Readymade

As the weather finally warms up here in Central New England, I decided on Sunday to take advantage of sales and buy a pair of summer pants. Off to the mall I went, hoping for some good luck. I really don’t enjoy shopping for clothes much anymore. I’m particular, it’s difficult to find something that fits properly, and the mirror and neon lighting can be quite cruel. In addition, all the dressing and undressing can be quite tiring on my hands. But I had some free time, the sales looked good, and I was in the right mood to give it the old college try.

The first store I tried was a disappointment. None of the pants fit properly—either too baggy or too wrinkled. As a seamstress, I know how pants are supposed to fit without “smile lines” in the seat. I also look for quality fabric and workmanship. No luck. I did, however, find a nice summer sweater on markdown, so the visit wasn’t a total loss. (Never can have enough sweaters, year-round!)

So long as I’d made the trek, I decided to check out one more store. They, too, had a good sale on pants. This time, I found a pair that fit perfectly, right off the rack. Only one problem: I couldn’t zip up the zipper all the way. This wasn’t a matter of fit; it was a matter of workmanship. The pants had a left side invisible zipper with a small pull tab, and I could not grasp it firmly enough to pull it above the waistband seam. The seam was just a bit too bulky for the zipper to easily slide past. The pull tab hurt my fingers. And there was no sense in buying pants that I couldn’t fasten properly.

Fortunately, the same style was also available in several other fabrics, and a pair of navy blue pants not only fit, but also the same type of invisible zipper worked easily. So I bought them, happy with my find at a 30 percent discount.

As I drove home, I once again thought that I really need to finally figure out how to sew a basic pants pattern that fits and just use that for the future. I had tried this several years ago, but gotten discouraged with the results. Maybe this summer is the right time to try again. Sure would solve a lot of problems.

Meanwhile, I’m glad I found what I needed within an hour. And that I can zip the zipper.

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. Please view Privacy Policy here.

Image: Artificial Photography

‘Tis the Season

April showers (and we’ve had plenty) certainly bring May flowers in my neighborhood. White-blossomed cherry trees and cream-colored callery pears, fuchsia magnolias and pink weeping cherries, along with maples unfurling pale green and purple leaves, grace sidewalks and lawns. White and violet violets speckle lawns that grow lusher by the day. The air smells delightful. With all the rain of late, pollen is subdued, and I haven’t started sneezing, yet.

In keeping with the season, another sign of spring has emerged: I have an infected ulcer in my left thumb. This spiked suddenly last Monday. Fortunately, it’s responding to antibiotics, which seem to be a perennial part of my world at this time of year. A good thing, because I’m traveling this week to New York for a mix of business and pleasure.

As my thumb became irritated, I wondered if I’d aggravated it by typing. Then I realized that I never use it to type. I’ve adapted to so many finger injuries over the decades that I automatically compensate for fingers that can’t comfortably or effectively strike the keys. Which made me wonder: How many fingers am I actually using to touch-type?

This is a bit like asking a centipede how it walks. I really have to stop and notice what I’m doing automatically, which can lead to more typos. But the answer is this: I use my pinky and ring fingers on my left hand, and my thumb, ring finger and pinky on my right. And I can still type quickly enough so that my thoughts translate almost immediately to the computer screen. It helps, significantly, to use an Apple “chiclet” keyboard, which has nearly flat keys with an easy touch, and a minimal rise so it’s easy on my wrists.

When my hands fell apart with severe ulcers two years ago (also in the spring), I learned to use Dragon dictation software to write. It was certainly a big help and enabled me to keep writing. But dictation taps a different part of the brain than writing brain-to-hands, and I will keep typing, even with only five fingers, as long as I can, because it is simply faster and more intuitive.

And so, I am dashing off this entry before I leave on my travels. Looking forward to fresh adventures—and to seeing how the flowers have grow when I come home.

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. Please view Privacy Policy here.

High Wind Warning


Monday morning. I awake to wind, rushing and subsiding, like an angry tide. A quick check of the weather forecast on my phone reveals high wind warnings all day, with gusts over 50 miles per hour throughout the afternoon. I have to drive into Boston for an evening class. I imagine a tiring commute, fighting the wind, but am determined to go, despite plummeting temperatures.

As I make the bed and bandage my chronic thumb ulcers, I listen to the The Daily podcast by the New York Times. Today’s topic: whoever controls the incipient 5G network, which will integrate all things hooked to the Internet—self-driving cars, smart TVs, home security systems, communications networks, the power grid, artificial intelligence, our brains—will basically control the world. This is the new Cold War. The wind howls outside. I sit cross-legged on the floor, try to quiet my mind and meditate.

While cooking oatmeal and boiling hot water for tea, I call the lab that has sent me two invoices for recent bloodwork stating that we owe $150 because the claims were rejected by our insurance. This happened while our COBRA administrator had not yet told our insurance company that we had renewed our policy back in January, so I have to get the lab to resubmit.

I work my way through their phone tree until I reach the customer service line, which promptly puts me on hold. I put the call on speaker and stir the oatmeal. Winds rush through trees and around corners. I sit down at the kitchen table, sip my tea and begin to eat my comfort food. Peppy music crackles through the phone, interrupted momentarily by a male voice: We apologize for the delay. A customer representative will be with you soon. Your call will be taken in the order it was received.

Over the cycling music, another male voice cheerfully ticks off all the possible lab tests I could consider: prenatal screening with a non-invasive blood test that could inform expectant parents of any chromosomal abnormalities at ten weeks, an eight year risk analysis for diabetes, a comprehensive heart health profile. I wonder about lab test results in a world of 5G interconnectivity. Who will have access to what about me in the future? Who does already?

Eight minutes in, a woman takes my call. She asks for the invoice number, my name, address, insurance policy ID, group ID (name, rank, serial number). I answer. She goes silent. The wind rushes outside the kitchen windows. She tells me to disregard the invoices and that the claims will be resubmitted. I hang up, finish what’s left of my oatmeal, rip the invoices in half and text Al the good news.

I think about the bits of data shooting from my fingers through the Internet to his phone. I think about the digital footprint of this blog, drifting forever in cyberspace. I think about a video clip of three horses galloping away from a swirling wind turbine, seconds before it disintegrates in a powerful storm. As I type, the evergreen boughs of the yew beyond my office window chop and sway in the rushing wind.

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. Please view Privacy Policy here.

Image: Benny Jackson

Excuses, Excuses

My desk is a mess. So is my office. Stuff is being fruitful and multiplying when I’m not looking. Honest.

I blame this cluttered state of affairs on my hands. It’s hard to pick up piles of paper and sort and file, because I’ll inevitably bang my fingers. There’s not enough room to properly store my books. I need to have that stack here and this stack there for easy reference. Right.

Then again, I like having lots of interesting stuff around me when I work. There are my little turtle statues to play with. And a bronze T-Rex that I got when I was maybe five years old at the Museum of Natural History in New York. And a cube that I can rearrange to show various paintings by Edward Hopper, depending on my mood.

Of course, I must have at least two pens nearby and a red marker and yellow highlighter and pencils to keep track of my work progress in my handy Bullet Journal. (Yes, I’m addicted.)

And how can I NOT have that pile of reference books on the side of my desk? Or those mail solicitations that I need to remember to follow up? Or those really cool beads that I bought on sale last week to string into a necklace?

Then again, it would be nice to have a clear space in front of me and to get rid of those papers I really, really need to shred, already. And move that stack of old files to the cabinet in the basement. And make some decisions about what stuff is truly necessary.

Al has offered his hands to help anytime. Maybe when I can no longer move in here, I’ll take him up on it.

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. Please view Privacy Policy here.

Snap Judgment

Even as I’ve adapted to my “revised” hands a year post-surgery, sometimes they still spring a surprise on me. I was working on a sewing project on Sunday, feeling quite pleased with myself that I could manipulate the fabric, stitch with great accuracy on my sewing machine, serge precisely to finish raw edges, iron and steam as I went along to get the right finish.

Then I noticed some red stuff on the handle of my iron. At first I thought it was just some shmutz from the fabric, which is a reddish brown and tends to shed. Then I looked at my right hand. Sure enough, without realizing it, I had cut the tip on my right ring finger.

Now, this can happen to anyone, I suppose, but for me the issue was that I didn’t feel the cut at all. This is one of my fingers that was partially amputated last fall due to ulcers gone wild, and the nerves at the tip are no longer as sensitive as they once were. Fortunately, the cut was only superficial, and I hadn’t dripped any blood on my project, which would have been a mess. But it was disturbing.

How could I have missed it? As I cleaned and bandaged the finger, I reviewed what I’d been doing in the past hour or so. Then it dawned on me: I have a lot of trouble manipulating pins for this project, because some of the fabric is densely woven and my fingers are now too short to leverage even a long, glass-head pin through all the layers. So I had tried using small binder clips, instead, to hold the pieces together. But I couldn’t pry them open far enough (again, an issue of finger strength), so I used a pair of pliers—and the clip snapped away from the pliers and nipped my finger. Ouch. It smarted, but eased up, so I didn’t think I’d really hurt myself. Apparently, however, that’s what did the damage.

I was able to keep sewing after I took care of the cut (and wiped the blood off the iron handle). I’m very happy with my slow but steady progress. But I realized that I have to be more vigilant when I’m using sharp tools. I may have learned how to use my hands again, but they are simply more fragile than they used to be, and I must pay closer attention to any pain sensations, even muted. Nerves are a first line of defense, to warn us when we’re endangering ourselves—but the sentinels in my fingertips are no longer operating at full strength. Time to call in the reserves.

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. Please view Privacy Policy here.

Wild Goose Chase

Canada geese can be a nuisance, crowding public green spaces, spackling parks with poop. But they can also be magnificent. I always love watching them fly, honking signals to form their undulating V. Strangely, I haven’t heard them yet this fall, migrating south, but I expect to, soon, as the days grow noticeably colder.

Those geese may be wild, but they are certainly organized. I cannot say the same for our local CVS pharmacies last week, as I tried to chase down a refill on a prescription to keep me warm.

Now, this medication is a vasodilator that I need to control my Raynaud’s. It’s a key part of my regimen year-round, but all the more important as temperatures drop. When I realized I had only three pills left early last week, I ordered my final refill on this particular prescription via my CVS iPhone app Sunday night. Normally, I get a confirmation text that the refill is in process (which I did), and then another text when it’s ready for pick-up within 24 hours (which I didn’t).

Hmmm. Time to follow up with a phone call. The pharmacy staff who answered the phone on Tuesday told me it was on order and would arrive later that afternoon. Fine. On Wednesday (one pill left), I received a text that a refill was ready for pick-up. So I went to the store, expecting to get my scrip and be on my way.

However, as it turned out, the refill was for a different med, one that I actually did not want refilled (it was on autopilot and I didn’t catch it in time). The medicine I needed was still on order. I inquired why. So it turns out that my local CVS did not have any of the required pills in stock, and none were available from the manufacturer (what?), and only one other CVS in the city had any. The clerk transferred the prescription to that store, so I wouldn’t lose any more time (theoretically), and I went home.

By Wednesday afternoon, still no text that the scrip had been filled. Hmmmm, again. I looked up the address of the store in question and discovered that there were two different stores on the street she had mentioned. So I called both. Had they by any chance receive my prescription? Nope. Even if they had (they could see it in the system) there was a problem. Why? Because my scrip was written for the generic version of the drug, not the brand name. And no CVS in the entire city had the generic pills in stock. I was directed to yet another CVS, on a different city street, that had the brand name showing up in the computer.

By this time, I was getting pretty annoyed. Already it had taken me more time than I had available to track this down. And it’s not an unusual drug. There was not one, not two, but three CVS stores on the newly designated street, according to my Internet search. I picked one and called. This time, I got lucky (or so I thought). The pharmacy clerk told me that they had my medication, but the problem was that my prescription had to be rewritten only for the brand name, and not the generic as an option.

Are you still with me? Aargh! I called my local rheumatologist’s office and got hold of one of the nurses who knows me. She readily took care of the new prescription and assured me she would put it under my doc’s nose as soon as he finished with a patient. Twenty minutes later, the pharmacy called back. They had the prescription, but it was still written incorrectly. There could be no mention of the generic on the scrip, only the brand name. Good grief. I called back my doc’s office, got another nurse on the line, who promised to straighten it out and get back to me when all was set, which she did by that evening.

The next day, Thursday, still no text that the scrip had been filled. I was out of pills by now. So I called the pharmacy to see what had happened. A different pharmacy clerk named Cindy answered the phone. I explained my dilemma, trying unsuccessfully not to get agitated. She calmed me down and found all the information. Apparently, they did not have the drug in-house, but she promised to order it right away from the warehouse, and expected delivery the next day. “Call me by noon to check in,” she said in a motherly voice. Thank you, Cindy, for being human.

I didn’t make the call because I got another text on Friday morning, telling me that the scrip was filled. After a client meeting downtown, I double-checked my app. Once again, it was the drug I didn’t want, still waiting for me at the original CVS (even though I had told them I didn’t need it). I called the new store to check on my quest. A different clerk answered and found out the pills were there, but my scrip was not yet filled, so she would ask the pharmacist to move it to the front of his orders.

I drove across town and found the store, a small, old CVS with a tiny parking lot, then waited at the pharmacy counter for another person to finish buying what looked like a dozen bags of pills. But when it was finally my turn, hallelujah, the scrip was filled. Not only that, but the young woman (not Cindy) who served me, who turned out to be the Wednesday clerk on the phone who had said the pills were in stock two days earlier, recognized my name and apologized for her mistake, due to an inventory error (not her fault) in their records. She was so pleasant, so committed to making my experience a positive one, that I might just leave that prescription at this out-of-the-way CVS pharmacy, despite the inconvenient location.

Wild goose chase, indeed. Any flock of Canada geese that had set out for their southern nesting grounds the day I first put in my order were probably long settled somewhere nice and warm by the time I got my pills. Thanks to some thoughtful individuals who believe in old fashioned customer service, I’m a bit warmer, now, 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. Please view Privacy Policy here.

Image Credit: Jessica D. Vega

Progress Report

A year ago today, I was two weeks away from my second hand surgery to repair damage from severe ulcers in five fingers—damage that had exposed bone and broken two of my knuckles. My left index and right pinky were held together by steel pins, and I didn’t know if I would lose them in the next procedure. My hand surgeon felt that skin grafts were worth trying, but we didn’t know if they would heal properly. He had warned me at the outset that these were the first of many surgeries.

What a difference a year makes! I’ve been extremely fortunate. A gifted surgeon, excellent wound care and 60 dives in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, plus effective occupational therapy sessions (and health insurance to cover it all), combined with a lot of support from family and friends enabled me to heal.

And I am cooking again. Al had picked up the slack in the kitchen for well over a year, ever since the ulcers became too painful for me to handle any utensils. He cooked up some great meals and discovered that he really enjoyed experimenting with new recipes. I was grateful for all that good and healthy food.

But a part of me missed cooking. It’s never been a major focus in my life. I don’t spend hours pouring over cookbooks and savoring the thought of new recipes. However, I do like making a good meal, especially for the holidays. It’s exhausting, but satisfying to turn out a gourmet, multi-course dinner. It gives me pleasure to prepare food that brings others enjoyment.

At some point over the summer, I began baking bread again for our Friday night Shabbat dinners. Al had gotten quite good at this, and he was deservedly proud of his delicious braided loaves, but he was happy to have me pick it up again. I also was able to help clean up after meals, which had been impossible with the ulcers and ensuing surgery.

The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, arrived just a few days after we came home from Europe last month. I knew it would be too much to have a big crowd, so we just invited a few close family members for the first night. But, to my and Al’s surprise, I was able to do most of the cooking myself. He served as sous chef, cutting vegetables. Even still, I was able to handle the chef’s knife and do a lot of prep myself. Everyone enjoyed the meal, and I felt like I had crossed the finish line.

I have been doing most of the cooking ever since, although I still have to be careful. I developed an ulcer in one of my skin grafts shortly after we returned from our trip, but I think this was actually caused by some calcinosis lurking just under the surface. It is gradually healing. Al is enjoying a well-earned reprieve, although I recruit him for help as needed.

Mostly, I’m amazed and extremely grateful that I can actually do so much with my hands again. It’s taken all this time to relearn how to use them, and I certainly have my limits. But it’s wonderful to see that, despite all the challenges, my body can truly heal.

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. Please view Privacy Policy here.

Extraction

I spared myself a visit to my hand surgeon last Friday. Don’t get me wrong. He’s a great physician. But the presenting problem resolved itself, so to speak.

The presenting problem was a piece of calcium the color of volcanic ash that has been emerging from the pad of my right thumb for nearly a year. It almost surfaced back in the winter, then receded for several months before pushing closer and closer to the top layer of skin. Finally, a few weeks ago, my thumb  erupted.

But all I could see was the tip of the iceberg (mixing metaphors, here—for some reason, the calcium deposits that my scleroderma manufactures have changed in color from white to dark gray in recent years—no idea why). Slowly, it revealed more of itself, but not enough so that I could pull it out easily.

So I resorted to trying to gradually soak it out of my thumb, using peroxide morning and evening, plus antibiotic ointment with gauze and fabric bandages to protect it during the day and overnight. This seemed not to accomplish much, other than protect me from infections. I finally decided to make an appointment with my hand surgeon to see if he could extract it in the office. I was hoping that would help the pit to make up its mind to come out on its own.

Still, it needed more coaxing. This required the proper tools. I turned to my father’s old dissecting kit. Made of black fabric, lined with purple felt, it contains everything you need for high school biology to dissect a frog, including a pair of very fine needle-nosed tweezers. I have some unkind memories of those tweezers—my dad used them to pull splinters out of my fingers when I was a kid, a procedure that never failed to make me squirm and scream.

However, they are the best tweezers for pulling calcium pits out of my fingers (especially since I’m the one doing the operation). Every morning and night last week, leading up to the scheduled Friday appointment, I wiped the tweezers with an alcohol pad, daubed peroxide on my thumb, and proceeded to try to loosen up the calcium pit from surrounding skin.

Finally, on Thursday morning, I got lucky. The calcium pit gave up and I plucked it out—a quarter inch long and eighth of an inch in diameter. The biggest pit I have ever extracted. Lots of blood, but pressure stanched the flow. I filled the hole in my thumb with antibiotic ointment and covered it up. Then I cancelled my appointment.

A few days later, the skin has nearly filled in. As strange as this disease gets, it’s always a relief to see that my body can heal itself, 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. Please view Privacy Policy here.

Image Credit: Jack Ebnet

What Comes Next

This Friday marks the one year anniversary of my hands falling apart—literally. This is not easy to think about, even as I’ve been recording my experience and its aftermath these past twelve months. It makes me cringe.

At the same time, I’ve grown quite accustomed to my “revised” hands. I was noticing this the other day when I was working on a sewing project. I had no trouble negotiating my sewing machine, handling the fabric, moving my fingers around the needle and presser foot, winding the bobbin, pinning and unpinning. I still have to be mindful of how I position my hands, but mostly it’s become second nature.

Remembering how all this started, however, is scary. I had no idea what I was in for, and it was not only painful when my very severe ulcers lifted up to expose bone, but also revolting. I don’t think I fully allowed myself to acknowledge that at the time. Some kind of internal coping mechanism, combined with my writer’s indefatigable inquisitiveness, took over. (“Oh, wow, that’s what my knuckle bones look like!”)

Fortunately, in this case, curiosity did not kill the cat but enabled her to persevere. I didn’t let my deteriorating hands stop us from taking an extraordinary trip to Iceland and Norway; in fact, as I wrote at the time, it propelled me to seek out beauty to boost my courage for whatever lay ahead. I benefited greatly from my very supportive husband, without whom that trip would have been impossible.

August is just around the corner, and we are a few weeks out from another trip abroad. I am very grateful that my hands are in relatively good shape at present, with only two bandages, including one on my right thumb that is protecting an exposed clump of gray calcium that has yet to exit the finger pad. I am debating whether to ask my hand surgeon to remove it for me or just let nature take its course. My nose is healing from surgery two weeks ago. I am praying that we will avoid any health issues or other emergencies this year.

There is just no way to know what comes next. I can only hope that my well of resilience remains deep. I hope the same for you, Dear Reader, wherever your summer travels may take you.

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. Please view Privacy Policy here.

Image Credit: David Monje

Eureka Moment

As plastic supersedes cash for more and more transactions, it seems that those self-service credit card dip machines are ever more prevalent—and frustrating. I am not referring to credit card interfaces that you use to swipe or insert your chip card for payment at the checkout counter. Those are ubiquitous, but relatively easy to use.

No, the bane of my existence are those parking meters, train ticket machines, garage payment terminals, gas pumps and ATMs with slots that require a nimble grip and coordination to dip your card most of the way in and pull it back out. Some of these contraptions have little friction and are relatively easy to use. But the ones that grip your card are simply a disaster for my hands.

This was true even before my surgery. Now, with even less of a grip, I struggle to stick the card all the way into the slot, let alone pull out the card fast enough to spare myself a voided transaction.

A couple of weeks ago, I was trying to add value to my Charlie Card (for those of you unfamiliar with the Boston T, these are plastic cards that you tap at the subway turnstile to gain entry). I had no cash on me, so I had to pick the credit card alternative. And the machine had one of those dastardly tight credit card grips. I tried at least three times to dip my card, but the transaction failed to register. I was really aggravated.

Not knowing what else to do, I stepped aside to reorganize my wallet. Then, in a necessity-is-the-mother-of-invention moment, I had an idea. What if I used my nail clippers, the kind that you unfold into a V and squeeze the ends to trim your nails, as a way to grip my credit card? The card is too thick for the clippers to damage.

After a bit of fumbling to retrieve the clippers from my purse, I waited for the line at the ticket machine to clear and stepped up to try my experiment. Sure enough, one dip and my transaction went through! I was very pleased with myself.

Back home, I described my victory to Al. He had an even better idea: use a bulldog clip to hold the card. These are those metal clips with wings that you can flip up to squeeze the clip open and flip down when the clip is secured. They come in all different sizes, so it’s just a matter of experimenting to achieve the right balance of required finger pressure and fulcrum length.

So, there you have it. I hope this works for you, Dear Reader, if you share my struggle with credit card dipping. And if anyone out there has an even better solution, please let me know.

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.