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 is now in my medical record. 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.

The Scleroderma Chronicles: A Trip to the Cath Lab

The BLZ has been waiting a long time for this…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yay!! About time!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yesterday this all paid off for me big time.

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

The Saturday Update: Week 24

June continues to misbehave: we had three days above 100 degrees Fahrenheit this week and several severe thunderstorms with tornados! My arm is still swollen and painful but the numbness is starting to improve; as if in solidarity one of my knees started to complain just today. Sigh. Knock it off, you guys! My new refrigerator came today and I am so happy to have dependable food storage again. Besides, it is just beautiful and shiney! The flowers in the garden are starting to bloom and the roses in particular are looking mighty fine. I have started to knit again every night and I also found some interesting books to read. I bought new glasses and ordered a bunch of fun stuff from Amazon. (Do I need purple and gold washi tape for my journal? Why yes, yes I do. I also got pink and gold replacement bands for my Fitbit and a pair of pink/grey comfy pants.) I went to the yarn store and bought more yarn… that may have not been wise, but I want to believe that I will return to full knitting capacity soon. 🙂 Okay, June isn’t being all bad… it was Hannah’s one year adoption anniversary this week.

Hannah on the 15th (her adoption anniversary date) and little kitten Hannah on the day I brought her home last year. I tried to recreate the picture from her first day home but she wasn’t all that interested and I was lucky to get the shot that I did. To celebrate her anniversary she got crispy pink paper to play in (that is always a big hit with her) and some bows to drag around. Last night I applied to adopt a kitten companion for her from the Cat Care Society and today they called me to approve the request and put us on the list for kitten alerts. Hannah was adopted from this shelter and they consider it a priority to get her a little friend. Yay!

I’ve requested a male, orange tabby kitten. We’ll see what happens. Hannah can’t wait.

Knitting

I’m working steadily on the mitts for my knitworthy niece who is a huge fan of all things Mandalorian. I am now up to the fingers of the second mitt.

Aren’t these the cutest things ever?

I need to do some duplicate stitch detail work and then there are all of the ends to weave in, but the end is definitely in sight now. I’m almost tempted to make a second pair but I have soooo many sweaters and other projects that I need to get done. This pattern is Mando (Natela Astakhova).

Garden

The roses are blooming! The roses are blooming! The roses are blooming!

From left to right, these roses are Hot Cocoa, Princess Alexandra of Kent, Cinco de Mayo, and Home Run. We had lots of rain this spring and I have been watering every day since then; this is the best crop of roses I’ve had in quite a while. I really was responsible this time with the roses as I covered them with frost clothes if there was even a chance of a hard freeze and I fertilized them early in the spring. This week they got more fertilizer and they are all looking good with lots of buds on the plants still waiting to bloom. Yay, garden!!

Books

I have two books going right now; one is text and the other is an audiobook. They both are really holding my interest and curiously they even look similar.

How crazy is it to be reading icy blue books when trapped in an heat wave. I’m only half way through The Doors of Eden and even less with The Cold Millions, but both books are thought provoking and really interesting.

And that’s all I’m going to say about them right now. 🙂

Have a great week everyone.

Read a little, knit a little, and garden like your heart can’t live without it.

Scleroderma Update: My rheumatologist had my hands x-rayed this week and I have severe arthritis in both of them, but especially the one that is now acting up. I was kind of surprised and I’m hoping that they can do something to help with the swelling and numbness. My echocardiogram results also came back and I do have a hole in my heart, but an email came from my pulmonologist yesterday saying that it isn’t big enough to account for the whole panting/blue lips thing and he wants to do some more testing. Fun. We have an appointment next week.

The Saturday Update: Weeks 22 and 23

I’m going to be honest here: June has been really challenging so far. My entire right arm is numb and in pain and there isn’t much knitting going on. My appointment book is completely filled up with medical appointments and the bruises are collecting at an alarming rate; did I mention that June is Scleroderma Awareness Month? Yep. I’m aware. Scleroderma has gone into overdrive this month. Gee, if it wanted more attention it should have just asked!

In solidarity with scleroderma there have been other disasters this month. The car that was bringing me home from GI testing this week developed engine trouble (I ended up in an Uber, hopped up on drugs, leaking fluids from an unmentionable part of my nether region… best ride across town ever!) My refrigerator started shrieking in the night as one of the fans failed putting my stash of cheese at risk (yes, I have seriously cornered the market in… cheese). Oh, did I mention that I also had a scary close encounter with my neighbor’s pit bull? Seriously, it has been challenging to do anything except deal with all of this stuff. On the other hand, I have handled things; a new refrigerator is coming (I must save the cheese!), my neighbor has implemented more safeguards to contain her dog, and I have learned how to use Uber!! I’ve completed physical therapy and am walking much better. The car that broke down was repaired at little cost. My arm is in a brace but I am rocking voice-to-text on my phone. I’m knitting again… slowly.

Still, I am warning you, June, knock it off!! I have knitting and stuff to do.

Hannah: June would be a great time to get me a little kitten companion!!

Knitting

I finished my Noncho (Sharon from Security and Casapinka) this week. What a nice, versatile addition to my wardrobe this will be. I also made some progress on a sock but really the big accomplishment this week has been the Noncho. My project notes on Ravelry are here.

Garden

It’s gotten hot and the garden has taken off. I’ve been weeding steadily and it is really exciting to find flourishing plants and emerging flower buds. Look at what is going on right now:

Seriously, the garden is starting to explode with color. My rose plants are covered with buds and the main show is going to start in just a few more days. We had so much rain earlier this year the rose bushes grew really well and things are looking good. Okay, June is picking up a little.

Books

I’m enjoying The Cold Millions while I work on my second sock. So far it is pretty good and applicable to economic issues that we are dealing with today in the US.

Have a great week everyone.

Read a little, knit a little, and garden like your heart can’t live without it.

PS: The gastroenterologist told me that I can’t eat cheese any more. Or chocolate. Or caffeine. Or carbonated drinks. Alcohol is absolutely forbidden.

I’m pretending that I didn’t hear that part about the cheese.

The Saturday Update: Weeks 11 & 12, 2021

Life has been busy and I’ve really gotten behind on everything. Hannah had her first birthday last week:

Hannah: I’m a big girl now!!

Seriously, I was so busy and worn out over these last two weeks I barely got any reading or knitting done. Adding to the energy drain was my second dose of Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine and three weather fronts that barreled across the state last week. I am grateful that the snow that these storms dumped was manageable this time, but each one took a toll on my joints and breathing. That’s okay though… did you notice that I got my SECOND VACCINE SHOT!!! This is just huge! I am starting to schedule medical appointments right and left as it is finally time to get some attention for my very badly behaved hip and breathing issues. Bring it, Mother Nature. I am ready to take you on!! The Blue-Faced Zebra is emerging from a year of strict lockdown and is on the move again!!

Also, it is now spring and the birds are back and I am so happy to see green shoots of grass again. It has been a really long year, but it is finally getting a little better.

Knitting

I’ve been pretty sporadic with the knitting and I’m kind of limited to simple stuff right now because my hands are NOT HAPPY with all of the running around and weather events, but still I am making some progress.

My Goldwing sweater is getting longer in the body and I am debating how much more to knit before I start the ribbing at the bottom. I often finish the sleeves at this point and then come back to finish off the body as I’m always running short of yarn, but this time I think I can do things in the usual order as I bought an extra skein of yarn.
I’ve also been working on these simple ribbed socks using yarn that one of my sons gifted me with for Christmas. This yarn is Classic Sock by Spun Right Round in the colorway “Hellbent”. I really wanted this yarn, but it looked awful after I wound it… all brownish and muddy looking with some color sadly peeking out. I stuck the wound cake back into the stash to hide it for a few weeks. Needing a small project to take with me on my adventures out of the house, I pulled the cake out last week and cast on socks; it was already wound and I was in a hurry. As I knitted I fell in love with the yarn again. Now the colors sparkle in the mostly grey field and the brown elements have receded into the background. Who knew that would happen? Today, in the picture, the sock looks mostly pink. This sock yarn has been a learning experience for sure.

Garden

Poor garden. It has been so neglected lately, but the plants are still hanging in there. The best thing that is happening garden-wise are the microgreens that I have growing under the lights with the orchids.

I have been eating lots of microgreens these days. Full of nutrients, easy to digest, lower in fiber, this has been a great thing to add to my diet. These greens are broccoli and taste great; I’ve discovered that they work well added to almost everything so I manage to eat some every day. Take that, scleroderma!! I’m growing them in the Hamama system that I got for Christmas and I just reordered more seed quilts because I’m really liking them.

Books

I finished up several books over the last two weeks; let’s just chat about two of them, okay?

I was so in love with World of Wonders when I started reading it. I just loved the way the author blended her joy with the natural world with her family and life experiences. Then as I read more I began to become less charmed as her interactions with nature seemed more forced and some of the magic was slipping away in her writing. By the end of the book I had gotten over her and was thinking that I could do better job writing about my own love of nature and my blended experiences. The author shared experiences from trips around the world; for me the continual moments of joy that have been my encounters with nature that are truly home grown. I was thinking of all of this as I drove east last week and passed a big herd of pronghorn antelope grazing in the Plains Conservation Center near my house. Pronghorn antelope!! I love pronghorns… I could tell you stories about pronghorns… I hadn’t seen pronghorns for at least three years, and there they were, two large groups, just as I was thinking about writing about my lifelong love of all things biological. It’s a sign. Be prepared for some upcoming “Tales of a Biogeek” on the blog.

Now to chat for a few minutes about We Begin at the End. Why did I read a book with a quote on the cover about breaking readers’ hearts? Oh, it also said that it was impossible to not keep turning the pages. Well, that part was also true. This book, constructed so cleverly that even the most astute mystery reader will miss some of the underlying themes, is a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions. The town in this book and the inhabitants are, quite frankly, broken. Badly broken to the point of being almost incapable of functioning, and yet they do somehow. Tragedies in the past have set in motion a series of events that bring unintended consequences that are both catastrophic and ironic for all of the main characters. My heart was broken, but at the same time there was a type of peace and balance in the ending. What a mess these people made of their lives; what a story this book tells. I miss my book group sooo much as this was absolutely a book that should be talked about with other readers.

Hey, did you know that today is National Respect Your Cat day? Yeppers, it is. Here are all the cats in my life in their most “You may now respect me” poses.

Hannah and my Grandkitties Jonesy and Maya will now accept your respect!!

Have a great week everyone!

Read a little, knit a little, and garden like your heart can’t live without it.

The Year Alone: Reflections on Wonder, Luck and Hope

There is a storm on the way. These things look a little unbelievable on the weather forecaster’s computer display, but there seems to be a massive low pressure area cut off from the jet stream sliding relentlessly towards a part of the United States that will set up a big weather event. Snow. Lots of snow. Maybe feet of snow. I’m pretty stocked up but I needed a few items for my weekend cooking, so I headed to the grocery store late in the day to grab them. Oh, oh. The store was packed and the shelves were already emptying out. Shoppers radiated urgency as they raced down aisles disregarding the one-way Covid-19 traffic patterns. New shoppers were pouring in the door as I checked out and there was a whiff of panic as they passed me. This is crazy! How much snow is really coming, I wondered as I loaded my bags into the car and escaped the chaotic parking lot. I hadn’t seen anything like this since the early days of Covid-19 as the lockdown approached…

The lockdown. This week is the anniversary of the first Covid-19 death in my state, Colorado, and in just a few more days it will be the anniversary of the lockdown that started my year at home in isolation. So many people have been sick, and way too many have died. So much has been lost by so many people; this is the greatest tragedy of my lifetime. For me, however, in strict isolation, the year has rolled by with me in my own little world mostly disconnected from the greater world outside; my story is a lockdown story, not a Covid-19 story. I have been disappointed by people who kept me trapped in my home by refusing to wear masks or to comply with public health recommendations, and brought to tears by the kindness of strangers. A year is a long time; looking back now it seems like it passed in a flash even though I had some real struggles along the way.

Last night one of the local news programs had people post the last picture on their phone before the lockdown happened. Here’s mine.

My son’s kitten Jonesy in a tube attached to the cat pillar. He’s a 6 months old kitten in this shot.
Jonesy today as a handsome young adult at 18 months old.

This year of isolation has been 2/3’s of Jonesy’s life and the entirety of Hannah’s life as she was born within the first few days of lockdown in the middle of March. Looking at Hannah and Jonesy it is so obvious how long this year has been. Looking at Hannah and Jonesy it doesn’t seem all that bad, but of course this has been an extraordinarily tough year.

I sewed some cloth masks early on and wore them on the few occasions I had to leave the house: a science geek who had read way too many books about epidemiology, I suspected airborne transmission based on anecdotal reports from the New York City outbreak. That mask picture is the 2nd one on my phone after the start of the lockdown. As the debate about mask efficacy raged in online forums I wore mine anyway and ignored people who made negative comments. Almost a year later I was wearing two masks, one a highly regarded Vogmask, as I got that first dose of Pfizer vaccine.

“Do you trust the vaccine?” asked my neighbor yesterday. “Absolutely,” I replied.

I feel very, very lucky to get this Pfizer vaccine. Through chance I have a degree in molecular biology and worked for years in an immunology research lab. The molecular trickery used in this vaccine to harness my immune system to protect me from Covid-19 is the best thing that happened all year in my opinion.

I’ve been assigning lots of labels to this year spent mostly alone with my little tuxedo kitten, my books, and my bottomless pit of a yarn stash. This has been the year of astonishment. The year of disappointment. The year of living dangerously. The year of setting priorities. The year of realigning values. The year of healing. The year of decluttering. The year of absolute outrage. The year of lies and fake news. The year of masks. The year of Zoom. Finally, today, it is the year of luck and wonder.

I do want to apologize for my use of the words luck and wonder. There is no real luck in a pandemic at all. I absolutely know how awful and devastating this has been for so many people: how profoundly unlucky so many of us are that this happened to us right now in our lifetimes. The mutation and jump to humans of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 was an event that has been anticipated and feared for a long time. It’s like waiting for an earthquake in California (The Big One) that will be massively destructive. You know it is coming, but you don’t know when or exactly where it will strike, and how devastating the damage will be. You prepare for it and hope that you are ready. How ironic, after growing up in California waiting for The Big One to hit, the crushing event of my lifetime came from a virus. In spite of the basic awfulness of all of this, I am learning to value the little crumbs of luck that came my way during my time in strict isolation while other people recovered so much of their lives and I was left behind.

I am so grateful for the luck, the random chance events, the technology, the human kindness, and the science that helped me get through this year.

My wonderful pandemic kitten was a failed adoption returned to the shelter and rejected by everyone else before I arrived to find her alone standing in a little cat tunnel. The last kitten left in the kitten room; her 6 litter mates had all found forever homes days before. Returned, rejected, all alone: the one thing that I needed. How lucky is that?

That’s little abandoned kitten Hannah on the left, 6 month old Hannah in the middle, and Hannah tonight hanging out with me while I type. Hannah was the one thing that I needed to pull me out of growing sorrow and a sense of abandonment when I realized that the the pandemic was raging unchecked in the USA as the result of a deliberate policy set by my government.

I was diagnosed with nocturnal hypoxia and received the oxygen equipment 5 days before lockdown. How lucky is that? Because of the oxygen I have been steadily improving for months.

I can order anything that I need online and have it delivered to the house in just a few minutes, hours, or days. Seriously, almost anything. A hamburger? It’s on the way!! A case of paper towels? My Instacart shopper is on it! A pair of new sheepskin slippers? Amazon makes it happen! More yarn… yes!! A plethora of indy yarn dyers will ship me my heart’s content. What would have happened if this pandemic hit in the 1990’s? How lucky that the technological infrastructure that allows all of these supportive services to exist is there for me and everyone else who needs them.

Every time I stream a movie on Netflix I feel lucky.

I was raised in the 50’s and 60’s: I can home cook from scratch and have returned to the meals of my childhood. Comfort food in a modern crockpot. How lucky is that?

I have a SMART PHONE that does everything that I can imagine doing. It banks for me. It remotely checks me into my doctor’s appointments. It tells me the route to drive to come home after a long day in a medical center. It connects me to so many other people in Facebook forums. It answers all of my questions: a couple of YouTube tutorials can handle any crisis. I can text all of my friends and family no matter what is happening outside. I feel lucky, people!!

I met with my primary care doctor via Zoom. I feel grateful for Zoom, people, even though most people in America hate its guts by now.

Knitting and reading groups have sprung up online that have connected me to wonderful, supportive, and positive friends from all over the world as we share our books, knitting, and cats. Then there is this blog. I tell you, I feel so lucky that this is all possible.

The Sharon Show, a MKAL run by Sharon from Security, a snarky cat who loves whiskey a little too much…

I can get unlimited ebooks and audibooks (well, as much as my bank account will allow…) instantly delivered to my Kindle tablet. I feel lucky.

In my year of isolation, oxygen, and limited adventures out of the house my painful joints have settled down, my kidney function has improved, and my red blood cell count has fallen into normal ranges for the first time in years. I am doing much better in many ways. Okay, I’m looking at a lot of medical testing to identify the cause of persistent chest pain, and there is still the problem of the severely damaged hip joint, but I’m in much better shape at the moment to tackle this then I was a year ago. I feel lucky.

Winter will end and the garden outside will come back to life soon. I feel lucky!!

I spend too much time wondering about things. Left alone, I have a lot of time for my imagination to run wild as I wonder about everything. I wonder if my roses all survived the dry winter. I wonder if the vet will yell at me for not getting Hannah in for her shots this year. I wonder what would have happened if this pandemic happened 20 years ago. I wonder what if it hadn’t happened at all. I wonder if I should throw away so many of my belongings as I declutter. I wonder why do I have a rare disease (systemic sclerosis) that appears to share some characteristics with Covid-19; what were the chances of that? I wonder when the Big One will come. I wonder if I should write a book. I wonder how I should combine colors of yarn in my next knitting project. I wonder what is happening with the Covid-19 long haulers. I wonder why some Covid-19 long haulers have improved after getting their Covid-19 vaccinations.

I wonder why, one week after my vaccination, I feel significantly better then I did two weeks ago.

I am actually looking forward to shoveling some snow this weekend.

In the greatest of tragedies there are still little crumbs of luck and rays of hope.

May our bad times end soon and we all have days of wonder, luck, and hope.

The Scleroderma Chronicles: Coming Full Circle

Systemic Sclerosis is a rare, chronic, progressive, and incurable autoimmune disease that is included in the family of rheumatic conditions. It is characterized by blood vessel damage and the scarring and thickening of skin due to excessive collagen production (fibrosis). The internal organs can also be damaged by inflammation and scarring: the digestive tract, heart, kidneys, and lungs.

There are two main types of systemic sclerosis: diffuse and limited.

I was diagnosed with limited systemic sclerosis 6 years ago.

Hannah: Do you like my circle?

The Circle Starts: In high school I developed a mystery illness that involved intense itching, lots of rashes, sensitivity to sunlight, and swollen digits. I was a mess. It went on for a few years and then the worse of the symptoms faded away.

First Quarter Circle: In my mid twenties I was a researcher working on a scleroderma project for the Division of Rheumatology at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver, Colorado. The principal investigator that I worked for was interested in isolating the targets of the autoantibodies that scleroderma patients made; if we found the actual proteins that the antibodies characteristic of this autoimmune rheumatic disease were targeting we would be closer to understanding what they did, and eventually closer to understand the disease process of scleroderma. Let me be clear here: my boss, Dr. Angeline Douvas, was the brains of this little research outfit and I did most of the bench work.

One morning Angie had the hot idea that we should see what happened if we did an anti-nuclear antibody (ANA) test on the polytene chromosomes of the fruit fly Drosophila, a common lab experimental animal. We knew that the antibodies produced by the scleroderma patients were sticking to the chromosomes in the nucleus of cells… what would it look like if we checked this test on the chromosomes of fruit flies which were enormous structures that were easy to look at under the microscope?

After staining we could see that on the entire chromosome a few distinct bands were stained: only a few genes were targeted by the antibodies of the scleroderma patients. What was the function of the genes, and what were those proteins, the clear targets of the antibodies made by these scleroderma patients, doing? Something important that was linked to this disease that we call systemic sclerosis (scleroderma). How was all of that tied to the damaging fibrosis going on in these patients?

Here’s the other interesting conundrum that we kicked around: what changed in these genes/proteins that made them trigger the immune system to make antibodies? There are lots of things that can change genes and the proteins that they make. Things like radiation, chemicals, environmental triggers, viruses…

Hannah: Viruses?! The Kitten Mom and I spend all our time at home hiding from viruses!!!

Second Quarter Circle: Now in my 60s, and diagnosed as a scleroderma patient myself, I began writing letters to my congressman asking him to support the National Commission on Scleroderma and Fibrotic Diseases Act, a bill which would coordinate and organize resources to study the process that is involved in the formation of scar tissue in scleroderma and other diseases/conditions. Two summers ago I met with a representative of my congressman, Jason Crow, with other scleroderma patients to make our case. Scleroderma is special, I argued, because our antibodies are a tool that can be used to unpack the process of fibrosis. Representative Crow did support the bill.

Hannah: Now, are you ready for some really crazy stuff? Hang onto your catnip mice, this gets a little wild!!

Third Quarter Circle: It is 2020 and Covid-19 has arrived. Early on we learned that this is a serious virus that causes an extreme immune system response in some individuals that is life threatening. There is severe lung involvement, blood clots, scarred lungs, injured hearts, failing kidneys… this is no joke if you are already dealing with all of this, so I and other scleroderma patients are avoiding it like the plague and retreating to our online support groups even more than usual. We share observations and experiences in these forums, and it wasn’t very long before we started to notice that these severe Covid-19 cases seemed to be awfully similar to severe systemic sclerosis. We laughed about “Covid Toes” since dealing with blue fingers and toes is a daily struggle for us. Then the news reports about Covid-19 long-haulers started to emerge, and we all started to say to each other… wow… fatigue, brain fog, muscle/joint pains, lung and heart problems… sounds a lot like what we deal with… Then some people started to arrive in our support groups who were newly diagnosed scleroderma patients who were also Covid-19 long haulers. Now every week new people, shocked and frightened by their life-altering diagnosis of systemic sclerosis, are showing up in our forums. “Gee, there are a lot of new patients arriving,” someone wrote last week…

Unbelievable, right? I decided to hunt around online and quickly found that there were a number of reports about Covid-19 and systemic sclerosis. I discovered to my shock that people with severe Covid-19 disease do share a lot of documented clinical features with severely ill diffuse systemic sclerosis patients, and there is a connection between Covid-19 and rheumatic autoimmune diseases. When there was an article in the New York Times reporting that some Covid patients were developing autoimmune disease it caught my eye, so a little more work online found this nicely written overview by the Global Autoimmune Institute that listed specific research reports and the autoantibodies being discovered in Covid-19 patients and Covid-19 long-haulers. There in the reports are listed the same, exact autoantibodies that are the specific hallmarks of my two autoimmune diseases, systemic sclerosis and Sjogren’s Disease. 2020, shame on you. This is really, really bad, even for you.

All of a sudden it is really important to understand fibrotic diseases and how to reverse the damage caused by Covid-19.

Hannah: The Kitten Mom feels like she needs to do something about this!!

The Circle Closes: The genome sequencing service 23andMe has launched a genetic research study of systemic sclerosis patients. They are screening and accepting 1000 diagnosed patients who will donate their DNA for research into systemic sclerosis. I’m pretty sure that this effort to collect more information about the genes of systemic sclerosis patients is in part driven by the urgent need to deal with an emerging flood of new patients with fibrotic organ damage due to Covid-19 infections. Tonight I completed my application to submit my DNA to the study and to participate in all their additional data collection about my disease. Remember those few, distinct genes lit up on the fly chromosome? “Go get ’em, boys!” I muttered to myself as I clicked the submit button.

Today there were 225,558 new cases of Covid-19 in the US and 3,499 new deaths.

How many of the Covid-19 survivors will eventually be dealing with a chronic, progressive, and incurable autoimmune disease?

Wear your masks, people!!

Wednesday Afternoon Update: I’ve been accepted into the research program and they have already shipped my DNA collection kit to me. Hannah is so excited!!

Footnote: Did Angie and I find a protein using the scleroderma patients antibodies? Yep. We did.