Just a Cold

I’m kvetchy. I have a cold, and I feel crummy. I know there are many more serious maladies out there, and this too shall pass and all that, but right now, my nose is stuffy and I’m schlepping around with a box of tissues and a plastic bag in hand because I’m going through the tissues so fast, and I’m coughing and sneezing and, and . . .

4048824638_c249f3e4e6_oOne of the things I hate most about colds is how they set off my Raynaud’s and joint aches in the first 48 hours. I also hate struggling to breathe at night and not getting a good night’s sleep. My nose is so narrowed by scleroderma that nasal congestion can be a real challenge.

And I hate being in the middle of cooking and realizing my nose is dripping and having to stop what I’m doing, grab a tissue, blow, toss it, clean my hands so I don’t make the rest of the family sick, then go back to what I was doing, only to have to repeat the same rigamarole a few minutes later.

And I hate coughing so much that I can’t finish the meal I just cooked.

But most of all, I hate the fact that everyone refers to this condition as “just a cold.” Because minimizing a respiratory virus to “just a cold” status means that everyone walks around with “just a cold” and gives it to everyone else, instead of staying home and taking the time to get healthy. And not spreading their germs.

When I was a marketing director in higher education, I used to urge my staff to go home if they started sneezing or coughing a lot, to get better and to spare the rest of the department. Sometimes this took a bit of persuasion, because we’re all conditioned to keep working with “just a cold.” Usually I prevailed, however, and most everyone in our open office space appreciated it. And stayed healthier, as a result.

Being cognizant of how we’re not doing anyone any favors by walking around when we’re sick is particularly relevant in light of the news media’s current obsession with the Ebola virus. Ebola is often fatal. It is scary. It is transmitted by direct contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids or contaminated objects, like needles or syringes.

But Ebola is nowhere nearly as contagious in public spaces as influenza, which can be deadly and is spread by sneezing and coughing. By people who don’t bother to stay home when they mistake the flu for “just a cold.”

Consider this a public service reminder to get your flu shot if your immune system is compromised or you have asthma or other respiratory complications. Or any kind of chronic illness.

I’m going to get my flu vaccination this weekend, at a free clinic offered by my health care provider. That is, assuming my “just a cold” has finally cleared up.

Meanwhile, I’ll be loading up on fish oil and Vitamin C and hot tea and soup. And kvetching.

Thanks for listening.

Photo Credit: stevendepolo via Compfight cc

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.


I wore my long winter coat this weekend. Not the heavy-duty one, but the medium weight, good-for-when-it-gets-below-50F-degrees-coat. And a warm hat. And gloves.

Book of SnowflakesIt’s only the beginning of October, but I’m already pulling out my sweaters and sweatpants, fleece vests and scarves, wool trousers and skirts, as the temperature sinks. This is always the time of year when I feel a bit self-conscious about bundling up while my neighbors are still walking around outside in windbreakers. But I’d rather be warm and keep my hands from turning purple and numb.

According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac website (is it just me, or does that sound like an oxymoron?), this winter in New England will be “much colder than normal, with near-normal precipitation and below-normal snowfall.” Looks like we’re in for a bit of snow before the calendar year is over, then just a lot of frigid temperatures until mid-March.

That is, if you believe the Almanac’s predictions. They claim 80 percent accuracy.

We were discussing this with family and friends at Al’s cousin’s home over the weekend. Those who commute by car and park on city streets were rooting for the Almanac—less to shovel sounded pretty good after last winter’s snow emergencies. For me, however, the words “much colder than normal” are more forbidding than snow storms (until the snow piles so high there’s nowhere to put it).

My winter weather trepidations are tempered by living in a landscape so romanticized by Currier and Ives. New snow is beautiful. It’s clean and sparkly and magical. I always enjoy the mystery of the first snowfall of the season, how it transforms trees into spun sugar.

Nonetheless, snow, by definition, means the temperature is below freezing, and my body just doesn’t adjust easily to the shift. We’re not there, yet, but as I walked Ginger, our 16-year-old golden, around the block on a sunny, crisp fall afternoon this Sunday, I could feel the season’s change in the wind.

Was it still, technically, summer just about a month ago? I have more digital ulcers, more bandages. I’ve turned on the heat pumps to warm the first floor of our home while I write in my small office, just off the living room. I’m wearing long sleeves and a warm cardigan.

Snow or no snow, the idea of “much colder than normal” sends shivers throughout my body. Nothing to do but make sure I have enough layers and brace for whatever winter weather lies ahead. At least we still have the best of the fall foliage to enjoy for the next couple of weeks.

Would I ever move to a warmer climate? I don’t know. I love my home, my community. Much as I struggle with the temperature shift each fall (spring brings its own unique challenges, too), I love all four seasons here.

So, pile on the sweaters and boil up the oatmeal. Colder weather? Bring it on.

Image Credit: Illustrative plates from Snowflakes: a Chapter from the Book of Nature (1863), a collection of poems, extracts, anecdotes and reflections on the theme of snow and the snowflake.  See more: http://publicdomainreview.org/collections/illustrations-of-snowflakes-1863/.

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.

Fine Tuning

During this past week, amidst so much bad news—the spread of Ebola in West Africa, the sudden eruption of Japan’s Mount Ontake that killed dozens of innocent hikers, the escalation of air strikes against ISIS in Syria, wildfires on the West Coast and more—I have been singing.

I highly recommend this as an antidote to scary headlines and other depressing thoughts.

In particular, I sang alto in a quartet accompanying our cantor and choir for Rosh Hashanah last Thursday and Friday. We’ll sing again this coming weekend, when Shabbat coincides with Yom Kippur. So we have another rehearsal this Thursday night.

This is a good thing. It’s wonderful to have the beautiful melodies of the High Holiday liturgy circling around in my head, blocking out all the bad stuff.

Services were lovely and uplifting, but it took quite a few rehearsals for me to feel really good about singing again. It’s been at least 10 years since I participated in a High Holiday choir, and I’ve never been part of the quartet. So it was a bit of a shock when we began rehearsals about six weeks ago to realize that I had gotten quite rusty. Despite more than a decade of playing instruments and singing in choirs, when I looked at the sheet music, I could not recall the names of all the notes.

Understand that I played violin for 11 years and was concert mistress in my high school orchestra.

What was happening to my brain? It actually scared me. Early signs of dementia? Age? Fatigue? Some crazy aspect of scleroderma? I didn’t know.

With practice, thank goodness, the notes came back, and by our second rehearsal, I began to regain my ability to sight-read.

A second challenge, however, was tied to scleroderma and its nasty partner, Sjögren’s Syndrome. Although I can still vocalize well, my range is more limited than in the past (I used to be able to sing second soprano as well as alto), and sometimes the notes come out warbled or off by a half-step, because my mouth is dry and I can’t always control my swallowing or how my throat opens.

I figured out how to compensate for some of this by remembering to breathe from my diaphragm, rather than straining my throat to sing louder. But I do have limits. I need to breathe more often, breaking phrases, because my lungs just won’t hold enough air. And if the group goes flat, I cannot hit the low G. Impossible.

I was feeling a bit awkward about all this, wanting to hold my own in the quartet. But then I realized that I had better fill in people, so they would understand and I could do my best for the group. Both the tenor and bass are physicians, and all are friends, so when I took the leap and explained about my health-related issues, everyone was quite supportive. This was a relief. I no longer felt self-conscious, and I certainly enjoyed singing all the more.

We received many compliments after services, how our voices enhanced the experience for the congregation. And we loved singing together. Once we learned the music, we enjoyed the added, serendipitous benefit that our four voices have natural resonance. Truly a delight to harmonize.

So I’m looking forward to our Thursday night rehearsal and to singing once again this weekend. And I hope our quartet will find more opportunities to sing together. The world is overflowing with bad news, and I don’t want to lose those notes again.

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.

Photo Shoot

On my desk, next to my computer screen, rests a black-and-white photo of me at age three, my braided hair in white satin ribbons. I’m wearing a plaid dress with puffed sleeves and a white Peter Pan collar, holding what I think was a stuffed toy deer, sitting in a folding chair in the back yard of our home. Like most little kids, I loved having my picture taken, and I’m grinning happily at the camera.

Not so, now. I don’t know at what point I began to hate having my picture taken. Probably sometime around the seventh grade when, like most teens, I started to feel too self-conscious about my facial flaws. Many women I know feel this way—we’re all far too aware of our imperfections in a society that values Photoshopped perfection.

But scleroderma adds a whole new level to my camera shyness. Recently, I needed an updated portrait. So I asked a friend who’s a good photographer if he would do the honors. We did the shoot outside in about 10 minutes, as he zipped through digital shot after digital shot and kept me laughing.

The next day, he sent me a set of images to review, most of me grinning at the camera. But as I scrolled through, my heart sank. Oh. My. Even after all these years with scleroderma, it is really hard to see how it has distorted my face. Friends who know me don’t notice, because I’ve had the disease for so long that the way I look is all they know.

But for me, it is still a shock. Although my skin has loosened somewhat with time, excellent medical care and a dose of serendipity, it remains abnormal. My wrinkles are not the fine lines and soft creases of my 60-plus contemporaries (even as I’m grateful to have wrinkles, because when the disease was worse in my 30′s, my face was tightening to the point that it was uncomfortable to blink). Rather, because my skin is still thickened, my wrinkles resemble corduroy welts of varying widths. My mouth is tight around my broad smile. The nostrils of my generous nose are narrow. My eyelids are too thick to open fully.

In short, I look a whole lot older and odder than I think of myself. I don’t care about the salt-and-pepper hair. I still have my teeth (well, at least, most of them). Maybe it was the natural lighting, which can be quite unforgiving. But. Wow.

One of the hardest things about this disease is how it damages your looks. It is deforming. There is just no way around it. When I look at myself in the bathroom mirror, I often am not wearing my glasses, so the impact is softened—a bit of self-delusion, perhaps, but it also makes me feel better.

The reality is, I’m always still hoping against hope that I’ll get my face back. I wonder what I’d look like without scleroderma, just normal aging. What would it be like to once again have a relaxed mouth, a nose that isn’t pinched, eyelids that open all the way? What would it be like to have gentle lines rather than deep creases?

I know this ruminating is both self-defeating and self-absorbed. Beauty is only skin deep, and all that. But there is a real loss involved here, and it takes a long time to make peace with the fact that scleroderma ages you prematurely and is so unkind to whatever lovely features you may have once had. You need to dig deep to summon self-respect and compassion for who you are, for all that you are, despite damning social standards.

In the end, I selected the most forgiving image and forwarded it on. The pictures told the truth. This is how I look. The contrast between what was and what is remains in my head, and those whom I love and who love me don’t care.

Friday evening, I sat on the living room couch as Al gave me a much-needed neck massage—too many hours at the computer. I told him about the photos. “I look so old,” I said, discouraged.

“You don’t look old to me,” he answered, softly. For some men, this would be a throwaway line. But not Al. He meant it. And that made all the difference.

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

Royal Flush

As the late Joan Rivers would say, “Can we talk?”

I’m referring to bathroom hygiene.

5360420829_c2d1617f3b_bNow, before you say, “E-w-w-w-w-w-w-w,” I raise this because it’s one of those topics that no one wants to discuss in public, but that presents some very real challenges for those of us with scleroderma.

To wit, what do you do when your hands don’t work right—because you have digital ulcers, like me, and/or you have flexion contractures that freeze your fingers at right angles, and/or your wrists aren’t flexible and your skin is too tight and your fingers are sore or just not that strong anymore—and you have to clean your bum after taking a dump?

It’s not easy, and it can be downright frustrating.

I’ve discussed this with occupational therapists over the years and gotten a few helpful suggestions.

Here’s what I’ve found to be most effective. There are three essentials:

  1. Soft, strong toilet paper. Forget the one-ply stuff that supposedly saves money but disintegrates as soon as you tear it off the roll. You just need three times as much to do the job.
  2. Flushable toddler wipes. My favorites include aloe. You can buy these at any drugstore or Target, they’re inexpensive, and they make the whole process of cleaning yourself up much quicker and easier, especially if your fingers are weak or sore. Just be sure to check that the package says safe for sewers and septic systems. You don’t want to clog up your plumbing.
  3. Antibacterial hand sanitizer. These products have gotten a bad name, lately, because of worries that we use so much antibacterial soap and cleanser that we’re encouraging resistant strains of bacteria. But I’ve checked with my infectious disease doc, because I cannot use soap and water on my ulcer bandages without risking more damage to my skin beneath the dressings, and he assures me it’s fine. Hand sanitizer that I rub on and let air dry is a major part of my hygiene routine and a reliable defense against ulcer infections. Again, I favor products with aloe that don’t dry out my skin.

And here’s my method: Make a wad of toilet paper, large enough that you have a good grasp without exposing your fingers. This essentially provides padding for fingertips. Top it with a wipe. This gives you additional protection plus a gentle moisturizer for efficient clean-up. Swipe and flush. Repeat as needed. Then clean your hands with the sanitizer.

Sometimes, if you’re dealing with a bigger job, it helps to have some disposable vinyl gloves on hand, to be sure you keep your fingers clean.

If you have trouble pulling the wipes out of their plastic packaging, try cutting the package apart and placing the stack of wipes into a ziplock bag, the kind with a plastic slider at the top edge (I find these easier to open and close). This is also a good way to carry some wipes with you, in a purse or carryall, when you are out of the house.

If anyone out there has some additional tips, please share. I’m a fanatic about hand hygiene, because I’ve had far too many infections over the years. We all have to use the john, and those of us with scleroderma—or any other medical challenge that limits manual dexterity—have to be creative when it comes to bathroom habits. It’s not just a matter of staying healthy—it’s a matter of staying independent.

Photo Credit: KimCarpenter NJ via Compfight cc

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

Tale of the Tooth

I hate going to the dentist.

It’s not that I don’t like the professionals who take care of my teeth. They are all wonderful, dedicated people. It’s just that there is no easy way for anyone with adult-sized fingers to maneuver around my teeth and gums without painfully stretching my mouth. The skin around my lips is simply too tight for me to open wide.

So, this past week, I was not looking forward to the visit to my periodontist for an implant—the second step of three to replace a molar lost this past spring to root resorption, a rare and very frustrating, painful complication of scleroderma.

This is the second time I’ve had to have a tooth replaced because the root resorbed. The last episode occurred maybe five years ago, and the tooth came out easily because most of the root had dissolved. But drilling to create room for the post was awful—I apparently have a dense jaw, a good thing. However, it took what felt like an hour to drill deeply and widely enough to accommodate the post. Even my periodontist remembered the ordeal.

I prepared for the appointment by shoving it out of my mind. Extracting the tooth back in the spring was no fun at all. It took more than an hour of drilling, breaking the molar into segments to get it out, long roots and all (the root had resorbed sideways into the nerve, rather than lengthwise).

Tuesday arrived, and I was even a few minutes early for my appointment. But construction work in my periodontist’s office building over the Labor Day weekend (so much for Labor Day) had left the practice with no running water when they arrived in the morning, and resolving that issue delayed all appointments. So I buried my nose in a fashion magazine as a distraction.

An hour later, it was finally my turn. Time to lie back, with my head lower than my feet, stare at the ceiling and await Novocaine. Always at this point in any dentist visit, when I know they have to stick needles in my gums, I have to focus on my breathing to manage my panic impulse.

Fortunately, they used a topical anaesthetic, first, which reminded me of Smith Brother’s cherry cough drops (used to love those as a kid, but no more). It dripped into the back of my throat, giving me the icky sensation of not quite being able to swallow, but it successfully numbed my gums enough to reduce the bee-sting pain of the Novocaine shots. Soon the slicing and drilling began.

This is where things got dicey. My periodontist is a real pro, and he understands the constraints of my mouth, but there is just no way to avoid pulling at the corners. Between the tools and the drill and the suction and probing fingers, I was stretched to the max, with no give. It hurt, even with Vasoline on my lips to ease the strain.

Mercifully, this time the drilling went more easily, and the whole procedure, from shots to stitches, took about an hour. I drove myself home, my mouth still very numb, walked in the door, got changed into comfortable clothes, swallowed a Vicodin, got an icepack for my jaw (even with Raynaud’s, this felt good, surprisingly), and lay down on the couch for the rest of the afternoon.

By the next day, I was able to manage the pain with just Tylenol and Ibuprofin. A week later, the swelling is virtually gone, most of my stitches have dissolved, and the gum is healing well. The tears at the corners of my mouth have healed, and I feel almost back to normal.

So, I’m grateful. The procedure is costing a small fortune, because our dental insurance barely approaches the total, but I’d rather have a molar than a gap in my jaw. I’m glad I can have an implant and a crown (that step will wait another three to four months for total healing) rather than dentures, which would be a nightmare with Sjogren’s dry mouth.

A few other teeth are resorbing, but I hope they will take their own sweet time. Meanwhile, much as I hate going to the dentist, I’m sure glad I went.

Photo Credit: purplemattfish via Compfight cc

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.

Enter Autumn

The other day, as I was walking Ginger around the block, I heard a flock of Canada Geese honking overhead. I never saw them, but I envisioned them flying in V-formation, heading south.

August is over. I’m writing on the first day of September. Even though summer doesn’t officially end until later this month, Labor Day is always my turning point from the comfort of warm, long days of sunlight into the prospect of cooler, darker, busy fall.

Black-eyed Susans 9-1-14Sugar maple leaves are the first harbinger, speckling the sides of our street for the past few weeks with splashes of gold and tangerine. As the days grow shorter, the trees begin their annual rite of passage, hardening for winter. Today seems odd—it’s muggy, hot and very sunny. But the trees know better, what’s coming.

As I write, Emily and Al are packing a friend’s truck for the drive out to her new apartment. Grad school starts this week, both for her, as a first year master’s student, and for Mindi, entering her second and final year of her professional degree program. Closer to home, public schools began last week. Time, once again, to remember to avoid leaving the house mid-afternoon when school buses from nearby schools travel their routes.

I’ve spent much of my Labor Day weekend sewing. I’m nearly done with a new dress. But, of course, it’s a summery dress, not a fall outfit. For some reason, I am never able to sew ahead of the season. I bought the pattern in July. I’ve had the fabric, a beautiful fuchsia knit, for at least five years, purchased another summer with a different dress in mind.

Two weekends ago, I finally altered the pattern and cut out the pieces. I started sewing in the evenings, until our house was full with family, and I had to clear off the dining room table. So I dug in again yesterday, because I finally had time, and because I didn’t want the dress to wait another full year. I may still get some use out of it before the weather consistently cools off.

I am a slow sewer. I have to pace myself because of my hands, and I can’t manage the fabric as well as I once could, which is why I don’t sew often. Picking out seams when I mess up, which is more often than I’d like, is tricky and tedious. I’m more willing to live with mistakes that no one else will notice, given my limitations. The end result is still good enough, albeit not the perfection I’d prefer.

I would like to sew more. My favorite sewing magazine is full of luscious fall fabrics in autumnal hues. The dress pattern I’m using comes from a designer who creates lovely, easy-to-construct clothes. I hate shopping for ready-to-wear, and sewing is the perfect antidote—not only a way to create unique clothes that actually fit, but also a great meditation. Nonetheless, I have to respect my hands. And my energy. And the number of hours in the day.

Ahead lies a solid lineup of work and creative projects to take me well into the fall. Much as I love the summer months, it’s easier to concentrate as the weather cools and everyone else is back to work or school. The trees may shed their leaves and the geese fly south, the weather will inevitably make me long for warmer days and fewer layers, but I’m looking forward to the crisp crackle of new beginnings.

I just need to sew up that wonderful warm fabric I wove last winter into a jacket, before the days grow long again.

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.

To Treat or Not to Treat

Ah, the gift of late August heat in New England. After a week that felt more like September, I’m glad to be back in sandals, at least for the next few days.

I’m also grateful for warmer weather that helps my ulcers to heal. A week ago Sunday, I awoke with pain in my left thumb that I hoped was just an inflammation. The pad of this finger has an intransigent spot of abnormal skin that occasionally gets thick and painful and usually responds well to careful debridement. But not this time.

My thumb was achey as I commenced a six-hour round-trip drive to bring Emily home from her summer job at her college alma mater, and the discomfort was just barely manageable with over-the-counter painkillers that wouldn’t make me drowsy. I suspected an infection. But when I finally got home and took a closer look, I didn’t see any obvious symptoms. No foul odor. No oozing puss. No extreme redness. Maybe topical antibiotics, just to be safe, would do the trick overnight?

I hate starting oral antibiotics, even as I’m grateful always to have some available at home, thanks to a team of physicians who know me well enough to trust my judgment and my follow-up reporting. This is a privilege of living in a wealthy Western country with good health care (despite all the political wrangling). I am very much aware of the risks of unnecessarily treating with antibiotics—the evolution of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria—and that threat frightens me, since I’m so susceptible to infections.

So, I waited overnight to see if a more modest approach would work. It did not. Too early on Monday morning, I was roused by severe pain in my thumb. It had swollen just enough to feel trapped in too-snug skin. Basically, it felt like my thumb was stuck in a car door. That, or the stabbing sensation of an intermittent electric shock or an ice pick are the sure signs of a bacterial infection in one of my fingers.

Time to double-up on antibiotics—one pill for the morning, and one for the dose I should have taken the night before. Then I cut a Vicodin in half and swallowed that, too. I also hate, absolutely hate narcotic pain meds, because they make me feel like a space cadet, but sometimes there is just no other way to deal.

It took me a good 48 hours on the antibiotics to dispense with the Vicodin, and another day for the now obvious infection to begin to clear. Today, a week later, my thumb is healing well, along with my other three digital ulcers of the moment, which always clear up when I’m on oral antibiotics.

Thank goodness. But will it always be so?

In his 8-25-14 financial column in The New Yorker, James Surowiecki writes a clear and compelling analysis of why Big Pharma doesn’t invest in new drugs that don’t make a profit.

This is relevant in light of the Ebola crisis in West Africa—“Diseases that mostly affect poor people in poor countries aren’t a research priority, because it’s unlikely that those markets will ever produce a decent return” on R&D, writes Surowiecki—as well as the reason why there is so little research into new antibiotics to treat resistant strains of bacteria.

The reason for the lack of investment in discovering better antibiotics, Surowiecki explains, isn’t for lack of awareness of future need. It’s “the business model. If a drug company did invent a powerful new antibiotic, we wouldn’t want it to be widely prescribed, because the goal would be to delay resistance.” With the prospect of limited sales, Big Pharma doesn’t want to make the investment.

What’s the solution? Surowiecki floats the idea of prizes for new drugs that have a public health benefit. The idea isn’t new: government-funded incentives for innovative solutions have been used for centuries and have become common in recent decades. They are only awarded if the idea works. They help to correct market forces that work to the detriment of the public good.

So why haven’t we started down this path, already? Huge up-front costs. Surowiecki notes that “a recent report commissioned by the F.D.A. estimated that it would cost a billion dollars to get a great new antibiotic, factoring in tax credits.”

To put this in perspective, that’s equivalent to the cost of about 200 Predator Drones.

I hope and pray, before the inevitable crisis hits, that our government can stop the political infighting long enough to get its priorities straight and make a serious investment in the future of public health, both here and abroad.

God-willing, this will happen long before that bottle of antibiotics in my medicine drawer no longer provides relatively quick treatment and relief from an infection that could all too easily get out of hand.

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.

May I Have Your Attention?

If you spend any time on social media, watching TV or reading the newspaper, by now you’ve undoubtedly heard of the extraordinarily successful “Ice Bucket Challenge” that has raised record-breaking donations for ALS research.

It goes like this: You pour a bucket of ice water on your head while someone makes a video of your antics, upload it to social media, then challenge friends to do the same or make a $100 contribution to the ALS Foundation, which funds research to find a cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS afflicts about 30,000 Americans, attacking the nerve cells and eventually causing total paralysis, most often within two to five years of diagnosis. It is debilitating, terrifying and, ultimately, fatal.

Though dismissed by some critics as “slacktivism”—an all too easy, narcissistic and short-lived way to feel good about yourself for giving to a good cause, with no lasting impact—the Ice Bucket Challenge, as of this writing, has attracted support from celebrities ranging from the New England Patriots to Jimmy Fallon and raised more than $15.6 million for ALS this August, compared to $1.8 million during the same period last year. You read that correctly—a more than seven-fold increase. And that, my friends, is nothing to sneer at.

I’m thrilled for the ALS Foundation that they’ve been so successful. I have known good souls who died of this scourge, and a friend’s husband was just recently diagnosed. I hope and pray that all this money may somehow buy him and others like him some time and better quality of life.

But, of course, now I wonder . . . what would it take to draw that kind of attention and donations to scleroderma research for a cure?

A few folks in the online scleroderma community have been wondering the same thing. Suggestions range from sticking your hand in a bucket of ice water for a few hours to simulate severe Raynaud’s, to wearing a scuba diving suit that’s a few sizes too small to sample tight skin.

What about something more playful—a Mummy Wrap Challenge—you know, that silly game where you wrap up your partner in rolls and rolls of toilet paper to look like a mummy? At least it might get people to laugh, even as they developed some glimmer of what it feels like to be trapped in your own skin with this rotten disease. Maybe Scott Brands could be a corporate sponsor. (I’m kidding. Really.)

All of this copycat daydreaming begs the broader questions: How do you break through the clamor of fundraising demands for so many good causes to build lasting awareness and a solid donor base for scleroderma research? And how do you do it in a way that doesn’t trivialize the cause itself?

I can just imagine, on the heels of the Ice Bucket Challenge’s success, that we’ll soon be inundated with all kinds of attempts to be clever and cash in on self-perpetuating viral social media campaigns for various diseases. As it is, every single organization trying to raise disease awareness has a walk of some kind, including for scleroderma. These walks are successful, up to a point, raising needed funds. But they have also become so ubiquitous that they begin to merge into the white noise of our over-programmed lives, attracting mostly those who already know about the disease in question.

There are just so many, many ways that our bodies can break down. And there is a limit to our attention spans and compassion for so many illnesses. Which, ultimately, is why there’s so little government funding, relative to the need, for research into the so-called “orphan diseases” that afflict smaller numbers, compared to, say, cancer or diabetes.

If all of the foundations devoted to finding cures for obscure auto-immune diseases, including scleroderma, banded together, would we have a better chance of raising awareness and donations for cures? Is there research that cuts across all auto-immune diseases that could benefit those who suffer from the all-too-many variants? Would there be more cooperation and knowledge sharing among medical scientists? Would we have more clout in Congress?

I wonder. One thing is certain, though. The Ice Bucket Challenge proves that there are plenty of people out there with good intentions and money to give to find cures for terrible diseases. It’s just a matter of getting their attention and holding it long enough to dump out a bucket of ice water on a hot summer’s day.

In the meantime, please consider supporting one of these fine organizations that are working toward a cure for scleroderma:

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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.

Hidden Costs

Just over a month into our new health insurance policy, and, although it could be worse, the view is not pretty. When the hospital where Al works was bought out last year, I had misgivings. I am not paranoid.

Aside from a four-figure deductible, which, I understand, is becoming the industry standard, we are now dealing with much higher copays for prescription drugs. Much higher. As in double or quadruple what I was paying previously.

I have four medications that are classified as “Tier Three,” which means that the copay is $100. This past year, on a monthly basis, one cost $25, one cost $35, and two cost $50 each. The new system requires me to buy a 90-day supply of one of these drugs, for $200, which brings the monthly cost to about $67. The other three cannot be purchased in bulk, so it’s $100 every time I need a refill.

It all works out to about $5,000 annually for these four medications, none of which have generic substitutions, all of which I need to stay healthy. I even checked out pricing on Canadian drug websites, but because these are all brand name drugs, there is no savings to be found.

So we’re stuck. In addition to this discovery, we also have learned that because the new policy started in July, but the policy year starts in January, we will have to pay the full deductible once again, starting in 2015, before we get any benefits from the plan for medical expenses. This is on top of premiums taken out of Al’s paycheck. Originally we thought his premiums would be lower than last year, but that does not appear to be the case.

Oh, and did I mention? The prescription co-pays don’t count toward the deductible, and there is no cap.

When you add it all up, it appears that this new policy will cost us at least $10,000, probably more, each year—and that’s just for me.

But there’s another hidden cost to the plan—and that’s time. Al and I both have made numerous calls to the health plan and pharmacy plan, just trying to understand what is covered and what isn’t. Then there’s all the follow-up on medications. To give just one example:

I have one medication that I’ve been taking for several years, with no problem under our former plan, that now requires pre-authorization. Okay, fine. I’ve dealt with this before. But we found out about the problem when the prescription bounced back at the pharmacy. This required a follow-up call to the doctor, to be sure she received the FAX with the request to submit the pre-authorization. Then I called the pharmacy plan to find out how long it would take: 72 hours.

All right, but in the meantime, I was out of pills. I called my doc once again and asked if she might have samples. Fortunately, she was able to give me a month’s supply. Her office is at the hospital, so Al was able to pick them up while he was at work, saving me a trip.

I went out of town last week on business and asked Al to follow up with the pharmacy. When I got home, he told me that they had not filled the prescription, yet. So I called the pharmacy to find out what had happened. They said the scrip was still on hold because it required a pre-authorization. Once again, I called the doctor’s office. The nurse told me they had sent in the forms the day I requested them.

Then we checked the mail. There was a letter telling me the request had been declined, because this was a brand name drug and there were other, cheaper meds that could work just as well.

The only problem, and this is why I had been prescribed this particular medication in the first place, is that all the other related drugs cause dry mouth, and I have dry mouth aplenty already due to Sjögren’s syndrome. So I called the doc’s office once again, informed them of the letter and explained the situation about why I couldn’t take those other meds. The nurse checked the pre-authorization file, and, of course, it turned out that no-one had thought to include that fact in the paperwork. So they will resubmit.

That’s just one prescription.

And there is more time involved for determining what my BMC doc visits will cost (they are included in our plan, but there is a facilities fee charge because they all work in hospital settings, and we have to apply for a “gap exception,” which requires proving that there is no one nearby who can perform the same service).

And extra research involved anytime any of us needs to seek medical services away from home.

There’s more to this, but I’ll stop here. You get the idea. Suffice it to say that, although I know a private-pay plan would cost even more, from what self-insured friends have told me, the reality is that we are taking a significant pay cut in our family income with this policy. I’m hoping to make up the difference with additional clients, but there are no guarantees when you freelance. The fact that I work for myself makes it easier to make all the research phone calls, but that’s time spent not earning.

Anyone who thinks that private insurers are making our health care system more efficient, think again. They’re only passing along more costs to the consumer, regardless of ability to pay. And the more complicated your health issues, the more you have to spend, even if your medical condition reduces your earning power.

I won’t be eligible for Medicare for another six years. And by then, who knows what benefits will still be available? Bottom line: Neither of us will be retiring any time soon.

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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.