The Scleroderma Chronicles: The Blue-Lipped Zebra Goes On Oxygen

This week I finished up the pulmonary tests to see what was up with my lungs. This was pretty darn stressful and the poor BLZ was just besides itself with the trauma of walking into a major hospital to get admitted for outpatient testing.

This is my son’s kitten Jonesy, named after the cat on the Nostromo, the ship that accidently picked up a deadly Alien while answering a distress beacon on a strange planet… Jonesy is utterly fearless, more than capable of facing down a scary monster alien. This Jonesy is also pretty darn fearless. Be brave, face this down, I told myself while petting Jonesy.

I was brave. On the day my state opened up the first drive-through testing station for the Covid virus, I presented myself at outpatient admissions. I wore my fleece gloves the whole time I was there and followed all of the safety guidelines. I combined two appointments into one so I could pick up the equipment for overnight oxygen level monitoring while I was in the building for pulmonary function testing. The hospital was almost deserted and had bottles of hand sanitizer out for use at every stop on my route, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I literally swerved and walked around anyone in my way, especially if they were wearing a face mask…

In case you all need a reminder, my red blood cell count (rbc) is way too high, and I have blue lips and shortness of breath. My internist diagnosed polycythemia, and once I googled it I discovered that I have every single one of the listed symptoms. The purpose of all of this testing is to uncover the underlying condition causing my rbc to rise. So, let’s just jump to the chase. Here are the results:

    • My lungs are scarred and I have interstitial lung disease, a type of restrictive lung disease. I am stable and haven’t gotten worse when compared to the last testing two years ago.
    • It’s not pulmonary hypertension. Yay! That would have been really bad news. My echocardiogram showed that I am at the upper limits of heart wall thickening, and my pulmonary artery is at the upper limit of normal, but I’m hanging in there.
    • My oxygen level fell below 89% for almost an hour while I was sleeping the night I wore the monitoring equipment. Yay!! Houston, we have found a problem!!

Once the results were in the pulmonologist’s office called for a phone appointment and I got the good news. Well, the sort of good news. I have to go on oxygen overnight to keep my levels up, and the hope is that my rbc count will start to drop. If overnight oxygen doesn’t do the trick I may have to go to oxygen 24/7, but I’m not there yet. (The BLZ is happy but a little sad too. The BLZ hates to wear oxygen, and really doesn’t want to wear it when it goes out shopping… ) Seriously, I don’t appear handicapped until I have to walk with a cane and wear oxygen… then there is no hiding it any more.

Thinking about future appointments and the procedure with the hip specialist (I need an injection of steroids into my bad-boy hip), I asked what my risk from Covid was… (The BLZ was trying to not cry) and my pulmonologist told me straight out that she thought I would survive an infection but that I should put off any more trips to medical clinics for a few more weeks so that hospitals could finish gearing up for severe cases. Well, shoot. (The BFZ is now sobbing…)

Then I throttled the BFZ into silence and headed out to buy the last of the supplies that I needed to get through a few weeks alone. I’m immunocompromised; the medications that I take to control my autoimmune diseases have helped me to become stable, but they also make me high risk for any infection. Nothing has changed, I reminded the BLZ, but now the risk of a serious infection is coming at a time when the medical system may be overwhelmed and unable to take care of me. I’ve been using good judgement, social distancing, and hand washing for a few years now; I will continue for myself and everyone else sharing this scary time.

The truck carrying the oxygen equipment was at my house waiting for me when I returned so I am set up. Hopefully the BLZ will now slowly fade away and I will stop panting for air every time I move.

If this was a race to get new test results into my chart, the underlying cause of my polycythemia identified, and remedial measures into action, I have made it. I have a phone appointment with my new rheumatologist next week and I will ask her about the hip procedure and referral to the foot specialist, but I think that in the current unfolding Covid crisis there isn’t any hurry.

As for the inner voice that worries and feels panicky, my inner BFZ voice, I am going to smooth it into submission with the peaceful zen of knitting. Be brave, be brave, I purr to myself. Just like my son’s kitten Jonesy.

You all be safe out there!!

The Scleroderma Chronicles: The Blue-Lipped Zebra gets some MRIs

I feel like I am in a race now. I absolutely, positively need some answers to all of my little medical issues, but I have to hurry, hurry, hurry because the Covid-19 virus is already in my state and I think that in just a matter of days or weeks the health care machine is going to be devoted to critical care and the pandemic response. I hope none of my doctors get sick. I really like the nurses in their offices. Gee, this is starting to get to be really stressful…

Let’s take a little break to smell the roses… umm… the orchids. Look at how nice my rose gold orchid is doing in the living room these days.

So, this is the situation as I got into the car and drove to medical clinics FOUR different times last week. By Saturday, when I needed to drive to a facility an hour away for MRIs of my right hip and left foot I was starting to feel like I was pushing my luck. The BLZ totally wanted to stay in bed. I was worried about having to go through an urgent care waiting area full of sick people because the last time I did that I came down with… THE FLU. Ugh. The place is sure to be crowded with weekend warriors and sick people who were afraid to take off work on a week day…

When I got there the parking lot was almost empty. What?! What is going on? I checked on my phone to make sure I was at the right facility, and then went inside to see if I could find someone. The place was deserted!! The only person in sight was the security guard in her glassed-in station. I checked in with her to discover that the entire facility was closed except for… wait for it…medical imaging!! Woohoo!! I clomped down to the basement for my 90 minutes in a MRI machine feeling pretty good about my chances of avoiding this new virus that I’m now sure is gunning for me. All went well, I headed home, fixed myself a little dinner, popped a couple of gummi bears into my mouth while I was cooking, and BROKE A TOOTH!!

How about another little orchid break? You can see how big the monster is compared to my other orchids.

Sigh. Now I have another two medical appointments because the tooth is sure to need a crown. Plus I have two more testing appointments next week which will really be starting to push the safety margin.  The BLZ is not happy.

Today I saw my wonderful dentist who let me know that gummi bears are notorious for hurting teeth. Who knew? He fixed my tooth and gave a computer print-out for a type of safe gummi bear, and before I left the office I saw that the MRI test reports were ready. That means my rheumatologist already released them. I read the reports in the car in the parking lot on my phone before heading home. (Although I wanted to go get my gummi bears!!)

Background: I have been struggling with painful and swollen joints for at least three years now. My last rheumatologist tested me for inflammation markers (C-Reactive Protein, to be exact), and since my level is normal, she concluded that my joints were fine, that I was a whiner, and the symptoms that I reported were exaggerated. (!!) I wrote about the last awful appointment I had with her in this post. After I had recovered my mojo and began to take action to improve my situation I wrote about my old rheumatologist and my swollen joints here. My new rheumatologist, who I saw last week, ordered these MRIs to check some lumps on my foot and my bad-boy hip. She wondered out loud why no one had followed up on my first appointment to the hip specialist. I think I’m going to be much more happy with this rheumatologist.

Oh, my. My hip joint is really bad. The word severe was used. There is edema in the bone! There is fluid around the joint that is pushing out into a bursa towards the front inside part of the hip joint. (The very bursa that I asked about before when I saw the orthopedic specialist. It couldn’t be involved, he assured me, because that would be very uncommon. The BLZ is braying “I told you so!”) A tendon on the outside of the joint is partially torn. The synovial lining around the joint is inflamed. Even joints in my ankle (that don’t bother me) are inflamed and have fluid in them. Stunned, but feeling absolutely vindicated, I began to drive home. Before I had even gotten to the freeway the new rheumatologist was on the phone to me. She is sending me back to the hip specialist and I need some steroids into that hip joint as soon as possible. And maybe surgery. And I should go back to physical therapy. The BLZ decided we should mention my knees later on… Oh. I almost forgot. I also have two benign tumors on the bottom of my foot that will require another specialist. Did you hear that thud? That was the BLZ flopping over backwards in dismay.

After a little knitting this evening the BLZ is feeling more the thing again. Look at how far I’ve gotten on the knitted kitten!

Tomorrow I head back to the clinic in the north to get a pulmonary function test and to pick up the equipment for overnight oxygen level monitoring. I won’t touch anything, BLZ. It will be okay. We are brave! We are on a roll now and we are getting some answers!

Be safe everyone!