The Scleroderma Chronicles: Days of Wonder

The last time I chatted about my systemic sclerosis status I had just seen my doctors and I was doing great. I had sustained very little additional damage to my lungs and heart, I was taking a new supplement (tart cherry) that was an anti-inflammatory that my doctors thought I could tolerate, and I just flat out felt great. I could walk without pain, I had energy and I woke up most mornings feeling *normal* which was pretty darn amazing.

At the end of June I headed off to the clinic for my usual blood tests, joked with the man who draws my blood every 60 days, and bought myself a Starbucks on the way home to celebrate another successful outing. Two days later I was wondering why my blood results hadn’t been posted to the online portal. I was outside drinking my morning latte with the cats and the roses when the call came; my liver results were fine, but my kidney function had dropped dramatically. Oops. No more tart cherry for me!

Maine Coon cat with a bob tail.
Yellow Boy hanging out with my squash plants. Amazingly, he did not run away when the call came.

That’s when the days of wonder began. Wonder as in: “I wonder what will happen next?”, “I wonder what this is?”, “I wonder if I should call this into the doctor?” , and “Good grief, what now? I wonder when this will end?”

As soon as I went off of the tart cherry extract icky symptoms came back with a vengeance along with some new ones. It’s like they all made new friends while they were gone and couldn’t wait to show them off. Here’s what has been happening over the three weeks.

  • I woke up one morning with pitting edema in my arms and face. I looked like a chipmunk. I also had shooting nerve pain in one side of my face. Fabulous.
  • Two days later the edema was gone, but my knees hurt so bad they woke me up at 4am, and that was it for the night. Ugh! They also had swollen lumps on them!! In desperation I smeared medical marijuana cream (from a neighbor – this is Colorado and we have this stuff!) on them to see if that would help. The pain shut off within moments! I need to get me some of this stuff!!
  • The next day I slept through the night, but when I woke up in the morning the skin across my knees was so tight that I couldn’t bend them until I warmed things up with a heating pad. They itched and were warm to the touch. Maybe marijuana cream isn’t such a good idea after all. I’m losing patience, I tell the cats, who have piled onto my legs too since there is a heating pad in use… When will these cats learn how to make a morning latte?
  • Shooting pains start in my lower abdomen the day after my knees stop hurting. Diverticulitis, says the internet. Seriously! I wonder if I should call this in? I wonder if I should see that gastroenterologist after all…

Over the next several days I experienced scary low blood pressure episodes, chest pain, fevers, itching, more joint pain, and to top things off I started losing my balance and falling over without warning a few days ago.

Days of wonder, indeed. Nothing lasts; it appears that I’m on a roller-coaster of symptoms that will provide my summer thrills and scares until the ride ends (hopefully soon!). My repeat blood work showed that my kidney function had improved, and my rheumatologist isn’t saying scary things to me any more. My blood pressure is again stable, the chest pain and edema are gone, my balance is restored, and the pain in my face has vanished.

Cinco de Mayo rose.
This is one of the roses in my garden. It is called “Cinco de Mayo“, and I planted it in memory of my mother, who loved roses, who died on May 5th many years ago, and who remains the benchmark for all time for patience, grace and courage in the face of adversity.  Of course this rose has been blooming beautifully during these days of wonder.

This could be a really bad time, but I’ve discovered that it is best to just go with the flow and to focus on the ridiculous side of all of this; lumps on my knees, my chipmunk face, and falling over without warning. Really, don’t you just want to bust out laughing at the thought of all that? Thank heavens I didn’t develop a rash! It is also important to notice all the wonder around me. The beauty of my garden and the flowers, the days in bed reading new books, great dinners produced in the crock pot, the antics of the cats, and the joy of putting together a new knitting project. Wonder is endless, easy to find, and costs nothing. Okay, let’s be honest. Binge watching shows on Netflix helps too.

Today I feel a little dizzy, but much better. Hopefully I’m coming to the end of the tart cherry withdrawal. That’s right. Best to stay positive and cheerful.

I wonder what will happen tomorrow?

The Scleroderma Chronicles: My Second Year Report

Well, here I am at the end of my second year since my diagnosis of systemic sclerosis, a life-threatening form of the autoimmune disease scleroderma. Last year I blogged about my illness: I had come through the worst of the grief and horror at the initial diagnosis, had made my way through some scary incidents that sent me flying across town to emergency centers, and was pretty upbeat about where I was in the progress of the disease.  I was sick, but I hadn’t developed any of the most serious, life threatening complications. My heart and lungs were fine. I had just been started on some serious immunosuppressant drugs (the same ones that are given to kidney transplant patients), and while they are risky, I had been told that they could really make a difference in my 10 year survival rate.

Hey, you roll the dice and you take your chances.  No sense worrying about the unknown future. I drugged up and slept like a baby at night.

Star Trek Meme
The Kobayashi Maru test, as all Star Trek buffs know, was a no-win scenario;  it was meant as a test of character. Systemic sclerosis, an incurable,  progressive, disabling and potentially fatal disease, can  also be considered such a test.

Ready to hear about my second year? Let me give you a hint: buckle your seat belt, because we are in for a bumpy ride.

  • November-December: the drugs begin to kick in and as they beat my immune system into submission my skin starts to harden up. I hurt everywhere!! I can hardly bear to comb my hair. The place where my flu shot went in hurt for weeks afterwards.
  • January: I caught the flu. Talk about insult to injury! Here’s the short version: antibiotics, off the immunosuppressant drugs so my body’s immune system can fight back, and then trouble breathing, chest pain, heart palpitations, and a partridge in a pear tree. What a mess! The month passes in a blur.
  • February: I’m still pretty sick and struggling to breathe. I get bounced back and forth between doctors as the debate about the root cause of my symptoms rages. I begin to pressure my doctors for answers and there is much testing. Oops. All is not well with my lungs and my heart is accruing damage. I get sent to a pulmonologist and she give me an inhaler to help me breath. She also tells me I am in serious trouble and refers me to palliative care. The doctors increase my immunosuppressant drug dosage.
  • March: Why, hello, Sjogren’s Syndrome. We forgot all about you! In the concern about my systemic sclerosis, the bad boy of my autoimmune twosome, everyone forgot that I also have Sjogren’s Syndrome, another serious autoimmune disease that causes dry eyes and mouth. As it turns out, it can also cause small airway disease (think never-ending asthma attack) and it has pushed me into chronic respiratory failure. Hello oxygen machine. You are my new best friend.

    Oxygen machine
    My new best friend!
  • April: new lung scans are back, and while I am diagnosed with interstitial lung disease, it appears that it is only mild. Huge sigh of relief!! There is also consensus that my pulmonary hypertension has not advanced. Both of these diagnosis, while still early and mild, are very serious, and the decision is made for palliative care to continue to follow me. Bummer!
  • May-July: Sunshine! Heat! Burning muscles, aching joints, gastritis, dizzy, dizzy, dizzy, and I notice that my lips are blue. I’m on oxygen 24/7 by the end of July.
  • August: my internist changes my meds to bring my heart rate up, and suddenly I have enough oxygen. The heart palpitations stop and after more testing I come off the oxygen. The 6 month Sjogren’s-driven asthma attack is finally over.
  • Quilt and socks
    Summer quilt and socks for my poor hurting feet.

    September-October: why does it hurt to walk? What is up with my feet? And this whole barfing in the middle of the night is getting downright annoying… My internist tests me to see if I have an H. pylori infection.

  • November: Well, doesn’t this beat all. The H. pylori test came back negative and I am diagnosed with gastroparesis. The muscles of my stomach are too damaged by systemic sclerosis to work correctly; the damage is irreversible. I start eating a very limited diet of soft foods and dairy. Ironically, I can now eat jelly donuts, but not fresh baby carrots. I’m losing weight anyway.
Little Greenhouse
The gastroparesis diagnosis hit me hard even though I kind of  knew it was coming. I stopped to get a little cheer-me-up on the way home.  Check out the little greenhouse I put together for the kitchen window. As always, MacKenzie had to help out with the picture.
Flowers
Here’s the flowers. Aren’t these cute? They were sold at the local nursery to put into “Fairy Gardens”
cat
and how could I resist adding the little cat and the mushroom? Those plants are miniature Kalanchoe that should eventually bloom again.

See, a bumpy ride that is still going, but a year that was also rich in gifts. Palliative care forced me to face the future with more courage and to make end-of-life decisions for my family and to start cleaning out my house of junk. I talked to family about my medical power of attorney. I enlisted one of my doctors to manage the medical team and I began to feel more in control of my basically out of control disease. I began to knit gifts for those I love with a purpose: everything now is a piece of me. In my mind the shawls that I am making for everyone I know are the “Good-bye Shawls”. I am on fire to make as many fingerless mitts for other scleroderma patients as I can. At the end of the day, this year was not one of struggle and heartbreak as I dealt with the endless march of a disease that has no pity or remorse. Rather, it was one of care, giving, creative fire, good friends, and the meditative peace of knitting.

Okay, I do get cranky at times, and there has been some crying.  I get short with annoying salespeople because it is so hard for me to shop. I told my ex-husband I was tired of hearing about his “stupid-ass”  motorcycle. I yelled at the cats. I hate when people say, “Well, you look great!” in a way that suggests that I’m not really all that sick at all. I wish that they were there to hold my hair when I hobble to the bathroom at 2am to throw up that nice meal that I hopefully ate but couldn’t digest. There. I got it off my chest, and I feel much better. Aren’t you relieved to hear that I can be petty and mean from time to time?

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day. You know, it is easy to focus on the day: travel, turkey, family and the descent into wild Christmas shopping. Sometimes we forget the history of this national holiday; thanks for a good harvest and the blessing of probable survival through the coming winter. It is also a time to reflect on the bounty of the last year and to be grateful for the gifts it brought.

In spite of all the bumps of the last year, I am grateful for all of the gifts I have received.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!!