Baking Bread

As of today, I am two-thirds of the way through my HBO treatments: 20 dives down, 10 to go. Last week’s mishegas about another potential infection was doused effectively with medical grade bleach soaks for the recalcitrant graft and a visit to Dr. S, who reassured me that the finger looked fine. Thank goodness!

Meanwhile, I continue to make more progress. Each day, the edges of the grafts pull a little farther away from surrounding skin, which is what they are supposed to do as new skin forms beneath. My fingers feel more able, despite missing tips and odd shapes.

I didn’t cook Thanksgiving dinner (Al’s department—and very good it was, too), but I did make the stuffing that we baked separately in the oven (main course was pecan-crusted salmon). This is one of the first times in about six months that I could tolerate stirring contents of a hot pan. Previously, the rising heat and steam were very painful to my exposed, over-sensitive wounds. Not to mention, I couldn’t hold the spoon.

My biggest accomplishment in the kitchen, however, was finally being able to bake bread again. It has been my practice for years to bake fresh challah for our Friday night Shabbat meal. I have a great recipe from a cookbook that my sister gave me nearly 30 years ago, and I’ve been making it since Mindi was a toddler who relished punching down the risen dough each week.

It’s the highlight of our Shabbat dinner, as well as a source of pleasure and pride for me to provide my family and friends with delicious homemade bread. But my hand debacle has made this favorite, meditative task an impossibility since summer. Al took over baking after my surgery and has become quite adept. Still, I missed doing it myself.

So this post-Thanksgiving Friday, as I was hanging out in the kitchen with my two visiting daughters, I decided to see if I could once again slip my fingers into a pair of de rigueudisposable rubber gloves, essential for any handling of raw ingredients—and, voila, to my amazement, they fit over my bandages without any discomfort! I proceeded to proof the yeast, pour flour, sugar, salt, oil and eggs, plus the yeast and warm water, into our old Cuisinart, mix the dough and pull it out onto the floured bread board.

And, as my daughters gave approval and encouragement, I kneaded the dough by hand. This is my favorite part of baking bread. There is something so magical and satisfying about feeling the dough transform from a sticky mass to a smooth, soft, elastic whole. My hands had not lost too much strength or touch. Into the oiled bowl the dough went, covered with a clean towel, to rise.

I punched it down for the first rising, but Mindi was getting organized to drive back to Boston by the time the dough had doubled in size a second time. “Do you want to punch it down?” I asked. “It was a little hard for me because my fingers don’t bend quite right.” She smiled, then proceeded to expertly punch all the air out of the dough. Still a special moment to share.

Later, when the challah came out of the oven, I sent her a text with a photo.

“Ta-da!” I wrote.

“Very nice!” she responded.

Yes, very nice, indeed.

P.S. This post is my 300th entry in this blog, When I began writing in January 2012, I had no idea where what has become an online journal of my life with scleroderma—and just life, which is really the point—would take me. More than 200,000 words later, I’m still discovering. Thank you, Dear Reader, for sharing the journey, and for your encouraging and thoughtful comments along the way, which keep me going.

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.

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.

So Far, So Good

A week has passed since my second hand surgery, and I’m pleased to report that I am bouncing back more quickly than I expected. Skin grafts are healing well, and my appeal was approved for hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

It’s been quite the ride. For the first few days, my hands were protected by huge padded splints that went halfway down my forearms. My pain level was quite manageable, thank goodness, but I could not do a thing for myself.

You really don’t realize how much you depend on your hands until you can’t use them at all. I felt like a baby. Al did yeoman duty, feeding me, wiping me and washing me, all with patience and good humor. He is a good man. We were both blessed and energized by caring friends who brought delicious home-cooked meals all week, and by many prayers for healing and kind wishes.

Everything changed on Thursday, when Dr. S removed the splints. He checked the graft on my left middle finger (he deemed it good) and the flap of skin that is now sealing my right middle finger (also deemed good). The other two grafts he left alone for inspection on Monday. But I had my hands back.

As soon as I came home from my appointment on Thursday, I was able to sit at my computer and get some work done. Even as I was tired, it was a tremendous relief to be able to use my hands again, with care, and regain some independence. I’m not ready to drive, yet, but I hope to as soon as I feel confident that my grafts have stabilized.

When Dr. S checked the grafts on Monday, he was more than pleased. The skin was nice and pink, a major accomplishment, given my poor circulation. I’ve been keeping my hands warm using heat packs on my wrists. Since I can’t put on my wrist warmers right now (bulky bandages), I have been wrapping the heat pacs into ace bandages around each wrist. Works just fine.

I still have two pins in my left index and right pinky. These will come out soon. Monday afternoon, I had smaller splints made to stabilize the three grafted fingers as they heal. I’m still figuring out how best to care for the “donor site” on my right thigh, a two-by-four-inch rectangle where a thin layer of skin was removed for the grafts, but it appears to be healing slowly.

Also on Monday, I got the green light on my hyperbaric oxygen therapy appeal. This was especially surprising, because our health insurance had called the end of last week, claiming that we had never applied for prior authorization, so no appeal was appropriate. I referred them to our hospital wound center contact who had, indeed, filed the request that had, indeed, been declined. I also explained that the HBO would probably save them money because it would spare me more surgeries, if it works. That argument may have done the trick, because they never even bothered with a peer-to-peer review. In any case, I start next week.

It’s a lot to absorb. I’m extremely grateful that my wounds, now covered with my own skin, are less painful, and that the risk of having skin grafts has been, so far, worth taking. One step 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.

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

Im-patient

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Everest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.