The Scleroderma Chronicles: Rolling Dice with the Reaper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Take that, reaper! I win this roll!!

Scleroderma: Shine like a Sunflower!

The Scleroderma Chronicles: Unforeseen Circumstances and Unintended Consequences

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

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

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

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

My morning pills.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I feel a lot better for having gotten this out.

Peace be with you all.

Take this rose with you as you go.

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

The Scleroderma Chronicles: World Scleroderma Day, 2022

Wow, it is that day of the year again. The Niagara Falls will turn teal, Scleroderma organizations around the world are sending out messages and videos, and patients with scleroderma like me are wondering how best to showcase our conditions in a meaningful way. Here in the US the theme is Know Scleroderma. In Australia it is Shine Like a Sunflower.

The whole idea is to educate the public about this rare disease that pretty much flies under the radar to help secure support for patients, funding for research, and awareness of treatment options. Patients are encouraged to tell their stories and to do what they can to expand scleroderma awareness in the public eye.

Well, shoot. I do that all the time! I wrote about World Scleroderma Day last year and I kind of like what I wrote. I talked about what was going on in my illness and the progress that I was making in getting diagnosed and treated for the significant organ damage that was underway in my lungs and heart. I also mentioned the similarities between Covid-19 and systemic sclerosis (the type of scleroderma that I have), and the fact that people like me are still dealing with lockdown. You can read that post here.

So, what has changed in the last year and why am I typing away on my computer once again about World Scleroderma Day? Well… awareness and support are the messages that I’ve been urged to put out, but I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned this year and how it might be useful to others. This was a huge year for me… I was diagnosed with pulmonary arterial hypertension, a complication of systemic sclerosis that is developed by about 15% of patients, and I was also diagnosed with interstitial lung disease, another complication of systemic sclerosis that is also developed by about 15% of patients. These serious complications develop so routinely around the 15% mark that there is now a rule of thumb about it in treating patients with systemic sclerosis. There are other conditions that fall into the 15% rule, and I have two more of them: Sjogren’s Disease and diastolic dysfunction.

MacKenzie and I from a posting a few years ago.

So, I am getting a lot of experience in dealing with being sick in a way that is not visible to the public and is not the first thing considered when you head into a doctor’s office seeking help for debilitating symptoms that have no obvious cause. I have been successful this year in becoming an active participant in my own health care and I love my team! Here are my lessons learned:

  1. Physicians tend to diagnose with the most common condition that matches your symptoms. You know, if you are struggling with fatigue, it must be depression or sleep apnea…
  2. They also tell you to stay off the internet.
  3. That works great up to a point. Get onto the internet!!!! Look up the symptoms and treatment options for the condition/illness that your physician is talking about. Do they really fit? Go ahead with the testing that your doctor orders but continue to educate yourself. Get the full text of any testing reports (those are your tests on your body, so do insist… nicely…) Look up crazy words that you don’t understand.
  4. I should include here…DON’T PANIC… about any crazy-ass, scary condition that you run into on the internet that you think you might have. I mean, what could happen? You already are sick, and you won’t get magically worse overnight once you get a name for it. You might, however, get some really helpful treatment that could turn things around for you. That is, if you have that crazy-ass, scary condition that you really, probably, don’t have. DON’T PANIC!!
  5. What if you get test results that say “you are fine” and your doctor pretty much is ready to stop there? Um… go right back to specific test results and symptoms to reset the conversation. You know, “my face is still blue, and the latest CT scan showed that I was losing tissue in my lungs. What other testing can we do to figure out what is going on?” is exactly where you should redirect the conversation.
  6. Make a list of your symptoms and track them in a journal or on a calendar. Document stuff and then contact your health care provider (email works great!) with your concerns and the symptoms that you are noticing. Specific data helps a lot, and the written record makes you more credible and your health provider more accountable.
  7. Do not let a medical health professional dismiss or disparage you. Kick them to the curb and get another. On the other hand, don’t go doctor shopping to get the diagnosis that you want; that is not productive for you or anyone else involved in your daily struggles.
  8. Ask your physicians to communicate with each other and make sure that they include your primary care physician in any messaging.
  9. Remember to be kind to others: your doctors, the nurses, your family, your friends, and yourself.
  10. DON’T PANIC!!! at any time. Remember, feeling powerless and not knowing what is happening is stressful. Learn everything that you can, do everything that you can, and then sleep well at night. Hugs to anyone who finds this meaningful.
More lavender for my garden!

There. Those are the best, most excellent lessons that I learned this year. Today I am out of the serious flare of the winter and feeling pretty darn great. I am on steroids, and my immunosuppressant drug’s dose has been doubled; I feel more like myself than I have in a couple of years. I headed out on errands this afternoon, bought a Starbucks, and signed up for a Tour de Fleece team at my local yarn shop. I bought some new lavender plants that I am going to put into the ground this evening and I am cleaning up the spinning wheel to see if I can get some paco-vicuna spun next month before my steroids get stopped.

I have some really serious conditions that carry a significant risk of a poor outcome. And yet, I feel a little like an imposter as I laugh and interact with other people that I encounter. The man at the drive-through window at Starbucks traded cat photos with me. The lady at the yarn store and I laughed and talked about spinning wheel misbehaviors; are the wheels worse if you name them? Behind the mask, I am still me, the old me; I may have scleroderma, but it doesn’t have me. I am kind of the poster child for what an invisible illness looks like, and that’s why there is this campaign today to “Know Scleroderma.”

Those serious conditions that I mentioned… they are complications of scleroderma, but they happen for other reasons, too. Some are rare, but some are not. Knowing about scleroderma can help with research efforts into these other conditions (sadly, some are now more common because of Covid long haulers), and perhaps the lessons I have learned will help others in their efforts to secure empowerment and medical treatment.

This is World Scleroderma Day.

Shine Like a Sunflower!

The Scleroderma Chronicles: Lung Biopsy Story

Last Monday, May 2nd, was the date of my lung biopsy procedure. My pulmonologist had diagnosed me with interstitial lung disease a couple of months ago and the biopsy was required to definitively diagnose the type of ILD I had. This is kind of complicated, but the simple reason for the biopsy is that I don’t really fit the profile of the usual scleroderma ILD patient, and the treatment is expensive and somewhat risky. Biopsy time.

At 4:30am Monday morning my son drove me through the rainy dark to the hospital where I was going to be admitted for the surgery. I had on my new raspberry clogs for good luck, and I was exhausted after being up most of the night completing pre-op tasks at home. I was fighting off a sense of impending disaster…

Image retrieved online from Wikipedia Commons at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Respiratory_failure

The day I met with the surgeon he drew a funky little drawing on his white board to explain what he was going to do. Check out the diagram above: your right lung is actually different from the left with more tissue and three lobes. My surgeon planned to use special instruments guided by a tiny video camera (VATS) to go through my chest wall and get the tissue samples. This is a minimally invasive procedure that will only take a few minutes. The catch: the right lung will be deflated before he takes the samples.

Atelectasis is the medical term for a collapsed lung. Both of my lungs were experiencing incomplete atelectasis at the time of my last CT scan, and I’d been getting steadily worse all April. I was a little concerned, but I trusted that all would work out fine in the end. I was prepped, bundled up, and rolled off to surgery. There was the most fantastical robotic surgery machine in there, but before I even got a great look at it, I was on the table, a mask was put over my face and I was gone…

… and I emerged from unconsciousness at the bottom of a rugby scrum with all these faces looking down at me. I was in pain, a lot of pain, and I couldn’t breathe at all. The muscles on the right side of my back were seized up and cramped in what felt like Charlie horses, and I was thrashing around as I tried to get someone to rub on my back muscles. The rugby players in masks (I was later told that there were 8 of them) were attempting to hold me down as they put hot packs under my back, removed my oxygen cannula, and placed a larger oxygen mask over my face. “Do you remember the Xray?” one of them asked. Oh. That’s what set off the muscle cramps. My oxygen was below 75% even on highest oxygen flow available in the recovery room. I got transferred to the ICU.

That right lung refused to reinflate. I couldn’t be given any pain medications or fluids until my oxygen levels came up. New doctors began to arrive and talked to me. To be clear, talking set off coughing and was very painful. I just wanted someone to help me, not talk to me! A pulmonologist arrived to doctorsplain my disease to me and informed me that he was changing some of the drugs used to treat my lung and heart conditions. I told him that I didn’t know him, he couldn’t make any changes to my treatment plan without talking to my doctors, and that I needed him to do something right away to handle my immediate situation (I was in acute respiratory failure). He argued about contacting my doctors. I insisted.

I think that I deserve a huge gold star for standing up for myself while in extremis.

I was placed onto a high flow oxygen therapy machine within minutes and my oxygen levels came up.

I kind of look like I was underneath a rugby scrum, huh. That machine delivers heated water vapor and oxygen at the unbelievable rate of 60 liters/minutes. My oxygen came up into the low 90s on the machine and I finally received oxycodone. Yay!!! The last oxygen number on the monitor before I fell asleep was 94%.

The next day they got me up into a chair (more oxycodone!) and I started respiratory therapy to get the lung working again. On Wednesday my chest tube came out and during the day the flow rate on the machine was reduced until I could come off it.

Day three in the ICU. I am off the high flow machine and finally using a normal cannula. I’m still on 15 liters/minute of oxygen at this point.

That annoying pulmonologist came by every single day that I was in the ICU; my doctors had called him back! After talking to them he made some med changes (and told me that it a shared decision) and his manner completely transformed. The physician’s assistant who removed my chest tube told me that she had also read the care notes with all the data, email traffic, and decision-making by my rheumatologist/pulmonologist/cardiologist team. She was struck by the interdisciplinary care that I was receiving and seemed a little wistful and envious.

Another gold star for the team!!

Over the next two days I was slowly titrated down on my oxygen while doing my lung expanding exercises without fail. Late in the morning on Friday I finally escaped.

I put on my raspberry clogs, black leggings, a little black top, and my raspberry-colored down vest. “How cute you are!” exclaimed the nurse. My son drove me home through the late morning light along streets lined with newly leafed trees. While I was in the ICU the world had turned green.

No matter how lifeless and barren things seem over the winter, spring always comes with the promise of fresh starts and new life. I still trust that all will work out fine in the end.

Hannah is so glad to have me home again.

Now we just have to wait for the biopsy results.

The Scleroderma Chronicles: The shunt hunt takes a left turn…

I’ve been continuing my adventures in cardiology over the last several weeks. If you have been following along on my scleroderma adventures you know that I had a trip to the Cath lab that led to the discovery of a cardiac shunt: a hole in my heart. I also was eventually diagnosed with exercise-induced pulmonary hypertension and started on drugs to treat it, which is a lengthy process as I was slowly titered up on two different drugs while monitoring for side effects. I’ve been mostly living in bed for the last 6 weeks except for short trips out for more testing and blood work. The cats have been loving this, by the way. I’m kind of their captive right now.

This is edema in my arm. I’ve been dealing with headaches, muscle pain, edema, low blood pressure, and extreme fatigue. I cough a lot. Every new weather system is a nightmare. Ugh!

While the whole process has been pretty difficult, I am breathing much, much better and that blue lipped thing has mostly faded away. No more panting!! I haven’t had to put my head down because I felt faint for weeks. This is huge, people!!

I may have to retire the whole BLZ logo the way things are going!

My cardiologist is still hunting for the shunt that was detected in the Cath lab. I have one that they can see (a patent foramen ovale, which is pretty common), but for the really significant disruption of circulation that was detected in the Cath lab the feeling is that I have something much bigger somewhere. I’ve gone through 3 rounds of testing looking for the dang thing, and so far, no joy.

When the test results come in, I always read the entire text and google terms that I don’t recognize. The last imaging of my heart did not find the shunt, and my cardiologist sent an email letting me know that my heart looked pretty good. Umm… okay, but where is that infernal shunt?!!! This is getting a little frustrating, but I am doing better, so I guess I should just roll with it. I did notice this little sentence in the report about the portion of my lungs seen in the heart imaging: “There is mild subpleural reticulation and bibasilar atelectasis.” Say what? I googled and …. bibasilar atelectasis is a partially collapsed lung. I shot off a little email to my pulmonologist to ask if this was something new.

This is why I decided to write this post. As it turns out, this is new. Both of the things that were noted in that test result were significant (subpleural reticulation is evidence of scarring in my lung), and I was immediately sent to get a specialized lung scan that shows I have sustained moderate advancing lung damage over the last 10 months. Oh. No wonder I’m so exhausted. At least they didn’t use the word “severe” in the report. I seem to have developed pulmonary edema and my lungs took a big hit during the last few months; scleroderma is now attacking my lungs. If I hadn’t read that report and then contacted my doctor, no one would have picked up on this. The BLZ may be on hiatus, but the lessons she learned during that drive for the pulmonary hypertension diagnosis really paid off now.

What do you do when you get a sad little lung report? Why, you put on your Catzilla shirt and go start a load of laundry, of course!!

Tuesday I go for a pulmonary function test and then immediately afterwards I will meet with my pulmonologist. I’m kind of thinking that there might be more drugs in my future. Anyway, there is a lesson here that I decided I should share with you all.

Be proactive! Read your test results and ask questions of your doctors. Google is your friend, and those online portals that let you shoot your doctor an email are priceless! Use them!

And now readers, back to the shunt hunt…

Mateo: and now readers, back to my nap! After that I’m going to go swat some more helicopters!

The Scleroderma Chronicles: Rare Disease Day, 2022

Well, this is a hard topic to write about. Quite frankly, I have been getting my butt kicked lately by my (wait for it) rare diseases. Still, I am trying to respond to the calls for publicity about rare diseases along with other members of the scleroderma and pulmonary hypertension communities.

You know, I feel like I should represent.

People with rare diseases are referred to as “zebras” in the medical community.

So, what’s a rare disease? A rare disease is classified as one that impacts a small percentage of the total population. Here in the United States that means fewer than 200,000 people diagnosed with the condition/disease. Perversely, there are a lot of people with rare diseases as there are almost 7,000 different rare diseases!  Some of these diseases are common enough that you may be familiar with them: albinism, achondroplasia (a type of dwarfism), and autoimmune hepatitis are examples. Others are very rare. Most are genetic in origin, and half of them impact children. More than 90% of rare conditions have no drug treatment.

The type of scleroderma that I have, limited systemic sclerosis, is considered rare as there are about 100,000 people in the US with this diagnosis. The latest diagnosis added to my medical history is of pulmonary arterial hypertension, another rare disease, and one that is a consequence of my scleroderma. Well, I am really rare now! I have struggled to explain my scleroderma to people when they ask; how can I explain in just a few sentences something that is just frankly causing horrific damage to my body and generating an ever-growing list of diagnosed conditions. Here’s my best answer at the moment:

Scleroderma is a chronic, progressive, uncurable, and often fatal autoimmune disease that causes scaring and damage to blood vessels, skin, internal organs, and muscles/joints. It is controlled and treated through the use of immunosuppressants and drugs that address symptoms. It is a life-altering diagnosis. It is my life.

So, I have blogged about Rare Disease Day several times in the past. Here’s what I wrote a couple of years ago, and what I wrote in 2018. In the past I have written about my symptoms and the struggle of living with a rare disease. It is pretty isolating. It is hard to get diagnosed and treated. I have also written about the difficulties to get funding for research for rare diseases and conditions, and the lack of treatments and cures because the patient population is so small.

This year I thought I would share some of the things that doctors have said to me since my scleroderma diagnosis. I’ve tried to organize these into chronological order to better reflect my journey.

  • My internist: It’s good to have a diagnosis, even if it is a shame.
  • My rheumatologist when I asked him what my life would be like in 5 years: Let me run some more tests, and then we can talk.
  • My ophthalmologist: Do you have a will?
  • The physician at the regional acute diagnostic center: This is a diagnosis like cancer. Of course, some cancers can be cured.
  • A physician speaker at a scleroderma support group presentation: this drug [the immunosuppressant that I take] can really give you a chance, as long as you don’t contract an infection.
  • My old rheumatologist: All you do is complain. Maybe I should order a sleep apnea test or prescribe antidepressants.
  • My internist, as I begged for an anti-inflammatory drug: I’m sorry. There isn’t anything that I can give you that won’t hurt your kidneys.
  • My dermatologist, as she prescribed an anti-inflammatory topical gel: This is unacceptable, and I am putting a stop to it now.
  • My new rheumatologist as she orders more testing on my painful joints: Why has no one followed up on this?
  • My rheumatologist two days later: You need to get a steroid injection in your hip joint as soon as possible.
  • The hip specialist: There is nothing more that I can do for you because your scleroderma is attacking all of your tendons and ligaments. You need a hip replacement, but it will fail.
  • The physician at urgent care: I don’t think they understood how complicated your medical status is when you were referred here. You need to be hospitalized because we can’t do the testing that you need here.
  • My pulmonologist as he walked me back to the waiting room: I really admire your attitude.
  • My cardiologist as I was being sedated for a right heart cath: Don’t worry. I’ll take good care of you.
  • My cardiologist as he started me on medication for pulmonary arterial hypertension: This is challenging, and we will need to be comfortable with “out of the box” thinking.
  • My rheumatologist last week, referring to herself, the cardiologist and the pulmonologist: We are your team!
  • My rheumatologist, also last week: We need to add a gastroenterologist to the team.

You can see how rocky the start was. There is a lesson here, I think. To be rare, to be a zebra in a medical community that is designed to identify the most likely cause of symptoms in a herd of horses, is hard. It is really challenging to secure the care that you need when, no matter how hard doctors try, you do not respond to the usual treatments, and you never fit the usual profile. It is easy to be seen as a problem. It is hard to keep insisting that there is something wrong when all the test results say you are okay.

Even when you are blue-lipped and panting it can be hard to convince doctors that there is a problem.

And yet, it is possible to get there. Over time, with great determination and persistence, I have A TEAM of doctors who view themselves as active collaborators in my care. They message each other to discuss test results and possible drug interactions, and they loop me into their discussions. It is only now, newly diagnosed with a terminal condition, that I feel confident and hopeful about my care.

Today I went in for a blood draw and a little jaunt through the local bookstore. The sun was shining, I bought a Starbucks coffee, and it was a good day.

****************************************

My scleroderma-related diagnoses:

  • GI tract: difficulty swallowing, hiatal hernia, GERD, gastroparesis, chronic gastritis.
  • Kidney: stage 3 chronic kidney disease.
  • Lungs: pulmonary arterial hypertension, interstitial lung disease, asthma, partial lung collapse.
  • Heart and circulatory system: grade 2 diastolic dysfunction (a type of heart failure), Raynaud’s phenomenon, telangiectasia.
  • Muscle/Skeletal: fibromyalgia and severe joint damage.

This is scleroderma. I’m a zebra, and these are my stripes.

Happy Rare Disease Day, everyone!

The colors associated with my diseases are teal (scleroderma), purple (Sjogren’s), and periwinkle (PAH). It sounds like the start of a great sweater, huh. 🙂

The Scleroderma Chronicles: And Do You Exercise Regularly?

It has been an eventful week in big and small ways. I had been mostly in bed for most of a week as I struggled my way through two snowstorms with significant air pressure drops. Ugh. I had chest pain, coughing, heart palpitations, and more sleep than I want to admit to. Towards the middle of the week, I went off my immunosuppressant drug and the flare of my disease(s) arrived over the next two days. Ugh. So predictable, but still discouraging. I dragged myself together on Monday, double masked, and made it to the pharmacy where I had an appointment for a Covid-19 booster that afternoon.

Mateo: Do I need a booster too? Here’s my arm…

I have this really wacky sense of humor. The entire experience just kind of cracked me up. You see, I got the appointment at my local grocery store’s pharmacy. Here are some of the highlights:

  • I have had so many shots at this point that they had to use the back of my vaccine card. At this rate I will need an accordion-like pullout for the vaccine information in a few months.
    • Why so many shots? I’m immunosuppressed. I went off my drugs this time to give my immune system a better chance of responding to the vaccine.
  • The staging area for the shot was at the Fritos display across from the pharmacy. Seriously, the pharmacist said, “Go stand with the Fritos and wait your turn.”
  • The shot was easy, peasy. I think that the syringe was spring loaded it was so fast. “Go walk around the store for 10 minutes before you leave,” I was told.
  • So I waved goodbye to the Fritos and walked around the store. Mostly I just looked at the empty aisles for the 10 minutes feeling sorry for myself. No milk. No Snapple. No cat food. No guacamole. NO GUACAMOLE!!!! Oh, yeah. Genius me scheduled the booster shot during a grocery store strike by the competing chain’s employees and this store was basically stripped of essentials by the descending horde of shoppers who didn’t want to cross the picket line. As they shouldn’t. But they could have left me a little guacamole, don’t you think?
I was able to get the cats a Boston fern to replace the palm that was chomped to death by… I wonder who could have done that? Hmmm…

I also got a Starbucks. Not the worst trip out of the house. I ended up with a sore arm and was so exhausted that I slept for 12 hours.

Today, 48 hours after the booster shot, I feel great!! The flare is gone. I haven’t felt this good in weeks. This happened to me the last time I got a Covid booster. I think that it must be the increase in antibodies or something; I’m so immunosuppressed that my gamma globulins are way too low (a medical condition that my doctors are just ignoring because I do have enough white blood cells). Maybe the boost in antibodies following the shot actually makes me feel better somehow. Maybe my white cell count goes up. It’s a mystery. I’ll take the win!

And in that winning mood I went to see my cardiologist for the first time since my trip to the cath lab last fall. I was a little short of breath but was walking okay when I got to the office. I received an EKG test and the nurse checked me in:

Nurse: “And do you exercise regularly?” (in a judgmental tone of voice…)

Me: “Oh, please. Let’s not even pretend that I am able to exercise!”

Nurse: “Oh. I’m so sorry that I asked you that…” We both started laughing, but I meant it! I am so over feeling defensive about being unable to exercise. In fact, trying to exercise with my condition was damaging my heart.

I also think that I had my snark on under my mask.

Then the doctor came in!

My cardiologist is freaking awesome. He asked lots of questions about how I was doing. (Face now mostly not blue. Yay! Some panting and chest pain, but so much better. I went up a couple of flights of stairs with no problem.) We discussed the fact that I don’t fit the usual diagnostic model for pulmonary hypertension but based on physiological changes consistent with PH and my dramatic response to treatment with a PH drug, he made the call and entered the diagnosis. The matter is now settled until new data comes along.

Exercise-induced pulmonary hypertension. As in, you look perfectly normal when you are on the table getting your lung/heart tests, but the minute you exercise all hell breaks loose in the blood vessels of your lungs. Fabulous. There is a really invasive testing protocol that I could be subjected to, but there is enough evidence now to establish the diagnosis without it. The diagnosis became part of my medical record today. At last.

It has been a long time coming!!

It has been almost exactly 5 years since the BLZ began her journey to find help and answers. This has been really, really hard, but I made it.

We discussed the pros/cons of more testing. We talked about the risks and benefits of adding a second drug to the one I’m already on. We talked about who will take over management of my PH (he will) and how he will integrate with my rheumatologist. We talked about how important it is to be comfortable with “out of the box” thinking when dealing with a patient who is basically at the far end of the bell curve… in other words, a zebra. Oh, I like this guy!!

I agreed to start the additional medication which will be added to the one that I’m already taking. There will be more side effects as this second drug kicks in and I will be getting several phone calls to check on me as I start it. The plan is to try to slow down my progression before I develop full blown PH.

Next up: more testing to hunt for that dang hole in my heart. It’s like a snipe hunt, but so much less fun. As in, heart surgery anyone?

Hannah: Don’t worry mom: you’re got this!

Hannah and the CoalBear: Mateo does Caturday.

Hi. I’m Mateo (AKA the CoalBear).

I’m almost 10 months old now. What do you think of my ruff?

The Mother of Cats isn’t feeling well today so I am hanging around with her on her bed. I’m helping her write on her computer right now! I’m such a good boy!

I’ve been bringing toys onto the bed so she can watch me play with them.
I chewed on the palm plant downstairs to keep up my energy.
I then helped the Mother of Cats with her knitting. I’m such a great helper!!
I groomed my sister so she would let me sleep on the cat tree with her.
I’m the best CoalBear ever!!

Happy Caturday everyone!!

May you all have an excellent day!

Notes from the Mother of Cats:

I’ve gone off my immunosuppressant drug so that I can get my Covid booster on Monday. Sigh. There was a big pressure change yesterday with a cold front that triggered some symptoms along with the predictable flare of my disease that has me back in bed for the weekend.

I’ve been in lockdown for two years and I desperately want the booster because my next round of medical appointments starts in another week. I also want to start knitting with my new-found groups, too. I want some of my life back!!

Please think of me and the other people in a situation like my own (high risk, immunosuppressed or immunocompromised, and struggling with chronic conditions that complicates their lives on the best of days) when you are out in public.

And wear your mask!

ps: I threw out the palm last night. It wasn’t a match for the CoalBear and I was afraid it would make him sick. Next up: a Boston fern.

Goodbye 2021: Year’s End

This is the last update for the year 2021. You know, 2020 was a pretty bad year for both me and the world, but 2021 just plain outdid itself. THIS HAS BEEN A HORRIBLE YEAR!!!! Seriously, I have been reflecting on all the horribleness of the year, and it is multilayered in the just plain awfulness of it. Here is some of the angst, anger, and sadness in a nutshell.

If you aren’t wearing a mask these days, shame on you!! I have been in lockdown for two stinking years (!) and I am over all your anti-public health nonsense.

If you are one of the doctors who told me that there wasn’t anything that you could do for me (and to not come back), or that I had sleep apnea, or that I needed to exercise more, or that my tests showed that I was fine and you would just continue to monitor my symptoms… shame on you!!! I finally received credible diagnoses this fall (from new doctors) that explained my symptoms. You know, the ones that you ignored or dismissed all those times I came to get help… It is good to get diagnosed, but in this case it is also a mixed blessing as my condition cannot be reversed and management is going to be difficult. Shame. On. You!!!

If you are one of the people who believe that the election in the US was stolen and that the answer is to impede the ability of American citizens to vote, or to create a provision that allows the legislatures of some states to just overturn the results of elections, or to resort to violence… shame on you!!!!

Did you notice that the number of exclamation marks kept growing? That’s how much shame is attached to those targets. There, I got that off my chest and let’s hope that things go a little better in the coming year.

True to its rotten black heart 2021 went out in absolutely dreadful and ironic fashion. First the dreadful.

We are in an extreme drought where I live and everything is brown. The grass, the fields, the bushes and even some of the evergreen trees are now brown.

Last Thursday, December 30th, we had a high wind event in my state of Colorado as a major weather front pushed its way towards us over the Rocky Mountains. In the area around Boulder, Colorado the gusts were extreme (one was clocked at 115 mph) and the sustained winds through the day were around 75 mph. Several fires started and swept through dried fields and brush towards housing developments and towns with horrifying speed. There was nothing that could be done as subdivisions, stores, and hospitals were evacuated; the fire crews set up base in the parking lot of a mall where they could best defend themselves while waiting for a break in the wind. No joy there throughout the afternoon and early evening. There were heartbreaking scenes of burning homes by others covered in Christmas lights. People parked along the major freeway hoping to see if their home was still standing. The historic downtown area of a town I have frequented in the past was lost.

At around 3pm I realized that the worst fire was near my son’s home in northern Westminster. As the evacuation zone continued to grow to within a mile of him we started to make plans to get him and his pets out safely. It was a nightmare as firetruck after firetruck rushed north towards the fire line in the night past his windows. By midnight the winds had died down, the fire stopped its spread to the south, and my son was safe. Daylight the next day showed that the damage was just horrific. Almost 1,000 homes have been lost, thousands are displaced, and the hunt for the missing is ongoing. There is information about all of this here.

Then the storm arrived on New Year’s Eve.

In a cruel twist of irony, after failing to deliver any real snow all fall and early winter, the winter storm arrived New Year’s Eve with snow, icy roads, and bitter cold. Like, we started the day at 3 degrees Fahrenheit yesterday. Serious, serious cold after weeks of warm sunny weather. All those poor people who escaped with only the clothes on their backs in the wind/fire event now have to deal with this. Bad 2021, bad!!

And that, thankfully, was the end of the year.

I also finished my Kevat sweater in the final days of the year.

It is wet and blocking in this photo, but not finished. See the loose ends of yarn?

I did finish the sweater with the ribbing and I-cord to make nice open and clean edges. I decided to block and try on the sweater again before knitting on a little lace edging onto the bottom; if the length is exactly right there won’t be any lace added. I did do a little math, however, and I do have exactly the right number of stitches to do the lace. It’s a sign, right?

Mateo: Happy New Year

Hannah and Mateo (AKA the Coalbear) and I all wish you all a Happy New Year. May things take a turn for the better with the coming weeks and months.

And 2022, you had better behave yourself or I’ll be sending you out on a walk of shame, too. I do have to warn you, however, that I am a little concerned with how you are starting out…

Because this year we are going to learn how to cope with a million new Covid cases a day in the US, and I am going to deal with this whole broken heart thing that I have going on, and we are going to f*cking save democracy. Shape up quick 2022, because this is the tough time, and you had better show some backbone, because I expect you to fight like you really mean it for the things that are really important.

The Scleroderma Chronicles: The Blue-Lipped Zebra Gets Her Diagnosis!

At last. I mean, this has been going on for more than 5 years and had reached the point of utter absurdity. If you haven’t been keeping up on all of this, I have been struggling with shortness of breath and sporting blue lips for way too long. I also have pretty significant fatigue, chest pain, and major muscle and joint pain. I’m a mess.

I have a rare autoimmune disease called limited system sclerosis(scleroderma) which makes me high risk for lung and heart issues. People with rare diseases are called “zebras” in the medical community; since I’m sporting blue lips I’m the Blue-Lipped Zebra (BLZ). Got that?

My doctors do routine testing to monitor me for heart and lung conditions associated with systemic sclerosis; each time I had an echocardiogram and a high resolution CT scan the results were that I was… fine. No indications of a major problem.

But I was absolutely, positively not fine. I began to refer to the reassurances that all was okay as medical gaslighting. I transferred to new doctors. I got copies of all my test results, did lots of google searches, read research papers and articles in medical journals, and began to have evidence-based discussions with my doctors. They ordered up more aggressive testing of my heart and lungs. I posted about the my right heart catherization and CPET here if you want to catch up.

Last Monday my cardiologist called and gave me the final diagnosis. I have a type of pulmonary hypertension that is exercise-induced that is being complicated by a cardiac shunt in my heart. At rest, for all those previous echocardiograms and CT scans, everything was fine. When I’m in motion it is another story.

So, what exactly is pulmonary hypertension and why am I, as a systemic sclerosis patient, at high risk for it? In the most simple terms, the interiors of my lung arteries are narrowing due to scleroderma scarring and tissue growth; as the openings get smaller, the pressure of blood flowing through the arteries gets higher.

When we exercise the body needs more oxygen delivered to tissues; arteries constrict to raise blood pressure, your heart speeds up and your respiration rate increases. In my case, that constriction of arteries in my lungs makes the blood pressure in the lungs increase too much; blood struggles to get through the pulmonary arteries, and the downstream pressure in my right heart forces blood to flow from the right side, through the shunt, and into the left. My body’s blood pressure zooms up as the left side of the heart fights to push blood out of the heart past the jet of blood coming in from the right side through that dang hole. It’s a catastrophic cascade that happens in seconds, and the entire phenomenon is being driven by my systemic sclerosis created pulmonary hypertension. “You’re a challenging patient,” my cardiologist told me as we talked about my future treatment. Yep. That’s me. A challenge. I excel at challenges.

Last week the new medication that my cardiologist prescribed was shipped overnight express to me by Kaiser’s National Specialty Pharmacy. Kind of unusual, right? That’s because pulmonary hypertension is rare, so there aren’t that many people taking this drug in the US. If I was a Blue-Lipped Zebra before, I am now a BLZ wearing a crown. A periwinkle crown, of course, for pulmonary hypertension.

Hannah: I should have a crown!!

When I started this scleroderma journey one of my doctors told me that it was good to have a diagnosis, even if it was a shame. This is true. I’ve learned a lot since my first blood tests came back hinting at an auto-immune disease that generated a referral to a rheumatologist.

I’ve learned to be patient. I’ve learned to advocate for myself. I’ve learned to take the initiative to learn about my disease and to become an active participant in my treatment plan. I’ve learned to face down the monster and to go on with my life.

Challenge accepted!

This is Pulmonary Hypertension Awareness month. About 15% of systemic sclerosis patients develop pulmonary hypertension as a consequence of their disease. You can learn more about pulmonary hypertension here.