Well, here it is again. Rare Disease Day. I kind of was going to ignore it this year because I’m quite frankly worn out by my… wait for it… rare diseases, but I also feel like I should pull myself together and represent for the community again.
I wrote a pretty darn good post last year about my journey with a rare disease which you can read here if you want. I talked about rare diseases in general, my specific conditions, and the many things that have been said to me by my doctors over the years. I thought about just reposting what I wrote last year, but I’ve been reflecting all morning on some recent events that kind of shine a light on my situation and that of other people who are coping with rare conditions.
- I recently managed to go knit with my fellow members of Frayed Knots. This was a big social outing for me because it’s hard to get out of the house, and I have to be having a really good day to go to something like this. Knitting with friends is just “normal” for most people, and it would just be a little part of their day, but for me this was something that I had to prepare for a couple of days in advance, and then recover from in bed the next day. Many rare conditions are chronic, and chronic illnesses can be very isolating by their very nature.
- A woman at the knitting group questioned my decision to wear a mask. I started to explain, but she cut me off to say that I was doing it so I could feel comfortable. It was a little condescending and suggested that I was being paranoid. Truthfully, my immune system, crushed by the drugs that I am taking right now, is compromised in its ability to make antibodies. If I catch a viral disease like the flu or Covid, there is a good chance that I won’t survive. My vaccinations have a low chance of protecting me for the same reason. For people with rare diseases, life is fraught and full of difficult decisions. For me, and for many other immunocompromised individuals, simple decisions involve life/death level risk analysis.
- Another woman at the knitting table was struggling with long Covid and shared her difficulties with returning to work. She especially felt crushed by the attitudes of her coworkers who seemed to feel that she was “fine” and just trying to get attention. Yep. Been there, done that. Many rare diseases are genetic or largely invisible to others. Invisible illnesses are especially hard to cope with because others tend to question their validity.
- I’m in several online support groups, and there are always discussions about what drugs to take, and whether the side effects are worth the risks. Yep. There are no specific drugs for systemic sclerosis, no cure, and treatment can involve a patchwork of risky off-label drugs. The drugs that are used are often non-specific carpet-bombing like approaches. Rare diseases have fewer treatment options because there are only a limited number of patients.
Over the last year my wonderful team of physicians have been suggesting that I am really unusual and have been extremely responsive to my emails. They clear an hour for appointments with me. I’m one of the very lucky zebras who has managed to get diagnoses, secured treatment, and am benefiting from a team of collaborative, interdisciplinary physicians who actively communicate with each other and with me; just last week my rheumatologist told me that for a patient with my status this is the only way to deliver care. I’m so grateful to have secured this level of medical attention, but I also feel a little nervous about it. I spent some time this morning trying to work out the probability of one person having the several medical diagnoses that I’ve racked up since 2014. Like, just how rare am I?
The National Organization for Rare Disorders estimates that there are 100,000 patients with systemic sclerosis in the United States. That’s rare, but still, a big club, right?
The 15% Rule is a general measurement of the risk of severe organ involvement in systemic sclerosis. As it turns out, quite a few of the major lung, heart, and kidney complications associated with systemic sclerosis happen about 15% of the time. I have Sjogren’s Disease overlap with my systemic sclerosis, which happens in about 13% of patients. Suddenly, I’m in a much smaller group of about 13,000 patients.
My most worrisome complicating conditions are diastolic dysfunction (a type of heart failure), pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH) and interstitial lung disease (SSc-ILD). I looked up the risk of having each of these conditions using the 15% rule data, and it turns out the risks are 16% (diastolic dysfunction), 15% (PAH) and 35% for the SSc-ILD. Did you notice the the ILD doesn’t fit the 15% rule? Yep. It’s much more common and is the leading cause of death in systemic sclerosis patients. I found that risk factor here.
I brushed up on my probability math (you multiply the probabilities of independent events…), and after running the numbers:
100,000(13/100 x 16/100 x 15/100 x 35/100)
I came to a grand total of 116 other patients in the US who share my set of diagnosed conditions.
See, I have lots and lots of stripes. Stripes in purple, teal, periwinkle, red, green, and blue: these are the awareness colors for my conditions.
I just ordered that rainbow zebra unicorn shirt! I plan to wear it with my mask on my next social outing…
You can learn more about Rare Disease Day or my conditions at the links below.