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!

Science and the Scleroderma Girl: The Patient Scientist

It is really annoying to have an illness that just keeps going on and on and on… think of the energizer bunny here. A really annoying scleroderma energizer bunny. I am so over it already. I love my doctors, but they are really focused on slowing down the progression of my bad boy illness, systemic sclerosis, and are kind of dismissive of the pain and dizziness that is coming my way courtesy of the fibromyalgia and Sjogren’s Syndrome.

It isn’t that they don’t care. They just have clearly defined priorities in mind as they treat me. It is kind of like when my mom was going through chemo for her cancer. The doctors were very sympathetic about her struggles with nausea and fatigue, and helped her the best they could, but they did not let up on the chemo schedule. My doctors are also sympathetic, but they still took my immunosuppressant dose up as high as they could when I got into trouble with my lungs two years ago. Oh, you are having trouble sleeping? So sorry. Hang in there. It will get better…

Cat and computer.
Do you see how much help MacKenzie is giving me while writing this? He too is sympathetic. Oh, your legs are hurting today? Here, I’ll sleep on top of them for you…

I had a surge of rebellion about the same time that this was going on and decided that I would consider myself a walking experiment of one and would try to get a better handle of my symptoms; surely there must be correlations between what I was doing in my day and how I felt. If I understood my test results better perhaps I could have better conversations with my doctors. Stop being a victim, I told myself, and become a patient scientist!

Food log.
Today’s entry into my little symptom journal. I started out tracking my daily food intake, and then added in entries about other symptoms.

The food log was perhaps the most important thing that I did. I began to figure out lots of things by focusing on what I was eating and what my symptoms were. I ignored the “universal truths” that I was being told to me by other people and focused on what was happening with me. Bam! Some of the things that I figured out actually changed the diagnosis list on my chart, and I certainly improved the quality of my life. Here is the short list of what I discovered about myself: absolutely NO SALT or other forms of sodium, gluten is fine, fiber is a problem, lactose free dairy with live cultures is a daily must, bananas are boss, and I should eat foods with a low glycemic index. Oh yeah: vitamin D and krill oil supplements are good, but tart cherry supplements will damage my kidneys. Good to know.

What happened when I changed my diet? Muscles pain went way down, I got more energy, my gastritis and other GI symptoms improved greatly, I slept better, and the quality of my life improved. For each of those food choices I used myself as an experimental animal. Just one change was made in my diet, and then I tracked symptoms for a week or two to see what happened. My latest experiment has involved bananas; a banana a day keeps my muscle pain way down. Who knew? Have a headache? Eat raisins!

I began to gather other types of data. I took my blood pressure during times when I was feeling poorly to see what it was doing. That’s how I figured out that my inhaler was making my blood pressure drop. Now that I’m off my blood pressure medicine, my pressure is back up, and I’m using my inhaler safely every day. Today I noticed that I was a little short of breath while doing laundry…

Oxygen monitor
Oh. That blood oxygen level is a little two low. It was in the high 80s when I first checked, and was up to 91% by the time I snapped the picture.
Oxygen monitor
Well look at that! This is what happened a couple of minutes later after using the inhaler. My oxygen level is up to 95% and my heart rate has dropped back down. I really need to use this inhaler every day as it is helping keep my small airway disease under control.

Now that I’m using the inhaler daily my energy level is up in my little notebook. Hmm… I’m not sure if this is completely due to the inhaler as I also added bananas to my diet, but as I keep logging observations I may figure it out.

I also have started collecting all the data that I can get from my routine heart and lung testing. I usually get a phone call from the doctor that tells me how I’m doing, but with the data in hand I can have more meaningful conversations with my doctors.

PFT results.
This is some data from pulmonary function tests that were done 2 years apart.

The data that I have circled in the upper table of data shows that my lung volume didn’t change very much when administered a dose of albuterol during my first pulmonary function test, which was done right after I was diagnosed. Two years later, when I was really struggling with shortness of breath, the data in the lower table showed that I improved 16% in my lung volume after that same drug. The technician told me that this was a big response and that he was sure I would be prescribed a drug to help me; that didn’t happen until I made an appointment with my internist weeks later, told her about my response on the drug, and showed her the specific data that I had picked up from the hospital where the test was done. Bam!! I got the inhaler that day.

By collecting data at home and paying attention to my symptoms I’ve been able to give better information to my doctors who have responded with changes in my drug protocol and treatment focus. Today all of my doctors shoot me a full copy of all of my testing data as soon as they get it. I also can access data through the patient portal at Kaiser. I follow changes in data over time, and then I can have a meaningful discussion with my physicians when I see them.

I’m just one data point out of all of the patients that my doctors treat, but by using myself as a walking experiment of one I’ve been able to figure out management strategies to help myself and how to better communicate with my medical team to work with them as a collaborative partner.

This is good. I will never be in control of my illnesses, but I sure am poking them with the pitchfork.

Err… knitting needles. They have definitely been poked.

It is good to be a science geek.