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.

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Once A Lab Rat, Always a Lab Rat

The NIH study that has nurtured me since 2010 is over. The day I’ve been anticipating with measured trepidation has finally arrived. A few hours ago, I took the last of the vials of free medication from the NIH out of my refrigerator, and injected.

If the drug had not passed the FDA approval process, this would have been a very sad day. But it did pass. The fruition of the study is available commercially as Zinbryta. Dr. Z., my neurologist, has already set in motion a smooth transition for me; I’ll be the first of his MS patients to purchase Zinbryta. I won’t have to miss a dose of the drug that has given me my life back.

So today, then, marks the happy ending to my life as a Lab Rat?

Not so fast.

Today marks the closing of one chapter. And the opening of another.

This morning I received a phone call from a research assistant named Brianna. She asked me ten easy questions designed to provoke pleasant answers, such as, “Today is Tuesday, September 15, 2016” and, “Barack Obama is the President of the United States.” At the end of this quiz, I found myself qualified to be a Lab Rat in the MS Diet Study.

As any faithful reader of this blog knows, I am very interested in the role of diet in the management of MS. I’ve been intrigued by the Wahls Diet since seeing Dr. Wahl’s TED talk; I couldn’t help but be impressed that she has managed to eat her way out of a reclining wheelchair and back to full time medical practice.

This study will randomly assign me to either the Wahls Diet or the Swank Diet. As it happens, I am comfortable with both. Dr. Z. has met many people with MS leading active, healthy lives on the Swank diet. It will be a win for me either way.

I don’t have to ditch Zinbryta to participate.

Could a lab rat be any luckier?

Another fun perk of this study: I will be traveling to Iowa City, home of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where I got my MFA in fiction, and, come to think of it, my MS diagnosis. This Lab Rat will be traveling full circle.

I do hope you will follow Ms. Lab Rat to my next maze in Iowa City. I won’t be able to blog about which MS Diet I am assigned to, because the researchers must be blind.

I am so very grateful, above all, to my husband, who likes our current diet very much, but is willing to give an MS diet a try.

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Finally…FDA Approves Zinbryta

IMG_4206I just read that the experimental drug I’ve been taking for ten years has finally been approved by the FDA and will be available as Zinbryta. This must mean Ms. Lab Rat is officially retired. After many years of commuting to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to take the only drug that’s stopped the progress of my multiple sclerosis (MS), I am now going to have to buy the drug like everybody else.

You know what? I’m thrilled. I’ve hated having to hear heartbreaking story after heartbreaking story of yet another person getting an MS diagnosis, getting an ineffectual, often expensive treatment, getting worse. They look at me, and I appear fine. I’m not, but I’m also not getting worse. My medication has worked. But for these past ten years, so many others with this disease have had no chance of seeing if this medication would work for them. My dear friend Debra died way too young still waiting for this day. As you can imagine, I’ve been on the phone a lot this afternoon, updating every person who has asked me about Zinbryta. This blog post is for those of you whose numbers aren’t in my contact list.

Until I let the world know the risk I took with this drug was worth it, I won’t feel that my tenure as a Lab Rat is well and truly over. But I guess an era has come to an end.

No more free flights to Washington DC for free MRI’s. No more free top level medical care. No more cognitive tests. (Hooray!) No more free monthly blood tests to check my liver function. (My liver is just fine, thank you.) No more nights on-site at the swank Safra Lodge. No more free stays at Bethesda Court Hotel. No more side trips to the awesome DC museums and zoo. No more viewings of indie films at Bethesda Row Cinema. No more delicious dinners at Bethesda’s many fine restaurants.

Do you get the idea that being in a clinical trial at the NIH has been a pretty sweet deal? It has been for me. But what I’ll miss the most will be the people: the brilliant doctors, nurses, and interns of the NIH. Why, even the taxi drivers usually had pretty fascinating back-stories to share, if given half a chance.

The one thing I regret about my participation in the trial is that I waited until the end to reach out to other guests at the NIH; like the older lady I met in the shuttle van who’d lost both breasts and lymph nodes to ineffectual and painful cancer treatments. The cancer had spread and spread for years until she was accepted for an NIH trial (“I couldn’t believe it, at my age.”) Now her NIH doctor extracts some of her immune cells, expands the cell population in the lab, and treats the cancer with it. Her cancer? Gone. The side effects? None. She’s one happy lady. The NIH complex is full of motivated people pursuing second chances, and I wish I hadn’t been too timid and/or respectful of their privacy to chat with them. (If anyone reading this is an NIH lab rat, consider this your invitation to introduce yourself.)

I’d meant for this blog post to be about Zinbryta, but I guess it’s just a big thank you note to the NIH.

Zinbryta has been safe and effective for me for years now, and I’m terribly eager to let people know that there is one more—I think far better—alternative out there to try. But if Zinbryta doesn’t work for you, do not despair. There are plenty of other MS drugs in the research pipeline. Maybe one day you’ll wind up as a Lab Rat, too. Clinical trials are not all MRI’s and blood work. They are also an investment for the future of others coping with disease. Who knows…maybe one of us will one day be a Lab Rat for the drug that winds up becoming the cure. I won’t stop hoping.

 

The Greater Good

During a recent visit to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), I met a very pleasant young intern who had recently abandoned a career in law to take up a career in medicine, all because he’d wanted to use his talents to make the world a better place. Apparently most of the lawyers he’d met in his former life had been miserable, self-centered creatures.

He hadn’t wanted to end up like them.

So far, the intern had found the people of the NIH to be far better company than the rapacious lawyers he’d fled from. The intern observed that everyone at the NIH was there for the public good, even the patients, people who were willing to undergo trials that may or may not directly benefit them, but which would most certainly benefit others. As the intern put it, the institution was filled with do-gooders, “from the bottom up.”

I did not resent the intern for classifying patients like me as being at “the bottom” of the NIH heap. I deserved that. I myself have made a similar observation about the outstanding qualities of the good people I meet at the NIH, although in my self-serving version, “the bottom” is occupied by the NIH cab drivers —a demographic consisting primarily of highly educated immigrants, like the driver who’d earned a medical degree in his former life back in a war-torn African nation.

I don’t take anyone’s status too seriously, including my own. Status is subject to abrupt change. Things can be going fine, and then along comes a war. Or a disease. There are many paths to the NIH, indeed.

I wanted the good intern to like me. I did not correct his assumption that my primary motivation for participating in the trial for DAC HYP was a selfless one. My actual motivation was anything but selfless. DAC HYP was the only drug I’ve taken that managed to stop the progression of multiple sclerosis (MS). When I’d heard it was being taken off the North American market, I’d panicked. I’d made a few phone calls, and tracked down the doctor whom I’d initially begged to prescribe it. Joining her study at the NIH was the only way I could continue to take a drug with a known benefit.

There hadn’t been any risk involved in joining the study that I hadn’t faced already. There wasn’t even a risk of my being placed in a control group and receiving a placebo. I wasn’t at the NIH to make the world a better place. I was at the NIH to continue to take a better drug.

From what I’ve overheard from other patients at “the bottom” of the NIH barrel, we are all there primarily for our own private good. Did we want our disease cured? Hell, yes. Getting to the NIH meant cutting to the head of the line. No one gets an NIH ID without having struggled for it, including those who arrive in a wheelchair.

Human beings are complex. As for those selfish lawyers the intern was fleeing? Maybe some of those miserable human beings do in fact inadvertently contribute to the greater good while in pursuit of those big fat paychecks. More power to them.

I’d like to imagine that one or two of those fat cats may one day get sick, and have to claw themselves to “the bottom” of the heap at the NIH, where they may make their own contribution to the greater good through their rapacious pursuit of an elusive cure. The intern may think better of his former colleagues once he meets them as his patients. He may think that they have undergone some spirtual transformation. But they will be the same ambitious bastards they always were.

We all contribute to society in some way. Like the intern, I’d rather hang out with people whose positive contributions to the world are deliberate, and not inadvertent. Yet by now I’ve learned that no one’s motivations are as clear as we would like to think.

Saving Face

“God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another.”
William Shakespeare
Act 3, Scene 1 of Hamlet

I knew I was in trouble before I opened up my eyes this morning. I could feel that my eyelids were swollen before I attempted to wrench them apart. A trip to the mirror confirmed what my senses implied. My upper eyelids were elephantine. Worse, there were tender red patches beneath each eye. Worse still, tonight I’m scheduled to sit in front of a hundred or so paying audience members with a spotlight shining on this problematic face. Worst of all…it’s kind of my fault.
I write, “kind of,” because last night, when I applied my makeup, I hadn’t realized the potential for this consequence. I write, “my fault” because my neurologist had given me the opportunity to take an all-expense paid trip to the National Institutes of Health, (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, and get my rash seen by a dermatologist there. At the last minute, I’d chickened out, and had the NIH cancel my flight, because on that particular morning, my skin didn’t look so bad, nothing a little concealer couldn’t fix. I couldn’t stand the thought of flying all the way to Bethesda over a couple of little scaly patches that could be covered up with concealer. Believe it or not, I thought I was saving face. I couldn’t stand the possibility of being regarded as a hypochondriac.
Yeah, right. That hypochondriac option has been out for decades. Who did I think I was fooling?
I’m going to have to back up a bit. I’m going to have to be straight with you about a thing or two.
Starting with this: I set up this blog to share my experiences on an experimental medication for multiple sclerosis, DAC HYP. It’s only now that I notice that I’ve underplayed…as in, possibly haven’t mentioned…that I’ve experienced a side effect. That side effect is rash.
You might well ask, why not?
Here’s why not. I’ve got multiple sclerosis (MS) a horrible, and so far, incurable, degenerative neurological disease, and DAC HYP is the only medication I’ve taken—and I’ve taken plenty—that has actually served to stop the disease progression.
That’s pretty significant.
Rash? As side effects go, rash just hasn’t seemed that significant.
To put it into context, a potential side effect for a competing drug, Tysabri, is sudden death. So, yeah—rash. What of it?
I’d rather have a rash I can see than a brain lesion I can’t see. The choice to take the medication, and bear with the side effect, has been a no-brainer, at least for me. For a while there, I thought that anyone who saw things differently must just be more brain damaged than I am.
Two things have happened since I’ve started this blog that have changed the way I view the risk/benefit analysis of taking a drug that stops MS, yet causes rash.
Thing One: after years and years and years on this drug, I finally did get one—and only one—new brain lesion. And still, as far as I can tell, that’s a phenomenally good result if you compare the efficacy of this drug to that of any other MS drug out there. I’ve been told this one lesion had the good grace to show up in a “silent area.” I don’t agree that the damage was silent—I felt pretty horrible for a while there—but in truth, I’m feeling all right now.
Except for—
Thing Two: the rash has gotten worse.
Way worse.
When the rash first showed up—I believe that happened around the time the medication changed its formulation—it appeared on the inside of my hand; a nice, innocuous spot. No one was too likely to see it. And that was important to me. Some people call MS an invisible disease. I like it’s invisibility, thank you very much. MS only stays invisible if it isn’t allowed to progress.
The rash itched. I applied hydrocortisone. It went away. And then the rash reappeared, on my face of all places. A place everyone was likely to see. And that made the rash something I had to…um…face.
I managed to not face it.
I had a solution. I used a cosmetic. A simple concealer. Perhaps if I were a man, and not in the habit of putting on makeup, that move would have felt like a big deal. But I am a woman. Most of us women are all too familiar with, shall we say, putting our best face forward. (See: Hamlet.)
So yes. I wore concealer over my rash every day. Even on those days the NIH flew me out to examine me, to, you know, see if I was experiencing any side effects on DAC HYP.
Maybe we’ve been at cross-purposes. Whenever I visit the NIH, I always strive to be mistaken for a doctor instead of taken for a patient. My most treasured moments in Bethesda are the times I (almost) get away with this, like when a driver for the NIH picked me up from the hotel and asked, “Are you a patient, or…”
I treasured that “or.” I gave that driver a big tip.
The NIH culture supports these seemingly innocuous mistakes of identity. A nurse once berated herself after she’d asked me a question about my condition in an elevator. “I shouldn’t have done that. I’m not supposed to address you as a patient in front of other people.”
I’m not to be treated like a patient. I’m to be treated like a peer. One never gets too personal with one’s peers. I’ve had one neurologist actually apologize several times during an examination, for having to touch me, for asking me to disrobe. I understood she was expressing her respect for me. But that sentiment can go too far, and actually disrupt the messy process of getting down to the ugly truth.
And it’s hard to get there. For instance, you’ve been reading paragraph after paragraph about my rash, and I still haven’t mentioned I also have scaly dry patches on the inner folds of my arms and my legs. These patches itch. But I tend to forget to mention them, not only to you, but to my neurologist. Why? Because these itchy patches are not visible to others, at least not in the winter months. I can bear almost any amount of discomfort. I just can’t bear exposure.
Which brings me to the prospect of going onstage with a rash in front of about 100 people.
I’d had other plans for this evening’s appearance. I’d planned to get a professional make-up job. I’d planned to get an elaborate up-do. I’d planned to look fabulous, like I did on opening night, just a few hours after I made that cancellation.
Life doesn’t always go as planned
When I’d cancelled my flight to the NIH and my appointment with the NIH dermatologist, my neurologist had suggested I quit wearing make-up. After opening night, I complied. As of last night, my face was repaired, just in time, I thought, for me to take the stage again. Thinking the problem was over, I’d applied a little makeup before going to a concert. We know how that turned out.
This morning, I cancelled my make-up session. I didn’t want to make my elephant face any worse. I did not cancel my up-do.
And then I went to yoga. I’m so glad that I did.
Our teacher, Sharon, shared a passage from a book in which yoga instructor Sianna Sherman answers the question, What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
Sianna answers, “Inner body bright,” a phrase she’d picked up from her teacher, John Friend. Sianna explains that this phrase is “his way of saying ‘It doesn’t matter what’s happening on the outside. No matter how fierce and intense and up against ourselves we feel, if we tap into that place—the place that yoga guides and invites each one of us to—we’ll find that our essence is bright and that our inner freedom is fully present.’ Often, it’s our outer freedom that’s compromised by own mind. We say: ‘Oh I’m not free’ or “I’m a victim, I’m not empowered. Or, ‘This happened to me…’ And then we start to close down. And that’s easy to do, but if we go inside and wait a minute, there’s this inner freedom that’s never compromised; there’s this inner light that’s always true. So you say to yourself, ‘Inner body bright, let me melt the outer body, melt all the crazy stuff that’s happening into the fire of my heart, into that inner light, and then I’m going to stand tall in this light and keep going, no matter what.”
As it happened, that message was exactly what I needed to hear to muster the courage to get onstage with a rash, and without the makeup. When I sit in the spotlight, I somehow doubt I’ll be whispering to myself, “inner body bright.” But I did get the message there’s more to me than meets the eye.
I have lived a long time. I have sported many appearances. I have been a cute little girl, a wince worthy adolescent. I’ve been a woman in a wheelchair. Last week, just before my opening night performance, when I was the lady with the fabulous updo, the owner of an upscale restaurant rushed up to my beautiful family, and asked, “Where do you come from?” in awestruck tones, as though he expected us to answer, “We have descended from Mount Olympus.” That night, it didn’t feel like a challenge to take the stage.
Tonight I’ll have to give the audience some credit. I’ve cancelled my up-do. I won’t apply concealer. I’ll see if I can summon up enough inner beauty to outshine the rash. (The swollen eyelids had calmed back down.) I am, after all, performing for trueTheatre. The audience expects me to be vulnerable. What better occassion to take that risk?

Ask About Your Medication

Note from the Rat: The medication I refer to as “daclizumab” back in 2011 is expected to be marketed to the public as “Zinbryta.”

It is good to ask questions. Even when the answers aren’t always pleasant—especially when the answers aren’t pleasant.
No one likes to ask questions when things are going well. My first months on daclizumab went really well, so I didn’t bother to ask my nurse about the origin of the clear liquid dripping down the IV tube into my veins. Whatever it was, it was working. My multiple sclerosis symptoms were fading into the background. I couldn’t ask for more than that.
So I didn’t.
Month after month, I had the same nurse arrive at my home for infusions. We took to chatting. The heparin scandal came along, taking the lives of 81 Americans who had assumed—as I’d assumed—that nothing fatal could be lurking in a labeled medication. That month, the nurse told me it wasn’t necessary to flush my veins with heparin. I gave her the go-ahead to use it anyway. I didn’t want to mess with success. Eventually, though, I think we may have agreed to skip the heparin flush. Daclizumab kept on working, either way.
The January 2010 home infusion seemed no different than the others. Neither of us knew it would be our last. As usual, my blood pressure was low, as was my temperature—96.8. As usual, I had no troubling new symptoms to report. The drip itself never took all that long—maybe 15 minutes— and as usual, the nurse and I chatted those minutes away. The nurse mentioned she’d seen me lifting weights at the rec center while she’d been walking the track. I told her it would be OK to interrupt me the next time she saw me there. Neither of us could have guessed there wouldn’t be a next time.
I didn’t start to feel funny until the nurse was gathering her bags to leave. Even then, I didn’t feel funny enough to stop her. My temperature shot up during the interval between the thud of the front door and the clap of the screen door —the screen door hinge is on backward, which makes for a thirty second delay.
I headed straight for the couch, and caught a glimpse out the window of the nurse’s car pulling away. I lay down. Something wasn’t right. At that time in my life, it was unusual for me to lie down while the sun was still shining. I dragged myself off the couch and up the stairs to take my temperature. 98.8.
I wasn’t sure if I should call the nurse. Everybody knows 98.8 is not a fever. But 98.8 was two degrees higher than my temperature of just half an hour before. I was comfortable with that nurse. Even so, I didn’t want her to think I was a big baby. Or a hypochondriac. Or a fool. But then I got to wondering about the contents of that IV bag. Who was to say it wasn’t tainted, like the heparin a while back?
I swallowed my pride. I called the nurse and left a message.
It was a good thing I did.
The high temp resolved itself without any apparent consequence. I felt sheepish when the nurse returned my call that afternoon. But then I heard her news. I quit being sheepish, and shifted into high alert.
Apparently, after listening to my message, she’d called the pharmacist to ask about my drug.
“Guess what he told me? He said I just gave you the last of that medication. It’s been taken off the U.S. market.”
I asked if there’d been another safety scandal. She assured me there had not. “Someone’s bought the entire inventory.”
I wondered aloud, “When was anyone going to tell me?”
The nurse didn’t have an answer for that.
If I hadn’t gotten that little spike on my temperature, I could have easily gone another month without knowing I had to line up a new MS medication. I’d already gone through all the standard MS meds, with no positive results, which was why I was taking an off-label drug in the first place. I didn’t know what I would do without daclizumab. There wasn’t another drug out there I knew of.
There’s a happy ending to this little anecdote.
Yes, it’s true I didn’t get the answer I expected when I asked about my medication. But that unexpected answer motivated me to ask more questions. I managed to track down Bibi Bielekova, the neurologist and researcher who had first put me on daclizumab. She had a new gig at the NIH. I sent her an email on a Saturday, asking for her guidance. She replied almost immediately.
Once again, I didn’t get the answer I expected. Her email contained an offer I couldn’t refuse.
As it turned out, Dr. Bielekova was the one who had gathered all the remaining stock of daclizumab. She’d just negotiated a clinical trial for the next generation of daclizumab, called DAC HYP. She would be switching her patients who’d been on daclizumab long term to this new preparation. She wasn’t sure, but she thought she might have an opening to accommodate one more patient in the trial. My flights would be paid for. Then came the clincher, “The care at NIH, including the drug, is free.”
Now you know how I can afford to make all those trips to DC; I happened to ask the right question of the right person at precisely the right time. I’m going to try to make a habit of that.
My next entry will be a review of the formidable book, Dangerous Doses, written by Katherine Eban, another woman who isn’t afraid to ask questions about medications. The answers she’s uncovered may disturb you. Or they may just motivate you. Dangerous Doses has certainly motivated me. Our drugs are too important to remain a mystery.

The Answer

In the past few months, I’ve made the same complaint to every health care professional I meet. I report that my range of abilities is shrinking. That I don’t feel as fantastic as I used to back when I first went on daclizumab to treat the multiple sclerosis.
Year One on daclizumab, I was inspired to stretch myself to my physical limits. I was suddenly able to swim three hours a day. I could hike for an hour at a time. Every other day, I’d be off to the gym. Once a week, I’d attend an hour and half yoga class. Year One, I discovered I could stretch pretty far.
I am now in Year Four on daclizumab. I still stretch myself to my physical limits. But I tell you, those limits are not what they once were. Hike for an hour? I’m lucky to walk a few blocks. The funny thing is, I do feel lucky. But isn’t that also perverse? Shouldn’t I feel…outraged?
These days, if I decide to go to an hour and a half yoga class, that means I am implicitly deciding to write off any further physical activity for the remainder of my day. Which would be fine if I didn’t have a family. But I do have a family. My day is also my husband’s day, is also my son’s day, is also my dog’s day. My cat could care less if I walk or not, as long as I am still able pour his food. But the rest of my family is aversely affected if I overextend. They would probably prefer it if I would under-extend.
I wouldn’t want that. I’m not dead yet.
Every day becomes an experiment. I check in with my body more or less continually. If I don’t, my body checks in with me. More and more often, my body is saying, “Enough.” More and more often, I listen. I stop what I am doing. And I agree it is enough.
Is this acceptance? Or is it complacency?
I think there’s a difference. Acceptance is wonderful. But complacency is dangerous, particularly when you have a debilitating disease. You can mistake a medication for a cure. You can think you are doing enough, and by the time you find out you’re not, it’s too late.
Lately I’ve been wondering if daclizumab is doing enough.
I will whine to the nurses, or to the neurologists, “I feel like my physical range is shrinking.” I will speculate, “Maybe I don’t have Relapsing/Remitting MS anymore. Maybe I’m slipping into Secondary Progressive.”
No one can tell me. There’s no clear line to cross. What they can tell me is this: every MRI of my brain comes back showing no new lesions. How have I responded? I’ve asked to have an MRI taken of my spine. I want the whole story, even if it doesn’t have a happy ending. I don’t want to be living a lie. I want a clear answer to the question: why I do I feel I am in a long slow decline?
A very clear answer occurred to me just this afternoon. I was downtown, picking up a new pair of glasses, which happens to be my very first pair of bifocals. These glasses are totally and completely nerdy looking. It turns out my distance vision is -11.75. And all these years I thought the vision span only went to -10. It looks like the parameters for bad vision can stretch like the debt ceiling. Maybe the parameters for physical (dis)ability will stretch that way, too. And stretch. And stretch.
In the optician’s office, I thought of an explanation for this insidious phenomenon I’ve been experiencing. I am aging. That first year on daclizumab, I was still in my thirties. I’m not in my thirties any longer. Maybe the answer could be as simple as that.