Autumn Joy Stonecrop is just covered with bees and other plants in containers on the deck have decided that they want to bloom too. Even the roses by my driveway have decided to get a last bloom in. For some crazy reason it is all of the pink plants… even the hydrangea is putting out some new blooms with pink edges. It makes me happy to see all that color coming back even if it will be drowned out by all the fall colors in the trees and shrubs in a week or two.

Knitting

I had several quiet days following my right heart catherization procedure last week (okay, I also slept a couple of days afterwards) and I ripped right through the next clue on the Snark-O-Meter. If you haven’t been keeping up with all of the snark, the Snark-O-Meter is the latest MKAL shawl by Sharon from Security (Casapinka) and I am having a blast this time.

It is getting too big to show off the fun stitches in this project in one picture so I settled for shots of each clue. The top left is clues 1 and 2, the bottom left shows clue 3, and the picture on the right is clue 4. Look at all of those great and interesting stitches and use of color!! I’m going to get a ton of use out of this shawl.

Since I finished the shawl in just a couple of days after the clue was released, and because Sharon is taking a week off to let people catch up on their knitting, and since I was admiring all things pink in the garden, I pulled out my new Rock It Tee that is being knit in a pinky/rusty colorway called Cinnasizzle. The actual yarn isn’t quite as hot pink as it appears in the pictures, but it is full of clay, pink, and rust colors that are just too fun to ignore. I’ve been binge watching Billions on Amazon Prime and knitting like crazy this last week with a nebulous thought that if I really apply myself I can get this sweater done before Sharon releases the next Snark-O-Meter clue in another week. Ha! This is clearly impossible, but that never stopped me before! To try is all. I’m below the armholes now and it is just knitting in the round for the next 15 inches or so…

Mateo is now 5 and a half months old. Isn’t he getting handsome?

I’m still waiting for my cardiologist to contact me with the next steps in the ongoing Blue-Lipped Zebra project. Things are really slammed right now in the health field as there are lots of Covid-19 patients and Covid long-haulers who need help, and my cardiologist is pretty overwhelmed with the case load at the moment. (How do I know? My pulmonologist, who is also slammed, told me. I feel so bad for them.) It is a little hard to be patient and to wait my turn, especially since some of those people who are bumping me back in the health-care line are the unvaccinated.

Last week I was mocked in public by someone for wearing a mask. Umm… retired high school teacher here. I called him out on it and he immediately stopped.

But still, it’s a little shocking that it even happened.

This is the 20th anniversary of 9/11. What a sad, horrible day that led to unpredictable outcomes that were far beyond my imagination at that time. How sad it is to reflect on all that has happened, and continues to happen, in America.

I plan to knit my way though the reflection, waiting, and sadness this week. You all be safe out there!

Have a great week everyone.

Read a little, knit a little, and garden like your heart can’t live without it.

The Scleroderma Chronicles: A Trip to the Cath Lab

The BLZ has been waiting a long time for this…

Five years ago I came down with the flu and ended up in Urgent Care struggling to breathe. I scored some antibiotics, steroids, and cough medicine. To fight the virus I was told to go off my immunosuppressant drugs for a few weeks until I got better, stay in bed, and load up on chicken soup: it took a couple of months but eventually I got back on my meds. Except… things weren’t quite right. I panted for air every time I came up the stairs and I noticed that my lips were turning blue. My blood pressure was too low and I had to stop taking my hypertension medicine. I felt dizzy and light headed sometimes.

I was a newly diagnosed systemic sclerosis patient and my doctors began running tests to see if my disease was impacting my lungs. Nope. Not my lungs. Tests were run to see if scleroderma was attacking my heart. Nope: my heart seemed to be normal. There were some anomalies, but my doctors decided to just monitor me through routine testing and see if things changed down the road. My red blood cell counts were way too high, and I had nocturnal hypoxia, so I was started on overnight oxygen. I was tested for various conditions that could account for the weird test results, but I always had a normal result.

I struggled on, battling for more testing, as my doctors kept reassuring me that I was okay. Hey, I had a blue face and panted for air when I climbed stairs; vacuuming could put me on the floor. How could this be “normal”? Ugh. Welcome to scleroderma, I thought.

I began to think of myself as the Blue-Lipped Zebra (BLZ). If I didn’t have a rare disease confusing the issue I would be getting better health care, it seemed. If doctors didn’t tend to apply most-common-cause thinking to my condition they might get to the bottom of things faster. It was, in my mind, a huge complicated mess as my doctors applied best practice (and rigid) diagnostic parameters to my symptoms or zeroed in on specific complications of my scleroderma and ignored other possible (and to be fair, rare) causes for my symptoms. I worried that my doctors had just parked me in a holding pattern as I slowly got worse; it is hard to advocate for yourself when you are sick and dependent on your doctors for help, even if you think that they are dismissive and borderline disparaging.

I struggled on as my face became more blue, my red blood cell count higher, my panting for air more common, and the occasional near-fainting event left me collapsed on the floor. I began to ask for a right heart catherization procedure to directly measure the pressure in the right side of my heart. “Oh. You don’t want that,” I was told. “That is really invasive testing.” Umm… I think I do, I would reply. Nope. Nope, nope, nope!! “Not even on the table,” one pulmonologist said.

During lockdown last year I got much worse; ironically lockdown also gave me the opportunity to reboot, fire my old doctors and acquire new ones. My new team of doctors this spring ordered up testing that showed definite issues with my heart and lungs. I am now a heart failure patient (the wall of my left ventricle are too stiff and scarred to beat well) and there were concerning findings that suggested that I had developed pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH): there are areas of cell death in my lungs and my pulmonary artery is too big. There is too much fluid around my heart, a suggestion of ongoing inflammation. I have a hole in my heart between the atriums (a cardiac shunt) that is impacting blood flow. I was gently prepared for the PAH diagnosis, assured that there were great drugs that could help me, and a right heart catherization was ordered by my new cardiologist.

Yay!! About time!!!

Finally, after 5 years of struggle, I was yesterday wheeled into a procedure room to a waiting team of specialists who hooked me up to equipment and took me though testing to get a better look at my heart: I learned in recovery that this team calls themselves “the pit crew”, and that is exactly what it was like. Within 5 minutes I had completed a breathing test, was on oxygen, wired up to a heart monitor, hooked up to an IV, medicated, prepared with surgical drapes, and swathed in warm blankets with a heater by my feet. There was music playing and the crew was cracking jokes as they darted in and out from the table getting me ready. I was knocked out for the echocardiogram imaging of the back of my heart that was done using a probe in my esophagus, but they woke me up for the main event: the right heart catherization. My cardiologist inserted a probe into the carotid vein in my neck and threaded it into my heart by way of the superior vena cava (blue side of the heart diagram above). People, this was the most amazing experience ever! There was a huge screen showing the progress of the probe and I could watch and ask questions as the line snaked through my heart; there was absolutely no pain. “Well, this is interesting,” said my cardiologist at one point, and there were more measurements happening and a flurry of new activity from the team. The BLZ felt a surge of elation: they had found something, and it was NOT what they expected.

Back in recovery my cardiologist caught up with me again. I had done great, he said, and he just beamed as he told me that I absolutely did not have PAH. This is great news, he assured me, great news!! There is another circulation problem in the lower part of my heart, between the ventricles. There is blood coming in from the left side of my heart and mixing with the blood on the right, disrupting the flow through the heart and robbing me of oxygen to my body. I have a second, more serious, cardiac shunt, and now it is a question of locating that pesky little guy and doing something to fix the problem.

It has been FIVE YEARS, people. If I hadn’t had my trip into the cath lab yesterday my doctors would still be nagging me to get more exercise (the BLZ just barks in laughter), offering me antidepressants, or insisting that I must have sleep apnea. I feel so validated!

My cardiologist is now going over my previous imaging to find the hole now that he knows what to look for. I was told that I may need to go through more testing to definitively characterize the opening, but this is huge forward progress. I suspect that I am facing open heart surgery down the road, but I am elated that the progressive and eventually fatal diagnosis of PAH is now off the table. Things are looking up since my heart failure will now be much easier to treat.

I am reminded of Elizabeth Zimmerman’s admonishment: “Knit on with confidence and hope, through all crisis.” Also, when the going gets tough, get a kitten!

Today I am waiting to hear back from my cardiologist who is going to email me with follow up instructions after he has finished going through the data and past test results. I’m on oxygen, knitting, and feeling pretty calm about all the new developments.

Almost exactly 7 years ago (August 28th was the anniversary day) I was diagnosed with Limited Systemic Sclerosis and Sjogren’s Disease. I have learned a lot along the way, but the best, most important lessons have been about self-advocacy, facing down the worst case scenarios, communicating with your doctors, and maintaining a good attitude.

Yesterday this all paid off for me big time.

Note: The fabulous BLZ graphic was made for me by my exceptionally knitworthy niece Melissa and her beautiful and talented daughter Eleanor.

The Scleroderma Chronicles: Matters of the Heart

The Blue-Lipped Zebra (BLZ for short) has been busy the last three months (once she was fully vaccinated for Covid-19) and lots of testing and doctor appointments have happened. Lots of diagnostic hypothesis have been pursued and tested; the BLZ has received several emails from doctors that let her know about good news: you don’t have pneumonia!! your heart looks good!! your kidneys are maintaining!!

All is good. Go visit your baby bunny and don’t worry about it…

Hello. BLUE-LIPPED Zebra. Chest hurts. Zebra is dizzy. Zebra pants as soon as she moves around. Zebra is absolutely sure that everything is not fine at all!

Did I mention that the BLZ got fully vaccinated? Ever since that happened (and the BLZ got a steroid injection for her ill-behaved hip) her fatigue and brain fog have receded into the background. Quite frankly, the BLZ is feeling pretty frisky and clear-headed these day between bouts of dizziness and panting episodes. She has decided that enough is enough and she is on the move to get to the bottom of what is going on!

She contacted her doctors and health providers and had them forward her the entire text of her test results. She read these results carefully and then spent some time consulting with Dr. Google to figure out what some of these words meant. The BLZ is so grateful for that biology degree and years of related job experiences.

The BLZ has limited systemic sclerosis. What she learned was…

  • A general rule of thumb, the 15% Rule, can be used to describe the number of systemic sclerosis patients with serious complications associated with their illness. For example, 15% of patients will have Sjogren’s Disease, or digital ulcers, or lung disease, or maybe pulmonary arterial hypertension. These complications are sometimes rare in the general public, but for systemic sclerosis patients they can be common.
  • A large European study found that the majority of systemic sclerosis related deaths were from heart complications (26%) or were pulmonary arterial hypertension (26%) related.
Time to stop and smell the roses. This is a little disappointing… my doctors have been reassuring me that all is fine because they are focused on lung disease. There are a lot of bread crumbs in the test results that suggest heart problems.

Then then BLZ made an appointment with her internist (the primary care physician) to go over the test results with her and to help her prep for her cardiologist appointment next week. Don’t you think that was smart?!!!

Mateo: Very smart!!

Here’s the summary of my appointment with my wonderful internist. My face was blue and I struggled with dizziness in her office: she entered a new diagnosis into my chart that says I’m cyanotic and told me to press the cardiologist for a prescription for day time oxygen so I can carry portable oxygen with me. (“Now we’re talking!!!” barked the BLZ.) She read the test results for my CT lung scan and echocardiogram and agreed with my understanding of what the test results were saying. She told me what tests to ask for from the cardiologist at my appointment. Here’s the summary:

  • I have physical findings in my lungs that consistent with pulmonary arterial hypertension. The summary results of that test say “mild to moderate” and even say that the loss of lung tissue and an enlarged pulmonary artery are due to PAH. Huh. Look at that. (“I’m just shocked, shocked!” snarks the BLZ).
  • The tissue of the heart (the muscle) is scarred and too stiff to beat well. This condition is called diastolic dysfunction and is a type of heart failure. The echocardiogram states that my diastolic dysfunction is Grade II, which is moderate. Scleroderma is attacking my heart; 15% of systemic sclerosis patients have diastolic disfunction. While there are lots of reasons why people develop diastolic dysfunction, for me the picture is different as it is a common complication of my systemic sclerosis and not a result of say… uncontrolled high blood pressure.
  • The estimated pulmonary pressure from the echocardiogram is difficult to measure in my case (Dr. Google had to teach me about incomplete TR jet and other obscure heart-related terms) and is most likely being undermeasured. The number now is the upper limit of normal; twice in the past it couldn’t even be estimated.
  • I have a newly developed hole in my heart called a cardiac shunt.
  • My heart is broken damaged by scleroderma.

So what should the BLZ do about all of this? The internist and the BLZ hatched a plan in which she should insist request direct measurement of the pressure in the right side of her heart (right heart catherization) and another echocardiogram that looks at that cardiac shunt while she is exercising standing up. Like, maybe the BLZ needs to be climbing stairs… The BLZ is just thrilled… Also, the BLZ wants day time oxygen-to-go. Yes, please. Right now, please.

Also, the BLZ is considering taking someone with her to the appointment and will have the cardiologist send the internist his notes following the appointment.

Also, when life get tough, get a kitten!! BLZs love kittens!

So, this is an adventure in progress, but I do have some gems to share with others struggling with their own medical misadventures. Get your own copies of your test results and physician notes after appointments. Google like crazy to learn what the obscure medical terms mean. Educate yourself about your illness/condition. Stay off social media as you do this and read journal articles from legitimate sources like the Rheumatic Disease journals and articles posted by the NIH. Ask another knowledgeable person to review your test results to help clarify/validate your thinking. If my journey here can serve as a roadmap for even one other person battling their way to a diagnosis, then this post was a success.

And remember to be brave.

It is good to have a diagnosis, even if it is a shame.

Zebras are brave!!

The Scleroderma Chronicles: World Scleroderma Day, 2021

Here we are again… World Scleroderma Day.

I’ve written about scleroderma on this date for several years now. I just went back and read what I wrote last year and decided that I did a pretty good job. I talked about getting diagnosed, the complications that are being caused by my disease, and what that means in my life. Here’s that post if you would like to check out my take on things last year.

This is one crazy-ass disease and it certainly has complicated my life. In the year since I wrote that last post I have hung in there (hey, staying home for a year on oxygen slowly improving was actually good for me) and then emerged from strict lockdown to get lots of testing to try to sort out what is the cause of my blue-lipped status and the source of other little issues that I have going on. While thinking about what to write today I thought of a few things that I haven’t written about before and some things that are new since the last post.

The correct name for the type of scleroderma that I have is limited systemic sclerosis. Systemic means that every part of my body is being impacted by this disease, and the word sclerosis means that scarring is happening in tissues all over my body. What’s happening to me is not obvious to the outside viewer, but it is insidious and ongoing all the same. Somehow, by some mechanism that isn’t clear, my systemic sclerosis is being driven by antibodies that I’m producing that react with the centromeres of my cells.

What’s a centromere? I’m shocked, shocked I tell you, that you just don’t know that! Seriously, the centromere is that little place in the middle of a chromosome that can be seen when cells are getting ready to divide. This is a little tricky because the only time we can see chromosomes is when cells are getting ready to divide and they have already copied themselves: the little pinched waist in the middle of the chromosome where they are connected is where the centromere is located.

Got that?

This image belongs to the NIH; as a taxpaying citizen I hope that it is okay for me to use it here. 🙂

Somehow something happened to a protein located in the centromere area of the chromosomes in my body that made it look “different” and my immune system responded by making antibodies against that protein. The antibodies that are produced are called “anti-centromere antibodies” and their presence is highly suggestive of my form of systemic sclerosis. The alternative explanation is that my immune system just went berserk, decided to attack my own cells, and began making these antibodies on its own. I personally think that something changed and then the antibodies were made as a response. My money is on a virus.

It really doesn’t matter all that much since, once the immune system is triggered, the immune response can’t be turned off and one day you are sat down in some rheumatologist’s office and carefully told about what is happening to you and what to expect in the future. Your skin will get thick. Your blood vessels will be so damaged that they will thicken and spasm shutting off blood flow to parts of your body unexpectedly. The scarring tissue will build up in your digestive tract and damage the smooth muscles that you need to move food along. Your kidneys will lose function. Your nerves will be damaged. Your lungs need to protected since they are especially vulnerable to damage from accidently inhaled stomach acid. If your disease flares badly enough you can develop autoimmune pneumonia. Your tendons, muscles, and joints are all in trouble. You are in trouble. The damage will progress and there is no cure.

“This is really serious,” one of those early doctors told me. “This is like a diagnosis of cancer, but of course, some cancers can be cured…”

Well, shoot. Good thing there are drugs to help control symptoms and to slow the progression of the disease by dialing down the immune system.

Yay for drugs!! I am on drugs to shut down my stomach acid production (my lungs are doing pretty well) and on drugs to crush my immune system into submission. I’m on anti-inflammatories to control other cellular pathways activated by those ill-behaved antibodies. I get steroid injections to help my damaged joints and inflamed tendons. I have strict dietary limitations. I do lots of physical therapy. I’m on oxygen overnight to keep my red blood cell count in a normal range. I dress in layers to help control the spasms of my circulatory system, a phenomenon called Raynaud’s. I knit almost every day to keep my fingers from stiffening up and contracting. I now have a shiny purple cane to help me walk.

Every day is a challenge, but I am fine.

So what is new this year?

Scleroderma has damaged my heart. They are still testing to clarify exactly what is going on, but so far they have established that there is scarring in the heart muscle that is making my heart “stiff” and that somehow I developed a hole in my heart. There are suggestions of pulmonary hypertension, but I need more testing for a definitive diagnosis. No wonder I turn blue in the face and pant when I walk.

Oh, yeah, there is also a pandemic going on.

One of the greatest ironies of the last year is that serious cases of Covid-19 share similarities with the clinical symptoms of scleroderma crisis. Immune system-mediated pneumonia caused by an overreacting immune system is a hallmark of both conditions. Then there is this… Remember those drugs that I take to crush my immune system into submission? I take two drugs for that purpose. One of them, hydroxychloroquine, was (irresponsibly) politicized by influential individuals early in the pandemic and therefore became short in supply; my muscles and joints immediately rebelled when my supply lapsed early in the lockdown. The other drug that I take, mycophenolate mofetil, is linked to poor response to the Covid-19 vaccine. I am vaccinated and I am making anti-Covid antibodies, but since my total antibody count is very low my doctors aren’t sure I can fight off a Covid-19 infection fast enough to stay out of the hospital. I’m advised to continue to mask and isolate because… blue face, hole in heart, stuff like that…

For me, lockdown goes on.

So, here are the takeaway messages from this post. Be kind. There are illnesses that are really debilitating that you can’t see when you look at that person walking into a store from a handicapped parking spot. Don’t be dismissive of conditions with funny names that you’ve never heard of before. I know that it is hard to understand conditions that are beyond your experience and that you can’t really see, but take a moment to let someone tell you about their illness and the daily challenges that they embrace. If you meet a person with an autoimmune disease, they deserve a hug. If they have scleroderma you should give them two hugs! Be understanding of people who are still wearing a mask in public; perhaps they are braver than you can imagine.

Today is World Scleroderma Day.

Go Team Teal!!

Note: If you would like to know about different types of scleroderma you can learn about them here.

The Saturday Update: Weeks 22 and 23

I’m going to be honest here: June has been really challenging so far. My entire right arm is numb and in pain and there isn’t much knitting going on. My appointment book is completely filled up with medical appointments and the bruises are collecting at an alarming rate; did I mention that June is Scleroderma Awareness Month? Yep. I’m aware. Scleroderma has gone into overdrive this month. Gee, if it wanted more attention it should have just asked!

In solidarity with scleroderma there have been other disasters this month. The car that was bringing me home from GI testing this week developed engine trouble (I ended up in an Uber, hopped up on drugs, leaking fluids from an unmentionable part of my nether region… best ride across town ever!) My refrigerator started shrieking in the night as one of the fans failed putting my stash of cheese at risk (yes, I have seriously cornered the market in… cheese). Oh, did I mention that I also had a scary close encounter with my neighbor’s pit bull? Seriously, it has been challenging to do anything except deal with all of this stuff. On the other hand, I have handled things; a new refrigerator is coming (I must save the cheese!), my neighbor has implemented more safeguards to contain her dog, and I have learned how to use Uber!! I’ve completed physical therapy and am walking much better. The car that broke down was repaired at little cost. My arm is in a brace but I am rocking voice-to-text on my phone. I’m knitting again… slowly.

Still, I am warning you, June, knock it off!! I have knitting and stuff to do.

Hannah: June would be a great time to get me a little kitten companion!!

Knitting

I finished my Noncho (Sharon from Security and Casapinka) this week. What a nice, versatile addition to my wardrobe this will be. I also made some progress on a sock but really the big accomplishment this week has been the Noncho. My project notes on Ravelry are here.

Garden

It’s gotten hot and the garden has taken off. I’ve been weeding steadily and it is really exciting to find flourishing plants and emerging flower buds. Look at what is going on right now:

Seriously, the garden is starting to explode with color. My rose plants are covered with buds and the main show is going to start in just a few more days. We had so much rain earlier this year the rose bushes grew really well and things are looking good. Okay, June is picking up a little.

Books

I’m enjoying The Cold Millions while I work on my second sock. So far it is pretty good and applicable to economic issues that we are dealing with today in the US.

Have a great week everyone.

Read a little, knit a little, and garden like your heart can’t live without it.

PS: The gastroenterologist told me that I can’t eat cheese any more. Or chocolate. Or caffeine. Or carbonated drinks. Alcohol is absolutely forbidden.

I’m pretending that I didn’t hear that part about the cheese.

The Saturday Update: Weeks 19 and 20

The last two weeks have been busy, but not all that productive in the crafting/gardening/reading departments. I’m still busy going to appointments, doing my physical therapy (hey, I have graduated from the walker!!), and putting my yard and gardens back into order. Somewhere during the last two weeks the CDC here in the US changed their recommendations on mask wearing and then my state also lifted the mask mandate in most situations. Evidently we are now going to rely on the honor system to protect people at risk from other people who are unvaccinated and unmasked. Oh, dear. I have been pulling weeds and considering my options…

Late one afternoon I hurried and pruned my roses in the rain so I could get frost cloths over them to protect the new shoots from an overnight hard freeze. The resident bunny, all alone since the Great Horned owl caught his mate, joined me in the rain as I worked. It’s been that kind of week.

So here is my dilemma: what is a seriously compromised individual on immunosuppressant therapy to do? I hit the internet, of course.

As luck would have it, Science Magazine (the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science) recently published an article reporting out on the current data from several studies on this very issue. As it turns out, there are some immunosuppressant drugs that are seriously impacting the efficacy of the Covid-19 vaccines, and one of those drugs, mycophenolate, is of particular concern. Rats!! I’m taking that drug to control my scleroderma. I stopped reading the article when I got to the part about only 9% of patients on mycophenolate produced antibodies to the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. Gosh darn it, I was vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine. I wrote an email to my doctor and requested an antibody test to see if I was producing anti-Covid-19 antibodies. Late that afternoon I got a note from her nurse letting me know that I could just make the appointment online and go get the test on my own. I immediately did that and scored an appointment across town at a clinic that I could just make that evening if I jumped into the car and drove really, really fast…

So I drove across the Denver Metro area like a bat out of hell with the prevailing traffic flow and arrived at the clinic with 10 minutes to spare. Yay! Um… why is the parking lot so empty?

The clinic closed 20 minutes before the appointment; there was a goof in the scheduling system. I called my health provider from the parking lot and made sure my test request would transfer to another clinic and/or time and then sadly drove off. I bought myself chocolate on the way home. Why is everything so hard?

Thank heavens there is Hannah to balance out the little bumps in life. 🙂

The next day I got the test done after another drive across town and also heard back from my doctor. She recommended that I return to strict isolation because 1) the mask mandates had been lifted and 2) there was a strong chance that I wasn’t protected from Covid-19 no matter what the antibody test result was. Later in the day an email arrived carrying a letter from the Scleroderma Foundation that advised that I and other patients in my situation continue to wear masks and practice common sense safety measures including limiting contacts. Darn. When will this ever end? I’m starting to feel a little picked on here…

The next morning the antibody test result arrived: I have antibodies!!! Yay! About time I was cut a break, don’t you think? I’ll still be wearing a mask and will be really careful, but I think that I am safe to continue to go to appointments and the occasional book store or yarn shop.

Do you see why I’m not getting a lot of stuff done? All of this driving and decision making is just exhausting.

Knitting

The great thing about physical therapy is that you get better. You get to take afternoon breaks with hot packs on your sore muscles. The bad part about physical therapy is that, for some reason, the inflammation associated with building up muscles and loosening my bad boy tendons (I’m finally rehabilitating from a ruptured tendon in my hip) makes my joints misbehave. My hands especially have decided that they want to be babied and they definitely don’t want to knit. Still, I have made a little progress over the last two weeks:

My Noncho (Casapinka) is finally starting to take shape. The simple stockinette knitting in the round is easy on my hands and I can’t wait to get it done so I can wear it in cool offices during appointments. My socks, which are a take on assigned pooling knitting, are more adventurous with the texture stitches and the purl sections not to mention turning that heel and picking up stitches. Still, I am getting somehere with them. I’m inventing the socks as I go and will take time to explain what I did then they are done, but right now I’m just enjoying the fun of an adventurous bit of knitting fun. Don’t those socks make you happy just looking at them?!

Garden

The weather has totally been messing with us the last two weeks. It has rained… at lot. We have had snow followed by really warm sunny days. The the windy days arrived late this week to knock the new plants around under cloudy skies that threatened severe thunderstorms and tornadoes.

Ugh! I am getting lots of weeds pulled, new bedding plants planted, and sections of the lawn reseeded. Really, I have been working, but all I really have to show for my time is…

Hannah and her hydrangea plant that I pulled inside for a couple of days (hard freeze warning). Hannah thought that the plant was for her and was really involved with it for the couple days that she had it. Sorry Hannah. Hydrangeas need to live outside.

Books

I just started this book. Anyone have any feedback on whether I should keep going?

I was really excited about rejoining my book club next week for their meeting about Wanderers. Nope. Guess that isn’t happening as they are meeting at an indoors restaurant and the Covid-19 restrictions are now lifted so dining capacity is back up to 100%. This is a big, heavy book. It hurts my hands to hold it. If it doesn’t get really compelling really quickly it is going back to the library.

Anyone have a book recommendation?

Have a great week everyone.

Read a little, knit a little, and garden like your heart can’t live without it.

The Scleroderma Chronicles: The Blue-Lipped Zebra Gets a Credible Hypothesis

At last.

If you have forgotten about the tales of the Blue-Lipped Zebra, that’s what I’ve taken to calling myself as I struggled over the last few years for some definitive answers to my blue-lipped shortness-of-breath issues. Really, things got pretty darn extreme late in 2019 and I started to get really pushy in finding some answers. Here’s the posts that I wrote then: The Blue-Lipped Zebra Report, The Blue-Lipped Zebra Gets Some MRIs, and The Blue-Lipped Zebra Goes on Oxygen.

Hannah: All of that happened before I came to take care of the Kitten Mom.

To summarize all of the adventures of the BLZ (that is code for Blue-Lipped Zebra), about 5 years ago I caught the flu and was really sick. I never fully recovered as shortness of breath lingered and lingered, and eventually I noticed that my lips turned blue after showers and when I climbed the stairs. I steadily worsened and began to call (and call, and call…) my rheumatologist for help. He ordered up some testing and referred me to a pulmonologist. My echocardiogram and lung CT scan looked good, but my pulmonary function test showed some asthma. My pulmonologist decided to that I must have asthma because of my Sjogren’s Disease, and maybe… (cue the dramatic music)

Sleep Apnea

so I got tested for that. That test showed that I had nocturnal hypoxemia (like, I was under 90% saturated blood oxygen for over an hour) so I was started on overnight oxygen. All my doctors dusted off their hands, said “Job done!” and that was that. As far as they were concerned the BLZ had been put out to pasture.

My symptoms improved and after 6 months I was taken off the oxygen again.

Over the next two years my symptoms came back and got steadily worse. To further complicate things my systemic sclerosis and Sjogren’s symptoms also worsened. I was constantly fighting a flare of my autoimmune diseases (joint and muscle pain, fatigue, brain fog, hair loss, GI nastiness) at the same time I struggled to walk without stopping to put my head between my knees because I felt faint. I ended up on the floor more than once. I panted like a freight train when going up stairs and now my entire lower face was looking blue at times. I coughed up mucus every morning and it sometimes contained streaks of blood. The BLZ was back and running wild. My rheumatologist ordered tests; once again my heart and lung tests looked good. Disgusted with my complaining, my rheumatologist decided that maybe I should be prescribed antidepressants, or maybe I should be tested for… (cue the dramatic music)

Sleep Apnea

I fired that doctor and found another. I met with my internist, who ordered more testing, and I had a first appointment with the new rheumatologist who had been recommended to me by the local chapter of the Scleroderma Foundation. The new tests showed that I had severe inflammation of my tendons, a destroyed hip joint, a condition called polycythemia (too many red blood cells), and nocturnal hypoxemia again. I was put back onto oxygen and the pandemic then closed everything down. I asked about the possible cause of my polycythemia, but there wasn’t anything that really jumped out to my doctors. The BLZ was ordered into strict isolation for the duration of the Covid-19 emergency.

Now I am fully vaccinated and back into the world and pushing my way though new testing and have acquired a couple of new doctors after ending up in urgent care with chest pain, a blue face, and shortness of breath. The testing early this year showed that I had more fluid around my heart and that the pressure on the right side up my heart was up into borderline high range. Because of my systemic sclerosis I am high risk for a condition called pulmonary arterial hypertension so that high pressure reading triggered an alarm: I was sent to a cardiologist.

The cardiologist was completely dismissive of the two clinical observations that had generated the cardiology referral, was borderline disparaging of my anxiousness about my not-yet-vaccinated status (there are other people who are sicker…), lectured me about getting cardio in three times a week, and insisted that I be tested for… (you know the drill: dramatic music time)

Sleep Apnea

“At least you didn’t offer me antidepressants,” I said. I limped away, fighting tears and panting for air, wondering why I have to keep firing doctors and hunting for new ones. “Suck it up, Buttercup,” said the BLZ as I drove home. “You have a new pulmonologist to talk about this with.”

There I am, waiting for the pulmonologist, minutes before he gave me the unifying diagnostic hypothesis.

Three weeks ago I met with the new pulmonologist, one that was recommended by my new (wonderful) rheumatologist. He asked me lots of questions, dismissed the notion that I have sleep apnea (“What a shock!” snarked the BLZ), and then dropped the bomb. I have a cardiac shunt. Blood from the right, unoxygenated side of my heart, is passing through a hole in my heart and disrupting the flow of oxygenated blood to my body. He ordered a new echocardiogram with bubbles to look for the hole and to confirm the diagnosis. He also wants to check how much fluid is around my heart and is concerned about the right side pressure levels, which were the two reasons why I was sent to that cardiologist (that the BLZ wants to kick in the face…) in the first place.

Hannah: The new echocardiogram is in three more weeks. The Kitten Mom is getting a little anxious while she waits…

As the pulmonologist walked me to the door out of the clinic that day he casually said to me, “I really admire your attitude.”

Oh, oh.

The BLZ’s whiskers started to tingle.

You know I googled for information about cardiac shunts from the parking garage before I even drove away from the appointment. Almost immediately the condition that he suspects appeared on the page: Eisenmenger syndrome. I have every single one of the symptoms that are listed on the page. This is the unifying diagnosis, if the echocardiogram confirms it, that explains the blue face, shortness of breath, nocturnal hypoxemia, polycythemia, and the inflammation that has been driving my two autoimmune diseases, systemic sclerosis and Sjogren’s disease out of control.

Why did it take so long to get here?

Eisenmenger is rare.

The BLZ is barking with laughter.

Me, I’m working on my attitude as I wait for the echocardiogram appointment.

The Year Alone: Reflections on Wonder, Luck and Hope

There is a storm on the way. These things look a little unbelievable on the weather forecaster’s computer display, but there seems to be a massive low pressure area cut off from the jet stream sliding relentlessly towards a part of the United States that will set up a big weather event. Snow. Lots of snow. Maybe feet of snow. I’m pretty stocked up but I needed a few items for my weekend cooking, so I headed to the grocery store late in the day to grab them. Oh, oh. The store was packed and the shelves were already emptying out. Shoppers radiated urgency as they raced down aisles disregarding the one-way Covid-19 traffic patterns. New shoppers were pouring in the door as I checked out and there was a whiff of panic as they passed me. This is crazy! How much snow is really coming, I wondered as I loaded my bags into the car and escaped the chaotic parking lot. I hadn’t seen anything like this since the early days of Covid-19 as the lockdown approached…

The lockdown. This week is the anniversary of the first Covid-19 death in my state, Colorado, and in just a few more days it will be the anniversary of the lockdown that started my year at home in isolation. So many people have been sick, and way too many have died. So much has been lost by so many people; this is the greatest tragedy of my lifetime. For me, however, in strict isolation, the year has rolled by with me in my own little world mostly disconnected from the greater world outside; my story is a lockdown story, not a Covid-19 story. I have been disappointed by people who kept me trapped in my home by refusing to wear masks or to comply with public health recommendations, and brought to tears by the kindness of strangers. A year is a long time; looking back now it seems like it passed in a flash even though I had some real struggles along the way.

Last night one of the local news programs had people post the last picture on their phone before the lockdown happened. Here’s mine.

My son’s kitten Jonesy in a tube attached to the cat pillar. He’s a 6 months old kitten in this shot.
Jonesy today as a handsome young adult at 18 months old.

This year of isolation has been 2/3’s of Jonesy’s life and the entirety of Hannah’s life as she was born within the first few days of lockdown in the middle of March. Looking at Hannah and Jonesy it is so obvious how long this year has been. Looking at Hannah and Jonesy it doesn’t seem all that bad, but of course this has been an extraordinarily tough year.

I sewed some cloth masks early on and wore them on the few occasions I had to leave the house: a science geek who had read way too many books about epidemiology, I suspected airborne transmission based on anecdotal reports from the New York City outbreak. That mask picture is the 2nd one on my phone after the start of the lockdown. As the debate about mask efficacy raged in online forums I wore mine anyway and ignored people who made negative comments. Almost a year later I was wearing two masks, one a highly regarded Vogmask, as I got that first dose of Pfizer vaccine.

“Do you trust the vaccine?” asked my neighbor yesterday. “Absolutely,” I replied.

I feel very, very lucky to get this Pfizer vaccine. Through chance I have a degree in molecular biology and worked for years in an immunology research lab. The molecular trickery used in this vaccine to harness my immune system to protect me from Covid-19 is the best thing that happened all year in my opinion.

I’ve been assigning lots of labels to this year spent mostly alone with my little tuxedo kitten, my books, and my bottomless pit of a yarn stash. This has been the year of astonishment. The year of disappointment. The year of living dangerously. The year of setting priorities. The year of realigning values. The year of healing. The year of decluttering. The year of absolute outrage. The year of lies and fake news. The year of masks. The year of Zoom. Finally, today, it is the year of luck and wonder.

I do want to apologize for my use of the words luck and wonder. There is no real luck in a pandemic at all. I absolutely know how awful and devastating this has been for so many people: how profoundly unlucky so many of us are that this happened to us right now in our lifetimes. The mutation and jump to humans of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 was an event that has been anticipated and feared for a long time. It’s like waiting for an earthquake in California (The Big One) that will be massively destructive. You know it is coming, but you don’t know when or exactly where it will strike, and how devastating the damage will be. You prepare for it and hope that you are ready. How ironic, after growing up in California waiting for The Big One to hit, the crushing event of my lifetime came from a virus. In spite of the basic awfulness of all of this, I am learning to value the little crumbs of luck that came my way during my time in strict isolation while other people recovered so much of their lives and I was left behind.

I am so grateful for the luck, the random chance events, the technology, the human kindness, and the science that helped me get through this year.

My wonderful pandemic kitten was a failed adoption returned to the shelter and rejected by everyone else before I arrived to find her alone standing in a little cat tunnel. The last kitten left in the kitten room; her 6 litter mates had all found forever homes days before. Returned, rejected, all alone: the one thing that I needed. How lucky is that?

That’s little abandoned kitten Hannah on the left, 6 month old Hannah in the middle, and Hannah tonight hanging out with me while I type. Hannah was the one thing that I needed to pull me out of growing sorrow and a sense of abandonment when I realized that the the pandemic was raging unchecked in the USA as the result of a deliberate policy set by my government.

I was diagnosed with nocturnal hypoxia and received the oxygen equipment 5 days before lockdown. How lucky is that? Because of the oxygen I have been steadily improving for months.

I can order anything that I need online and have it delivered to the house in just a few minutes, hours, or days. Seriously, almost anything. A hamburger? It’s on the way!! A case of paper towels? My Instacart shopper is on it! A pair of new sheepskin slippers? Amazon makes it happen! More yarn… yes!! A plethora of indy yarn dyers will ship me my heart’s content. What would have happened if this pandemic hit in the 1990’s? How lucky that the technological infrastructure that allows all of these supportive services to exist is there for me and everyone else who needs them.

Every time I stream a movie on Netflix I feel lucky.

I was raised in the 50’s and 60’s: I can home cook from scratch and have returned to the meals of my childhood. Comfort food in a modern crockpot. How lucky is that?

I have a SMART PHONE that does everything that I can imagine doing. It banks for me. It remotely checks me into my doctor’s appointments. It tells me the route to drive to come home after a long day in a medical center. It connects me to so many other people in Facebook forums. It answers all of my questions: a couple of YouTube tutorials can handle any crisis. I can text all of my friends and family no matter what is happening outside. I feel lucky, people!!

I met with my primary care doctor via Zoom. I feel grateful for Zoom, people, even though most people in America hate its guts by now.

Knitting and reading groups have sprung up online that have connected me to wonderful, supportive, and positive friends from all over the world as we share our books, knitting, and cats. Then there is this blog. I tell you, I feel so lucky that this is all possible.

The Sharon Show, a MKAL run by Sharon from Security, a snarky cat who loves whiskey a little too much…

I can get unlimited ebooks and audibooks (well, as much as my bank account will allow…) instantly delivered to my Kindle tablet. I feel lucky.

In my year of isolation, oxygen, and limited adventures out of the house my painful joints have settled down, my kidney function has improved, and my red blood cell count has fallen into normal ranges for the first time in years. I am doing much better in many ways. Okay, I’m looking at a lot of medical testing to identify the cause of persistent chest pain, and there is still the problem of the severely damaged hip joint, but I’m in much better shape at the moment to tackle this then I was a year ago. I feel lucky.

Winter will end and the garden outside will come back to life soon. I feel lucky!!

I spend too much time wondering about things. Left alone, I have a lot of time for my imagination to run wild as I wonder about everything. I wonder if my roses all survived the dry winter. I wonder if the vet will yell at me for not getting Hannah in for her shots this year. I wonder what would have happened if this pandemic happened 20 years ago. I wonder what if it hadn’t happened at all. I wonder if I should throw away so many of my belongings as I declutter. I wonder why do I have a rare disease (systemic sclerosis) that appears to share some characteristics with Covid-19; what were the chances of that? I wonder when the Big One will come. I wonder if I should write a book. I wonder how I should combine colors of yarn in my next knitting project. I wonder what is happening with the Covid-19 long haulers. I wonder why some Covid-19 long haulers have improved after getting their Covid-19 vaccinations.

I wonder why, one week after my vaccination, I feel significantly better then I did two weeks ago.

I am actually looking forward to shoveling some snow this weekend.

In the greatest of tragedies there are still little crumbs of luck and rays of hope.

May our bad times end soon and we all have days of wonder, luck, and hope.

The Saturday Update: Week 4, 2021

It was a crazy, crazy busy week with lots going on. I had medical testing, an online court appearance to give testimony in a neighbor’s custody case, and a nail in one of my car’s tires. My medical status continues unchanged (blue lips, chest pain, shortness of breath), but the machinery to get to the bottom of things is now in motion. The first couple of rounds of testing have generated a referral to cardiology and hopefully that will happen this week. My neighbor won her custody case, and the car tire is now repaired. Whew! I spent the bottom half of the week relaxing with my knitting because I was completely pooped by all of that running around.

The Kitten Mom left me all alone THREE times this week!!

Knitting

I did make some good progress this week in spite of the trips out of the house.

My Geology socks are done!! I’ve decided to try to make at least one pair of socks each month, so these are January’s pair.

I also buckled down and did the blocking and finishing work on my Secret Life of Cats (and dogz) shawl by Sharon from Security (Casapinka). This is the longer shawl version of the project; there were also options to make a cowl or a scarf. Fun color for gloomy days, huh! I’m actually thinking that I may be giving this one away to someone who loves purple and bright colors and a scarf version made with scrap yarn from the stash may be in my future.

It snowed this week I so gave in to the urge and cast on one of the sweaters that I have been dying to get going on. I have wanted to make Goldwing for a long time, and bought the yarn a couple of weeks ago with my stimulus check. Here it is, finally started:

Look at the absolute quality help that I am getting from Hannah!!

The Scleroderma Chronicles: The Pulmonary Hypertension Edition

I few weeks ago I posted about my systemic sclerosis, Covid-19, and my decision to donate my DNA to the 23andMe Systemic Sclerosis Research Project. My DNA has safely arrived and is in the lab getting sequenced right now. I was motivated to contribute because Covid-19 is creating so many new patients with fibrosis that may benefit from this research in addition to people like myself with autoimmune disease or people with other fibrotic diseases.

Monday I had an urgent echocardiogram done and once again an eerie connection between my disease, systemic sclerosis, and Covid-19 appeared. My test was started a little late so I asked the technician if things were busy. He told me that they were very busy because there were so many Covid-19 long haulers who needed testing. After a while, thinking things over, I asked if these patients were getting heart damage. “Well, not their heart muscle, but they were developing pulmonary hypertension,” he said. Oh, oh. That is the very reason I was there getting an echocardiogram; as a systemic sclerosis patient I am high risk for pulmonary hypertension and pulmonary arterial hypertension, and I know that those are serious and life altering/ending conditions. After thinking a little longer I asked him how many Covid-19 long haulers were getting that diagnosis. “It’s in double digits,” he replied…

Double digits. At this one medical center in the heart of Denver. That means that there are potentially hundreds and hundreds of patients getting that diagnosis across my state.

I wished that I had thought to ask him how old those patients were…

The next day my rheumatologist called to let me know that I was being referred to cardiology as my echocardiogram results suggested pulmonary hypertension and that further testing was required. There is also an issue with fluid around my heart… It was what I expected, but not exactly what I was looking forward to. The only problem right now is getting me into cardiology, because, all of those Covid-19 long haulers…

It has been impressed on me that I need to double mask now each time I go out into public. I have a nice N95 level mask, but I’m also putting a medical grade mask on top of it.

Be careful, people!!

Stay safe and wear your masks!!