Science and the Scleroderma Girl: Hard Choices

Everything happened really fast when I was first diagnosed with scleroderma  and Sjogren’s Syndrome. I had been referred to the rheumatologist after the results of bloodwork that my PCP ordered up. The rheumatologist did an exam and some tests, told me that I had the form of scleroderma called limited systemic sclerosis, and was evasive when I asked him what this would mean for me in the long term. What would my life be like in five years, I asked. He said he needed to run some more tests and would get back to me. He also told me to stay off the internet.

Well, that was kind of ominous, don’t you think? My first clue that this might be rather serious…

I was given a prescription for a disease modifying drug (DMARD) called Plaquenil, a handful of pamphlets, and referrals for additional testing. Lots of testing. Waiting for my prescriptions to be filled I went to the lab to get blood drawn and then sat down to call to make appointment for the additional testing I needed. It was hard to not feel like the sky was crashing down on me.

Cinco de Mayo rose.
Hey, time for a rose break. Look at what is blooming in my garden this morning! 

After 6 months of the drug Plaquenil I was feeling better, so I was a little shocked when the rheumatologist told me that it was time to add additional drugs and that he was going to give me the choice of methotrexate or CellCept. He handed me information on the drugs, ordered more blood tests to determine the state of my liver, and told me to call back in a week to let him know which drug I was comfortable with.

Of course I went straight to the internet. Hello. Science girl here. How should I make a decision without more information? Time to put all that chemistry and molecular biology to work!!

Ugh. After researching both of these drugs it didn’t look too good to me. Methotrexate is actually a chemo drug, given in a lower dose to rheumatology patients to suppress the immune response.  I would need folic acid to try to minimize hair loss and other side effects, and it would knock me on my butt for a day or two each week. CellCept also suppressed the immune system by another pathway, had fewer side effects, more risk of cancer, and was really hard on the stomach. Both drugs had definite downsides. I would need to stay out of the sun to prevent DNA damage. My risk of serious infections, including  PML, a fatal brain infection, would go up. The side effects of methotrexate seemed to be worse to me, but the CellCept would be awful on my gastritis…

If I chose to remain untreated with either of these drugs my chance of developing a fatal complication from scleroderma went up. I was already in the early stages of interstitial lung disease and pulmonary arterial hypertension, both of which could be fatal, so I really did need to try to slow things down with a drug…

Ugh! I was feeling pretty helpless about making the decision. What should I do when the future was unknown? Everything was a gamble and I didn’t have any really good choices.

I called my rheumatologist and told him I wanted to try methotrexate because I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t be able to handle CellCept. It was done.

Jacob sheep
Science and the Scleroderma Girl will be taking the weekend off because tomorrow I am going to the Estes Park Wool Market with my BKB Deb. Any day in the mountains is a good day, but it will be even better with yarn, peeps, and cute sheep. Woohoo! Fiber festival time!!

This whole process was kind of awful. Just knowing how these drugs worked and their side effects wasn’t enough. I needed more info. I needed to hunt down research studies.

Science time!!

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The Scleroderma Chronicles: The lung results are in.

Spoiler Alert: More good news!!

Last week I drove across town to a hospital that is connected to my pulmonologist’s Kaiser office building for my pulmonary function test. If you’ve never had one of these, there is a machine that you breathe into, a computer that is calling the shots and a sealed glass booth that isolates you from the outer world. Into the booth I went. Time to get some answers!

As part of the test I used an inhaler to get a big slug of the drug albuterol. Wow. That really helped. I’ve been avoiding my inhaler for months as I would feel just HORRIBLE after using it due to dropping blood pressure.

But I just quit using my blood pressure medications two weeks ago and now it was really obvious that my breathing was much better after using the drug. “Here, you’d better take this diffuser”, said the technician giving me the tests. “You’re going to be using this!”

Wednesday my pulmonologist called me with the results. My lungs are better than they were two years ago! More to the point, my pulmonary arterial pressure is down into normal ranges and there is less leakage (okay, they call it regurgitation… what an ugly thing to say about my heart!) at that heart valve. Woohoo!! The fatal complication that we all thought I was going to have to face down is suddenly off the table. I’m not going onto oxygen. My doctor and I virtually hugged over the phone.

Here’s the deal. I have a second autoimmune disease called Sjogren’s Syndrome that can cause small airway disease in the lungs. My Sjogren’s has been pretty bad this year, and since I responded to the inhaler drug really well it looks like that is what is going on. My doctors focus on my bad boy systemic sclerosis so much that they tend to forget about this other life-altering, but not fatal, condition. This year Sjogren’s has been stabbing me in the back.

“Time to start giving your inhaler a workout!”, my pulmonologist told me. “Then try to get more exercise. Your lungs need to continue their recovery, and we are keeping you on the high dose of your immunosuppressant drug.”

Inhaler and fitbit.
I bought a fitbit yesterday and I plan to use the inhaler daily while I steadily increase my exercise. Next week I’m going gym shopping…

It’s the drug. It absolutely is the new drug that I’ve been taking for the last 2.5 years. It is a new drug for the systemic sclerosis community, one originally developed for organ transplant patients, that is now collecting a body of evidence that shows that it not only slows down the rate of disease, but also allows some reversal and healing to occur by impairing the immune system attack on the lungs.  My heart is better because my lungs are better. In a time when I have been experiencing chest pain and shortness of breath, it was because I was getting better and needed to come off some of my drugs, not because I was getting worse. I am completely blindsided and gob smacked by the unexpected turn of events.

Next week is the Estes Park Wool Market in Estes Park, Colorado. I’m off to the mountains and boy will I be running wild with my BKB Deb. I’m going to pet the alpacas, eat lamb kabobs, and then I am going to buy a boat load of yarn. My new fitbit will be getting a workout!

After that I’m going to see my internist so she can look at the big picture with me to see what else we’re missing. There’s another drug that I want to drop…

That will be another post.

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.

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: 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.

Solaris Shawl: The Blue Lips Special

I’ve really been dragging lately. I’m out of breath, my arms and legs just don’t want to go, and every now and then my chest hurts. This has been going on since around the first of the year, and so far my pulmonologist and rheumatologist haven’t located a definitive cause. It’s a scleroderma thing, they tell me. I’m on oxygen overnight now, my immunosuppressive drugs have been increased, and I’m just maintaining.

That was until I noticed that my lips were blue one morning while combing my hair. Blue lips? That can’t be good. I did some google searches, scared myself silly and then began to check the mirror more frequently during the day. Two weeks later it was pretty clear that I was rocking the blue lip look every time I came up the stairs. I bought a pulse oximeter, and began to record my blood pressure and oxygen levels throughout the day. Finally, admitting to myself that this was a true phenomenon, I called the doctor.

Of course everything went out of control as soon as I made the call. Now I’m in the middle of testing and doctor appointments. Monday was an especially ugly day; I flunked the 6 minute walk test in 2 minutes flat and was put on oxygen in the hallway. Darn!! It’s a sure thing that I will be lugging an oxygen tank around in a backpack in the near future as soon as I finish the current round of doctor visits and testing. My next doctor appointment is Tuesday, and I think I won’t be able to put off the oxygen trolls any longer after that.

So how have I been handling all of this? Well, when everything is falling apart around you, it is best to just knit, knit, knit! Seriously, knitting is positive, productive, meditative, never talks back and consumes very little oxygen. Perfect! I’ve been just cranking out my Solaris shawl over the last week and the end is now in sight. It is going to be beautiful. Check it out!

Shawl
I’m in the final edging; I just have a few more rows of color to go.
Edging Detail
Check out the stitch detail of the edging.
Yarn Detail
The colors that I am using all come from one ball of Crazy Zauberball. You can see how the colors change in the ball in this section of the shawl. I just pull off yarn from the ball until another nice color emerges for my next strip of edging. The project details are here on Ravelry.

So, next week should be a big one for little ol’ me. I’ll be seeing my primary doctor for a breathing needs evaluation, hopefully I’ll be saying goodbye to the blue lips, and my Solaris shawl will get finished up.

I’m not sure how this is all going to turn out, but I’ve got a big shawl queue all ready to go.

It is good to be a knitter!