The Scleroderma Chronicles: Flares and Zebra Nonsense

My last flare started sometime in the depths of December and dragged on for almost two months. It’s hard to begin to describe what is happening to me as my illnesses (systemic sclerosis and Sjogren’s Syndrome) intensify and the walls of my world gradually close in as I descend into the ever-deepening abyss of escalating illness. Always unpredictable, it starts before I am even aware that I am in trouble and before I know what’s up I’m a hot mess. Even now, as I write this, I can’t recall what the first true symptoms are, but I’m pretty sure that in the middle of my usual challenges with pain, fatigue and dryness the other problem children creep in the door and take me down before I even know they are there. As the flare builds momentum new symptoms erupt daily including:

  • Shortness of breath – I literally start panting every time I move
  • Gastritis that makes my stomach burn whenever it is empty, and
  • Gastroparesis that makes my stomach hurt whenever I eat
  • Intense itching and eruptions of eczema
  • Hair loss
  • Crushing fatigue
  • Sleep interruption
  • Swollen joints that won’t bend in the morning, and
  • Burning muscles that are too sore to touch
  • Brain fog and disorientation that makes me afraid to drive and unable to read
Edema on arm.
 Oh yeah. There is edema, too. Check out this arm!

Flares are a test of patience, but they always do come to an end for me. Somewhere towards the middle of February, for no reason that I can put my finger on, I slept soundly through the night. Wow. That was great, I thought. A couple of days later I realized that my energy was coming back and that my stomach didn’t hurt any more. After a week I took a shower and there wasn’t a wad of hair deposited in the drain. My thinking became clear, my driving fearless, and my muscle pain and swollen joints receded to background levels.  The itching stopped, the eczema disappeared, and I stopped using my inhaler. It was over; the storm had passed.

When I mentioned to my rheumatologist last month that I was having these flares things suddenly took a left turn and my whole appointment went off the rails. She first told me that there wasn’t any treatment that was more effective than what I was already receiving. (I know that, my systemic sclerosis is pretty stable, and I am grateful. I think that it is Sjogren’s causing all the trouble, but it has to ride in the treatment back seat since it probably won’t kill me.) Then she reminded me that I always mentioned my fatigue and muscle pain, and that maybe I should be tested for sleep apnea or given antidepressants. Suddenly, instead of talking about the conditions for which I was already diagnosed, we had to talk about depression and sleep apnea. I was defensive and almost in tears. It took days to process what had happened there.

MacKenzie the cat.
The poor Mother of Cats needed extra attention for a few days…

It all boils down to two essential truths. I am a Zebra. I have been betrayed by a medical system designed to treat commonly occurring conditions when I suffered from a rare disease. I have had my symptoms dismissed, disparaged, or ignored for literally decades. For my rheumatologist, who I like and trust, to do this suddenly threw me back into a defensive, victim-like posture. I will not let this happen again.

The other essential truth is that it is insulting and counterproductive to cherry-pick out a couple of symptoms from the entire package that I call a flare, concentrate only on them, and then build a diagnostic hypothesis that addresses only those isolated symptoms. Yes, I do have muscle/joint pain, fatigue, and sleep disruption, but let’s not forget about the gastritis, itching, hair loss, edema and shortness of breath. Once I am out of the flare, my sleep is pretty good and my fatigue is much reduced. I know that my rheumatologist wants to help me, but I’m going to insist that we stick to the data and that logic and reason are employed as part of my treatment plan. Even if that plan includes a clause that says… you are currently receiving the best care available and there is nothing else we can do for you because scleroderma and Sjogren’s sucks. Well, all right then. Give it to me straight, because I can handle that, but don’t hunt for ANOTHER condition that you can medicate without better data.

Because I don’t have sleep apnea. I’ve been tested twice in the last three years. I wear a Fitbit that shows that I’m in deep sleep for 1-2 hours a night and that I’m almost motionless all night long. It is time to put that hypothesis to bed and to spend more time talking about things like this lupus-like rash that has appeared on my face…

I’ve also been checked for depression and I’m fine. Yes, I am aware that MOST chronically patients need help with depression, but that doesn’t mean ALL patients require additional drugs.

After all, I’m self-medicating every day with knitting!

I finally decided to write about this experience in my chronically ill life in case it could help someone else. Okay, I also needed to vent a little!

Should I perhaps knit a little something for my rheumatologist? It must be hard for her to treat patients every day who are dealing with painful, progressive and incurable diseases; no wonder she sometimes grasps at diagnostic straws hunting for a way to help.

But if she does it again this Zebra is ready to deal with that nonsense!