The Year Alone: Reflections on Wonder, Luck and Hope

There is a storm on the way. These things look a little unbelievable on the weather forecaster’s computer display, but there seems to be a massive low pressure area cut off from the jet stream sliding relentlessly towards a part of the United States that will set up a big weather event. Snow. Lots of snow. Maybe feet of snow. I’m pretty stocked up but I needed a few items for my weekend cooking, so I headed to the grocery store late in the day to grab them. Oh, oh. The store was packed and the shelves were already emptying out. Shoppers radiated urgency as they raced down aisles disregarding the one-way Covid-19 traffic patterns. New shoppers were pouring in the door as I checked out and there was a whiff of panic as they passed me. This is crazy! How much snow is really coming, I wondered as I loaded my bags into the car and escaped the chaotic parking lot. I hadn’t seen anything like this since the early days of Covid-19 as the lockdown approached…

The lockdown. This week is the anniversary of the first Covid-19 death in my state, Colorado, and in just a few more days it will be the anniversary of the lockdown that started my year at home in isolation. So many people have been sick, and way too many have died. So much has been lost by so many people; this is the greatest tragedy of my lifetime. For me, however, in strict isolation, the year has rolled by with me in my own little world mostly disconnected from the greater world outside; my story is a lockdown story, not a Covid-19 story. I have been disappointed by people who kept me trapped in my home by refusing to wear masks or to comply with public health recommendations, and brought to tears by the kindness of strangers. A year is a long time; looking back now it seems like it passed in a flash even though I had some real struggles along the way.

Last night one of the local news programs had people post the last picture on their phone before the lockdown happened. Here’s mine.

My son’s kitten Jonesy in a tube attached to the cat pillar. He’s a 6 months old kitten in this shot.
Jonesy today as a handsome young adult at 18 months old.

This year of isolation has been 2/3’s of Jonesy’s life and the entirety of Hannah’s life as she was born within the first few days of lockdown in the middle of March. Looking at Hannah and Jonesy it is so obvious how long this year has been. Looking at Hannah and Jonesy it doesn’t seem all that bad, but of course this has been an extraordinarily tough year.

I sewed some cloth masks early on and wore them on the few occasions I had to leave the house: a science geek who had read way too many books about epidemiology, I suspected airborne transmission based on anecdotal reports from the New York City outbreak. That mask picture is the 2nd one on my phone after the start of the lockdown. As the debate about mask efficacy raged in online forums I wore mine anyway and ignored people who made negative comments. Almost a year later I was wearing two masks, one a highly regarded Vogmask, as I got that first dose of Pfizer vaccine.

“Do you trust the vaccine?” asked my neighbor yesterday. “Absolutely,” I replied.

I feel very, very lucky to get this Pfizer vaccine. Through chance I have a degree in molecular biology and worked for years in an immunology research lab. The molecular trickery used in this vaccine to harness my immune system to protect me from Covid-19 is the best thing that happened all year in my opinion.

I’ve been assigning lots of labels to this year spent mostly alone with my little tuxedo kitten, my books, and my bottomless pit of a yarn stash. This has been the year of astonishment. The year of disappointment. The year of living dangerously. The year of setting priorities. The year of realigning values. The year of healing. The year of decluttering. The year of absolute outrage. The year of lies and fake news. The year of masks. The year of Zoom. Finally, today, it is the year of luck and wonder.

I do want to apologize for my use of the words luck and wonder. There is no real luck in a pandemic at all. I absolutely know how awful and devastating this has been for so many people: how profoundly unlucky so many of us are that this happened to us right now in our lifetimes. The mutation and jump to humans of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 was an event that has been anticipated and feared for a long time. It’s like waiting for an earthquake in California (The Big One) that will be massively destructive. You know it is coming, but you don’t know when or exactly where it will strike, and how devastating the damage will be. You prepare for it and hope that you are ready. How ironic, after growing up in California waiting for The Big One to hit, the crushing event of my lifetime came from a virus. In spite of the basic awfulness of all of this, I am learning to value the little crumbs of luck that came my way during my time in strict isolation while other people recovered so much of their lives and I was left behind.

I am so grateful for the luck, the random chance events, the technology, the human kindness, and the science that helped me get through this year.

My wonderful pandemic kitten was a failed adoption returned to the shelter and rejected by everyone else before I arrived to find her alone standing in a little cat tunnel. The last kitten left in the kitten room; her 6 litter mates had all found forever homes days before. Returned, rejected, all alone: the one thing that I needed. How lucky is that?

That’s little abandoned kitten Hannah on the left, 6 month old Hannah in the middle, and Hannah tonight hanging out with me while I type. Hannah was the one thing that I needed to pull me out of growing sorrow and a sense of abandonment when I realized that the the pandemic was raging unchecked in the USA as the result of a deliberate policy set by my government.

I was diagnosed with nocturnal hypoxia and received the oxygen equipment 5 days before lockdown. How lucky is that? Because of the oxygen I have been steadily improving for months.

I can order anything that I need online and have it delivered to the house in just a few minutes, hours, or days. Seriously, almost anything. A hamburger? It’s on the way!! A case of paper towels? My Instacart shopper is on it! A pair of new sheepskin slippers? Amazon makes it happen! More yarn… yes!! A plethora of indy yarn dyers will ship me my heart’s content. What would have happened if this pandemic hit in the 1990’s? How lucky that the technological infrastructure that allows all of these supportive services to exist is there for me and everyone else who needs them.

Every time I stream a movie on Netflix I feel lucky.

I was raised in the 50’s and 60’s: I can home cook from scratch and have returned to the meals of my childhood. Comfort food in a modern crockpot. How lucky is that?

I have a SMART PHONE that does everything that I can imagine doing. It banks for me. It remotely checks me into my doctor’s appointments. It tells me the route to drive to come home after a long day in a medical center. It connects me to so many other people in Facebook forums. It answers all of my questions: a couple of YouTube tutorials can handle any crisis. I can text all of my friends and family no matter what is happening outside. I feel lucky, people!!

I met with my primary care doctor via Zoom. I feel grateful for Zoom, people, even though most people in America hate its guts by now.

Knitting and reading groups have sprung up online that have connected me to wonderful, supportive, and positive friends from all over the world as we share our books, knitting, and cats. Then there is this blog. I tell you, I feel so lucky that this is all possible.

The Sharon Show, a MKAL run by Sharon from Security, a snarky cat who loves whiskey a little too much…

I can get unlimited ebooks and audibooks (well, as much as my bank account will allow…) instantly delivered to my Kindle tablet. I feel lucky.

In my year of isolation, oxygen, and limited adventures out of the house my painful joints have settled down, my kidney function has improved, and my red blood cell count has fallen into normal ranges for the first time in years. I am doing much better in many ways. Okay, I’m looking at a lot of medical testing to identify the cause of persistent chest pain, and there is still the problem of the severely damaged hip joint, but I’m in much better shape at the moment to tackle this then I was a year ago. I feel lucky.

Winter will end and the garden outside will come back to life soon. I feel lucky!!

I spend too much time wondering about things. Left alone, I have a lot of time for my imagination to run wild as I wonder about everything. I wonder if my roses all survived the dry winter. I wonder if the vet will yell at me for not getting Hannah in for her shots this year. I wonder what would have happened if this pandemic happened 20 years ago. I wonder what if it hadn’t happened at all. I wonder if I should throw away so many of my belongings as I declutter. I wonder why do I have a rare disease (systemic sclerosis) that appears to share some characteristics with Covid-19; what were the chances of that? I wonder when the Big One will come. I wonder if I should write a book. I wonder how I should combine colors of yarn in my next knitting project. I wonder what is happening with the Covid-19 long haulers. I wonder why some Covid-19 long haulers have improved after getting their Covid-19 vaccinations.

I wonder why, one week after my vaccination, I feel significantly better then I did two weeks ago.

I am actually looking forward to shoveling some snow this weekend.

In the greatest of tragedies there are still little crumbs of luck and rays of hope.

May our bad times end soon and we all have days of wonder, luck, and hope.

The Scleroderma Chronicles: The Blue-Lipped Zebra Goes On Oxygen

This week I finished up the pulmonary tests to see what was up with my lungs. This was pretty darn stressful and the poor BLZ was just besides itself with the trauma of walking into a major hospital to get admitted for outpatient testing.

This is my son’s kitten Jonesy, named after the cat on the Nostromo, the ship that accidently picked up a deadly Alien while answering a distress beacon on a strange planet… Jonesy is utterly fearless, more than capable of facing down a scary monster alien. This Jonesy is also pretty darn fearless. Be brave, face this down, I told myself while petting Jonesy.

I was brave. On the day my state opened up the first drive-through testing station for the Covid virus, I presented myself at outpatient admissions. I wore my fleece gloves the whole time I was there and followed all of the safety guidelines. I combined two appointments into one so I could pick up the equipment for overnight oxygen level monitoring while I was in the building for pulmonary function testing. The hospital was almost deserted and had bottles of hand sanitizer out for use at every stop on my route, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I literally swerved and walked around anyone in my way, especially if they were wearing a face mask…

In case you all need a reminder, my red blood cell count (rbc) is way too high, and I have blue lips and shortness of breath. My internist diagnosed polycythemia, and once I googled it I discovered that I have every single one of the listed symptoms. The purpose of all of this testing is to uncover the underlying condition causing my rbc to rise. So, let’s just jump to the chase. Here are the results:

    • My lungs are scarred and I have interstitial lung disease, a type of restrictive lung disease. I am stable and haven’t gotten worse when compared to the last testing two years ago.
    • It’s not pulmonary hypertension. Yay! That would have been really bad news. My echocardiogram showed that I am at the upper limits of heart wall thickening, and my pulmonary artery is at the upper limit of normal, but I’m hanging in there.
    • My oxygen level fell below 89% for almost an hour while I was sleeping the night I wore the monitoring equipment. Yay!! Houston, we have found a problem!!

Once the results were in the pulmonologist’s office called for a phone appointment and I got the good news. Well, the sort of good news. I have to go on oxygen overnight to keep my levels up, and the hope is that my rbc count will start to drop. If overnight oxygen doesn’t do the trick I may have to go to oxygen 24/7, but I’m not there yet. (The BLZ is happy but a little sad too. The BLZ hates to wear oxygen, and really doesn’t want to wear it when it goes out shopping… ) Seriously, I don’t appear handicapped until I have to walk with a cane and wear oxygen… then there is no hiding it any more.

Thinking about future appointments and the procedure with the hip specialist (I need an injection of steroids into my bad-boy hip), I asked what my risk from Covid was… (The BLZ was trying to not cry) and my pulmonologist told me straight out that she thought I would survive an infection but that I should put off any more trips to medical clinics for a few more weeks so that hospitals could finish gearing up for severe cases. Well, shoot. (The BFZ is now sobbing…)

Then I throttled the BFZ into silence and headed out to buy the last of the supplies that I needed to get through a few weeks alone. I’m immunocompromised; the medications that I take to control my autoimmune diseases have helped me to become stable, but they also make me high risk for any infection. Nothing has changed, I reminded the BLZ, but now the risk of a serious infection is coming at a time when the medical system may be overwhelmed and unable to take care of me. I’ve been using good judgement, social distancing, and hand washing for a few years now; I will continue for myself and everyone else sharing this scary time.

The truck carrying the oxygen equipment was at my house waiting for me when I returned so I am set up. Hopefully the BLZ will now slowly fade away and I will stop panting for air every time I move.

If this was a race to get new test results into my chart, the underlying cause of my polycythemia identified, and remedial measures into action, I have made it. I have a phone appointment with my new rheumatologist next week and I will ask her about the hip procedure and referral to the foot specialist, but I think that in the current unfolding Covid crisis there isn’t any hurry.

As for the inner voice that worries and feels panicky, my inner BFZ voice, I am going to smooth it into submission with the peaceful zen of knitting. Be brave, be brave, I purr to myself. Just like my son’s kitten Jonesy.

You all be safe out there!!

The Scleroderma Chronicles: Upsetting vs. Concerning

I haven’t been blogging all that much about my chronic conditions lately… the truth is, I hardly know what to say. I’m sick. I still struggle every day. I’ve been making a lot of adjustments over the last couple of years as I tackle never-ending obstacles, but I really don’t dwell on things too much and I don’t make too many demands of my doctors. I’m still happy, busy, and I manage work-arounds for lots of things that I want to do. Then suddenly this winter I realized that I wasn’t doing all that well after all.

Background: For several years I have been consistently complaining to my doctors that I am short of breath, fatigued, itching, rocking blue lips, and not quite right. My doctors are all like… hmm… that is interesting. Well, it isn’t (insert specific issue that this doctor treats me for), so I’m not sure what to do. We’ll keep monitoring… Maybe you should ask this other doctor about it…

This last December I really hit the wall. I was so exhausted that I was afraid to go shopping by myself. I ended up on the floor panting for air more than once. I collapsed in the yarn store. My lips were blue. The itching drove me crazy. Something in my side hurt and strange bruising kept popping up. Fainting suddenly became an issue again.

I spent most of December in bed reading books and knitting gnomes!

I went to my internist and told her what was up and she immediately ordered several tests. Some scary things like lymphoma were ruled out, but others suddenly reared their ugly heads. I have way too many red blood cells and too much hemoglobin. My cell count spiked to its highest last December when my symptoms were at their worst. Suddenly a new diagnosis was placed on my chart: polycythemia.

Now the fun really begins. I have a lot of things written on my chart. I am diagnosed with several autoimmune conditions: limited systemic sclerosis  (scleroderma), Sjogren’s Disease, and fibromyalgia. These diseases come with a boat load of complications as they tend to cause trouble everywhere they go: I have stage 3 kidney disease, lung disease, hypertension, Raynaud’s Phenomenon, gastroparesis, tendon damage, bursitis, several crazy eye issues, fluid around my heart, and a stomach that has herniated partly into my chest. Seriously, who knew that was a thing? Actually, my whole GI tract is in trouble. My muscles hurt and the joints are swollen. Do you see how confusing treating me can be when a new medical problem emerges? No one wants to rock the boat! My diagnosed conditions actually make it harder for me to get good health care at this point. I know that I am a high risk patient, but this is ridiculous, doctor people!

My internist checked to see if I had the very serious and rare version of polycythemia called polycythemia vera, and since my hormone levels were normal she concluded that my polycythemia was being caused by an underlying condition, and we should just monitor my red blood cell count in ongoing routine rheumatology blood work.

What? Wait… what about my blue lips, panting and all the other symptoms? My immediate reaction was… OH, NO, WE ARE NOT DOING THAT!!! I am done with the ending up on the floor panting every time I try to do something reasonable like… say… cooking dinner! I dusted off the biological researcher part of my brain, generated a list of essential questions, and did a bunch of online searches to see what I could find. The trick to this is to have good questions and the right seach terms. As I worked, things became more productive. Wow. I learned a lot and now I had more questions for my internist. I wrote her back an email with a bulleted list of questions that… she never got. She’s on vacation. One of her partners looked at the email, became alarmed by my symptoms, and called to urge me to head to an ER immediately (!!) to be evaluated. She was pretty insistent…

Which kind of proves my point! Anyone else who ended up on the floor with blue lips, panting for air, because she tried to vacuum the living room would receive timely medical intervention!! This is not reasonable. I’m not getting the care that I should because I am too complicated and there are too many doctors involved. This has been going on for three years and now it is worse. Did one of your parents ever say to you when you were a kid misbehaving in the backseat, “Don’t make me pull this car over!” I am now pulling the car over and stopping this ride.

This is kind of intense, huh. Let’s take a break to admire my favorite orchid!

Tonight as I write this I am just hours away from a phone appointment with my internist. I have my questions ready to go. In the afternoon I have another phone appointment with my pulmonologist; I plan to tell her about the new diagnosis and to ask her about testing that I should have to help identify the underlying cause of the polycythemia. Maybe she will have some other ideas. Tuesday morning I have an appointment with my new rheumatologist and I hope to pass all of this to her. This rheumatologist specializes in complicated cases, is recommended by the Scleroderma Foundation, and prefers to personally coordinate the entire care team. Yay! Here I come! I am the girl for her!

There are many things that are happening to me that are upsetting: my hair is falling out, I have a rash on my face, and I now use a cane to get around. This is the kind of stuff that makes you want to sigh and stay in bed some mornings. You wish it wasn’t happening to you. It’s upsetting.

Then there are things that are just down right concerning. In my mind a red flag pops up and a small siren goes off: strange and unexplained bruising, double vision, pain in my left side, blue lips, panting for air while trying to open a door, tremendous itching after showers. This kind of stuff is a call to action; get out of bed and deal with it! I am now mobilizing all of my energy towards GETTING TO THE BOTTOM OF THIS and securing answers, treatment, and hopefully, an improved quality of life.

Because there is a difference between upsetting and concerning. I am not upset, but I am concerned. I am mobilized. I have questions and I want answers.

I am totally over the blue lips look!

I’ll let you know how this all works out. It should be a busy week.