The Scleroderma Chronicles: June is Scleroderma Awareness Month

Five years ago the course of my life altered forever when some blood test results ordered by my doctor arrived: the results showed that I definitely had two autoimmune diseases. Specifically, I was producing antibodies that were diagnostic for scleroderma and Sjogren’s disease. I was expecting lupus, so this was kind of a surprise shock. After a quick trip to Google to establish what type of scleroderma was associated with my positive test results I burst into tears. It was worse, much worse, then I expected.

The scleroderma diagnosis was the problem. Through an unbelievable sequence of serendipitous life events I was more knowledgeable then the average newly diagnosed patient, and I knew that scleroderma was a disease that impacted connective tissue, that it was progressive, disabling, and that there was no cure. This was a life-altering diagnosis, and I was in for a long fight that would last the rest of my life.

You see, I used to work in a rheumatology research lab, and I did research in scleroderma. I was a member of the research team that found the first identified antigen associated with scleroderma. I had visited scleroderma patients in the hospital. Later in my life I taught AP Biology and spent years trying to explain connective tissue to students.  It’s a type of tissue that we just never think of, but it is critical in organizing and operating our bodies. Connective tissue makes your skin elastic and strong. It organizes your muscles and makes up your tendons and ligaments. It is a critical layer in your blood vessels, and is part of the essential structure of all of your organs.  In scleroderma all or parts of this connective tissue is under attack by your immune system.

As white blood cells invade my tissues and attack this connective tissue it produces too much collagen in response. The built up collagen produces thick layers of tissue and scarring. My fingers look really swollen, but it is actually very thick hard skin. My skin is also getting really shiny which means that the collagen is hardening up and losing flexibility. Must knit faster!!

You can perhaps see that same thickness on my face, especially on my cheeks. It means that I don’t have wrinkles, but it is also hard to open my mouth, my smile is mostly gone, and I can’t turn my neck well. Crazy, huh.

That is the most ironic aspect of scleroderma: you look pretty darn good, especially if you are a senior citizen like myself, but you actually struggle daily with your illness. For many scleroderma patients their disease just  involves the skin, but for others, the disease is more than skin deep.

As it turns out, my skin is the least of my worries. The rare type of scleroderma that I have, systemic sclerosis, also causes scarring of internal organs. The muscles of my stomach and esophagus have lost function. My kidneys are damaged and I have chronic kidney disease (stage 3). My lungs are scarred and my diaphragm isn’t exactly happy any more. Part of my stomach herniated up into my chest this year… whatever was it thinking of?! My tendons are getting calcified due to inflammation and at least one has partially ruptured. My muscles are sore to the touch and I have bruises everywhere. I have nerve damage and trouble controlling my body temperature. It’s hard to walk. Blood vessel damage affects circulation to my hands and feet and I’m starting to develop open sores (ulcers)… There is a long list of diagnosed conditions linked to my scleroderma, but you get the idea. Pretty much I’m a walking limping train wreck. Well, a knitting train wreck for sure!

There is no cure for systemic sclerosis, but there are treatments that really help a lot. I am taking four different drugs to crush my immune system into submission; it’s a balancing act as I need my white blood cell count to stay high enough to protect me, but low enough to control my symptoms and prevent more damage. I take a drug to shut off the acid produced in my stomach so I won’t accidently inhale it in my sleep since the muscle barrier that usually keeps it in my stomach is now gone. I take a couple more drugs that help control inflammation, and some supplements that help with nerve damage. I’m on oxygen at night. All of these drugs/supplements have made a huge difference for me: my last lung scan showed improvement and my high heart pressure, the most concerning complication that I had, has returned to normal ranges. My kidney damage continues, but it has slowed way down. There is something funky going on with my red blood cell count, but you can’t win them all, right? The main point is that I continue to manage and live independently.

MacKenzie and I last year when I posted this online as part of the “Face of Scleroderma” campaign.

In short, I am a mess. And yet, to the joy of my doctors, I continue to do really well. Okay, I have blue lips, am short of breath, and struggle with tissue damage, but I also continue to thrive compared to other scleroderma patients that they treat. I have had to make many changes to my life, but I have found work-arounds and I still do things that I love. Attitude is all!

Well, knitting, the cat, and the garden are pretty darn essential, too!

So, there it is. What an annoying disease, right? How dare it make you look younger while shortening your life? How dare it do all of this invisible internal damage that makes people think that you are lazy or an attention-seeking hypochondriac when actually you view each day that you are able to leave the house as a personal victory? I’m in several online support groups and there are people dealing with crushing negativity like that. I can see how it can happen; it is so hard to understand something beyond your own experience that is hidden from view.

That’s why there is Scleroderma Awareness Month. It is hard to have a rare disease, especially when it is one that is hard to pronounce (Sclero… what?!). It’s harder still to have one that has no cure and a pretty high fatality rate (hey, with all of the drugs that I’m on my 10 year survival rate is now up to 80%!!). It makes you learn to laugh in the face of terminal complications while forcing you to take every possible precaution to avoid contracting Covid-19. It messes with your head; it gives you power, but it’s also strange and a little lonely.

That’s why we scleroderma patients share our journey with all of you every year so you can get a glimpse of our lives.

 

If you look harder you will see the signs of my scleroderma on my face. The small red spots are called telangiectasia and are symptomatic of my form of systemic sclerosis. The skin of my forehead is tight and shiny, my hair is falling out,  and my dimples are now buried under my thick skin. My upper lip is trying to decide if it wants to turn blue… 

I am the Face of Scleroderma.

Footnote: In addition to scleroderma I also have Sjogren’s Disease and fibromyalgia. The symptoms from these three diagnosed conditions overlap and always make things interesting in sorting out my treatment plan. You can learn more about any of these autoimmune disease by checking out the links in my post.

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: My Second Year Report

Well, here I am at the end of my second year since my diagnosis of systemic sclerosis, a life-threatening form of the autoimmune disease scleroderma. Last year I blogged about my illness: I had come through the worst of the grief and horror at the initial diagnosis, had made my way through some scary incidents that sent me flying across town to emergency centers, and was pretty upbeat about where I was in the progress of the disease.  I was sick, but I hadn’t developed any of the most serious, life threatening complications. My heart and lungs were fine. I had just been started on some serious immunosuppressant drugs (the same ones that are given to kidney transplant patients), and while they are risky, I had been told that they could really make a difference in my 10 year survival rate.

Hey, you roll the dice and you take your chances.  No sense worrying about the unknown future. I drugged up and slept like a baby at night.

Star Trek Meme
The Kobayashi Maru test, as all Star Trek buffs know, was a no-win scenario;  it was meant as a test of character. Systemic sclerosis, an incurable,  progressive, disabling and potentially fatal disease, can  also be considered such a test.

Ready to hear about my second year? Let me give you a hint: buckle your seat belt, because we are in for a bumpy ride.

  • November-December: the drugs begin to kick in and as they beat my immune system into submission my skin starts to harden up. I hurt everywhere!! I can hardly bear to comb my hair. The place where my flu shot went in hurt for weeks afterwards.
  • January: I caught the flu. Talk about insult to injury! Here’s the short version: antibiotics, off the immunosuppressant drugs so my body’s immune system can fight back, and then trouble breathing, chest pain, heart palpitations, and a partridge in a pear tree. What a mess! The month passes in a blur.
  • February: I’m still pretty sick and struggling to breathe. I get bounced back and forth between doctors as the debate about the root cause of my symptoms rages. I begin to pressure my doctors for answers and there is much testing. Oops. All is not well with my lungs and my heart is accruing damage. I get sent to a pulmonologist and she give me an inhaler to help me breath. She also tells me I am in serious trouble and refers me to palliative care. The doctors increase my immunosuppressant drug dosage.
  • March: Why, hello, Sjogren’s Syndrome. We forgot all about you! In the concern about my systemic sclerosis, the bad boy of my autoimmune twosome, everyone forgot that I also have Sjogren’s Syndrome, another serious autoimmune disease that causes dry eyes and mouth. As it turns out, it can also cause small airway disease (think never-ending asthma attack) and it has pushed me into chronic respiratory failure. Hello oxygen machine. You are my new best friend.

    Oxygen machine
    My new best friend!
  • April: new lung scans are back, and while I am diagnosed with interstitial lung disease, it appears that it is only mild. Huge sigh of relief!! There is also consensus that my pulmonary hypertension has not advanced. Both of these diagnosis, while still early and mild, are very serious, and the decision is made for palliative care to continue to follow me. Bummer!
  • May-July: Sunshine! Heat! Burning muscles, aching joints, gastritis, dizzy, dizzy, dizzy, and I notice that my lips are blue. I’m on oxygen 24/7 by the end of July.
  • August: my internist changes my meds to bring my heart rate up, and suddenly I have enough oxygen. The heart palpitations stop and after more testing I come off the oxygen. The 6 month Sjogren’s-driven asthma attack is finally over.
  • Quilt and socks
    Summer quilt and socks for my poor hurting feet.

    September-October: why does it hurt to walk? What is up with my feet? And this whole barfing in the middle of the night is getting downright annoying… My internist tests me to see if I have an H. pylori infection.

  • November: Well, doesn’t this beat all. The H. pylori test came back negative and I am diagnosed with gastroparesis. The muscles of my stomach are too damaged by systemic sclerosis to work correctly; the damage is irreversible. I start eating a very limited diet of soft foods and dairy. Ironically, I can now eat jelly donuts, but not fresh baby carrots. I’m losing weight anyway.
Little Greenhouse
The gastroparesis diagnosis hit me hard even though I kind of  knew it was coming. I stopped to get a little cheer-me-up on the way home.  Check out the little greenhouse I put together for the kitchen window. As always, MacKenzie had to help out with the picture.
Flowers
Here’s the flowers. Aren’t these cute? They were sold at the local nursery to put into “Fairy Gardens”
cat
and how could I resist adding the little cat and the mushroom? Those plants are miniature Kalanchoe that should eventually bloom again.

See, a bumpy ride that is still going, but a year that was also rich in gifts. Palliative care forced me to face the future with more courage and to make end-of-life decisions for my family and to start cleaning out my house of junk. I talked to family about my medical power of attorney. I enlisted one of my doctors to manage the medical team and I began to feel more in control of my basically out of control disease. I began to knit gifts for those I love with a purpose: everything now is a piece of me. In my mind the shawls that I am making for everyone I know are the “Good-bye Shawls”. I am on fire to make as many fingerless mitts for other scleroderma patients as I can. At the end of the day, this year was not one of struggle and heartbreak as I dealt with the endless march of a disease that has no pity or remorse. Rather, it was one of care, giving, creative fire, good friends, and the meditative peace of knitting.

Okay, I do get cranky at times, and there has been some crying.  I get short with annoying salespeople because it is so hard for me to shop. I told my ex-husband I was tired of hearing about his “stupid-ass”  motorcycle. I yelled at the cats. I hate when people say, “Well, you look great!” in a way that suggests that I’m not really all that sick at all. I wish that they were there to hold my hair when I hobble to the bathroom at 2am to throw up that nice meal that I hopefully ate but couldn’t digest. There. I got it off my chest, and I feel much better. Aren’t you relieved to hear that I can be petty and mean from time to time?

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day. You know, it is easy to focus on the day: travel, turkey, family and the descent into wild Christmas shopping. Sometimes we forget the history of this national holiday; thanks for a good harvest and the blessing of probable survival through the coming winter. It is also a time to reflect on the bounty of the last year and to be grateful for the gifts it brought.

In spite of all the bumps of the last year, I am grateful for all of the gifts I have received.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!!

The View from Here: One Year of Scleroderma

It’s been a year since I was first diagnosed with scleroderma. Actually, it has been decided that I have the form of scleroderma called limited systemic sclerosis (the disease formerly known as CREST). Sounds kind of fraught, huh. That’s because it is; no matter what I think I know about my condition this week, by next week things will probably change. It has been quite a journey this year and now that all the dust has settled from the latest rounds of medical tests I wanted to share my thoughts.

There is no question that the first months after my diagnosis were filled with waves of horror and grief. At first I was just stunned to discover that I might lose the use of my hands. Then it dawned on me that my ability to live independently might become problematic; I needed to make plans to activate a support system for myself at some time in the future. Eventually I found out about the fatal complications and the high mortality rate. Well, shoot. During this time I became a driven knitter: endless pairs of fingerless mitts rolled off my needles.

CARD
My sister, who has a somewhat warped sense of humor, sent me this card about the time that I learned about my risk for pulmonary hypertension, an often fatal complication of limited systemic sclerosis.

Yet, it has been a year and I am still here. I sailed through the medical tests and none of the frightening medical complications have manifested themselves. My lungs and heart are fine (huge woohoo!!). My GI tract hasn’t gotten worse. My hands are very swollen and the skin is getting hard (one of the hallmarks of scleroderma is hard skin that forms due to lots of collagen deposition and scarring; my arms and legs are getting hard too), but they work just fine and are actually much better than they should be. My rheumatologist has advised me to knit as much as possible; what a hardship!  Other symptoms have improved and I have transitioned onto a battery of drugs that have good track records for improving the quality of life and increasing survival rates in patients with my condition.

So, what have I learned this year? Here is my reflective collection of observations as I look back from the one-year viewpoint:

  • People are more important then things. Period.
  • ..but they just don’t get chronic conditions and they tend to underestimate the seriousness of conditions that they can’t directly observe. In general people on crutches or using oxygen activate concern, but if you have flaming gastritis, the dizzy wobblies, and your muscles are on strike it’s easy for them to adopt a dismissive attitude. <sigh>
  • Medical personnel can be appallingly insensitive. Last week the technician doing my lung scan mentioned that I had a lot of doctors because my disease was really rare; it was important that the doctors get to learn as much from me as possible. Good lord, I wondered. Maybe she was raised by wolves…
  • As a corollary of the above observation, I have also discovered that I can’t assume that the medical personnel that I come in contact with actually know about my condition. One nurse thought that “systemic sclerosis” was “multiple sclerosis”. A doctor gave me a pep talk about how other conditions were worse because some of those patients actually can die from their disease. (“Did you want to hit him?” asked my rheumatologist…) One thing I can count on, however, is that they will put me into some scary machine to look for a possible blood clot. What is up with all the blood clot hunts?
  • MedAlert ID
    I do have some wonderful doctors! Because of crazy interactions with random medical people I have decided that it is best to be proactive: last month I put this tag onto my keys and the little card in my wallet has the business cards of my internist and rheumatologist stapled to it. 
  • There are few things as empowering as discovering that you won’t live forever. Why sweat the small stuff when you are facing down the long odds? My drugs have a small chance of a fatal brain infection? Whatever. Hand them over, Sparky, I am on board! I never worry about money (bad when I’m in a yarn store) or running out of gas, and I am taking more risks than I was comfortable with before. I mean, what is the worst thing that can happen? This week I figured out how to identify all of the electrical circuits of the house and rewired and installed a new doorbell. I didn’t worry (more than once) about getting knocked on my butt by an electrical mishap. Ha! In my younger days I hated to even change light bulbs…
  • Stay Calm and Carry Yarn
    Elizabeth Zimmerman was right. “Knit on with confidence and hope, through all crises.” is a motto that I can live with.
  • No, I won’t be skydiving! I’m not that risk-seeking. 🙂
  • It is so much easier to be happy than sad. Plant flowers. Read books. Knit like the wind! Chase bees. Go to lunch with friends (and get dessert!). Watch meteor showers and be sure to catch the Super Blood Moon. Talk to strangers in bookstores and coffee shops. Be kind whenever you can. Never miss an opportunity to take a picture of a great sunset (or a cat). It is really, really easy to be happy, even when you’re in a crazy machine that is looking for blood clots. 🙂

I finally went to my first scleroderma support group meeting a couple of months ago. I’d never met another person with scleroderma; it was a little extreme but good. Like me, they all suffer from cold hands. Unlike me, most of them also talked about the struggle to manage pain in their hands, and I could see that several of them had limited use of their hands because the skin was so tight. Remember all of those fingerless mitts I knitted during the sad times? I think that I have found a home for them.

 

 

 

In Pursuit of Joy: Out of Control (Part 2)

Control is a thing that is highly over-rated. I was a classroom teacher and learned to just get over it. The art is to savor the chaos and to keep steering things along in the right direction while understanding that learning, successes and growth come at their own rate. Knitting, scleroderma, life: lay your best plans, hope for the best, but know that dropped stitches, hail storms, and bad lab reports are a fact of life. Surrender to joy when you find it, and don’t sweat the other stuff.

It’s been 6 months since my diagnosis for limited systemic sclerosis (scleroderma), and for the most part it hasn’t been all that rocky. I got through the first round of medical testing with only three hospital bracelets, my doctors were nice and mostly informative, and some of my symptoms have subsided thanks to the immunosuppressents  that I am on. New symptoms have appeared, however, and some surprising results showed up in routine blood work drawn two weeks ago. (OK, I was surprised. Now that I think about it, this is why there was so much medical testing 6 months ago. My rheumatologist was probably expecting this…) Even through I was warned to stay off the internet (really, they thought that would work?), I pursued the possible causes for the test results and went to PubMed to find out if there was a correlation with my symptoms, the test results and the auto-antibody profile that I have.

Well, crap!

OK, now I have a list of specific questions to ask the rheumatologist when I go see him next week. The internet can be a scary place, and sometimes ignorance is bliss, but I think that it is best to tackle these things head on so that I can make informed decisions. Still, I was a sad puppy at the start of the week which was one of the reasons I cast on new projects that facilitated smooth knitting and a zen like calm. Three projects at once? Sure. It’ll be fun!

Yesterday I decided that it was time to fight back; I packed up my purse, my knitting, and headed out to find some joy. Where can these things be found? At the local nursery and my favorite yarn store, of course!!

Plant
This kalanchoe is moving into the bedroom to keep me company in the mornings while I drink my latte and read in bed. (Oh, I am so retired!)

Look at the plant that I found! Happy, happy colors. I bought this and a cute little cyclamen in a hot pink.

Then I headed off to Colorful Yarns in nearby Centennial, Colorado where I knew ladies gathered to knit together on Wednesday afternoons. Oh my goodness, what a good idea that was. I had a great time knitting, was inspired by the yarns and projects of the other ladies and was even was treated to a decadent snack. (Rice crispy treats made with Nutella and drizzled with chocolate! Hello… if you are hunting joy, chocolate is always a hot ticket!!  This recipe looks like what she made. Yumm!!) I made some friends and will definitely be going back next week.  And the best thing? I was in a yarn store!!

No one should ever go into a yarn store while facing down mortality-related issues linked to their health status! Ever!! You can predict what happened here…

There was a whole section with newly-arrived cashmere blend yarns. Oh dear.
There was a whole section with newly-arrived cashmere blend yarns. Some with sparkle. Oh dear.
Yarn
Gradient dyed yarn! I have to make a lace crescent shaped shawl (with beads) out of this yarn. There was a striped hat set in matching colors that will let me make a hat and mitts in the same colors. How can I walk away from something like that? Black winter coat, you never had it so good!!
Green Yarn
I had never heard of this yarn label before. Hello, beautiful. This yarn is to dye for!! It is cashmere/silk/merino, and if ever there was a yarn that wanted to become art, this is it.
Blue yarn
Same label, but all merino. Won’t this make a happy pair of socks? It’s hard to see in the picture, but the colors just glow.
Cofetti Yarn
It is not possible to walk out of this store without some Zen Yarn Garden. This is 20% cashmere, and the colors are happiness guaranteed. This colorway is called confetti. 🙂
Yarn Haul
Here is the entire yarn haul hanging out with me while I eat lunch outside with my cat MacKenzie. How much fun (and out of control) is this? You are looking at JOY, people!

Time to cast on even more projects!! It is time for me to knit, knit like the wind.

This is me spitting in the eye of scleroderma.