At last. I mean, this has been going on for more than 5 years and had reached the point of utter absurdity. If you haven’t been keeping up on all of this, I have been struggling with shortness of breath and sporting blue lips for way too long. I also have pretty significant fatigue, chest pain, and major muscle and joint pain. I’m a mess.
My doctors do routine testing to monitor me for heart and lung conditions associated with systemic sclerosis; each time I had an echocardiogram and a high resolution CT scan the results were that I was… fine. No indications of a major problem.
But I was absolutely, positively not fine. I began to refer to the reassurances that all was okay as medical gaslighting. I transferred to new doctors. I got copies of all my test results, did lots of google searches, read research papers and articles in medical journals, and began to have evidence-based discussions with my doctors. They ordered up more aggressive testing of my heart and lungs. I posted about the my right heart catherization and CPET here if you want to catch up.
Last Monday my cardiologist called and gave me the final diagnosis. I have a type of pulmonary hypertension that is exercise-induced that is being complicated by a cardiac shunt in my heart. At rest, for all those previous echocardiograms and CT scans, everything was fine. When I’m in motion it is another story.
So, what exactly is pulmonary hypertension and why am I, as a systemic sclerosis patient, at high risk for it? In the most simple terms, the interiors of my lung arteries are narrowing due to scleroderma scarring and tissue growth; as the openings get smaller, the pressure of blood flowing through the arteries gets higher.
When we exercise the body needs more oxygen delivered to tissues; arteries constrict to raise blood pressure, your heart speeds up and your respiration rate increases. In my case, that constriction of arteries in my lungs makes the blood pressure in the lungs increase too much; blood struggles to get through the pulmonary arteries, and the downstream pressure in my right heart forces blood to flow from the right side, through the shunt, and into the left. My body’s blood pressure zooms up as the left side of the heart fights to push blood out of the heart past the jet of blood coming in from the right side through that dang hole. It’s a catastrophic cascade that happens in seconds, and the entire phenomenon is being driven by my systemic sclerosis created pulmonary hypertension. “You’re a challenging patient,” my cardiologist told me as we talked about my future treatment. Yep. That’s me. A challenge. I excel at challenges.
Last week the new medication that my cardiologist prescribed was shipped overnight express to me by Kaiser’s National Specialty Pharmacy. Kind of unusual, right? That’s because pulmonary hypertension is rare, so there aren’t that many people taking this drug in the US. If I was a Blue-Lipped Zebra before, I am now a BLZ wearing a crown. A periwinkle crown, of course, for pulmonary hypertension.
When I started this scleroderma journey one of my doctors told me that it was good to have a diagnosis, even if it was a shame. This is true. I’ve learned a lot since my first blood tests came back hinting at an auto-immune disease that generated a referral to a rheumatologist.
I’ve learned to be patient. I’ve learned to advocate for myself. I’ve learned to take the initiative to learn about my disease and to become an active participant in my treatment plan. I’ve learned to face down the monster and to go on with my life.
Well, this was an exhausting and fraught week, wasn’t it. I mean, I struggled to knit the week was so bad, and then if that wasn’t enough I logged some personal drama myself. As in…
Yesterday I couldn’t walk on my excessively ill-behaved legs!! I hit bottom after a couple of days of noticing that I was having more breathing issues and sporting blue lips again. What is up with this, 2021? Did 2020 leave you some type of User’s Manual? Just drop that sh*t in the nearest trash can and behave yourself!!
In a normal year I would have called for help and gotten myself into a medical center, but in this year I stayed in bed on oxygen, drugged up, and snacked on the crackers and bai drinks that I keep upstairs. It’s got to be inflammation, I told myself, so I’ll just sleep this off. Yep. Today I’m up and managing like nothing happened. I blame the weather… I absolutely blame 2020 for lingering bad vibes… I blame too many trips in and out of the cold garage…
No week or year can be absolutely bad, right?! There was also lots to be happy about. I had great packages on the way to me (squishy mail and the 23andMe DNA kit from my last post), a flourishing indoor garden, two really engaging books to read, and my goodness (!!) the Secret Life of Cats (and dogz) shawl is about as cheerful as a piece of knitted work can be. I’m still thinking about my resolutions for this year (but getting my Covid-19 vaccine is at the top of the list), so I’m just going to ignore all the newsworthy events of the week and jump to what was up at home.
I have ONLY ONE knitting project going on at the moment, but it is a doozy. Look at this explosion of color wonderfulness!
I totally lost control and ordered yarn for myself last week and I’m practically dying with the need to cast on more projects. Maybe just a little pair of socks? I know that I need to stay away from sweaters, but wouldn’t a cowl be a nice little things to have stuffed into a project bag… I have new yarns with names like “Naughty Chair” and “Troublemaker” that are insisting that I should cast them onto needles as soon as possible. Little projects like that are easier to manage when staying in bed all day with a cat sleeping on you… Do it! Do it! Do it! the yarns chant from the yarn stash…
Hannah has been spending a lot of time in the indoor garden, and I have to admit that it seems to be doing well even with her knocking plants over and using some of them as toys.
Hannah especially likes the owl in the garden that is supposed to be watching over her… yeah. I had to evacuate the owl to a safe location this afternoon. Several of the jade plants have been staked this week to help prop up the branches that Hannah has shoved over. I think that the problem is that Hannah is growing quickly and spaces that she previously moved through easily are now too small for her so… plants get knocked around, lamps knocked down, and worst of all, she misses some jumps and falls off of ledges that she used to have no problems with. Suddenly that little window sill isn’t quite big enough! Anyway, back to the garden. One of the orchids is blooming and another is putting out a stem, so the winter is cheerier than I first expected. The African violets are still putting out lots of new buds, so the craft room, where the garden is, is currently my happy place.
I started two new books this week and am still reading them, but both have completely captured my attention and I’m planning on finishing at least one of them before the weekend is over.
I’ve been caught up in The Huntress and really enjoying it but yesterday in bed called for an audiobook so I started the second book, To Sleep in a Sea of Stars. Now I have a real conflict as I like the Paolini book so much I want to cast on a new knitting project and just listen to it, but the Kate Quinn book is also excellent and I am so close to finishing it I should buckle down and just finish it off… but I can’t knit as easily while reading a paper book. Life is full of these trade offs. Obviously I should finish the paper book as fast as I can so that I can cast on a pair of socks… in blue yarn… with gold sprinkles… the name of the yarn is “Cloud Atlas” which would be nice to knit while in a sea of stars, don’t you think? That’s the plan.
“Naughty Chair” and “Troublemaker”, don’t worry. I haven’t forgotten about you. I happen to have 3 little project bags and lots of needles!
Have a great week, everyone!!
Please stay safe.
Read a little, knit a little, and garden like your heart can’t live without it.
And wear your mask!!
“Naughty Chair” and “Troublemaker” are produced by Hue Loco.
Systemic Sclerosis is a rare, chronic, progressive, and incurable autoimmune disease that is included in the family of rheumatic conditions. It is characterized by blood vessel damage and the scarring and thickening of skin due to excessive collagen production (fibrosis). The internal organs can also be damaged by inflammation and scarring: the digestive tract, heart, kidneys, and lungs.
There are two main types of systemic sclerosis: diffuse and limited.
I was diagnosed with limited systemic sclerosis 6 years ago.
The Circle Starts: In high school I developed a mystery illness that involved intense itching, lots of rashes, sensitivity to sunlight, and swollen digits. I was a mess. It went on for a few years and then the worse of the symptoms faded away.
First Quarter Circle: In my mid twenties I was a researcher working on a scleroderma project for the Division of Rheumatology at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver, Colorado. The principal investigator that I worked for was interested in isolating the targets of the autoantibodies that scleroderma patients made; if we found the actual proteins that the antibodies characteristic of this autoimmune rheumatic disease were targeting we would be closer to understanding what they did, and eventually closer to understand the disease process of scleroderma. Let me be clear here: my boss, Dr. Angeline Douvas, was the brains of this little research outfit and I did most of the bench work.
One morning Angie had the hot idea that we should see what happened if we did an anti-nuclear antibody (ANA) test on the polytene chromosomes of the fruit fly Drosophila, a common lab experimental animal. We knew that the antibodies produced by the scleroderma patients were sticking to the chromosomes in the nucleus of cells… what would it look like if we checked this test on the chromosomes of fruit flies which were enormous structures that were easy to look at under the microscope?
After staining we could see that on the entire chromosome a few distinct bands were stained: only a few genes were targeted by the antibodies of the scleroderma patients. What was the function of the genes, and what were those proteins, the clear targets of the antibodies made by these scleroderma patients, doing? Something important that was linked to this disease that we call systemic sclerosis (scleroderma). How was all of that tied to the damaging fibrosis going on in these patients?
Here’s the other interesting conundrum that we kicked around: what changed in these genes/proteins that made them trigger the immune system to make antibodies? There are lots of things that can change genes and the proteins that they make. Things like radiation, chemicals, environmental triggers, viruses…
Second Quarter Circle: Now in my 60s, and diagnosed as a scleroderma patient myself, I began writing letters to my congressman asking him to support the National Commission on Scleroderma and Fibrotic Diseases Act, a bill which would coordinate and organize resources to study the process that is involved in the formation of scar tissue in scleroderma and other diseases/conditions. Two summers ago I met with a representative of my congressman, Jason Crow, with other scleroderma patients to make our case. Scleroderma is special, I argued, because our antibodies are a tool that can be used to unpack the process of fibrosis. Representative Crow did support the bill.
Third Quarter Circle: It is 2020 and Covid-19 has arrived. Early on we learned that this is a serious virus that causes an extreme immune system response in some individuals that is life threatening. There is severe lung involvement, blood clots, scarred lungs, injured hearts, failing kidneys… this is no joke if you are already dealing with all of this, so I and other scleroderma patients are avoiding it like the plague and retreating to our online support groups even more than usual. We share observations and experiences in these forums, and it wasn’t very long before we started to notice that these severe Covid-19 cases seemed to be awfully similar to severe systemic sclerosis. We laughed about “Covid Toes” since dealing with blue fingers and toes is a daily struggle for us. Then the news reports about Covid-19 long-haulers started to emerge, and we all started to say to each other… wow… fatigue, brain fog, muscle/joint pains, lung and heart problems… sounds a lot like what we deal with… Then some people started to arrive in our support groups who were newly diagnosed scleroderma patients who were also Covid-19 long haulers. Now every week new people, shocked and frightened by their life-altering diagnosis of systemic sclerosis, are showing up in our forums. “Gee, there are a lot of new patients arriving,” someone wrote last week…
All of a sudden it is really important to understand fibrotic diseases and how to reverse the damage caused by Covid-19.
The Circle Closes: The genome sequencing service 23andMe has launched a genetic research study of systemic sclerosis patients. They are screening and accepting 1000 diagnosed patients who will donate their DNA for research into systemic sclerosis. I’m pretty sure that this effort to collect more information about the genes of systemic sclerosis patients is in part driven by the urgent need to deal with an emerging flood of new patients with fibrotic organ damage due to Covid-19 infections. Tonight I completed my application to submit my DNA to the study and to participate in all their additional data collection about my disease. Remember those few, distinct genes lit up on the fly chromosome? “Go get ’em, boys!” I muttered to myself as I clicked the submit button.
Today there were 225,558 new cases of Covid-19 in the US and 3,499 new deaths.
How many of the Covid-19 survivors will eventually be dealing with a chronic, progressive, and incurable autoimmune disease?
Wear your masks, people!!
Wednesday Afternoon Update: I’ve been accepted into the research program and they have already shipped my DNA collection kit to me. Hannah is so excited!!
Footnote: Did Angie and I find a protein using the scleroderma patients antibodies? Yep. We did.
“When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras.” ~medical school proverb
Zebra ~medical slang for an exotic medical diagnosis
As a teenager I struggled with eczema and was photosensitive; I was started on steroids, told to wear long sleeves, and to stay out of the sun. Without a clear cause for my eczema/rash I told that I was high strung and unable to handle stress; if I could control my emotions I would see my symptoms disappear. Eventually I did get better, the drugs stopped, and my life went on.
In my early 20s I had my first asthma attacks. I didn’t really understand what was happening, it was always in the night, and the doctor couldn’t find anything wrong. I was told to handle stress better. Most of the time I was okay, so I just learned to deal with it.
In my early 30s my knees began to swell and become painful. There were lumps below and behind my knees. I had an ultrasound to make sure the worst lump wasn’t cancer. I was told to do special exercises and to stick to low impact. My eyes hurt and I couldn’t go outside without sunglasses. Clouds of floaters swam across my vision. You have allergies, said the doctor. My finger was too fat for my wedding ring so I resized it.
In my 40s my hands became numb and swelled. I had a lot of pain and struggled to manage routine tasks. Carpal tunnel, said the doctors: it’s a repetitive motion injury and you did this to yourself. I had the surgery on both wrists and my hands did get better, but I still struggled with swelling and numbness, even in my feet. I developed a rash on my face. Rosacea, said the doctor. My knees still hurt. I started to develop high blood pressure. Control your diet and exercise, said the doctor. My fingers became too fat to wear any of my rings. I was tested for autoimmune antibodies associated with rheumatic diseases (anti-nuclear antibodies), but the result was only mildly positive so it was dismissed as not significant.
In my 50s my knees were so bad I had to take ibuprofen every day to function at work. It hurt to breathe in the mornings, and I had several cases of bronchitis that required an inhaler and steroids to recover from. I developed pleurisy. I was also told that there was nothing wrong with my lungs, and that I needed to get better shoes. My face and jaw hurt so much I couldn’t sleep. TMJ, said the doctor. You need to handle stress better. My kidney function dropped to 35%, alarming another doctor. You damaged your kidneys taking ibuprofen, I was told, and you can’t take any more. I changed my job so I wouldn’t have to stand so much at work. My blood pressure continued to rise in spite of changes in my diet and exercise; I was placed on a beta blocker to control it. I developed Raynaud’s phenomenon; don’t worry, I was told, it is a side effect of the beta blocker. I wondered why I wasn’t getting wrinkles like my friends. The rash on my face was getting worse.
In my early 60s I noticed that my arm was getting “thick” and that I sometimes couldn’t complete a swallow; food became “stuck” mid-gulp. I complained about dry mouth. My fingers turned blue in the cold. I was hospitalized with severe gastritis. I was stalked by fatigue and my knees hurt every single day. My fingers were too fat to make a tight fist. Unable to function at work, I retired early. I developed colitis and rarely left the house. Testing showed that I didn’t have an intestinal infection, and my doctor didn’t pursue things any further.
One night the light went off for me. I had joint pain, kidney damage, intestinal woes, Raynaud’s, a rash on my face, and a positive ANA. I walked in and demanded testing for lupus.
How is it possible, asked my doctor when confronted with the list of symptoms, that you haven’t already been diagnosed? Shocked that I had slipped through the cracks for years, my doctor immediately ordered the complete diagnostic battery for rheumatic diseases. It wasn’t lupus after all, but a couple of relatives: scleroderma and Sjogren’s syndrome, two rheumatic systemic diseases that unified all of my symptoms. The decades-long string of mystery complaints was over, and I was started on aggressive treatment for these two autoimmune diseases.
How was it possible that I hadn’t been diagnosed earlier? Isn’t that a wonderful question! How could I have slipped through the cracks year after year as I struggled with pain, respiratory infections, dysfunctional hands, eye problems, TMJ, and all the other medical woes that had parked themselves at my door? Why was there no diagnosis when, as I was to learn later, I was an absolute classic case of limited systemic sclerosis, a type of scleroderma, and that my Sjogren’s was obvious and well established.
In retrospect, the answer is glaringly obvious: I am not common. I have a rare disease (systemic sclerosis), and even though my doctors were well intentioned, they dismissed my symptoms when I didn’t fit the usual diagnostic profiles. I was a zebra in a herd of horses, ill-behaved and refusing to fall into line with their medical school training. Since I couldn’t be diagnosed with any of the normal causes for my symptoms, doctor after doctor concluded that they must be due to something else, like maybe stress… or lack of exercise… or my choices in pain medication. Time after time, I was assigned the blame for my own illness because of my inability to “handle stress”, repetitive motions, bad shoes, lack of exercise, taking ibuprofen, or any other excuse reasonable explanation that came to mind when my symptoms could not be ascribed to common causes. My doctors had been trained to ignore zebras, and these other causes were more plausible to them.
The other reason this happened was because my symptoms were always presented to my doctors in isolation: chest cold, painful eyes, knees that won’t bend, and so on. Symptoms that emerged over decades, and were presented to different doctors. No one saw the big picture until I finally pieced it together myself and then my doctor was shocked by the list: grouped together my symptoms screamed autoimmune rheumatic disease.
Why am I reflecting (and writing) about all of this? This month, March, is National Autoimmune Awareness Month. My story is one that is shared by many, many other people who deal with autoimmune illnesses. One of my diseases is rare (scleroderma), but the Sjogren’s and fibromyalgia are not. In a way, to have an autoimmune disease is to be a zebra because these conditions are elusive, can present themselves with a battery of symptoms that are seemingly unconnected, and don’t respond to the usual courses of treatments like antibiotics, diet and exercise. They can take, just as mine did, many years to diagnose. For many autoimmune patients, they are, just as I was, zebras crying for help in a herd of horses. Trained to treat horses, doctors don’t always hear the cries. One way to combat the problem is to educate the zebras so that they can, just as I did, recognize and group their symptoms together in a meaningful way to present to their doctors to help them make the diagnosis. Autoimmune Awareness Month is meant to educate everyone who might deal with an autoimmune disease: patients, families, caretakers, and doctors.
In my family we know these illnesses well. My grandfather died from complications of rheumatoid arthritis and my father had disabling allergies. I have scleroderma, Sjogren’s syndrome and fibromyalgia. My son has type-1 diabetes and my daughter-in-law has multiple sclerosis. In all of these illnesses there is an immune system that is attacking normal tissue in our bodies; for some of us the attack is moderated by drugs that are designed to disable parts of our immune systems, but it continues nevertheless. Unless there is a cure the damage will continue to accumulate in our organs and tissues. These are the words that are often used to describe autoimmune illnesses such as ours: disabling, progressive, incurable, potentially fatal.
We aren’t alone. There are around 50 million Americans who also have autoimmune diseases. There are over 100 different autoimmune diseases and the need for research, support and treatment is endless.
Antibiotic Protocol is an alternative medicine therapy for autoimmune disease. It certainly has a following. Check this out. There is more information on it at the Arthritis Foundation. It seems to be loosely associated with “Leaky Gut” as it links chronic autoimmune illness to microbial sources originating in our intestines. The shaky model and vague language involved in leaky gut has landed it on the pseudoscience list at Wikipedia.
This has been a really hard post to put together. I have all these little memories and reactions rolling around in my mind, and I struggle to link them together in a meaningful way. Here are some of the things that have happened and my gut reaction (did you see what I did there?) to them:
I have a friend with lupus. She has been struggling for years, is on disability, and is clearly in trouble. She is losing weight, her hair is falling out; she is in the care of a nutritionist who has her on severe dietary restrictions and antibiotics to treat her condition. She eats no dairy, gluten, meat, alcohol, or sugar, and continues to take her antibiotics without fail. She is not getting better. My heart breaks every time I see her.
My dermatologist placed me on doxycycline (one of the antibiotics used to treat scleroderma in AP Therapy) right after my diagnosis. A year later my lung disease was moving so quickly that I was actually referred to palliative care. I stopped the doxycycline, my rheumatologist boosted the immunosuppressive drug dose, I was given a new drug for my vascular disease, these new drugs kicked in, and today my lungs look great. Good bye, palliative care!
I visit an online support group for scleroderma patients where some people are just devoted to antibiotic therapy. They can be very aggressive in promoting their message and have even private messaged me trying to convince me to switch treatment protocols. Huh? This is kind of extreme. I’m always wary of fanatics because it is more about “winning” and gaining converts…
So, I already have my back up about AP Therapy. The diagnostic antibodies that I have are to a specific region on my chromosomes (centromeres and kinetochores) that is involved in cell division. Bacteria have their genetic machinery organized very differently from me; why would the defining antibody in my illness be towards an antigen not found in bacteria? (Goodbye leaky gut… it was nice to know you!) That doesn’t mean that I can’t have the medical condition of increased intestinal permeability; correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation. It also doesn’t mean that antibiotic use doesn’t help some people as the drugs also have anti-inflammatory and cartilage protecting properties, and there is research that shows it helps some patients with rheumatoid arthritis.
Here’s the deal: there are better drugs and treatment options. If you have a mild form of the disease, maybe AP Therapy is what you need. On the other hand, systemic sclerosis is a potentially fatal disease and if it is advancing rapidly the correct response is to go big: use the drugs that have the highest success rate. I feel like I’m a walking poster child for the success of current treatment options. The three drug cocktail (Myfortic, Plaquenil, Losartan)that my doctors are maintaining me on has reversed my lung and heart damage.
Crap, do I sound like a fanatic? Darn. I was worried that this would happen.
I told you, this is a hard post to write. Let me just say I would never, never PM someone insisting that they need to change their treatment plan. Who am I to project my reality onto another person?
What I really mean to say is to think like a scientist: collect data, keep a symptom log, ask questions, assemble a team of doctors to help you, and pursue treatment options that have solid research-backed results that you are comfortable with. Keep collecting data, and don’t be afraid to change if things aren’t going well. There is no best one-size-fits-all treatment plan, but play the odds that are the highest until you get better information. If what you are doing is working, keep going!!
I’ve been pressured repeatedly to “give up sugar” to control my inflammation. Really, people have been pretty darn aggressive in this messaging both in person and online. To be fair, the people pressing this message must have felt they were improved when they cut back on sugar, but every time it happens I am torn between tears and frustration.
I’m sorry, but this is like telling me that I can’t put gasoline into my car anymore. The car simply can’t run on air alone, and neither can I.
Okay, to be clear, we do need a component of air for energy: oxygen. I was running short of that commodity earlier in my scleroderma career and had to be placed on supplemental oxygen for about 6 months waiting for my drugs to kick in and save my ass. If you are short on oxygen, as I can attest, you are also short on energy and you can’t think very well. I was in trouble, as my pulmonologist put it, because my “engine” (my lungs) was too small for my body.
The other essential energy component is sugar, or specifically, glucose. Cells, and by extension, bodies, use an amazing system of biochemical pathways to convert biological materials to glucose, maintain a steady concentration of glucose in your blood, and then pack away the excess for storage in your muscles and liver. If blood glucose levels drop too low your body releases glucose from storage. If the stored glucose gets used up, your body begins to cannibalize other tissues. Why is glucose so important? Because it is used in the mitochondria located in body cells along with oxygen to produce the energy molecules (ATP for you geeks out there) that are used to run the whole biological show. If there is no ATP, the whole show stops. That’s why it is critical to keep people breathing and their blood pumping, but also why it is important to consume glucose.
My relationship with glucose is pretty darn complex. Too much sugar at a time isn’t a good thing: it can dehydrate and damage tissue, and high blood sugar can cause blood pressure spikes. Take home lesson for me: don’t binge on milkshakes, sugary pops, and French fries. Because I had hypertension and a family member with diabetes, I have spent years developing a diet that has a low glycemic index. I eat yellow potatoes instead of white ones, recipes with half the flour replaced with oatmeal, and little sugar. I also eat fresh fruit in my yogurt smoothies, and rice mixed with veggies. I am eating sugar every single day in my meals, and it really is essential for me to function properly; the trick is to try to consume it in a way that helps maintain good blood sugar levels. Frosting loaded cinnamon rolls… NO!! Banana and strawberry smoothie with yogurt… YES!!
So, every time someone insists that I have to “cut out sugar” I can feel my head getting ready to explode. I wonder if they understand that potatoes, bread and rice are also “sugar”. Have they given up fruits? If they are also cutting out gluten they may be actually spiking their blood sugar with rice-based alternatives. It is kind of crazy talk… It also is kind of “it’s your fault you are sick” talk. Not nice!!
The research is mixed on the link between sugar and inflammation. There are lots of articles on healthy eating sites that say it is bad, but I wanted to see actual controlled experiments looking at the link between sugar and inflammation. There are several ways to check for inflammation but most look for inflammatory markers in the blood and cell permeability. This controlled research study found that there was no link between excessive sugar intake and inflammation. It’s kind of a small study, though, so I went hunting for more. This study showed that sugars obtained from food were not inflammatory, but when people consumed free sugars (spooned sugar into coffee or cereal, or drank sugary fruit juice) they did increase inflammatory markers. Cool. That totally makes sense, and explains why other people are reporting that they feel better when they “cut out sugar”. My sugar canister goes months without being opened… I don’t add sugar to anything unless I’m baking. Still on the hunt for info, I found this meta-analysis of research studies that showed that high-fructose corn sugar wasn’t any worse than any other in terms of inflammatory marker increases.
Okay, I think that the rant is over. Sugar is your friend, but don’t get crazy people…
Two years ago I was getting bounced around between several doctors as they tried to figure out why I was struggling to breath. The rheumatologist felt I should see a cardiologist. The pulmonologist felt that I needed to be treated by the rheumatologist. The internist insisted that the pulmonologist needed to intervene. The rheumatologist was very reluctant to give me an inhaler even though he had ordered the PFT that indicated that I needed one.
I was getting close to pulling out my hair! Literally, there were too many cooks in the kitchen and no one could manage to get the meal assembled. I was the cake in the oven, and I had just collapsed into an ugly, doughy mess…
“Look”, said the rheumatologist in the middle of this, “you are the only point in common between all of your doctors. Each one of us sees just one slice of your health, but you are the one getting all the info…” In effect, she was telling me to take charge of my health. Uh…
Seriously? I’m expected to organize this circus? I have skills, but to suggest that I should run this show is ludicrous…
Except, from a certain viewpoint, I am running the show; I AM the show. I have a serious illness, and I have a team of doctors to address my symptoms and halt my disease’s progression. I need to be proactive and ensure that I get the treatment that I need. Clearly, I needed help to sort through the conflicting advice and to assign priorities to the elements of my treatment plan.
There needed to be one doctor who knew me well, understood the big picture, who could also cut through the red tape and facilitate immediate medical response from the most appropriate provider if needed.
I made an appointment with my internist, who was also my primary care physician, and laid out the problem. I told her that I needed someone to review all the notes and test results from the other doctors on a regular basis to understand the big picture. I shared with her my concerns about differing information from the other physicians: I needed an expert to work with me to coordinate my treatment plan. There needed to be a doctor who saw me on a regular basis, who knew me and my situation, who could take a “snapshot” of my health situation, and who could see me almost immediately if I got into trouble. One of the problems that I struggle with is knowing which doctor to call when I develop problems; with this arrangement I have a designated first contact who will decide which specialist needs to be contacted next.
We agreed that I should come in every three months for the medical review and snapshot of my current status.
Everything changed for me. My internist reads everything from the other doctors at these appointments, and she answers questions that I have in a cross-disciplinary way that the other specialists can’t. It’s more like a consultation than the usual medical appointment. She looks to see what has been missed by the other doctors, and facilitates communication between the doctors. She has sent me for immediate testing, cut through the red tape so I could get oxygen when I needed it, and makes sure I get the complete text of all testing reports.
I make an appointment with her before I see the specialists to plan for those appointments, and then I see her afterwards to debrief on what happened and to see if anything was missed. When I go to my appointments with the specialists I can talk about test results, my prescriptions, and the symptoms that are concerning me; I have become an informed patient. Because of this I am a better conduit of information between the doctors, and the coordination of care and smooth communication has greatly increased. My doctors and I are now collaborative partners working to manage my disease.
From a collection of 6 doctors I now have a smoothly coordinated team to jointly treat my illness. For me, this is a huge difference! I’m now in much better shape, and I feel more in control of what is happening. I AM the only point in common, so I had to activate my hidden superpower of facilitation and coordination to make it work.
Yesterday was a good day for me. I ran to the library, went grocery shopping, and had my hair cut. The stylist who cut my hair, however, was having a poor day: she has fibromyalgia and was struggling with the pressure front moving through Colorado. I told her about bananas, and she told me about a new product that she was buying off the internet. As we swapped info she pulled out the bottle of her supplement and I snapped a picture of it with my camera. She gushed about her product: it is just great! It cleans toxins from your liver and pancreas too!
Okay, I just checked out this product online, and it will need a blog post of its own. It has 19 different ingredients in it that I have to check out, but right now I think that I will need to stay away from it as it has aspirin in it from a willow bark ingredient. I already know that aspirin is something that can hurt my (already struggling) kidneys and put my stomach lining at risk (the gastroenterologist sent me a strongly worded letter on this topic… I’m complying!) The other ingredients might be okay, however, and I should check them out to see if they are possibilities for me to add to my diet.
So, how do I do this? I do lots of searches with key words like “research”, “evidence”, “inflammation”, “mortality rates”, “efficacy” and the item that I’m searching for. When a friend recommended that I try tart cherry extract to help with inflammation I typed in “does tart cherry reduce inflammation” and discovered that there was an active ingredient in tart cherry that really did reduce inflammation and that it was more gentle on stomach linings than a NSAID. Clinical research projects had been done that showed positive effects by measuring inflammation markers in patient blood. I talked to both my internist and my rheumatologist about it, got their okay with some stipulations, started the supplement with medical monitoring (blood drawn every month), and had to stop 3 months later when my kidney function dropped dramatically. Oops.
There is an important lesson here. Just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean that it is safe. Think like a scientist. Keep a journal of your disease symptoms, diet and interventions. Ask questions and talk to your doctors. Educate yourself as much as you can.
Where do I go for information? I could have gotten info from sites linked to the company that markets tart cherry extracts, but that information is somewhat tainted by the simple fact that they want me to buy their product. I look for information from major publications and research funded by the public domain. Some of the best places that I’ve found to go are:
The National Center for Biotechnical Information (NCBI) has links to lots of places you can access for information. I used this site a lot as a teacher as students could look at genes and run DNA comparisons. Now I can use it to research tart cherry!
Linked to the NCBI home page is a great resource: PubMed. Everything in the medical and biological universe is searchable at this site; you can see the synopsis with a general outline of the research and results, and there are links to the journals and books along with information on how to access the full text. Some full text articles are free, and there is advice on how to get others.
A subset of PubMed that is extremely useful, both for the search engine and information on how to evaluate information you find, is PubMed Health. For me, this is the mother lode.
I live in Aurora, Colorado. I am lucky in that the CU School of Medicine is located here, and there is a great library there. I went into the library, talked to them, and got an account that allows me to access articles through their licenses. So far I’ve only had to resort to this option a couple of times, but it is good to have it.
Next to keeping my journal, the info I find using these resources has been extremely helpful and empowering in my battle with these ill-behaved autoimmune conditions.
Science. Everyone knows what science is, right? I mean, we have all been exposed to courses in science that involved learning lots of stuff about rocks, atoms, moving objects, plants, furry animals and stars. There are all of those books and all those facts, equations, and laws to learn. The vocabulary is ridiculous!
Science is also a way of thinking that allows us to learn new information about the world around us. It is a system of reason and logic that helps us understand what we know, and why we know it. Every year I started the biology course with a little unit called “The Nature of Science”, and this is what it covered:
Science is used to explore the natural, physical world around us. The magical and supernatural spheres are definitely off limits. The reason why is…
Science requires that we be able to collect data about a phenomenon we are studying: it must be observable with our senses or instruments. Something may be real, but if we can’t observe it we can’t study it using the rules of science.
The data that is collected should be consistent over time. Think about ghost research; instruments that show the presence of ghosts work on some occasions and not on others. That data isn’t reliable because it isn’t consistent. If I drop a glass it will fall to the floor every time, and it will accelerate towards the floor at the same rate every time I drop it. That data is reliable.
It should be possible to make predictions based on observations and prior understandings. We generally call these predictions hypothesis, and they get tested all the time in…
Experiments! The way we expand our understanding of the natural world is through experimentation that tests these predictive hypotheses. Observable data is collected during the experiment that allows us to draw some conclusions about whether the hypothesis was correct or false. Either way is fine. The point here is, we should be able to test the hypothesis to see if the prediction was accurate.
Here is the best part of science: based on what new understandings are generated our predictive models should be able to be adjusted. NOTHING is forever in science when you are dealing with the big predictive models that we call theories. For example, when I was a child I was told that mountains were formed as the earth cooled and wrinkles formed on the planet “like a raisin”. Ugh! Can you believe I was taught that?! Our current understanding of mountain formation involves the movement of large plates in the earth’s crust (plate tectonics), which actually makes more sense as it also explains earthquakes and volcanoes. Is my heart set on plate tectonics? Nope. If some new information emerges that supports an expanded or new model of mountain formation, I have to follow the data. That’s why theories are said to be “supported” by evidence, but never proven.
Science is about using logic and reason to learn new things about the world. Logical safeguards are in place to help make sure conclusions are valid (you know about some of these… I’m talking about controlled experiments, reproducible results, and peer review of published experimental results). Science is actually a form of applied philosophy; early scientists were called “natural philosophers” and today the degree is still called a Doctor of Philosophy. Yep. That’s what Ph.D. stands for.
Why is this stuff important to me and anyone else with an autoimmune disease? Unhappily, we are out there on the edge of the envelope, falling off the map, and beyond solid scientific understandings. We have diseases that developed via unknown pathways and causes, and they are not completely understood. There is no definitive treatment that will “cure” the disease. We are part of a continuing effort to expand scientific and medical knowledge as we progress through our illnesses using drugs and interventions that are the best predictions for good outcomes. We are all walking hypotheses, and what happens to us helps build the body of evidence on how effective our treatments were. As knowledge expands in labs about the biological pathways and the disease mechanisms, new treatments will be developed, they will also be subjected to this scientific process, and the total body of scientific understandings will grow. Someday it will all be “old stuff” and written in a dusty book.
But today, I’m rocking the edge of the envelope as a walking experiment of one.
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. 🙂
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.