Teetering on the Edge of TRAP-MS

On my most recent trip to the NIH, I was hoping maybe I would be disqualified for the TRAP-MS study, which evaluates four existing FDA-approved medications for their potential to reverse progression in multiple sclerosis.  I don’t like that I have disease progression, and therefore qualify for the study. But if I am someone whose MS is progressing, I like the option of being first in line to take an FDA-approved medication that might help.

This was my second six month check-in to establish a baseline on my status with my new MS drug, Tecfidera.

Before I flew out, Dr. W, my NIH doctor, told me there was a  chance I’d test out of the trial, since I didn’t have much progression to medicate.  I wasn’t as optimistic about my lack of MS progression. My fall this January didn’t just fracture five bones in my face—it fractured all the routines I’d set up to live as healthily as I could with MS. I’d only just started going back to the gym. I hadn’t yet returned, wholeheartedly, to the Wahl’s-ish diet I’d been following.

During my summer exam, Dr. W had clucked at my balance— “your balance is shit”—and the lack of resistance in my right leg:—“so weak.” What would my balance be like after two months of not daring to challenge it? What would my strength be like after two months of barely any dog walks and zero visits to the gym? Thankfully, this setback didn’t prompt an MS relapse. But if there was going to be a time when my MS might be progressing, it would be now.

I’d been instructed to “take it easy” before my clinic visit. But that morning, I had pushed myself to the verge of immobility.

As I entered Building 10, my spirits rose.  Maybe it was the profusion of plants, or maybe the profusion of people. IMG_1374I noted there was new art on the wall.

IMG_1379

I noted there was still no additional entry in the display of Presidential Visits.

IMG_1380Luckily, the first appointment on my schedule was at Phlebotomy, which involved sitting, first in the waiting room, and then for the needle. That gave me some time to recover from all the walking I’d done through the airports, the Metro, and the NIH campus.

When my number was called, I got the same needle master as I’d drawn on my visit the previous summer. I recognized the fan letter he’d posted about his ability to make a two year old smile while drawing his blood.

IMG_1337 2The testimonial hangs strategically at eye level of the person waiting to get their blood drawn. It is terribly effective at arresting any impulse to cower or cringe. Nobody wants to come off as a bigger baby than a sick two year old.

Did I, like the sick two year old, leave smiling after having my blood drawn? I doubt it. I’ve not been known to smile until after I’ve had my second breakfast.  I soon discovered that my favorite cafeteria—on the second floor in the new building—was closed for remodeling. I found my way to the alternate cafeteria in the basement of the old building. I loaded up on greens and root veggies and proteins. The meal provided all the rejuvenation I needed. By the time I stepped off the elevator on the fifth floor and rounded into the clinic, I no longer had a limp.  Seeing Diane, a nurse I’ve known since my first NIH visit, put me in the mood to smile.

Since returning to real life after my big fall, I’ve become accustomed to being greeted with “Your face looks good!” If I chose to take “looks good” as meaning anything more than “not permanently damaged,” it is because I latch shamelessly onto the positive.

Diane obviously didn’t get the memo about the five facial fractures. Instead of saying, “Your face looks good!” she greeted me with a hug and a frank assessment. “We’re getting old!”

True enough! I, for one, don’t mind looking (or getting) old. I’ve earned my silver stripes. Besides, those strands provide an instant, socially acceptable explanation for a slow or unsteady gait. It’s not that I am MS closeted—it’s just that not every distressed person stuck behind me on the staircase really wants or needs an explanation of the ravages of autoimmune disease when an assumption about the ravages of age will do.

Diane didn’t look any older, and I told her so. Diane is remarkably stable. She just doesn’t change. Case in point: the day I met her, she had just won a prize in a weight-loss competition between nurses on her floor. Here’s the catch: Diane had won by losing a mere pound and a half.  If Diane has had any weight fluctuations since then, they have probably been within the same range. Diane has had the same haircut as long as I’ve known her: same bangs, same color, same length. Diane stays Diane. I wouldn’t want her any other way.

Jen, the other dear nurse I’ve bonded with from the start—swooped in to agree with Diane’s assessment, “We are getting old!” as she grazed my cheek with a kiss. Jen’s hair was red that afternoon—her hair is a new color, a new style, every time I see her. Jen tends to pretend she’s disorganized or absentminded or late. True to form, she crafted an overly-elaborate explanation for why she couldn’t linger as she dashed off down the hall on her sturdy Doc Martens.

Diane wondered aloud, “How long have you been coming here, anyway?”

I guessed, “Maybe nine or ten years.”

Diane pulled up my file.  “Since 2010. Nine years.”

When I’d first come to the NIH, I’d been chasing daclizumab, the only drug that had managed to stop my MS relapses.  After the NIH had requisitioned all the supplies of it, I was more than grateful that there was room in the trial of the drug for me. For the three years of that trial, Diane and Jen had taken my weight and my blood every month. Once that trial was over, I was permitted to continue to take daclizumab though the NIH “safety study” while we all waited for the FDA approval. I flew in every six months for monitoring and new drug supplies. Once the drug was approved, we took what may yet be a final group photo.

IMG_4207Thanks to TRAP-MS, we were back together again.

While Diane was at her computer, she got a notification on my labs. She scrolled down two screens of data.  “Your labs look good.”

I thanked her, and told her how, the last time I’d visited, I gotten my lab results on my phone just as I was about to get on my departing flight. The cholesterol was marked in red, and looked way high. I was freaking out that the diet I was on was going to give me a heart attack. Doctor Google hadn’t been much help.

“Stay away from Doctor Google. You should call us when you have a question.”

Diane scrolled up, “Your good cholesterol is what’s really high.”

Then Linh, one of the graduate students, stuck her head in the office. She was ready to give me my tests.

We started with the timed 25 foot walk. Considering I had been limping just an hour or so earlier, I wasn’t optimistic about the outcome. Still, I’ve been conditioned to give these tests my all, so when it was time to march from one masking tape line to the other, I barreled along the hall like I was on my way to lift a screaming baby out of a vat of boiling water. Then I turned around and barreled right back. My fear of falling paled in comparison to my fear of failing. I did not fall.

I announced, “My healthy appearance is a flimsy veneer.” Like the NIH don’t know that. Test by test, I went all out, competing with my better-rested summer self.

As Dr. W. examined me, she seemed gentler than last time. She didn’t push as hard for the resistance tests. She didn’t chide me for being weak. When I messed up on the heel-to-toe test, she let me re-take it. Twice. Not that I did any better.

Overall, Dr. W was enthusiastic about my condition. She told me maybe the rest I’d had was doing me some good. Or maybe the Tecfidera.

When Dr. W. called a few days later with the results of my visit, she assured me the MRI looked stable. She told me I’d actually performed better on some tests, like the peg test, than I ever have. But overall, my numbers still nudged a bit in the direction of progression. As long as there is a progression of my disease, I will continue to qualify for the study,

Dr. W wished me luck in getting disqualified from the study when she sees me next time in six months. As much as I love this crew, I would love to be too healthy to see them.

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Breakfast Break: MS Style (part 4 of Ms. Lab Rat’s Latest NIH Adventure)

When we last left off, I, Ms. Lab Rat, was sniffing the sickly scent of powdered sugar as I passed the by-now stale gingerbread houses on display in the secular cathedral that is the NIH (National Institutes of Health.) I had time to kill before my Phlebotomy appointment, so I took the elevator to the second floor cafeteria, which has an excellent salad bar. And discovered I was too early for salad.

Here’s the deal with my new Wahls-inspired MS diet: the foods I used to associate with breakfast are off the menu. No processed foods, no gluten, no grains, no milk (bye bye breakfast cereals,) no eggs, no cheese (bye bye omelets.)

Here is a picture of what breakfast looked like for me today: IMG_9271

You’re looking at bok choy and garlic escargot simmered in homemade chicken broth, topped with kimchi and dulce. The Wahls Diet calls for the consumption of four servings of leafy green veggies a day, at least four servings of colorful fruits and veggies, a meat, a touch of seaweed, a bit of something pickled. The Wahls Diet is also very very big on homemade bone broth. So this breakfast covers pretty much all the bases. (If I were a true purest, there would have been a little knob of organ meat floating around in the bowl, too. But that’s the thing about the Wahls diet. Or maybe any diet? You can always feel you’re not quite up to par.) This breakfast was yummy, by the way. But this kind of breakfast is not easily obtained on the road. Not even in a hospital. (By the way, what’s up with hospital food? Why are there so many unhealthy choices? Topic for another blog.)

Here’s a fuller, indeed cluttered picture of what breakfast looked like for me today, when I tell the whole complicated story of my MS maintenance:

IMG_9272

You are still looking at my pretty bowl of healthier-than-thou breakfast food. You are also looking at the supplements required for the clinical trial of the Wahls Diet:

5,000 IU Vitamin D3, 1 t cod liver oil, 5000 liquid vitamin B12, 1 mg folate, multi-vitamin.

Then there’s all the stuff I have to take for my funny bladder:

AZO, macrobid, and some other antibiotic I’ll be finished with at dinner.

Then all the stuff I choose to take for my self-designed Ms Lab Rat trial:

3x 100 mg Biotin (which I am hoping will eventually fix my bladder problems and get rid of three of the items above), 500 mg Hemp oil, local hemp oil, glorious hemp oil (which has helped me sleep and dream after many sleepscarce, dreamless years), 5 mg Lithium (which I thought was doing a fine job as a mood stabilizer, though I just learned that what I take isn’t anything like a mood stabilizing dose. So let’s call it my placebo.)

This is a lot to keep track of. When I graduated from the Swank Vs. Wahls clinical trial, I got a certificate (no joke) and a private viewing of a 20 minute video of Dr. Wahls that just served to delay the seven hour drive ahead of me. No t-shirt. The only remotely useful thing I left with was a booklet to help me keep up with all the details of living in a Wahls Diet world. (I had rallied hard for an app, but there isn’t one. Yet.)  For a few weeks afterward, I kept filling in little circles every time I popped another supplement, or finished another serving of leafy greens. But eventually I ditched the booklet. I want to feel a little less obsessive, a little less persnickety. Either that, or I’d already assimilated all the expectations. My brain had become the diet app I’d been asking for.

The morning of my TRAP trial, I realized I was not going to get a Wahls breakfast, or Wahls-ish breakfast before my blood draw. I guzzled a “green” drink I purchased from a vending machine and took the elevator down to Phlebotomy. A lovely woman handed me a white stub with a number. As I glanced down to read 32, she called, “Thirty two.” It was the Christmas holiday. I was the only patient in the waiting room. I filed past untouched trays of cookies and two pots of coffee and entered the orderly hive of numbered white cubicles, wondering if I’d recognize my phlebotomist. I had been there many times before.

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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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