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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Teetering on the Verge of TRAP (part 3 of Ms. Lab Rat’s Latest NIH adventure)

I didn’t jump into the TRAP trial eagerly.

When I first got a pamphlet from the National Institutes of Health advising me of my eligibility for a new study, I thought perhaps there’d been some mistake. This study was designed for people with progressive MS, the most serious form of multiple sclerosis, a most serious degenerative disease. That couldn’t apply to me. I was an MS success story. I was Ms. Lab Rat, the patient who had cleverly evaded a continued barrage of MS lesions by taking a fortuitous risk on an off-label drug. In over a decade of respite from new inflammation, neurologist after neurologist  told me I was doing everything right, told me I was doing great. None of them mentioned I was slipping into the progressive form of the disease.

And yet.

I myself had not been satisfied, had not felt I was doing everything I could to stop or slow the ongoing catastrophe that is MS. As much as I was grateful for the drug I was taking, I thought for sure that the drug had worked more efficiently when I first took it back in my late 30’s, when it was delivered off-label via IV infusion. The form of the drug that I later took for an NIH study, the form that eventually hit the market as Zinbryta, came in a little tiny vial, not a whopping big IV bag, and felt that much less miraculous. Sure, I was still avoiding MS relapses, but I was also no longer swimming for hours or taking long hikes. Or even short walks.

The cover of the NIH pamphlet asked, Is your MS progressing, in spite of treatments?

I wasn’t exactly sure.

Wouldn’t some neurologist have told me if my MS had become progressive?

One would think.

Would I have wanted them to?

Hell, no. Back in 2005, I fired a neurologist for telling me my MS was never going to get any better. Which started me on the search that led to Dr. Bielekova, who actually did make my MS get better, without ever making any promises that she could. She had prescribed the drug she was researching with great reluctance, because I’d been insistent. She’d warned me there was no guarantee of success. Yet it had been a success.

As I set the pamphlet down I saw Dr. Bielekova’s name was attached to the study. While I was still mostly in denial that the pamphlet could apply to me, I did have friends with progressive MS, friends who had lost their employment, much of their mobility, and in the worst case, much of their memory. Connecting them to an NIH study could give them access to some of the most nimble minds examining this insidious disease. I picked the pamphlet back up.

The trial proposed to measure the effects of four established medications, currently treatments for other diseases, to see if they could ameliorate the effects of MS. The drug that had changed the course of my disease had originally been used to keep the immune systems of organ transplant patients from attacking the transplanted organ; Dr. Bielekova had guessed that perhaps it could likewise be used to keep the immune systems of MS patients from self-attack. Clinical trial patients like me had helped to prove her theory correct. Apparently she was looking to repeat this success.

The pamphlet didn’t make any claims of how any of these four drugs might potentially help a person with MS. Instead, it went into detail about potential side effects. Which was all very above board. But not very tempting.

Furthermore, the timing of the pamphlet was off.

The pamphlet arrived in the spring, a time of hope. I had just enrolled in a clinical trial examining the effect of diet on MS. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a teaspoon of cod-liver here, a sprig of seaweed there, would be all it took to fix me? I could only do one trial at a time. Why not stick with the wholesome one? The one without potential side effects.

When I called the number on the pamphlet, I disclosed my participation in the diet trial right away. I explained I was asking… for a friend. The doctor I spoke with was unfamiliar to me, but warm and sympathetic. She urged me to let the NIH pay to fly me out anyway, just to keep  updated on my progress with Zinbryta. I had nothing to lose beyond a wee bit of spinal fluid, which I would easily replenish. If there were signs of progression, I would qualify for the study. If it turned out I wasn’t progressing, well, that would be good information to have.

And that was how I’d wound up back at the NIH late last June for a spinal tap.

The results came in during the July 4 holidays. I got a voice mail message that I did indeed qualify for the study. The unspoken implication was clear. I could consider myself as having progressive MS. My calls to the clinic went unreturned. I blamed the holiday. Then summer vacations.

I didn’t want to admit to myself that I was devastated. I decided to look on the bright side. While the Swank Diet I was on for my current clinical trial wasn’t yet working any wonders, maybe its competitor, the Wahls Diet, would do the trick.  And if neither diet reversed my symptoms, at least there would be TRAP to turn to. If only someone from the clinic would return my calls.

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TRAP (part 2 of Ms. Lab Rat’s Latest NIH 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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The Skinny on the WAhls VErses Swank Diet (WAVES Study)

Last week, I drove 475 miles to The Preventative Intervention Center at the University of Iowa to participate in Phase 1 of the WAVES (WAhls VErses Swank) MS diet study. My participation will last 36 weeks, assuming I make it through Phase 1, the Usual Diet Phase. If I do, I will be expected to visit the clinic every 12 weeks through the conclusion.

The WAVES study is open to people with relapsing/remitting multiple sclerosis (MS) who experience MS related fatigue. The purpose of the study is to compare two dietary approaches to see which diet is more successful at reducing fatigue. The hypothesis is that consuming one of the study diets will reduce MS related fatigue, improve energy and improve quality of life.

The bias of the experimenters for the Wahls diet remains unexpressed in the literature they hand out to us lab rats. (Well, the nitpicky can find bias revealed in the name WAhls contributing the first two letters to the WAVES acronym, whist the name Swank is contributes only one. I am not that nitpicky.)

On my next visit, I will be randomly assigned one of the two diets, and must then commit to following that diet exclusively. The twist: my super indulgent husband will also have to commit to following whichever diet, at least for every meal he has at home. Because this is a blind randomized study, I can’t let the administrators know which diet I’ve been assigned. This means, gentle reader, I can’t let you know either, on the very off chance that the study administrators don’t have anything better to do than check an amateur blog. (This is where I lose you, dear reader, and you suddenly remember you had meant to be curing cancer at the moment. Godspeed!)

While I can’t help but assume that the WAVES study is biased toward the Wahls Protocol, since Wahls herself designed it, I myself do not share this bias. Well…maybe a teensy bit. A very healthy, very active, once diseased Dr. Wahls does make a fine case for her diet in her TED Talk, which I watched to its completion many years ago. I am sure there is an equally compelling case for the Swank diet in the book I couldn’t bear to finish, which currently collects dust on my bedside table. (The issue of my reluctance to fully research either study will make another blog post eventually. Or a podcast.)

If I do get assigned the Wahls Protocol, I will be happy, because it is so intimidating and involved, I feel I will need the challenge of doing my due diligence as a Lab Rat to actually see it through. (In addition, I can lean on the professional assistance of the study nutritionist, who will assign me the diet and will keep this random assignment to herself.)

If I get assigned the Swank Diet, my husband, for one, will be happier, since he’s concluded (from his 14 second scan of the description) that this diet is more in line with the one we already follow. I am going to need his support, so I would be grateful for an option he finds palatable

Here are the diet descriptions, straight from the 22 page consent form:

“One diet is a low saturated fat diet that eliminates beef and pork and includes whole grains, fat free dairy, vegetables and fruits (Swank) and the other is a modified paleo diet (Wahls Elimination) that eliminates all grains, legumes (e.g., beans), eggs, dairy, and nightshade vegetables (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, peppers) and stresses more vegetables and meat in the diet.”

If you were assigned one of these two diets, which would you be more willing to follow for 24 weeks?

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