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

Thoughts and Prayers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credit: David Monje

Hurricane Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holy Grail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tick-tick-tick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image Credit: Brandon Morgan