The Scleroderma Chronicles: The BLZ gets a CPET

The BLZ had some anxiety going into this test…

Last month I had a right heart catherization that showed an unexpected problem with my heart… there is a cardiac shunt that is allowing blood from the left side (you know, the one that is always colored red because that blood is rich with oxygen) to shoot over into the other side of the heart where it disrupts blood flow and adds pressure to the (blue) right side of the heart; that is a little tough on the right side because it isn’t built to handle the extra pressure. Houston, we have an explanation for all that blue panting that is going on.

Cool. Finally we were getting some answers and my doctors were taking my symptoms more seriously. My cardiologist ordered up some more tests to collect data and clarify the issue.

The test that I have been the most concerned about was the cardiopulmonary exercise test that was scheduled for last Monday. I hunted for some cool links to explain the test to use in this post and came up with a bunch of technical articles for physicians and specialists. Okay. Let’s not go there. I’ll try to explain what this test was all about. I was hooked up to a bunch of monitoring equipment that tracked my breathing and heart while I was riding a bike. As part of the test my lung function was tested, my heart monitored (like in an EKG), my blood pressure was tracked, my respiration rate, and the actual amount of oxygen I was using and the carbon dioxide that I was expelling for each mL of blood pumped. It was a lot!!

I was a little concerned because of my bad boy hip, but that wasn’t really a problem at all.

I shared my catnip with the Mother of Cats so that she wouldn’t have any trouble with the test.

The test went great for about 7 minutes: then there was an emergency stop. My blood pressure had suddenly zoomed up into the stratosphere at about 6 minutes into the test, and then 30 seconds later I began panting like crazy and the technician pulled the plug. Remember that cardiac shunt they found in the cath lab? When I exercise the direction of blood flow in that shunt reverses and blood from the right side is shooting into the left side where it interferes with the pumping of oxygenated blood to my body. No wonder I turn blue and pant.

The BLZ is both happy and sad at the same time.

The specialist who did my CPET was great at explaining the data to me; when he sent the report to my doctors he also included me in the email group. For the last week I have been reading the back and forth discussion by my doctors about the test and what the next steps for me will be. I am really pleased to be included in this process and feel that this option should be available to everyone; it is also kind of scary as I get a glimpse of what is coming down the road for me later in the testing department.

The gear and set-up for the CPET was pretty impressive. I joked with the specialist about it and he told me that there was an even more extreme version of testing that included a right heart catherization at the same time as the exercise test. Yep. You guessed it. That’s what my docs are considering to do next. It is clear that I have a cardiac shunt but they haven’t located it yet. The BLZ is pretty bummed. The word “profound” was used to describe my symptoms. There has also been some speculation about neuroendocrine tumors… The good news here is that no one is even considering sleep apnea or me needing antidepressants because, you know, I complain too much…

The BLZ is both happy and sad at the same time.

I keep my eye on the Mother of Cats while she reads her email.

So, it was a kind of tough week. I pulled myself together on Tuesday and went to a new yarn store for a little pick-me-up and was so distracted I missed my turn twice and had to detour through Starbucks before I actually pulled up in front of the store. I almost didn’t go in I was so worn out by then, but I did a little mental slapping to put myself into motion, pulled out my cane, and went in…

…to discover a woman dragging out three big bags of yarn that kind of screamed “community knitting” because they weren’t the yarn being sold in the store. “Hey! I want to community knit! Please, can I come play with you guys?” I immediately said.

That is how I ended up in a new local yarn store this morning knitting with the most wonderful group of ladies in the world. They are all current or former employees of the Kaiser medical system that I go to for my care, and they are producing hats for all of the Kaiser clinics that have infusion centers; I know those centers because they are the same ones that rheumatology patients go to. These ladies are all vaccinated and they all wore masks because they knew I was taking a risk to come. They had donuts! I have found a new knitting home when I needed it like no other. I actually cried a little with joy and relief as I drove away at the end of the meeting.

If I hadn’t made all those bad turns and the Starbucks stop this wouldn’t have happened.

My yarn stash is full of yarn that wants to turn into hats. Hats with happy colors and a dash of cashmere. I am on fire with purpose to produce as many hats as I can for other people who are facing down serious medical situations. I want to make them arm warmers and fingerless mitts. I have tapped into the best, most perfect group to produce useful gifts for other people like myself just when I needed to be grounded, inspired, and calmed by the peace of knitting.

The BLZ is happy.

The Scleroderma Chronicles: A Trip to the Cath Lab

The BLZ has been waiting a long time for this…

Five years ago I came down with the flu and ended up in Urgent Care struggling to breathe. I scored some antibiotics, steroids, and cough medicine. To fight the virus I was told to go off my immunosuppressant drugs for a few weeks until I got better, stay in bed, and load up on chicken soup: it took a couple of months but eventually I got back on my meds. Except… things weren’t quite right. I panted for air every time I came up the stairs and I noticed that my lips were turning blue. My blood pressure was too low and I had to stop taking my hypertension medicine. I felt dizzy and light headed sometimes.

I was a newly diagnosed systemic sclerosis patient and my doctors began running tests to see if my disease was impacting my lungs. Nope. Not my lungs. Tests were run to see if scleroderma was attacking my heart. Nope: my heart seemed to be normal. There were some anomalies, but my doctors decided to just monitor me through routine testing and see if things changed down the road. My red blood cell counts were way too high, and I had nocturnal hypoxia, so I was started on overnight oxygen. I was tested for various conditions that could account for the weird test results, but I always had a normal result.

I struggled on, battling for more testing, as my doctors kept reassuring me that I was okay. Hey, I had a blue face and panted for air when I climbed stairs; vacuuming could put me on the floor. How could this be “normal”? Ugh. Welcome to scleroderma, I thought.

I began to think of myself as the Blue-Lipped Zebra (BLZ). If I didn’t have a rare disease confusing the issue I would be getting better health care, it seemed. If doctors didn’t tend to apply most-common-cause thinking to my condition they might get to the bottom of things faster. It was, in my mind, a huge complicated mess as my doctors applied best practice (and rigid) diagnostic parameters to my symptoms or zeroed in on specific complications of my scleroderma and ignored other possible (and to be fair, rare) causes for my symptoms. I worried that my doctors had just parked me in a holding pattern as I slowly got worse; it is hard to advocate for yourself when you are sick and dependent on your doctors for help, even if you think that they are dismissive and borderline disparaging.

I struggled on as my face became more blue, my red blood cell count higher, my panting for air more common, and the occasional near-fainting event left me collapsed on the floor. I began to ask for a right heart catherization procedure to directly measure the pressure in the right side of my heart. “Oh. You don’t want that,” I was told. “That is really invasive testing.” Umm… I think I do, I would reply. Nope. Nope, nope, nope!! “Not even on the table,” one pulmonologist said.

During lockdown last year I got much worse; ironically lockdown also gave me the opportunity to reboot, fire my old doctors and acquire new ones. My new team of doctors this spring ordered up testing that showed definite issues with my heart and lungs. I am now a heart failure patient (the wall of my left ventricle are too stiff and scarred to beat well) and there were concerning findings that suggested that I had developed pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH): there are areas of cell death in my lungs and my pulmonary artery is too big. There is too much fluid around my heart, a suggestion of ongoing inflammation. I have a hole in my heart between the atriums (a cardiac shunt) that is impacting blood flow. I was gently prepared for the PAH diagnosis, assured that there were great drugs that could help me, and a right heart catherization was ordered by my new cardiologist.

Yay!! About time!!!

Finally, after 5 years of struggle, I was yesterday wheeled into a procedure room to a waiting team of specialists who hooked me up to equipment and took me though testing to get a better look at my heart: I learned in recovery that this team calls themselves “the pit crew”, and that is exactly what it was like. Within 5 minutes I had completed a breathing test, was on oxygen, wired up to a heart monitor, hooked up to an IV, medicated, prepared with surgical drapes, and swathed in warm blankets with a heater by my feet. There was music playing and the crew was cracking jokes as they darted in and out from the table getting me ready. I was knocked out for the echocardiogram imaging of the back of my heart that was done using a probe in my esophagus, but they woke me up for the main event: the right heart catherization. My cardiologist inserted a probe into the carotid vein in my neck and threaded it into my heart by way of the superior vena cava (blue side of the heart diagram above). People, this was the most amazing experience ever! There was a huge screen showing the progress of the probe and I could watch and ask questions as the line snaked through my heart; there was absolutely no pain. “Well, this is interesting,” said my cardiologist at one point, and there were more measurements happening and a flurry of new activity from the team. The BLZ felt a surge of elation: they had found something, and it was NOT what they expected.

Back in recovery my cardiologist caught up with me again. I had done great, he said, and he just beamed as he told me that I absolutely did not have PAH. This is great news, he assured me, great news!! There is another circulation problem in the lower part of my heart, between the ventricles. There is blood coming in from the left side of my heart and mixing with the blood on the right, disrupting the flow through the heart and robbing me of oxygen to my body. I have a second, more serious, cardiac shunt, and now it is a question of locating that pesky little guy and doing something to fix the problem.

It has been FIVE YEARS, people. If I hadn’t had my trip into the cath lab yesterday my doctors would still be nagging me to get more exercise (the BLZ just barks in laughter), offering me antidepressants, or insisting that I must have sleep apnea. I feel so validated!

My cardiologist is now going over my previous imaging to find the hole now that he knows what to look for. I was told that I may need to go through more testing to definitively characterize the opening, but this is huge forward progress. I suspect that I am facing open heart surgery down the road, but I am elated that the progressive and eventually fatal diagnosis of PAH is now off the table. Things are looking up since my heart failure will now be much easier to treat.

I am reminded of Elizabeth Zimmerman’s admonishment: “Knit on with confidence and hope, through all crisis.” Also, when the going gets tough, get a kitten!

Today I am waiting to hear back from my cardiologist who is going to email me with follow up instructions after he has finished going through the data and past test results. I’m on oxygen, knitting, and feeling pretty calm about all the new developments.

Almost exactly 7 years ago (August 28th was the anniversary day) I was diagnosed with Limited Systemic Sclerosis and Sjogren’s Disease. I have learned a lot along the way, but the best, most important lessons have been about self-advocacy, facing down the worst case scenarios, communicating with your doctors, and maintaining a good attitude.

Yesterday this all paid off for me big time.

Note: The fabulous BLZ graphic was made for me by my exceptionally knitworthy niece Melissa and her beautiful and talented daughter Eleanor.

The Scleroderma Chronicles: Matters of the Heart

The Blue-Lipped Zebra (BLZ for short) has been busy the last three months (once she was fully vaccinated for Covid-19) and lots of testing and doctor appointments have happened. Lots of diagnostic hypothesis have been pursued and tested; the BLZ has received several emails from doctors that let her know about good news: you don’t have pneumonia!! your heart looks good!! your kidneys are maintaining!!

All is good. Go visit your baby bunny and don’t worry about it…

Hello. BLUE-LIPPED Zebra. Chest hurts. Zebra is dizzy. Zebra pants as soon as she moves around. Zebra is absolutely sure that everything is not fine at all!

Did I mention that the BLZ got fully vaccinated? Ever since that happened (and the BLZ got a steroid injection for her ill-behaved hip) her fatigue and brain fog have receded into the background. Quite frankly, the BLZ is feeling pretty frisky and clear-headed these day between bouts of dizziness and panting episodes. She has decided that enough is enough and she is on the move to get to the bottom of what is going on!

She contacted her doctors and health providers and had them forward her the entire text of her test results. She read these results carefully and then spent some time consulting with Dr. Google to figure out what some of these words meant. The BLZ is so grateful for that biology degree and years of related job experiences.

The BLZ has limited systemic sclerosis. What she learned was…

  • A general rule of thumb, the 15% Rule, can be used to describe the number of systemic sclerosis patients with serious complications associated with their illness. For example, 15% of patients will have Sjogren’s Disease, or digital ulcers, or lung disease, or maybe pulmonary arterial hypertension. These complications are sometimes rare in the general public, but for systemic sclerosis patients they can be common.
  • A large European study found that the majority of systemic sclerosis related deaths were from heart complications (26%) or were pulmonary arterial hypertension (26%) related.
Time to stop and smell the roses. This is a little disappointing… my doctors have been reassuring me that all is fine because they are focused on lung disease. There are a lot of bread crumbs in the test results that suggest heart problems.

Then then BLZ made an appointment with her internist (the primary care physician) to go over the test results with her and to help her prep for her cardiologist appointment next week. Don’t you think that was smart?!!!

Mateo: Very smart!!

Here’s the summary of my appointment with my wonderful internist. My face was blue and I struggled with dizziness in her office: she entered a new diagnosis into my chart that says I’m cyanotic and told me to press the cardiologist for a prescription for day time oxygen so I can carry portable oxygen with me. (“Now we’re talking!!!” barked the BLZ.) She read the test results for my CT lung scan and echocardiogram and agreed with my understanding of what the test results were saying. She told me what tests to ask for from the cardiologist at my appointment. Here’s the summary:

  • I have physical findings in my lungs that consistent with pulmonary arterial hypertension. The summary results of that test say “mild to moderate” and even say that the loss of lung tissue and an enlarged pulmonary artery are due to PAH. Huh. Look at that. (“I’m just shocked, shocked!” snarks the BLZ).
  • The tissue of the heart (the muscle) is scarred and too stiff to beat well. This condition is called diastolic dysfunction and is a type of heart failure. The echocardiogram states that my diastolic dysfunction is Grade II, which is moderate. Scleroderma is attacking my heart; 15% of systemic sclerosis patients have diastolic disfunction. While there are lots of reasons why people develop diastolic dysfunction, for me the picture is different as it is a common complication of my systemic sclerosis and not a result of say… uncontrolled high blood pressure.
  • The estimated pulmonary pressure from the echocardiogram is difficult to measure in my case (Dr. Google had to teach me about incomplete TR jet and other obscure heart-related terms) and is most likely being undermeasured. The number now is the upper limit of normal; twice in the past it couldn’t even be estimated.
  • I have a newly developed hole in my heart called a cardiac shunt.
  • My heart is broken damaged by scleroderma.

So what should the BLZ do about all of this? The internist and the BLZ hatched a plan in which she should insist request direct measurement of the pressure in the right side of her heart (right heart catherization) and another echocardiogram that looks at that cardiac shunt while she is exercising standing up. Like, maybe the BLZ needs to be climbing stairs… The BLZ is just thrilled… Also, the BLZ wants day time oxygen-to-go. Yes, please. Right now, please.

Also, the BLZ is considering taking someone with her to the appointment and will have the cardiologist send the internist his notes following the appointment.

Also, when life get tough, get a kitten!! BLZs love kittens!

So, this is an adventure in progress, but I do have some gems to share with others struggling with their own medical misadventures. Get your own copies of your test results and physician notes after appointments. Google like crazy to learn what the obscure medical terms mean. Educate yourself about your illness/condition. Stay off social media as you do this and read journal articles from legitimate sources like the Rheumatic Disease journals and articles posted by the NIH. Ask another knowledgeable person to review your test results to help clarify/validate your thinking. If my journey here can serve as a roadmap for even one other person battling their way to a diagnosis, then this post was a success.

And remember to be brave.

It is good to have a diagnosis, even if it is a shame.

Zebras are brave!!

The Scleroderma Chronicles: The Blue-Lipped Zebra Gets a Credible Hypothesis

At last.

If you have forgotten about the tales of the Blue-Lipped Zebra, that’s what I’ve taken to calling myself as I struggled over the last few years for some definitive answers to my blue-lipped shortness-of-breath issues. Really, things got pretty darn extreme late in 2019 and I started to get really pushy in finding some answers. Here’s the posts that I wrote then: The Blue-Lipped Zebra Report, The Blue-Lipped Zebra Gets Some MRIs, and The Blue-Lipped Zebra Goes on Oxygen.

Hannah: All of that happened before I came to take care of the Kitten Mom.

To summarize all of the adventures of the BLZ (that is code for Blue-Lipped Zebra), about 5 years ago I caught the flu and was really sick. I never fully recovered as shortness of breath lingered and lingered, and eventually I noticed that my lips turned blue after showers and when I climbed the stairs. I steadily worsened and began to call (and call, and call…) my rheumatologist for help. He ordered up some testing and referred me to a pulmonologist. My echocardiogram and lung CT scan looked good, but my pulmonary function test showed some asthma. My pulmonologist decided to that I must have asthma because of my Sjogren’s Disease, and maybe… (cue the dramatic music)

Sleep Apnea

so I got tested for that. That test showed that I had nocturnal hypoxemia (like, I was under 90% saturated blood oxygen for over an hour) so I was started on overnight oxygen. All my doctors dusted off their hands, said “Job done!” and that was that. As far as they were concerned the BLZ had been put out to pasture.

My symptoms improved and after 6 months I was taken off the oxygen again.

Over the next two years my symptoms came back and got steadily worse. To further complicate things my systemic sclerosis and Sjogren’s symptoms also worsened. I was constantly fighting a flare of my autoimmune diseases (joint and muscle pain, fatigue, brain fog, hair loss, GI nastiness) at the same time I struggled to walk without stopping to put my head between my knees because I felt faint. I ended up on the floor more than once. I panted like a freight train when going up stairs and now my entire lower face was looking blue at times. I coughed up mucus every morning and it sometimes contained streaks of blood. The BLZ was back and running wild. My rheumatologist ordered tests; once again my heart and lung tests looked good. Disgusted with my complaining, my rheumatologist decided that maybe I should be prescribed antidepressants, or maybe I should be tested for… (cue the dramatic music)

Sleep Apnea

I fired that doctor and found another. I met with my internist, who ordered more testing, and I had a first appointment with the new rheumatologist who had been recommended to me by the local chapter of the Scleroderma Foundation. The new tests showed that I had severe inflammation of my tendons, a destroyed hip joint, a condition called polycythemia (too many red blood cells), and nocturnal hypoxemia again. I was put back onto oxygen and the pandemic then closed everything down. I asked about the possible cause of my polycythemia, but there wasn’t anything that really jumped out to my doctors. The BLZ was ordered into strict isolation for the duration of the Covid-19 emergency.

Now I am fully vaccinated and back into the world and pushing my way though new testing and have acquired a couple of new doctors after ending up in urgent care with chest pain, a blue face, and shortness of breath. The testing early this year showed that I had more fluid around my heart and that the pressure on the right side up my heart was up into borderline high range. Because of my systemic sclerosis I am high risk for a condition called pulmonary arterial hypertension so that high pressure reading triggered an alarm: I was sent to a cardiologist.

The cardiologist was completely dismissive of the two clinical observations that had generated the cardiology referral, was borderline disparaging of my anxiousness about my not-yet-vaccinated status (there are other people who are sicker…), lectured me about getting cardio in three times a week, and insisted that I be tested for… (you know the drill: dramatic music time)

Sleep Apnea

“At least you didn’t offer me antidepressants,” I said. I limped away, fighting tears and panting for air, wondering why I have to keep firing doctors and hunting for new ones. “Suck it up, Buttercup,” said the BLZ as I drove home. “You have a new pulmonologist to talk about this with.”

There I am, waiting for the pulmonologist, minutes before he gave me the unifying diagnostic hypothesis.

Three weeks ago I met with the new pulmonologist, one that was recommended by my new (wonderful) rheumatologist. He asked me lots of questions, dismissed the notion that I have sleep apnea (“What a shock!” snarked the BLZ), and then dropped the bomb. I have a cardiac shunt. Blood from the right, unoxygenated side of my heart, is passing through a hole in my heart and disrupting the flow of oxygenated blood to my body. He ordered a new echocardiogram with bubbles to look for the hole and to confirm the diagnosis. He also wants to check how much fluid is around my heart and is concerned about the right side pressure levels, which were the two reasons why I was sent to that cardiologist (that the BLZ wants to kick in the face…) in the first place.

Hannah: The new echocardiogram is in three more weeks. The Kitten Mom is getting a little anxious while she waits…

As the pulmonologist walked me to the door out of the clinic that day he casually said to me, “I really admire your attitude.”

Oh, oh.

The BLZ’s whiskers started to tingle.

You know I googled for information about cardiac shunts from the parking garage before I even drove away from the appointment. Almost immediately the condition that he suspects appeared on the page: Eisenmenger syndrome. I have every single one of the symptoms that are listed on the page. This is the unifying diagnosis, if the echocardiogram confirms it, that explains the blue face, shortness of breath, nocturnal hypoxemia, polycythemia, and the inflammation that has been driving my two autoimmune diseases, systemic sclerosis and Sjogren’s disease out of control.

Why did it take so long to get here?

Eisenmenger is rare.

The BLZ is barking with laughter.

Me, I’m working on my attitude as I wait for the echocardiogram appointment.

The Saturday Update: Week 4, 2021

It was a crazy, crazy busy week with lots going on. I had medical testing, an online court appearance to give testimony in a neighbor’s custody case, and a nail in one of my car’s tires. My medical status continues unchanged (blue lips, chest pain, shortness of breath), but the machinery to get to the bottom of things is now in motion. The first couple of rounds of testing have generated a referral to cardiology and hopefully that will happen this week. My neighbor won her custody case, and the car tire is now repaired. Whew! I spent the bottom half of the week relaxing with my knitting because I was completely pooped by all of that running around.

The Kitten Mom left me all alone THREE times this week!!

Knitting

I did make some good progress this week in spite of the trips out of the house.

My Geology socks are done!! I’ve decided to try to make at least one pair of socks each month, so these are January’s pair.

I also buckled down and did the blocking and finishing work on my Secret Life of Cats (and dogz) shawl by Sharon from Security (Casapinka). This is the longer shawl version of the project; there were also options to make a cowl or a scarf. Fun color for gloomy days, huh! I’m actually thinking that I may be giving this one away to someone who loves purple and bright colors and a scarf version made with scrap yarn from the stash may be in my future.

It snowed this week I so gave in to the urge and cast on one of the sweaters that I have been dying to get going on. I have wanted to make Goldwing for a long time, and bought the yarn a couple of weeks ago with my stimulus check. Here it is, finally started:

Look at the absolute quality help that I am getting from Hannah!!

The Scleroderma Chronicles: The Pulmonary Hypertension Edition

I few weeks ago I posted about my systemic sclerosis, Covid-19, and my decision to donate my DNA to the 23andMe Systemic Sclerosis Research Project. My DNA has safely arrived and is in the lab getting sequenced right now. I was motivated to contribute because Covid-19 is creating so many new patients with fibrosis that may benefit from this research in addition to people like myself with autoimmune disease or people with other fibrotic diseases.

Monday I had an urgent echocardiogram done and once again an eerie connection between my disease, systemic sclerosis, and Covid-19 appeared. My test was started a little late so I asked the technician if things were busy. He told me that they were very busy because there were so many Covid-19 long haulers who needed testing. After a while, thinking things over, I asked if these patients were getting heart damage. “Well, not their heart muscle, but they were developing pulmonary hypertension,” he said. Oh, oh. That is the very reason I was there getting an echocardiogram; as a systemic sclerosis patient I am high risk for pulmonary hypertension and pulmonary arterial hypertension, and I know that those are serious and life altering/ending conditions. After thinking a little longer I asked him how many Covid-19 long haulers were getting that diagnosis. “It’s in double digits,” he replied…

Double digits. At this one medical center in the heart of Denver. That means that there are potentially hundreds and hundreds of patients getting that diagnosis across my state.

I wished that I had thought to ask him how old those patients were…

The next day my rheumatologist called to let me know that I was being referred to cardiology as my echocardiogram results suggested pulmonary hypertension and that further testing was required. There is also an issue with fluid around my heart… It was what I expected, but not exactly what I was looking forward to. The only problem right now is getting me into cardiology, because, all of those Covid-19 long haulers…

It has been impressed on me that I need to double mask now each time I go out into public. I have a nice N95 level mask, but I’m also putting a medical grade mask on top of it.

Be careful, people!!

Stay safe and wear your masks!!

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: The Blue-Lipped Zebra Report!

I’m thinking of myself as the “Blue-Lipped Zebra” these days. Let’s just call me the BLZ for short. You know, a rare breed of difficult patient who is ornery, persistent, and stubbornly insistent on getting straight answers. I’m trying to not use that zebra voice, but if pushed I may whip it out. I’m going after all my doctors to get to some explanations about my panting, blue-lipped, exhausted current state of being. I made myself promise to keep my internal dialogue under control and to not get pulled off topic. Sounds like a good plan, right?

Whew. It is only Wednesday and I’m pooped! I have talked with or met with three different doctors and scheduled 5 different tests. I also made repeat appointments to get back to these doctors after the testing is done. I went into this determined to do a better job coordinating with my doctors and to shift the conductor role to my new rheumatologist. I’m reflecting on what’s happened so far and what my next steps are, and I’ve decided to share with all of you.

Before I tell you about my medical adventures this week I want to show off the monster orchid. It now has 5 blooms open and it looks great!! Isn’t that an amazing color?

Prologue: I have been struggling with shortness of breath, extreme fatigue, and feeling dizzy/faint. My lips frequently look blue. The itching is insane, and what is up with these rashes? I have more recently developed abdominal pain in the area of my spleen. After initial testing my internist has diagnosed secondary polycythemia.

Act 1: The Internist

This was my first phone appointment. My internist is the doctor who diagnosed me with secondary polycythemia, which is a condition with too many red blood cells. The high cell count, in my case, is now presumed to be due to an underlying problem involving my lungs or heart; since lung and heart damage is common with systemic sclerosis that makes a lot of sense. We talked about my gene test results (I do not have the genetic mutation that would have caused the more serious form of polycythemia, which is good!) and planned my call with the pulmonologist. That’s right: I got some coaching from my internist! I agreed to send her an email about what happened with the pulmonologist and rheumatologist after I met with them, and she assured me that she would order any testing that the other two doctors did not. That’s right – I asked her what testing I should ask for. I love this doctor!!

Act 2: The Pulmonologist

Well, this didn’t go the way I thought this would… good thing I got some coaching. It started out with this doctor saying that she didn’t know what I expected her to do over the phone when she hadn’t seen me in her office for over a year. (She fussed at me last time for coming earlier than a year. I tried to make an appointment, but the nurse insisted it would be better for me to make a phone appointment before I saw the rheumatologist… ugh!!) I explained the situation to her, and she immediately said that she didn’t agree with the diagnosis, and that she didn’t think that my rbc count was all that high. <The BLZ was pretty disgusted by this and wanted to blurt out that the diagnosis wasn’t open for debate, but I throttled it into silence…> After redirecting the conversation to my symptoms (you know, ending up on the floor panting for air after a little vacuuming…) she did agree that there was probably an underlying problem driving the elevated rbc count and it would be good to order up some tests before I came to see her in her office.

Sigh. Why is this so hard?! I wondered if we had just been talking at cross purposes about the same thing. <The BLZ wondered why I had to keep battling for routine testing when my diagnoses required it. Whatever.> The tests were ordered and I agreed to make an appointment to see her in her office a few days after the testing was completed.

Act 3: The Rheumatologist

Finally, finally I have landed in the rheumatologist office that the BLZ has longed for. This doctor felt that the lung testing was absolutely warranted, and that if nothing came up she would go right for a cardiologist referral and heart testing, and a hematology referral also if needed. She kind of thinks that this is my heart, but it is good to get the lung testing done first. <The BFZ is now bucking around… happy for action, but a little scared, too.> She reassured me that the tests that were already ordered were exactly the ones that she would have ordered, but they were just the opening round. She mentioned a test that the pulmonologist has refused to order, saying that it is the only way to get accurate information. Yay! Then she did the exam and reviewed the notes on my orthopedic referral since I still can’t walk and I’ve developed more tendon issues in my foot. “Why hasn’t there been a follow-up on this?” she asked. She ordered two MRIs to look at my hip and foot, and gave me the paperwork to get a handicapped parking pass. She also ordered blood work, told me to call her after the testing was done, and that I should be in her office again in 8 weeks. <The BFZ was stunned. Usually I’m told to come back in 6 months.> I have the scleroderma director that I’ve been looking for, people!!

Epilogue

I spent 5 hours over the last two days making phone calls, appointments, reading all of the medical notes attached this week’s appointments, and writing emails. Whew. Through the constraints of scheduling calendars I will be talking about my test results with the rheumatologist before I interact again with my slightly hostile pulmonologist. When I read the pulmonologist’s notes on our phone appointment it kind of smelled of “cover your ass” and the BLZ’s nostrils crinkled in disgust. After begging for inhaled steroids for a couple years, when I saw her last time she offered me a few months worth. Yay! I said. I wanted to check with the rheumatologist before starting them because I’m already pretty immunosuppressed, which I did, and the inhaled steroids were prescribed soon after by my internist and I’m using them right now. In the notes she wrote that she had recommended these steroids and I that I had refused. <The BLZ immediately noticed the nasty trickery with the verbs there…she offered and I deferred!> She also described my landing on the floor while vacuuming as “needing to rest while doing moderate tasks”. The BFZ is beyond disgusted at that. <Get a new pulmonologist, the BFZ barks!>

In between all of this I also got my newest pair of Snowshoe socks done! How cute are these? I knit them holding a wildly bright variegated yarn with a dark, inky blue single ply yarn. My yarn information is on my project page.

So, it was a pretty darn good start of the week. Tomorrow I head off to get an echocardiogram of my heart, and over the next week or so the rest of the testing will happen.

Coronavirus, be good and stay away from me!! I’m going to be in a lot of medical facilities for the next few days.

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.

The Scleroderma Chronicles: Safe House

You know, I kind of view myself as a happy camper. I have more things (ahem… knitting projects) going then I can get finished on any given day or week, books lined up to read, and a “to-do” list that I’m slowly working my way through. Hey, people, I fixed the loose tiles on my kitchen floor last week!! My cat MacKenzie is my constant sidekick throughout the day as I knit, work in the garden, read in bed, and even with me (underfoot, demanding cookies) while I’m cooking. Even on the bad days when I’m pretty much down for the count, I manage small victories. There is just one problem with this picture.

Look at these beautiful coneflowers I just added to the garden. I’m hoping to lure some butterflies into the yard. Every garden should have butterflies, don’t you think?

I just don’t fit in the world all that well anymore. In my home, living the life that I’ve created for myself, it is really easy to forget how much I have adapted to accommodate the limitations of my scleroderma, Sjogren’s, and fibromyalgia. Once I go anywhere else reality hits me hard. Every trip out of my house is going to come at a cost. Here are the worst of the offenders that will lay me low.

Air Conditioning I know that almost everyone in the world is grateful for air conditioning in the summertime, but for me it is a royal nightmare. The shock of walking into a refrigerated building on a hot summer day will trigger an immediate Raynaud’s attack. I pull on long sleeves and fingerless mitts as soon as I get into the building, but my lungs know what’s up and I have trouble breathing. The airflow makes my eyes burn; I’ve been reduced to wearing my sunglasses indoors to protect my eyes. Don’t even get me started on the refrigerated cases churning out cold air; you haven’t lived until you’ve had to pull up the hood of your sweatshirt and the sleeves down over your hands so you can score some butter and eggs.  If that wasn’t enough, there are also usually…

Scented Products Almost all buildings use scented cleaning products and sells additional items with scents. Candles. Lotions. Laundry soap. The scented bathrooms are a nightmare. If I’m not already in trouble with my breathing I will be if I have to walk down the laundry detergent aisle at the grocery store: I also start to itch and my face swells. Why do these chemicals even exist? They can’t be good for anyone!

Restaurants These are a special kind of hell for me. All the drinks come cold and with ice, and the entrees are served piping hot. There are other landmines that I need to avoid: salt, lactose, fiber.  I have to carefully select something that is very soft and that will behave itself in my gastroparesis stomach. I can’t have spicy food. I can’t eat fresh veggies. Actually, to be safe, some of this food should go through a blender… I actually once soaked a cut up sandwich in soup so I could eat it…

Walking I am trying really hard to meet my walking goals every day, but I stretch those steps out over the day. A trip to run errands can be just exhausting if I’m on my feet for a couple of hours at a time. I need to always carry water, be aware of the location of bathrooms, and have places where I can sit down if I need to.

Sunshine It makes me sick! Enough said.

Ready for another picture? These paper wasps are building a nest right on the edge of my deck! MacKenzie and I are not amused. Still, it kind of shows how the outside world is full of dangers…

Recently I had a tough talk with myself about pruning down my outings and being more strategic about how I expend my energy. I need fewer outings, and my destinations need to be closer to home. I need to live online. I need to in a safe environment as much as I can to manage my diseases.

My home is my safe house. I have no air conditioning and I minimize air flow. I keep the temperature in the mid 70’s in the day so that my joints and lungs will be happy. I cook all of my own food, I don’t own any salt at all, and everything that I drink is room temperature. Fruits and veggies go through the blender to become smoothies. Every product that comes into the house is scent free. I’m always close to a bathroom or a soft surface to crash onto for a quick recovery if I get dizzy. My stairs have wrought iron rails that I use effectively on bad joint days. Flourishing in my safe house I sometimes forget how sick I am because, well, I have fewer problems.

I planted this yarrow last year in a flowerbed that has killed almost everything planted into it. Not this yarrow!! The secret of gardening, and living with serious chronic illness, is to keep on trying new things, and to match your needs to your environment. Or, in my case, make your environment match your needs.

Tomorrow I have a doctor’s appointment so I listed up some symptoms and issues that I need to ask her about. It is quite a list now that I look at it, and it kind of underscores how chronic illness can trick you into thinking that things that would normally send you screaming into urgent care are “just another day of scleroderma.” Shortness of breath is an almost daily thing. When I glance into the mirror these days I sometimes notice that my face is blue. One hip keeps failing me; okay, I actually have to lift that leg to get into the car. My joints swell so much that I can’t sleep at night.

But I am good, here in my little safe house with my gardens and cat.

Tomorrow my doctor and I will attack some of these scleroderma/Sjogren’s issues. I kind of think that lung testing and a MRI of my hip are in the future, and that there may be follow-up with my pulmonologist. I’ve been gathering up my energy in preparation for these outings into a world that is dangerous for me, knowing that after each outing my garden swing, knitting and latest book will be waiting for me. With a room temperature ice tea.

And a cat!

It is good to have a safe house.

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!!