The Scleroderma Chronicles: World Scleroderma Day, 2022

Wow, it is that day of the year again. The Niagara Falls will turn teal, Scleroderma organizations around the world are sending out messages and videos, and patients with scleroderma like me are wondering how best to showcase our conditions in a meaningful way. Here in the US the theme is Know Scleroderma. In Australia it is Shine Like a Sunflower.

The whole idea is to educate the public about this rare disease that pretty much flies under the radar to help secure support for patients, funding for research, and awareness of treatment options. Patients are encouraged to tell their stories and to do what they can to expand scleroderma awareness in the public eye.

Well, shoot. I do that all the time! I wrote about World Scleroderma Day last year and I kind of like what I wrote. I talked about what was going on in my illness and the progress that I was making in getting diagnosed and treated for the significant organ damage that was underway in my lungs and heart. I also mentioned the similarities between Covid-19 and systemic sclerosis (the type of scleroderma that I have), and the fact that people like me are still dealing with lockdown. You can read that post here.

So, what has changed in the last year and why am I typing away on my computer once again about World Scleroderma Day? Well… awareness and support are the messages that I’ve been urged to put out, but I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned this year and how it might be useful to others. This was a huge year for me… I was diagnosed with pulmonary arterial hypertension, a complication of systemic sclerosis that is developed by about 15% of patients, and I was also diagnosed with interstitial lung disease, another complication of systemic sclerosis that is also developed by about 15% of patients. These serious complications develop so routinely around the 15% mark that there is now a rule of thumb about it in treating patients with systemic sclerosis. There are other conditions that fall into the 15% rule, and I have two more of them: Sjogren’s Disease and diastolic dysfunction.

MacKenzie and I from a posting a few years ago.

So, I am getting a lot of experience in dealing with being sick in a way that is not visible to the public and is not the first thing considered when you head into a doctor’s office seeking help for debilitating symptoms that have no obvious cause. I have been successful this year in becoming an active participant in my own health care and I love my team! Here are my lessons learned:

  1. Physicians tend to diagnose with the most common condition that matches your symptoms. You know, if you are struggling with fatigue, it must be depression or sleep apnea…
  2. They also tell you to stay off the internet.
  3. That works great up to a point. Get onto the internet!!!! Look up the symptoms and treatment options for the condition/illness that your physician is talking about. Do they really fit? Go ahead with the testing that your doctor orders but continue to educate yourself. Get the full text of any testing reports (those are your tests on your body, so do insist… nicely…) Look up crazy words that you don’t understand.
  4. I should include here…DON’T PANIC… about any crazy-ass, scary condition that you run into on the internet that you think you might have. I mean, what could happen? You already are sick, and you won’t get magically worse overnight once you get a name for it. You might, however, get some really helpful treatment that could turn things around for you. That is, if you have that crazy-ass, scary condition that you really, probably, don’t have. DON’T PANIC!!
  5. What if you get test results that say “you are fine” and your doctor pretty much is ready to stop there? Um… go right back to specific test results and symptoms to reset the conversation. You know, “my face is still blue, and the latest CT scan showed that I was losing tissue in my lungs. What other testing can we do to figure out what is going on?” is exactly where you should redirect the conversation.
  6. Make a list of your symptoms and track them in a journal or on a calendar. Document stuff and then contact your health care provider (email works great!) with your concerns and the symptoms that you are noticing. Specific data helps a lot, and the written record makes you more credible and your health provider more accountable.
  7. Do not let a medical health professional dismiss or disparage you. Kick them to the curb and get another. On the other hand, don’t go doctor shopping to get the diagnosis that you want; that is not productive for you or anyone else involved in your daily struggles.
  8. Ask your physicians to communicate with each other and make sure that they include your primary care physician in any messaging.
  9. Remember to be kind to others: your doctors, the nurses, your family, your friends, and yourself.
  10. DON’T PANIC!!! at any time. Remember, feeling powerless and not knowing what is happening is stressful. Learn everything that you can, do everything that you can, and then sleep well at night. Hugs to anyone who finds this meaningful.
More lavender for my garden!

There. Those are the best, most excellent lessons that I learned this year. Today I am out of the serious flare of the winter and feeling pretty darn great. I am on steroids, and my immunosuppressant drug’s dose has been doubled; I feel more like myself than I have in a couple of years. I headed out on errands this afternoon, bought a Starbucks, and signed up for a Tour de Fleece team at my local yarn shop. I bought some new lavender plants that I am going to put into the ground this evening and I am cleaning up the spinning wheel to see if I can get some paco-vicuna spun next month before my steroids get stopped.

I have some really serious conditions that carry a significant risk of a poor outcome. And yet, I feel a little like an imposter as I laugh and interact with other people that I encounter. The man at the drive-through window at Starbucks traded cat photos with me. The lady at the yarn store and I laughed and talked about spinning wheel misbehaviors; are the wheels worse if you name them? Behind the mask, I am still me, the old me; I may have scleroderma, but it doesn’t have me. I am kind of the poster child for what an invisible illness looks like, and that’s why there is this campaign today to “Know Scleroderma.”

Those serious conditions that I mentioned… they are complications of scleroderma, but they happen for other reasons, too. Some are rare, but some are not. Knowing about scleroderma can help with research efforts into these other conditions (sadly, some are now more common because of Covid long haulers), and perhaps the lessons I have learned will help others in their efforts to secure empowerment and medical treatment.

This is World Scleroderma Day.

Shine Like a Sunflower!

Hannah and the CoalBear: It’s Caturday Again

Hi. I’m the CoalBear (AKA Mateo)

It is sooooo hot today. It is almost 100 degrees outside, and Hannah and I are staying cool in the house. The Mother of Cats has all the windows closed and we’re too hot to look out the windows anyway. Do you notice that the Mother of Cats has been brushing out all of my downy fur? I used to have a huge ruff around my neck, and now it is almost all gone. I look a whole size smaller now. I don’t like getting brushed, but today I guess I am glad that she did it. She also cuts my nails off and I will never get used to that!!

The Mother of Cats has been knitting away on her sweater this week and look at how far she’s gotten! She is done with the first sleeve and halfway down the second one already! She has also been sewing on the quilt with Hannah.

The quilt is coming right along and should be done in just a few more days. The Mother of Cats can’t wait to get it done. Hannah kind of hopes that she is going to get to keep it for her new bed, but I think that the Mother of Cats is planning to hang it up on the wall behind her knitting chair. I ripped the old quilt down a couple of days ago (Hey! There was a moth!) and she didn’t even bother to hang it back up again. Okay, the old quilt was a Christmas themed one, so maybe she’s ready to put it away now anyway. I’m such a good boy; see how I did her a big favor?

A scary man came this week and messed around with the Mother of Cat’s oxygen machine. When he left there was new stuff left behind including this new green bottle with a snazzy carrying bag. Now the Mother of Cats has oxygen she can take with her when she goes out on errands, but mostly she stays home with us because we are so cute! She has been working on her gardens this week and they are starting to look pretty good. The first rose bloomed this week which made her really happy.

It’s her first English rose of the year!
Well, that all I have. It’s still stinking hot outside and all of the animals are asleep, so I am going to take a little nap too.

See you next week!

>^..^> CoalBear

Notes from the Mother of Cats

  • The sweater is GoldenFern by Jennifer Steingass. Hopefully I will have it done in another week or so. I’m really anxious to start another sweater but so far I’m sticking to getting this one done first.
  • I know that isn’t a good shot of the quilt, but hopefully I will have a nice picture of the completed quilt to show off next week. Hanging on the wall, where I hope it remains as long as no moths land on it. 🙂
I’m listening to this audiobook while I quilt and I just am loving it!!
  • Not only did I get oxygen-to-go this week, but I also got my injections of Evusheld, which is a combination of two monoclonal antibodies that will give me protection from Covid for at least 6 months. This is huge piece of mind for me since my doctors are dialing up my immunosuppression drug dose this month and have started me on a new immunosuppressant drug at the same time. Yay, Evusheld! With the higher dose of drugs, I won’t be able to make many antibodies of my own, so I’m glad to have the Evusheld antibodies.
  • That rose is Princess Alexandra of Kent, and it is pretty much my favorite rose in the garden right now.
  • Hannah and Mateo don’t know it but they are heading to the vet for their vaccinations and checkups next week. Sad cat day is on the way…

The BioGeek Memoirs: Sunflower

Okay, I need to be complete upfront about this: this is a crossover post. It is going to be a total amalgamation of the Scleroderma Chronicles and The BioGeek Memoirs because I just couldn’t come up with anyway to make them separate posts. Hey, I’m a biogeek with scleroderma. It was bound to happen eventually…

So, let’s get this ball rolling by talking about bean plants. That makes a lot of sense, right? When I was a biology teacher struggling to make plants interesting and to help students understand experimental design, I came up with the genius idea of letting the students design an experiment looking at the effect of fertilizer concentration on the growth of bean plants. The students had solutions with different concentrations of Miracle Gro fertilizer available to them, and then they had to struggle with planting and growing 6 bean plants while holding all the other variables constant. The plants grew, the students measured their growth, and then they charted the growth to make decisions about the best fertilizer amount.

I had the hot idea of using an Excel spreadsheet to display the student data to the whole class. That worked great! I then combined the data from all 5 classes together and… it was a huge mess. The plants were all different heights depending on which class was collecting the data. The students weren’t making any errors; the bean plants were raising and lowering their leaves each day in circadian rhythm. Depending on the time of day, the plants were a different height. Oh. Plants can move!

Sunflowers have been on my mind a lot recently. Beautiful sunflowers, whose faces turn throughout the day to follow the sun. My cousin grew enormous sunflowers one year that towered over the other plants in the garden. Sunflowers are the symbol of Ukraine. The sweater that I am knitting right now is in the colors of a field of sunflowers with their faces in the sun.

Those aren’t sunflowers, but the colors remind me of all the “Support Ukraine” knitting that is going on right now.

There are enormous fields of sunflowers near the airport in Denver that are just spectacular in the late summer. Early one morning in late August,2014, I drove past them on my way to my first appointment with a rheumatologist; my primary care physician had referred me to a specialist after some concerning bloodwork results. I was pretty sure that this morning was going to be a turning point in my life, and I was nervous and kind of fighting off tears. Behind me the rising sun poured light onto the glowing faces of sunflowers ahead of me as far as I could see; the sight was just thrilling, and I settled right down. An hour later the rheumatologist explained that I had limited systemic sclerosis (a form of scleroderma) and Sjogren’s disease. I was prescribed medication, sent for more testing, and told to stay off the internet. I looked for the sunflowers as I drove home that afternoon, but I couldn’t see them; the fields were too far from me as I drove east. Still, just knowing they were there sort of helped. Sunflowers. They were kind of a symbol of hope and the promise that I could handle anything.

Are you ready for this? The sunflower has been chosen as a symbol for scleroderma by Scleroderma Australia. Shine like a Sunflower is their campaign this June to bring scleroderma into the light of awareness.

Just like that the sunflower became an international symbol for scleroderma. I swiped this shirt image off of Amazon.

Why a sunflower? Well, like sunflowers, we scleroderma people follow the sun. Strong sunlight is actually a problem, but the warmth… bring on the warmth! For the last few weeks, I have been recovering from surgery and waiting for my biopsy results. I have been sitting outside on my deck out of the direct sun, soaking up the heat and light. Day by day, I have been improving and no longer need daytime oxygen support. My cardiologist has restarted the medication that was halted while I was in the hospital, and it hasn’t even caused a bump in my recovery. Heat and sunlight are really making a difference.

My biopsy results arrived on the first day of June. I have developed a type of interstitial lung disease that presents as hypersensitivity pneumonia. I also have the characteristics of what the report called a vascular/collagen autoimmune disease, which is pretty much a descriptor for scleroderma. Yep. What my pulmonologist prepared me for. This is interstitial lung disease associated with system sclerosis (SSc-ILD) and I am going to get started on an increased dosage of immunosuppressants and a new drug to prevent scarring in my lungs called OFEV. This drug is really new; it has been developed in the years since my diagnosis, and now it is here just when I need it.

June is Scleroderma Awareness Month. Here in the US the theme of the campaign is Know Scleroderma. Oh, I know scleroderma, and so do some of you through my blog. Let’s put scleroderma aside for the time being and go back to sunflowers. And science. Remember that this post started with a little story about doing a science experiment with bean plants and my students? As simple as that was in my classroom, the heart of that process, curiosity, scientific experimentation, and data manipulation, is serving me well now. Ironically, new therapies and treatment approaches are being developed because of the lung scarring caused by Covid-19. Science. It rocks!

Today I planted these sunflowers along my side fence.

This afternoon I am once again outside in the warmth and light, knitting on my new sweater in the colors of sunflowers against the sky, admiring my beautiful newly planted sunflowers. They have their little faces angled to the southwest, following the sun as it starts to dip towards the Rocky Mountains.

Beautiful, tough, follow-the-sun sunflowers, reminding me to also follow the sun and to shine when I can. They remain a symbol of hope and a promise that I can handle anything.

Shine like a Sunflower.

June is Scleroderma Awareness Month. You can learn more about scleroderma at these links.

Those Crazy Days of April, 2022

April went by in a blur for me. I entered the month feeling pretty sick. I had just had an appointment with my pulmonologist, and he had referred me to a surgeon for a lung biopsy. Well, not what I was looking for, but necessary to definitively diagnose what type of interstitial lung disease I had. There are several types, and the treatment plans for each are different. The surgery was set for May 2nd, an entire month away. Annoyed, upset by the wait, pretty darn sick, it was hard to wait all through April.

April rose to the challenge. Never was there such an ill-behaved month. For some bizarre reason my Amazon account reset to Spanish. Do you know how hard it is track orders and make changes to your account settings in a language that you don’t read well? Then email in Italian began arriving. Someone tried to hack into my PayPal account, setting off a flurry of new password and security settings on my part. Then my Facebook feed was flooded with pictures of… owls.

Umm… the universe wants me to learn a new language? Maybe the next BioGeek post should be about owls? This is really strange. April was getting off to a rocky start…

I kept struggling with my health as the month advanced, taking care of essential items in preparation for months of difficulty ahead if I was moved into a 6-month course of chemo. I filed my taxes. I took Matao in for his vaccinations. I filed the paperwork to be excused from jury duty. I got the last vaccine I needed (shingles) before the surgery. A neighbor installed the new outdoor lighting that I had purchased before Christmas, and another neighbor will arrange with her grandkids to take care of my lawn. I ordered more oxygen cannulas, and in keeping with April craziness, 4 cases of tubing arrived instead. I made arrangements to be tested for a portable oxygen unit… first appointment is in June. April, you are killing me here! One of the side windows of the car shattered without warning. I continued to get sicker. I was sick and tired of April, too!

My wild bunny moved into the front yard where I could see it each time I went out of the garage. Very used to me now, it never runs away when I go outside. Bunny support on sad days.

As the month wore on, I began to sleep a lot. Like 10-12 hours a night. I had to use oxygen during the daytime. I was losing weight. I wrote my doctors an email towards the middle of the month telling them that I felt that I was declining, and that I was worried it was taking too long to begin treatment. I was scheduled for a series of additional tests and had appointments with the pulmonologist and the cardiologist. Oh, good, April. Now I have to drive all over town without portable oxygen.

How to respond to a worsening situation that I have no control over? I bought happy new shoes in an outrageous color.

These are the shoes that are going to walk me into the hospital!!

And then I cast on new socks that would do the shoes proud.

This yarn’s name is “Squad Goals” and dyed by Hue Loco.

The results from the heart, lung, and kidney testing came back and they all showed that… I was getting worse. My doctors conferenced back and forth, debated different treatment modifications, and came to the consensus opinion that I should have the biopsy done May 2nd. I got that email late on Friday before the surgery. Checking the physician notes attached to my last appointment I found the full text of all the test results and the email chain of discussion between my doctors. I felt very lucky: what a great team! How good I feel that the decisions about drugs and treatment is being arrived at through this interdisciplinary collaboration by my doctors, who have chosen to make this all visible to me. Knowing that, however, did not change the fact that the upcoming surgery is now a little risky.

So, I cleaned the house, did laundry, paid the bills, and got in groceries. I planted flowers in the front tubs and along the walk. I also cast on some baby booties for my next-door neighbor who just brought home a new little one. This pattern, extremely versatile, is our family recipe passed down through three generations over almost three quarters of a century. It is the same as this one posted on Ravelry.

And just like that, the month was done. I had made 2 hats, 4 PICC line covers, 2 pairs of socks, and used up 3.38 skeins of yarn. I read 6 books. I did work on a sweater, but since I’m now in the colorwork portion of the knitting I put it on hiatus to await better days.

Goodbye April, you crazy, bad-boy of a month! I want you to stand in the corner and think about what you have done!! I expect a whole new attitude when I see you next year.

The Scleroderma Chronicles: It’s okay if you cry…

My fatigue lately has been off the charts. I struggle to get the simplest of tasks done, and to be honest I just don’t feel like getting out of bed for days on end. I have been slowly, slowly sewing on a quilt top over the last few weeks. It is soooo exhausting to pin two fabrics together, guide the fabric through the sewing machine, and then to stand up to iron the seam. I handled all of this by 1) sewing only for an hour a day, and 2) lowering the ironing board so I didn’t have to stand while ironing. Take that, you nasty, exhausting fatigue!!

The quilt has a panel in the middle with really cute pictures like this one. Super cute, right?
Here’s the finished quilt top. This baby has really simple quilting in one border and then simple, simple borders around the central panel. Yeah. This took over two weeks to complete. Thanks, fatigue.

When I noticed some strange terminology on my last heart imaging test report, I contacted my pulmonologist about it, and he ordered a CT scan of my lungs. (You can read about that adventure here.) I knew that something was up when I got a call from his office telling me the date and time of the earliest possible appointment with this doctor. The nurse had intervened and made the appointment for me ahead of time. Then there was a call from the cardiologist’s nurse that was the same; an echocardiogram and appointment with that doctor had also been scheduled for me in order to secure the earliest possible appointment. Kind of the harbinger of a tough appointment, right?

Today I had a pulmonary function test and met with the pulmonologist soon afterwards. We joked about the horrible year we had both had. (He is a pulmonary critical care specialist who has been on the front lines of Covid care for two years now; for me lockdown never ended and the BLZ was running wild.) We laughed at my summation of the year: Crushed by Covid. We decided that “Crushed by Covid” could be the name of a really sad band. Then he whipped out his laptop and had me move over to look at it with him.

He had prepared for my appointment with a spreadsheet of my lung function tests over time and my latest lung scan along with that of a normal person. The spreadsheet showed that I was losing volume in my lungs. The scan of a normal lung was really interesting (old biology teacher here…) and then we looked at mine.

Um… my lungs were really cloudy. Like frosted glass. Like… “Hey. Is that what they call ground glass lung?” I asked.

“Yes. That is exactly what we’re looking at. That’s why I wanted you to come in. This isn’t the type of conversation that you have over the phone,” he replied.

Ground glass is not good, folks. Ground glass is the type of lung imaging that Covid patients with pneumonia have. Covid presents like systemic sclerosis because there is an extreme immune response going on in the lungs; both are aggressively treated with drugs that target the immune system. I also have some honeycombing that is the beginning of fibrosis; first the inflammation (which creates the ground glass appearance), then the fibrosis follows. My ground glass lungs are, in his opinion, absolutely not Covid. It is not likely to be just pulmonary edema. It’s systemic sclerosis at its worst. This is interstitial lung disease.

So, it is not good. On the other hand, this is good. I’m in trouble, but the problem has been identified early on and that means aggressive treatment now may stave off the worst of the fibrosis. I am so glad (and lucky) that I googled those crazy medical terms and then followed through with an email to my pulmonologist.

I’ve been referred to a surgeon for a lung biopsy procedure. Evidently that will land me in the hospital for a few days. Following that, if things go to plan, I will be started on more aggressive immunosuppressive drugs. He is going to talk to my rheumatologist about starting a course of chemo and an anti-fibrotic drug. One of the last things that my pulmonologist said to me was, “It’s okay to cry about this, but we have a plan.” That’s when it hit me that this might be really bad; lockdown will continue, and the fatigue is probably going to get worse. Oxygen 24/7 is right around the corner.

Crushed by Covid plays on. What a sad little band it is.

Luckily for me and the cats it is squirrel season. They will have lots of entertainment while I’m in the hospital and laying around like a slug.

The Scleroderma Chronicles: The shunt hunt takes a left turn…

I’ve been continuing my adventures in cardiology over the last several weeks. If you have been following along on my scleroderma adventures you know that I had a trip to the Cath lab that led to the discovery of a cardiac shunt: a hole in my heart. I also was eventually diagnosed with exercise-induced pulmonary hypertension and started on drugs to treat it, which is a lengthy process as I was slowly titered up on two different drugs while monitoring for side effects. I’ve been mostly living in bed for the last 6 weeks except for short trips out for more testing and blood work. The cats have been loving this, by the way. I’m kind of their captive right now.

This is edema in my arm. I’ve been dealing with headaches, muscle pain, edema, low blood pressure, and extreme fatigue. I cough a lot. Every new weather system is a nightmare. Ugh!

While the whole process has been pretty difficult, I am breathing much, much better and that blue lipped thing has mostly faded away. No more panting!! I haven’t had to put my head down because I felt faint for weeks. This is huge, people!!

I may have to retire the whole BLZ logo the way things are going!

My cardiologist is still hunting for the shunt that was detected in the Cath lab. I have one that they can see (a patent foramen ovale, which is pretty common), but for the really significant disruption of circulation that was detected in the Cath lab the feeling is that I have something much bigger somewhere. I’ve gone through 3 rounds of testing looking for the dang thing, and so far, no joy.

When the test results come in, I always read the entire text and google terms that I don’t recognize. The last imaging of my heart did not find the shunt, and my cardiologist sent an email letting me know that my heart looked pretty good. Umm… okay, but where is that infernal shunt?!!! This is getting a little frustrating, but I am doing better, so I guess I should just roll with it. I did notice this little sentence in the report about the portion of my lungs seen in the heart imaging: “There is mild subpleural reticulation and bibasilar atelectasis.” Say what? I googled and …. bibasilar atelectasis is a partially collapsed lung. I shot off a little email to my pulmonologist to ask if this was something new.

This is why I decided to write this post. As it turns out, this is new. Both of the things that were noted in that test result were significant (subpleural reticulation is evidence of scarring in my lung), and I was immediately sent to get a specialized lung scan that shows I have sustained moderate advancing lung damage over the last 10 months. Oh. No wonder I’m so exhausted. At least they didn’t use the word “severe” in the report. I seem to have developed pulmonary edema and my lungs took a big hit during the last few months; scleroderma is now attacking my lungs. If I hadn’t read that report and then contacted my doctor, no one would have picked up on this. The BLZ may be on hiatus, but the lessons she learned during that drive for the pulmonary hypertension diagnosis really paid off now.

What do you do when you get a sad little lung report? Why, you put on your Catzilla shirt and go start a load of laundry, of course!!

Tuesday I go for a pulmonary function test and then immediately afterwards I will meet with my pulmonologist. I’m kind of thinking that there might be more drugs in my future. Anyway, there is a lesson here that I decided I should share with you all.

Be proactive! Read your test results and ask questions of your doctors. Google is your friend, and those online portals that let you shoot your doctor an email are priceless! Use them!

And now readers, back to the shunt hunt…

Mateo: and now readers, back to my nap! After that I’m going to go swat some more helicopters!

The Scleroderma Chronicles: Rare Disease Day, 2022

Well, this is a hard topic to write about. Quite frankly, I have been getting my butt kicked lately by my (wait for it) rare diseases. Still, I am trying to respond to the calls for publicity about rare diseases along with other members of the scleroderma and pulmonary hypertension communities.

You know, I feel like I should represent.

People with rare diseases are referred to as “zebras” in the medical community.

So, what’s a rare disease? A rare disease is classified as one that impacts a small percentage of the total population. Here in the United States that means fewer than 200,000 people diagnosed with the condition/disease. Perversely, there are a lot of people with rare diseases as there are almost 7,000 different rare diseases!  Some of these diseases are common enough that you may be familiar with them: albinism, achondroplasia (a type of dwarfism), and autoimmune hepatitis are examples. Others are very rare. Most are genetic in origin, and half of them impact children. More than 90% of rare conditions have no drug treatment.

The type of scleroderma that I have, limited systemic sclerosis, is considered rare as there are about 100,000 people in the US with this diagnosis. The latest diagnosis added to my medical history is of pulmonary arterial hypertension, another rare disease, and one that is a consequence of my scleroderma. Well, I am really rare now! I have struggled to explain my scleroderma to people when they ask; how can I explain in just a few sentences something that is just frankly causing horrific damage to my body and generating an ever-growing list of diagnosed conditions. Here’s my best answer at the moment:

Scleroderma is a chronic, progressive, uncurable, and often fatal autoimmune disease that causes scaring and damage to blood vessels, skin, internal organs, and muscles/joints. It is controlled and treated through the use of immunosuppressants and drugs that address symptoms. It is a life-altering diagnosis. It is my life.

So, I have blogged about Rare Disease Day several times in the past. Here’s what I wrote a couple of years ago, and what I wrote in 2018. In the past I have written about my symptoms and the struggle of living with a rare disease. It is pretty isolating. It is hard to get diagnosed and treated. I have also written about the difficulties to get funding for research for rare diseases and conditions, and the lack of treatments and cures because the patient population is so small.

This year I thought I would share some of the things that doctors have said to me since my scleroderma diagnosis. I’ve tried to organize these into chronological order to better reflect my journey.

  • My internist: It’s good to have a diagnosis, even if it is a shame.
  • My rheumatologist when I asked him what my life would be like in 5 years: Let me run some more tests, and then we can talk.
  • My ophthalmologist: Do you have a will?
  • The physician at the regional acute diagnostic center: This is a diagnosis like cancer. Of course, some cancers can be cured.
  • A physician speaker at a scleroderma support group presentation: this drug [the immunosuppressant that I take] can really give you a chance, as long as you don’t contract an infection.
  • My old rheumatologist: All you do is complain. Maybe I should order a sleep apnea test or prescribe antidepressants.
  • My internist, as I begged for an anti-inflammatory drug: I’m sorry. There isn’t anything that I can give you that won’t hurt your kidneys.
  • My dermatologist, as she prescribed an anti-inflammatory topical gel: This is unacceptable, and I am putting a stop to it now.
  • My new rheumatologist as she orders more testing on my painful joints: Why has no one followed up on this?
  • My rheumatologist two days later: You need to get a steroid injection in your hip joint as soon as possible.
  • The hip specialist: There is nothing more that I can do for you because your scleroderma is attacking all of your tendons and ligaments. You need a hip replacement, but it will fail.
  • The physician at urgent care: I don’t think they understood how complicated your medical status is when you were referred here. You need to be hospitalized because we can’t do the testing that you need here.
  • My pulmonologist as he walked me back to the waiting room: I really admire your attitude.
  • My cardiologist as I was being sedated for a right heart cath: Don’t worry. I’ll take good care of you.
  • My cardiologist as he started me on medication for pulmonary arterial hypertension: This is challenging, and we will need to be comfortable with “out of the box” thinking.
  • My rheumatologist last week, referring to herself, the cardiologist and the pulmonologist: We are your team!
  • My rheumatologist, also last week: We need to add a gastroenterologist to the team.

You can see how rocky the start was. There is a lesson here, I think. To be rare, to be a zebra in a medical community that is designed to identify the most likely cause of symptoms in a herd of horses, is hard. It is really challenging to secure the care that you need when, no matter how hard doctors try, you do not respond to the usual treatments, and you never fit the usual profile. It is easy to be seen as a problem. It is hard to keep insisting that there is something wrong when all the test results say you are okay.

Even when you are blue-lipped and panting it can be hard to convince doctors that there is a problem.

And yet, it is possible to get there. Over time, with great determination and persistence, I have A TEAM of doctors who view themselves as active collaborators in my care. They message each other to discuss test results and possible drug interactions, and they loop me into their discussions. It is only now, newly diagnosed with a terminal condition, that I feel confident and hopeful about my care.

Today I went in for a blood draw and a little jaunt through the local bookstore. The sun was shining, I bought a Starbucks coffee, and it was a good day.

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My scleroderma-related diagnoses:

  • GI tract: difficulty swallowing, hiatal hernia, GERD, gastroparesis, chronic gastritis.
  • Kidney: stage 3 chronic kidney disease.
  • Lungs: pulmonary arterial hypertension, interstitial lung disease, asthma, partial lung collapse.
  • Heart and circulatory system: grade 2 diastolic dysfunction (a type of heart failure), Raynaud’s phenomenon, telangiectasia.
  • Muscle/Skeletal: fibromyalgia and severe joint damage.

This is scleroderma. I’m a zebra, and these are my stripes.

Happy Rare Disease Day, everyone!

The colors associated with my diseases are teal (scleroderma), purple (Sjogren’s), and periwinkle (PAH). It sounds like the start of a great sweater, huh. 🙂

The Scleroderma Chronicles: The Blue-Lipped Zebra Gets Her Diagnosis!

At last. I mean, this has been going on for more than 5 years and had reached the point of utter absurdity. If you haven’t been keeping up on all of this, I have been struggling with shortness of breath and sporting blue lips for way too long. I also have pretty significant fatigue, chest pain, and major muscle and joint pain. I’m a mess.

I have a rare autoimmune disease called limited system sclerosis(scleroderma) which makes me high risk for lung and heart issues. People with rare diseases are called “zebras” in the medical community; since I’m sporting blue lips I’m the Blue-Lipped Zebra (BLZ). Got that?

My doctors do routine testing to monitor me for heart and lung conditions associated with systemic sclerosis; each time I had an echocardiogram and a high resolution CT scan the results were that I was… fine. No indications of a major problem.

But I was absolutely, positively not fine. I began to refer to the reassurances that all was okay as medical gaslighting. I transferred to new doctors. I got copies of all my test results, did lots of google searches, read research papers and articles in medical journals, and began to have evidence-based discussions with my doctors. They ordered up more aggressive testing of my heart and lungs. I posted about the my right heart catherization and CPET here if you want to catch up.

Last Monday my cardiologist called and gave me the final diagnosis. I have a type of pulmonary hypertension that is exercise-induced that is being complicated by a cardiac shunt in my heart. At rest, for all those previous echocardiograms and CT scans, everything was fine. When I’m in motion it is another story.

So, what exactly is pulmonary hypertension and why am I, as a systemic sclerosis patient, at high risk for it? In the most simple terms, the interiors of my lung arteries are narrowing due to scleroderma scarring and tissue growth; as the openings get smaller, the pressure of blood flowing through the arteries gets higher.

When we exercise the body needs more oxygen delivered to tissues; arteries constrict to raise blood pressure, your heart speeds up and your respiration rate increases. In my case, that constriction of arteries in my lungs makes the blood pressure in the lungs increase too much; blood struggles to get through the pulmonary arteries, and the downstream pressure in my right heart forces blood to flow from the right side, through the shunt, and into the left. My body’s blood pressure zooms up as the left side of the heart fights to push blood out of the heart past the jet of blood coming in from the right side through that dang hole. It’s a catastrophic cascade that happens in seconds, and the entire phenomenon is being driven by my systemic sclerosis created pulmonary hypertension. “You’re a challenging patient,” my cardiologist told me as we talked about my future treatment. Yep. That’s me. A challenge. I excel at challenges.

Last week the new medication that my cardiologist prescribed was shipped overnight express to me by Kaiser’s National Specialty Pharmacy. Kind of unusual, right? That’s because pulmonary hypertension is rare, so there aren’t that many people taking this drug in the US. If I was a Blue-Lipped Zebra before, I am now a BLZ wearing a crown. A periwinkle crown, of course, for pulmonary hypertension.

Hannah: I should have a crown!!

When I started this scleroderma journey one of my doctors told me that it was good to have a diagnosis, even if it was a shame. This is true. I’ve learned a lot since my first blood tests came back hinting at an auto-immune disease that generated a referral to a rheumatologist.

I’ve learned to be patient. I’ve learned to advocate for myself. I’ve learned to take the initiative to learn about my disease and to become an active participant in my treatment plan. I’ve learned to face down the monster and to go on with my life.

Challenge accepted!

This is Pulmonary Hypertension Awareness month. About 15% of systemic sclerosis patients develop pulmonary hypertension as a consequence of their disease. You can learn more about pulmonary hypertension here.

The Scleroderma Chronicles: The BLZ gets a CPET

The BLZ had some anxiety going into this test…

Last month I had a right heart catherization that showed an unexpected problem with my heart… there is a cardiac shunt that is allowing blood from the left side (you know, the one that is always colored red because that blood is rich with oxygen) to shoot over into the other side of the heart where it disrupts blood flow and adds pressure to the (blue) right side of the heart; that is a little tough on the right side because it isn’t built to handle the extra pressure. Houston, we have an explanation for all that blue panting that is going on.

Cool. Finally we were getting some answers and my doctors were taking my symptoms more seriously. My cardiologist ordered up some more tests to collect data and clarify the issue.

The test that I have been the most concerned about was the cardiopulmonary exercise test that was scheduled for last Monday. I hunted for some cool links to explain the test to use in this post and came up with a bunch of technical articles for physicians and specialists. Okay. Let’s not go there. I’ll try to explain what this test was all about. I was hooked up to a bunch of monitoring equipment that tracked my breathing and heart while I was riding a bike. As part of the test my lung function was tested, my heart monitored (like in an EKG), my blood pressure was tracked, my respiration rate, and the actual amount of oxygen I was using and the carbon dioxide that I was expelling for each mL of blood pumped. It was a lot!!

I was a little concerned because of my bad boy hip, but that wasn’t really a problem at all.

I shared my catnip with the Mother of Cats so that she wouldn’t have any trouble with the test.

The test went great for about 7 minutes: then there was an emergency stop. My blood pressure had suddenly zoomed up into the stratosphere at about 6 minutes into the test, and then 30 seconds later I began panting like crazy and the technician pulled the plug. Remember that cardiac shunt they found in the cath lab? When I exercise the direction of blood flow in that shunt reverses and blood from the right side is shooting into the left side where it interferes with the pumping of oxygenated blood to my body. No wonder I turn blue and pant.

The BLZ is both happy and sad at the same time.

The specialist who did my CPET was great at explaining the data to me; when he sent the report to my doctors he also included me in the email group. For the last week I have been reading the back and forth discussion by my doctors about the test and what the next steps for me will be. I am really pleased to be included in this process and feel that this option should be available to everyone; it is also kind of scary as I get a glimpse of what is coming down the road for me later in the testing department.

The gear and set-up for the CPET was pretty impressive. I joked with the specialist about it and he told me that there was an even more extreme version of testing that included a right heart catherization at the same time as the exercise test. Yep. You guessed it. That’s what my docs are considering to do next. It is clear that I have a cardiac shunt but they haven’t located it yet. The BLZ is pretty bummed. The word “profound” was used to describe my symptoms. There has also been some speculation about neuroendocrine tumors… The good news here is that no one is even considering sleep apnea or me needing antidepressants because, you know, I complain too much…

The BLZ is both happy and sad at the same time.

I keep my eye on the Mother of Cats while she reads her email.

So, it was a kind of tough week. I pulled myself together on Tuesday and went to a new yarn store for a little pick-me-up and was so distracted I missed my turn twice and had to detour through Starbucks before I actually pulled up in front of the store. I almost didn’t go in I was so worn out by then, but I did a little mental slapping to put myself into motion, pulled out my cane, and went in…

…to discover a woman dragging out three big bags of yarn that kind of screamed “community knitting” because they weren’t the yarn being sold in the store. “Hey! I want to community knit! Please, can I come play with you guys?” I immediately said.

That is how I ended up in a new local yarn store this morning knitting with the most wonderful group of ladies in the world. They are all current or former employees of the Kaiser medical system that I go to for my care, and they are producing hats for all of the Kaiser clinics that have infusion centers; I know those centers because they are the same ones that rheumatology patients go to. These ladies are all vaccinated and they all wore masks because they knew I was taking a risk to come. They had donuts! I have found a new knitting home when I needed it like no other. I actually cried a little with joy and relief as I drove away at the end of the meeting.

If I hadn’t made all those bad turns and the Starbucks stop this wouldn’t have happened.

My yarn stash is full of yarn that wants to turn into hats. Hats with happy colors and a dash of cashmere. I am on fire with purpose to produce as many hats as I can for other people who are facing down serious medical situations. I want to make them arm warmers and fingerless mitts. I have tapped into the best, most perfect group to produce useful gifts for other people like myself just when I needed to be grounded, inspired, and calmed by the peace of knitting.

The BLZ is happy.

The Scleroderma Chronicles: A Trip to the Cath Lab

The BLZ has been waiting a long time for this…

Five years ago I came down with the flu and ended up in Urgent Care struggling to breathe. I scored some antibiotics, steroids, and cough medicine. To fight the virus I was told to go off my immunosuppressant drugs for a few weeks until I got better, stay in bed, and load up on chicken soup: it took a couple of months but eventually I got back on my meds. Except… things weren’t quite right. I panted for air every time I came up the stairs and I noticed that my lips were turning blue. My blood pressure was too low and I had to stop taking my hypertension medicine. I felt dizzy and light headed sometimes.

I was a newly diagnosed systemic sclerosis patient and my doctors began running tests to see if my disease was impacting my lungs. Nope. Not my lungs. Tests were run to see if scleroderma was attacking my heart. Nope: my heart seemed to be normal. There were some anomalies, but my doctors decided to just monitor me through routine testing and see if things changed down the road. My red blood cell counts were way too high, and I had nocturnal hypoxia, so I was started on overnight oxygen. I was tested for various conditions that could account for the weird test results, but I always had a normal result.

I struggled on, battling for more testing, as my doctors kept reassuring me that I was okay. Hey, I had a blue face and panted for air when I climbed stairs; vacuuming could put me on the floor. How could this be “normal”? Ugh. Welcome to scleroderma, I thought.

I began to think of myself as the Blue-Lipped Zebra (BLZ). If I didn’t have a rare disease confusing the issue I would be getting better health care, it seemed. If doctors didn’t tend to apply most-common-cause thinking to my condition they might get to the bottom of things faster. It was, in my mind, a huge complicated mess as my doctors applied best practice (and rigid) diagnostic parameters to my symptoms or zeroed in on specific complications of my scleroderma and ignored other possible (and to be fair, rare) causes for my symptoms. I worried that my doctors had just parked me in a holding pattern as I slowly got worse; it is hard to advocate for yourself when you are sick and dependent on your doctors for help, even if you think that they are dismissive and borderline disparaging.

I struggled on as my face became more blue, my red blood cell count higher, my panting for air more common, and the occasional near-fainting event left me collapsed on the floor. I began to ask for a right heart catherization procedure to directly measure the pressure in the right side of my heart. “Oh. You don’t want that,” I was told. “That is really invasive testing.” Umm… I think I do, I would reply. Nope. Nope, nope, nope!! “Not even on the table,” one pulmonologist said.

During lockdown last year I got much worse; ironically lockdown also gave me the opportunity to reboot, fire my old doctors and acquire new ones. My new team of doctors this spring ordered up testing that showed definite issues with my heart and lungs. I am now a heart failure patient (the wall of my left ventricle are too stiff and scarred to beat well) and there were concerning findings that suggested that I had developed pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH): there are areas of cell death in my lungs and my pulmonary artery is too big. There is too much fluid around my heart, a suggestion of ongoing inflammation. I have a hole in my heart between the atriums (a cardiac shunt) that is impacting blood flow. I was gently prepared for the PAH diagnosis, assured that there were great drugs that could help me, and a right heart catherization was ordered by my new cardiologist.

Yay!! About time!!!

Finally, after 5 years of struggle, I was yesterday wheeled into a procedure room to a waiting team of specialists who hooked me up to equipment and took me though testing to get a better look at my heart: I learned in recovery that this team calls themselves “the pit crew”, and that is exactly what it was like. Within 5 minutes I had completed a breathing test, was on oxygen, wired up to a heart monitor, hooked up to an IV, medicated, prepared with surgical drapes, and swathed in warm blankets with a heater by my feet. There was music playing and the crew was cracking jokes as they darted in and out from the table getting me ready. I was knocked out for the echocardiogram imaging of the back of my heart that was done using a probe in my esophagus, but they woke me up for the main event: the right heart catherization. My cardiologist inserted a probe into the carotid vein in my neck and threaded it into my heart by way of the superior vena cava (blue side of the heart diagram above). People, this was the most amazing experience ever! There was a huge screen showing the progress of the probe and I could watch and ask questions as the line snaked through my heart; there was absolutely no pain. “Well, this is interesting,” said my cardiologist at one point, and there were more measurements happening and a flurry of new activity from the team. The BLZ felt a surge of elation: they had found something, and it was NOT what they expected.

Back in recovery my cardiologist caught up with me again. I had done great, he said, and he just beamed as he told me that I absolutely did not have PAH. This is great news, he assured me, great news!! There is another circulation problem in the lower part of my heart, between the ventricles. There is blood coming in from the left side of my heart and mixing with the blood on the right, disrupting the flow through the heart and robbing me of oxygen to my body. I have a second, more serious, cardiac shunt, and now it is a question of locating that pesky little guy and doing something to fix the problem.

It has been FIVE YEARS, people. If I hadn’t had my trip into the cath lab yesterday my doctors would still be nagging me to get more exercise (the BLZ just barks in laughter), offering me antidepressants, or insisting that I must have sleep apnea. I feel so validated!

My cardiologist is now going over my previous imaging to find the hole now that he knows what to look for. I was told that I may need to go through more testing to definitively characterize the opening, but this is huge forward progress. I suspect that I am facing open heart surgery down the road, but I am elated that the progressive and eventually fatal diagnosis of PAH is now off the table. Things are looking up since my heart failure will now be much easier to treat.

I am reminded of Elizabeth Zimmerman’s admonishment: “Knit on with confidence and hope, through all crisis.” Also, when the going gets tough, get a kitten!

Today I am waiting to hear back from my cardiologist who is going to email me with follow up instructions after he has finished going through the data and past test results. I’m on oxygen, knitting, and feeling pretty calm about all the new developments.

Almost exactly 7 years ago (August 28th was the anniversary day) I was diagnosed with Limited Systemic Sclerosis and Sjogren’s Disease. I have learned a lot along the way, but the best, most important lessons have been about self-advocacy, facing down the worst case scenarios, communicating with your doctors, and maintaining a good attitude.

Yesterday this all paid off for me big time.

Note: The fabulous BLZ graphic was made for me by my exceptionally knitworthy niece Melissa and her beautiful and talented daughter Eleanor.