The Scleroderma Chronicles: The Blue-Lipped Zebra Goes On Oxygen

This week I finished up the pulmonary tests to see what was up with my lungs. This was pretty darn stressful and the poor BLZ was just besides itself with the trauma of walking into a major hospital to get admitted for outpatient testing.

This is my son’s kitten Jonesy, named after the cat on the Nostromo, the ship that accidently picked up a deadly Alien while answering a distress beacon on a strange planet… Jonesy is utterly fearless, more than capable of facing down a scary monster alien. This Jonesy is also pretty darn fearless. Be brave, face this down, I told myself while petting Jonesy.

I was brave. On the day my state opened up the first drive-through testing station for the Covid virus, I presented myself at outpatient admissions. I wore my fleece gloves the whole time I was there and followed all of the safety guidelines. I combined two appointments into one so I could pick up the equipment for overnight oxygen level monitoring while I was in the building for pulmonary function testing. The hospital was almost deserted and had bottles of hand sanitizer out for use at every stop on my route, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I literally swerved and walked around anyone in my way, especially if they were wearing a face mask…

In case you all need a reminder, my red blood cell count (rbc) is way too high, and I have blue lips and shortness of breath. My internist diagnosed polycythemia, and once I googled it I discovered that I have every single one of the listed symptoms. The purpose of all of this testing is to uncover the underlying condition causing my rbc to rise. So, let’s just jump to the chase. Here are the results:

    • My lungs are scarred and I have interstitial lung disease, a type of restrictive lung disease. I am stable and haven’t gotten worse when compared to the last testing two years ago.
    • It’s not pulmonary hypertension. Yay! That would have been really bad news. My echocardiogram showed that I am at the upper limits of heart wall thickening, and my pulmonary artery is at the upper limit of normal, but I’m hanging in there.
    • My oxygen level fell below 89% for almost an hour while I was sleeping the night I wore the monitoring equipment. Yay!! Houston, we have found a problem!!

Once the results were in the pulmonologist’s office called for a phone appointment and I got the good news. Well, the sort of good news. I have to go on oxygen overnight to keep my levels up, and the hope is that my rbc count will start to drop. If overnight oxygen doesn’t do the trick I may have to go to oxygen 24/7, but I’m not there yet. (The BLZ is happy but a little sad too. The BLZ hates to wear oxygen, and really doesn’t want to wear it when it goes out shopping… ) Seriously, I don’t appear handicapped until I have to walk with a cane and wear oxygen… then there is no hiding it any more.

Thinking about future appointments and the procedure with the hip specialist (I need an injection of steroids into my bad-boy hip), I asked what my risk from Covid was… (The BLZ was trying to not cry) and my pulmonologist told me straight out that she thought I would survive an infection but that I should put off any more trips to medical clinics for a few more weeks so that hospitals could finish gearing up for severe cases. Well, shoot. (The BFZ is now sobbing…)

Then I throttled the BFZ into silence and headed out to buy the last of the supplies that I needed to get through a few weeks alone. I’m immunocompromised; the medications that I take to control my autoimmune diseases have helped me to become stable, but they also make me high risk for any infection. Nothing has changed, I reminded the BLZ, but now the risk of a serious infection is coming at a time when the medical system may be overwhelmed and unable to take care of me. I’ve been using good judgement, social distancing, and hand washing for a few years now; I will continue for myself and everyone else sharing this scary time.

The truck carrying the oxygen equipment was at my house waiting for me when I returned so I am set up. Hopefully the BLZ will now slowly fade away and I will stop panting for air every time I move.

If this was a race to get new test results into my chart, the underlying cause of my polycythemia identified, and remedial measures into action, I have made it. I have a phone appointment with my new rheumatologist next week and I will ask her about the hip procedure and referral to the foot specialist, but I think that in the current unfolding Covid crisis there isn’t any hurry.

As for the inner voice that worries and feels panicky, my inner BFZ voice, I am going to smooth it into submission with the peaceful zen of knitting. Be brave, be brave, I purr to myself. Just like my son’s kitten Jonesy.

You all be safe out there!!

The Scleroderma: The Blue-Lipped Zebra Report!

I’m thinking of myself as the “Blue-Lipped Zebra” these days. Let’s just call me the BLZ for short. You know, a rare breed of difficult patient who is ornery, persistent, and stubbornly insistent on getting straight answers. I’m trying to not use that zebra voice, but if pushed I may whip it out. I’m going after all my doctors to get to some explanations about my panting, blue-lipped, exhausted current state of being. I made myself promise to keep my internal dialogue under control and to not get pulled off topic. Sounds like a good plan, right?

Whew. It is only Wednesday and I’m pooped! I have talked with or met with three different doctors and scheduled 5 different tests. I also made repeat appointments to get back to these doctors after the testing is done. I went into this determined to do a better job coordinating with my doctors and to shift the conductor role to my new rheumatologist. I’m reflecting on what’s happened so far and what my next steps are, and I’ve decided to share with all of you.

Before I tell you about my medical adventures this week I want to show off the monster orchid. It now has 5 blooms open and it looks great!! Isn’t that an amazing color?

Prologue: I have been struggling with shortness of breath, extreme fatigue, and feeling dizzy/faint. My lips frequently look blue. The itching is insane, and what is up with these rashes? I have more recently developed abdominal pain in the area of my spleen. After initial testing my internist has diagnosed secondary polycythemia.

Act 1: The Internist

This was my first phone appointment. My internist is the doctor who diagnosed me with secondary polycythemia, which is a condition with too many red blood cells. The high cell count, in my case, is now presumed to be due to an underlying problem involving my lungs or heart; since lung and heart damage is common with systemic sclerosis that makes a lot of sense. We talked about my gene test results (I do not have the genetic mutation that would have caused the more serious form of polycythemia, which is good!) and planned my call with the pulmonologist. That’s right: I got some coaching from my internist! I agreed to send her an email about what happened with the pulmonologist and rheumatologist after I met with them, and she assured me that she would order any testing that the other two doctors did not. That’s right – I asked her what testing I should ask for. I love this doctor!!

Act 2: The Pulmonologist

Well, this didn’t go the way I thought this would… good thing I got some coaching. It started out with this doctor saying that she didn’t know what I expected her to do over the phone when she hadn’t seen me in her office for over a year. (She fussed at me last time for coming earlier than a year. I tried to make an appointment, but the nurse insisted it would be better for me to make a phone appointment before I saw the rheumatologist… ugh!!) I explained the situation to her, and she immediately said that she didn’t agree with the diagnosis, and that she didn’t think that my rbc count was all that high. <The BLZ was pretty disgusted by this and wanted to blurt out that the diagnosis wasn’t open for debate, but I throttled it into silence…> After redirecting the conversation to my symptoms (you know, ending up on the floor panting for air after a little vacuuming…) she did agree that there was probably an underlying problem driving the elevated rbc count and it would be good to order up some tests before I came to see her in her office.

Sigh. Why is this so hard?! I wondered if we had just been talking at cross purposes about the same thing. <The BLZ wondered why I had to keep battling for routine testing when my diagnoses required it. Whatever.> The tests were ordered and I agreed to make an appointment to see her in her office a few days after the testing was completed.

Act 3: The Rheumatologist

Finally, finally I have landed in the rheumatologist office that the BLZ has longed for. This doctor felt that the lung testing was absolutely warranted, and that if nothing came up she would go right for a cardiologist referral and heart testing, and a hematology referral also if needed. She kind of thinks that this is my heart, but it is good to get the lung testing done first. <The BFZ is now bucking around… happy for action, but a little scared, too.> She reassured me that the tests that were already ordered were exactly the ones that she would have ordered, but they were just the opening round. She mentioned a test that the pulmonologist has refused to order, saying that it is the only way to get accurate information. Yay! Then she did the exam and reviewed the notes on my orthopedic referral since I still can’t walk and I’ve developed more tendon issues in my foot. “Why hasn’t there been a follow-up on this?” she asked. She ordered two MRIs to look at my hip and foot, and gave me the paperwork to get a handicapped parking pass. She also ordered blood work, told me to call her after the testing was done, and that I should be in her office again in 8 weeks. <The BFZ was stunned. Usually I’m told to come back in 6 months.> I have the scleroderma director that I’ve been looking for, people!!

Epilogue

I spent 5 hours over the last two days making phone calls, appointments, reading all of the medical notes attached this week’s appointments, and writing emails. Whew. Through the constraints of scheduling calendars I will be talking about my test results with the rheumatologist before I interact again with my slightly hostile pulmonologist. When I read the pulmonologist’s notes on our phone appointment it kind of smelled of “cover your ass” and the BLZ’s nostrils crinkled in disgust. After begging for inhaled steroids for a couple years, when I saw her last time she offered me a few months worth. Yay! I said. I wanted to check with the rheumatologist before starting them because I’m already pretty immunosuppressed, which I did, and the inhaled steroids were prescribed soon after by my internist and I’m using them right now. In the notes she wrote that she had recommended these steroids and I that I had refused. <The BLZ immediately noticed the nasty trickery with the verbs there…she offered and I deferred!> She also described my landing on the floor while vacuuming as “needing to rest while doing moderate tasks”. The BFZ is beyond disgusted at that. <Get a new pulmonologist, the BFZ barks!>

In between all of this I also got my newest pair of Snowshoe socks done! How cute are these? I knit them holding a wildly bright variegated yarn with a dark, inky blue single ply yarn. My yarn information is on my project page.

So, it was a pretty darn good start of the week. Tomorrow I head off to get an echocardiogram of my heart, and over the next week or so the rest of the testing will happen.

Coronavirus, be good and stay away from me!! I’m going to be in a lot of medical facilities for the next few days.

You all be safe out there!