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

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

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.