TRAP (part 2 of Ms. Lab Rat’s new adventure)

The vast lobby of Building 10 of the NIH was nearly vacant of the usual international mix of medical professionals and imperiled pilgrims, yet it felt cluttered. This majestic bastion of scientific research had been stuffed with numbered tables bearing garish gingerbread houses, presumably made by the in-patients and staff. It looked like a pop-up church raffle. I glanced past the hapless man marooned at the Welcome Desk and noted that the coffee shop was now barricaded by scaffolding. The scent of coffee had been replaced with insidious notes of powdered white sugar. I wondered if perhaps my system of always accepting the first appointment of a given span of available dates would finally let me down. We were three days out from Christmas. The speculation on the van was that the leading physicians would still be on vacation. I didn’t buy into that. I expected to see leading physicians. Then again, I’d also expected coffee.

I ducked into the area on my right to fill out the paperwork for meal reimbursements. Over the years, the reimbursement office has retained the right to perpetuate various iterations of needlessly awkward exchanges. The first few years I’d gone there, the cashier’s desk was an inch or two too deep for the cashier to actually reach the exchange window to grasp a lab rat’s ID or to pass a lab rat some cash. It added a bit of tension, a bit of comedy, to every exchange. After a few years of these capers, the cashier figured out she could use a pincer device to bridge the troublesome gap. Her victory was short lived. By my next visit, the entire office was moved. By the visit after, the “short-armed” cashier was gone.

The tradition of inventive obstructions was still in full force, I noticed. There was a sign in front of the office that receives reimbursement forms which instructed all form fillers to stand at a certain distance in front of the glass door, and further warned that those who did not stand would not be seen. In other words, Wheelchair Users, Begone.

Furthermore, the very layout of the office was designed to prevent eye contact, even with compliantly standing non-wheelchair users. The L-shaped desk for the sole employee in the office was set back and to the side of the glass door. The computer was placed along a wall at a ninety degree angle from the door, so that the occupant of the office effectively had her back to the door every time she looked at her computer. Once again, the office had been created to make it structurally impossible for the employee to do her job effectively.

I wish I could say this office is an anomaly in the NIH. It is not. There are doors in the MS clinic without wheelchair accommodation. If that’s the NIH plan to stop MS progression…it isn’t working yet.

The only other pilgrim there was a man sprawled out on a chair. Had he been conscious, I would have asked him if he needed me to signal to the functionary behind the glass door. Instead, I waited for the functionary to complete her personal phone call, then check her computer screen, then finally swivel somewhat to notice me standing the appropriate distance from the glass door, like a good wheelchair-free pilgrim.

She waved me in.

I used to feel unworthy of meal reimbursements. But that was before the drug the NIH tested on me came out on the market, and my monthly deliveries came with an invoice of seven thousand four hundred and something dollars per month.

I handed in my clipboard, feeling entitled to every last penny, darn it, and headed for my appointment at Phlebotomy.

The acronym for this new study? TRAP.

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Addicted to Trials

My name is Ms. Lab Rat. I have multiple sclerosis. I am addicted to clinical trials.

It had been 32 days since I’d finished my last clinical trial in Iowa City when I slipped out of a white van on a cold December morning and surrendered my coat and my purse to the jocular security crew at The National Institutes of Health in Baltimore, Maryland. When asked by a cheerful ex-navy, “Have you been here before?” I had to smile back. I’m terrible with numbers, but by my feeble estimation, I’d been to the NIH 44 times before: once a month for three years during the trial for Zinbryta, once every six months for the three years it took for the FDA to approve Zinbryta, plus twice for initial trial visits. Gentle reader, chances are your brain is less riddled with lesions than mine. You do the math. Numbers aside, I think we can all agree; I’ve been a regular.

Back when I started the Zinbryta trial, when the drug was still fairly new to me, my life had been much more limited by my disease. I was a regular at my drug store, a regular at the places I volunteered. No one paid me to hang around. Zinbryta stopped the raging inflammation that had peppered my brain with lesions. My relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis stopped feeling so…unremitting. And gradually, I was able to get small but super-meaningful jobs. First I was hired to host creative writing sessions with a uniquely brilliant group living at an upscale assisted living center. I am in awe of the supportive creative community we have maintained. Then I was hired to teach writing classes to radical, relentless, radiant young artists at a celebrated arts college downtown. The younger generation fills me with hope for a more just, more equitable, more dazzling future. Through the years, I have maintained the same prolific community writing workshop. We all publish. Some of us publish quite a lot. Zinbryta has allowed me to expand my identity beyond MS patient, to teacher. When the security guard handed me my one-day NIH ID, you’d better believe I thanked her.

I hopped back into the white van with a couple from Georgia. The husband had spent the trip describing the career he’d had to abandon. “I want to get back to work, do what I can from a wheelchair. But first I’ve got to get this cancer under control.”

I could relate to his frustration. I could relate to his hope. Zinbryta has helped rein in my MS. It’s been necessary. But it hasn’t been sufficient. When we reached good old Building 10, I hopped out of the van. I was eager to get my MS under control.

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Disclaimer

Gentle Reader,

Never forget that this blogger’s brain has shrunk to the size of a side dish of cauliflower. Lectorum admonere potent. Or, Reader, be warned. (Don’t feel insecure, bigger brained one, if you didn’t know the Latin. I didn’t, either, I had to look it up.)

 

 


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I got Swanked. Then I Wahled. Now I’m Galled.

 

When I started the trial to determine which diet was better for people with MS—Walhls or Swank—I’d promised the good people at the University of Iowa that I would not reveal which MS Diet I’d been assigned to until my participation in their clinical trial had ended. My contribution to trial has been completed. Drumroll, please.

I’d been assigned to the Swank Diet. For 36 weeks, I wrote a record of every morsel of food that passed through my lips. I ate no red meat, no avocado, no coconut in any form. No fats exceeding four teaspoons a day. I ate at least two servings of fruits and two of vegetables a day, as well as a minimum of four ounces of low fat protein, such as chicken breast. I drank no sodas, ate no sugars, no transfats, no deep fried food (OK, I cheated once and ate one half of the best falafel ball of my life.) I took the assigned five supplements: 1 tsp Carlson’s unsweetened cod liver oil, 5000 IU Vitamin D3, 1000mcg Methyl B12, 1000mcg Methyl Folate, and a Nature Made Multivitamin for Him 50+ ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

I was to drink either skim milk (yech) or some milk substitute every day. After trying soy milk, then rejecting it based on scary stuff I read online, I moved on to rice milk, which I then rejected after reading more scary stuff online. I then turned to nut milks, which were a) yum and b) a little fatty…but by that time I’d lost more weight than the study wanted, so I’d hoped that would make drinking nut milk OK. I turned to the study nutritionist, who is supposed to help… but oddly enough, she deferred answering my nutrition questions until she’d checked with her boss, Dr. Wahls, who then expressly forbade her to guide me. Which led me to suspect… nothing nice. Dr. Wahls has a vested interest in the subjects given the Wahls Diet to succeed, and the Swank subjects to do poorly. Which is why I think it undermines the legitmacy of this very crucial study to have her at the helm. Well, Dr. Wahls, I did poorly.  Dr. Wahls calls those who follow her diet Wahls Warriors.  I guess I’ll consider myself a Wahls Martyr.

On my last study visit, the nutritionist asked me what advise I would give myself if I were just starting the study. I responded immediately. From my gut. I said, “Don’t do it.”

Aside from keeping track of what I ate every day, I had to keep track of my energy levels and my pain levels every day. My energy levels had gotten lower over the course of the study, and my pain levels remained fairly high.  The Swank Diet wasn’t right for me. It might have been a real improvement for another person with MS, someone who perhaps had weight to lose or had genuinely unhealthy habits to unlearn. But through thirty six weeks of deprivation of healthy fats, I’ve come to appreciate healthy fats all the more.

My first meal as a free woman was an avocado. I let bygones be bygones, and jumped right in to the Wahls Diet, diving right past level one to level 2/3. Thanksgiving came and went, and I ate (and abstained) as a Wahls Warrior should. Turkey? Yes! Organ meat? Yes! Good fats? Hell, yes. Neapolitan pizza and cannoli from New Haven’s renowned Wooster Street? No, thank you.

Was it worth it? It seemed like it. My energy level rose immediately. My pain level went down. I thought, This is the beginning of the rest of my life.

My new life lasted… ten days. The evening of Day Eleven, I got a fever. My side ached. Had I pulled a muscle in the gym? My whole body went cold. My fever worsened. I shivered. I called my primary care doctor the next morning. By the time I went in to see her, my fever was down. My side was still tender. Turned out, my white blood cell count was scary high.  My gallbladder scanned very clearly… and all they saw were some polyps.  My white blood cell count has since normalized, so I’ve opted for a wait-and-see approach instead of further scans. What did this incident mean? There are no clear answers yet. My gallbladder is still tender. My doctor has advised me to stay away from fats.

So for now, I’m on Wahls without the fun…I mean, the fat. Which is basically Swank plus organ meats plus seaweed. And no, I’m not chanting to myself, This is the beginning of the rest of my life. Though technically, it is.

Eat well, folks. Whatever that means for you. Stay healthy!

 

 

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Balance of Superpowers

Yesterday, my MS flared up out of nowhere.  That’s how I saw it, anyway, when out of the blue my legs just sank from beneath me. What an insult! I kept saying,”This is so surprising.”

My husband was unflappable. Finally he said, “This is not a surprise. You have MS.”

You would think, twenty three years after the diagnosis,  I wouldn’t need to be told I have multiple sclerosis. But it does still surprise me. I haven’t had my legs drop out from beneath me in months. I’d kind of hoped maybe that symptom would remain in the past.

While I depend utterly on my husband’s acceptance of my MS, I depend equally on my own stubborn denial to ensure I live my fullest life. Denial may be my greatest superpower. Acceptance may be his.

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It’s a Small World

refugeedimer

While at the refugee potluck, my husband and I met two guys from the Congo who like to play soccer. One Syrian mom and all six of her children. A Cincinnati lady who specializes in refugee stress reduction through drumming and art. A professor who happened to have taught at Macalester College, our alma mater. “Small world,” we said. Two young doctors in town for a conference on pediatric medicine, from Toronto and Long Island, respectively, who had wound up here by searching the net to see what cool things Cincinnatians might do on a Thursday night. Turns out, the doctors specialized in  auto-immune disease in children. When I mentioned I had MS, the Long Island doc told me her best friend was newly diagnosed with the disease. “Small world.”

For years when I’d meet someone who told me they had a loved one with MS,  I used to ask, “How is your best friend/uncle/brother/mother doing?” I don’t know why it took me  a long time to realize that I would never get an uplifting answer to this question. But it did, it took me years to stop expecting something more hopeful than,  “pretty bad, worse than you, confined to bed, dead.”

Recently I’ve started trying out a new go-to answer. I’ve learned say, super solemnly, “I am so sorry.” And damn, not one person yet has said, “Oh, it’s not that bad.”

The young doc said her friend was doing everything right: diet, exercise, meditation. And her friend was pretty depressed. No matter how virtuous she was, the MS did not go away. I might have said what I always want to hear, “Oh, I’ve had MS for over twenty five years, and I’ve managed. It’s not that bad.” But underneath, I had to agree. I, too, was doing everything right, I had love, good food, swimming, pilates, yoga. And I too, was frustrated that my MS has not gone away. MS is bad. It’s just bad. I didn’t give the doc my card, or tell her about my blog. I didn’t feel like I had any super inspirational advice for her friend.

And yet. We were sitting in this vast room, full of happy people of all ages, from all over the world, who were here because of an idea I’d had. And that’s all  I had contributed—an idea (plus a tub of broiled vegetables plus a salad)—the Clifton Cultural Arts Center and Catholic Charities, and every single person in that room, had done all the rest. We followed the very easy tried and true guidelines set up by refugeeswelcometodinner.com. Anyone can follow them. Even a person who still can’t mangage to outsmart MS.  You, too, can gather a bunch of random people together, and find you share the same pleasures. And the same struggles. It’s a small world.

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Community Potluck

A few months back, my family and I were eating really crazy delicious food at a local café. When we learned the cook was a Syrian refugee, I wanted to know more about her story, starting with: how did you make this food taste so good.? I started to wonder what it must be like to be a refugee, and then I started to wonder why there are so few opportunities to really get to know my neighbors. So I turned to my local Cultural Arts Center, and asked them if they wanted to do something cultural. We checked out the Refugees Welcome to Dinner Project. Clifton Cultural Arts Center took it from there.

Clifton Cultural Arts Center will be holding a free potuck dinner for members of our community, old and new (and middle-aged like me)  from 6-8 pm on October 19. I am so glad we will all get the opportunity to share a meal together.

And yes, my contribution to the potluck will align with my MS Diet. No cheating!

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