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: 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 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.