A Day in the Life at the NIH Triali

Nothing ever goes exactly as planned in the NIH. This is an observation, not a criticism. Sometimes, a change in plans works to my advantage. When my husband and I arrived promptly for my seven a.m. appointment, I was told my eight a.m. MRI would have to be rescheduled. There weren’t enough technicians. My husband and I are adept at such situations. My body’s fickle insurrections have given us plenty of exposure to the changing of plans.

My first appointment was to review the revised consent form with the magnetically charming nurse Naomi. Within five minutes chatting over the forms she’d told me enough about life in DC for me to recommend Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah. As it turned out, Naomi had read that book and loved it, loved it so much she’d read it non-stop through a red-eye flight to Dubai, forgoing in-flight movies, forgoing sleep.

It was Naomi’s job to inform me that I would not be getting better care at the NIH than I could get at my local neurologist. I adore and admire my local neurologist. But I ask any of you with MS: does your neurologist have time to assess your condition for four hours? The level of care just does not compare. And more importantly, my visit to my local neurologist is designed to help only me. An NIH visit is designed to help multitudes.

Naomi told me I might be eligible to be paid $200 for my spinal tap. (There is usually no payment involved in a clinical trial, just reimbursement for food and travel.) I was open to this change of plans.

After I saw Naomi, I saw Dr. W. The last time I’d seen her, she’d been displeased by how easily she could push against my leg. She’d uttered one syllable, “weak.” I’ve been working  on my leg strength ever since. This visit, I gave her sufficient resistance. But she simply gave me a new area to work on. “You have shitty balance. You can improve that. Practice!” I’d improved my strength. You can bet I’ll improve my balance

Dr. W proposed a change of plans even more extravagant than Naomi’s $200 compensation. She noticed I’d just had a spinal tap the year before. She consulted the timelines of the studies I’m in, and declared I wouldn’t have to have a spinal tap this year, after all. This piece of news was an order of magnitude more exciting than the prospect of a spinal headache, and two hundred bucks. “I am your advocate,” she declared. We fist bumped.

Next came  the auxiliary scales. I performed the same battery of tests I always do—I did worse on some, better on others—all in all, it seemed a wash. Dr. W will be calling me next week when the data is in.

Further updates on this visit will have to wait until tomorrow. I am tired, my legs are crawling with electric pain, and my husband and I are planning to get up early and take the Metro into DC tomorrow to visit a museum.

Thanks for reading!IMG_0049

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Why Do I Always Opt to Join the Trial?

You can always rely on me — to join a clinical trial. If there’s a choice, say, between starting an MS diet and starting a clinical trial of an MS diet, I’ll opt to join the clinical trial. (I still regret that diet trial.)

When Dr. W told me I’d have to stay on an MS drug to be part of the TRAP trial, I didn’t consider dropping the TRAP trial. I went right back on Tecfidera with nary a reservation. I was finished with being flummoxed. My reservations about Tecfidera were suddenly forgotten—like my initial reservations about the TRAP trial.

When I’d first seen the letter from the NIH addressed to me as a candidate for the TRAP trial, I’d thought — no, hoped — they had sent it to the wrong person. Because this was a trial for people with progressive MS. I didn’t have progressive MS. I had the sportier version of MS—relapsing/remitting—and I hadn’t relapsed in years. I was a success story. Wasn’t I?

At that point, I had just joined the Wahls Diet trial. I intended to eat my way out of MS. And of course, since I was doing this dieting through a clinical trial, and not through a cookbook, this meant the outside world, including the NIH, would benefit from the data I’d contribute as I healed myself, one cup of veggies, one sprig of seaweed, at a time.

Well, over one thousand cups of veggies later, I have come to accept that I have progressive MS. This doesn’t mean what I’d thought it meant. Apparently I can still pass as able-bodied. (I got some affirmation just an hour ago, when my husband and I were out walking our dogs and a neighbor made some comment about my power-walking with my trekking poles. She and her husband were genuinely surprised/alarmed when I told them I was using those poles because I have MS.)

The progression of my MS might still be invisible on the outside, but MRIs detect gradually worsening brain atrophy. Lumbar punctures detect the breakdown of the mitochondria in my cells. I detect, in a myriad of subtle ways, that I am moving with greater difficulty through the world.

Current MS medications address one aspect of MS — they are measured in their ability to prevent relapse. They do nothing to address the brain atrophy and cellular damage that accrues over the years. The researchers at the NIH want to address all aspects of MS. The TRAP trial looks at four medications that might work to supplement the treatments that are already out there. Pioglitazone, Montelukast, Hydroxychloroquine, and Losartan have already been FDA approved for other diseases, and may have properties that could assist against MS.

In the future, MS patients may take multiple drugs instead of just one, much as AIDS patients do today. And while I am not jumping up and down for joy at the idea of us MS patients adding more drug burden to our already overtaxed bodies, I am even less willing to add more disease burden to my already overtaxed central nervous system. If I need to take an MS drug to be a part of the TRAP trial, I’m willing to stick with Tecfidera. The drug I’d be paired with, Montelukast, aka Singulair, has been shown to rejuvenate the brains of old rats in clinical trials. This old Lab Rat wants to give it a try. I could use some rejuvenation.

The funny thing is, I don’t have to rejoin the trial to take Montelukast. I could go to my GP, who likes me well enough, complain of a runny nose, and get prescription for Singulair. With the NIH out of the loop, I could skip taking Tecfidera, not to mention all those MRI’s. I could do my own brain hack.

Why don’t I? The same reason I don’t do my own plumbing. I need the best minds I can find to keep me out of deep shit.

In this trial, the researchers are going to see if they can get the same cellular information from tears as they do from spinal fluid. No more lumbar punctures? Now that’s progress—the good kind.

I Quit Tecfidera. Until I Quit Quitting Tecfidera.

I have a long history of quitting. I quit cigarettes decades ago. At least a dozen times. When cigarettes hit the intolerable price of $1.30, I reached my tipping point. I never bought another pack. From what I hear, cigarettes are considerably more expensive in the 21st Century. My being a quitter must have saved me a fortune.

When I reached my tipping point to quit Tecfidera, it had nothing to do with money. Thankfully. My copay was $0. No one should have to quit an MS drug because they can’t afford it.

My quitting Tecfidera had nothing to do with any conviction I can beat MS through exercise and diet (see photo of my Monday morning breakfast: spinach, husband’s grilled swordfish, asparagus, onion, radish.) I’m doing everything I can, but I don’t expect any cosmic reward. As my dad often says: Life isn’t fair. Chances are, Gentle Reader, you breakfasted on something like half a bagel with cream cheese —foods I’ve  forbidden myself from eating—and your immune system merely thanked you for it. My immune system may have thrown a hissy fit over such a meal. Or not. I’ve past the point of taking such a risk.

I quit Tecfidera because I didn’t understand how it worked, or if it worked, or if it would work for me. (Thank you, A., for researching the chemical processes.)  I could tell Tecfidera made my skin furious if I didn’t take an aspirin first. I avoid food that makes the MS monster mad. Why would I take a drug that makes the MS monster mad?

I quit Tecfidera because every time I considered I might quit, I felt at peace. The rest of the time, I felt…flummoxed.

So I told Dr. Z  I quit. I told my husband I quit. I told the drug company I quit. Nobody gave me any guff. Then I called the NIH.

You’ll need some backstory. I’ll be the first to admit I am a terrible blogger. For years, I’ve ignored basic blogging etiquette, such as adding a photo to a post, or including a provision for comments. For a long while, I’d let my domain name lapse. I could never be bothered to comment on MS blogs that I find inane and boring. Or even comment on ones I find fascinating. I dropped out of Facebook, so I no longer pulled in those followers. Gentle Reader, it’s a wonder you made it here at all. You must have a genuine interest my story, and I thank you. Which is why I apologize for having violating a basic norm in storytelling, which is to tell a whole damn story—beginning, middle and end.

A few months ago, I’d had this idea I would take you through one day in the life of an MS patient visiting the NIH for a clinical trial. I created a new category on my blog: “TRAP trial.” I wrote a few posts.  This series got as far as about 9:45 am, EST, in my day of the life in the TRAP trial. And then a cataclysmic event occurred in my actual life with MS—maybe my drug was dropped?—and I posted about how everything was upended. And didn’t look back. I never wrote the post I’d planned about meeting up with the nurses who have literally held my hand through my MS trials. Or the post about meeting the brilliant woman, young enough to be my daughter, who has developed an app that allows me to perform clinical MS tests myself from the comfort of my own home. I never wrote the post that explains how Dr. Bielekova persuaded me to join the TRAP trial in the first place. And I never introduced you to the indomitable Dr. W. This is some shabby storytelling, indeed.

Let me begin to make amends by introducing you to Dr. W. She has quite the reputation. This is a woman who worked her way to the top on the not terribly level playing field of NIH, where, to this day, only 22 percent of tenured research scientists are women.

When my NIH nurse discovered Dr. W would assume my clinical care, the nurse told me I’d been assigned a neurologist who works only when she wants, and only on projects that interest her. That’s pretty badass.

Meeting Dr. W was like witnessing a 60’s era Katharine Hepburn stride into clinic. There was a hint of horse stable residue clinging to her expensive yet practical shoes. Dr. W springs from a Kentucky pedigree, and bonded with me over her knowledge of Cincinnati. Every subsequent time I’ve seen her, she refers effortlessly to minute details of conversations we’d had months before. Either she is a prodigious note taker, or she doesn’t forget a thing. I suspect the latter.

When I called Dr. W to announce I’d quit Tecfidera, the script didn’t run as it had when I’d rehearsed it on all the other players in my various MS spheres.

Once she got over her surprise that I was on Tecfidera in the first place—she’d been favor of Ocrevus—she insisted I get on “some MS drug” and stay on it.  Even Tecfidera would do. It was the only way I could rejoin the TRAP trial.

We weren’t on a FaceTime call, so she couldn’t see my facial expression drop like a hangdog Spenser Tracy after receiving a tongue-lashing from his whip-smart leading lady. While I have already demonstrated I can persuade just about anyone else of the diminishing returns of taking MS drugs after the age of fifty, I didn’t even try to argue with her.

I told Dr. W I would go back on Tecfidera.

I would rather quit quitting Tecfidera than quit the TRAP trial. Barring a new cataclysmic event interrupting my life’s narrative, I promise I will devote the next post to explaining why this Lab Rat thinks it’s worth it to resume Tecfidera and scurry back into the TRAP.

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Flummoxed (Part 3 of ?)

I get a phone call from my youngest sister, PYT, a.k.a. Pretty Young Thing, just as I am flopping down in the driver’s seat after a lightweight workout with my toys at the gym.

PYT has three Young kids, four and under, who are competing with me for her attention. I win. Intermittently.

I tell her I’ve capitulated. I’m taking my new MS drug just as the doctor ordered, thirty minutes after an aspirin. “I splurged and got myself the kiddie kind.”

“The orange ones? The chewables? The ones that taste like mom loves you and everything is going to be OK?”

“Exactly.” Oh, it is great to talk to someone who knows precisely what the aspirin summons—not only the specific taste, but the specific aura our mother would convey while doling it out.

Now that I take Tecfidera after an aspirin, and a meal with a bit of fatty food—I love my avocado, I love my coconut milk—I don’t get a rash. Or an allergic reaction. Whichever. Dr. Z. had warned me it might take weeks for the rash to stop flaring up. The rash had stopped immediately.

And yet. I don’t trust the lack of rash. You know those times when your room is a mess and your mom has threatened to inspect and you shove all your miscellaneous underwear and books and socks and chewed pencils under your bed, and it’s still a mess but it’s a hidden mess? Well, PYT and I never did that. The hidden mess was our middle sister’s speciality.  (She’s the pragmatist of us three.)  Our  messes were always flagrant—out in the open. And no, we never got points for honesty. But we’d always thought we ought to. Go ahead, roll your eyes. This is not a sentiment I’m proud of.

Am I the same person now? Hell, no. I suspect I’m not the only person with MS passing (less and less often) in public as able-bodied while actively concealing I’m a total hidden mess.

PYT knows me, the past me, the one who’d railed against the hidden mess. She gets my reservation that maybe taking the aspirin is just the same as shoving a mess under the bed. Does the aspirin genuinely alleviate my body’s resistance to the drug, or does it just push the resistance under the surface, where it can’t be seen?

We ponder this distinction as my four year old nephew explores the new paint he’s created by reconstituting dried out markers and as his twin sister mixes that paint with an entirely unacceptable color and as their younger brother decides it’s time to pee.

We wonder if the new drug is even worth it, given the conclusion of the meta-analysis of over 28,000 MS patients from 38 clinical trials that most current DMTs (Disease Modifying Treatments) are fairly useless for the average patient by the time they reach my age. We ponder Dr. Z’s point that I might be an “outlier” — which sounds kind of cool — unless “outlier” means that without drugs I might be the one to get hit with an exacerbation that could permanently disable me further. His distress over this possibility is nothing to dismiss. I’ve looked around his waiting room. Not everyone with MS has the luxury of describing themselves as a hidden mess.

I share the latest conclusion about the three types of MS—which is that relapsing/remitting, secondary progressive, and primary progressive MS are not three different diseases, but rather, three phases of the same disease. The FDA approved DMTs may prevent relapses, but do nothing for other processes known as “compartmentalized inflammation,” which do not show up on MRI’s.  These are the messes under the bed, so to speak. Or more specifically, the messes inside the cells.

We speculate that maybe all those years I had credited Zinbryta for stopping my MS attacks, the change could have really been more of function of my slipping insidiously from relapsing remitting MS into a more progressive phase of a disease, where the breakdown can’t be detected by the MRI, but rather, by the lumbar puncture.

“It’s like a vicious dog that hasn’t bit anyone in twelve years on a muzzle, and I’ve credited the muzzle. But maybe the dog has just mellowed out with age.”

PYT chimes in, “And maybe the muzzle has been annoying for the poor dog.”

PYT and I are both dog lovers. We aren’t fond of muzzles.

I say, “Maybe we just have to be realistic about my MS. It’s a progressive disease. Slowly but steadily, I’ve been progressing. The drugs that work to stop relapsing remitting MS can’t do a thing about the kind of progression I’m experiencing inside my cells. Maybe it’s time to stop fooling ourselves by my taking a drug that only helps for an early stage of MS. I might be way past that phase.”

PYT says, “It sounds to me like you have taken your last Tecfidera.”

My flummoxed feeling is lifting. I starting to feel like myself again. (Talking with a sister will do that.) I share the last thing Dr. Z. said to me, “I will support you even if you don’t want to take any medication.”

His unconditional support means so much. PYT warns me that our mother and my husband will resist my urge to give up the medication. “As they should. They love you. They want to protect you.”

Protect…me? When we were growing up, I never cast myself as the damsel in distress. But that’s the role MS has forced me to play my entire adult life.

 

 

 

Flummoxed (Part 2 of ?)

I find it super uncomfortable to read articles in scientific journals. Even articles about MS. Even articles about MS illustrated with lots of pretty graphs. Maybe…especially articles about MS. These are articles I have to understand as though my life depended on it. Because it does.

You know how some people publicly (and most people privately) grouse about how higher math is irrelevant for most of us after we get out of school—so why make students suffer? Well, I wish I’d paid more attention when I was taught statistics. Turns out, I need to understand them in real life. I wish I’d had a semester or so learning to become a fine print detective, that the teacher had made terms like  “de facto” feel like shiny keys to hidden treasures. I wish I’d not learned to gloss over any text in the form of an equation like this one:

IDPDrugversusPlacebo=100%(1(1IDPDrugversusIFNβ100)(1IDPIFNβversusPlacebo100)).

Because no one is going to tell me the stuff I am learning by reading research articles in Frontiers in Neurology. Stuff like: “Higher efficacy treatments exert their benefit over lower efficacy treatments only during early stages of MS, and, after age 53, the model suggests that there is no predicted benefit to receiving immunomodulatory DMTs (Disease Modifying Treatments) for the average MS patient.”

I admit, I haven’t been going to enough MS Society events. But all too many of them are paid for by pharmaceutical companies, who may have a conflict with informing you that, after you reach a certain age,  their drugs are no longer particularly useful. (Not to mention, some of their drugs are not particularly useful at any age.) I don’t know about you, but I know an awful lot of people over the age of 53 who are taking a DMT (Disease Modifying Treatment.) These treatments can cost in excess of $7k per month. Very few of these people seem particularly well. More than a few complain of side effects from their medications. What would they think about this article? Have they been enduring pills/injections/infusions that are doing them more harm than good? Have I?

I’m not going to be too hard on myself for having trouble navigating the facts as presented. At one point, I’d sent a link to my son, who majors in math and economics at Vassar. My heart leapt when he messaged me back. Then I saw he was messaging with a question, not an answer: “Does this thing have cliff notes?”

When Dr. Z returns my call, I am stuck on one particular paragraph, which distinguishes higher efficiency drugs from lower efficiency drugs. I notice the drug I’ve lost access to, Zinbryta, is classified as a higher efficiency drug. Whereas Tecfidera, the drug that is causing my skin to redden and prickle, is classified as a lower efficiency drug. I’ve downgraded! Nobody likes a downgrade. And nobody likes their skin to prickle and burn.

IMG_0124

Dr. Z tells me he’d gotten the picture my friend Monica had taken of my angry skin. I ask him if it looks like an allergic reaction. The fine print that came with the drug was very clear on one thing: “Do not use Tecfidera if you have had an allergic reaction, such as welts, hives…”

I want him to use the word, “hives.” Instead he asks, “Did you take aspirin thirty minutes before you took the medication?”

“Like you told me?”

“Yes.”

“No.” I hadn’t wanted to mask the effect of the drug. I’d wanted to know exactly what my body thought of it. The reaction had been fairly unambiguous, I thought. Didn’t he?

He says rash is a common side effect, one that would generally recede after the first few weeks, or could be averted entirely if I were to take an aspirin beforehand.

I counter that even if this was a side effect, and not an allergic reaction, I just wasn’t sure the side-effect of this drug could ever outweigh the benefits of a low-efficacy therapy.

He says, “You’re talking about that paper again. Let’s remember that you may not need a high efficacy drug at this point in your disease process. You might be past the inflammatory phase of your disease. But you are not out of the woods yet. I have patients in their seventies and eighties getting relapses. I wouldn’t want that to happen to you.”

I don’t want that to happen to me, either. I promise I would give Tecfidera another chance. I would try taking the aspirin 30 minutes before the drug, as he had told me. And wait and see.

 

The TRAP Trial Begins with the Lifting of a Magic Latch (Part 5 of Ms Lab Rat’s Latest NIH Adventure)

At the close of my most recent installment of my chronicle of a Day-In-The-Life of an NIH Lab Rat, I was about to enter the phlebotomist’s cubby.
You notice I then abandoned the narrative for blog posts about light subjects such as breakfast and…biopsies. Needles. I just can’t get around them.
Gentle Reader, I am not so fond of needles. You would think, after over twenty years of self-injecting medications—once a month for Zinbryta, once a week for Avonex, once a day for Copaxone—I would be jaded by now. I am not. I squirm when I see an injection on TV. (For me, the most memorable moment of the very memorable movie Traffic occurred when the daughter of the anti-drug Czar smiles drowsily as she shoots drugs through a needle into her arm. I have yet to smile drowsily while injecting. It’s a goal.)
As I took a seat in the phlebotomist’s chair, I couldn’t help but notice a thank you note strategically posted across from the hot seat. Had I been a strategic blogger, I would have taken a picture of the note so it could later serve as the featured image of this post. But that’s not the person I am, nor the person I want to be. There was a brief period of time when I used to collect experiences for my blog. Once I realized I was collecting experiences instead of experiencing experiences, I backed off. So that’s my excuse for why there is no photo of the thank you note, or even a transcript of it. I can only offer you a paraphrase. The note went something like this:

Dear Mr. So-and-So,
Our son has undergone intolerable challenges. Somehow you managed to make the whole ordeal fun for him, and we can’t thank you enough for being a light in this very dark time.
With gratitude,
Mom and Dad of a Very Sick Vulnerable Boy

This note comforted the hell out of me. And put me on notice that I’d better not be wimpier than the Very Sick Vulnerable Boy.
By this point in my fairly vast experience with a wide variety of phlebotomists, I’ve learned that most are ordinary people, whose needles puncture flesh. But there are a few phlebotomists—a select few—whose needles create the sensation, not of a puncture, but of a lifting of a magic latch. So far, the phlebotomists I’ve encountered at the NIH fall into this latter category of elite magicians.
I did not ask this fellow to tell me more about this note he had on display. I’ve found, the hard way, that it’s best not to get personal with a health care technician when they are about to get to work. One time I asked a nurse, How was your weekend—a
seemingly innocuous question—and tears sprang to her eyes. The next thing I knew, she was telling me how her little boy had been out riding his bicycle right on their block when he got hit by a car. She then connected electrodes to the wrong place on my foot, and I endured 15 minutes of non-therapeutic electric shocks. Served me right.
So no, I did not ask this phlebotomist to tell me more about the little boy in the note. I was rewarded for my reticence. He told me—they all tell me—that I have good veins. And then he magically extracted blood from those veins, without my feeling a puncture, but rather, a lifting of a magic latch.

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We Interrupt this Narrative

I’ve been meaning to construct a nice, orderly narrative of my most recent visit to the NIH, one that didn’t jump around in time too much, but I’m going to interrupt this account at the point right before I meet my phlebotomist—Who wouldn’t want to delay getting pricked?—by announcing I have just now learned I have a new diagnosis—severe osteoporosis. Which I never would have tested for had I not joined this latest NIH study, which recommended a dexa scan.

I can’t afford to get too worked up about this. I’ve got an hour until I leave for my first day of teaching Artist as Reader. I know half my students from previous classes, and they give me great hope for the future. We are going to make art in response to the screenplay of Get Out, my current favorite move, The Sympathizer, my current favorite novel, and Don’t Call Us Dead, my current favorite poetry collection.

Don’t call Ms. Lab Rat dead. Osteoporosis is just another bump in an admittedly bumpy road. If I hadn’t been ordered to take a bone scan, I certainly wouldn’t have. And I wouldn’t have learned a kind of important new feature of my ever changing body. 

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