Next Steps

It’s been muggy and drizzly and rainy as Nate sweeps through New England this Columbus Day. Not much left to the storm, fortunately for us. And good weather lies ahead for the next few days. I spent the afternoon getting as much work done as I could, because I’m facing more hand surgery a week from today.

I wasn’t expecting this to happen so soon. Indeed, I have been savoring regained abilities. My big accomplishment last week was running an errand after a doctor’s appointment, something I haven’t been able to do since before my first surgery at the end of August. I even went for a massage, a most welcomed treat.

But my hand surgeon, Dr. S, told me we need to move ahead with the skin grafts on four of my fingers, the ones with the largest open wounds post-debridement, because there is a limit on how long the two stabilizing pins in my right pinky and left index finger can remain. My Boston Medical Center rheumatologist agrees that the grafts are worth trying. Dr. S says he will know if the grafts take when he looks at my fingers three days after the surgery. If the grafts don’t work, he wants to give the skin more time to heal on its own before going to amputations. That is, of course, the last resort.

So I went ahead and sent in the insurance appeal for the hyperbaric oxygen treatment last Friday. Asking for a peer-to-peer review. We shall see.

I also decided not to go with Botox shots in my hands, despite Dr. S’s recommendation. The research just doesn’t give me enough confidence in the procedure. In particular, I found a study published this summer in Arthritis & Rheumatology—randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, funded in part by the Scleroderma Research Foundation—of scleroderma patients who had undergone Botox injections in one hand and saline in the other as a control. One month out from the treatment, the researchers found a statistically significant decrease in blood circulation in the Botox-injected hands—the exact opposite of the intended outcome. In addition, other research I found indicated that about a third of Raynaud’s patients who undergo Botox injections in their hands experience paralysis that lasts from two to four months. No thank you.

Instead, I’m going to boost my hand circulation with a low tech solution: hand warmer packets inserted into my wrist warmers.

I don’t relish going under the knife again. But it’s also better to just get it out of the way while the weather is still relatively warm. I’ve switched my daily guided meditation (highly recommend Headspace) from pain management to stress management. I’m looking forward to a movie date with Mindi the day before surgery.

I will be taking a break from blogging next week, given timing of the surgery, and will report in when I’m up for sitting at the computer again. Until then, I wish all of us peace and healing.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Image Credit: Isaac Benhesed

Thoughts and Prayers

I woke up Monday morning to read the tragic, depressing news about the mass shooting in Las Vegas on Sunday night. And to read the inevitable comments on social media, news analyses, and verbal throwing of hands in the air, how will we ever stop this scourge? Lots of tweets and Facebook posts about sending thoughts and prayers to those affected by the tragedy, as well as criticisms of “thoughts and prayers” as being enough already. Time for action to end what has become a major public health crisis in this country.

I felt myself sinking into the morass. There must be a way for us to come together as a country and solve this. I wish I had the answer. I don’t. But I want to put in a word for the value of thoughts and prayers.

Thoughts and prayers are not a passive pursuit. Indeed, thinking — as in imagining what it is like to have been the victim of a tragedy — is one of the most important first steps any of us can take to get past the divisive rhetoric surrounding this issue and move toward finding common ground. Empathy is an essential virtue.

Prayer is a meditative way to direct those thoughts toward healing, dialogue, problem-solving. It is a means to focus energy toward the greater good. It is also a means to short-circuit knee-jerk reactions, accusations, epithets —  everything that distracts from the hard work of reaching consensus.

I have been the beneficiary of many thoughts and prayers from family and friends over these past few months as I have been wrestling with my hand issues. I genuinely believe that all that positive energy has helped me to find strength. Many caring messages have brightened my days.

So I don’t believe that thoughts and prayers are waste of time, on either a personal or communal level. Thoughts and prayers alone, however, are not enough. Not to solve a problem as big as the one our nation is facing.

Here is a link to one of the best articles I have seen that explains why our country is so mired in the debate over guns, even as we actually agree on more than headlines and raging pundits would allow. I hope it gives you some clarity as you wrestle with this issue in your own way:

 Gun Violence in America, Explained in 17 Maps and Charts, Vox 10-2-17

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Image Credit: David Monje

Sticking Point

Now that I’m starting to get back into a regular schedule, it’s a relief to be able to focus on work and other writing, and forget about my hands for a few hours. They do have a way of reminding me, however, that they need attention. As in beginning to tingle and twinge within a half-hour of time to take my pain medicine. Who needs to set a cell-phone alert? It reminds me of how our dear departed golden retriever, Ginger, used to bop my fingers off the keyboard with her nose when it was time to take a walk.

I wish it were still her, and not my fingers, calling the shots. One of the hardest aspects of this whole ordeal is simply having to accept the fact that I cannot escape it. I can’t make my fingers heal any faster than they are able. I’m certainly not going to cut them all off. And I’m not about to roll up in a ball and hibernate until it’s over. I can only sit with it, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day.

I boost my spirits by celebrating small victories — the ability to make a few notes by hand, regained stamina to sit at my desk for another hour, a creative solution to cracking an egg and separating the white from the yoke without messing up my bandages.

Scleroderma is a disease that makes you feel stuck in your own skin. I remember that sensation all too well from the early years when my illness was still in a very active phase. About three decades ago, my skin had tightened halfway up my forearms, and I was beginning to have discomfort blinking. The veins were not visible on the backs of my hands. My skin felt like leather that had been wet and then dried in the sun. It was terrifying. Mercifully, treatment with D-Penicillamine, since discredited in the research literature (but I am convinced it saved me), reversed the tightening. Although my skin is not normal, it has been decades since I’ve felt so trapped within it.

Now, I feel stuck in a different way — stuck in what feels like an endless cycle of doctors appointments, dressing changes, pills upon pills, and the sheer inability to do what I want to do the way I want to do it. That, plus the discomfort and pain that is just what I have to live with for who knows how long. It is very frustrating. Meditation and good, healthy distractions, like getting back to my creative writing, are among the best solutions. Hugs from Al help a great deal, too.

When I dip into the news, a practice I am trying to limit to reading reliable sources and listening to thoughtful podcasts in order to keep my sanity, I feel a different intensity of stuck-ness. How is it possible that we are actually seriously discussing the possibility of nuclear war with North Korea? What can any of us do to stop it? I can still remember Cold War air raid drills when I was in grammar school, kneeling between classmates in the school hallway with one hand under my forehead and the other on the back of my head. As if that was really going to save any of us from the A-bomb. The fact that reckless, macho-on-steroids quips and put-downs are defining this path we are on, rather than serious diplomacy, boggles the mind.

In a very strange way, my hand saga provides a welcome distraction of stuck-ness from all of this. How ironic. At least, when it comes to my own health, I have some degree of control over the outcome. God willing, the adults will take charge and walk us all back from the brink of an unthinkable fate.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Image Credit: Nick Abrams

To Appeal or Not to Appeal

I’m pleased to report, three weeks post hand surgery, that I’m making small progress every day. I’m able to sit at my computer for most of the afternoon, and it’s been great to catch up with my clients and focus on projects instead of my hands. I drove short distances twice last week — to two separate medical appointments. My hands were tired afterward, but it was wonderful to feel that I had some independence again. This Tuesday afternoon, Dr. S removes the sutures in two of my fingers, which have been driving me crazy. Hoping this will help to relieve some of the chronic pain that I’ve been experiencing.

However, last Thursday I found out that I was declined for the hyperbaric oxygen therapy, otherwise known as HBO. It wasn’t a big surprise, because the criteria for insurance coverage are very narrow and specific, unless you have a diagnosis of diabetes. Which I do not.

I’m not sure what to make of this. The chance of improving the odds for healing pre- and post-skin grafts — the next step in my surgery — is certainly very appealing. At the same time, the huge time commitment that this therapy requires is daunting. As I mentioned in a previous post, it involves spending three hours a day, five days a week for six weeks, lying in a large chamber with a clear cover, during which time you are exposed to 100 percent oxygen to boost healing.

Although I am not claustrophobic most of the time, I have my moments. I’m only 5’2″ tall (actually a little less than that now, as I’ve started shrinking), and being amidst a large crowd can really spook me, because I can’t see over people’s heads. I’ve also had some uncomfortable experiences when I’ve had MRIs. One time, I had to press the panic button because I was starting to feel lightheaded by being so confined.

I have no idea if appealing the insurance company’s decision will make a bit of difference. Highly doubtful.

And yet . . . I don’t like the idea of giving up without a fight. I found a current research study in the International Journal of Dermatology that had very encouraging results for healing scleroderma ulcers using HBO. The only problem, as with so much scleroderma research, is that the sample size is so small — only six subjects. But every one of the subjects experienced improvement. So I sent the study along to the Wound Center, which has been handling the insurance inquiry, and I need to follow up with them.

Meanwhile, it’s time to prepare for Rosh Hashanah, which begins Wednesday evening. Al is my sous chef, with help from Emily, as well, come Wednesday. We look forward to gathering with family and friends for a festive meal to welcome in the Jewish New Year. This past year has brought some of the greatest health challenges that I have ever faced. Whether you celebrate or not, whatever your tradition and faith, may all in need of healing be blessed with improved health — physical, mental and spiritual.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Image: The Lærdalstunnelen, 24.5 km, world’s longest road tunnel, from our Norway trip. There are beautiful blue lights at three intervals to break up the monotony, and, I suspect, to ease claustrophobic fears.

Hurricane Season

Harvey, Irma, José, Katia. It’s only September, and we’re already almost halfway through the alphabet, reeling from two of the most destructive Atlantic hurricanes on record. Recovery from Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida and the Caribbean will take months, maybe years. We send thoughts and prayers, open our pocketbooks to support those in need, and worry. Where will the next killer storm make landfall? What’s next? Will we and our loved ones stay safe?

I once stood in the eye of a hurricane. It was a Monday, August 19, 1991. Al and I had taken Mindi, then almost 3, to Block Island for the very first time. We had heard wonderful things about this lovely place off the Rhode Island coast and were enjoying the little cottage we had rented and a great day at the beach the Sunday we arrived. This was, of course, before cell phones, wide access to Internet, and all the news-gathering outlets that we now take for granted.

We had decided to avoid TV for our time away from home. So we did not know anything about Hurricane Bob, a Category 3 storm that was heading our way. That is, not until our rental agent knocked on the door late Sunday and told us that Bob was expected to pass directly over the island the next day. We had a choice: to wait it out in the cottage or go to the local school that was serving as a shelter. We chose the latter.

Al entertained the children around us in the shelter by playing his recorder, and I have vague memories of making origami animals for Mindi and the others. It was crowded and humid in that gymnasium, but people remained good-humored, for the most part. Sometime in the early afternoon, the eye of the storm passed directly overhead, and we went outside to look. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and it was quite peaceful and refreshing. As the sky darkened and the wind picked up, we retreated to the gymnasium to wait out the rest of the storm.

Later, we went down to the shore to check out the damage. Beached sailing yachts, broken tree limbs, and much fascinating detritus had washed up on the sand. Fortunately, our little cottage suffered very minor damage, just a few leaks. Most of the vacationers went home, and we had the island mostly to ourselves the rest of the week. Sometimes, ignorance is bliss.

A few days later, I realized that my period was late. After five months of infertility treatments that involved artificial insemination with Al’s sperm (the least romantic way to make a baby), we knew that I might actually be pregnant. Giddy with excitement, we brainstormed names beginning with the letter B. This was our first glimmer that Emily (we gave up on B names) was on her way.

I was remembering all this family history on Saturday afternoon, as Irma hurtled toward the Florida coast, and Al and I were taking a hike in the woods. He had convinced me to get out of the house and into the great outdoors. It had been an emotional week. My head was swirling. Last Tuesday, Dr. S informed me that he thought skin grafts could work on my fingers. This was completely contrary to initial assessments by him and the first hand surgeon I saw. Such good news. No guarantees that it will work, but he wanted to try before going to the extreme of amputation.

Then, on Thursday, we met with the vascular surgeon for an evaluation for hyperbaric oxygen therapy to accelerate healing. What I did not know was how intensive this treatment is: three hours a day in the chamber, five days a week, for six weeks. As the doctor explained, it’s like a part-time job. As of yet, we do not know if I will qualify for the insurance coverage, because the criteria are quite narrow and specific. But the Wound Center staff are doing their best to see if I can get approval. Then I have to figure out if I am really up to doing this. The prospect is scary, but if it could help save my fingers, then I need to give it serious consideration.

Like I said, my head was swirling. What if the grafts don’t work? That would mean a third surgery and amputation. What if I’m too claustrophobic for the hyperbaric oxygen therapy? How am I going to do that and keep up with my client work? Freelancers don’t get sick pay. How many more surgeries am I facing? How long am I going to feel incapacitated and so dependent upon others to do even the most basic things?

On Monday, my mental hurricane decreased in intensity. For the first time since early August, I was actually able to drive my car a short distance. First, I drove around the block while Al waited for me in the driveway. Then I took my maiden voyage to the hospital, a 15 minute drive, for an appointment with my infectious disease specialist. As we reviewed my antibiotics and discussed plans for the next operation, he looked a bit skeptical. He wondered aloud if I had contacted my rheumatologists to see what they thought about the potential success of skin grafts. I had not. But I will before proceeding. Had I not been able to drive myself to and from the appointment, his question would have set my head spinning again.

As it was, I drove home. I was able to use my key to lock and unlock our door. I was able to take the mail out of our narrow mailbox. I did not need a nap. I was able to get some client work done. I wrote this blog. And I did not hurt my fingers, even as my hands were tired and a bit achy from the excursion.

I do not know how much worse this is going to get. I do not look forward to more surgery or intensive treatment in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, assuming that’s even possible. I do not look forward to months and months of healing. Perhaps I was just standing in the eye of the storm on Monday. But it felt really, really good.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Image Credit: NASA/NOAA/UWM-CIMSS, William Straka

Im-patient

One week and counting since my hand surgery. On Tuesday afternoon, we will meet again with Dr. S to review status and plan next steps. Contrary to my initial euphoric reaction to seeing that I still had 10 fingers when I woke up from the operation last Monday, I soon realized, when changing my dressings, that the situation was much more complicated.

I have temporary pins in the two fingers I thought I was going to lose, not permanent ones. I’m hoping that Dr. S has received helpful, wise feedback from the other hand surgeons on his listserv, but I am not optimistic that he will be able to save those two fingers. Like I said, it’s complicated. At the very least, he bought me time for a thorough review.

In short, he did exactly what he said he would. He stabilized my hands for the next phase. It’s a real relief to have the protruding tips of bone removed and the two broken fingers no longer flopping when I bandage them. I have six open wounds to dress every day. It takes about two hours and is very tiring, sometimes quite painful. Al is a great help, as always. I have certainly shed plenty of tears as I have tried to come to terms with everything. And he has given me plenty of good hugs.

It’s been an emotionally and physically draining week, especially when I realized the pins were temporary. Thank goodness for family and friends who have been a tremendous support, with meals, visits and phone calls that have given me a big boost.

But I wish it were over already. I wish that I could visit the original Star Ship Enterprise, go to Sick Bay and have Dr. McCoy wave that magical tricorder over my hands to heal them immediately. He was my favorite character. If wishes were fishes . . .

In addition to seeing Dr. S on Tuesday, I have an evaluation on Thursday at the Wound Center for hyperbaric chamber treatment that may accelerate the healing process. Dr. S had also mentioned the possibility of giving me Botox shots in my hands to block the sympathetic nervous system response that causes my blood vessels to contract so quickly and uncomfortably from Reynaud’s. Apparently, the shots would last three months and carry me well into the winter with warmer hands, another boost for healing.

So that is what I must focus on. I have stopped watching the evening TV news and only read or listen to thoughtful podcasts to keep up with current events. I figured out how to prop up a book and use a stylus to help me turn pages—a major achievement and relief to begin reading again. I am building up my stamina to sit at the computer for a couple of hours a day, so I hope to be able to get some client work done this week. I have cut back on the Vicodin to one pill at night. It causes crazy dreams, sometimes very scary, so I hope to be free of that soon. Each day brings small victories that deserve celebration and gratitude. No Dr. McCoy, just the hard reality of slow and (I hope) steady healing.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Image Credit: DeForest Kelley as Dr. McCoy from the original Star Trek, Wikimedia Commons

My Everest

Much has happened in the weeks since I last wrote. I had hoped to share a simple, upbeat travelogue about our wonderful August vacation to Iceland and Norway upon our return a week ago, Sunday. The trip was, indeed, magnificent. But life is not simple, especially with scleroderma. My severe ulcers that I have written about for months took a serious turn for the worse. As I write on Sunday afternoon, I am facing major hand surgery Monday morning. Here is what happened:

For more than three decades, I have been managing digital ulcers on multiple fingers. I have gone through infections requiring IV infusions, more rounds of antibiotics than I can remember, and months — sometimes years — of waiting for ulcers to heal. I have learned how to compensate and find creative solutions for handling daily tasks. I have learned to live with people’s reactions to my oddly shaped, bandaged fingers. But this spring, something went terribly wrong. My ulcers on five fingers formed large scabs, or escars. They were hard and thick and dark; when tapped, they felt like turtle shells.

As I have been documenting in this blog, for the past three months I’ve been trying to find a way to get them to heal. As the escars have receded, part of the natural healing process, I have sought out state-of-the-art wound dressings and consulted with wound specialists, with varying degrees of success. When I didn’t understand, however, was the real risk for the ulcers to work their way down to bone.

The Wednesday night before we were set to leave on our trip, I was changing my dressings as usual. But suddenly, the escar on my right pinky (the ulcer that had been infected a few months ago) lifted up to expose the knuckle bone beneath. I was terrified. We called the hospital’s Wound Center and spoke to a nurse practitioner who was covering for the night. She suggested that unless I started running a fever, it was safe to wait until morning to get medical attention. This was good advice, because the last thing I wanted to do was spend five hours in the ER.

On Thursday, Al came with me to see, first, a nurse practitioner in the Wound Center (no surgeons were on that day), and later in the afternoon, an excellent orthopedic hand surgeon/plastic surgeon. He looked at my pinky with its exposed knuckle bone and gave me the news straight up: because of my scleroderma, options such as skin grafts would not work, and the only solution was amputation.

I was in shock, as was Al. Never in my wildest dreams had I anticipated this path. He said the escars on my other fingers were “classic scleroderma,” and that they were covering dead skin. I do not know if there had ever been any hope for real healing once the damage had been done. I asked him if it was still possible to travel. He said yes, so long as I kept the wound clean, moist and protected, and was on appropriate antibiotics. It would not change the prognosis nor make things worse.

By the time we got home, I had made up my mind to take the risk and go ahead with the trip. Even though it was insured (this time, I had met the deadline for getting travel insurance that would cover us for pre-existing conditions), we had been planning this wonderful trip for months, and I just wanted to go. But then I changed my dressings that evening. Suddenly, the escar on my left index finger began to recede to expose the back of the knuckle. I was in hysterics. How could this be happening? I told Al that I couldn’t imagine traveling now. He said he would go with whatever I decided. He went to sleep, and I went downstairs to sit on the living room couch and try to think.

I emailed a couple of friends for help to sort it out. I realized after a few hours of agonizing that I was channeling my mother, who was a very anxious woman who never took risks.  She came to this country from Germany in 1936 at age 14, escaping the trauma of the Holocaust, but never free of what might have been. Her fears of danger kept me from exploring the world when I was young, with the exception of a two-week tour of Europe that my mother’s mother paid for when my sister and I were in college — my grandmother’s way of exposing us to the world that she missed so much.

Facing the inevitability of losing at least one finger and maybe more, I knew that I needed the inspiration of beautiful landscape in order to face what was to come. I wrote an email to the hand surgeon and asked him if the risk of exposed bone was additive with more fingers involved, and if the prognosis would change if we went ahead with the trip. I received a thoughtful email back in the morning that explained that each finger had to be considered independently, and that the risks and prognosis remained the same. I also checked with my ID specialist about antibiotics, and he said that what I had already planned to take with me was appropriate. I told Al that I wanted to go. He gave me a big thumbs-up and a big hug.

And so, we went, first to Reykjavík for two days, and then on to Norway. We spent five days in Bergen, on the southwest coast, home to some of the country’s most famous fjords, then took a scenic 7 1/2 hour train ride to Oslo, stayed overnight, and flew to Tromsø in the Arctic Circle. There we stayed for three days, and then wrapped up our trip in Oslo for our final weekend.

The scenery was everything I’d hoped for and so much more. Iceland is in constant formation, with active volcanoes, geysers, thundering waterfalls and visible tectonic plates. The mountains are sharp, craggy and snowcapped, a visible reminder of the earth’s power to force rock skyward. We saw puffins and glaciers, smelled the sulfur of hot springs, watched Icelandic horses and sheep cropping emerald grass, marveled at moss reclaiming lava fields.

In Norway, we immersed ourselves in beauty, from towering green and rock mountains bordering calm saltwater fjords to the art of Edvard Munch (MOOnk). We drove through the world’s longest tunnel (25 km) with its sapphire blue lighting, stared slack-jawed at thousand-foot waterfalls nearly everywhere we turned, rode the scenic Flam railroad up and down a mountain. Staying in wonderful Air B&B flats, we ate many of our meals at home to save some money (restaurants are very expensive in Norway), but treated ourselves to four exquisite dinners out.

For all this, however, travel was very strenuous for me. It took about two hours in the morning and the same at night to change my dressings. Our supplies included 700 cloth bandages, 32 sheets of silver alginate dressing, a cream I had discovered online that includes hyaluronic acid and is intended for radiation burns, lidocaine gel, Q-tips and more. Along the way, three more ulcers receded to expose bone. It was as if all my ulcers had hit a tipping point within the same week. Sometimes changing the dressings was so painful, it reduced me to tears — and I am not one who cries easily. Al was my rock, so attentive and supportive. He would read to me of Norse mythology as I went through the tedious process of tending to my fingers, help me get dressed, take my arm to make sure I didn’t fall, comfort me when fears overwhelmed me.

Throughout the first week, as my ulcers deteriorated, I agonized over whether I had made the wrong decision. Al said let’s take one day at a time. Even though we often didn’t get out until afternoon, we made the most of each day. New friends in Bergen gave us a grand tour of the fjords and invited us to their home for Shabbat dinner. When I dropped my wallet without realizing it, in the pouring rain as we were getting on a bus, a young man tapped me on the shoulder and returned it to me.

My self-doubts finally dissipated when we reached Tromsø. The idea to go there had been mine, a major challenge with my Reynaud’s. The Gulf Stream keeps temperatures in the 50s Fahrenheit in the summer — not the warmest climate for me, but still an opportunity to get as close as I ever will to the North Pole. Our first full day there, the rain that punctuated our entire trip cleared as we were riding a cable car to the top of a small mountain that overlooked the city, which is on an island. As I walked out on the top of the mountain, with its spectacular view of huge, jagged, snowcapped peaks in the distance, I was suddenly overwhelmed with emotion. I had made it, here to the Arctic Circle, with my aversion to cold and my crazy hands. This was my Everest. In that moment, I regained my courage. I knew I could face what was coming next.

The following day, the sun was bright and the temperatures in the 60s. We had signed up for a five-hour tour of a neighboring island, and with luck, ended up as the only passengers on the trip. Our tour guide, Pedro, who had come from Lisbon to Tromsø in search of the Northern Lights (only visible in late fall and winter), proved to be a wonderful companion and conversationalist. We covered everything from Norwegian geography to European views and fears of the Trump presidency. The highlight of our day was eating lunch on a cream-colored coral sand beach (there is a coral reef in the Arctic — who knew?), talking politics, drinking rice milk hot cocoa and eating delicate Finnish homemade cookies.

As the end of our travels drew near, my apprehension began to mount again. Fortunately, our seven-hour flight back from Gatwick, London, was on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the newest and most advanced jet in the sky. Better humidity, improved air pressure changes and even comfortable seats in economy made it a much easier flight than I had anticipated.

This week, reality hit home hard. We saw the hand surgeon late Monday afternoon, and his assessment was that I would need what’s called a hand “revision” that would involve trimming five of my fingers. His goal was to leave as much length as possible. But, in all probability, my right pinky and left index finger would be reduced to one digit stumps. The other three — left middle finger, right middle finger and right ring finger — would involve trimming exposed bone and leaving open wounds in the hopes of preserving length as skin regenerated. As it turned out, however, his OR schedule was booked through September. He referred me to an experienced colleague with similar credentials, who had an opening on Monday.

We met the second hand surgeon on Thursday. He is meticulous, thoughtful and thorough. With a very sober face, he told me that this would be the first of “many surgeries” because of the complexity of the damage. He described my situation as “serious scleroderma.” He is concerned about healing with my poor circulation and suggested the possibility of having a sympathectomy done at a later point to increase blood flow to my hands. He agreed with the first hand surgeon that I should have hyperbaric chamber treatment in the wound center to help improve oxygenation with my blood and speed healing. On Monday, he will debride all the ulcers, trim back exposed bone, and determine the best way to deal with my two broken knuckles. He will also take pictures and share them on a list-serve for hand surgeons to get more input about next steps.

I was very frightened and distressed after this meeting, even as I feel fortunate to have such an expert taking care of my hands. He has  an excellent reputation, especially for follow-through, and is in high demand. The last few days have been an emotional roller coaster ride, softened by love and support from family and good friends.  I wax and wane between fear and grief over losing part of five fingers and just wanting to be rid of these painful digits that no longer work.

My surgery is scheduled for first thing Monday morning. By the time you’re reading this, it will all be over. I do not know if I will be up for writing what happened by next week, but I will certainly share the next chapter when I am able. Let the healing begin.

Post-op P.S.:  Thank goodness, the procedure went better than expected. My circulation exceeded the hand surgeon’s expectations. Still have all 10 fingers, for now. He put temporary pins in my right pinky and left index finger to stabilize them and buy me some time. He is sharing pictures of my fingers on an international list serve for hand surgeons, so we will have input from the best of the best for next steps. Pain management will be the next challenge, but I am so grateful and relieved to have made it through this procedure. Thank you for sharing my odyssey, and thanks to Al for being my post-op scribe and life’s partner.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Sinkhole

Late Monday afternoon, just after I’d finished work for the day, the water main on our street broke. Water started bubbling out of cracks right in front of our next-door neighbor’s house. By the time I went to investigate, maybe a half-hour later, it was gushing down the street, into the gutters.  A couple of DPW trucks drove by, then drove by again. All the neighbors came out to comment and gawk at the river in the middle of the road. By the time the water was shut off for the whole street, a chunk of asphalt had formed a sinkhole.

Now, as I write, around 8 o’clock in the evening,  a work crew is milling about outside. We’ve been told it may be 8 to 10 hours before the water main is fixed. It’s going to be a long, dry night.

My first thought, when I realized that we had no water, was how am I going to wash my hands tonight? Fortunately, we have some distilled water in the house. I also just received a shipment of saline wound wash. So I should be able to take care of my ulcers, thank goodness.

This follows a day in which I learned that, contrary to what I’d been led to believe about procuring the high end wound dressing I’ve been seeking, that I did not need a prior authorization, given that this dressing is considered to be a durable medical supply. I just needed to have my rheumatologist fax the prescription to the supplier. (This, after I learned from several phone calls to various sources, is possible because I can get said durable medical supplies out-of-network without penalty from my insurance company.) All of this would be great news, except for the fact that I have lost weeks in a wild goose chase for prior authorization, when I probably could have had the dressing by now, saving much pain and frustration.

All of this is compounded by the fact that we are leaving for vacation soon. I’m still hoping for a miracle that somehow all the approvals will go through and I can get the dressing before we go. But each day makes that less likely. So I’ll just need to do the best I can with what I have.

The one thing I have control over is how I respond to the situation I find myself in. I started doing some guided meditations about pain management. It’s really quite fascinating, because the focus is not on trying to avoid the pain, but rather on changing how I understand and respond to it. It’s very easy to fall into the hole of fear and anxiety about what is happening to my fingers, given that the healing process is so excruciatingly slow. The pain triggers those fears. I look at the deep wounds when I change my dressings and don’t know how to interpret what I see and feel.

What I have learned is that the more tense and stressed I am, the worse the pain becomes. The more I’m able to relax and sit with the pain, the less overwhelmed I am, and the pain itself becomes more manageable.

Not easy to remember when my fingers start going crazy as my medication wears off by the end of the day. But I’m trying. What other choice do I have?

Now the DPW work crew is banging and rattling about. By morning, I hope the sinkhole will be repaired and that we will have running water again. Thank goodness these men are willing to work through the night to take care of our street. Every day brings the unexpected. How we deal with it is up to each and every one of us.

I’ll be taking a break from my blog for the next few weeks, back at the end of August. I hope, Dear Reader, that the rest of your summer is free of sinkholes and full of good health and pleasant journeys.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Holy Grail

For more than a year, I’ve been trying to figure out how to get a high-end wound dressing called Hyalomatrix Wound Device. Several years ago, my podiatrist gave me a sample while the product was still in development by researchers in Italy. This dressing contains hyaluronic acid, which occurs naturally in the body and aids in formation of new skin. I had tried using it very successfully on an ankle ulcer that had refused to heal. It was the only thing that worked.

I have only a tiny bit left of that sample, which I’ve been rationing on my six deep digital ulcers. Once again, it seems to be the one thing that is helping my skin to regenerate as the large scabs very slowly recede. So, I’m anxious to get my hands on some more (or rather, some more on my hands).

For reasons unknown — perhaps I wasn’t persistent enough, or perhaps Medline, the company that manufactures this product, updated their website only recently — I could not find a way to reach a human being at the company who could tell me how to order it. That is, until last week, when I finally figured out how to get through. I spoke both to catalog sales as well as their home care team.

When I say this product is high-end, I’m not kidding. Although they wouldn’t give me an exact price over the phone, they also would not sell it to me because it costs in the four figures, and that certainly exceeds my budget, as well as the company’s ceiling for direct sales to individuals. I need to get it via a prescription. This led me to call my insurance company to see if they would even cover it. To my surprise, the service rep thought it might be possible – but I would need prior authorization.

So this created the next challenge: which of my docs to ask? The most obvious starting place was the vascular surgeon at the Wound Care Center who has seen me twice since May. She is a great physician, very supportive and knowledgeable. However, despite my best efforts, which included sending her detailed information about the wound care product, research backing it up and a prior authorization form, for reasons that I still don’t understand, she handed me off to the Wound Care Center and would not submit the form on my behalf. Honestly, I think she was too busy to actually read what I asked her to do. The Wound Care Center staff looked into it and discovered that their supplier does not carry this particular product. Dead-end.

I was certainly not about to give up. So Monday afternoon, at a previously scheduled appointment with my Boston Medical Center rheumatologist, I shared my digital ulcer saga and all the information. He was glad to go ahead and submit the form and write me a prescription if I get approval. I also asked him to please ask for an expedited review, to avoid the average 15-day wait for a response from the insurance company.

We have known each other for several decades, now. So much of getting what you need depends on good, long-term relationships with your health care providers. Fingers crossed (at least, metaphorically) that I’ll get approval and be able to fill the prescription ASAP. To be continued . . .

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Tick-tick-tick

Friday afternoon, about 4:45. I was trying to wrap up a writing project when Al came home from work at the hospital (he’s a medical social worker). Usually he doesn’t get home on a Friday until 6:00, earliest. He said a brief hello, told me he was cold and needed to go to bed. This is not like him at all. He went upstairs and slept for an hour-and-a-half. When I checked on him, he was restless and very uncomfortable. I had to race out to buy a thermometer, because neither of us ever runs a fever when we get sick. His temp was 102.3°F. And he was starting to cough. Not good.

No way I was going to try to manage this by myself, especially with my hands in such bad shape. So I called our doctor and got the after-hours service. The nurse quickly assessed the situation and told us to come to Urgent Care. It’s been years, fortunately, since we’ve needed such a visit, and our medical group’s Urgent Care set-up has completely changed. We walked into a sleek new facility where you have to sign in on touchscreen computers, not unlike you find in a cell phone store. You plug in the last four digits of your phone, and that’s how you can see on the monitors where you are in the queue. We were number three.

Soon we were processed by the intake nurse, and then there was a short wait until we were shown into an exam room by a friendly male nurse and female medical assistant. Al’s vital signs taken (by this time his temp had dropped about a half degree, thanks to some ibuprofen), we waited maybe 10 minutes until the doctor came in. He was very thorough. The risk here was that Al does not have a spleen, which is part of the immune system. The first year we were married, he contracted mononucleosis and his spleen ruptured, requiring emergency surgery. He came home from the hospital the day before our anniversary—an auspicious conclusion to our first year.

After a slew of blood tests, a chest X-ray and urine sample, we waited around for early results—all negative. So the doctor sent us home with a prescription for an antibiotic as a precaution against any lung complications until all the tests were in.  Al was feeling better and his cough had subsided, so we hoped he just needed rest and time to recuperate.

We both settled in for the evening. Around 10 o’clock, the phone rang, but the caller ID said “United Bank,” so I ignored it. Why would a bank be calling on a Friday night?  I went about my business, did my hour-long routine with my hand care for all my ulcers, and took 200 mg of gabapentin for nerve pain. Then I took a look at the phone. There was a voicemail. By this time, it was about 11:30. The message was from Urgent Care, asking us to call the overnight service. It took me 45 minutes to get through to the clinician on call—Al’s white blood count had come back elevated, sign of a more serious infection, and they wanted us to go to the ER to have him checked out.

So, I woke him up, we both got dressed, and I drove him to his hospital. We arrived close to 1 AM. Now, the ER at Al’s hospital is neither new nor sleek. On a Friday night in July, about 20 other ambulatory patients were sitting around the waiting room in various stages of alertness, diddling with their cell phones. The intake nurse was stressed and busy with a young man on a stretcher who was apparently in and out of consciousness. An old episode of Law & Order (as in Sam Sheppard was the DA) was playing on the TV monitor. We settled in for a long wait.

I was tired, draggy from my meds, and scared. I did a little research on my phone to figure out what Al’s white blood count meant. I tried to find a comfortable position in an uncomfortable seat.  I covered my fingers with my hand warmers, because I was nervous about picking up some kind of infection from the hospital. Al kept himself busy reading a magazine that he’d had the presence of mind to bring along. He wasn’t feverish anymore, thanks to a dose of acetaminophen and one of his new antibiotics. I tried to doze, and I tried to watch a little TV, but the next program was even worse—some ridiculous show about vampire hunters. Really? In an ER? A show about vampires invading a blood bank?

Finally, around 2:40 AM, it was our turn to be seen. Al got to lie down on a gurney, and I scrunched into a chair. At least we had a semblance of a room where they kept the supplies, instead of getting stuck in the hallway. Then came the procession of nurses, physicians assistants, and eventually a doctor to check him out, all requiring repetition of his medical history. I was adamant that they get the test results from Urgent Care, rather than stick him again for the same blood work or do yet another chest X-ray.

This proved a bit more complicated than it should have, because the Urgent Care service is on a different electronic medical record system than the hospital. So we had to wait for a doctor who is affiliated with our medical group to be able to access the results. By the time all of this was accomplished, around 4 AM, Al had been able to get some more sleep, his temperature had come down, and the doctor who saw him thought there was no point in admitting him. He advised that Al stay on the antibiotic for 10 days to account for the infection, though its source was still unclear. We were to follow-up with Urgent Care to get more test results as they became available.

Back home we went, and straight to bed. I finally got a few hours sleep before my hands woke me up around 8:30. I was getting some breakfast when the phone rang. Caller ID: United Bank. This time, I knew enough to pick up (and tell them, later, about that strange misnomer). It was Urgent Care with another test result: Al’s Lyme Disease titre had come back positive. Fortunately, the antibiotic that the doctor had prescribed happens to cover this pernicious bacterial infection. Also fortunately, we caught the disease early. From what we were told, he has every good chance of a full recovery after a 14-day course of the antibiotic. And he’s learned a very important lesson about checking for ticks when he takes a hike in the woods.

Needless to say, it was a real relief to have a definitive answer for his sudden illness, as well as a straightforward cure. He continued to improve through the weekend, saw our internist for follow-up on Monday, and is back to work today.

Here’s hoping we have no more medical surprises anytime soon. And no more close encounters with blood-suckers, be they ticks or ridiculous TV vampires in the middle of the night.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

Image Credit: Brandon Morgan