Big News

I just got a call from Dr. A, the neurologist who follows me when I participate in clinical trials at the NIH. She is always a delightful conversationalist. This time, topics ranged from the music of poet Joy Harjo to the mindfulness meditation of Dan Harris to the benefits of exercise. She asked about my Covid-19 quarantine routine, which includes yoga, pilates, qigong, breath work, short walks—and cold showers. Dr. A is one of the toughest ladies I know. But even she didn’t warm to the notion of a cold shower. Instead, she deftly switched topics to the motive for her call — would I be interested in participating in a new NIH study on the effects of diet on MS?


Would I? Of course I would.


As long term readers of this blog already know, this diet study would not be my first rodeo. I had participated in a trial conducted by Dr. Wahls which compares the efficacy of her eponymous diet to that of The Swank Diet. If you have a grain of common sense, you will not be shocked to learn that I found her study to be biased. I joined it in good faith, expressed a willingness to be assigned to either diet, and pressed on when I was assigned the less desirable Swank Diet. I kept scrupulous record of every food I ate, down to the last teaspoon. The low fat Swank Diet may have helped many people with MS, but it didn’t help me. On the last day of the study, I broke my fast with an avocado. Yum! Fat! I’ve been back to eating fats—healthy fats—ever since.


As soon I had control of my own diet back, I switched to the Wahls Diet I’d been waiting for—and I found the recipes lacking. This was a few years ago; I know Dr. Wahls has been tinkering with her diet every day since then. At the time I felt like her focus was entirely on feeding the brain, and not on delighting the palate. I despaired of convincing my family to adopt the diet along with me. While gripped with anxiety about facing a lifetime of stoic meals, I stumbled on this happy website, which is run by two unpretentious women with five autoimmune diseases between them. They call their diet the AutoImmune Protocol (AIP), and that’s the diet my husband and I have merrily adopted. I asked Dr. A if I could remain on AIP throughout the study. She asked a few questions about it to determine if it could fit within the framework of the diet the NIH would want me to adopt. At this point, she thinks it could work. I’m certainly not willing to go back to a SAD Diet (Standard American Diet) to provide a before and after. I have learned my lesson and will never again martyr my diet for science. I will, however, happily chart my progress teaspoon by the teaspoon, if it will help others make well informed decisions about changes they can implement to optimize their immune system.


Diet should never be about cults of personality. An impartial government study of diet and immunity will be beneficial to all of us with multiple sclerosis, whether our current diet is Swank, Wahls, or the sweet, generic-brand AIP. A diet study came out earlier this month which shows AIP can change gene expression. That’s big news—proof that diagnosis isn’t destiny.

This new NIH diet study is not yet official; it is still just a twinkle in a researcher’s eye. It won’t happen if our researchers can’t find NIH study participants willing to document our food intake (tedious) and swab at least one poop sample (odious). But if I know my NIH researchers, and my fellow lab rats, we will be up for the challenge.


In my experience so far, diet adjustments can be arduous and imprecise and emotional and sadly not entirely curative. I see them as necessary, but not sufficient. A new diet study, if done well, can help all of us struggling through autoimmune disease to direct our efforts toward our best possible outcome, whatever that might be.

Gentle Reader, may you be happy. Stay well!

People with MS Have An Important Role to Play in The Great Big COVID-19 Experiment.

Knowledge is power. The more we know about COVID-19, the more powerful we will be. This is why we spend eight to twelve hours a day checking our iPhones.. .to possibly learn twenty two seconds worth of relevant information that might SAVE OUR VERY LIVES. Or, at any rate, to learn another snippet about “The Tiger King.”

I thought I’d pass along a bit of relevant information I’ve gleaned , because it concerns my peeps, the folks with MS. Gentle Readers without MS…stay with me. I’ll be passing along a few bits of relevant information for you, too.

I’ve been taking the threat of COVID-19 extra seriously because I’m in that subgroup that’s supposed to be afraid… very afraid: I am one of the Immune Compromised. Like many of the insured with MS, I’ve been taking very expensive medication that I’ve since read may have made me fractionally more immune compromised in the face of COVID-19. Had I been on a more effective MS medication, I may have been significantly more immune compromised. So I guess I’m glad I was on a dud of a medication? Mostly, I feel those of us with MS and medical insurance have been played for suckers to generate profits.

Anyway, I’m off my meds. Good riddance. Except. I am now experiencing weird visual symptoms that may (or may not) have been prevented had I continued with my lame MS drug. There is no way to know if I’m having a relapse without going to a doctor, and who wants to do that? I don’t have a control-group-twin sister who is still on Tecfidera.

Yesterday I read about a tool more ethical than a control-group twin sister— a global initiative that is amassing data to help people with MS and other demyelinating diseases of the central nervous system to make more informed decisions about our risks related to COVID-19. It’s a database called COViMS.

We neuro-compromised don’t have to do much to participate in this database. We just have to a) catch COVID-19, b) get tested (good luck with that!) and c) tell our doctors to use this link to fill out a brief report, though “only after a minimum of 7 days and sufficient time has passed to observe the disease…through resolution of acute illness or death.”

The form takes ten minutes to fill out, but that’s not our problem; that’s our doctor’s problem. We will either be recovered or dead.

I am always looking for a way to be useful after I am dead. (I’m not too keen on being useful during this all-too-brief period before I am dead.) For years, I’ve been wanting my dead body turned into some form of compost. Seriously, that would be a dream come true. But if that dream is not to be, having my COVID-19 struggle recorded in a searchable database will have to do.

There is, however, a small but distinct possibility that my COVID-19 struggle has already come and gone and is only now getting documented in this very small database known as my blog. I was wrapping up a session of qi gong in our back yard during an unseasonably warm and sunny day when I suddenly experienced an acute pain in my lungs. It felt like I’d inhaled asbestos mixed with the smoke from a thousand cigarettes mixed with a thousand tiny daggers. There had been a brief regrettable period in my youth when I was a two and a half pack a day smoker. My lungs felt worse than they did then. And felt worse than they did through my childhood bouts of pneumonia. There was no database to consult about my chances of surviving COVID-19. As far as I knew, being Immune Compromised meant I was about to be a goner.

Operating under this speculation, I did a few embarrassing things.

I received a text from a friend of mine, who was anticipating the arrival of three grown children from New York. She had just discovered the toilet paper shortage was real. I replied by bequeathing her our precious Costco sized trove of toilet paper, without checking in with my husband first.

I then texted my son that I was proud of him. Or that I loved him. Or that he should do good in the world. Something that could have raised an alarm.

I then called my parents. They told me to hang up and call a doctor. So I hung up and tried for a telemedicine consult through my insurance company. In order to qualify for a telemedicine consult, I had to fill out a brief questionnaire about my health status and symptoms. The questionnaire asked if I were immune compromised. I was immediately patched through.

The doctor on the other end of the telemedicine consult was a young woman who looked and sounded ten times sicker than I felt. As she asked me questions, her toddler toddled into the background, asking questions of her invisible patient in her private toddler language. The doctor informed me that I would not qualify for the COVID-19 tests in my area. She advised me to get some rest. She told me that I was breathing more freely than a patient she’d be concerned about. Feel better, she said. Feel better, I said. The toddler said something in her private toddler language. The exchange cheered me up.

I realized that even though I have MS, and had inexplicably burning lungs, that didn’t necessarily mean I had COVID-19. And even if I did have COVID-19, it was not necessarily inevitable that I was about to die. Maybe there was a chance I could live through COVID-19. At the time, there was no database to consult. Instead, I grated ginger into my tea and I rubbed tea tree oil onto my chest and I did a round of qi gong with Jeff Chand on You Tube and I consulted with my body and my breath. Within a few hours, I was updating my parents that my lungs had stopped hurting so badly. I received a text that my friend would not be needing my toilet paper, after all. I received no reply whatsoever to my text to my son; clearly, I had not freaked him out.

I went to bed with my lungs aching, but not too badly. I woke up barely feeling my lungs at all. In the two weeks since then, I’ve had one other inexplicable scare wherein my lungs hurt severely for a few hours, but mostly, my lungs have been serving me quite well. How well? A few of my college friends talked me into trying Wim Hof’s guided breath meditation on YouTube. I learned I can hold my breath for two minutes, a super-power I would have loved to have known I was capable of back in 1972 or so, when I was watching a Batman and Robin episode in which the daring duo was trapped in a room with rising water. There isn’t much we can control during this COVID-19 crisis; controlling the breath has become ever more appealing.

My friend Monica also has MS and has also had a COVID-19 scare, although we didn’t know it at the time. She announced her symptoms as we sat in a sun-drenched lobby that looked like it belonged to an upscale hotel and not a Neuroscience Center. We’d all just finished what I announced would be my final MS yoga class for the nonce…I was at that point feeling a bit apologetic about my freakish instance that COVID-19 could be on its way. Our friend Kim was sipping the kale and blueberry smoothie we’d recommended. Monica had abstained from ordering a smoothie; she explained she was recovering from battling a freakish bought of diarrhea, and was still experiencing the strangest side effect—she seemed to have lost her sense of smell. None of us yet knew these were symptoms of COVID-19. I would miss only one MS yoga class before the hospital finally cancelled its sessions. Since then, I’ve been hosting the MS yoga sessions on Zoom.

At the end of the first Zoom yoga session, Monica and I were the last two participants left on the screen. She told me she was looking forward to the COVID-19 antibody test. Wouldn’t it be cool if we’d already had the virus, and could just relax? I countered that since COVID-19 was a novel virus, we had yet to learn how effective antibodies would be, and for how long. Today on NPR I learned that those antibody tests we’ve been looking forward to do are actually riddled with false positives. It’s still too early to relax.

Even so, the unique challenge we all face is that we have to relax…at least enough to keep ourselves from developing a harmful immune response should we encounter COVID-19. And we have to stay vigilant. At least enough to keep the virus from getting to us in the first place. It’s a tricky balancing act. Those of us with autoimmune disease are uniquely positioned to have already experienced the loss of control the rest of you are now experiencing. It’s not easy to be calm in the face of imminent danger. But it is imperative. The immune component of the disease opens up an opportunity for all of us to take back some control of our health by treating ourselves well.

Gentle Reader, what have you been doing to relax?

Words of Wisdom from the New Rochelle Containment Zone

Long time readers may recall my littlest sister, PYT aka Pretty Young Thing. She doesn’t have MS, or any chronic illness. But in true little sister style, she’s managed to become the center of attention…

I am blogging as a guest of Ms. Lab Rat today. It’s always nice when my big sis invites me to share her toys.
I have lived my life blissfully outside the MS maze. Every year researchers send me their MS sibling study and I share my boringly perfect health. I take no medicine. I have no difficulties doing anything (that’s a lie of course- I have great difficulty remembering to re-apply lipstick, and I tend to be self-absorbed) but what the study is really interested in is my balance and vision, my memory and peeing.
I have achieved ‘guest lab rat’ status because of COVID-19. I may not be in an NIH study but I AM living in the center of the New Rochelle ‘containment zone’. As I write this, it is Day 3. All quiet on the Eastern front. The National Guard is here cleaning and handing out food but I haven’t seen them. I’ve been on my silent street, watching my husband successfully coax our kids off training wheels. The road has fewer cars and they can ride longer stretches without needing to stop.
I have learned how to spell quarantine from assuring concerned friends over text that we are not, in fact, trapped here. My neighbors however have been quietly self quarantined for 15 days or so. It was easy to miss the absence of their presence. I realized too late that I hadn’t been asking if they need anything from the store- they do not.
Those of us who still roam free, stand on our lawns and discuss how surreal it is to be in the middle of a pandemic we were clearly not prepared for. We speculate on the ripple effects, share how our kids are reacting, is this a new seasonal reality, what it will do to the economy…and then we stop because we don’t even know what next week looks like.
I take my son out for a drive around town- grateful that children seem to be hardy in the face of this virus. If it were otherwise, I would be losing my mind. I have 3 kids around the age where fingers go in their nose and mouth and who only wash their hands when they are caught. This experience is making much better hand washers of us all.
I’ve made a point of going to the grocery store (even tho we are well stocked) so they have some business in return for staying open. I need them to be open in a week or two.
My son wants to ride in the car attached to the front of the shopping cart- he is 6 and barely fits. I’ve never asked him to wipe down the interior before but today I do…I’ve become that mom who sees germs on all the surfaces. On the cart handle, on the check out screen, on the cash back that I request, on the enormous stack of monopoly promotion cards the cashier hands me because there are few other customers to give them to. If we don’t win a boat, vacation home and screening room the game is certainly rigged.
I stop at the ice cream store to get a celebratory “training wheels are off” cake but mostly to give the poor clerk who showed up to work today something to do. While I am there, another customer orders a large cake for the team he is coaching- he imagines they will be celebrating the end of a multi-year run. I imagine the cake collecting freezer burn …no one is showing up to celebrate with their team. But I like his determination that the milestone should not be missed.
I drive by our TaiKwonDo studio and am happy to see students in the window- only to receive an email at night saying they’ve decided to close for a while too. I worry about how small businesses will survive this My husband reminds me that we just paid 6 months of a membership for 3 kids in advance. I am okay with that- they may not be as hard hit as others. I make a mental note to go back to the local hair salon, the one I had broken up with over bad color. I’ll get the Pheobe Waller-Bridge cut.
My fear isn’t that I will get sick. As I said at the top, I am boringly healthy. My fear is that I will get someone else sick. That I carry invisible COVID creepies to someone- like our heroic lab rat -and knock them off kilter. Or worse.
I reached this conclusion a day before our local institutions. I’ve taken it more to heart, and curtailed my own commute. We were all too late to the realization that our freedom to move must change.
What opened my eyes was our mother. I had invited her to lunch, a few days earlier, in the city. She’d cancelled a trip to Spain with my father for fear of COVID-19 . She drove into NYC instead of taking the train to avoid any risk of COVID-19. And then she sat down at a table with my husband and I, having lunch with two people who were likely closer to COVID-19 than her Spanish Air B & B hosts. I had not known she would later stop by our house- a block from the Temple which was ground zero for the cluster of infections- to drop off clothing to my kids. She was diligently curtailing her life to avoid exposure to a virus and my invitation led her to come hold hands with the hotspot, give it a kiss and a hug and head home to Connecticut, to my dad, with a little threat of Coronavirus hanging around the car. Being a good mother- she has not mentioned to me the oblivious selfishness of my invitation.
So if I have any wisdom to share from inside the containment zone it is to be more aware than I had been when this virus comes to your town- and it will. To be aware of your neighbors and what they may need. To be aware of your community. To be mindful of what you may carry along with you, as you carry on about your day. There are lab rats out there and they need every single one of us to think of their safety, even when we are secure in our own.

Stories from the Future

My son and his beloved MC in Thailand

Once my son and his girlfriend MC moved to China, they literally joined the future. They have a 12 hour head start on each day. They have had a long head start on the Corona Virus. Here is what they have to say.

Last night on her Instagram story, MC described their journey this way: 


Something tells me MC was a little rattled. Her usual delivery is quite measured. I would never expect her to dismiss other people’s decisions as “stupid.” 3,000 deaths can rattle a person.

Since their vacation in Thailand, my son and MC have been hopscotching around the virus, flying to Indonesia and then to Malaysia. They’ve been able to visit at least 10 temples. They’ve been able to work from a variety of Internet cafes. They’ve been privileged to hold American and Canadian passports, respectively. They’ve been privileged in that they don’t look like they are based in China. But my son is Chinese. One quarter Chinese. From the story he posted on Instagram last night, he is well aware that this is a fraught time to be Chinese.

Every day, I field anxious questions about these two. Everyone here has been worried about them. At this point, this intrepid couple is more worried about us. They know that our freedom loving lifestyle won’t permit the kind of measures that have flattened the curve of infections in Asia. They feel returning here would not be as safe as returning to Beijing. 

Can we be responsible enough with our freedom to prove them wrong?

Be well!

Ms. Lab Rat says, wash yer paws.

When to Disclose/When to Retreat

Here I am, last summer in Beijing, the white person facing the wrong direction while everyone else is doing tai chi .

Twenty five years after receiving a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, I am lucky to still have the option to decide whether or not to reveal my condition to a new person or group. I’m not MS closeted, but I do like to wait until I’ve already formed an impression before I am designated/dismissed as “disabled.”  I’d rather expand peoples’ conceptions about MS than contract their conception of me.

I wasn’t sure if, or when, I would share that I have MS with the tai chi class I’ve just joined at the local rec center. The first session, I’d flowed along with everyone else and hoped I would have energy remaining for teaching my  class with college freshmen in the afternoon. Once I verified I could perform both activities in one day, I thought I’d be ready to add this new tai chi class to my schedule.   

When I went back for my second session, I stood with the other students and watched our instructor demonstrate the complete series of sweeping, balletic motions we would all be working towards. Most of the series looked like it might eventually become achievable for me. But not the kicks. 

We’d just spent the past hour meditating on our feet, then doing repetitions of the first three moves of the complex series. I’d been feeling like a badass for merely staying upright all that time. The instructor singled me out, as the newcomer, informing me I would one day be able to execute all the same moves he had just performed. 

As much as I don’t want to get in the way of reaching my full potential, I couldn’t see that my future would ever include a series of high kicks. I’d been feeling it would be enough for me to eventually execute the complete series while making smaller movements that merely approximated kicks.  

It was time to dial down the instructor’s expectations. 

So I made the call. I disclosed to the group that I have MS. 

The woman who’d been practicing beside me was baffled. She told me she’d worked with a lot of people with MS, and I don’t look like any of them. She said, I guess you know all about the latest drug.

A few years ago, I would have rattled off the good news about the latest drug, the one that had stopped my very aggressive case of MS. I would have told her how I’ve been commuting for years to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for my doses while waiting for the FDA approval to release untold thousands of MS patients from the shackles of disease progression. Life sure didn’t turn out that way. 

I said, “There is always a latest drug. I’m here because I’m interested in the oldest treatments.” Since she was clearly a regular, I asked her how one pays for the class; she told me I could work it out the following week. We both assumed I’d be back. 

That was a week and a half ago. Since then…my son texted. His text put a check my lifestyle. 

Everyone who knows me knows I love my son. I love him more than all the pee in China. I have traveled to the other side of the planet for my son. At his request, I am now going to hunker down. 

The other day, he texted from Indonesia to remind my husband and I about the dangers of Covid-19. “There is a two-week plus lead time, so it might be wise to start hunkering down before there are any tri-state cases.”

Now, this young man happens to be living in the future. Literally. The sun rises for him 13 hours before it rises for us. He has spent the last year and half as a consultant based in China. When we visited, my husband and I saw for ourselves that China is ahead of the US in many ways, some positive—China has way more efficient mass transportation—and some negative—China has way worse air and water quality. Sadly for China, they’ve been way ahead of us with Covid-19. 

Which ought to mean, we have been given an opportunity to prepare. 

My son and his girlfriend MC managed to get out of Beijing in late January, while there was still time Thankfully, Thailand accepted them. They’ve been on the run from Covid-19 ever since. 

As an, ahem, older person with multiple chronic illnesses, it makes sense for me to take Covid-19 seriously, and to cut out all unnecessary exposures. My schedule is jam packed with transcendent, meaningful, one might say, necessary, exposures—which start to look foolhardy when viewed through the lens of Covid-19, 

Yesterday I cut out what is probably my most dangerous exposure—my weekly workshop with the over-70 set at a senior living center, who are feeling as vulnerable to this virus as passengers on a stranded luxury cruise.

I found this homage to Titanic at a train station in Nanjing.

I will miss these writers badly, but the sad truth is, our workshop was already flagging. In the five years since the workshop began, ten of the writers have died. Seven are currently out of commission with health problems, and yes, one of those seven has a very bad cough. The two writers who’d shown up for workshop yesterday didn’t blame me for getting out. I love so very many people in that complex. I hope they will be spared. 

Four of these writers have died since this picture was taken.

It was a no-brainer to decide to cut out the yoga class and the tai chi classes I’ve been taking at the local hospital…which may be the second most likely location for me to catch Covid-19. It was an easy call to suspend my gym membership. And as much as I love my yoga class at my neighborhood studio, I’d made a promise to my son. The new tai chi class will of course be the easiest unnecessary activity to cut from my schedule. Maybe some day I’ll be back. Maybe some day I’ll be doing those high kicks. It would be a shame to have fessed to a whole new community about my MS for nothing. 

I am not even considering cutting out my class at the art college. Those students are too young to catch Covid-19. Right? I counted seven students coughing yesterday. For once, I’d hoped they’d been smoking cigarettes or sucking down bong hits. 

Today, I have a fever. A mild one. 

Which caused me to call off the usual weekly writer’s workshop at my house. I can’t tell you how many workshops I’ve held while staving off a fever.

But things are different now. 

Be well!