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

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.

Fingers Crossed

So, now things get a little more complicated. Last Thursday, when the Wound Center team checked my progress, the vascular surgeon thought that my left middle finger tip was colonized by an opportunistic bacteria common in wounds called pseudomonas. What I had taken to be some incidental spots had turned a pale green, which she said was a tell-tale sign. No pain or other issues, so I did my dressings and then checked it again that evening. It seemed to have spread more across the upper layer of the graft, which is dead skin.

Next day, I told the team, but no ID specialist was available to look. So, they scheduled a visit with the covering doc (mine is, of course, away for the week of Thanksgiving) for Monday morning. Meanwhile they recommended soaking the tip in a medical grade bleach. After just a minute, I was able to remove all of the green growth with a cotton swab. Powerful stuff.

They gave me some to take home and use again on Sunday. This time, nothing came off, and I couldn’t really tell if the discoloration was white or something else. Monday morning, I came in a little later for my HBO therapy, as planned, to give the ID doc time to look at the finger before my dive.

However . . . due to some miscommunication, when paged he said he’d never seen me before and didn’t know why he was being asked to consult, and went ahead with regular appointments. Aargh! More calls back and forth with the nurse who’d set up the appointment for me, and she got him to come later, after my dive. Of course, the wait took an extra hour.

He was apologetic when he came, very nice, thoughtful, accompanied by two students. However, he could not give me any firm answer about what may or may not be discoloring my graft. Only way to really know, he said, would be to debride the finger and do a deep tissue culture—which, of course, would mean removing the graft. And antibiotic treatment at this point could involve IVs, which I really don’t want. Not going there, not now, we agreed. Better to stick with the bleach and keep close watch. So long as I don’t have pain, any redness from cellulitis, swelling or fever, there’s no reason to do more.

After he left, the nurse suggested checking if I could see my hand surgeon before the holiday, to get his input. Fortunately, since they know me well in his office, his medical assistant squeezed me in for Tuesday afternoon, the only day he’s in this week. Good relationships really count.

I was not in a great mood Monday afternoon. But then I took a step back. After all, a surface culture on my opposite middle finger, the one that was actually weeping goo a couple of weeks ago, had tested positive for pseudomonas, and nothing came of it. The antibiotic I’ve been on, true to my ID specialist’s prediction, took care of the infection.

Plus, my open wounds were growing all sorts of stuff prior to my first surgery, as demonstrated by cultures done at that time. None made any difference in my outcome. Best to keep vigilant and monitor symptoms rather than fret over what-ifs, or do unnecessary procedures that would make matters worse.

I’m just grateful that I’m being monitored so closely by experts and not dealing with this all on my own. I’m also grateful that I continue to make more progress—this past week, I was able to fill my car with gas, lift a mattress to make a hospital corner, stir onions in a pan on a hot stove, and begin to write by hand again. That’s what I’ll be focused on this Thanksgiving.

And so, Dear Reader, I hope you have much to celebrate this holiday, as well. And for all of us, here’s to good healing and good health.

P.S. I’m happy to report from my Tuesday appointment that Dr. S thought my finger was fine. He said that grafts are “biological dressings” that protect new skin growing beneath. Not surprising that something could grow on the surface, as well. Given no worrisome symptoms of an infection, I should just keep doing what I’m doing. Other fingers continue to look good, in his opinion. Thank goodness—and it pays to remember that specialists know their specialties but can misinterpret what falls under another’s specialty! Seventeen dives and counting.

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: Nathan Anderson

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

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

To Appeal or Not to Appeal

I’m pleased to report, three weeks post hand surgery, that I’m making small progress every day. I’m able to sit at my computer for most of the afternoon, and it’s been great to catch up with my clients and focus on projects instead of my hands. I drove short distances twice last week — to two separate medical appointments. My hands were tired afterward, but it was wonderful to feel that I had some independence again. This Tuesday afternoon, Dr. S removes the sutures in two of my fingers, which have been driving me crazy. Hoping this will help to relieve some of the chronic pain that I’ve been experiencing.

However, last Thursday I found out that I was declined for the hyperbaric oxygen therapy, otherwise known as HBO. It wasn’t a big surprise, because the criteria for insurance coverage are very narrow and specific, unless you have a diagnosis of diabetes. Which I do not.

I’m not sure what to make of this. The chance of improving the odds for healing pre- and post-skin grafts — the next step in my surgery — is certainly very appealing. At the same time, the huge time commitment that this therapy requires is daunting. As I mentioned in a previous post, it involves spending three hours a day, five days a week for six weeks, lying in a large chamber with a clear cover, during which time you are exposed to 100 percent oxygen to boost healing.

Although I am not claustrophobic most of the time, I have my moments. I’m only 5’2″ tall (actually a little less than that now, as I’ve started shrinking), and being amidst a large crowd can really spook me, because I can’t see over people’s heads. I’ve also had some uncomfortable experiences when I’ve had MRIs. One time, I had to press the panic button because I was starting to feel lightheaded by being so confined.

I have no idea if appealing the insurance company’s decision will make a bit of difference. Highly doubtful.

And yet . . . I don’t like the idea of giving up without a fight. I found a current research study in the International Journal of Dermatology that had very encouraging results for healing scleroderma ulcers using HBO. The only problem, as with so much scleroderma research, is that the sample size is so small — only six subjects. But every one of the subjects experienced improvement. So I sent the study along to the Wound Center, which has been handling the insurance inquiry, and I need to follow up with them.

Meanwhile, it’s time to prepare for Rosh Hashanah, which begins Wednesday evening. Al is my sous chef, with help from Emily, as well, come Wednesday. We look forward to gathering with family and friends for a festive meal to welcome in the Jewish New Year. This past year has brought some of the greatest health challenges that I have ever faced. Whether you celebrate or not, whatever your tradition and faith, may all in need of healing be blessed with improved health — physical, mental and spiritual.

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: The Lærdalstunnelen, 24.5 km, world’s longest road tunnel, from our Norway trip. There are beautiful blue lights at three intervals to break up the monotony, and, I suspect, to ease claustrophobic fears.

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

Outlier

photoI am typing with three fingers on my right hand—middle, ring and pinky—and three on my left—ring, pinky and thumb. Usually, I use my right thumb as well. I actually had to stop and take attendance to figure this out just now, as I’m so used to compensating for digital ulcers that I automatically adjust how I type to which fingers are most healthy.

But my right thumb is out of commission for a few weeks, and my right ring finger, while occasionally useful at the moment, is also in need of a rest. Last Thursday, I finally had hand surgery to remove excess calcium deposits from both fingers that were interfering with my grip. Overall, I think it went well. I’ll know for certain next week, when I’ve healed more and the sutures are removed. I’m glad it’s over. I don’t want to repeat the experience any time soon.

The actual procedure went smoothly enough (despite our arriving nearly a half-hour late to the hospital’s ambulatory surgical suite, due to excessive rush hour traffic, which did not help my anxiety level that morning). Everyone was pleasant, informative and reassuring as they prepped me for surgery. I was glad to see my hand surgeon, who chatted with me as he marked my fingers with a purple felt tipped pen (“Yes” with an arrow pointing to the incision spot on each digit).

But there is a routine, auto-pilot aspect to the process that’s easy to succumb to (they must know what they’re doing, right?). Being assigned the role of patient—stripped down to a johnny and rubber grip socks, lying on a gurney, with your hair in a paper surgical cap and your glasses taken away—renders you more compliant. And vulnerable. In retrospect, I realize, from many years of dealing with the medical profession, regardless of setting or situation—I needed to be more assertive.

The IV nurse’s first attempt to insert a cannula in the back of my left hand was doomed to failure. I had warned her of my small, rolling veins—far too many experiences with IV antibiotics in past decades have rendered them hard to tap. But I didn’t think to stop her from trying, which I should have, because it really hurt and it didn’t work. Per normal, whenever I have blood drawn, the vein in the crook of my left arm was the right spot.

Next, the anesthesiologist came in to speak with me and asked me a bunch of questions about prior surgical experiences and my recent echocardiogram. But when I proceeded to give him a more detailed summary of the report, he dismissed me with the fact that he’d read it already (I certainly hope so, but then why ask the question?). At least he seemed to hear me when I said it takes me a very long time to metabolize anesthesia of any kind. “We’ll go on the lighter side,” he assured me.

The anesthesiology nurse was a bit more approachable and reassuring as he began the light sedative cocktail infusion that would help me relax during the procedure. As he pushed me into the OR, I was already starting to sink into a featherbed of valium. This was a good thing, and the addition of fentanyl made me quite comfortable (as comfortable as you can feel, under an extra layer of blankets because the OR is so cold—to keep the surgeons from overheating under all their gear, according to the anesthesiology nurse—when your head is being covered with a blue paper surgical drape and your hand that you can no longer see is being placed in some kind of protective sleeve and doused in chilly disinfectant). There was rock music playing—nothing I recognized, but good music, all the same.

Then came the local shots, which hurt like hell for far too many seconds—one in the fat pad beneath my thumb and the other, beneath my ring finger. The anesthesiology nurse was kind and comforting, standing by my left ear. Soon I felt nothing in my hand except odd pressure. One of the surgical team hummed to the music. I alternately closed my eyes and stared up at the surgical drape, which was perforated in the shape of tiny stars, as the team scraped out intractable globs of calcium, surrounded, my surgeon explained, by some abnormal cells that were essentially trying to encase the crud—like a tree closes off a wound. No wonder the stuff wouldn’t come out on its own.

Samples were sent off to pathology, and I was wheeled back to my berth. The whole procedure took about a half hour. Al was surprised to see me sitting up and drinking ginger ale when he was called back to my side. I was glad he was there.

I had hoped to see my surgeon again before leaving, but he was busy with other patients. His resident came by, instead. And here is where, once again, I found myself struggling to get my points across. I am allergic to oxycodone (Percoset). If I need a heavier pain killer, I take hydrocodone, the active ingredient in Vicodin. I thought I had some at home from a prior surgery, but didn’t recall. But he would not write the prescription. It wasn’t in their protocol. I don’t know if this is a reaction to the tighter restrictions on opiodes, but it made no sense. He wouldn’t budge.

In addition, I asked for a prescription of my most effective antibiotic. I had discussed this with my surgeon, who agreed it would be a “good idea” to start it when I got home as a preventive measure, given my propensity for infections. I had some left over from a previous infection, but not a full bottle. The resident informed me that research has shown antibiotics as a prophylactic neither help nor hurt, so he wouldn’t write the scrip.

“If it makes you sleep better at night, you can take what you have,” he said. In essence, he was telling me I was taking a placebo. I was really frustrated, but I was also exhausted and just wanted to go home. So I didn’t insist on seeing my surgeon and dropped it, knowing I could call my other docs and take care of it. The resident confidently told me that I would have minimal discomfort from the procedure and left.

As it turned out, it was a good thing I had some Vicodin that had not expired on hand. It took 18 hours for the local anesthesia to work its way out of my body—I could not assess the pain level before I went to bed that night, except for a glimmer of a warning of a problem in my thumb. I started the antibiotics and took one Vicodin before going to sleep.

By 5:00 a.m., I awoke with significant pain in my thumb. On a scale of 1 to 10, it was a 7. A second Vicodin didn’t really make much difference, because the pain train had already left the station. It took the entire day of alternating Tylenol and Ibuprofin, plus distracting myself, to get it fully under control without making myself too queasy from more Vicodin, even as the initial doses were essential to the whole mix. Al stayed home with me again, taking another day off from work, because I was so uncomfortable from the pain and woozy that I was afraid of falling. I missed the follow-up call from the hospital and decided not to return it. What were they going to tell me that I didn’t already know, better?

By Saturday, I was up and about, and a couple of days later, I’m back to almost normal, just managing the wounds. In a few weeks, I hope my right hand will be more functional. I’ve written this long entry, which is good progress.

But my experience reminds me that I have to be assertive, whatever medical setting I find myself in. There are times to listen and learn, and times to speak up and educate. Scleroderma does not fit neatly into a protocol. I am an outlier on the bell curve. The sooner those who seek to attend to my medical needs understand this, the better we’ll all be.

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.