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: World Scleroderma Day, 2021

Here we are again… World Scleroderma Day.

I’ve written about scleroderma on this date for several years now. I just went back and read what I wrote last year and decided that I did a pretty good job. I talked about getting diagnosed, the complications that are being caused by my disease, and what that means in my life. Here’s that post if you would like to check out my take on things last year.

This is one crazy-ass disease and it certainly has complicated my life. In the year since I wrote that last post I have hung in there (hey, staying home for a year on oxygen slowly improving was actually good for me) and then emerged from strict lockdown to get lots of testing to try to sort out what is the cause of my blue-lipped status and the source of other little issues that I have going on. While thinking about what to write today I thought of a few things that I haven’t written about before and some things that are new since the last post.

The correct name for the type of scleroderma that I have is limited systemic sclerosis. Systemic means that every part of my body is being impacted by this disease, and the word sclerosis means that scarring is happening in tissues all over my body. What’s happening to me is not obvious to the outside viewer, but it is insidious and ongoing all the same. Somehow, by some mechanism that isn’t clear, my systemic sclerosis is being driven by antibodies that I’m producing that react with the centromeres of my cells.

What’s a centromere? I’m shocked, shocked I tell you, that you just don’t know that! Seriously, the centromere is that little place in the middle of a chromosome that can be seen when cells are getting ready to divide. This is a little tricky because the only time we can see chromosomes is when cells are getting ready to divide and they have already copied themselves: the little pinched waist in the middle of the chromosome where they are connected is where the centromere is located.

Got that?

This image belongs to the NIH; as a taxpaying citizen I hope that it is okay for me to use it here. 🙂

Somehow something happened to a protein located in the centromere area of the chromosomes in my body that made it look “different” and my immune system responded by making antibodies against that protein. The antibodies that are produced are called “anti-centromere antibodies” and their presence is highly suggestive of my form of systemic sclerosis. The alternative explanation is that my immune system just went berserk, decided to attack my own cells, and began making these antibodies on its own. I personally think that something changed and then the antibodies were made as a response. My money is on a virus.

It really doesn’t matter all that much since, once the immune system is triggered, the immune response can’t be turned off and one day you are sat down in some rheumatologist’s office and carefully told about what is happening to you and what to expect in the future. Your skin will get thick. Your blood vessels will be so damaged that they will thicken and spasm shutting off blood flow to parts of your body unexpectedly. The scarring tissue will build up in your digestive tract and damage the smooth muscles that you need to move food along. Your kidneys will lose function. Your nerves will be damaged. Your lungs need to protected since they are especially vulnerable to damage from accidently inhaled stomach acid. If your disease flares badly enough you can develop autoimmune pneumonia. Your tendons, muscles, and joints are all in trouble. You are in trouble. The damage will progress and there is no cure.

“This is really serious,” one of those early doctors told me. “This is like a diagnosis of cancer, but of course, some cancers can be cured…”

Well, shoot. Good thing there are drugs to help control symptoms and to slow the progression of the disease by dialing down the immune system.

Yay for drugs!! I am on drugs to shut down my stomach acid production (my lungs are doing pretty well) and on drugs to crush my immune system into submission. I’m on anti-inflammatories to control other cellular pathways activated by those ill-behaved antibodies. I get steroid injections to help my damaged joints and inflamed tendons. I have strict dietary limitations. I do lots of physical therapy. I’m on oxygen overnight to keep my red blood cell count in a normal range. I dress in layers to help control the spasms of my circulatory system, a phenomenon called Raynaud’s. I knit almost every day to keep my fingers from stiffening up and contracting. I now have a shiny purple cane to help me walk.

Every day is a challenge, but I am fine.

So what is new this year?

Scleroderma has damaged my heart. They are still testing to clarify exactly what is going on, but so far they have established that there is scarring in the heart muscle that is making my heart “stiff” and that somehow I developed a hole in my heart. There are suggestions of pulmonary hypertension, but I need more testing for a definitive diagnosis. No wonder I turn blue in the face and pant when I walk.

Oh, yeah, there is also a pandemic going on.

One of the greatest ironies of the last year is that serious cases of Covid-19 share similarities with the clinical symptoms of scleroderma crisis. Immune system-mediated pneumonia caused by an overreacting immune system is a hallmark of both conditions. Then there is this… Remember those drugs that I take to crush my immune system into submission? I take two drugs for that purpose. One of them, hydroxychloroquine, was (irresponsibly) politicized by influential individuals early in the pandemic and therefore became short in supply; my muscles and joints immediately rebelled when my supply lapsed early in the lockdown. The other drug that I take, mycophenolate mofetil, is linked to poor response to the Covid-19 vaccine. I am vaccinated and I am making anti-Covid antibodies, but since my total antibody count is very low my doctors aren’t sure I can fight off a Covid-19 infection fast enough to stay out of the hospital. I’m advised to continue to mask and isolate because… blue face, hole in heart, stuff like that…

For me, lockdown goes on.

So, here are the takeaway messages from this post. Be kind. There are illnesses that are really debilitating that you can’t see when you look at that person walking into a store from a handicapped parking spot. Don’t be dismissive of conditions with funny names that you’ve never heard of before. I know that it is hard to understand conditions that are beyond your experience and that you can’t really see, but take a moment to let someone tell you about their illness and the daily challenges that they embrace. If you meet a person with an autoimmune disease, they deserve a hug. If they have scleroderma you should give them two hugs! Be understanding of people who are still wearing a mask in public; perhaps they are braver than you can imagine.

Today is World Scleroderma Day.

Go Team Teal!!

Note: If you would like to know about different types of scleroderma you can learn about them here.

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 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: 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.

MacKenzie Speaks: Crutches, Mountains, and Squirrels

Hi. I’m MacKenzie.

Do you see this ball of yarn? This is my most favorite yarn at the moment. So soft. So nice to cuddle with. The little flecks of color are my favorite.

The Mother of Cats has been somewhat difficult to work with lately. She has been limping all around the house, and yesterday her physical therapist finally told her she needs to use crutches for the next few weeks. HER CRUTCHES KEEP GETTING IN MY WAY!!! What is up with that? She doesn’t go outside as much as she used to, and she started knitting this simple sweater with just one color of yarn instead of the Koivua sweater that I just love.  There are more colors to chomp in the Koivua, and it is now so big she can’t keep me off of it while she knits. Is she working on the sweater that I can sleep on while she works? No! She is not!! She says knitting with the one color is easier to stuff into a bag to haul around with crutches. Whatever. What is up with the Mother of Cats? A little adversity and she totally folds: I’m so disappointed with her!

Except I do really like this new yarn so I’m starting to forgive her for putting the Koivua into time out. This sweater is called “Climb Every Mountain.”  What is a mountain?

Today the Mother of Cats finally let me go outside while she took pictures of all of her knitting and we watered all of the outside flowers.

Look at what happened to the blooms on the hydrangea plant over the last few days of cool weather. The flowers have turned pink again! The Mother of Cats was really happy to see the flowers. I was like… meh… laters… I have to go have a chat with that squirrel…

While I was chasing the squirrel around the yard she took these pictures of the new sweater. It is starting to look pretty good, isn’t it? It is kind of nice to sleep on…

She is now below the sleeves and getting ready to use her last ball of yarn.

Oh, yeah. Look at the new stitch markers that she made to use while making this sweater. How cute are these? She should use these to play with me!!

Now it is late in the afternoon, the squirrel has left to do whatever squirrels do, and the Mother of Cats, the crutches,  and I are back in the house. I just got some yummy salmon to eat and the Mother of Cats is getting ready to knit again. Hmm… that new sweater is getting pretty big now. Maybe I can sleep on part of it while she is working. I’m so handsome and the yarn really looks nice next to my fur. Maybe she will be reasonable for once and will let me do that. IF she loves me I will get a quality nap on yummy yarn.

I’m such a good boy.

Can I have some cookies now?

>^..^<

Notes from the Mother of Cats:

  • The sweater is Climb Every Mountain by Heidi Kirrmaier. That yarn that MacKenzie loves is Tweed DK by Western Sky Knits, and it really is nice to work with. My Ravelry notes are here.
  • How ironic is it that I’m knitting a sweater called “Climb Every Mountain” while trying to master walking with one crutch?
  • The hip has become even more challenging. I met with the physical therapist yesterday who had printed out the notes from the hip specialist that I met with last month. Things are worse than I realized. I have IT band syndrome, inflamed tendons associated with my hip adductors, and then there is the severe hip bursitis.  I need to rest the tendons as much as possible as I stretch the IT band and use the topical anti-inflammatory gel that we hope will get the swelling down. Since I can’t walk without limping and the adductors need a rest I’m on crutches for the next three weeks at a minimum. I’m truly a mess as I can’t use a cane (bad wrists), ice (thank you, Raynaud’s), or work in a pool (Sjogren’s, I really hate you right now), so things are challenging, but I’m really motivated since I want to stay mobile as long as possible and I’m a poor candidate for a hip replacement.
  • MacKenzie is learning to stay out of the way of the crutches, but he is taking the whole thing personally. Poor thing. I have started giving him more cookies… I have NOT surrendered any of the sweaters to him.
  • Koivua  is waiting for the first snow fall as I rush to finish two transitional sweaters. Winter, take your time…

    Napping MacKenzie_web
    Finally!!

The Scleroderma Chronicles: An Autoimmune Zebra

“When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras.”  ~medical school proverb

Zebra ~medical slang for an exotic medical diagnosis

Author as 16 year old student.
16 years old: my last year illness-free.

As a teenager I struggled with eczema and was photosensitive; I was started on steroids, told to wear long sleeves, and to stay out of the sun. Without a clear cause for my eczema/rash I told that I was high strung and unable to handle stress; if I could control my emotions I would see my symptoms disappear. Eventually I did get better, the drugs stopped, and my life went on.

In my early 20s I had my first asthma attacks. I didn’t really understand what was happening, it was always in the night, and the doctor couldn’t find anything wrong. I was told to handle stress better. Most of the time I was okay, so I just learned to deal with it.

In my early 30s my knees began to swell and become painful. There were lumps below and behind my knees. I had an ultrasound to make sure the worst lump wasn’t cancer. I was told to do special exercises and to stick to low impact. My eyes hurt and I couldn’t go outside without sunglasses. Clouds of floaters swam across my vision. You have allergies, said the doctor. My finger was too fat for my wedding ring so I resized it.

In my 40s my hands became numb and swelled. I had a lot of pain and struggled to manage routine tasks. Carpal tunnel, said the doctors: it’s a repetitive motion injury and you did this to yourself. I had the surgery on both wrists and my hands did get better, but I still struggled with swelling and numbness, even in my feet. I developed a rash on my face. Rosacea, said the doctor. My knees still hurt. I started to develop high blood pressure. Control your diet and exercise, said the doctor. My fingers became too fat to wear any of my rings. I was tested for autoimmune antibodies associated with rheumatic diseases (anti-nuclear antibodies), but the result was only mildly positive so it was dismissed as not significant.

In my 50s my knees were so bad I had to take ibuprofen every day to function at work. It hurt to breathe in the mornings, and I had several cases of bronchitis that required an inhaler and steroids to recover from. I developed pleurisy. I was also told that there was nothing wrong with my lungs, and that I needed to get better shoes. My face and jaw hurt so much I couldn’t sleep. TMJ, said the doctor. You need to handle stress better. My kidney function dropped to 35%, alarming another doctor. You damaged your kidneys taking ibuprofen, I was told, and you can’t take any more.  I changed my job so I wouldn’t have to stand so much at work. My blood pressure continued to rise in spite of changes in my diet and exercise; I was placed on a beta blocker to control it. I developed Raynaud’s phenomenon; don’t worry, I was told, it is a side effect of the beta blocker. I wondered why I wasn’t getting wrinkles like my friends. The rash on my face was getting worse.

In my early 60s I noticed that my arm was getting “thick” and that I sometimes couldn’t complete a swallow; food became “stuck” mid-gulp. I complained about dry mouth. My fingers turned blue in the cold. I was hospitalized with severe gastritis. I was stalked by fatigue and my knees hurt every single day. My fingers were too fat to make a tight fist. Unable to function at work, I retired early. I developed colitis and rarely left the house. Testing showed that I didn’t have an intestinal infection, and my doctor didn’t pursue things any further.

Struggling with life and my early retirement,  I grew roses, read books, knitted, and launched this blog.

One night the light went off for me. I had joint pain, kidney damage, intestinal woes, Raynaud’s, a rash on my face, and a positive ANA. I walked in and demanded testing for lupus.

How is it possible, asked my doctor when confronted with the list of symptoms, that you haven’t already been diagnosed? Shocked that I had slipped through the cracks for years, my doctor immediately ordered the complete diagnostic battery for rheumatic diseases. It wasn’t lupus after all, but a couple of relatives: scleroderma and Sjogren’s syndrome, two rheumatic systemic diseases that unified all of my symptoms. The decades-long string of mystery complaints was over, and I was started on aggressive treatment for these two autoimmune diseases.

How was it possible that I hadn’t been diagnosed earlier? Isn’t that a wonderful question! How could I have slipped through the cracks year after year as I struggled with pain, respiratory infections, dysfunctional hands, eye problems, TMJ, and all the other medical woes that had parked themselves at my door? Why was there no diagnosis when, as I was to learn later, I was an absolute classic case of limited systemic sclerosis, a type of scleroderma, and that my Sjogren’s was obvious and well established.

In retrospect, the answer is glaringly obvious: I am not common. I have a rare disease (systemic sclerosis), and even though my doctors were well intentioned, they dismissed my symptoms when I didn’t fit the usual diagnostic profiles. I was a zebra in a herd of horses, ill-behaved and refusing to fall into line with their medical school training. Since I couldn’t be diagnosed with any of the normal causes for my symptoms, doctor after doctor concluded that they must be due to something else, like maybe stress… or lack of exercise… or my choices in pain medication. Time after time, I was assigned the blame for my own illness because of my inability to “handle stress”, repetitive motions, bad shoes, lack of exercise, taking ibuprofen, or any other excuse reasonable explanation that came to mind when my symptoms could not be ascribed to common causes. My doctors had been trained to ignore zebras, and these other causes were more plausible to them.

The other reason this happened was because my symptoms were always presented to my doctors in isolation: chest cold, painful eyes, knees that won’t bend, and so on. Symptoms that emerged over decades, and were presented to different doctors. No one saw the big picture until I finally pieced it together myself and then my doctor was shocked by the list: grouped together my symptoms screamed autoimmune rheumatic disease.

Why am I reflecting (and writing) about all of this? This month, March, is National Autoimmune Awareness Month. My story is one that is shared by many, many other people who deal with autoimmune illnesses. One of my diseases is rare (scleroderma), but the Sjogren’s and fibromyalgia are not. In a way, to have an autoimmune disease is to be a zebra because these conditions are elusive, can present themselves with a battery of symptoms that are seemingly unconnected, and don’t respond to the usual courses of treatments like antibiotics, diet and exercise. They can take, just as mine did, many years to diagnose. For many autoimmune patients, they are, just as I was, zebras crying for help in a herd of horses. Trained to treat horses, doctors don’t always hear the cries. One way to combat the problem is to educate the zebras so that they can, just as I did, recognize and group their symptoms together in a meaningful way to present to their doctors to help them make the diagnosis. Autoimmune Awareness Month is meant to educate everyone who might deal with an autoimmune disease: patients, families, caretakers, and doctors.

In my family we know these illnesses well. My grandfather died from complications of rheumatoid arthritis and my father had disabling allergies. I have scleroderma, Sjogren’s syndrome and fibromyalgia. My son has type-1 diabetes and my daughter-in-law has multiple sclerosis.  In all of these illnesses there is an immune system that is attacking normal tissue in our bodies; for some of us the attack is moderated by drugs that are designed to disable parts of our immune systems, but it continues nevertheless. Unless there is a cure the damage will continue to accumulate in our organs and tissues. These are the words that are often used to describe autoimmune illnesses such as ours: disabling, progressive, incurable, potentially fatal.

We aren’t alone. There are around 50 million Americans who also have autoimmune diseases. There are over 100 different autoimmune diseases and the need for research, support and treatment is endless.

You can learn more about autoimmune disease at these resources: American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association , National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease  ,   and Autoimmunity.

The Scleroderma Chronicles: July Report

If there is one true thing about scleroderma, it is that it never stays the same. I think of it like the weather or road conditions; as soon as you think you’ve figured out what to wear or the best route to drive to work, things change.  If you are dealing with scleroderma in your life, you just learn to roll with the punches. One day you feel fine, and the next one you have brain fog, your knees won’t bend, and gastritis has come to call. One night my hair just started falling out and strands began snowing down onto my shoulders and arms. I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry…

Ugh. This is scleroderma. Bad days come and go, plans shift, and life goes on.

FitBit
Look at what I bought!

Here’s the deal: I’m doing much better! I’m having a lot of good days!! After months of struggling my doctors and I realized that I needed to go off some of my meds because I was getting much better! My lung volume has increased, my heart is looking normal, and my blood pressure is down. Bam! Time to start getting some exercise, don’t you think? I bought a Fitbit and slowly began to increase my daily steps until I could do 5,000 steps every day. Then I began to increase my active minutes and now, at the end of July, I am logging 3 days of exercise a week. This is huge, huge, huge!! Yay, Fitbit!!

Banana smoothie
I’m drinking a banana/yoghurt smoothie every day now.

If you slogged through any of my June posts (Science and the Scleroderma Girl) you know that I maintain a log of my symptoms, diet, and other data that occurs to me. (Yep. Weather fronts do make it harder for me to breathe. Who would have suspected that! Thank you log book!) This month I added bananas to my diet to see if they would help reduce muscle pain. I think they’re helping, and getting exercise probably helps too. Yay, bananas!

Castor oil.
I bought this to use in my eyes after my ophthalmologist suggested that I try it to help with my Sjogren’s symptoms. Kind of freaked me out as I was taught as a child that caster beans were poisonous…

When I bought this oil on Amazon I noticed in the comments by other customers that they used it on their scalps to help hair grow. Who knew? Maybe that is a thing, I thought. I checked in the scleroderma online forums and decided to oil my scalp once a week. Now, at the end of July, I am happy to report that my hair seems to be growing back. Yay, castor oil!!

Today was the last day of July. It was a pretty good month for me and my scleroderma. There were some definite bumps during the month, but over all the patient scientist approach to managing my trio of autoimmune diseases is paying off for me. Exercise, bananas, and castor oil were big positives for the month. The negatives were discovering that I can’t have any sunshine on my skin, and I absolutely can’t cut down on the stomach acid reducer med. Oh, well, even negative results are good to know.

Wild bunny.
This bunny has taken to sleeping in my front flower bed, but isn’t eating any of my flowers. How positive can you get?

Yesterday I bought a new data notebook. I have some ideas about some new stuff to experiment with…

Science and the Scleroderma Girl rides again.

Bring it on, August!

Goodbye “Science and the Scleroderma Girl”… I’m Heading Back to the Garden

Today is World Scleroderma Day. Gosh, there should be a huge post today that pulls together my whole monthly effort… nope. That sounds just exhausting, doesn’t it. How about we just head out to my garden to see what’s up. After that I can show you the big picture on what I’ve been doing all month in “Science and the Scleroderma Girl”.

Getting into the garden has been difficult for me since the sun and I are not friends. Last week I went out for a couple of hours to weed in the morning in the shade, and yep… I developed a rash on my arms and then the flare arrived. I was holed up for days getting over that little misadventure. After I  recovered I tried out weeding after dark. Gosh, I’ve had more fun moping floors. It just isn’t the same if you can’t actual see what you are doing. I wonder why that is?

Arm
But look at what I scored today while I was out shopping!! Do you see that the pattern is teal colored butterfly wings? How more appropriate for World Scleroderma Day can you get?

Sun protection!
Do you see what is written on this arm? This is a outfit designed to provide full sun protection for people playing in the surf. It is cool, wicks moisture, and will protect me from the sun. This is exactly what I need!

Jacket
Check out the whole top. This plus a hat should set me up for morning gardening, don’t you think?

There are leggings too to provide complete sunblock for the surf enthusiast, but that probably is more than I need to tend to the roses. I usually get wet while I’m watering in the evenings, and once again this baby should handle it fine. I am so set up for the rest of the summer!

Let’s see what is still alive in the garden after a week of amazing, blistering heat. Yesterday it was 105°F; these plants are no longer happy.

Purple flowers
The flowers in the tub on the back porch made it…

Veronica flowers
So did this Veronica. I’ve been transplanting this into several flower beds since it does so well.

Strawberries
Even the strawberry plants are producing well. Look at the berries that I had Tuesday afternoon. I decided to wait until Wed morning to pick them…

Bare strawberry plant
Unfortunately a squirrel beat me to them. This is all that was left, and I’m sure that he left this half eaten berry just to taunt me!

This weekend will be cooler, and I gave all the plants a good watering this evening so that they will recover over the next few days. Poor plants. Life has been tough for the last couple of weeks: heavy rain for a week followed by triple digit temperatures and blazing sunlight.

Now that we are leaving the garden here is my Scleroderma Month of June:

What I didn’t put into this was a lot of actual information about what scleroderma is. Oops. This post that I wrote for Rare Disease Day should cover that glaring omission.

So, this is World Scleroderma Day. All over the world people have posted the pictures of their smiles in an effort to make an invisible, but pretty darn serious, disease have a face. My smiling face is above: a little crooked these days, my lips have gotten too thick to smile right, and my hair is falling out, but I am doing well. Every day brings a new challenge, but still, with good luck, humor and a touch of science, I rise.

Have a good weekend everyone!

Science and the Scleroderma Girl: The Only Point in Common

Two years ago I was getting bounced around between several doctors as they tried to figure out why I was struggling to breath. The rheumatologist felt I should see a cardiologist. The pulmonologist felt that I needed to be treated by the rheumatologist. The internist insisted that the pulmonologist needed to intervene. The rheumatologist was very reluctant to give me an inhaler even though he had ordered the PFT that indicated that I needed one.

I was getting close to pulling out my hair! Literally, there were too many cooks in the kitchen and no one could manage to get the meal assembled. I was the cake in the oven, and I had just collapsed into an ugly, doughy mess…

“Look”, said the rheumatologist in the middle of this, “you are the only point in common between all of your doctors. Each one of us sees just one slice of your health, but you are the one getting all the info…” In effect, she was telling me to take charge of my health. Uh…

Spock: He is intelligent, but not experienced. His pattern indicates two-dimensional thinking… (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn)

Seriously? I’m expected to organize this circus? I have skills, but to suggest that I should run this show is ludicrous…

Except, from a certain viewpoint, I am running the show; I AM the show. I have a serious illness, and I have a team of doctors to address my symptoms and halt my disease’s progression. I need to be proactive and ensure that I get the treatment that I need. Clearly, I needed help to sort through the conflicting advice and to assign priorities to the elements of my treatment plan.

There needed to be one doctor who knew me well, understood the big picture, who could also cut through the red tape and facilitate immediate medical response from the most appropriate provider if needed.

I made an appointment with my internist, who was also my primary care physician, and laid out the problem. I told her that I needed someone to review all the notes and test results from the other doctors on a regular basis to understand the big picture. I shared with her my concerns about differing information from the other physicians: I needed an expert to work with me to coordinate my treatment plan. There needed to be a doctor who saw me on a regular basis, who knew me and my situation, who could take a “snapshot” of my health situation, and who could see me almost immediately if I got into trouble. One of the problems that I struggle with is knowing which doctor to call when I develop problems; with this arrangement I have a designated first contact who will decide which specialist needs to be contacted next.

We agreed that I should come in every three months for the medical review and snapshot of my current status.

Everything changed for me. My internist reads everything from the other doctors at these appointments, and she answers questions that I have in a cross-disciplinary way that the other specialists can’t. It’s more like a consultation than the usual medical appointment. She looks to see what has been missed by the other doctors, and facilitates communication between the doctors. She has sent me for immediate testing, cut through the red tape so I could get oxygen when I needed it, and makes sure I get the complete text of all testing reports.

I make an appointment with her before I see the specialists to plan for those appointments, and then I see her afterwards to debrief on what happened and to see if anything was missed. When I go to my appointments with the specialists I can talk about test results, my prescriptions, and the symptoms that are concerning me; I have become an informed patient. Because of this I am a better conduit of information between the doctors, and the coordination of care and smooth communication has greatly increased. My doctors and I are now collaborative partners working to manage my disease.

From a collection of 6 doctors I now have a smoothly coordinated team to jointly treat my illness. For me, this is a huge difference! I’m now in much better shape, and I feel more in control of what is happening. I AM the only point in common, so I had to activate my hidden superpower of facilitation and coordination to make it work.

And knit. I had to knit a lot.

Have a good weekend everyone.