The Ordinary Woman in the Airport

 

My husband and I were hanging around the welcoming area of CVG, watching for our son amid the parade of newly arrived travelers, when I recognized someone I had never seen before. I recognized her deeply, with every thwarted nerve in my MS racked body.

The woman was ordinary enough; middle age, medium build, medium brown hair cut to a medium length. But her gait…wasn’t quite ordinary.

Don’t get me wrong, the woman was moving about as fast as any of the other newly arrived travelers. But it was clear to me that she was expending about ten times as much effort to do so. Her legs clearly had their own agenda; they wanted to dangle. She was forcing every step; her legs dragged and flopped but ultimately kept flopping in the right direction. And because of that, because she could see she was closing in on the greeting place, she had a big smile on her face—not a forced one—a smile of absolute triumph, like a marathoner approaching a spangled banner.

I recognized myself in her smile; I knew the depth of her achievement. I used to walk that walk, or a version of it, every month on my way home from another clinical trial visit to the NIH (National Institutes of Health) where I would receive another dose of the MS medication now marketed as Zinbryta. This drug has kept me walking, albeit with great effort.

Consider this post my small effort to remind you, gentle reader, that NIH is there for you, finding cures to diseases you may be unaware exist…until one day that disease strikes you, or a family member. Funding for the NIH is in danger right now. And if that doesn’t seem a relevant topic to you right now, congratulations. But good health is transient. You have to work to keep it. And sometimes, despite your best efforts, it slips away.

Please do what you can to maintain your health. Do what you can to maintain the NIH.

Keep smiling; ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things. Just think of that woman in the airport. Here’s the secret behind her smile: sometimes it takes ten times the effort to keep moving forward, but when the goal is in reach, there is ten times the satisfaction.

Steadier Together

As soon as I got diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), I started practicing yoga…with people who did not have MS. Yoga is not a competitive sport, and I am not a competitive person, so I’ve never wasted any energy comparing my abilities to anyone else’s. It didn’t matter if mine was the wobbliest “Tree” pose in the yoga studio. Trees can wobble, in the right wind.

At no point did I feel a need to join a special class for people with multiple sclerosis. I was doing just fine, I thought, in the yoga classes at the Fitness Center, practicing with “beginners” ranging in age from early twenties to mid-seventies. But when I saw the flyer for MS Yoga in my neurologist’s examination room, I immediately decided to join that class, too. The MS Yoga class was free. I had nothing to lose. And besides, I liked the concept. Yoga has helped me, probably in more ways than I know. Wasn’t it nice that the neurologist was offering something positive that his MS patients could do for their bodies and minds? I saw my attendance as a yes vote to the whole idea.

I might have felt a bit apprehensive the morning of the first class…I’d met people with MS before, and most of them just brought me down. The only close friend I’d made with MS up to that point had had a sparkly, positive attitude…and the progressive form of the disease. She’d recently died, hopeful to the end.

The women I met at MS Yoga that morning were charming, charismatic, joyful, and curious. We started asking each other questions, and comparing notes, before Megan, our instructor, got a word in edgewise.

Did I like the class itself? Not at first. It didn’t seem remotely like any form of yoga I’d ever encountered; starting with the fact that Megan never even mentioned breath. To me, a yoga practise without breath is like a church service without prayer; every pose starts with breath, extends with breath, transitions with breath. If you don’t have breath, you don’t have life, and you sure don’t have yoga. But what our class did have, right away, was community; we were as fascinated by each other as if were all reunited siblings, separated at birth.

Our ending “Namaste” (“the light in me greets the light in you) would not be a goodbye. There was a lunch place two stories down from our ad hoc conference room/yoga studio. We all agreed to extend the party through lunch. We called out the high performers as we prepared to leave; “You can still balance on one foot as you put on a sneaker!” And as we went down the stairs, “You can walk without a banister!” We commiserated with the one who forgot her yoga mat and had to go back for it, “I forget things, too!” And the ones who had to rush off to the Ladies Room, “I have an MS bladder, too!” We peppered each other with questions over our salads and soups, universal ones, like, “Do you have any kids/grandkids?” As well as MS related ones, like, “Do you still work?” “Do you get social security?” “Where did you get that cane?”

After subsequent yoga classes, the lunches went on, and the confessions of various disabilities grew bolder; not every symptom was found to have a match. The confessions of memory loss were by far the loneliest; what was the self, without memories?

In the meantime, I grew frustrated with the classes themselves. What was yoga, without breath? When Megan finally told me her reason for withholding breath from the practice, her explanation shocked me. Apparently she’d been taught that handicapped people should not be “burdened” with such instructions. I said, “Everybody breathes.” The assumption that people with MS couldn’t handle breathing made for an insulting pedagogy. She took note. And stopped following it. Megan invited us to breathe in class, invited us to laugh. Classes got better, week by week.

One day, Megan introduced us to the Tree pose, that pose I found so challenging in my able-bodied yoga classes. In Tree, one must balance on one leg, and rest the foot of the opposite leg somewhere on the standing leg; perhaps on the ankle, the inner calf, or as high as the inner thigh. Megan proposed that we do Tree pose in a circle, while supporting our neighbors, palm to palm. This was a method we all could achieve. Instead of forming individual wobbly trees, we formed a steady grove.

As suddenly as the class was offered to us, the class was taken away. The department of Integrative Medicine gave no explanation. The UC neurologist who was involved with this program is seeking to reprise it, to this day.

On the last meeting of the MS Yoga Group, Megan closed with this poem by the Revered Sapphire Rose:

“She Let Go

She let go. Without a thought or a word, she let go.

She let go of the fear.  She let go of the judgments.  She let go of the confluence of opinions swarming around her head.  She let go of the committee of indecision within her.  She let go of all the ‘right’ reasons. Wholly and completely, without hesitation or worry, she just let go.

She didn’t ask anyone for advice. She didn’t read a book on how to let go  She didn’t search the scriptures. She just let go.  She let go of all of the memories that held her back.  She let go of all of the anxiety that kept her from moving forward.  She let go of the planning and all of the calculations about how to do it just right.

She didn’t promise to let go. She didn’t journal about it. She didn’t write the projected date in her Day-Timer. She made no public announcement and put no ad in the paper. She didn’t check the weather report or read her daily horoscope. She just let go.

She didn’t analyze whether she should let go. She didn’t call her friends to discuss the matter. She didn’t do a five-step Spiritual Mind Treatment. She didn’t call the prayer line. She didn’t utter one word. She just let go.

No one was around when it happened. There was no applause or congratulations. No one thanked her or praised her. No one noticed a thing. Like a leaf falling from a tree, she just let go.

There was no effort. There was no struggle. It wasn’t good and it wasn’t bad. It was what it was, and it is just that.

In the space of letting go, she let it all be. A small smile came over her face. A light breeze blew through her. And the sun and the moon shone forevermore.”

We have had to let go of the yoga class, but we have stayed in touch with each other. We are no longer individual w0bbly trees, but a steady grove.

 

The Skinny on the WAhls VErses Swank Diet (WAVES Study)

Last week, I drove 475 miles to The Preventative Intervention Center at the University of Iowa to participate in Phase 1 of the WAVES (WAhls VErses Swank) MS diet study. My participation will last 36 weeks, assuming I make it through Phase 1, the Usual Diet Phase. If I do, I will be expected to visit the clinic every 12 weeks through the conclusion.

The WAVES study is open to people with relapsing/remitting multiple sclerosis (MS) who experience MS related fatigue. The purpose of the study is to compare two dietary approaches to see which diet is more successful at reducing fatigue. The hypothesis is that consuming one of the study diets will reduce MS related fatigue, improve energy and improve quality of life.

The bias of the experimenters for the Wahls diet remains unexpressed in the literature they hand out to us lab rats. (Well, the nitpicky can find bias revealed in the name WAhls contributing the first two letters to the WAVES acronym, whist the name Swank is contributes only one. I am not that nitpicky.)

On my next visit, I will be randomly assigned one of the two diets, and must then commit to following that diet exclusively. The twist: my super indulgent husband will also have to commit to following whichever diet, at least for every meal he has at home. Because this is a blind randomized study, I can’t let the administrators know which diet I’ve been assigned. This means, gentle reader, I can’t let you know either, on the very off chance that the study administrators don’t have anything better to do than check an amateur blog. (This is where I lose you, dear reader, and you suddenly remember you had meant to be curing cancer at the moment. Godspeed!)

While I can’t help but assume that the WAVES study is biased toward the Wahls Protocol, since Wahls herself designed it, I myself do not share this bias. Well…maybe a teensy bit. A very healthy, very active, once diseased Dr. Wahls does make a fine case for her diet in her TED Talk, which I watched to its completion many years ago. I am sure there is an equally compelling case for the Swank diet in the book I couldn’t bear to finish, which currently collects dust on my bedside table. (The issue of my reluctance to fully research either study will make another blog post eventually. Or a podcast.)

If I do get assigned the Wahls Protocol, I will be happy, because it is so intimidating and involved, I feel I will need the challenge of doing my due diligence as a Lab Rat to actually see it through. (In addition, I can lean on the professional assistance of the study nutritionist, who will assign me the diet and will keep this random assignment to herself.)

If I get assigned the Swank Diet, my husband, for one, will be happier, since he’s concluded (from his 14 second scan of the description) that this diet is more in line with the one we already follow. I am going to need his support, so I would be grateful for an option he finds palatable

Here are the diet descriptions, straight from the 22 page consent form:

“One diet is a low saturated fat diet that eliminates beef and pork and includes whole grains, fat free dairy, vegetables and fruits (Swank) and the other is a modified paleo diet (Wahls Elimination) that eliminates all grains, legumes (e.g., beans), eggs, dairy, and nightshade vegetables (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, peppers) and stresses more vegetables and meat in the diet.”

If you were assigned one of these two diets, which would you be more willing to follow for 24 weeks?

The MS Diet Study: A Radical Idea

I value this study of the effect of diet on MS, not the least because it is radical. It isn’t often a rigorous clinical trial is run in which the end goal is not a marketable commodity in the form of a drug.

The end goal of this trial is patient health. It’s not about profits. There’s no cookbook cabal conspiring to profit from the chronically ill. Sure, a few thousand farmers markets may see a rise in sales of organic produce. No harm there. The fish oil industry may get a bump. But overall, no single party involved in the outcome stands to gain as much as wealth as Big Pharma does every time they release a new medication they can sell to captive consumers for as much as $7000 per month.

And yet: if you are to follow this link to the logical, researched TED Talk by the inventor of the Wahls diet, you will encounter a red warning label superimposed over the opening frame:

“Note from TED: This talk, which features health advice based on a personal narrative, has been flagged as potentially outside TED’s curatorial guidelines. Viewer discretion advised.”

And if you follow this link to learn more about the Swank Diet, Wikipedia will inform you, “The widespread claims made for the diet have not been substantiated by independent medical research.”

The good news: this MS Society sponsored clinical trial is being administered by the University of Iowa, and should finally provide the objective substantiation all people with MS deserve.

And while Big Pharma might not have much to gain financially from the results of this study, that doesn’t mean this study, if successful, won’t have a mighty economic impact. If we trial participants regain our health by merely adjusting our diets; if we leave our walkers and our reclining wheelchairs and our social security checks and go back to full time work, to do whatever it was we were schooled in, and trained for, if we can once again have the freedom to follow our dreams—we will be more effective than any worker who has had the luxury of taking health for granted. And if those $7,000/mo drugs are no longer needed, that will go a long way to correcting our nation’s disgracefully costly health care system.

Follow this link to Dr. Wahl’s rebuttal of the TED Talk warning.

Wahls Elimination Diet vs Swank Diet: Which Is the More Effective Treatment for MS Related Fatigue? Ms. Lab Rat jumps into the maze.

Some Background (faithful readers can skip to paragraph 5):

As my faithful readers know, I am a machine with faulty wiring. Multiple Sclerosis has somehow managed to convince my T-cells to attack the insulation that surrounds the nerves conducting all the information my body needs to function optimally. This insulation is called myelin, and my myelin is ratty with scars. (Multiple sclerosis=many scars.)

When I got the diagnosis, I refused to accept my fate. I tried the first medication I was offered. And when that didn’t work, I tried a second. And when that didn’t work, I entered a clinical study of a new medication, one, I was told, that really made a difference. But as will happen 50% of the time with clinical studies, it turned out I was assigned to the control group. I didn’t get the new medication. I got a placebo. And I got more scars.

I not only tried new medications, I tried new doctors. (I moved around a lot, at first, so that part could not be helped.) When my fourth neurologist gave me the dour news that I was doing very badly, and could expect to do worse, and then much worse until I died, well, I switched to a cheerier doctor. Who gave me the same dire news, but with a big smile. I dumped her, too. Instead I found a brilliant researcher, Bibiana Bielekova. Researchers are always looking for better ways to do things. So am I.

Long story short, I talked Dr. Bielekova into letting me try an off-label drug that worked with the immune system, rather than fight it. Daclizumab works by boosting the population of Natural Killer Cells, which function like the good cops in the Wild West of my immune system; the Natural Killer Cells keep the rouge T-Cells, or bad cops, at bay. Daclizumab worked. The T-Cells stopped attacking my myelin. Eventually, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded a study of Daclizumab. I was lucky enough to join the safety arm of the study, so I was assured a constant supply of Daclizumab. In the last ten years, this medication has been so effective, the T-cells have only once managed to create a new scar. Earlier this year, the FDA apporved Daclizumab under the name Zinbryta. On the day I injected my last dose of free study medication, I was accepted into a new clinical trial.

Faithful readers, jump in here:

Finding a drug that stabilized my MS only solved half of my problem. While my T-cells have stopped chewing on the fatty myelin that insulates my nerves, the many scars created by years of insatiable gobbling still interrupt the signals of my central nervous system. I have to cope with fatigue, pain, lack of coordination and balance, and a digestive system that’s out to lunch. Oh yes, and a brain that continues to shrink. You would think, then, that a person as proactive as I am would have immediately acted when I saw a very convincing TED Talk by a smart researcher who overcame an even worse case of MS than mine. Like me, Dr. Terry Wahls took the latest greatest MS medication. And like me, her MS only got worse. Dr. Wahls soon found herself confined to a tilt-recline wheelchair. Unlike me, Dr. Wahls is a physician. She read the latest medical research about diseases in which brains shrink. She read studies in which animal brains had been protected from shrinkage using fish oil, creatine, and co-enzyme Q-10. She started taking human proportioned dosages of these substances, and started getting better. This was her first round of self-experimentation. Slowly but surely, she tweaked her diet to include and exclude certain nutrients and ultimately found herself out of the wheelchair, biking to a full day of work as a doctor, and, of course, promoting the diet that saved her. She managed to get the Multiple Sclerosis Society to chip in 1 million dollars to fund a scientific study to compare her diet with the Swank Diet, one that has been  found to help people with MS for decades. I, who was somehow too intimidated years ago to follow the Wahls Protocol, have now agreed to be part of this study, which is going to be a much more onerous and complicated option than simply buying her book and following along. How much more onerous and complicated? I’ll share the details in my next post. But strange as it is, a Lab Rat is a Lab Rat. I would rather experiment on my diet in a study as a contribution to the greater public knowledge than to simply tinker with the diet on my own.

How about you? Have you ever participated in a clincial trial? Would you?

 

 

30 Days Later

You would think , after twenty one years of being an MS patient, I would  have developed some cross-disciplinary skills, and also know how to be a decent opthamology patient. The most valuable lesson I have learned as a patient: Don’t Panic! The second-most-valuable lesson: Ask Questions. And if you don’t like the answer, get a second opinion.

I tried not to panic when I was told my retina was due to due to detach within 30 days. I duly got my second opinion. The second opinion guy flashed bright lights in my eye, then took a high tech picture, and told me my retina was due to detach within 30 days. This would appear to be confirmation of the first opinion…if not for the fact that the second appointment was five days later. Why didn’t Mr. Second Opinion say, 25 days? But did I ask this question? No way! I am not a smart ass…with my doctors. Meanwhile, I panicked. I ordered audiobooks.  I abanodoned a seven hour solo road trip, too afraid of what might happen if my retina chose that tiny window of time to detach, stranding me far from a specialist.

Well, it’s thirty days since the first appointment. My retina is still with me. My first opinion doctor tells me that the chances of my retina detaching have now fallen down to 10%, since it hasn’t detached already. This is brilliant news. I am going to celebrate by running out and buying a hard copy of Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which sounds fantastic as an audiobook, don’t get me wrong, but I adore this novel enough to want to absorb it the old-fashioned way, mediated through my fickle eyes.

 

 

Decisions, Decisions

Last Friday, I had a simple decision before me: ziplining or kayaking?

My friend Elaine and I had agreed to go ziplining—oh, two Octobers ago, and somehow our plan kept getting put off. We were on the verge of letting yet another bright autumn slip away with no zip. Neither of us wanted to be the first to admit that we are no longer in the market for thrill seeking, that a sedate afternoon of kayaking is now more our style; thus the question of which activity to pursue was still dangling by a text message thread as I entered my optician’s office for my annual exam.

I wasn’t all that keen on keeping the appointment—I already had a lifetime supply of contact lenses. This is how old I am: I am so old, I remember when “soft” lenses were not yet a thing; when contact lenses were suffocating brittle little plates. A ripped contact lens meant penury, for in those days one contact lens cost far more than today’s one year supply of soft “disposables.”

As the oldest of three, then four, severely myopic children in a family with little or no disposable income, I would have been astonished to learn civilization would eventually produce disposable contact lenses. To this day, I find the concept offensive. Why throw out a perfectly viable technological miracle?

We children wore our contacts until the lenses cracked, or until our prescriptions worsened, whichever came first. As such events occurred with horrific regularity, our severely myopic family of five, then six, was a winning lottery ticket for our local optician. I couldn’t help but resent our optician’s relative wealth. And feel deep personal shame every time I let the family finances down…again…while contributing to that mustachioed man’s vacation fund.

I’ve never quite outgrown that shame, or my indignation when suddenly little slips of plastic went from being worth hundreds of dollars each to being sold in 365-packs for way cheaper. There has never been an intermediate stage of cheap single serve contact lenses…except in my medicine cabinet. I still wear my contacts until they rip or until my prescription becomes obsolete. I keep reaching what I think must be the outer limits of nearsightedness—a -10 on what I assumed had to be a scale of -1 to -10—only to learn in subsequent visits to subsequent opticians that there are further negative integers.

Last Friday, I hit a new low: -13. And that wasn’t the bad news.

The bad news was that the flashing lights I’d sensed as coming from behind my left eyeball weren’t some silly commonplace symptom of my multiple sclerosis, as I’d assumed. The optician referred to those flashing lights as an “event” that signaled my retina was maybe thirty days from detaching. She then recommended I get an appointment thirty days out, though I should see her earlier, if “a dark curtain falls across your vision. Or an array of floaters.”

I made the appointment to be polite; I was already thinking of consulting a specialist. There had to be a more proactive approach.

I refused to enter “detached retina” on Google. Instead, I texted my husband about the problem, figuring he’d Google for me, and spare me the worst. He texted, Don’t stand on your head. Stay away from roller coasters.

Excellent! The zip-line vs. kayak decision was made for me! No zip-line.

This retina crisis was wonderful. Clarifying. I would put my affairs in order. Pronto.

Another decision—vote early or vote on Election Day?—resolved. I would vote first thing the next morning.

The future is…more and more problematic.

For months now, I’ve been looking forward to driving up to Iowa City to participate in an exciting study funded by the MS Society which will compare two popular diets to treat MS-related fatigue. I’ve been fascinated by the possibility that MS can be treatable through diet, but I’ve always been hesitant to go all-out. Joining the study is going to force me to be one hundred percent compliant, while also being a force for the greater good.

And while participation in the study has been reason enough for visiting Iowa City, I’ve also been planning to stick around town the following day for a ceremony to honor James Alan McPherson, a brilliant writer and compassionate teacher of mine from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Other writers I love and esteem and/or have read will be traveling from around the country to gather in his honor. I’ve been reading his work all week, revisiting some of the very themes I remember him bringing up in workshop, to little avail. Most of us students weren’t yet well equipped to respond. I, for one, was too young at the time, too narrowly focused. Which is why I’ve appreciated his words being frozen in time in his essays, waiting patiently for decades for me to finally grow up.

While I’ve lost my chance to ever talk to Jim again about Spartans vs. Athenians, I’m happy to say that at least I did have a chance to reconnect with him five years ago, at an Iowa Writer’s Workshop Seventy Fifth Anniversary Reunion. He had been sitting alone in a crowded room; unrecognizable in that he was thoroughly unacknowledged. I sat and talked with him a long time, comparing notes on living with chronic pain and chronic illness. When I left him, I didn’t expect he’d make it another five years; I don’t think he was expecting that, either. The ceremony for him will be a vast and profound validation. It will be something to see. I’ve wanted one of us to get to see it.

So I went to a retina specialist. While I carry that old grudge against opticians, I have all the respect in the world for ophthalmologists. I’d expected an ophthalmologist would be proactive, would have some sort of plan to prevent a “dark curtain” or “an array of floaters” from falling across my vision. Surely, a retina specialist wouldn’t keep me in suspense for thirty days.

The retina specialist saw me promptly. He took a very fancy picture of my eye. That was service. He said I should make an appointment to see him in thirty days, or to call him immediately , if  “a dark curtain falls across your vision. Or an array of floaters.”

I had to admit it. The optician wasn’t so far off.

But this guy is better. He has to be. He told me he can fix the problem. He told me that if I get to him early enough in the trauma, he can fix the problem in his office. But if I get there later? He can fix it in the OR.

I already knew from my husband’s Google foray that those OR surgeries take weeks to recover from.

It seemed to me, then, that it was a good thing I lived a mere ten minute walk from his office.

“So,” I ventured, “I like to travel. Do you think it’s a good idea to travel right now?”

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The specialist answered soundly, “Travel.”

I went ahead and made an appointment with him for thirty days out.

Yesterday, I packed my bags for a three day trip to Iowa City. It was a gray day; perfect for my light sensitive eyes. I made it seventy miles before I started seeing floaters, squiggly little lines wafting across the gray sky. I wondered, how many floaters constitute “an array?”

I still had four hundred miles to go. There was so much waiting for me at the other of this trip. People I haven’t seen in five years, in twenty years. People I’ve been eager to meet. But the only person I was thinking of was my husband. How awful it would be for him to get a phone call asking for a rescue. Or worse, a phone call from a far-away hospital.

I had to make an uncomfortable decision.

I could keep driving, keep asking myself, every few miles or so, is this an array?

Or I could turn around.

It wasn’t a difficult decision, after all.