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.

****************************************

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. πŸ™‚

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.

The Scleroderma Chronicles: Matters of the Heart

The Blue-Lipped Zebra (BLZ for short) has been busy the last three months (once she was fully vaccinated for Covid-19) and lots of testing and doctor appointments have happened. Lots of diagnostic hypothesis have been pursued and tested; the BLZ has received several emails from doctors that let her know about good news: you don’t have pneumonia!! your heart looks good!! your kidneys are maintaining!!

All is good. Go visit your baby bunny and don’t worry about it…

Hello. BLUE-LIPPED Zebra. Chest hurts. Zebra is dizzy. Zebra pants as soon as she moves around. Zebra is absolutely sure that everything is not fine at all!

Did I mention that the BLZ got fully vaccinated? Ever since that happened (and the BLZ got a steroid injection for her ill-behaved hip) her fatigue and brain fog have receded into the background. Quite frankly, the BLZ is feeling pretty frisky and clear-headed these day between bouts of dizziness and panting episodes. She has decided that enough is enough and she is on the move to get to the bottom of what is going on!

She contacted her doctors and health providers and had them forward her the entire text of her test results. She read these results carefully and then spent some time consulting with Dr. Google to figure out what some of these words meant. The BLZ is so grateful for that biology degree and years of related job experiences.

The BLZ has limited systemic sclerosis. What she learned was…

  • A general rule of thumb, the 15% Rule, can be used to describe the number of systemic sclerosis patients with serious complications associated with their illness. For example, 15% of patients will have Sjogren’s Disease, or digital ulcers, or lung disease, or maybe pulmonary arterial hypertension. These complications are sometimes rare in the general public, but for systemic sclerosis patients they can be common.
  • A large European study found that the majority of systemic sclerosis related deaths were from heart complications (26%) or were pulmonary arterial hypertension (26%) related.
Time to stop and smell the roses. This is a little disappointing… my doctors have been reassuring me that all is fine because they are focused on lung disease. There are a lot of bread crumbs in the test results that suggest heart problems.

Then then BLZ made an appointment with her internist (the primary care physician) to go over the test results with her and to help her prep for her cardiologist appointment next week. Don’t you think that was smart?!!!

Mateo: Very smart!!

Here’s the summary of my appointment with my wonderful internist. My face was blue and I struggled with dizziness in her office: she entered a new diagnosis into my chart that says I’m cyanotic and told me to press the cardiologist for a prescription for day time oxygen so I can carry portable oxygen with me. (“Now we’re talking!!!” barked the BLZ.) She read the test results for my CT lung scan and echocardiogram and agreed with my understanding of what the test results were saying. She told me what tests to ask for from the cardiologist at my appointment. Here’s the summary:

  • I have physical findings in my lungs that consistent with pulmonary arterial hypertension. The summary results of that test say “mild to moderate” and even say that the loss of lung tissue and an enlarged pulmonary artery are due to PAH. Huh. Look at that. (“I’m just shocked, shocked!” snarks the BLZ).
  • The tissue of the heart (the muscle) is scarred and too stiff to beat well. This condition is called diastolic dysfunction and is a type of heart failure. The echocardiogram states that my diastolic dysfunction is Grade II, which is moderate. Scleroderma is attacking my heart; 15% of systemic sclerosis patients have diastolic disfunction. While there are lots of reasons why people develop diastolic dysfunction, for me the picture is different as it is a common complication of my systemic sclerosis and not a result of say… uncontrolled high blood pressure.
  • The estimated pulmonary pressure from the echocardiogram is difficult to measure in my case (Dr. Google had to teach me about incomplete TR jet and other obscure heart-related terms) and is most likely being undermeasured. The number now is the upper limit of normal; twice in the past it couldn’t even be estimated.
  • I have a newly developed hole in my heart called a cardiac shunt.
  • My heart is broken damaged by scleroderma.

So what should the BLZ do about all of this? The internist and the BLZ hatched a plan in which she should insist request direct measurement of the pressure in the right side of her heart (right heart catherization) and another echocardiogram that looks at that cardiac shunt while she is exercising standing up. Like, maybe the BLZ needs to be climbing stairs… The BLZ is just thrilled… Also, the BLZ wants day time oxygen-to-go. Yes, please. Right now, please.

Also, the BLZ is considering taking someone with her to the appointment and will have the cardiologist send the internist his notes following the appointment.

Also, when life get tough, get a kitten!! BLZs love kittens!

So, this is an adventure in progress, but I do have some gems to share with others struggling with their own medical misadventures. Get your own copies of your test results and physician notes after appointments. Google like crazy to learn what the obscure medical terms mean. Educate yourself about your illness/condition. Stay off social media as you do this and read journal articles from legitimate sources like the Rheumatic Disease journals and articles posted by the NIH. Ask another knowledgeable person to review your test results to help clarify/validate your thinking. If my journey here can serve as a roadmap for even one other person battling their way to a diagnosis, then this post was a success.

And remember to be brave.

It is good to have a diagnosis, even if it is a shame.

Zebras are brave!!

The Scleroderma Chronicles: World Scleroderma Day, 2021

Here we are again… World Scleroderma Day.

I’ve written about scleroderma on this date for several years now. I just went back and read what I wrote last year and decided that I did a pretty good job. I talked about getting diagnosed, the complications that are being caused by my disease, and what that means in my life. Here’s that post if you would like to check out my take on things last year.

This is one crazy-ass disease and it certainly has complicated my life. In the year since I wrote that last post I have hung in there (hey, staying home for a year on oxygen slowly improving was actually good for me) and then emerged from strict lockdown to get lots of testing to try to sort out what is the cause of my blue-lipped status and the source of other little issues that I have going on. While thinking about what to write today I thought of a few things that I haven’t written about before and some things that are new since the last post.

The correct name for the type of scleroderma that I have is limited systemic sclerosis. Systemic means that every part of my body is being impacted by this disease, and the word sclerosis means that scarring is happening in tissues all over my body. What’s happening to me is not obvious to the outside viewer, but it is insidious and ongoing all the same. Somehow, by some mechanism that isn’t clear, my systemic sclerosis is being driven by antibodies that I’m producing that react with the centromeres of my cells.

What’s a centromere? I’m shocked, shocked I tell you, that you just don’t know that! Seriously, the centromere is that little place in the middle of a chromosome that can be seen when cells are getting ready to divide. This is a little tricky because the only time we can see chromosomes is when cells are getting ready to divide and they have already copied themselves: the little pinched waist in the middle of the chromosome where they are connected is where the centromere is located.

Got that?

This image belongs to the NIH; as a taxpaying citizen I hope that it is okay for me to use it here. πŸ™‚

Somehow something happened to a protein located in the centromere area of the chromosomes in my body that made it look “different” and my immune system responded by making antibodies against that protein. The antibodies that are produced are called “anti-centromere antibodies” and their presence is highly suggestive of my form of systemic sclerosis. The alternative explanation is that my immune system just went berserk, decided to attack my own cells, and began making these antibodies on its own. I personally think that something changed and then the antibodies were made as a response. My money is on a virus.

It really doesn’t matter all that much since, once the immune system is triggered, the immune response can’t be turned off and one day you are sat down in some rheumatologist’s office and carefully told about what is happening to you and what to expect in the future. Your skin will get thick. Your blood vessels will be so damaged that they will thicken and spasm shutting off blood flow to parts of your body unexpectedly. The scarring tissue will build up in your digestive tract and damage the smooth muscles that you need to move food along. Your kidneys will lose function. Your nerves will be damaged. Your lungs need to protected since they are especially vulnerable to damage from accidently inhaled stomach acid. If your disease flares badly enough you can develop autoimmune pneumonia. Your tendons, muscles, and joints are all in trouble. You are in trouble. The damage will progress and there is no cure.

“This is really serious,” one of those early doctors told me. “This is like a diagnosis of cancer, but of course, some cancers can be cured…”

Well, shoot. Good thing there are drugs to help control symptoms and to slow the progression of the disease by dialing down the immune system.

Yay for drugs!! I am on drugs to shut down my stomach acid production (my lungs are doing pretty well) and on drugs to crush my immune system into submission. I’m on anti-inflammatories to control other cellular pathways activated by those ill-behaved antibodies. I get steroid injections to help my damaged joints and inflamed tendons. I have strict dietary limitations. I do lots of physical therapy. I’m on oxygen overnight to keep my red blood cell count in a normal range. I dress in layers to help control the spasms of my circulatory system, a phenomenon called Raynaud’s. I knit almost every day to keep my fingers from stiffening up and contracting. I now have a shiny purple cane to help me walk.

Every day is a challenge, but I am fine.

So what is new this year?

Scleroderma has damaged my heart. They are still testing to clarify exactly what is going on, but so far they have established that there is scarring in the heart muscle that is making my heart “stiff” and that somehow I developed a hole in my heart. There are suggestions of pulmonary hypertension, but I need more testing for a definitive diagnosis. No wonder I turn blue in the face and pant when I walk.

Oh, yeah, there is also a pandemic going on.

One of the greatest ironies of the last year is that serious cases of Covid-19 share similarities with the clinical symptoms of scleroderma crisis. Immune system-mediated pneumonia caused by an overreacting immune system is a hallmark of both conditions. Then there is this… Remember those drugs that I take to crush my immune system into submission? I take two drugs for that purpose. One of them, hydroxychloroquine, was (irresponsibly) politicized by influential individuals early in the pandemic and therefore became short in supply; my muscles and joints immediately rebelled when my supply lapsed early in the lockdown. The other drug that I take, mycophenolate mofetil, is linked to poor response to the Covid-19 vaccine. I am vaccinated and I am making anti-Covid antibodies, but since my total antibody count is very low my doctors aren’t sure I can fight off a Covid-19 infection fast enough to stay out of the hospital. I’m advised to continue to mask and isolate because… blue face, hole in heart, stuff like that…

For me, lockdown goes on.

So, here are the takeaway messages from this post. Be kind. There are illnesses that are really debilitating that you can’t see when you look at that person walking into a store from a handicapped parking spot. Don’t be dismissive of conditions with funny names that you’ve never heard of before. I know that it is hard to understand conditions that are beyond your experience and that you can’t really see, but take a moment to let someone tell you about their illness and the daily challenges that they embrace. If you meet a person with an autoimmune disease, they deserve a hug. If they have scleroderma you should give them two hugs! Be understanding of people who are still wearing a mask in public; perhaps they are braver than you can imagine.

Today is World Scleroderma Day.

Go Team Teal!!

Note: If you would like to know about different types of scleroderma you can learn about them here.

The Saturday Update: Weeks 22 and 23

I’m going to be honest here: June has been really challenging so far. My entire right arm is numb and in pain and there isn’t much knitting going on. My appointment book is completely filled up with medical appointments and the bruises are collecting at an alarming rate; did I mention that June is Scleroderma Awareness Month? Yep. I’m aware. Scleroderma has gone into overdrive this month. Gee, if it wanted more attention it should have just asked!

In solidarity with scleroderma there have been other disasters this month. The car that was bringing me home from GI testing this week developed engine trouble (I ended up in an Uber, hopped up on drugs, leaking fluids from an unmentionable part of my nether region… best ride across town ever!) My refrigerator started shrieking in the night as one of the fans failed putting my stash of cheese at risk (yes, I have seriously cornered the market in… cheese). Oh, did I mention that I also had a scary close encounter with my neighbor’s pit bull? Seriously, it has been challenging to do anything except deal with all of this stuff. On the other hand, I have handled things; a new refrigerator is coming (I must save the cheese!), my neighbor has implemented more safeguards to contain her dog, and I have learned how to use Uber!! I’ve completed physical therapy and am walking much better. The car that broke down was repaired at little cost. My arm is in a brace but I am rocking voice-to-text on my phone. I’m knitting again… slowly.

Still, I am warning you, June, knock it off!! I have knitting and stuff to do.

Hannah: June would be a great time to get me a little kitten companion!!

Knitting

I finished my Noncho (Sharon from Security and Casapinka) this week. What a nice, versatile addition to my wardrobe this will be. I also made some progress on a sock but really the big accomplishment this week has been the Noncho. My project notes on Ravelry are here.

Garden

It’s gotten hot and the garden has taken off. I’ve been weeding steadily and it is really exciting to find flourishing plants and emerging flower buds. Look at what is going on right now:

Seriously, the garden is starting to explode with color. My rose plants are covered with buds and the main show is going to start in just a few more days. We had so much rain earlier this year the rose bushes grew really well and things are looking good. Okay, June is picking up a little.

Books

I’m enjoying The Cold Millions while I work on my second sock. So far it is pretty good and applicable to economic issues that we are dealing with today in the US.

Have a great week everyone.

Read a little, knit a little, and garden like your heart can’t live without it.

PS: The gastroenterologist told me that I can’t eat cheese any more. Or chocolate. Or caffeine. Or carbonated drinks. Alcohol is absolutely forbidden.

I’m pretending that I didn’t hear that part about the cheese.