Step by Step

I’ve been walking a lot in recent days. Monday afternoon, the sun was bright and the air crisp as I took my half-hour afternoon walk around the neighborhood for the first time in weeks, after all the Nor’easters of late. Everyone seemed to be enjoying the sunshine. Neighbors chatted as their leashed dogs waited patiently. Couples strolled. A little boy pushed his scooter down an empty, dead-end street. Clumps of snow seeped silently into the ground.

On Saturday, I did more walking—about six miles. With a group of teens and adults from our synagogue, Al and I hiked to City Hall for the local March for Our Lives. After a rally of inspiring student speeches, several thousand of us walked down Main Street in support of common sense gun control, from City Hall to the old Court House, the line stretching for blocks. Al and I peeled off as the march circled back to City Hall, stopping off at the Art Museum for a break and then walking home.

I wasn’t sure if I could do it all. My feet are easily tired, and by the time we were on our way back, my knees and hips were protesting. But some ibuprofin and a nap helped. By Sunday morning, my body was mostly back to normal.

I’m lucky. My biggest worry when I go out for a walk is how well my feet and joints will hold up. Not so for too many children in our nation who have to worry about getting shot as they walk through their neighborhoods to school.

When I was in elementary school, we had air raid drills to practice what to do in case of a nuclear attack. The idea sounds ludicrous now. Once, when I was in the fifth grade, we took the hands of first graders and walked with the rest of the school to a nearby public building that housed a community fallout shelter. We all thought it was a fun excuse to get out of our classroom.

The lockdown drills to practice for an active shooter, so common for today’s school children, are deadly serious. We may not all agree on what needs to be done to end the scourge of gun violence in our nation. But we can at least agree that this is a public health crisis that demands everyone’s involvement in finding a solution. One step, one march, one vote at a time.

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.

Wanderlust

So . . . we ended up with two feet of snow from Skylar last week, and now we’re expecting another five to ten inches from the next Nor’easter, Toby, on Wednesday night into Thursday morning. (Who comes up with these names, anyway?) Fortunately, we’ve had some melting in-between.

But I’m really getting tired of this weather pattern. And I’m starting to yearn for our next travel adventure to somewhere beautiful and warm in the summer. Which brings me to the topic of traveling with scleroderma, or any other disabling disease, for that matter.

Travel is strenuous when you’re healthy. All the more so, when you have to deal with all the possible complexities of this disease. But I’m determined to keep visiting new parts of the world (new to me) and discovering other cultures and viewpoints, as long as I’m able, one way or another. The benefits of always learning and growing far outweigh the fatigue factor. So I’ve gathered a few travel resources that address some of the biggest issues for those of us living with some form of disability, below.

Many of the resources out there focus on wheelchair accessibility. Some also address the broader issues of traveling with a disability that is less visible—and therefore more readily dismissed by people who should know better. I’ve selected a range, here, to help you get started on your own travel adventure:

Lonely Planet Accessible Travel Online Resource: This free PDF includes a wealth of information, from a huge list of online resources to tips for traveling with access issues. Lonely Planet guides are a favorite of mine, and the fact that they make this one a free download is a big plus.

Rick Steves’ Tips for Travelers with Disabilities: You may know Rick Steves from his PBS travel program. This blog post list basic, common-sense tips for planning ahead, especially if you need a wheelchair accessible hotel room or wonder how to find accessible bathrooms in a foreign country.

Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality (SATH): Founded in 1976, SATH offers travel resources, information for travel agents, plus travel tips and access information for people living with a wide range of disabilities.

Travelling with SclerodermaThis PDF download from Scleroderma Australia provides a great summary of how to travel with oxygen if your lungs are compromised.

Disabled Traveler/ SmarterTravel: Another useful blogpost with a roundup of online resources.

“What We Get Right About Accessible Travel” from CNTraveler: From my favorite travel podcast, here’s an episode featuring Alysia Kezerian, founder of the Instagram account Wheelies Around the World, and Traveler contributor Julia Buckley, author of Heal Me: In Search of a Cure. Both women travel extensively; both have disabilities. Kezerian has relied on a wheelchair since a spinal cord injury in her twenties, and Buckley lives with a rare disease that causes joint dislocation. Well worth a listen, for practical advice and a lot of inspiration.

Happy trails!

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.

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.

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.

33

We had our first snow of the season on Saturday—a fluffy powder that transformed trees to Battenberg lace. The flakes were too tiny to reveal intricacies as they speckled my brown coat on my walk to and from our synagogue for Shabbat services. By evening, at least four inches covered Al’s car in our drive, and our once-plowed street was white again.

But, no matter. It was our 33rd wedding anniversary, and we would not be deterred from dinner at our favorite restaurant. Snow powdered the night sky as Al carefully drove us along semi-cleared streets. A few other intrepid New Englanders were out and about, as well, and the restaurant was packed when we arrived. We watched the snow blowing beyond the windows as we toasted another year together, a challenging year dominated by my deteriorating hands, but a year that brought us closer.

By the next morning, the sun was high and snow dripped from trees and eaves. We enjoyed a great brunch out, then drove into Boston for a powerful performance of Hold These Truths, a play by Jeanne Sakata, at the Lyric Stage Company. It’s based on the true story of Gordon Hirabayashi, who challenged the internment of fellow Japanese American citizens during World War II. Inspiring and sobering, well worth seeing, especially now.

I was still thinking about the play on Monday as I set out to the hospital at seven o’clock for my HBO therapy. By the time I left, nearly half-past eleven, the temperature was mild, much like that day so long ago when Al and I married.

It was my second marriage, his first. I had sewn my wedding gown, hand stitching nine yards of lace to the tulle veil. The rabbi who introduced us performed the ceremony. We were giddy and full of optimism as we drove to Cape Cod for our honeymoon. One misty night, as we walked Nauset Beach, the sand sparkled with each footstep and the sea froth glowed. It was ghostly, mystical. It gave me chills.

Later, we learned that we had witnessed the natural phenomenon of sea phosphorescence, caused by tiny sea creatures, or, perhaps, some form of sea algae, with their own inner light. But I still think back on that night, when we had no answers and only astonishment, as filled with an eerie, magnificent magic.

About a month later, we learned that I had some form of autoimmune disease. Three years beyond that, I was diagnosed with scleroderma.

I have written before in these posts how a complex, chronic disease becomes the third—unwanted but ultimately accepted—partner in a marriage. Sometimes it fades to the background and can almost be forgotten. Other times, it clears its throat with a rough cough, demanding attention. Then there are times, like this year, when it roars and dominates.

Thirty-three years is a long time to live with an unwelcome guest. Throughout, Al has been by my side, steadfast, the one who hears and sees the worst of it and always reminds me that as long as we have each other, we’ll be okay. The excitement I felt on our wedding day may have all too soon been supplanted by the fear and anguish of a terrifying diagnosis. But love and trust, tended over decades, have proven much stronger than any disease.

Outside our window on Monday night, the streetlamp casts a stark, inky shadow on the snow from the sign Al placed on our front yard a few weeks ago: “Hate Has No Home Here.” He has given more signs to our neighbors, who were pleased to accept them. A few have placed the signs already; he hopes to create a little oasis of radiance on our street. Wednesday evening, at his initiative, we will help serve meals at a homeless shelter nearby.

This is the man who left a trail of sparkles in the sand on a misty night, as a ghostly surf pounded the shore. I had no idea, then, how truly lucky I was.

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: Luke Hodde

Tradeoffs

After two dozen dives, my hands continue to heal, thank goodness. I’m typing this post with a few fingers on each hand, instead of poking away with a stylus.

But I am also beginning to experience one of the side-effects of HBO therapy—blurred vision. For more than a week, I’ve noticed that road signs look a bit fuzzy when I’ve driven home from the hospital. Then, last week, I realized that my computer glasses no longer were the right correction. Instead, I needed to wear my regular bifocals and sit a bit farther back from the screen.

Over the weekend, to my dismay, things got more blurred. I can certainly see, but when we went to the movies Saturday night, the screen was a bit fuzzy. I did some long distance driving on Sunday to be sure I could still handle it, and I could—but needed Al’s help to read signs.

Fortunately, I still have my most recent pair of glasses, which have a stronger correction for nearsightedness. As I’ve discovered over the past few annual check-ups at the optometrist, aging can improve vision of distant objects. So using my old prescription has compensated for the worst of the problem—for the time being.

I’m told it could continue to get worse, in which case I’ll need to get a new prescription and a pair of cheap glasses to tide me over until I finish my dives. Based on my discussion with the team last Thursday, we’ve agreed to apply for insurance coverage for 10 more sessions, to be sure my grafts heal fully. That will take me into the last week of December.

The vision issues, like my hearing issues that have required temporary ear tubes, should resolve within six to eight weeks after I finish diving. I’m hoping it doesn’t get worse. But it could.

Even still, I’d rather stick with the treatment. Too much is at stake for healing my hands, especially as the weather gets colder. If I have to get driving glasses for a few months, so be it. Fortunately, I had a previously scheduled eye dilation appointment with my optometrist last week, and everything else is fine. As for my farsighted correction, I’m better off with my current prescription. I guess I’ll be switching back and forth.

Miraculous as the HBO therapy has been for me, nothing is ever that easy.

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: Clem Onojeghuo

Maiden Voyage

Hallelujah! I can drive again long distance on my own. Last weekend’s hour-plus experiment with Al as my backup gave me the confidence to try going it alone this week. So on Friday, after finishing up my morning HBO therapy, doing all of my bandages and putting on my makeup (not allowed inside the chamber), I drove an hour into Boston to see my favorite hairstylist for a good cut.

Now, to some it may seem silly to drive that far just to get a haircut. However, this stylist has been doing my hair for more than 15 years, beginning when I was commuting to work near Boston. She is very gifted, precise and understands exactly how to make me look my best. Given the way that scleroderma has changed my face over the years, having a great haircut is much more than an indulgence. It is one of the few ways that I have control over my appearance. I always walk out of the salon feeling wonderful.

The last time I had seen her was 10 weeks ago, more than twice the amount of time that I usually allow to lapse between visits. That trip was courtesy of my younger daughter, who was in town for a visit and drove me in for my appointment, four days after my first surgery. I wasn’t even sure until the night before that I would be able to make it, but was very glad I did.

Now, more than two months later, my hair was flopping, unruly and difficult to manage. Whenever I looked in the mirror, I felt that I looked old and weary. The hand ordeal was taking its toll.

Thank goodness for the HBO therapy. After 10 dives, not only are my grafts healing, but also my energy level has improved significantly, to the point where I felt confident enough to make an appointment. Originally, I had planned to take the train to Boston—time consuming and pricey, but still a good option. Then, when I realized last Sunday that I could actually handle the car on the highway again, I was determined to drive into the city.

Complicating my plan was a cold snap. We’ve been enjoying unseasonably warm weather here in Central Massachusetts, but late fall returned with a vengeance at the end of the week with a freeze overnight and 30°F temperatures, plus stiff winds during the day. I didn’t care. I added extra layers and figured out where to park that would enable me to take a break from the weather on the way to the salon by eating lunch at a favorite restaurant.

My visit did not disappoint. My stylist, who is one of the only women I’ve ever met who looks fantastic with magenta hair, gave me a hug and set to work, skillfully trimming at least an inch, reshaping my graying mop. As she snipped, we caught up on health, family and life in general. When she finished putting the last hair in place, I was grinning. What a relief! I felt like myself again.

The 10 minute walk back to the car was bitter cold, but I was glad that I had driven and not taken the train, which would have required waiting on a very cold platform. The drive home in rush hour on Friday afternoon was long and tedious, and I was happy to walk into our warm house, where Al was preparing Shabbat dinner. I had to lie down for a half-hour, because I was very tired, and my hands were a bit uncomfortable from all the driving in stop-and-go traffic.

But it was well worth it. I no longer feel that I look like a patient. I no longer feel confined.

On Sunday, I drove into Boston again, this time for brunch and a movie date with my eldest daughter. We had a great time together, and when I came home, I still had plenty of energy to sit down at my computer and write this blog post. On Monday afternoon, I will get in my car once again after my HBO therapy and drive into Boston to see my rheumatologist at Boston Medical Center for the first time since my second surgery. The last time I saw him, after my first surgery, Al had to take off from work to bring me. Now, I can do it myself.

Despite all this progress, I know I can’t overdo. Three round trips in four days is plenty for the next week. Driving after the hyperbaric chamber is more tiring than driving on the weekend when I’m rested. Still . . . it feels 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: Alex Iby

6 Down, 24 to Go

I finished my sixth hyperbaric oxygen (HBO) dive on Monday. Already, it’s becoming routine. But getting to that point took all of last week. Here are some lessons learned, so far:

  • It’s really important to have some meaningful entertainment when you are confined to your back, lying inside a glass-and-steel chamber for 2 hours and 20 minutes. I decided to immerse in the best fiction writing I could find at the library. Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, narrated by the author, proved to be the perfect choice. Her language is magnificent, and her artistry is both an inspiration and a thought-provoking guide to revising the first draft of my novel (finished in late winter, incubating since then due to all the hand mishegas).
  • Definitely go with a light breakfast for an early morning dive. I do not want to have to take a bathroom break in the midst of the dive—that would either truncate the day’s session or require a second dive/reverse of pressure. Too anxiety-provoking.
  • Meditation breathing really helps to counter claustrophobia. During my third dive last week, I suddenly began to feel trapped in the chamber. Focusing on my breath enabled me to calm myself and focus on the audio novel.
  • Bring a granola bar or other healthy snack for after the dive. I have yet to do this, but I realize it would be a good idea. I’m very hungry when finished, and I still have to spend nearly two hours redoing all my dressings. The dive increases your metabolism rate.
  • Ear tubes—which I had inserted on Friday—definitely ease the pressure on eustachian tubes during the dive (in the first 15 minutes or so, pressure in the chamber increases to 2 atmospheres, the equivalent of being 35 feet below sea level). However, the tubes have also caused some additional muffling of my hearing, to my dismay. My right ear cleared a bit over the weekend, so I no longer sound to myself as if I’m talking under water. But my left has yet to clear, and I can hear my pulse in my left ear.
  • Sometimes I am very energized when I come home, and other days, I need a nap. No clear rhyme or reason. But I have been able to put in a productive afternoon of work every day, so far.
  • The therapy works.
    • Exhibit A: I have had an intractable ulcer on my left inside ankle for almost a year, which had mostly healed over the summer, but was persistently flaking and threatening to reopen. After two days of HBO, the skin was completely healed. Miraculous.
    • Exhibit B: The donor site for my skin grafts on my right thigh shrank by about 50 percent last week. I was finally able to flake off the very dry scab Sunday, which had become quite itchy.
    • Exhibit C: My finger pain has decreased even more than it had from just the grafts. I am now able to drive again. The vibrations of the steering wheel no longer hurt my fingers. I put this to the test on Sunday and was able to drive us to a wedding over an hour away, and back. First long-distance highway drive since July.
    • Exhibit D: My health care team unanimously thinks my grafts are healing well. I spiked an infection in my right middle finger, so am back on antibiotics. But it appears to be healing again, thank goodness.

Tuesday morning is Dive Number 7. I plan to vote in our local elections on my way home. I’m grateful that I feel up to it. Whatever your health circumstances, I hope you do, 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: The HBO chamber I’m using looks a lot like this image from Long Beach Medical Center in Long Beach, California.

Deep Dive

I began hyperbaric oxygen therapy this week. I was nervous on Monday, but for anyone considering this treatment, I can now, based on my first adventure, assure you that it’s not as scary as it sounds.

One of my biggest worries has been figuring out how to do my finger dressings using materials that are acceptable inside the HBO chamber. Based on a meeting last week with Wound Center staff, as well as the fact that I had decided to take advantage of the earliest morning option, I realized that I needed to come up with a solution that I could do the night before. Switching my dressings takes at least an hour on the days when I don’t need to change the bandages for my grafts; on the alternate days when I deal with the grafts, it can take as long as two hours.

Unfortunately, the ointments that I have been using, as well as the bandages, are off-limits for this treatment. You have to use 100 percent cotton products and no creams, ointments or gels. The gauze that my surgeon had given me for the grafts includes a petroleum ointment, so that’s a nonstarter. I’ve also observed that this dressing is creating too dense a moisture barrier on the skin surrounding the grafts, causing some of it to turn white. Not good.

Fortunately, the Wound Center staff gave me a couple of good alternatives: a silicon gauze film that is tacky but does not adhere to the grafts — a big bonus for managing the sutures. They also gave me rolls of cotton gauze to try. Sunday night was a two hour production, but I finally figured out how to provide good coverage, with some help from Al.

Unfortunately, I did not sleep well. I was uneasy, my gut was reacting to a very rich dessert that I shouldn’t have eaten, and rain was pouring outside. Finally eked out three hours, but I was not in great shape when I woke up. Thanks to Al, I got to my appointment on time at 7:00 a.m.

Understand that I am not a morning person. But going any later in the day would mean I’d have no time to get any work done in the afternoon. (The entire dive lasts about 2 hours and 20 minutes.) The hospital was quiet, and the Wound Center was not yet bustling with activity. Indeed, other than the latest headlines on one of the overhead video screens, it was actually quite peaceful. Ruthie, my tech, got the other three experienced patients ready and into their chambers, so that she could spend more time with me doing intake.

First, I had to change into hospital pants and a Johnny top. She gave me the “smallest” size they have — which would have fit at least two of me, if not three. Fortunately the pants had a good drawstring. Next, I got settled on the stretcher that fits into the cylindrical HBO chamber. It rides on a track; the stretcher is positioned at one end of the open chamber at the outset. Your head is slightly raised, and you can request a sheet and up to three blankets to stay warm. I decided on two blankets to start.

After taking my vital signs and reviewing the long checklist of prohibited materials (no, you cannot take your smart phone with you), Ruthie attached a small metal square to the inside of my wrist with a strap that covered it — this was a grounding device to avoid static electricity. Remember, they fill the chamber with 100 percent oxygen.

Following one last trip to the bathroom (ugh), I was ready to take my “dive.” They use this metaphor because once you’re sealed inside the chamber (glass top so you can see out and around), pressure increases as if you’re doing a deep ocean dive. This was the hardest part for me. Both my eustachian tubes are partially blocked, chronically so, and the increasing pressure was at times painful. Ruthie kept talking to me via a telephone receiver, guiding me through the process and explaining how to pinch my nostrils and blow through my nasal passages in order to ease the pain. I had an odd side effect (naturally): as the pressure increased on my ears, it made me dizzy to speak.

Finally, after maybe 20 minutes, I got through the pressure change and reached equilibrium. At this point, I was receiving 100 percent oxygen. It is very easy to breathe 100 percent oxygen. Ruthie turned on the DVD player with my CD book, a collection of linked short stories by Alice Munro. I was pretty drowsy, and the first disc was not as engaging as I’d hoped, so I dozed a bit. By the second disc, the storyline had picked up, and I was feeling more at ease, not minding the occasional vibrations of the chamber or sense of confinement.

Al stopped by a couple of times — before he started work for the day (he’s a social worker at the hospital) — and a couple of hours into the dive (he greeted me on the phone receiver with “Hello, Cookie Dough!). To my surprise, it was soon time to reverse the pressure, which took about another 15 to 20 minutes. This time, my ears didn’t hurt, although they bubbled and crackled, which is apparently quite normal.

I was relieved when Ruthie pulled my stretcher out of the chamber. “I survived!” I exclaimed. “You did!” she answered. All three of the other patients had come and gone, there were new patients in the midst of their dives, and the place was hopping. I got changed and then spent another hour in a private changing space that wasn’t in use, redoing all of my bandages with my normal silver alginate dressing, creams as appropriate and bandages. My fingers looked nice and pink. They paged Al for me, and he took a break from work to drive me home and set me up for lunch, because I was pretty tired by this point.

An hour’s nap helped, and then I found my way back to my computer to do some writing and editing. I get to do it all over again the rest of the workweek, for the next six weeks — but, I sincerely hope, with much improved sleep. Onward.

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 Talley

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