The Scleroderma Chronicles: Days of Wonder

The last time I chatted about my systemic sclerosis status I had just seen my doctors and I was doing great. I had sustained very little additional damage to my lungs and heart, I was taking a new supplement (tart cherry) that was an anti-inflammatory that my doctors thought I could tolerate, and I just flat out felt great. I could walk without pain, I had energy and I woke up most mornings feeling *normal* which was pretty darn amazing.

At the end of June I headed off to the clinic for my usual blood tests, joked with the man who draws my blood every 60 days, and bought myself a Starbucks on the way home to celebrate another successful outing. Two days later I was wondering why my blood results hadn’t been posted to the online portal. I was outside drinking my morning latte with the cats and the roses when the call came; my liver results were fine, but my kidney function had dropped dramatically. Oops. No more tart cherry for me!

Maine Coon cat with a bob tail.
Yellow Boy hanging out with my squash plants. Amazingly, he did not run away when the call came.

That’s when the days of wonder began. Wonder as in: “I wonder what will happen next?”, “I wonder what this is?”, “I wonder if I should call this into the doctor?” , and “Good grief, what now? I wonder when this will end?”

As soon as I went off of the tart cherry extract icky symptoms came back with a vengeance along with some new ones. It’s like they all made new friends while they were gone and couldn’t wait to show them off. Here’s what has been happening over the three weeks.

  • I woke up one morning with pitting edema in my arms and face. I looked like a chipmunk. I also had shooting nerve pain in one side of my face. Fabulous.
  • Two days later the edema was gone, but my knees hurt so bad they woke me up at 4am, and that was it for the night. Ugh! They also had swollen lumps on them!! In desperation I smeared medical marijuana cream (from a neighbor – this is Colorado and we have this stuff!) on them to see if that would help. The pain shut off within moments! I need to get me some of this stuff!!
  • The next day I slept through the night, but when I woke up in the morning the skin across my knees was so tight that I couldn’t bend them until I warmed things up with a heating pad. They itched and were warm to the touch. Maybe marijuana cream isn’t such a good idea after all. I’m losing patience, I tell the cats, who have piled onto my legs too since there is a heating pad in use… When will these cats learn how to make a morning latte?
  • Shooting pains start in my lower abdomen the day after my knees stop hurting. Diverticulitis, says the internet. Seriously! I wonder if I should call this in? I wonder if I should see that gastroenterologist after all…

Over the next several days I experienced scary low blood pressure episodes, chest pain, fevers, itching, more joint pain, and to top things off I started losing my balance and falling over without warning a few days ago.

Days of wonder, indeed. Nothing lasts; it appears that I’m on a roller-coaster of symptoms that will provide my summer thrills and scares until the ride ends (hopefully soon!). My repeat blood work showed that my kidney function had improved, and my rheumatologist isn’t saying scary things to me any more. My blood pressure is again stable, the chest pain and edema are gone, my balance is restored, and the pain in my face has vanished.

Cinco de Mayo rose.
This is one of the roses in my garden. It is called “Cinco de Mayo“, and I planted it in memory of my mother, who loved roses, who died on May 5th many years ago, and who remains the benchmark for all time for patience, grace and courage in the face of adversity.  Of course this rose has been blooming beautifully during these days of wonder.

This could be a really bad time, but I’ve discovered that it is best to just go with the flow and to focus on the ridiculous side of all of this; lumps on my knees, my chipmunk face, and falling over without warning. Really, don’t you just want to bust out laughing at the thought of all that? Thank heavens I didn’t develop a rash! It is also important to notice all the wonder around me. The beauty of my garden and the flowers, the days in bed reading new books, great dinners produced in the crock pot, the antics of the cats, and the joy of putting together a new knitting project. Wonder is endless, easy to find, and costs nothing. Okay, let’s be honest. Binge watching shows on Netflix helps too.

Today I feel a little dizzy, but much better. Hopefully I’m coming to the end of the tart cherry withdrawal. That’s right. Best to stay positive and cheerful.

I wonder what will happen tomorrow?

Advertisements

Ready for the Magic!

I really don’t like to do this, but the first step in recovery is to admit that you have a problem. That assumes, of course, that you are interested in actually recovering from your addiction…

Yarn
I keep buying these gray-toned yarns with flecks of pink and purple in them… I think that I have actually bought five different 2-skein sets of this type of yarn with the idea of making another “Waiting for Rain” shawl.  Maybe, I told myself, it can become ANOTHER Find Your Fade. I’m in my 60’s now, and my hair is starting to go gray…  I’m wearing more black and this yarn will go with my entire wardrobe. Do I need any more excuses? No, not really. This yarn had me at “hello!”

Nope. Not recovering today. There is no problem here. I love yarn, I love to knit, it makes me happy, and there are few things that make you decide to do what makes you feel happy like getting diagnosed with a possibly-fatal autoimmune condition. Oh. For one thing, you notice that the condition of life itself is eventually fatal… whatever have I been waiting for?  Buy yarn. Time to knit!

Still there is the issue of what to do with all of this awesome yarn?

34742949562_b375dd92e1_n

This is the Marled Magic Sweater by Stephen West (photo credit: westknits). Hey, wouldn’t this be the perfect solution to consume that yarn and make something that will carry me through the cold of winter wrapped in absolute cushy yumminess?  Yes, yes it will!! I downloaded the pattern that week and read the directions. Oops. This is going to be challenging and it is going to take a lot of yarn. Stephen suggests that you stock up/locate about 1500 grams of the stuff to make your yarn palette. Good think I have a stash that reflects my true yarn-addiction status.

Pile of yarN.
I pulled out every yarn that I thought I could use and piled it all in a couple of large bins. After that I sorted the yarn into color grouping and sadly make some cuts. Then I made some more cuts. This is what I was left with…
Lace weight yarns.
The marl in the fabric is created by knitting with two strands of yarn held together. I pulled out lace weight yarns in the colorways that I was looking for. This is mostly mohair, silk, and alpaca yarn. I have a lot of the steel gray mohair at the lower right hand corner, and will use the other colors to spice things up.
Yarn collage.
Then I pulled out these fingering weight yarns to accent the gray mix yarns that I started out with: blues, purples and rose/pinks. I have some golds and teals that I put back into the stash, but they may sneak back into the working yarn palette later. I put in the gray Brooklyn Tweed Loft too as Stephen suggested that it be included if possible to help cut the weight and to prevent stretching.

Pretty intimidating, but I am getting ready to so some serious yarn winding and should get the project page on Ravelry started soon. Wow. This is a lot of yarn to enter, and then there will be the notes…

Good thing I am a true addict!!

PS: my rheumatologist told me that I should knit as much as I can to help keep functionality in my hands. Never did medical advice fall on such fertile soil… not that I needed another excuse. 🙂

The Scleroderma Chronicles: My Second Year Report

Well, here I am at the end of my second year since my diagnosis of systemic sclerosis, a life-threatening form of the autoimmune disease scleroderma. Last year I blogged about my illness: I had come through the worst of the grief and horror at the initial diagnosis, had made my way through some scary incidents that sent me flying across town to emergency centers, and was pretty upbeat about where I was in the progress of the disease.  I was sick, but I hadn’t developed any of the most serious, life threatening complications. My heart and lungs were fine. I had just been started on some serious immunosuppressant drugs (the same ones that are given to kidney transplant patients), and while they are risky, I had been told that they could really make a difference in my 10 year survival rate.

Hey, you roll the dice and you take your chances.  No sense worrying about the unknown future. I drugged up and slept like a baby at night.

Star Trek Meme
The Kobayashi Maru test, as all Star Trek buffs know, was a no-win scenario;  it was meant as a test of character. Systemic sclerosis, an incurable,  progressive, disabling and potentially fatal disease, can  also be considered such a test.

Ready to hear about my second year? Let me give you a hint: buckle your seat belt, because we are in for a bumpy ride.

  • November-December: the drugs begin to kick in and as they beat my immune system into submission my skin starts to harden up. I hurt everywhere!! I can hardly bear to comb my hair. The place where my flu shot went in hurt for weeks afterwards.
  • January: I caught the flu. Talk about insult to injury! Here’s the short version: antibiotics, off the immunosuppressant drugs so my body’s immune system can fight back, and then trouble breathing, chest pain, heart palpitations, and a partridge in a pear tree. What a mess! The month passes in a blur.
  • February: I’m still pretty sick and struggling to breathe. I get bounced back and forth between doctors as the debate about the root cause of my symptoms rages. I begin to pressure my doctors for answers and there is much testing. Oops. All is not well with my lungs and my heart is accruing damage. I get sent to a pulmonologist and she give me an inhaler to help me breath. She also tells me I am in serious trouble and refers me to palliative care. The doctors increase my immunosuppressant drug dosage.
  • March: Why, hello, Sjogren’s Syndrome. We forgot all about you! In the concern about my systemic sclerosis, the bad boy of my autoimmune twosome, everyone forgot that I also have Sjogren’s Syndrome, another serious autoimmune disease that causes dry eyes and mouth. As it turns out, it can also cause small airway disease (think never-ending asthma attack) and it has pushed me into chronic respiratory failure. Hello oxygen machine. You are my new best friend.

    Oxygen machine
    My new best friend!
  • April: new lung scans are back, and while I am diagnosed with interstitial lung disease, it appears that it is only mild. Huge sigh of relief!! There is also consensus that my pulmonary hypertension has not advanced. Both of these diagnosis, while still early and mild, are very serious, and the decision is made for palliative care to continue to follow me. Bummer!
  • May-July: Sunshine! Heat! Burning muscles, aching joints, gastritis, dizzy, dizzy, dizzy, and I notice that my lips are blue. I’m on oxygen 24/7 by the end of July.
  • August: my internist changes my meds to bring my heart rate up, and suddenly I have enough oxygen. The heart palpitations stop and after more testing I come off the oxygen. The 6 month Sjogren’s-driven asthma attack is finally over.
  • Quilt and socks
    Summer quilt and socks for my poor hurting feet.

    September-October: why does it hurt to walk? What is up with my feet? And this whole barfing in the middle of the night is getting downright annoying… My internist tests me to see if I have an H. pylori infection.

  • November: Well, doesn’t this beat all. The H. pylori test came back negative and I am diagnosed with gastroparesis. The muscles of my stomach are too damaged by systemic sclerosis to work correctly; the damage is irreversible. I start eating a very limited diet of soft foods and dairy. Ironically, I can now eat jelly donuts, but not fresh baby carrots. I’m losing weight anyway.
Little Greenhouse
The gastroparesis diagnosis hit me hard even though I kind of  knew it was coming. I stopped to get a little cheer-me-up on the way home.  Check out the little greenhouse I put together for the kitchen window. As always, MacKenzie had to help out with the picture.
Flowers
Here’s the flowers. Aren’t these cute? They were sold at the local nursery to put into “Fairy Gardens”
cat
and how could I resist adding the little cat and the mushroom? Those plants are miniature Kalanchoe that should eventually bloom again.

See, a bumpy ride that is still going, but a year that was also rich in gifts. Palliative care forced me to face the future with more courage and to make end-of-life decisions for my family and to start cleaning out my house of junk. I talked to family about my medical power of attorney. I enlisted one of my doctors to manage the medical team and I began to feel more in control of my basically out of control disease. I began to knit gifts for those I love with a purpose: everything now is a piece of me. In my mind the shawls that I am making for everyone I know are the “Good-bye Shawls”. I am on fire to make as many fingerless mitts for other scleroderma patients as I can. At the end of the day, this year was not one of struggle and heartbreak as I dealt with the endless march of a disease that has no pity or remorse. Rather, it was one of care, giving, creative fire, good friends, and the meditative peace of knitting.

Okay, I do get cranky at times, and there has been some crying.  I get short with annoying salespeople because it is so hard for me to shop. I told my ex-husband I was tired of hearing about his “stupid-ass”  motorcycle. I yelled at the cats. I hate when people say, “Well, you look great!” in a way that suggests that I’m not really all that sick at all. I wish that they were there to hold my hair when I hobble to the bathroom at 2am to throw up that nice meal that I hopefully ate but couldn’t digest. There. I got it off my chest, and I feel much better. Aren’t you relieved to hear that I can be petty and mean from time to time?

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day. You know, it is easy to focus on the day: travel, turkey, family and the descent into wild Christmas shopping. Sometimes we forget the history of this national holiday; thanks for a good harvest and the blessing of probable survival through the coming winter. It is also a time to reflect on the bounty of the last year and to be grateful for the gifts it brought.

In spite of all the bumps of the last year, I am grateful for all of the gifts I have received.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!!

So Long, Farewell, Auf Weidersehen, Good-bye… to My Support Group

Okay, this is a rant. This rant is so long and complicated, with so many connections to other topics, that I have considered that I should perhaps launch another blog just to deal with it. Or maybe create an online course for people with complex autoimmune diseases. Something. Because I finally have snapped for sure.

It happened while I was attending my monthly Scleroderma Support group in July. I go to these meetings because I need to talk to people about my illness, become educated about treatments and coping strategies, and to get, you know, support! I want to flock with my peeps!! Usually in these meetings there are introductions, a little sharing, nice snacks, and a presentation by a guest speaker.

This is the problem. The speakers who have been coming are often involved in alternative treatment strategies. As in alternative medicine. As in flat out pseudoscience masquerading as legitimate methods of treatment for our complex health conditions.  These speakers have been trained in their “method” and faithfully parrot back what they were told in their training. They have little actual knowledge of human physiology, biology, disease, or science. They are connected to a product or system that they want to sell to us to help us “stay healthy”. They especially tell us that they can help us have “healthy” immune systems and/or take away our pain. Since I am in pain because my immune system is misbehaving it’s hard to not find their messages appealing.

Except… I was a biology teacher. I used to work in a research lab. I know science as a logical process with rules, and this information is so outrageous it causes me to wiggle around in my chair, bite my tongue, and often whip out my cell phone to fact check.

Me: Google, please tell me if Leaky Gut is a real thing?

Google: Are you crazy? Of course not.

Me: That’s what I thought…

But evidently I absolutely, positively need to take this essential oil to protect me from leaky gut. Or the toxins will leak out though the holes in my intestines. This is the cause of many complex illnesses. Research? We don’t need no stinking research. We have testimonials!!

Compression Points on Foot
This pressure point chart was so outrageous I needed to put down the knitting to take a picture!

How about the day I learned that I need to massage my hands and feet at specific pressure points to clean the toxins out of my liver, pancreas and other parts of my body? Really. I was informed that the problem is that the cells of my body get dehydrated, will form tough protective barriers, and the fascia then can’t move fluids throughout the body. This was such a garbled version of reality it was practically science salad.

Me: Google, please tell me exactly what fascia is.

Google: Sure. Fascia is the thin, tough barrier around muscles and organs. It is part of your connective system and made of collagen.

Me: Google, just to be sure, it doesn’t have anything to do with fluid transport?

Google. No, dumb ass. That would be the lymph system.

Me: Google, that’s what I thought. No need to cop an attitude with me, you wouldn’t believe what I’m dealing with here.

As if all this fact checking wasn’t exhausting enough, there is also a hint of “anti-science” in the room. Several other patients have become convinced that we need to stop taking our meds as they have unacceptable side effects. It is better, they argue, to control our disease with diet, essential oils and supplements. OMG! It isn’t possible to google fast enough to keep up with this stuff!

Me: Google, what is this alkaline diet all about?

Me: Google, is dairy inflammatory?

Me: Google, do I need to take massive doses of probiotics every day, or can I just eat yogurt? This speaker is telling me I have to buy their product since I can’t eat dairy anymore…

Me: Google, how quickly do bacteria divide? Every 20 minutes? So I don’t need a massive dose?

Me: Google, is there any research showing a positive benefit of essential oils in systemic sclerosis?

Google: Stop! I have smoke coming out of my ears! Let me direct you to this nice List of Topics Characterized as Pseudoscience. There. You’re welcome.

Lunch
Yep. This is my lunch. See the dairy? That yogurt has 8 live cultures in it and I am not giving it up!!

While loading up on gluten free snacks at the break I finally snapped and asked the group facilitator if she thought it would be appropriate to let people advocate going off their meds and using essential oils to treat their conditions if this was a cancer support group?

“Well, no…”, she replied. “But that’s cancer.”

I just looked back at her until I saw something click in her brain, and then I left. I’m done.

Since then I have been fussing around about why this is happening. I understand that this is a tough disease (in more than one way), but how awful it is that there is so much misinformation out there that people don’t know what is accurate, and what isn’t. Desperate people will clutch at anything that gives them hope. Sometimes these things are based in sound logic, reason and science (stem cell transplants), and sometimes they are not (amber beads for pain relief). Obviously people need to know more about the nature of science, basic physiology, immunology, cell biology, and how the medications prescribed by their doctors work. They need to know their Star Trek!!

Star Trek Meme
A no-win scenario, the Kobayashi Maru test was designed to be a test of character. 

That’s right. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn is what I needed to put this into perspective.  So many movie quotes, so many posts.

So, I feel a lot better after finishing up my rant, but I still think that I may need to launch a mini-series of posts relating to this. I mean, there are all those pseudoscience cures to debunk. All that biology to share. All those Star Trek quotes.

Stay tuned. If I start the new blog, I’ll let you all know where it is. Otherwise, a lot of my knitting friends are going to be exposed to some biology.  Feel free to let me know how you feel about that.J

The Cat Days of Summer

It is still hot here and things are really slowing down. Most of the plants in the garden have stopped blooming and the cats are on strike under the largest bushes in the yard trying to stay cool. Smoke from western USA wildfires have made the air quality where I live less than optimal so I’ve been staying indoors as much as possible; this is easy because… Olympics! Prime knitting weather!! Today I’m watching volleyball (Serbia vs. USA. Go USA!!) and cranking away on the Antarktis shawl. Okay, that’s enough detail. Here are the pictures. 🙂

Close-up of Knitting
I’m loving the colors of my Antarktis shawl
Shawl
Here’s a shot that better shows my progress. I’m now at about the halfway point.
Cowl
I’m about half way through the Hawkshaw cowl too. I love, love, love this yarn from Spincycle Yarns.
Butterfly bush
My butterfly bush has finally started to bloom, about the only color in the entire yard. Not that any butterflies are bothering to come see the bush in the heat. Even the grass has stopped growing. Mostly it is managing to stay alive. Mostly.
Cat
The cats are too hot to chase any butterflies, anyway. Yellow Boy sleeps spread out on the damp ground under a shady bush.
Cat
Yellow Boy: I can haz matted fur…

That right. This cat grows new balls of matted fur daily. I’ve been shaving him when they get really bad, but he can get a little scary while this is going on (growling makes me nervous, and then there are those teeth!) so we do what we can. Last night I got almost everything off except some lumps of fur on his chest. This should be an Olympic event! I wonder who would get scored… me or the cat? We could call it single-handed cat clipping. Points are deducted if you resort to using a foot or sustain a scratch.

Cat
MacKenzie: I have superior fur: no fur mats for me!

Last week I went to see my primary care physician and she ordered me the oxygen-to-go equipment and changed my blood pressure meds. Now my heart rate is up, my blood pressure is down, and my oxygen levels are better. I feel pretty good and have stopped the daytime oxygen. OK, I take the support tank with me when I leave the house, but things are still better. It’s a win!!

So that’s the cat days of summer. Olympics, heat, matted cat fur, oxygen level checks, and knitting marathons.

I’m on the home stretch of the Antarktis shawl. Time to decide which shawl to knit next.

 

 

Seven Happy Shawls

Okay, July was a month that I am glad to see go out the door. I did have some great moments in the month; my sister and niece came to visit, I worked at the summer camp at Alta Vida Alpacas, and I spun my friend Deb’s beloved Jake dog into yarn. Good highlights!

Collage of July
Highlights of July. In the group photo of my family we are (clockwise from the top left) me, my cousin Ruth Ann, my sister Selma, and my niece Melissa.

On the flip side, I lost a war with an invasive weed in one of my gardens and my autoimmune conditions went into high gear. For the first time ever I was unable to sleep due to pain (what is up with my joints and muscles?!), gastritis returned after being good for two years, my Sjogren’s flared (!!) and my lips turned blue. Ugh. I blame the heat and the sun.

Now it is August, I’m on oxygen full time, meds have been changed, and I’m in need of a little cheer. Shawls, I need shawls!! The way things are going right now I want to be wrapped in color. Shawls will give me color, texture, lots of mindless knitting, and defiance in the face of medical adversity. I hit the stash, printed patterns from Ravelry, made my shopping list and when I went on the knitting road trip with my peeps last week I scored everything I needed. May I present to you, Seven Happy Shawls…

Shawls and Yarn
Shawl patterns matched with my yarn. Top row: Antkarkis Shawl (photo credit to Janina Kallio)  Middle row: Rainbow Warrior (photo credit to Casapinka) Bottom Row: A Random Act of Color (photo credit to Mina Phillip)

How is this for cheerful defiance! I was really torn about which one to start on, but I’m leaning towards Antarktis.

Shawls and Yarn
Shawls and yarn match by column from left to right. Far left column: Exploration Station (photo credit to westknits). Left middle column: Jujuy (photo credit to Rafael Delceggio) Middle right column: Tamdou (photo credit to Melanie Berg). Right column: The Miller’s Daughter (photo credit to Melanie Berg).

More defiance. This should keep me going in good cheer until the end of the year. I’m torn about the order to knit them; they are all just too yummy for words.

Shawl Kits
Here they are: seven shawls all kitted up waiting to go. I put the pattern into the box with each yarn, and I’ve already wound the yarn for the top three shawl contenders.

All right August, I am ready for you. Let’s go!!

Notes:

  • My Ravelry queue can be located here if you would like more information about these patterns and the yarns that I have selected.
  • I downloaded Fotor for Windows to make some photo collages instead of posting a million pictures. What do you think? I think that you can also make stuff online. It was free, free, free!!

 

Solaris Shawl: The Blue Lips Special

I’ve really been dragging lately. I’m out of breath, my arms and legs just don’t want to go, and every now and then my chest hurts. This has been going on since around the first of the year, and so far my pulmonologist and rheumatologist haven’t located a definitive cause. It’s a scleroderma thing, they tell me. I’m on oxygen overnight now, my immunosuppressive drugs have been increased, and I’m just maintaining.

That was until I noticed that my lips were blue one morning while combing my hair. Blue lips? That can’t be good. I did some google searches, scared myself silly and then began to check the mirror more frequently during the day. Two weeks later it was pretty clear that I was rocking the blue lip look every time I came up the stairs. I bought a pulse oximeter, and began to record my blood pressure and oxygen levels throughout the day. Finally, admitting to myself that this was a true phenomenon, I called the doctor.

Of course everything went out of control as soon as I made the call. Now I’m in the middle of testing and doctor appointments. Monday was an especially ugly day; I flunked the 6 minute walk test in 2 minutes flat and was put on oxygen in the hallway. Darn!! It’s a sure thing that I will be lugging an oxygen tank around in a backpack in the near future as soon as I finish the current round of doctor visits and testing. My next doctor appointment is Tuesday, and I think I won’t be able to put off the oxygen trolls any longer after that.

So how have I been handling all of this? Well, when everything is falling apart around you, it is best to just knit, knit, knit! Seriously, knitting is positive, productive, meditative, never talks back and consumes very little oxygen. Perfect! I’ve been just cranking out my Solaris shawl over the last week and the end is now in sight. It is going to be beautiful. Check it out!

Shawl
I’m in the final edging; I just have a few more rows of color to go.
Edging Detail
Check out the stitch detail of the edging.
Yarn Detail
The colors that I am using all come from one ball of Crazy Zauberball. You can see how the colors change in the ball in this section of the shawl. I just pull off yarn from the ball until another nice color emerges for my next strip of edging. The project details are here on Ravelry.

So, next week should be a big one for little ol’ me. I’ll be seeing my primary doctor for a breathing needs evaluation, hopefully I’ll be saying goodbye to the blue lips, and my Solaris shawl will get finished up.

I’m not sure how this is all going to turn out, but I’ve got a big shawl queue all ready to go.

It is good to be a knitter!