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?

The Yoga Groove

welcome

My long time yoga teacher, Sharon Byrnes, just started two new classes for people with MS and Parkinson’s at her studio, The Yoga Groove. Today I was lucky enough to have a one-on-one with her, so I got to call all the shots.

My body has given me a pretty long to-do list. I’ve been wanting to take a class on how to fall since learning that I have severe osteoporosis. (I was so eager, in fact, that I showed up one month early to  “Free from Falls,” a class which will be offered by the MS Society starting March 6.)

I requested we work on fall prevention. Sharon started me working on transitioning through various yoga poses from against the wall, instead of from in the middle of the room, so that I could use the data from the wall to keep my shoulders, back and hips in alignment while moving from two feet to one foot and back down again. She gave me blocks, so I could safely extend my body and achieve more from each pose.

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foot drop

You will notice, in the second picture, that my foot droops down. Ideally, my foot and leg should be parallel to the floor. Ha. Ha. I know this is the Internet, but I’m still going to show it like it is. What you’re looking at is called foot drop. It’s an MS thing. When I’m tired, like I was this morning after treadmill and weights, I have to use extra effort to lift my right foot off the floor as I walk (or do yoga.) Foot drop has been a big culprit in limiting my walking. Until I got hand controls,  it even limited my driving.

I asked Sharon about foot drop. I’d seen what looked like a helpful video on YouTube…but I wanted to verify that the advice it gave was any good. Sharon watched me demonstrate what I’d remembered of the video, which entailed sitting in a chair, raising the foot, swiveling it in one direction over seven seconds, and then back in the other direction seven seconds…to be repeated over three minutes. She immediately made three suggestions: 1. to keep my ankles in line under my knees (I should know that by now!)  2. to use a resistance band (I tend to be lazy about adding props.) 3. to work out both ankles, not just the one that gives me trouble,  working right/left/right instead of working the right ankle exclusively.  Her suggestions affirmed what I have learned throughout the years: YouTube is no replacement for first hand experience from an experienced instructor.

She then got out a timer and had me tap my foot. I produced 28 taps in a minute, which was less than her 48, but not as far from the 32 taps per minute I should have for a goal.

After our session, I immediately texted my friend Monica, who is off having a grand time in New Orleans this week and couldn’t attend class. She wanted to know all about how to prevent foot drop. As Sharon remarked on my way out, students learn a lot from their teacher, but learn even more from each other. My one-on-one with Sharon was amazing, but I can’t wait for next week, when my peers will be there, too.

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Steadier Together

As soon as I got diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), I started practicing yoga…with people who did not have MS. Yoga is not a competitive sport, and I am not a competitive person, so I’ve never wasted any energy comparing my abilities to anyone else’s. It didn’t matter if mine was the wobbliest “Tree” pose in the yoga studio. Trees can wobble, in the right wind.

At no point did I feel a need to join a special class for people with multiple sclerosis. I was doing just fine, I thought, in the yoga classes at the Fitness Center, practicing with “beginners” ranging in age from early twenties to mid-seventies. But when I saw the flyer for MS Yoga in my neurologist’s examination room, I immediately decided to join that class, too. The MS Yoga class was free. I had nothing to lose. And besides, I liked the concept. Yoga has helped me, probably in more ways than I know. Wasn’t it nice that the neurologist was offering something positive that his MS patients could do for their bodies and minds? I saw my attendance as a yes vote to the whole idea.

I might have felt a bit apprehensive the morning of the first class…I’d met people with MS before, and most of them just brought me down. The only close friend I’d made with MS up to that point had had a sparkly, positive attitude…and the progressive form of the disease. She’d recently died, hopeful to the end.

The women I met at MS Yoga that morning were charming, charismatic, joyful, and curious. We started asking each other questions, and comparing notes, before Megan, our instructor, got a word in edgewise.

Did I like the class itself? Not at first. It didn’t seem remotely like any form of yoga I’d ever encountered; starting with the fact that Megan never even mentioned breath. To me, a yoga practise without breath is like a church service without prayer; every pose starts with breath, extends with breath, transitions with breath. If you don’t have breath, you don’t have life, and you sure don’t have yoga. But what our class did have, right away, was community; we were as fascinated by each other as if were all reunited siblings, separated at birth.

Our ending “Namaste” (“the light in me greets the light in you) would not be a goodbye. There was a lunch place two stories down from our ad hoc conference room/yoga studio. We all agreed to extend the party through lunch. We called out the high performers as we prepared to leave; “You can still balance on one foot as you put on a sneaker!” And as we went down the stairs, “You can walk without a banister!” We commiserated with the one who forgot her yoga mat and had to go back for it, “I forget things, too!” And the ones who had to rush off to the Ladies Room, “I have an MS bladder, too!” We peppered each other with questions over our salads and soups, universal ones, like, “Do you have any kids/grandkids?” As well as MS related ones, like, “Do you still work?” “Do you get social security?” “Where did you get that cane?”

After subsequent yoga classes, the lunches went on, and the confessions of various disabilities grew bolder; not every symptom was found to have a match. The confessions of memory loss were by far the loneliest; what was the self, without memories?

In the meantime, I grew frustrated with the classes themselves. What was yoga, without breath? When Megan finally told me her reason for withholding breath from the practice, her explanation shocked me. Apparently she’d been taught that handicapped people should not be “burdened” with such instructions. I said, “Everybody breathes.” The assumption that people with MS couldn’t handle breathing made for an insulting pedagogy. She took note. And stopped following it. Megan invited us to breathe in class, invited us to laugh. Classes got better, week by week.

One day, Megan introduced us to the Tree pose, that pose I found so challenging in my able-bodied yoga classes. In Tree, one must balance on one leg, and rest the foot of the opposite leg somewhere on the standing leg; perhaps on the ankle, the inner calf, or as high as the inner thigh. Megan proposed that we do Tree pose in a circle, while supporting our neighbors, palm to palm. This was a method we all could achieve. Instead of forming individual wobbly trees, we formed a steady grove.

As suddenly as the class was offered to us, the class was taken away. The department of Integrative Medicine gave no explanation. The UC neurologist who was involved with this program is seeking to reprise it, to this day.

On the last meeting of the MS Yoga Group, Megan closed with this poem by the Revered Sapphire Rose:

“She Let Go

She let go. Without a thought or a word, she let go.

She let go of the fear.  She let go of the judgments.  She let go of the confluence of opinions swarming around her head.  She let go of the committee of indecision within her.  She let go of all the ‘right’ reasons. Wholly and completely, without hesitation or worry, she just let go.

She didn’t ask anyone for advice. She didn’t read a book on how to let go  She didn’t search the scriptures. She just let go.  She let go of all of the memories that held her back.  She let go of all of the anxiety that kept her from moving forward.  She let go of the planning and all of the calculations about how to do it just right.

She didn’t promise to let go. She didn’t journal about it. She didn’t write the projected date in her Day-Timer. She made no public announcement and put no ad in the paper. She didn’t check the weather report or read her daily horoscope. She just let go.

She didn’t analyze whether she should let go. She didn’t call her friends to discuss the matter. She didn’t do a five-step Spiritual Mind Treatment. She didn’t call the prayer line. She didn’t utter one word. She just let go.

No one was around when it happened. There was no applause or congratulations. No one thanked her or praised her. No one noticed a thing. Like a leaf falling from a tree, she just let go.

There was no effort. There was no struggle. It wasn’t good and it wasn’t bad. It was what it was, and it is just that.

In the space of letting go, she let it all be. A small smile came over her face. A light breeze blew through her. And the sun and the moon shone forevermore.”

We have had to let go of the yoga class, but we have stayed in touch with each other. We are no longer individual w0bbly trees, but a steady grove.

 

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