The Scleroderma Chronicles: The cardiac test results have arrived…

Spoiler Alert: there’s a happy ending!

It has really been kind of a rocky month. Following several episodes of shortness of breath, chest pain, heart palpitations and blue lips my doctors decided that I was due for a full round of testing. My primary care physician ordered up a battery of cardiac testing and sent me off to see my specialists.

Cookies
First up: the pulmonologist. I made these cute little sheep cookies to take to the office staff when I went in for my appointment.

I really like my pulmonologist. She is thorough, direct, and answers all of my questions without sugar coating things. I had chest pain in her office and while I was talking to her my lips turned blue right on cue. Wow. It’s like having a trick pony that performs for the audience! We talked about the possible causes, all of which were pretty serious heart conditions, and she decided that I needed to complete my cardiac testing before I did her pulmonary function tests.

I’m not going to lie, it was sounding pretty serious. She thought that I either was developing heart failure, pulmonary hypertension (a fatal complication of scleroderma), or my heart was being starved due to blood vessel constriction.

Next up: my rheumatologist. We discussed increasing my immunosuppressant dosage to crush my Sjogren’s, which has been pretty active, into submission. She hated to up the dosage unless there was no other choice due to the risk of infection, especially since she thought that it was probable that I was experiencing pulmonary hypertension symptoms, and that meant that the pulmonologist should be the lead on treatment.

What was needed, clearly, was some test results to clarify the situation. And knitting. Lots of knitting.

Knitted fabric.
I knitting like crazy all month on the What the Fade?! shawl and finished it yesterday. There has been research that shows that knitting has calming benefits greater than yoga. Since yoga is out of the question right now, I knit.

Are you familiar with Holter monitors? That’s the test where you are hooked up to sensors and wires that go to a device that records your heart’s electrical activity for 72 hours. 72 long, itchy, forced to sleep on your back, OMG, how did this sensor get attached to my hair, hours. Whew. It was done. The results: my heart was normal. Still short of breath and feeling dizzy, I went back to knitting.

Next up was the echocardiogram.  Dizzy and feeling faint, I went for the test one morning last week and then headed on over to my LYS for some knitting action. Following my BKB Deb around the store looking for the yarn to knit a Tegna sweater I felt faint and ended up sitting on the floor at one point. This was getting ridiculous! Especially since the technician who did the echocardiogram test told me that she thought I would be very happy with the result…

I began to wonder if the problem could be my blood pressure. After years of battling hypertension that was hard to control I was posting some really low numbers at my checks. Maybe I was getting too low?

I did a little searching on the internet, and discovered that there was some research that suggested that it was important to keep diastolic pressure above the 60s. Oh. I was often in the 60s. Maybe I was sending my pressure down too low every time I took my morning medication. My doctors were so happy with the current numbers, but maybe things had changed. Maybe I didn’t have hypertension any more… maybe the pulmonologist was right about the blood starved heart, but it was due to low blood pressure. I decided that I should check my pressure every morning before taking my meds.

Blood pressure.
Tbis was my blood pressure reading the next morning before my medication.

I skipped my meds and started recording my pressure readings several times a day. The chest pain and dizziness disappeared. I sent an email to my primary physician with the BP log attached and we set an appointment to talk yesterday as she had just received the echocardiogram results.

Surprise!! My heart is in better shape now than it was at the time of my diagnosis. My pulmonary hypertension is gone and my heart is now pumping normally. She agreed that my high blood pressure seems to have reversed and that the medications that I have been taking are too much for me now. We agreed to try a quarter dose for a few weeks to see what happens.

The immunosuppressant drug that I am taking has been shown to reverse scarring in lungs, and the high blood pressure drug that I was taking (in too high a dose) also may have positively impacted my heart. My skin isn’t as tight as it was a couple of years ago; it looks like my blood vessels are also now in better shape. Less stiff blood vessels means lower blood pressure. Yay!!

My doctor thinks that the drugs have caused these improvements.

My neighbor, who mows my lawn and prays for a miraculous cure, is sure that God has intervened.

I’m convinced that it was the knitting. 🙂

Next week: the lung testing begins.

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The Scleroderma Chronicles: Year 3.6 There is a 911 call…

Yep. It finally happened.

Upset cat
These scary firemen came to the house and took mom away.

It has been kind of a hard six months. I’ve been dealing with a serious flare of my Sjogren’s Syndrome: dry mouth, eye problems (retinal detachments in BOTH eyes), brain fog, and horrible fatigue. Seriously, off the chart fatigue. Bad Sjogren’s, bad!!

But I think that my systemic sclerosis (scleroderma) has been chugging along as well. My chest feels tight, and when I do anything at all I start to breath hard as I catch my breath. Okay, there might be some panting… Sometimes I get dizzy and I have to put my head down. Vacuuming is suddenly a horrific task, but just coming up the stairs or washing out a pan at the sink can also set me off. Sometimes my lips are blue…

Arm with edema.
Check out my edema:  Can you see the details of the quilt that my arm was resting on?

One of the problems with being chronically ill is that you just keep taking things in stride. After all, it isn’t like this is the first time I’ve seen edema like this, or noticed that my lips were blue. I get out of breath all of the time, and I’ve been telling my doctors about all of this for the last 18 months. But somehow, things seem a little worse now. I have heart palpitations and there is a constant pressure in the middle of my chest. I have developed a headache that just refuses to go away, and my muscles and joints are behaving even worse than ever.

So, Friday while I was resting up in bed after the ordeal of making my morning coffee (yep. I go back to bed to recover from getting out of bed…) I decided that I would call the pulmonologist’s office to ask for an appointment. As usual, thinking that I would be on my feet for only a limited amount of time, I planned several little chores to do while I was going to be up.

Arm Warmers
I took this picture of my incredibly cute new arm warmers. This is the Armelitas pattern by knitcats Design, and here are my Ravelry project notes.

Aren’t those the cutest armwarmers? I put them on, and then started the dishwasher, got a load of laundry going, and then pulled on some more warm clothes (ahem… my Cactus Flower socks and Marfa is a Black Elephant shawl over some fleece pants and a denim shirt) so I could sit at the computer downstairs to make the phone calls.

So, I was out of breath when I made the call. I got ahold of the nurse at my pulmonologist’s office to ask her if I should came in for testing right away or if it would be best to make an appointment. As I talked to her my breathing got worse… I just couldn’t catch my breath and I was now outright panting. I began to feel faint.

The nurse called 911.

I ended up sitting on the floor by the front door with the phone on speaker in front of me waiting for the paramedics to arrive. In just a few minutes they had bundled me up and were whisking me out the door leaving a visibly upset MacKenzie watching from the top of the stairs. It was snowing outside; I didn’t have a coat, but I had managed to hang onto all of my knitted items. The paramedics attached me to all of their sensors and then rebundled me in blankets and knitted items afterwards (okay, my hands turned blue. They hadn’t ever heard of Raynaud’s, but they becaume instant fans of wooly warmth when presented with fingers that matched my denim shirt…) My armwarmers were popped back on over the IV line and the oxygen sensor on my finger. They used the shawl as an additional blanket. I never got my breathing back under control, and was still panting up a storm when I got to the hospital, but I was better equipped than most to cope with the cold. I like to think that I was pretty darn fashionable, too.

Into the MRI machine I went, rocking my armwarmers, as once again the doctors went on a blood clot hunt. Every one of my health emergencies has involved blood clot hunts; it’s a scleroderma thing. No blood clot. No pneumonia. No heart attack. After 2 hours sitting on the gurney in the ER my breathing was under control again and my O2 was fine. My best friend Deb arrived with knitting in hand to sit with me. My son arrived in time to take me home again with instructions to not let me drive or stay home alone.

“This is something that needs to be treated by a specialist”, the ER doc tells me. “You need to call your pulmonologist’s office first thing in the morning to get in to see her. You need additional tests that can’t be done here in the ER”.

You think?

It’s hard to not be stuck by the irony of this. I’m back right to where I started. It is kind of known in the scleroderma community that going to the ER is mostly useless because they don’t have the knowledge and experience to treat your condition. I’ll be calling my pulmonologist first thing Monday morning, but this time I will be calling from bed in a well rested condition.

Grooming cats.
with my latte and the cats!

For those of you who don’t know all of the details of my autoimmune bad-boys, here’s what is going on:

  • I have the limited form of systemic sclerosis, which is a subset condition of scleroderma. I have thick skin on my lower arms, legs, face and neck mostly, but the damage is also affecting several of my organ systems. I am considered a classic case with all of the CREST components.
  • I also have Sjogren’s Syndrome, which is fairly common as about 15% of systemic sclerosis patients also acquire this sidekick condition along with the scleroderma. It’s serious in its own right, but not usually life threatening.
  • Systemic sclerosis has a whole basketful of complications: Raynaud’s Disease, interstitial lung disease, pulmonary arterial hypertension, and kidney disease along with the almost universal digestive tract complications. I have all of these, but in my case the words that are used to describe how I’m doing are “mild, early, and moderate”, which are nice descriptors to have if they are being used in the context of lung,  heart, and kidney disease. I’m kind of guessing that one of the heart/lung conditions has taken it up a notch.

Today I’m camped out with my son waiting for Monday to arrive. I’m knitting.

Do you know the great Elizabeth Zimmerman? Her famous quote, one that I bear close to my heart on days like this, is: “Knit on, with confidence and hope, through all crisis.”

Knit on, my friends, knit on!

The Scleroderma Chronicles: Rare Disease Day 2018

It seems like I just wrote a “rare disease day” post just yesterday, but it has been a whole year already. Actually, I think that I was really lazy last year and just re-posted the previous year’s blog post. Anyway, tomorrow (February 28th) is World Rare Disease Day. This year the motto is “Show Your Rare”, which is a little scary as it sounds vaguely like how I might order my steak, but I’m game. I’m rare, and here is my story.

First things first. Let’s talk about rare diseases. Here in the United States, a rare disease (also known as an orphan disease) is one that affects fewer than 200,000 people in the US. The bad news is that there are a lot of rare diseases; over 6,000 different diseases that impact about 25 million people just here in the US. Many of these are genetic in nature, and they tend to be chronic (more about that later).

I joined the rare disease club the day that my systemic sclerosis (a form of scleroderma) was diagnosed. With only about 100,000 cases in the US, we are definitely rare. Here’s the scoop on my disease: it is progressive, disabling, chronic, and possibly fatal. It shares some characteristics with cancer cells. It is also mostly invisible to other people, and people have no frame of reference to understand an illness that they have never heard of before, so they tend to be dismissive.

Scleroderma hand
One of the most obvious features of my condition is my thick skin. My legs and lower arms are literally hard, and here on my hand you can see that the skin folds kind of strangely. My skin is thick with scar tissue that has built up in response to inflammation set off by my immune system’s attack on normally healthy tissue.
Finger
You can really see it on this finger. My finger looks pale since the scaring is so bad it cuts off circulation when I hold it out straight. There is a silver lining to this: I will never have “old lady” hands.

My hands look strange, but I am doing really well all things considered. I have good circulation and flexibility which my doctors think is due to knitting. “Knit as much as you can!” was the recommendation. See, every setback in life has a silver lining.

What can’t be seen is my astonishing fatigue, muscle/joint pain, and brain fog. So much brain fog. I’m also accumulating organ damage as the months pass by. Digestive system damage, kidney damage, lung damage, and blood vessel damage that is slowly increasing the pressure in my heart.

Scleroderma face
All that redness on my face is due to blood vessel damage, and you can see the thick skin around my eye. Collagen build-up has given me chipmunk cheeks. Special. Thank heavens for red-cancelling make-up.

It’s like a scene from the movie, The Terminator. You know… if you substitute this line about the Terminator from the movie with the word scleroderma it would be… [Scleroderma] can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear! And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead!

Mortality rates are down for my form of the disease due to new drug interventions. The other good news is that it is moving really slowly in my case. I think that I have had this disease for decades, and only now, in my 60s, is it catching up with me. I’m on the best drugs available, I love my doctors, and they have slowed the disease progression down tremendously over the last couple of years.

But I’m still dealing with a serious chronic illness, as are many other people with rare diseases. For me, when trying to explain my illness to others, it is the concept of “chronic” that causes the most trouble. People tell me to get more sunshine, more exercise, better food, use essential oils, whatever, so that I can get better. That’s the way it is for many health conditions, but not for a chronic illness.

There is no better, I tell them. Only this. Nope. They will insist that I can get better if I just try, and take it as defeatism when I calmly explain that some of this damage can’t be reversed. It is possible to get better without getting well, they will say. You look so great! It’s like it’s a personal affront that I can’t just be cured. If they haven’t seen me for a few months they will express surprise that “this is still going on”.

It is the concept of “chronic” that is the problem. To accept that you are sick is not weakness or “giving up”. It is coming to terms with the nature of your enemy.

So here is my Rare Disease Day request for anyone who has managed to read all of this. Accept chronic. Ask the person you are talking to about how they are doing. Ask what their doctors are telling them. Accept that they are in a situation that they can’t escape from. Don’t shy away from the fight if you care about that person.

If you know the movie “The Terminator“, you know that the heroine of the tale, Sarah Connor, was a hell of a fighter. She never, ever gave up, and in the end she got the best of the monster trying to do her in.

I’m channeling Sarah Connor.

The Scleroderma Chronicles: Year 3.0

My, how the time flies. Not that I’m having a good time here, but it is hard to believe that it has already been three years since my diagnosis of limited systemic sclerosis (AKA scleroderma). I’ve been reflecting on the last year while planning this post, and decided that I should start out with a little info about my disease, share the highlights of my three years, and then give unpack this year a little.

Butterfly
But first, a butterfly picture! Butterflies have hard skin, and they are doing OK. Be like a butterfly, I tell myself. This little lady was part of a massive migration of butterflies that came through our state in the fall. Seriously, there were so many of them that they showed up on the weather radar and the NWS put out a bulletin asking the public to identify the bird species: not birds, but butterflies.

Scleroderma is an autoimmune disease that is chronic (no cure), progressive, disabling and possibly fatal. It is rare, which is why you probably never heard of it. The name itself means “hard skin”, and that is one of the most distinctive features of the condition. The widespread scarring and buildup of collagen protein that causes the hardening of skin also occurs in internal organs in patients with the “systemic” form of the disease like me. Most of the damage is hitting my intestinal tract, but my lungs, kidneys and heart are also sustaining damage. In the background, hard to see, but never to be ignored, is damage occurring in blood vessels that can cause blood pressure to soar and places me at risk for blood clots.

I have collected several doctors over the last three years as damage continues to slowly accrue in my lungs, kidneys and intestinal tract.

Here are the highlights of my first three years:

  1. My first year was one of shock and horror. I was so worried about tightening skin and the use of my hands that I didn’t ever think about the bigger picture. I was started on drugs, stabilized, and felt much better by the end of the year.
  2. The bottom fell out my second year. I was using my hands okay, but I developed breathing problems, had to be placed on oxygen, and my heart started to misbehave. Adjustments were made to my medications to compensate for my lowering lung volume and to slow the rate of lung damage. At the lowest point I was sent to palliative care and told to make final decisions.
  3. This year, the third, has been one of highs and lows. The new medications kicked in, I came off oxygen and my chest pain stopped. I was discharged from palliative care. I developed gastroparesis and had to move to a very stomach-friendly diet. I stabilized and sailed through the first rounds of appointments in the spring only to develop kidney problems in the summer along with higher pressure in the artery that goes from my heart to my lungs. This blood pressure, which is called pulmonary arterial hypertension, is extremely damaging to the heart and will need to be addressed if it gets any higher. Fabulous. Another doctor.

My summer this year was really hard. I got very dizzy, developed joint pain and sore muscles, and eventually got so brain fogged that I was afraid to drive. My knees were swollen and developed sharp, shooting pains; I will need to buy a new car if this keeps up as I can’t manage the clutch much longer. I struggled on the stairs and my face turned blue on a regular basis. My neighbors stepped in and took over the yard work for me, and my knitting buddies began to drive me to all fiber related adventures as I wasn’t sure I should be trusted on the road. See, highs and lows. My illness is kicking my butt, and the people around me are stepping in to make sure I’m OK.

Early this month I met with my new internist to see if there wasn’t something that I could take to beat some of these symptoms back. OK, I’m going to be honest here. I cried. We agreed that I would start the tart cherry extract again, but at a much lower dose than I took previously in the spring. (Tart cherry has anti-inflammatory properties and is easier on my stomach than NSAIDs. Unfortunately, my kidneys were damaged the first time I tried to take it.) I’m going to have my kidney function checked every month, but I’m already so much better (brain fog, goodbye!) that I’m really hoping that I can tolerate it OK. In the meantime I’m getting lots of chores done in this golden period while I feel so much better. I’ve moved furniture, completed some projects, and have driven to many, many stores that were ignored last summer.

Wizard Hat
And I made a crocheted had for my niece to wear this Halloween. Really, I’ve been a bundle of energy the last couple of weeks.

So, this is the end of the third year. I feel pretty good, I’m getting things done and making plans, and I am making hay while the (tart cherry) sun shines. Next week I get my blood drawn for the kidney function test and after that I see the rheumatologist.

I’ve been thinking about butterflies again. The day after I took that picture of the butterfly it snowed. A lot.  It took a couple of days for it to melt as the temperatures climbed back up into the 60’s and 70’s. I wondered if the butterflies would make it. As I walked out of the office building after seeing my internist (and still recovering from my crying fit in her office…) I found butterflies swarming around one of the shrubs by the parking lot.

Those butterflies. You can kick them, but they come back. Be like a butterfly, I tell myself.

And the fourth year begins.

The Scleroderma Chronicles: Year 2.5

Wow. How quickly time flies. It has now been two and a half years since I was diagnosed with the autoimmune disease limited systemic sclerosis (AKA scleroderma), and I joined the rare disease club. When last I reported on my progress I was at the end of a tough year; lung disease, oxygen, a referral to palliative care, gastroparesis, and constant pain. I was having trouble walking and my stomach was really acting up; I was losing weight at the rate of a pound a week. Ugh. I was somewhat upbeat by the end of the second year since I was off oxygen, but still, things weren’t really all that great.

Mitts and bracelet
Look at the cute mitts I made in teal, the color of scleroderma. I got that bracelet last fall at a scleroderma patient education conference that loaded me up with lots of great information.

What a difference six months can make. A change in medication made my Raynaud’s much easier to handle. I started doing yoga (carefully) a few months ago and added tart cherry extract as an anti-inflammatory that I can tolerate better than traditional NSAIDs. I bought shoes that felt better on my feet (Haflinger clogs) and got serious with stretching exercises for the plantar fasciitis I developed due to tightening on the bottoms of my feet. I switched to a gastroparesis diet that is mostly easy-to-digest, low fiber foods (got to love pasta and yogurt to do this one…) and began to add some blended  fruits and veggies. My weight loss stopped and I started to gain back some weight. My skin has started to loosen up on my right arm (scleroderma literally means “hard skin” as the most obvious symptom is thick, hard skin that develops as the result of systemic scarring), which is pretty darn exciting!  Over the last six months my energy has been slowly coming up and I have been managing with less pain; I can even walk normally! I’m breathing better and I rarely need to use the rescue inhaler. There was a Sjogren’s flare, but still, things are better.

I just finished making the latest round of testing and doctor visits, and I have to say, it is pretty exciting to visit with happy smiling doctors. My pulmonologist was almost giddy! My lungs and heart have maintained (scleroderma damage tends to be forever…) with almost no new damage; I am right at the edge of trouble, but I’m not there yet. I have good blood work, and even had the first NORMAL kidney function test in over 5 years. My red blood cell count is back down in normal range, and my muscle strength has improved so much I can now easily push shopping carts.  It seems that the increased dosage of immunosuppressants has turned the tide and I am stable. STABLE!! What a wonderful word that is.

I will continue with all of my current drugs for now and there will be more testing in a year, but it is clear that I have definitely pulled up from the nose dive that they through I was in a year ago.

Life is good.

Back to knitting!!

 

The View from Here: One Year of Scleroderma

It’s been a year since I was first diagnosed with scleroderma. Actually, it has been decided that I have the form of scleroderma called limited systemic sclerosis (the disease formerly known as CREST). Sounds kind of fraught, huh. That’s because it is; no matter what I think I know about my condition this week, by next week things will probably change. It has been quite a journey this year and now that all the dust has settled from the latest rounds of medical tests I wanted to share my thoughts.

There is no question that the first months after my diagnosis were filled with waves of horror and grief. At first I was just stunned to discover that I might lose the use of my hands. Then it dawned on me that my ability to live independently might become problematic; I needed to make plans to activate a support system for myself at some time in the future. Eventually I found out about the fatal complications and the high mortality rate. Well, shoot. During this time I became a driven knitter: endless pairs of fingerless mitts rolled off my needles.

CARD
My sister, who has a somewhat warped sense of humor, sent me this card about the time that I learned about my risk for pulmonary hypertension, an often fatal complication of limited systemic sclerosis.

Yet, it has been a year and I am still here. I sailed through the medical tests and none of the frightening medical complications have manifested themselves. My lungs and heart are fine (huge woohoo!!). My GI tract hasn’t gotten worse. My hands are very swollen and the skin is getting hard (one of the hallmarks of scleroderma is hard skin that forms due to lots of collagen deposition and scarring; my arms and legs are getting hard too), but they work just fine and are actually much better than they should be. My rheumatologist has advised me to knit as much as possible; what a hardship!  Other symptoms have improved and I have transitioned onto a battery of drugs that have good track records for improving the quality of life and increasing survival rates in patients with my condition.

So, what have I learned this year? Here is my reflective collection of observations as I look back from the one-year viewpoint:

  • People are more important then things. Period.
  • ..but they just don’t get chronic conditions and they tend to underestimate the seriousness of conditions that they can’t directly observe. In general people on crutches or using oxygen activate concern, but if you have flaming gastritis, the dizzy wobblies, and your muscles are on strike it’s easy for them to adopt a dismissive attitude. <sigh>
  • Medical personnel can be appallingly insensitive. Last week the technician doing my lung scan mentioned that I had a lot of doctors because my disease was really rare; it was important that the doctors get to learn as much from me as possible. Good lord, I wondered. Maybe she was raised by wolves…
  • As a corollary of the above observation, I have also discovered that I can’t assume that the medical personnel that I come in contact with actually know about my condition. One nurse thought that “systemic sclerosis” was “multiple sclerosis”. A doctor gave me a pep talk about how other conditions were worse because some of those patients actually can die from their disease. (“Did you want to hit him?” asked my rheumatologist…) One thing I can count on, however, is that they will put me into some scary machine to look for a possible blood clot. What is up with all the blood clot hunts?
  • MedAlert ID
    I do have some wonderful doctors! Because of crazy interactions with random medical people I have decided that it is best to be proactive: last month I put this tag onto my keys and the little card in my wallet has the business cards of my internist and rheumatologist stapled to it. 
  • There are few things as empowering as discovering that you won’t live forever. Why sweat the small stuff when you are facing down the long odds? My drugs have a small chance of a fatal brain infection? Whatever. Hand them over, Sparky, I am on board! I never worry about money (bad when I’m in a yarn store) or running out of gas, and I am taking more risks than I was comfortable with before. I mean, what is the worst thing that can happen? This week I figured out how to identify all of the electrical circuits of the house and rewired and installed a new doorbell. I didn’t worry (more than once) about getting knocked on my butt by an electrical mishap. Ha! In my younger days I hated to even change light bulbs…
  • Stay Calm and Carry Yarn
    Elizabeth Zimmerman was right. “Knit on with confidence and hope, through all crises.” is a motto that I can live with.
  • No, I won’t be skydiving! I’m not that risk-seeking. 🙂
  • It is so much easier to be happy than sad. Plant flowers. Read books. Knit like the wind! Chase bees. Go to lunch with friends (and get dessert!). Watch meteor showers and be sure to catch the Super Blood Moon. Talk to strangers in bookstores and coffee shops. Be kind whenever you can. Never miss an opportunity to take a picture of a great sunset (or a cat). It is really, really easy to be happy, even when you’re in a crazy machine that is looking for blood clots. 🙂

I finally went to my first scleroderma support group meeting a couple of months ago. I’d never met another person with scleroderma; it was a little extreme but good. Like me, they all suffer from cold hands. Unlike me, most of them also talked about the struggle to manage pain in their hands, and I could see that several of them had limited use of their hands because the skin was so tight. Remember all of those fingerless mitts I knitted during the sad times? I think that I have found a home for them.