Waiting for Skylar

Once again, for the third time in two weeks, we await a major Nor’easter here in New England. This one’s name is Skylar, and it promises to dump at least 8 more inches on Central Massachusetts today, more on Boston. In the meantime, at least half of the 16-plus inches we got last Wednesday has melted. And by the weekend, it’s supposed to hit the 50s, thank goodness!

In preparation, I ran around for a couple of hours on Monday to complete errands before the storm. And did a lot of waiting. First, I had to wait a half hour to see my ENT, a follow-up visit after he had removed my ear tubes last month, post HBO therapy, to be sure everything had healed. Indeed, my eardrums are back to normal, which he confirmed in a five minute check-up. We commiserated about the approaching weather (his home had just regained power from the last storm) and I went on my way.

Next stop was Home Depot for a quick errand. I had to wander around to find someone who could direct me to the right aisle, but at least I had picked the proper section of the superstore and was able to get out of there in about 15 minutes.

Then I headed to the bank to make a deposit. Plenty of cars in the parking lot and another wait in line, as everyone else seemed to be on a mission ahead of bad weather. (Yes, I’m one of those people who do not trust taking a picture of my check on my smartphone and sending it electronically to the bank—not interested in expanding my digital footprint in that way.) The teller and I wished each other a safe day on Tuesday.

On to CVS to pick up some prescriptions. The clerk had trouble finding the second order, finally located it, then noted that our insurance hadn’t covered it. This required some follow-up (we’ve had a recent change in our insurance) and everything was straightened out, after more waiting. And waiting for the updated receipt to be checked into their system. All of this took about a half hour.

Finally, my last stop: blood work at the clinic near our home. I have to have a liver function test done monthly for one of my medications. I’ve been on this drug for many years and never (thank goodness) had a negative test. It seems like a huge waste of time and money. Even my rheumatologist thinks it’s ridiculous. But it’s required. Fortunately, I got right in. The phlebotomist wondered aloud if they would have to come in during the storm. “You’d be amazed how upset people get if their doctor’s appointment is cancelled,” she said, “even if it’s not safe to drive.”

Over the course of my two hours of running around, the sky changed from blue with bright sunshine amidst puffy white clouds to silvery gray. You can feel it in the air that snow is coming. Mother Nature has a way of forcing us to hurry up in order to slow down. Just enough time to take care of my to-dos before Skylar’s arrival. Then I’ll hunker down and simply watch the flakes fall.

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.

Between Storms

Last weekend’s Nor’easter was supposed to dump up to a foot of snow on our fair city, but we lucked out with only rain and wind and no loss of power in our area. Tomorrow, however, we are in for it—possibly a foot to 18 inches, if the forecast is to be believed for Central Massachusetts.

In the meantime, Al and I managed to escape for a visit with Emily, our younger daughter, in Philly, to see her apartment and meet her colleagues at work and take in some of the city’s many highlights. So it was on Monday that we went to the annual PHS Philadelphia Flower Show, which is the largest and longest running such event in the U.S. Sponsored by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, it certainly lived up to its reputation.

And so, Dear Reader, to help us all escape from winter storms and stressful news of late, here are some of my favorite images from our visit. Be sure to take a close look at the last one—it’s made entirely of pressed flowers.


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.


Short Is Beautiful

I’m down to two bandages on my fingers—one on each thumb—and it’s the end of February. Highly unusual. Friends have commented to me in recent weeks that my hands look better than they’ve seen in quite a while. That’s saying a lot, considering how the hand surgery reshaped my fingers.

I have a theory, and it’s based on a conversation that I had with one of the hand surgeons who examined me last August. I’ve noticed over the years that my right index finger, which was significantly shortened decades ago to correct a severe flexion contracture, rarely—if ever—gets an ulcer. I wondered aloud if the fact that it’s shorter somehow made a difference.

The hand surgeon confirmed my suspicion. A shorter finger means that the remaining blood vessels serving that finger are larger in diameter. That’s because blood vessels become wider toward the base of each digit.

I’ve had chronic ulcers in my finger tips for many years since they receive oxygen via the most damaged, narrowest capillaries, which can only provide a reduced blood flow. If what’s left, post-surgery, are the larger diameter blood vessels, then blood flow to the shortened fingers is improved.

I’ve lost the tips of three fingers. I’ve also lost two knuckles, which were the other problem areas in my hands. Essentially, now that the most frequently damaged parts of my fingers are gone, it appears that what’s left has better circulation.

Who knew?

Of course, now that I’ve written this, I have a nagging fear that I’ve jinxed myself. There’s a long way to go with the see-saw temperatures of late winter and spring, my worst season for ulcers. That’s when all the trouble started last year.

But at least, for now, I can enjoy the fact that I only need to bandage two thumbs—always sensitive at the tips where there is a motherlode of calcium pits under the surface. It only takes about 10 or 15 minutes to take care of them in the morning and evening, a far cry from the two hour marathon sessions over the summer for so many painful ulcers as my hands deteriorated.

Fingers crossed—what’s left of them, anyway—that my hands will remain in relatively good shape as the temps ebb and flow over the coming spring. Meanwhile, I’m stuffing 10-hour heat packs into my wrist warmers every cold day to stack the odds in my favor.

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: Joel Filipe

Small Victory

The other day I received a gift of an Audubon wall calendar, beautiful photos of birds, one for each day of the month. It’s big and long, and I found just the right spot in my office. But then I hesitated. Could I hang it myself?

This seems a trivial question. Of course, I could ask Al to do it for me. I haven’t wielded a hammer for months, maybe a year, even. Not that I don’t know how. It’s just that my hands were too damaged for so long, that the idea wouldn’t have even crossed my mind. But now that my hands have healed from all the surgery, could I still manipulate a hammer and a nail without hurting myself?

Years ago, when my father moved from our family home into independent living and, later, assisted living, I rehung his art collection. If memory serves correctly, there were 76 paintings, photos, etchings, block prints, drawings and more, all part of what  had once been my grandfather’s art. There were many beautiful pieces, and I wanted Dad to be surrounded by it all, so that he could still feel at home in his new, downsized setting.

It was a big undertaking, but I followed the method he had once taught me:

  1. Hold up the artwork to determine where to place it on the wall and make a light pencil line above the middle top edge of the frame.
  2. Turn over the piece and pull the hanging wire toward the top of the frame; measure the distance between the high point of the wire and the frame’s top edge.
  3. Then, on the wall, measure that same distance down from the pencil line. X marks the spot where the bottom of the picture hook goes.

Sounds complicated, but it’s very straightforward in practice and works like a charm. When I finished, his apartment looked like he was living in an art gallery.

The first time I set Dad up, for independent living in 2000, my fingers were still nimble enough to manipulate the nail and tack hammer without too much difficulty. By the second time I moved him, to assisted living a few years later, I had to make some adaptations for my hands. In order to hold the nail and picture hook in place, I had to place a piece of tape around them, tap gently with the hammer, then when the nail was partway in, I could remove the tape and finish the job.

Fast forward to Sunday afternoon, when I was contemplating the much simpler task of tapping one tack nail into the wall for my new calendar. My left index finger is now fused. So I couldn’t in any way risk banging it with a hammer. Fortunately, it fused into a position that enables me to still touch the tip of my thumb. Holding a nail was still possible, but I knew I needed to be very careful.

Unfortunately, our tack hammer disappeared somewhere over the past few years. All we have are two regular hammers, quite heavy in my right hand. When I picked one up, I wondered if I was making a mistake. But I had to try.

So, I marked the point where I needed to put the nail in the wall with pencil (just a dot through the top hole of the calendar). I had to manipulate the nail a few times to be sure that (a) I had a firm grasp and (b) enough of the head was above my fingertips so I wouldn’t hit myself. I choked up on the hammer’s handle so I wouldn’t have so much weight to swing. It took a few taps and moving the nail a couple of times, but . . . it worked!

The calendar now graces the side of one window in my office. It’s pretty and cheerful. Most of all, it’s a reminder that my hands are still capable of more than I think, more often than not.

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.

Nuts and Bolts

Picking up small objects—especially when they’ve dropped on the floor—has been a challenge for decades. Keys and coins are particularly difficult. Because my finger tips have resorbed and I don’t have much in the way of nails, it’s really tricky to grasp narrow edges and flip the object into my palm. This has prompted some creative problem solving over the years, such as using a piece of scrap paper to slip under the offending item, or pressing on its edge with my toe to leverage the other side.

It’s become all the more challenging since my hand surgery. I’m now missing several finger tips altogether, which makes it that much harder to grasp little stuff.

Or so I thought, until I underwent a fascinating OT assessment last Thursday. I had scheduled this appointment to help determine how much sensitivity is left in my hands. I met with one of my hand surgeon’s occupational therapists, accompanied by two students, who politely asked if I minded their participation in the assessment. I’m always glad to teach, and I certainly provide a rare case study, so I welcomed their involvement.

And here’s what I had to do: I sat across from one of the students, who served as time keeper and recorder. She emptied a box of small objects on the table—a wing nut, a large and small hexagonal nut, a small square nut, a washer, a key, three coins (penny, nickel and dime), two sizes of safety pins, and a large and small paperclip. My task, using first my right hand alone and then my left, was to pick up each object and place it in the box. If I couldn’t do it, I would slide the object off the table into my other hand, but this reduced my score. The test was timed.

This was tricky. I completed both tests in under two minutes, but I couldn’t pick up everything with my left hand. Still, all were impressed by my dexterity. I was surprised, too.

The next step was to repeat the test on each hand—with my eyes closed. To my amazement, I actually did better on this round with my left hand, picking up every object, and doing it faster than when I had my eyes open! Clearly, the fact that I know I’m right handed and assumed that I couldn’t do as much with my left hand affected my approach to the puzzle when I was able to see. Very interesting proof of how expectations can affect what we think we can accomplish.

The final test involved closing my eyes and having the student place each object in my palm (right hand first, then left). I had to identify the object and place it in the box. By now I knew what each item felt like, but manipulating without being able to grasp it involved some juggling, and sensing contours was not so easy without my fingertips, which I can’t bend enough to form anything close to a fist. Nonetheless, I got all the answers right with each hand.

The team was very enthusiastic. I certainly exceeded their expectations, as well as my own. The conclusion? Despite all the damage to my hands over the years, reduced sensitivity and significantly reduced dexterity due to my recent surgery, I can still sense quite a lot. I may have to approach the process of grasping things with new strategies, but the basic information is still transmitted accurately from my hands to my brain.

Thank goodness.

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: Konstantin Olsen

How’re Y’all Doin’?

Punxsutawney Phil may have seen his shadow last week, predicting six more weeks of winter (of course, technically, there are always about six more weeks of winter after Ground Hog Day). But Al and I took a break from freezing cold at home and headed south Wednesday night, landing in New Orleans for a long weekend. On Thursday, we were walking around without coats. Even when the weather dipped into the mid-50s, it was still welcome, compared to Massachusetts.

I’d been imagining this trip for several years as I worked on the first draft of my novel. Now that I’m starting revisions, I need to know more about my protagonist, who immigrates from France to New Orleans as a child in the 1870s. So the plan was to mix research and fun, to escape winter’s frigid clutches and celebrate my healed hands. And celebrate, we did.

NOLA is known for its incredible cuisine and did not disappoint. The jazz was great, the art provocative, the neighborhoods intriguing. Most people we met were welcoming and went out of their way to be helpful. Strangers looked us in the eyes and greeted us with a friendly “How’re y’all doin’?” as they passed us by. We caught Mardi Gras beads flung from parade floats (celebrations fill the month leading up to Fat Tuesday), noodled around stores and art galleries, walked and walked and walked. Our Lyft drivers told us about life in their home town and their experiences during and recovering from Katrina. On Sunday morning before we left, we strolled along the banks of the mighty Mississippi in Crescent Park and watched a sky blue freighter steam slowly past.

My research included an immersion in selected materials at the Historic New Orleans Collection, a walk through the Hebrew Rest Cemetery, a look at the city’s oldest hospital, rambles through the Garden District and Faubourg Marigny neighborhood to photograph the many and varied styles of housing. I thought about light and heat and immigrants and masks.

Saturday evening, we discovered a vintage costume shop, filled with bling. As Al shopped for the loudest tie he could find for Purim (a Jewish holiday with its own carnival vibe), I scanned the racks and discovered a beautiful beaded overblouse. I tried it on. Lovely. But when would I ever wear it? I left it on the rack, and we went to dinner across the street.

Good as the meal was—outstanding Middle Eastern food—I wondered. Why not? If the store was still open when we finished, I said to Al, I’d like to go back. As we walked up to the door, the owner and her clerks were about to lock up. But she welcomed me inside. “You need to make your own festivities,” she said as she wrapped the overblouse in white tissue paper and placed it in a purple plastic bag.

Even with the freezing temperatures here, I’m glad to be home. We packed a week’s worth of touring into three-and-a-half days, I was fighting a cold, and I’m tired. But it was well worth every minute. My hands held up. No infections. Many sights and ideas to mull. Make your own festivities, indeed.

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.

Arts and Flowers

We’re having a brief respite from the cold before bitter weather arrives once again. So what better time to get a mental and spiritual break from winter than this past weekend at the Worcester Art Museum’s annual Flora in Winter exhibit. Local florists and garden club mavens create beautiful floral interpretations of art in nearly every gallery. Here are ten of my favorites. Enjoy!

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.

Special Treat

I am getting really tired of winter. I know, it’s only a month into the season, officially. We’ve had one real storm and another day of snowfall; not so bad, so far. But it’s the extreme cold of recent weeks and the fluctuating temperatures that I’m finding exhausting. At least the days are getting noticeably longer, once again—a saving grace.

So it was this weekend that I decided to beat the winter blahs and treat myself to some new clothes. I have been wearing the same sweatpants, turtle necks and long sweaters, in varying combinations, for months, now. And I have not gone clothes shopping in a very long time—not since my hands began to deteriorate last spring. The idea of trying on outfits was anathema. I couldn’t manage it. Now that my hands have healed, a shopping spree was a real option.

It didn’t hurt that end-of-season sales were in full swing (ironic, since the season is far from over!). I gave myself a full afternoon, so I wouldn’t feel rushed, to check out some stores at a nearby mall. This, in itself, was a change of tempo, since I’ve come to rely on the Internet for the majority of my purchases.

I picked a good time, because the mall was not crowded. The stores I chose had only a few customers; sales staff were pleasant and helpful. And I scored big: a pretty and practical wardrobe for transitional temperatures, with coordinated layers that I can mix and match. All soft, comfy and relatively easy to put on and take off. And all within the modest budget I’d set for myself.

Most amazing, I actually had fun shopping! This has not been the case for a long time. Dressing, undressing and dressing again has been a huge hurdle. I haven’t been happy with how clothes fit. But I’d done enough homework to pick the right stores with options that fit my taste and pocketbook. In two hours, I was done, buoyed by success.

In addition, I realized that my vision, which has been blurred for weeks due to the hyperbaric oxygen therapy, is beginning to clear. When I had ventured to a mall several weeks ago for a small errand, the signs were so blurred that I felt dizzy. As I left the mall on Sunday, it suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t noticed or felt disoriented by my inability to see objects that were farther away. So, more progress.

Snow on the ground will be gone by Tuesday evening, thanks to a day of heavy rainfall (fortunately we’re in a short warming pattern, or we’d be buried again). At some point, the crocuses will peak out of our garden. And I continue, thank goodness, to heal.

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 had my first visit with my new occupational therapist last week and learned a few things. I learned that it takes about 18 months for your nerves to rewire after the kind of surgery I’ve undergone on my hands—but that most of the change happens in the first 6 months. I learned that my skin grafts will never have full sensation, although I can sense more than I realized. And I learned that I’m not imagining how the skin flap on my middle right finger is sending confusing signals to my brain about what I’m actually feeling and how my finger is oriented. More on that in a minute.

My OT works in my hand surgeon’s office, so she has a ton of expertise when it comes to my specifics. This is a great blessing. She explained that even if some of my nerves don’t regenerate, others may learn to compensate. To get a baseline assessment, she had me lay my hands outspread (as much as I can) on the table, palm down and then up. I had to close my eyes while she tapped different spots on my fingers with a series of plastic filaments, from a hair’s breadth in width to the thickness of a pencil lead. When I felt something, I let her know.

This took a while, but what we discovered is that my ability to sense touch is better than either of us expected (a good thing) and that my grafts have both deep pressure sensation and the ability to detect heat and sharpness (a very good thing). So, at least, I should be able to avoid burns and serious cuts. It’s not a free pass, but reassuring.

My right middle finger, in turn, has good sensation except for the flap’s seam. Basically, skin on the right side of that finger is now folded over the top and connected to the left side, with the top third amputated. It looks odd and stumpy, but it works well enough. What’s curious is how I think I’m still touching objects with the side of my finger when I’m actually feeling with what is now the rounded tip.

My OT explained that the nerves in what used to be the side of that finger are specialized, and my brain is still registering sensation as if my finger is moving sideways. Combine this with the fact that the finger is now a third shorter than it used to be, and it’s no wonder I can’t quite figure out where it is relative to objects I’m touching. Fortunately, she said, this will resolve with time as my brain rewires. Fascinating.

More sessions to come over the next few weeks as I learn how to use my hands again. My homework is to practice curling what’s left of my topmost knuckles before I bend my lower knuckles to approximate a fist. That way I achieve more of a grip. I’ve discovered that it helps to practice this while holding the steering wheel of my Prius, which is thick and padded and just about the right curvature.

Mostly, however, I need to be more mindful of how I reach and manipulate objects. I suppose this will become second nature with time. But it doesn’t hurt to bring a sense of purposeful awareness into simple movements. A good lesson there, too.

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: Hunter Harritt

How Not to Spend a Snowstorm

We are emerging from a deep freeze. Over the weekend, temperatures here in Central Massachusetts dipped to 1°F—in the daytime. By comparison, teens and twenties seem, if not balmy, at least bearable.

This was on top of a Nor’easter that dumped 17 inches of snow on our fair city, an all-day event last Thursday that I was grateful to avoid while hunkered down at home. But contrary to how I would have preferred to spend a snowstorm—enjoying comfort food while watching the snow blow at a 45 degree angle outside—I had the distinct displeasure of having to do a day-long liquid fast, in preparation for my 10-year-plus colonoscopy screening the following morning.

I had been postponing this distasteful exam for at least six months. The original was scheduled for the summer, but as my hands deteriorated, I decided to spare myself additional discomfort and put it off to the fall. Then, when I began the HBO therapy, I had another excuse to put it off until January.

When the storm predictions looked more and more threatening, I was hoping the weather might force another extension. What if it dragged on until Friday? What if our road wasn’t plowed? No such luck. The snow began to taper off around 5:00 p.m., just as I was starting the noxious lemon flavored drink to purge my gut.

According to the instructions, you’re supposed to drink two liters of the vile stuff the evening prior and the remaining two liters the next morning, with three hours to spare before the procedure. Now, I don’t normally drink that much fluid in a day, let alone in a matter of hours, let alone something that sickly sweet with such an intentionally unpleasant outcome.

But, drink, I did. Fortunately, I had a good book to read as a distraction—The Accursed, by Joyce Carole Oates—which, I realized later, was an appropriate title for how I was feeling in the moment.

I woke up around 4:00 a.m., gave up on sleep because my hands were bothering me (since I couldn’t take Ibuprofen with food), changed my dressings and set to work on the remaining two liters. I got through about half of it when I decided I was done. There was nothing left to come out, and I couldn’t stand any more.

As it turned out, that was the right call, because when the admitting nurse Friday morning asked how much I’d drank, and I told her three of the four liters, she simply wrote it down and said “fine.”

The outpatient center where I had my procedure does nothing but endoscopies of one sort or another. I asked how many colonoscopies they do in a day, and the nurse said about 50. Wow. All the other patients there looked about as wiped out as I felt, waiting to get it over with. I signed a bunch of forms, including one fascinating list that included alternative screening tests, such as X-rays. Did anyone give me the information in advance that this was an option? No. Did I even think to ask? No. It may not be as thorough a screening, but I would have at least liked to have had the discussion with my primary.

Then there was the question of IVs. I knew they would give me a sedative for the procedure, which was fine by me. But after the nurse inserted the hep-lock in my arm and flushed it with saline, she simply said they would give me “some medicine” during the procedure. I was not about to leave it at that. “What kind?” I asked. Only then did she give me specifics, which were also listed on another form I then had to sign, though I seriously wonder if they expected me to read it before signing (which I did). Fortunately, I had experience with both meds. Even as she’d reviewed my numerous allergies in advance, I would have preferred specifics up front.

Into the procedure room I was wheeled. The team was friendly and professional. I chatted with the doctor’s assistant about our respective experiences driving in snow storms. I learned that they had actually stayed open the morning of the storm for those brave enough to go through with their tests, despite the snow.

Soon I was half-asleep, conscious of something going on “down there,” but more in a state of wonderment. As I dozed in recovery, I made note of all the beeping and dinging machines nearby. Apple juice and graham crackers never tasted so good. Best of all was the immediate report from the doctor that I passed with flying colors. No signs, either, of sclerosis in my colon, thank goodness.

It was a relief to see Al in the waiting room, ready to take me home. I made myself a nice, late breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast, then lay down for a nap. The next extremely cold day, I was very glad to stay home.

Ten more years until I have to do this again. I hope, by then, some brilliant person will have devised an easier, comfortable, quicker way to do this exam. Maybe we’ll just be able to scan our own colons and transmit a hologram for inspection. Wouldn’t that be nice.

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.