The Scleroderma Chronicles: Rolling Dice with the Reaper

I’ve been collecting new diagnoses over the last year like an out-of-control yarnaholic shopper at a fiber festival. Yeah, that bad. That’s how my yarn stash got so out of control… I mean, you never know when you will need that fabulous color in the future, it is one-of-a-kind, and it’s cashmere… Anyway, let’s get back to the topic at hand. The last year has been really eventful, and the new tests, diagnoses, and drug interventions keep rolling in. Here’s the chronicle of events:

  • An early summer echocardiogram last year showed that I had developed a type of heart failure called diastolic dysfunction. Scleroderma is causing scar tissue to form in the muscle of my heart.
  • On September 1st I had a right heart catherization that showed that I had a hole in my heart that was disrupting the flow of oxygenated blood to my body. Oh. That explains those blue lips I’d been sporting around town.
Remember the BLZ?
  • Follow-up testing showed that I had exercise-induced pulmonary arterial hypertension. I was started on drugs to treat the condition.
  • I went into a flare of my systemic sclerosis (scleroderma) symptoms because of the increased blood flow due to the drugs.
  • Testing in February to hunt for the cardiac shunt (hole in my heart) revealed that there was something going on with my lungs. A subsequent CT scan in March showed that I had developed autoimmune pneumonia in both lungs, a condition called interstitial lung disease. The cause of the ILD was confirmed by a lung biopsy in May. Yep. It is scleroderma related, but I was still forced to get rid of all my down products in the house. I miss my down comforter…
  • All summer long I have gone through a staggered course of drug interventions as my doctors worked to get my lung disease under control.
This sunflower is a pretty good metaphor for how I’m doing at the moment. I’ve taken a beating, but I’m still blooming, by golly!

So, I’ve been taking a lot of drugs, and all of them carry some side effects. I became dizzy from one, my blood sugar zoomed up, and my vision became foggy. Another is causing hot flashes. One of them causes muscle pain, and a couple of them are seriously interfering with my sleep. Two drugs cause edema, so I’m taking another drug to combat that. Two weeks ago, I started the last drug on the list, Ofev, which has a list of side effects that made me pause a few days before taking the first pill.

Nausea, diarrhea, vomiting… well, okay. That’s stuff that I deal with all the time because of scleroderma…

Liver damage, heart attack, stroke… say, what? Seriously?

I had to go through a 30-minute phone interview with a pharmacist before the first 30-day shipment of the drug could be sent to me. I will need to get blood work done every single month to check my kidneys and liver before I can receive the next 30-day shipment. I need to be vigilant about watching for bruising and the symptoms of blood clots, including heart attack and stroke symptoms. One of my sons is checking in on me daily.

Time for a baby bunny picture, don’t you think? One of the best parts of the summer. 🙂

So, here’s the deal. I’m in a lot of online support groups where people are afraid to take drugs to treat their systemic sclerosis (scleroderma) because of the side effects. We live in a world where people are afraid to get vaccinated because of possible side effects. We live in a world where people are resistant to wearing a mask because of… well, they will tell you. They have more reasons than I have time to list, quite frankly.

This is kind of nuts, in my opinion. Did you see that list of diagnosed conditions? Yikes. Not good, little BLZ, not good. I’m facing down some really serious stuff here, and I will take these drugs, get through the side effects, and fight this like the hail-battered and grasshopper-savaged sunflower that I am!

Two weeks ago, I gulped down the first Ofev capsule. All those nasty GI symptoms arrived and had their way with me for several days, and then I was through it. I’m now on the final doses of all my drugs, and the sleep disruption is improving, the dizziness is gone, and the muscle pain is receding. I’ve learned to never, ever drink elderberry juice, and that green chili actually improves GI inflammation. I can do this, yes, I can!!

My niece referred to my battles with my disease and the drugs that I take as “rolling dice with the reaper”. I guess that is a one way to look at it. The other way is… you have to play to win. I chose to take the drugs; I chose to play. Hand over those dice, reaper!!

Last week I went to get my first follow-up CT scan of my lungs. “You can take off your mask, if you’d like,” said the technician. Nope! No one with a list of diagnosed conditions like mine should take off their mask in a diagnostic facility attached to an urgent care center. I roll more dice than I should as it is! Grumpy, the technician did my CT scan while I kept my mask on.

The message from my pulmonologist came last night. My lungs show improvement, and there is no new fibrosis.

Take that, reaper! I win this roll!!

Scleroderma: Shine like a Sunflower!

The Scleroderma Chronicles: Unforeseen Circumstances and Unintended Consequences

I guess almost everyone in the world knows by now that the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling last month (June 24th) that overturned the constitutional right for a woman in the United States to seek an abortion at any time during the first two trimesters of pregnancy.

This post isn’t really about abortions, okay. This is about the unbelievable unintended consequences of that decision for women who are dealing with unforeseen circumstances. Women who are dealing with medical conditions that they never saw coming, and that they absolutely did not bring upon themselves.

Like autoimmune disease. Like cancer. Like any one of a number of medical conditions that require serious, high-risk medical interventions by the medical professionals who are treating that woman.

My first inkling that there might be a problem with the Supreme Court ruling that was much larger than what was being reported in the press happened the evening of June 29. A woman in one of my autoimmune online support groups posted that she saw a message from a doctor who had a patient reporting that she couldn’t get her methotrexate prescription renewed. I literally couldn’t sleep that night I was so upset. In the days that followed there were more reports, and this is really happening to some women. They are being denied refilling of their methotrexate prescriptions. This drug is a common one used to treat autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and scleroderma. It is a chemo drug, it can harm an unborn child, and it can also be used to induce an abortion. Here is an article on Health.com, another at msn Everyday Health, and this one from Time.com.

My morning pills.

There are some serious drugs there in my hand. The green pills, Myfortic, can harm an unborn child by causing birth defects or a miscarriage. I take 6 of those every day. The white capsule, omeprazole, should only be used “only if the benefit outweighs the risk to the fetus”. I have to take two of those each day. That little pink pill towards the upper left is the really big problem in my hand. That drug, ambrisentan, required a rigorous enrollment process with paperwork from my cardiologist and myself along with two interviews by pharmacists. I had to prove that I could not get pregnant to avoid taking a pregnancy test prior to each month’s supply of the drug being shipped to me. Even with all of that, I am screened each month before the next month’s supply is overnight express shipped to me. This drug poses a serious risk to a fetus. In my support groups for pulmonary hypertension there are women who are reporting that they are getting dropped from the programs that allow them to get the drug.

I’m okay because I’m beyond childbearing age. Many other women who are dealing with autoimmune diseases that require drugs such as these are of childbearing age. Why? Because the people in the population who are at the greatest risk of developing an autoimmune disease are women of childbearing age, that’s why. Because of the recent decision about access to abortion these women are also now at possible risk of being denied treatment for their autoimmune disease, or in the worse-case scenario, access to an abortion in consultation with their medical professionals.

I literally couldn’t sleep when I read the first reports of the problems with access to methotrexate in my online forums. This is absolutely unbelievable. This is unbearable. How could this be happening to a population of desperate woman, through no fault of their own, who are in this horrible situation? Right now, methotrexate is being targeted, but there are all these other drugs that are used for so many patients with so many conditions. Women, absolutely, are at risk of receiving inferior health care in the US.

This is awful. Have a rose. Right now, I need a rose. And a hug.

This is hitting me hard this evening because I have been dealing with autoimmune pneumonia since last December. My doctors are trying to get it under control with high dose immunosuppressants, but I am coming off one of them right now and I am struggling with shortness of breath and chest pain once again. I’m back on daytime oxygen and I’m feeling a little low. The lung biopsy was the first engagement with my interstitial lung disease, this current drug strategy the second battle, and the third battle is looming on the horizon. This isn’t a disease; it is a war. I never asked for this, and yet, here I am trapped in this unforeseen circumstance, engaged with an uncurable foe. Without the drugs in my hand above, I would already be gone. Yay, science!!

I think that there is another CT scan in my near future, and then there is a possibility that my doctors will move to the Plan B (see what I did there) that they have already discussed with me. Cyclophosphamide (a chemo drug) and OFEV (an anti-fibrotic drug) are on deck if my doctors decide to escalate my care. Both of these drugs can harm an unborn child. I will get access to these drugs. If I was in my 30s, as many other members of my support groups are, it might be a different story. What about women in other support groups that I don’t belong to who just got diagnosed with cancer or an equally serious disease who also need medical treatment with high-risk drugs such as these? Women of childbearing age. Women who may already have children who they need to think of and care for in their health care journey.

Being diagnosed with an autoimmune disease like the ones that I have (systemic sclerosis and Sjogren’s disease) is a punch to the gut. Being denied access to treatment because of your childbearing status is an unbearable second blow. Becoming pregnant while on one of these drugs would place a woman in an impossible situation. Nothing, NOTHING, about this situation is good. Where is the privacy for these women? Where are the HIPPA protections that they are entitled to? The decisions that these women face are absolutely heartbreaking, morally complicated, and ethically challenging. They deserve privacy as they make them along with their health care providers, religious advisors, and families.

This post isn’t about abortion, not really. This post is about unforeseen circumstances and unintended consequences.

I feel a lot better for having gotten this out.

Peace be with you all.

Take this rose with you as you go.

But if you decide to share this post, write a congressperson, join a march, or take some other action to ensure that women have equal access to health care, that would be great.

The BioGeek Memoirs: Sunflower

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today I planted these sunflowers along my side fence.

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

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

Shine like a Sunflower.

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