Science and the Scleroderma Girl: The Only Point in Common

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…

Spock: He is intelligent, but not experienced. His pattern indicates two-dimensional thinking… (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn)

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.

And knit. I had to knit a lot.

Have a good weekend everyone.

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Science and the Scleroderma Girl: Research Results

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.

English Rose.
Time for a rose break! Look at what I found in the garden this morning!

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.

Knowledge is power!

Science and the Scleroderma Girl: The Patient Scientist

It is really annoying to have an illness that just keeps going on and on and on… think of the energizer bunny here. A really annoying scleroderma energizer bunny. I am so over it already. I love my doctors, but they are really focused on slowing down the progression of my bad boy illness, systemic sclerosis, and are kind of dismissive of the pain and dizziness that is coming my way courtesy of the fibromyalgia and Sjogren’s Syndrome.

It isn’t that they don’t care. They just have clearly defined priorities in mind as they treat me. It is kind of like when my mom was going through chemo for her cancer. The doctors were very sympathetic about her struggles with nausea and fatigue, and helped her the best they could, but they did not let up on the chemo schedule. My doctors are also sympathetic, but they still took my immunosuppressant dose up as high as they could when I got into trouble with my lungs two years ago. Oh, you are having trouble sleeping? So sorry. Hang in there. It will get better…

Cat and computer.
Do you see how much help MacKenzie is giving me while writing this? He too is sympathetic. Oh, your legs are hurting today? Here, I’ll sleep on top of them for you…

I had a surge of rebellion about the same time that this was going on and decided that I would consider myself a walking experiment of one and would try to get a better handle of my symptoms; surely there must be correlations between what I was doing in my day and how I felt. If I understood my test results better perhaps I could have better conversations with my doctors. Stop being a victim, I told myself, and become a patient scientist!

Food log.
Today’s entry into my little symptom journal. I started out tracking my daily food intake, and then added in entries about other symptoms.

The food log was perhaps the most important thing that I did. I began to figure out lots of things by focusing on what I was eating and what my symptoms were. I ignored the “universal truths” that I was being told to me by other people and focused on what was happening with me. Bam! Some of the things that I figured out actually changed the diagnosis list on my chart, and I certainly improved the quality of my life. Here is the short list of what I discovered about myself: absolutely NO SALT or other forms of sodium, gluten is fine, fiber is a problem, lactose free dairy with live cultures is a daily must, bananas are boss, and I should eat foods with a low glycemic index. Oh yeah: vitamin D and krill oil supplements are good, but tart cherry supplements will damage my kidneys. Good to know.

What happened when I changed my diet? Muscles pain went way down, I got more energy, my gastritis and other GI symptoms improved greatly, I slept better, and the quality of my life improved. For each of those food choices I used myself as an experimental animal. Just one change was made in my diet, and then I tracked symptoms for a week or two to see what happened. My latest experiment has involved bananas; a banana a day keeps my muscle pain way down. Who knew? Have a headache? Eat raisins!

I began to gather other types of data. I took my blood pressure during times when I was feeling poorly to see what it was doing. That’s how I figured out that my inhaler was making my blood pressure drop. Now that I’m off my blood pressure medicine, my pressure is back up, and I’m using my inhaler safely every day. Today I noticed that I was a little short of breath while doing laundry…

Oxygen monitor
Oh. That blood oxygen level is a little two low. It was in the high 80s when I first checked, and was up to 91% by the time I snapped the picture.
Oxygen monitor
Well look at that! This is what happened a couple of minutes later after using the inhaler. My oxygen level is up to 95% and my heart rate has dropped back down. I really need to use this inhaler every day as it is helping keep my small airway disease under control.

Now that I’m using the inhaler daily my energy level is up in my little notebook. Hmm… I’m not sure if this is completely due to the inhaler as I also added bananas to my diet, but as I keep logging observations I may figure it out.

I also have started collecting all the data that I can get from my routine heart and lung testing. I usually get a phone call from the doctor that tells me how I’m doing, but with the data in hand I can have more meaningful conversations with my doctors.

PFT results.
This is some data from pulmonary function tests that were done 2 years apart.

The data that I have circled in the upper table of data shows that my lung volume didn’t change very much when administered a dose of albuterol during my first pulmonary function test, which was done right after I was diagnosed. Two years later, when I was really struggling with shortness of breath, the data in the lower table showed that I improved 16% in my lung volume after that same drug. The technician told me that this was a big response and that he was sure I would be prescribed a drug to help me; that didn’t happen until I made an appointment with my internist weeks later, told her about my response on the drug, and showed her the specific data that I had picked up from the hospital where the test was done. Bam!! I got the inhaler that day.

By collecting data at home and paying attention to my symptoms I’ve been able to give better information to my doctors who have responded with changes in my drug protocol and treatment focus. Today all of my doctors shoot me a full copy of all of my testing data as soon as they get it. I also can access data through the patient portal at Kaiser. I follow changes in data over time, and then I can have a meaningful discussion with my physicians when I see them.

I’m just one data point out of all of the patients that my doctors treat, but by using myself as a walking experiment of one I’ve been able to figure out management strategies to help myself and how to better communicate with my medical team to work with them as a collaborative partner.

This is good. I will never be in control of my illnesses, but I sure am poking them with the pitchfork.

Err… knitting needles. They have definitely been poked.

It is good to be a science geek.

The Scleroderma Chronicles: I’ll take a side of fibromyalgia with that…

My poor physician team. I come to see them with a whole host of complaints at every appointment. I can see then mentally sorting the symptoms into piles as I talk :

  • important, needs to be investigated immediately.
  • sad, but part of the life of a patient with this chronic condition.
  • these are issues that should be passed on to another member of the treatment team.
  • irrelevant to the current diagnosis.

For three years I’ve been mentioning my muscle problems. My muscles are sore to the touch, and they just burn sometimes. The burning can go on for days, and I do get a little cranky; okay, maybe some wailing has occurred. Poor cats! It is really painful at connection points around joints. Stamina is  poor, and I’m exhausted all the time.

Yellow cat.
I dragged a cat pillar into the bedroom for the cats to sleep on as it too hard to have them in bed with me. There are days when a cat paw on my leg is more than I can handle.

Some of these symptoms can be explained as being part of the whole scleroderma thing. Muscle issues are rampant with scleroderma as some of the necessary enzymes for muscle movement are too low for reasons that aren’t clear to me. My rheumatologist has checked for polymyositis and other serious muscle problems, but my muscle strength is good and my test results have been normal. I’m in pain, but my muscles aren’t being damaged. I have been just managing with heat pads and knitting as there seemed to be nothing that could be done. To make things worse I can’t have anti-inflammatory drugs or painkillers because my kidney function is low. Bad muscles, bad!

Best advice ever for the scleroderma girl. Really, what else can I do?

At my last visit with my rheumatologist I was really sore to the touch, and she suddenly asked if I was experiencing brain fog…

Oh my lord, yes! It is so bad I’m afraid to drive sometimes. I struggle with anxiety and some depression when things are bad. The fatigue is off the charts when this is going on, and I can’t get good sleep. Lately I have developed headaches too…

“Oh. This is fibromyalgia“, she said. Just like that the light had gone off for her; my symptoms were suddenly sorted into another pile that screamed “fibromyalgia”. She did a quick assessment, and the diagnosis was added to my chart lickity split…

I also have Sjogren’s Syndrome, and the symptoms of fibromyalgia and Sjogren’s do overlap, but it would appear that I have both. No wonder my fatigue has been so extreme.

So, nothing has changed, but at the same time everything has changed. I have concrete reasons for feeling so bad. My blood pressure issues have improved, and I am able to walk and exercise more. I’m using my inhaler every day and my blood oxygen levels are coming up. The more I move, the better I feel. Little by little, I am getting a handle on things again. I am sleeping like a rock and I wake up feeling pretty good.

My terrible twosome of autoimmune diseases just became a triad, and I am actually feeling more hopeful about my ability to manage things. Take that, you three! I am coming after you all with a pitchfork!

Err… make that knitting needles. I’m coming for you all the same. Be warned, I am taking you down!

Knowledge is power.