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?

MS Blog with Boob Pic

Ms. Lab Rat is supposed to be a blog about an intrepid gal who joins clinical trial after clinical trial, surfing on the cutting edge of multiple sclerosis research.
Ms. Lab Rat is not supposed to be a blog about an anxious gal whose left breast is on the cutting edge of a surgical scalpel. But that’s where this MS blogger will be, while The Art Academy is closed for Spring Break.
Sorry.
(I know, I know, I shouldn’t be the one saying sorry. But have you have ever met a person who did not apologize for a physical misfortune beyond their control, be it mild hearing loss, Sorry, could you repeat that?—to terminal cancer, I’m so sorry I won’t live to see my baby graduate high school. You want to say: I’m the one who’s sorry.)
In this case, Gentle Reader, you needn’t be sorry for Ms. Lab Rat—yet. I have health insurance. (Thanks, husband.) I have a support system in place. (Thanks husband/family/friends.) And I don’t have cancer. (As far as the pathologists can tell.)
What I do have are a few cells that kind of look like they could turn into cancer…or look like the type of cells that tend to hang out with cancer cells. The pathologists couldn’t really agree on what to make of these suspicious cells. Which was why it took them a week, and not the promised one to three days, to call me.
As it happened, I got this call just two hours after I’d learned I have severe osteoporosis, and just a half an hour before I was scheduled to teach Artist as Reader. I was in the middle of an enormous copy job, which involved making 17 two-sided copies of the 92 page screenplay of Get Out. The call made me laugh. Two bad health updates in two hours? Who gets that? It seemed too bad to be true. My biggest fear remained the complicated copy job. I really really hate copier jams, especially so close to class time. Trivial frustrations like that are somehow harder for me to take then even super grim news. The printer didn’t jam. I was genuinely relieved, and genuinely curious to see what my students would think of the manuscript. I couldn’t be bothered to update my blog post about my osteoporosis diagnosis with a dramatic PS. I had a class to teach. Besides, my mom reads my blog. (Hi, Mom!) I didn’t want to worry her.
I am now scheduled for a third biopsy, a surgical excision that will scoop out the entire perplexing nodule and resolve any unanswered question. I’ll be glad to be rid of the uncertainty. I’m not yet skilled at living with anxiety. Last night, I had a hard time getting back to sleep after my 4th or 5th fourth trip to the bathroom (thank you, MS bladder.) I tried meditation after meditation, but stayed awake from 2am to almost 4. (I fell asleep just fine after trips seven and six.) OK, maybe it’s time to botox the old bladder again. Do you see how living with MS is in itself a full time job?
I was grateful to have yoga today, to help me unwind and expand, physically and mentally. As I had hoped, I was not the only student at this week’s class for yoga with MS and Parkinson’s. I met two intelligent, ambitious women there, an accomplished artist and an accomplished writer, and best of all, I got to catch up with my buddy Monica. We lingered over our Wahls-compliant lunches to chat about breast biopsies, and so much more. In a few short weeks, we’ll have matching scars.
It seems no MS story is as simple as just one diagnosis. At least, not for those of us lucky enough to be living decades with MS—long enough to encounter the usual trials of mere aging. Maybe Ms. Lab Rat is a typical MS blog, after all.

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Stress and MS

Happy day! The verdict is in. Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is not caused by stress.
The NIH (National Institutes of Health) has been following two enormous groups of nurses over two massive spans of time, and they have found no link whatsoever between traumatic life events and the onset of multiple sclerosis.
Zero, nada.
I know I sound a bit overblown. But that doesn’t mean that I am exaggerating. I’m not even over-exaggerating (a distinction we often make in my larger-than-life family-of-origin.)
The two groups studied really were enormous: 121,700 nurses in Study One, and 16,671 nurses in Study 2.
The two time spans really were massive, maybe not massive in geologic time, but certainly massive in biologic time. The first group has been followed since 1976 (Number 1 song of ’75: Silly Love Songs by Paul McCartney and Wings.) The second group has been followed since 1989. (Number 1 song of ’89: Look Away, by Chicago. Was I asleep that year?)
The nurses in both enormous groups were asked to complete a questionairre about their personal history of stressful events. After they handed in their questionnaires, they went about their normal lives. A minority of the nurses who completed this questionnaire would later find that their normal lives would be disrupted by MS.
When investigators compared the answers from the group of nurses who were destined to develop MS with the answers from the nurses who were destined to remain healthy, they found no significant difference in self-reported levels of stress and/or stressful events.
I feel so vindicated.
There are so many subtle and not-so-subtle ways of blaming of victim. With my MS diagnosis came the injunction to avoid stress. I don’t necessarily think that was an entirely bad piece of advice, although, under the circumstances, it wasn’t particularly easy advice to follow. No one ever outright accussed me of creating my disease state because I’d been under too much stress. That was entirely my own inference. I’ve been blaming myself ever since.
Since my diagnosis, I have made it a priority to avoid stress. I’ve done plenty of yoga. Not enough meditation. When I’ve gotten pissed off, I have, on occasion, actually slowed down long enough to count to ten. I am, without a doubt, a happier, more even-tempered person than I was before my diagnosis. I might not have made such an effort had I not believed it would contribute to my health.
So I can’t say I have a quarrel with avoiding stress. I have a quarrel with the notion that a person with MS has a stronger obligation to finesse stress than a person without MS.
I would like to propose that there is something intrinsically wrong with the assumption that multiple sclerosis is a flawed emotional response, rather than a flawed immune response.
I’ve had MS since at least 1988 (Faith, George Michael). I am a study of one. I am lacking a control group. As both investigator and subject of my own disease, I have had a “massive” amount of time to explore the complex interplay between multipe sclerosis and stress. For what it’s worth, this is what I have observed. Stress is not the only response that can trigger MS symptoms. Any old emotion will do. Joy, for instance. I will never forget the excruciating pain that shot through my legs when I learned that a family friend would be lending us his apartment in Paris.
If I want to eliminate pain from my life, does that mean I ought to eliminate joy?
I don’t think so.
I’d like to propose a paradigm shift.
Let’s stop fussing over eliminating stress. Let’s focus, instead, on eliminating MS.

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