The Scleroderma Chronicles: An Autoimmune Zebra

“When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras.”  ~medical school proverb

Zebra ~medical slang for an exotic medical diagnosis

Author as 16 year old student.
16 years old: my last year illness-free.

As a teenager I struggled with eczema and was photosensitive; I was started on steroids, told to wear long sleeves, and to stay out of the sun. Without a clear cause for my eczema/rash I told that I was high strung and unable to handle stress; if I could control my emotions I would see my symptoms disappear. Eventually I did get better, the drugs stopped, and my life went on.

In my early 20s I had my first asthma attacks. I didn’t really understand what was happening, it was always in the night, and the doctor couldn’t find anything wrong. I was told to handle stress better. Most of the time I was okay, so I just learned to deal with it.

In my early 30s my knees began to swell and become painful. There were lumps below and behind my knees. I had an ultrasound to make sure the worst lump wasn’t cancer. I was told to do special exercises and to stick to low impact. My eyes hurt and I couldn’t go outside without sunglasses. Clouds of floaters swam across my vision. You have allergies, said the doctor. My finger was too fat for my wedding ring so I resized it.

In my 40s my hands became numb and swelled. I had a lot of pain and struggled to manage routine tasks. Carpal tunnel, said the doctors: it’s a repetitive motion injury and you did this to yourself. I had the surgery on both wrists and my hands did get better, but I still struggled with swelling and numbness, even in my feet. I developed a rash on my face. Rosacea, said the doctor. My knees still hurt. I started to develop high blood pressure. Control your diet and exercise, said the doctor. My fingers became too fat to wear any of my rings. I was tested for autoimmune antibodies associated with rheumatic diseases (anti-nuclear antibodies), but the result was only mildly positive so it was dismissed as not significant.

In my 50s my knees were so bad I had to take ibuprofen every day to function at work. It hurt to breathe in the mornings, and I had several cases of bronchitis that required an inhaler and steroids to recover from. I developed pleurisy. I was also told that there was nothing wrong with my lungs, and that I needed to get better shoes. My face and jaw hurt so much I couldn’t sleep. TMJ, said the doctor. You need to handle stress better. My kidney function dropped to 35%, alarming another doctor. You damaged your kidneys taking ibuprofen, I was told, and you can’t take any more.  I changed my job so I wouldn’t have to stand so much at work. My blood pressure continued to rise in spite of changes in my diet and exercise; I was placed on a beta blocker to control it. I developed Raynaud’s phenomenon; don’t worry, I was told, it is a side effect of the beta blocker. I wondered why I wasn’t getting wrinkles like my friends. The rash on my face was getting worse.

In my early 60s I noticed that my arm was getting “thick” and that I sometimes couldn’t complete a swallow; food became “stuck” mid-gulp. I complained about dry mouth. My fingers turned blue in the cold. I was hospitalized with severe gastritis. I was stalked by fatigue and my knees hurt every single day. My fingers were too fat to make a tight fist. Unable to function at work, I retired early. I developed colitis and rarely left the house. Testing showed that I didn’t have an intestinal infection, and my doctor didn’t pursue things any further.

Struggling with life and my early retirement,  I grew roses, read books, knitted, and launched this blog.

One night the light went off for me. I had joint pain, kidney damage, intestinal woes, Raynaud’s, a rash on my face, and a positive ANA. I walked in and demanded testing for lupus.

How is it possible, asked my doctor when confronted with the list of symptoms, that you haven’t already been diagnosed? Shocked that I had slipped through the cracks for years, my doctor immediately ordered the complete diagnostic battery for rheumatic diseases. It wasn’t lupus after all, but a couple of relatives: scleroderma and Sjogren’s syndrome, two rheumatic systemic diseases that unified all of my symptoms. The decades-long string of mystery complaints was over, and I was started on aggressive treatment for these two autoimmune diseases.

How was it possible that I hadn’t been diagnosed earlier? Isn’t that a wonderful question! How could I have slipped through the cracks year after year as I struggled with pain, respiratory infections, dysfunctional hands, eye problems, TMJ, and all the other medical woes that had parked themselves at my door? Why was there no diagnosis when, as I was to learn later, I was an absolute classic case of limited systemic sclerosis, a type of scleroderma, and that my Sjogren’s was obvious and well established.

In retrospect, the answer is glaringly obvious: I am not common. I have a rare disease (systemic sclerosis), and even though my doctors were well intentioned, they dismissed my symptoms when I didn’t fit the usual diagnostic profiles. I was a zebra in a herd of horses, ill-behaved and refusing to fall into line with their medical school training. Since I couldn’t be diagnosed with any of the normal causes for my symptoms, doctor after doctor concluded that they must be due to something else, like maybe stress… or lack of exercise… or my choices in pain medication. Time after time, I was assigned the blame for my own illness because of my inability to “handle stress”, repetitive motions, bad shoes, lack of exercise, taking ibuprofen, or any other excuse reasonable explanation that came to mind when my symptoms could not be ascribed to common causes. My doctors had been trained to ignore zebras, and these other causes were more plausible to them.

The other reason this happened was because my symptoms were always presented to my doctors in isolation: chest cold, painful eyes, knees that won’t bend, and so on. Symptoms that emerged over decades, and were presented to different doctors. No one saw the big picture until I finally pieced it together myself and then my doctor was shocked by the list: grouped together my symptoms screamed autoimmune rheumatic disease.

Why am I reflecting (and writing) about all of this? This month, March, is National Autoimmune Awareness Month. My story is one that is shared by many, many other people who deal with autoimmune illnesses. One of my diseases is rare (scleroderma), but the Sjogren’s and fibromyalgia are not. In a way, to have an autoimmune disease is to be a zebra because these conditions are elusive, can present themselves with a battery of symptoms that are seemingly unconnected, and don’t respond to the usual courses of treatments like antibiotics, diet and exercise. They can take, just as mine did, many years to diagnose. For many autoimmune patients, they are, just as I was, zebras crying for help in a herd of horses. Trained to treat horses, doctors don’t always hear the cries. One way to combat the problem is to educate the zebras so that they can, just as I did, recognize and group their symptoms together in a meaningful way to present to their doctors to help them make the diagnosis. Autoimmune Awareness Month is meant to educate everyone who might deal with an autoimmune disease: patients, families, caretakers, and doctors.

In my family we know these illnesses well. My grandfather died from complications of rheumatoid arthritis and my father had disabling allergies. I have scleroderma, Sjogren’s syndrome and fibromyalgia. My son has type-1 diabetes and my daughter-in-law has multiple sclerosis.  In all of these illnesses there is an immune system that is attacking normal tissue in our bodies; for some of us the attack is moderated by drugs that are designed to disable parts of our immune systems, but it continues nevertheless. Unless there is a cure the damage will continue to accumulate in our organs and tissues. These are the words that are often used to describe autoimmune illnesses such as ours: disabling, progressive, incurable, potentially fatal.

We aren’t alone. There are around 50 million Americans who also have autoimmune diseases. There are over 100 different autoimmune diseases and the need for research, support and treatment is endless.

You can learn more about autoimmune disease at these resources: American Autoimmune Related Diseases AssociationNational Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease  ,   and Autoimmunity.