The Scleroderma Chronicles: June is Scleroderma Awareness Month

Five years ago the course of my life altered forever when some blood test results ordered by my doctor arrived: the results showed that I definitely had two autoimmune diseases. Specifically, I was producing antibodies that were diagnostic for scleroderma and Sjogren’s disease. I was expecting lupus, so this was kind of a surprise shock. After a quick trip to Google to establish what type of scleroderma was associated with my positive test results I burst into tears. It was worse, much worse, then I expected.

The scleroderma diagnosis was the problem. Through an unbelievable sequence of serendipitous life events I was more knowledgeable then the average newly diagnosed patient, and I knew that scleroderma was a disease that impacted connective tissue, that it was progressive, disabling, and that there was no cure. This was a life-altering diagnosis, and I was in for a long fight that would last the rest of my life.

You see, I used to work in a rheumatology research lab, and I did research in scleroderma. I was a member of the research team that found the first identified antigen associated with scleroderma. I had visited scleroderma patients in the hospital. Later in my life I taught AP Biology and spent years trying to explain connective tissue to students.  It’s a type of tissue that we just never think of, but it is critical in organizing and operating our bodies. Connective tissue makes your skin elastic and strong. It organizes your muscles and makes up your tendons and ligaments. It is a critical layer in your blood vessels, and is part of the essential structure of all of your organs.  In scleroderma all or parts of this connective tissue is under attack by your immune system.

As white blood cells invade my tissues and attack this connective tissue it produces too much collagen in response. The built up collagen produces thick layers of tissue and scarring. My fingers look really swollen, but it is actually very thick hard skin. My skin is also getting really shiny which means that the collagen is hardening up and losing flexibility. Must knit faster!!

You can perhaps see that same thickness on my face, especially on my cheeks. It means that I don’t have wrinkles, but it is also hard to open my mouth, my smile is mostly gone, and I can’t turn my neck well. Crazy, huh.

That is the most ironic aspect of scleroderma: you look pretty darn good, especially if you are a senior citizen like myself, but you actually struggle daily with your illness. For many scleroderma patients their disease just  involves the skin, but for others, the disease is more than skin deep.

As it turns out, my skin is the least of my worries. The rare type of scleroderma that I have, systemic sclerosis, also causes scarring of internal organs. The muscles of my stomach and esophagus have lost function. My kidneys are damaged and I have chronic kidney disease (stage 3). My lungs are scarred and my diaphragm isn’t exactly happy any more. Part of my stomach herniated up into my chest this year… whatever was it thinking of?! My tendons are getting calcified due to inflammation and at least one has partially ruptured. My muscles are sore to the touch and I have bruises everywhere. I have nerve damage and trouble controlling my body temperature. It’s hard to walk. Blood vessel damage affects circulation to my hands and feet and I’m starting to develop open sores (ulcers)… There is a long list of diagnosed conditions linked to my scleroderma, but you get the idea. Pretty much I’m a walking limping train wreck. Well, a knitting train wreck for sure!

There is no cure for systemic sclerosis, but there are treatments that really help a lot. I am taking four different drugs to crush my immune system into submission; it’s a balancing act as I need my white blood cell count to stay high enough to protect me, but low enough to control my symptoms and prevent more damage. I take a drug to shut off the acid produced in my stomach so I won’t accidently inhale it in my sleep since the muscle barrier that usually keeps it in my stomach is now gone. I take a couple more drugs that help control inflammation, and some supplements that help with nerve damage. I’m on oxygen at night. All of these drugs/supplements have made a huge difference for me: my last lung scan showed improvement and my high heart pressure, the most concerning complication that I had, has returned to normal ranges. My kidney damage continues, but it has slowed way down. There is something funky going on with my red blood cell count, but you can’t win them all, right? The main point is that I continue to manage and live independently.

MacKenzie and I last year when I posted this online as part of the “Face of Scleroderma” campaign.

In short, I am a mess. And yet, to the joy of my doctors, I continue to do really well. Okay, I have blue lips, am short of breath, and struggle with tissue damage, but I also continue to thrive compared to other scleroderma patients that they treat. I have had to make many changes to my life, but I have found work-arounds and I still do things that I love. Attitude is all!

Well, knitting, the cat, and the garden are pretty darn essential, too!

So, there it is. What an annoying disease, right? How dare it make you look younger while shortening your life? How dare it do all of this invisible internal damage that makes people think that you are lazy or an attention-seeking hypochondriac when actually you view each day that you are able to leave the house as a personal victory? I’m in several online support groups and there are people dealing with crushing negativity like that. I can see how it can happen; it is so hard to understand something beyond your own experience that is hidden from view.

That’s why there is Scleroderma Awareness Month. It is hard to have a rare disease, especially when it is one that is hard to pronounce (Sclero… what?!). It’s harder still to have one that has no cure and a pretty high fatality rate (hey, with all of the drugs that I’m on my 10 year survival rate is now up to 80%!!). It makes you learn to laugh in the face of terminal complications while forcing you to take every possible precaution to avoid contracting Covid-19. It messes with your head; it gives you power, but it’s also strange and a little lonely.

That’s why we scleroderma patients share our journey with all of you every year so you can get a glimpse of our lives.

 

If you look harder you will see the signs of my scleroderma on my face. The small red spots are called telangiectasia and are symptomatic of my form of systemic sclerosis. The skin of my forehead is tight and shiny, my hair is falling out,  and my dimples are now buried under my thick skin. My upper lip is trying to decide if it wants to turn blue… 

I am the Face of Scleroderma.

Footnote: In addition to scleroderma I also have Sjogren’s Disease and fibromyalgia. The symptoms from these three diagnosed conditions overlap and always make things interesting in sorting out my treatment plan. You can learn more about any of these autoimmune disease by checking out the links in my post.

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: The Blue-Lipped Zebra Report!

I’m thinking of myself as the “Blue-Lipped Zebra” these days. Let’s just call me the BLZ for short. You know, a rare breed of difficult patient who is ornery, persistent, and stubbornly insistent on getting straight answers. I’m trying to not use that zebra voice, but if pushed I may whip it out. I’m going after all my doctors to get to some explanations about my panting, blue-lipped, exhausted current state of being. I made myself promise to keep my internal dialogue under control and to not get pulled off topic. Sounds like a good plan, right?

Whew. It is only Wednesday and I’m pooped! I have talked with or met with three different doctors and scheduled 5 different tests. I also made repeat appointments to get back to these doctors after the testing is done. I went into this determined to do a better job coordinating with my doctors and to shift the conductor role to my new rheumatologist. I’m reflecting on what’s happened so far and what my next steps are, and I’ve decided to share with all of you.

Before I tell you about my medical adventures this week I want to show off the monster orchid. It now has 5 blooms open and it looks great!! Isn’t that an amazing color?

Prologue: I have been struggling with shortness of breath, extreme fatigue, and feeling dizzy/faint. My lips frequently look blue. The itching is insane, and what is up with these rashes? I have more recently developed abdominal pain in the area of my spleen. After initial testing my internist has diagnosed secondary polycythemia.

Act 1: The Internist

This was my first phone appointment. My internist is the doctor who diagnosed me with secondary polycythemia, which is a condition with too many red blood cells. The high cell count, in my case, is now presumed to be due to an underlying problem involving my lungs or heart; since lung and heart damage is common with systemic sclerosis that makes a lot of sense. We talked about my gene test results (I do not have the genetic mutation that would have caused the more serious form of polycythemia, which is good!) and planned my call with the pulmonologist. That’s right: I got some coaching from my internist! I agreed to send her an email about what happened with the pulmonologist and rheumatologist after I met with them, and she assured me that she would order any testing that the other two doctors did not. That’s right – I asked her what testing I should ask for. I love this doctor!!

Act 2: The Pulmonologist

Well, this didn’t go the way I thought this would… good thing I got some coaching. It started out with this doctor saying that she didn’t know what I expected her to do over the phone when she hadn’t seen me in her office for over a year. (She fussed at me last time for coming earlier than a year. I tried to make an appointment, but the nurse insisted it would be better for me to make a phone appointment before I saw the rheumatologist… ugh!!) I explained the situation to her, and she immediately said that she didn’t agree with the diagnosis, and that she didn’t think that my rbc count was all that high. <The BLZ was pretty disgusted by this and wanted to blurt out that the diagnosis wasn’t open for debate, but I throttled it into silence…> After redirecting the conversation to my symptoms (you know, ending up on the floor panting for air after a little vacuuming…) she did agree that there was probably an underlying problem driving the elevated rbc count and it would be good to order up some tests before I came to see her in her office.

Sigh. Why is this so hard?! I wondered if we had just been talking at cross purposes about the same thing. <The BLZ wondered why I had to keep battling for routine testing when my diagnoses required it. Whatever.> The tests were ordered and I agreed to make an appointment to see her in her office a few days after the testing was completed.

Act 3: The Rheumatologist

Finally, finally I have landed in the rheumatologist office that the BLZ has longed for. This doctor felt that the lung testing was absolutely warranted, and that if nothing came up she would go right for a cardiologist referral and heart testing, and a hematology referral also if needed. She kind of thinks that this is my heart, but it is good to get the lung testing done first. <The BFZ is now bucking around… happy for action, but a little scared, too.> She reassured me that the tests that were already ordered were exactly the ones that she would have ordered, but they were just the opening round. She mentioned a test that the pulmonologist has refused to order, saying that it is the only way to get accurate information. Yay! Then she did the exam and reviewed the notes on my orthopedic referral since I still can’t walk and I’ve developed more tendon issues in my foot. “Why hasn’t there been a follow-up on this?” she asked. She ordered two MRIs to look at my hip and foot, and gave me the paperwork to get a handicapped parking pass. She also ordered blood work, told me to call her after the testing was done, and that I should be in her office again in 8 weeks. <The BFZ was stunned. Usually I’m told to come back in 6 months.> I have the scleroderma director that I’ve been looking for, people!!

Epilogue

I spent 5 hours over the last two days making phone calls, appointments, reading all of the medical notes attached this week’s appointments, and writing emails. Whew. Through the constraints of scheduling calendars I will be talking about my test results with the rheumatologist before I interact again with my slightly hostile pulmonologist. When I read the pulmonologist’s notes on our phone appointment it kind of smelled of “cover your ass” and the BLZ’s nostrils crinkled in disgust. After begging for inhaled steroids for a couple years, when I saw her last time she offered me a few months worth. Yay! I said. I wanted to check with the rheumatologist before starting them because I’m already pretty immunosuppressed, which I did, and the inhaled steroids were prescribed soon after by my internist and I’m using them right now. In the notes she wrote that she had recommended these steroids and I that I had refused. <The BLZ immediately noticed the nasty trickery with the verbs there…she offered and I deferred!> She also described my landing on the floor while vacuuming as “needing to rest while doing moderate tasks”. The BFZ is beyond disgusted at that. <Get a new pulmonologist, the BFZ barks!>

In between all of this I also got my newest pair of Snowshoe socks done! How cute are these? I knit them holding a wildly bright variegated yarn with a dark, inky blue single ply yarn. My yarn information is on my project page.

So, it was a pretty darn good start of the week. Tomorrow I head off to get an echocardiogram of my heart, and over the next week or so the rest of the testing will happen.

Coronavirus, be good and stay away from me!! I’m going to be in a lot of medical facilities for the next few days.

You all be safe out there!

The Scleroderma Chronicles: Upsetting vs. Concerning

I haven’t been blogging all that much about my chronic conditions lately… the truth is, I hardly know what to say. I’m sick. I still struggle every day. I’ve been making a lot of adjustments over the last couple of years as I tackle never-ending obstacles, but I really don’t dwell on things too much and I don’t make too many demands of my doctors. I’m still happy, busy, and I manage work-arounds for lots of things that I want to do. Then suddenly this winter I realized that I wasn’t doing all that well after all.

Background: For several years I have been consistently complaining to my doctors that I am short of breath, fatigued, itching, rocking blue lips, and not quite right. My doctors are all like… hmm… that is interesting. Well, it isn’t (insert specific issue that this doctor treats me for), so I’m not sure what to do. We’ll keep monitoring… Maybe you should ask this other doctor about it…

This last December I really hit the wall. I was so exhausted that I was afraid to go shopping by myself. I ended up on the floor panting for air more than once. I collapsed in the yarn store. My lips were blue. The itching drove me crazy. Something in my side hurt and strange bruising kept popping up. Fainting suddenly became an issue again.

I spent most of December in bed reading books and knitting gnomes!

I went to my internist and told her what was up and she immediately ordered several tests. Some scary things like lymphoma were ruled out, but others suddenly reared their ugly heads. I have way too many red blood cells and too much hemoglobin. My cell count spiked to its highest last December when my symptoms were at their worst. Suddenly a new diagnosis was placed on my chart: polycythemia.

Now the fun really begins. I have a lot of things written on my chart. I am diagnosed with several autoimmune conditions: limited systemic sclerosis  (scleroderma), Sjogren’s Disease, and fibromyalgia. These diseases come with a boat load of complications as they tend to cause trouble everywhere they go: I have stage 3 kidney disease, lung disease, hypertension, Raynaud’s Phenomenon, gastroparesis, tendon damage, bursitis, several crazy eye issues, fluid around my heart, and a stomach that has herniated partly into my chest. Seriously, who knew that was a thing? Actually, my whole GI tract is in trouble. My muscles hurt and the joints are swollen. Do you see how confusing treating me can be when a new medical problem emerges? No one wants to rock the boat! My diagnosed conditions actually make it harder for me to get good health care at this point. I know that I am a high risk patient, but this is ridiculous, doctor people!

My internist checked to see if I had the very serious and rare version of polycythemia called polycythemia vera, and since my hormone levels were normal she concluded that my polycythemia was being caused by an underlying condition, and we should just monitor my red blood cell count in ongoing routine rheumatology blood work.

What? Wait… what about my blue lips, panting and all the other symptoms? My immediate reaction was… OH, NO, WE ARE NOT DOING THAT!!! I am done with the ending up on the floor panting every time I try to do something reasonable like… say… cooking dinner! I dusted off the biological researcher part of my brain, generated a list of essential questions, and did a bunch of online searches to see what I could find. The trick to this is to have good questions and the right seach terms. As I worked, things became more productive. Wow. I learned a lot and now I had more questions for my internist. I wrote her back an email with a bulleted list of questions that… she never got. She’s on vacation. One of her partners looked at the email, became alarmed by my symptoms, and called to urge me to head to an ER immediately (!!) to be evaluated. She was pretty insistent…

Which kind of proves my point! Anyone else who ended up on the floor with blue lips, panting for air, because she tried to vacuum the living room would receive timely medical intervention!! This is not reasonable. I’m not getting the care that I should because I am too complicated and there are too many doctors involved. This has been going on for three years and now it is worse. Did one of your parents ever say to you when you were a kid misbehaving in the backseat, “Don’t make me pull this car over!” I am now pulling the car over and stopping this ride.

This is kind of intense, huh. Let’s take a break to admire my favorite orchid!

Tonight as I write this I am just hours away from a phone appointment with my internist. I have my questions ready to go. In the afternoon I have another phone appointment with my pulmonologist; I plan to tell her about the new diagnosis and to ask her about testing that I should have to help identify the underlying cause of the polycythemia. Maybe she will have some other ideas. Tuesday morning I have an appointment with my new rheumatologist and I hope to pass all of this to her. This rheumatologist specializes in complicated cases, is recommended by the Scleroderma Foundation, and prefers to personally coordinate the entire care team. Yay! Here I come! I am the girl for her!

There are many things that are happening to me that are upsetting: my hair is falling out, I have a rash on my face, and I now use a cane to get around. This is the kind of stuff that makes you want to sigh and stay in bed some mornings. You wish it wasn’t happening to you. It’s upsetting.

Then there are things that are just down right concerning. In my mind a red flag pops up and a small siren goes off: strange and unexplained bruising, double vision, pain in my left side, blue lips, panting for air while trying to open a door, tremendous itching after showers. This kind of stuff is a call to action; get out of bed and deal with it! I am now mobilizing all of my energy towards GETTING TO THE BOTTOM OF THIS and securing answers, treatment, and hopefully, an improved quality of life.

Because there is a difference between upsetting and concerning. I am not upset, but I am concerned. I am mobilized. I have questions and I want answers.

I am totally over the blue lips look!

I’ll let you know how this all works out. It should be a busy week.

The Scleroderma Chronicles: Safe House

You know, I kind of view myself as a happy camper. I have more things (ahem… knitting projects) going then I can get finished on any given day or week, books lined up to read, and a “to-do” list that I’m slowly working my way through. Hey, people, I fixed the loose tiles on my kitchen floor last week!! My cat MacKenzie is my constant sidekick throughout the day as I knit, work in the garden, read in bed, and even with me (underfoot, demanding cookies) while I’m cooking. Even on the bad days when I’m pretty much down for the count, I manage small victories. There is just one problem with this picture.

Look at these beautiful coneflowers I just added to the garden. I’m hoping to lure some butterflies into the yard. Every garden should have butterflies, don’t you think?

I just don’t fit in the world all that well anymore. In my home, living the life that I’ve created for myself, it is really easy to forget how much I have adapted to accommodate the limitations of my scleroderma, Sjogren’s, and fibromyalgia. Once I go anywhere else reality hits me hard. Every trip out of my house is going to come at a cost. Here are the worst of the offenders that will lay me low.

Air Conditioning I know that almost everyone in the world is grateful for air conditioning in the summertime, but for me it is a royal nightmare. The shock of walking into a refrigerated building on a hot summer day will trigger an immediate Raynaud’s attack. I pull on long sleeves and fingerless mitts as soon as I get into the building, but my lungs know what’s up and I have trouble breathing. The airflow makes my eyes burn; I’ve been reduced to wearing my sunglasses indoors to protect my eyes. Don’t even get me started on the refrigerated cases churning out cold air; you haven’t lived until you’ve had to pull up the hood of your sweatshirt and the sleeves down over your hands so you can score some butter and eggs.  If that wasn’t enough, there are also usually…

Scented Products Almost all buildings use scented cleaning products and sells additional items with scents. Candles. Lotions. Laundry soap. The scented bathrooms are a nightmare. If I’m not already in trouble with my breathing I will be if I have to walk down the laundry detergent aisle at the grocery store: I also start to itch and my face swells. Why do these chemicals even exist? They can’t be good for anyone!

Restaurants These are a special kind of hell for me. All the drinks come cold and with ice, and the entrees are served piping hot. There are other landmines that I need to avoid: salt, lactose, fiber.  I have to carefully select something that is very soft and that will behave itself in my gastroparesis stomach. I can’t have spicy food. I can’t eat fresh veggies. Actually, to be safe, some of this food should go through a blender… I actually once soaked a cut up sandwich in soup so I could eat it…

Walking I am trying really hard to meet my walking goals every day, but I stretch those steps out over the day. A trip to run errands can be just exhausting if I’m on my feet for a couple of hours at a time. I need to always carry water, be aware of the location of bathrooms, and have places where I can sit down if I need to.

Sunshine It makes me sick! Enough said.

Ready for another picture? These paper wasps are building a nest right on the edge of my deck! MacKenzie and I are not amused. Still, it kind of shows how the outside world is full of dangers…

Recently I had a tough talk with myself about pruning down my outings and being more strategic about how I expend my energy. I need fewer outings, and my destinations need to be closer to home. I need to live online. I need to in a safe environment as much as I can to manage my diseases.

My home is my safe house. I have no air conditioning and I minimize air flow. I keep the temperature in the mid 70’s in the day so that my joints and lungs will be happy. I cook all of my own food, I don’t own any salt at all, and everything that I drink is room temperature. Fruits and veggies go through the blender to become smoothies. Every product that comes into the house is scent free. I’m always close to a bathroom or a soft surface to crash onto for a quick recovery if I get dizzy. My stairs have wrought iron rails that I use effectively on bad joint days. Flourishing in my safe house I sometimes forget how sick I am because, well, I have fewer problems.

I planted this yarrow last year in a flowerbed that has killed almost everything planted into it. Not this yarrow!! The secret of gardening, and living with serious chronic illness, is to keep on trying new things, and to match your needs to your environment. Or, in my case, make your environment match your needs.

Tomorrow I have a doctor’s appointment so I listed up some symptoms and issues that I need to ask her about. It is quite a list now that I look at it, and it kind of underscores how chronic illness can trick you into thinking that things that would normally send you screaming into urgent care are “just another day of scleroderma.” Shortness of breath is an almost daily thing. When I glance into the mirror these days I sometimes notice that my face is blue. One hip keeps failing me; okay, I actually have to lift that leg to get into the car. My joints swell so much that I can’t sleep at night.

But I am good, here in my little safe house with my gardens and cat.

Tomorrow my doctor and I will attack some of these scleroderma/Sjogren’s issues. I kind of think that lung testing and a MRI of my hip are in the future, and that there may be follow-up with my pulmonologist. I’ve been gathering up my energy in preparation for these outings into a world that is dangerous for me, knowing that after each outing my garden swing, knitting and latest book will be waiting for me. With a room temperature ice tea.

And a cat!

It is good to have a safe house.

Science and the Scleroderma Girl: Hard Choices

Everything happened really fast when I was first diagnosed with scleroderma  and Sjogren’s Syndrome. I had been referred to the rheumatologist after the results of bloodwork that my PCP ordered up. The rheumatologist did an exam and some tests, told me that I had the form of scleroderma called limited systemic sclerosis, and was evasive when I asked him what this would mean for me in the long term. What would my life be like in five years, I asked. He said he needed to run some more tests and would get back to me. He also told me to stay off the internet.

Well, that was kind of ominous, don’t you think? My first clue that this might be rather serious…

I was given a prescription for a disease modifying drug (DMARD) called Plaquenil, a handful of pamphlets, and referrals for additional testing. Lots of testing. Waiting for my prescriptions to be filled I went to the lab to get blood drawn and then sat down to call to make appointment for the additional testing I needed. It was hard to not feel like the sky was crashing down on me.

Cinco de Mayo rose.
Hey, time for a rose break. Look at what is blooming in my garden this morning! 

After 6 months of the drug Plaquenil I was feeling better, so I was a little shocked when the rheumatologist told me that it was time to add additional drugs and that he was going to give me the choice of methotrexate or CellCept. He handed me information on the drugs, ordered more blood tests to determine the state of my liver, and told me to call back in a week to let him know which drug I was comfortable with.

Of course I went straight to the internet. Hello. Science girl here. How should I make a decision without more information? Time to put all that chemistry and molecular biology to work!!

Ugh. After researching both of these drugs it didn’t look too good to me. Methotrexate is actually a chemo drug, given in a lower dose to rheumatology patients to suppress the immune response.  I would need folic acid to try to minimize hair loss and other side effects, and it would knock me on my butt for a day or two each week. CellCept also suppressed the immune system by another pathway, had fewer side effects, more risk of cancer, and was really hard on the stomach. Both drugs had definite downsides. I would need to stay out of the sun to prevent DNA damage. My risk of serious infections, including  PML, a fatal brain infection, would go up. The side effects of methotrexate seemed to be worse to me, but the CellCept would be awful on my gastritis…

If I chose to remain untreated with either of these drugs my chance of developing a fatal complication from scleroderma went up. I was already in the early stages of interstitial lung disease and pulmonary arterial hypertension, both of which could be fatal, so I really did need to try to slow things down with a drug…

Ugh! I was feeling pretty helpless about making the decision. What should I do when the future was unknown? Everything was a gamble and I didn’t have any really good choices.

I called my rheumatologist and told him I wanted to try methotrexate because I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t be able to handle CellCept. It was done.

Jacob sheep
Science and the Scleroderma Girl will be taking the weekend off because tomorrow I am going to the Estes Park Wool Market with my BKB Deb. Any day in the mountains is a good day, but it will be even better with yarn, peeps, and cute sheep. Woohoo! Fiber festival time!!

This whole process was kind of awful. Just knowing how these drugs worked and their side effects wasn’t enough. I needed more info. I needed to hunt down research studies.

Science time!!

The Scleroderma Chronicles: The lung results are in.

Spoiler Alert: More good news!!

Last week I drove across town to a hospital that is connected to my pulmonologist’s Kaiser office building for my pulmonary function test. If you’ve never had one of these, there is a machine that you breathe into, a computer that is calling the shots and a sealed glass booth that isolates you from the outer world. Into the booth I went. Time to get some answers!

As part of the test I used an inhaler to get a big slug of the drug albuterol. Wow. That really helped. I’ve been avoiding my inhaler for months as I would feel just HORRIBLE after using it due to dropping blood pressure.

But I just quit using my blood pressure medications two weeks ago and now it was really obvious that my breathing was much better after using the drug. “Here, you’d better take this diffuser”, said the technician giving me the tests. “You’re going to be using this!”

Wednesday my pulmonologist called me with the results. My lungs are better than they were two years ago! More to the point, my pulmonary arterial pressure is down into normal ranges and there is less leakage (okay, they call it regurgitation… what an ugly thing to say about my heart!) at that heart valve. Woohoo!! The fatal complication that we all thought I was going to have to face down is suddenly off the table. I’m not going onto oxygen. My doctor and I virtually hugged over the phone.

Here’s the deal. I have a second autoimmune disease called Sjogren’s Syndrome that can cause small airway disease in the lungs. My Sjogren’s has been pretty bad this year, and since I responded to the inhaler drug really well it looks like that is what is going on. My doctors focus on my bad boy systemic sclerosis so much that they tend to forget about this other life-altering, but not fatal, condition. This year Sjogren’s has been stabbing me in the back.

“Time to start giving your inhaler a workout!”, my pulmonologist told me. “Then try to get more exercise. Your lungs need to continue their recovery, and we are keeping you on the high dose of your immunosuppressant drug.”

Inhaler and fitbit.
I bought a fitbit yesterday and I plan to use the inhaler daily while I steadily increase my exercise. Next week I’m going gym shopping…

It’s the drug. It absolutely is the new drug that I’ve been taking for the last 2.5 years. It is a new drug for the systemic sclerosis community, one originally developed for organ transplant patients, that is now collecting a body of evidence that shows that it not only slows down the rate of disease, but also allows some reversal and healing to occur by impairing the immune system attack on the lungs.  My heart is better because my lungs are better. In a time when I have been experiencing chest pain and shortness of breath, it was because I was getting better and needed to come off some of my drugs, not because I was getting worse. I am completely blindsided and gob smacked by the unexpected turn of events.

Next week is the Estes Park Wool Market in Estes Park, Colorado. I’m off to the mountains and boy will I be running wild with my BKB Deb. I’m going to pet the alpacas, eat lamb kabobs, and then I am going to buy a boat load of yarn. My new fitbit will be getting a workout!

After that I’m going to see my internist so she can look at the big picture with me to see what else we’re missing. There’s another drug that I want to drop…

That will be another post.

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!!

A Break in Routine: Oxygen, Snow and Bad Cats

So much snow! Last Friday night the rain started just as I was heading to bed, and in the morning there was already several inches of snow on the ground. It just poured snow for the next 24 hours, and even though there was a lot of melting (thankfully on the sidewalks and streets), it really piled up on the lawns and in the trees. When it was over I had over a foot of heavy compacted snow on the deck and lawn.

Snow on flowers
Sadly the snow hit just as many of the ornamental trees were in full bloom. This tree, which might have been a crab apple, really got socked in snow. 

Trees all over town lost branches as the weight of the snow became too much for them. Ever an opportunist, I brought some of the blooms from broken branches into the house.

Tree branches
They smell great too! 

The blooms were a happy addition to a basically unhappy house. Last Friday just as the storm was getting ready to break I got a call from the pulmonologist’s office; my test results were back and she was ordering supplemental oxygen for me to use overnight. It was kind of a shock as I’d convinced myself that my lungs weren’t that bad. Less than two hours later the machine had arrived and was set up for me to use.

Oxygen machine
Here’s the oxygen condenser that I need to use while I’m sleeping. It buzzes, vibrates, and makes other noises that scare Yellow Boy. Cat harmony is definitely not being maintained. I’m getting used to it pretty quickly; it is kind of like sleeping in an airplane. 🙂 Now that I am getting more oxygen during the night I’ve noticed that my morning chest pain is gone. That’s is a good thing! Sorry Yellow Boy, the machine stays.

You never saw such unhappy cats. Between the snow and the machine they were just miserable.

Cats at back door.
Here they are anxiously waiting at the back door to be let out first thing in the morning. MacKenzie is just awful about this. He starts meowing (yowling!!) and scratching at the wood at 6am. He doesn’t come upstairs to wake me up because, well, machine… 
Cats
Finally I crawl out of bed to let them out. Silly cats, there is snow!! I had to shovel them a path on the deck they were so heartbroken by the state of backyard affairs. Here they are three days after the storm and do they look appreciative? No. They are cats!! They don’t do appreciative…
Cat at computer
Cats do sulky outrage. MacKenzie especially has been a pill all week. He was all over stuff when I tried to work at the computer. He demanded endless treats. He followed me from room to room and participated in all crafting ventures. If I stopped paying attention to him the paw (with attached claws) came out.
Cat
He took to lurking in the “launch tube” part of his cat tree at the back door. Every time I opened the door he streaked out before I could stop him. We had some scary moments when he got past me into the garage and the electric door was closing. Truly, he was a handful all week.
Mac and Me
Tonight it has been a week since the scary machine and the snow arrived, and things are almost back to normal in the cat world. Here he is purring on my lap and posing for a selfie. What a sweet boy. Ha!

This weekend is going to be nice and the last of the snow should melt. The cats are slowly adjusting to the new machine and this morning we slept in a little. All is once again right in the cat world.

Next week’s forecast: thunderstorms!

I haven’t told the cats yet.

 

 

Trail of Crumbs

I have been struggling for weeks and weeks now. I had the flu not long after Christmas and it just never completely went away. I have a pain in my chest, a cough, fatigue, and I just run out of air more easily than I should. Seriously. I have trouble talking and breathing at the same time if I come up the stairs at home. This isn’t reasonable. I was having trouble climbing stairs before I got sick, but now things are ridiculous!

This is the joy of life with a serious chronic illness. There are so many little symptoms and problems it is hard to know what’s important and what is just another day of systemic sclerosis. I tend to wait out symptoms for a couple of weeks before I contact a doctor; then I’m at the mercy of waiting for lab results and a call back. Ugh! Things drag on for days and weeks as I process through my medical team asking them to find out what is wrong with me.

Cat
Mom stays in bed all day reading mystery books that feature a librarian and a giant Maine coon cat. What is up with that?

For two months I have been bouncing back and forth between my rheumatologist and my internist. My rheumatologist has been concerned that my heart is misbehaving (and sends me on to the internist), and the internist suspects that my lungs are to blame (and refers me back to the rheumatologist). It’s like following a trail of crumbs hunting for answers to an ill-formed question. No test result provided a clear diagnosis.

Except I can’t breathe, and it seems to be getting worse.

Two weeks ago on my way home from my weekly knitting group I was hit with a surge of assertive self-determination. Time to stop acting like a victim, I told myself. Instead of going home I drove for another hour north and requested a full copy of all my medical reports from the hospital where my pulmonary function and echocardiogram tests were done. I knitted on my shawl in the lobby while waiting for the reports, and then took them home with me in my knitting bag.

Shawl
Look at this shawl! I’m through the first section of short row lace. This is the Waiting for Rain shawl by Sylvia Bo Bilvia.

I am a lucky, lucky woman. I have a molecular biology degree and I once worked in a rheumatology research lab. I taught advanced placement biology for years and I know a lot more anatomy and physiology then the average patient with my condition. I should be able to follow the trail of crumbs within the stack of medical records, I reasoned. I laid out the lab reports in sequence, looked for patterns of change in my lung and heart test results, and took to the internet to understand what strange acronyms meant. I found a presentation that explained pulmonary function tests. Well, dang. Even though the summary notes from the physicians who interpreted my lab test used words like mild, early, and upper range of normal, it was clear to me that my lungs were getting worse over time. Maybe a lot worse.

I emailed my rheumatologist a note telling him that I had picked up up my tests and saw that my results suggested early interstitial lung disease (the summary of the latest test). I reminded him of my symptoms and asked about next steps for me in addressing/diagnosing my ongoing problems. Here’s the deal: an email is part of my official medical record. More than a phone call, it should provoke a response.

Oh, it did! I received a call within an hour from his office. In the next week I had two phone conferences, another echocardiogram, and a referral to a pulmonologist. I was able to refer to specific data in all of my conversations with my doctors. I got a prescription for a badly needed rescue inhaler. Finally! Forward progress!!

Yesterday I saw the pulmonologist. It was a beautiful warm day and a perfect drive through the countryside to get there. What a wonderful, wonderful doctor! She made it clear that I am not over-reacting, I do need better coordination of my health care, and she will be a warrior for me. I wanted to hug her. Here’s what happened during the visit:

I do have interstitial lung disease, and it is serious; almost 20% of my lung volume is already gone. This is bad news because it happened while I was receiving drugs to treat the systemic sclerosis. I will be completing more tests over the next week to nail down the diagnosis, but there is already so much damage that she will coordinate immediately with my rheumatologist about treatment options; she sent him the message while I was still in the office. I think that I will be seeing more/different meds in the near future. I may be going on oxygen overnight. I hope that I don’t have to do IV infusions. I have been referred to palliative care and will be receiving a case manager to help me locate resources and to coordinate my ongoing care with the medical team. I plan to ask the case manager if I should be referred to a scleroderma specialist at the University of Colorado, but I totally want to keep this pulmonologist!!

After so much time trying to get some answers/help the response was actually overwhelming. I came home and for the first time since I was diagnosed I cried.

Welcome Bear
The front yard “welcome bear” could still be seen between snow drifts when I went out to shovel. Cute, huh!

Today I woke up to a full-blown blizzard; howling wind and almost 2 feet of snow! I didn’t get any calls about medical appointments and I certainly didn’t make any. I knitted, shoveled snow (slowly!) and enjoyed the break from the immediate crisis. I started the next book in my mystery series. I worked some more on my shawl; it is going to be beautiful.  My roses are safely enveloped in an insulating three foot drift of snow.  I was able to successfully advocate for myself and secure medical treatment. Tomorrow the sun will be back out and I will start scheduling appointments.

This is not the journey that I would have chosen for myself, but I will travel it as well as I can, knitting, reading and tending my roses all the way.

Life is good.