Breakfast Break: MS Style (part 4 of Ms. Lab Rat’s Latest 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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Addicted to Trials

My name is Ms. Lab Rat. I have multiple sclerosis. I am addicted to clinical trials.

It had been 32 days since I’d finished my last clinical trial in Iowa City when I slipped out of a white van on a cold December morning and surrendered my coat and my purse to the jocular security crew at The National Institutes of Health in Baltimore, Maryland. When asked by a cheerful ex-navy, “Have you been here before?” I had to smile back. I’m terrible with numbers, but by my feeble estimation, I’d been to the NIH 44 times before: once a month for three years during the trial for Zinbryta, once every six months for the three years it took for the FDA to approve Zinbryta, plus twice for initial trial visits. Gentle reader, chances are your brain is less riddled with lesions than mine. You do the math. Numbers aside, I think we can all agree; I’ve been a regular.

Back when I started the Zinbryta trial, when the drug was still fairly new to me, my life had been much more limited by my disease. I was a regular at my drug store, a regular at the places I volunteered. No one paid me to hang around. Zinbryta stopped the raging inflammation that had peppered my brain with lesions. My relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis stopped feeling so…unremitting. And gradually, I was able to get small but super-meaningful jobs. First I was hired to host creative writing sessions with a uniquely brilliant group living at an upscale assisted living center. I am in awe of the supportive creative community we have maintained. Then I was hired to teach writing classes to radical, relentless, radiant young artists at a celebrated arts college downtown. The younger generation fills me with hope for a more just, more equitable, more dazzling future. Through the years, I have maintained the same prolific community writing workshop. We all publish. Some of us publish quite a lot. Zinbryta has allowed me to expand my identity beyond MS patient, to teacher. When the security guard handed me my one-day NIH ID, you’d better believe I thanked her.

I hopped back into the white van with a couple from Georgia. The husband had spent the trip describing the career he’d had to abandon. “I want to get back to work, do what I can from a wheelchair. But first I’ve got to get this cancer under control.”

I could relate to his frustration. I could relate to his hope. Zinbryta has helped rein in my MS. It’s been necessary. But it hasn’t been sufficient. When we reached good old Building 10, I hopped out of the van. I was eager to get my MS under control.

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The Ordinary Woman in the Airport

 

My husband and I were hanging around the welcoming area of CVG, watching for our son amid the parade of newly arrived travelers, when I recognized someone I had never seen before. I recognized her deeply, with every thwarted nerve in my MS racked body.

The woman was ordinary enough; middle age, medium build, medium brown hair cut to a medium length. But her gait…wasn’t quite ordinary.

Don’t get me wrong, the woman was moving about as fast as any of the other newly arrived travelers. But it was clear to me that she was expending about ten times as much effort to do so. Her legs clearly had their own agenda; they wanted to dangle. She was forcing every step; her legs dragged and flopped but ultimately kept flopping in the right direction. And because of that, because she could see she was closing in on the greeting place, she had a big smile on her face—not a forced one—a smile of absolute triumph, like a marathoner approaching a spangled banner.

I recognized myself in her smile; I knew the depth of her achievement. I used to walk that walk, or a version of it, every month on my way home from another clinical trial visit to the NIH (National Institutes of Health) where I would receive another dose of the MS medication now marketed as Zinbryta. This drug has kept me walking, albeit with great effort.

Consider this post my small effort to remind you, gentle reader, that NIH is there for you, finding cures to diseases you may be unaware exist…until one day that disease strikes you, or a family member. Funding for the NIH is in danger right now. And if that doesn’t seem a relevant topic to you right now, congratulations. But good health is transient. You have to work to keep it. And sometimes, despite your best efforts, it slips away.

Please do what you can to maintain your health. Do what you can to maintain the NIH.

Keep smiling; ordinary people can achieve extraordinary things. Just think of that woman in the airport. Here’s the secret behind her smile: sometimes it takes ten times the effort to keep moving forward, but when the goal is in reach, there is ten times the satisfaction.

Once A Lab Rat, Always a Lab Rat

The NIH study that has nurtured me since 2010 is over. The day I’ve been anticipating with measured trepidation has finally arrived. A few hours ago, I took the last of the vials of free medication from the NIH out of my refrigerator, and injected.

If the drug had not passed the FDA approval process, this would have been a very sad day. But it did pass. The fruition of the study is available commercially as Zinbryta. Dr. Z., my neurologist, has already set in motion a smooth transition for me; I’ll be the first of his MS patients to purchase Zinbryta. I won’t have to miss a dose of the drug that has given me my life back.

So today, then, marks the happy ending to my life as a Lab Rat?

Not so fast.

Today marks the closing of one chapter. And the opening of another.

This morning I received a phone call from a research assistant named Brianna. She asked me ten easy questions designed to provoke pleasant answers, such as, “Today is Tuesday, September 15, 2016” and, “Barack Obama is the President of the United States.” At the end of this quiz, I found myself qualified to be a Lab Rat in the MS Diet Study.

As any faithful reader of this blog knows, I am very interested in the role of diet in the management of MS. I’ve been intrigued by the Wahls Diet since seeing Dr. Wahl’s TED talk; I couldn’t help but be impressed that she has managed to eat her way out of a reclining wheelchair and back to full time medical practice.

This study will randomly assign me to either the Wahls Diet or the Swank Diet. As it happens, I am comfortable with both. Dr. Z. has met many people with MS leading active, healthy lives on the Swank diet. It will be a win for me either way.

I don’t have to ditch Zinbryta to participate.

Could a lab rat be any luckier?

Another fun perk of this study: I will be traveling to Iowa City, home of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where I got my MFA in fiction, and, come to think of it, my MS diagnosis. This Lab Rat will be traveling full circle.

I do hope you will follow Ms. Lab Rat to my next maze in Iowa City. I won’t be able to blog about which MS Diet I am assigned to, because the researchers must be blind.

I am so very grateful, above all, to my husband, who likes our current diet very much, but is willing to give an MS diet a try.

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Finally…FDA Approves Zinbryta

IMG_4206I just read that the experimental drug I’ve been taking for ten years has finally been approved by the FDA and will be available as Zinbryta. This must mean Ms. Lab Rat is officially retired. After many years of commuting to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to take the only drug that’s stopped the progress of my multiple sclerosis (MS), I am now going to have to buy the drug like everybody else.

You know what? I’m thrilled. I’ve hated having to hear heartbreaking story after heartbreaking story of yet another person getting an MS diagnosis, getting an ineffectual, often expensive treatment, getting worse. They look at me, and I appear fine. I’m not, but I’m also not getting worse. My medication has worked. But for these past ten years, so many others with this disease have had no chance of seeing if this medication would work for them. My dear friend Debra died way too young still waiting for this day. As you can imagine, I’ve been on the phone a lot this afternoon, updating every person who has asked me about Zinbryta. This blog post is for those of you whose numbers aren’t in my contact list.

Until I let the world know the risk I took with this drug was worth it, I won’t feel that my tenure as a Lab Rat is well and truly over. But I guess an era has come to an end.

No more free flights to Washington DC for free MRI’s. No more free top level medical care. No more cognitive tests. (Hooray!) No more free monthly blood tests to check my liver function. (My liver is just fine, thank you.) No more nights on-site at the swank Safra Lodge. No more free stays at Bethesda Court Hotel. No more side trips to the awesome DC museums and zoo. No more viewings of indie films at Bethesda Row Cinema. No more delicious dinners at Bethesda’s many fine restaurants.

Do you get the idea that being in a clinical trial at the NIH has been a pretty sweet deal? It has been for me. But what I’ll miss the most will be the people: the brilliant doctors, nurses, and interns of the NIH. Why, even the taxi drivers usually had pretty fascinating back-stories to share, if given half a chance.

The one thing I regret about my participation in the trial is that I waited until the end to reach out to other guests at the NIH; like the older lady I met in the shuttle van who’d lost both breasts and lymph nodes to ineffectual and painful cancer treatments. The cancer had spread and spread for years until she was accepted for an NIH trial (“I couldn’t believe it, at my age.”) Now her NIH doctor extracts some of her immune cells, expands the cell population in the lab, and treats the cancer with it. Her cancer? Gone. The side effects? None. She’s one happy lady. The NIH complex is full of motivated people pursuing second chances, and I wish I hadn’t been too timid and/or respectful of their privacy to chat with them. (If anyone reading this is an NIH lab rat, consider this your invitation to introduce yourself.)

I’d meant for this blog post to be about Zinbryta, but I guess it’s just a big thank you note to the NIH.

Zinbryta has been safe and effective for me for years now, and I’m terribly eager to let people know that there is one more—I think far better—alternative out there to try. But if Zinbryta doesn’t work for you, do not despair. There are plenty of other MS drugs in the research pipeline. Maybe one day you’ll wind up as a Lab Rat, too. Clinical trials are not all MRI’s and blood work. They are also an investment for the future of others coping with disease. Who knows…maybe one of us will one day be a Lab Rat for the drug that winds up becoming the cure. I won’t stop hoping.

 

The Greater Good

During a recent visit to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), I met a very pleasant young intern who had recently abandoned a career in law to take up a career in medicine, all because he’d wanted to use his talents to make the world a better place. Apparently most of the lawyers he’d met in his former life had been miserable, self-centered creatures.

He hadn’t wanted to end up like them.

So far, the intern had found the people of the NIH to be far better company than the rapacious lawyers he’d fled from. The intern observed that everyone at the NIH was there for the public good, even the patients, people who were willing to undergo trials that may or may not directly benefit them, but which would most certainly benefit others. As the intern put it, the institution was filled with do-gooders, “from the bottom up.”

I did not resent the intern for classifying patients like me as being at “the bottom” of the NIH heap. I deserved that. I myself have made a similar observation about the outstanding qualities of the good people I meet at the NIH, although in my self-serving version, “the bottom” is occupied by the NIH cab drivers —a demographic consisting primarily of highly educated immigrants, like the driver who’d earned a medical degree in his former life back in a war-torn African nation.

I don’t take anyone’s status too seriously, including my own. Status is subject to abrupt change. Things can be going fine, and then along comes a war. Or a disease. There are many paths to the NIH, indeed.

I wanted the good intern to like me. I did not correct his assumption that my primary motivation for participating in the trial for DAC HYP was a selfless one. My actual motivation was anything but selfless. DAC HYP was the only drug I’ve taken that managed to stop the progression of multiple sclerosis (MS). When I’d heard it was being taken off the North American market, I’d panicked. I’d made a few phone calls, and tracked down the doctor whom I’d initially begged to prescribe it. Joining her study at the NIH was the only way I could continue to take a drug with a known benefit.

There hadn’t been any risk involved in joining the study that I hadn’t faced already. There wasn’t even a risk of my being placed in a control group and receiving a placebo. I wasn’t at the NIH to make the world a better place. I was at the NIH to continue to take a better drug.

From what I’ve overheard from other patients at “the bottom” of the NIH barrel, we are all there primarily for our own private good. Did we want our disease cured? Hell, yes. Getting to the NIH meant cutting to the head of the line. No one gets an NIH ID without having struggled for it, including those who arrive in a wheelchair.

Human beings are complex. As for those selfish lawyers the intern was fleeing? Maybe some of those miserable human beings do in fact inadvertently contribute to the greater good while in pursuit of those big fat paychecks. More power to them.

I’d like to imagine that one or two of those fat cats may one day get sick, and have to claw themselves to “the bottom” of the heap at the NIH, where they may make their own contribution to the greater good through their rapacious pursuit of an elusive cure. The intern may think better of his former colleagues once he meets them as his patients. He may think that they have undergone some spirtual transformation. But they will be the same ambitious bastards they always were.

We all contribute to society in some way. Like the intern, I’d rather hang out with people whose positive contributions to the world are deliberate, and not inadvertent. Yet by now I’ve learned that no one’s motivations are as clear as we would like to think.

Saving Face

“God has given you one face, and you make yourselves another.”
William Shakespeare
Act 3, Scene 1 of Hamlet

I knew I was in trouble before I opened up my eyes this morning. I could feel that my eyelids were swollen before I attempted to wrench them apart. A trip to the mirror confirmed what my senses implied. My upper eyelids were elephantine. Worse, there were tender red patches beneath each eye. Worse still, tonight I’m scheduled to sit in front of a hundred or so paying audience members with a spotlight shining on this problematic face. Worst of all…it’s kind of my fault.
I write, “kind of,” because last night, when I applied my makeup, I hadn’t realized the potential for this consequence. I write, “my fault” because my neurologist had given me the opportunity to take an all-expense paid trip to the National Institutes of Health, (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, and get my rash seen by a dermatologist there. At the last minute, I’d chickened out, and had the NIH cancel my flight, because on that particular morning, my skin didn’t look so bad, nothing a little concealer couldn’t fix. I couldn’t stand the thought of flying all the way to Bethesda over a couple of little scaly patches that could be covered up with concealer. Believe it or not, I thought I was saving face. I couldn’t stand the possibility of being regarded as a hypochondriac.
Yeah, right. That hypochondriac option has been out for decades. Who did I think I was fooling?
I’m going to have to back up a bit. I’m going to have to be straight with you about a thing or two.
Starting with this: I set up this blog to share my experiences on an experimental medication for multiple sclerosis, DAC HYP. It’s only now that I notice that I’ve underplayed…as in, possibly haven’t mentioned…that I’ve experienced a side effect. That side effect is rash.
You might well ask, why not?
Here’s why not. I’ve got multiple sclerosis (MS) a horrible, and so far, incurable, degenerative neurological disease, and DAC HYP is the only medication I’ve taken—and I’ve taken plenty—that has actually served to stop the disease progression.
That’s pretty significant.
Rash? As side effects go, rash just hasn’t seemed that significant.
To put it into context, a potential side effect for a competing drug, Tysabri, is sudden death. So, yeah—rash. What of it?
I’d rather have a rash I can see than a brain lesion I can’t see. The choice to take the medication, and bear with the side effect, has been a no-brainer, at least for me. For a while there, I thought that anyone who saw things differently must just be more brain damaged than I am.
Two things have happened since I’ve started this blog that have changed the way I view the risk/benefit analysis of taking a drug that stops MS, yet causes rash.
Thing One: after years and years and years on this drug, I finally did get one—and only one—new brain lesion. And still, as far as I can tell, that’s a phenomenally good result if you compare the efficacy of this drug to that of any other MS drug out there. I’ve been told this one lesion had the good grace to show up in a “silent area.” I don’t agree that the damage was silent—I felt pretty horrible for a while there—but in truth, I’m feeling all right now.
Except for—
Thing Two: the rash has gotten worse.
Way worse.
When the rash first showed up—I believe that happened around the time the medication changed its formulation—it appeared on the inside of my hand; a nice, innocuous spot. No one was too likely to see it. And that was important to me. Some people call MS an invisible disease. I like it’s invisibility, thank you very much. MS only stays invisible if it isn’t allowed to progress.
The rash itched. I applied hydrocortisone. It went away. And then the rash reappeared, on my face of all places. A place everyone was likely to see. And that made the rash something I had to…um…face.
I managed to not face it.
I had a solution. I used a cosmetic. A simple concealer. Perhaps if I were a man, and not in the habit of putting on makeup, that move would have felt like a big deal. But I am a woman. Most of us women are all too familiar with, shall we say, putting our best face forward. (See: Hamlet.)
So yes. I wore concealer over my rash every day. Even on those days the NIH flew me out to examine me, to, you know, see if I was experiencing any side effects on DAC HYP.
Maybe we’ve been at cross-purposes. Whenever I visit the NIH, I always strive to be mistaken for a doctor instead of taken for a patient. My most treasured moments in Bethesda are the times I (almost) get away with this, like when a driver for the NIH picked me up from the hotel and asked, “Are you a patient, or…”
I treasured that “or.” I gave that driver a big tip.
The NIH culture supports these seemingly innocuous mistakes of identity. A nurse once berated herself after she’d asked me a question about my condition in an elevator. “I shouldn’t have done that. I’m not supposed to address you as a patient in front of other people.”
I’m not to be treated like a patient. I’m to be treated like a peer. One never gets too personal with one’s peers. I’ve had one neurologist actually apologize several times during an examination, for having to touch me, for asking me to disrobe. I understood she was expressing her respect for me. But that sentiment can go too far, and actually disrupt the messy process of getting down to the ugly truth.
And it’s hard to get there. For instance, you’ve been reading paragraph after paragraph about my rash, and I still haven’t mentioned I also have scaly dry patches on the inner folds of my arms and my legs. These patches itch. But I tend to forget to mention them, not only to you, but to my neurologist. Why? Because these itchy patches are not visible to others, at least not in the winter months. I can bear almost any amount of discomfort. I just can’t bear exposure.
Which brings me to the prospect of going onstage with a rash in front of about 100 people.
I’d had other plans for this evening’s appearance. I’d planned to get a professional make-up job. I’d planned to get an elaborate up-do. I’d planned to look fabulous, like I did on opening night, just a few hours after I made that cancellation.
Life doesn’t always go as planned
When I’d cancelled my flight to the NIH and my appointment with the NIH dermatologist, my neurologist had suggested I quit wearing make-up. After opening night, I complied. As of last night, my face was repaired, just in time, I thought, for me to take the stage again. Thinking the problem was over, I’d applied a little makeup before going to a concert. We know how that turned out.
This morning, I cancelled my make-up session. I didn’t want to make my elephant face any worse. I did not cancel my up-do.
And then I went to yoga. I’m so glad that I did.
Our teacher, Sharon, shared a passage from a book in which yoga instructor Sianna Sherman answers the question, What’s the best advice you’ve ever gotten?
Sianna answers, “Inner body bright,” a phrase she’d picked up from her teacher, John Friend. Sianna explains that this phrase is “his way of saying ‘It doesn’t matter what’s happening on the outside. No matter how fierce and intense and up against ourselves we feel, if we tap into that place—the place that yoga guides and invites each one of us to—we’ll find that our essence is bright and that our inner freedom is fully present.’ Often, it’s our outer freedom that’s compromised by own mind. We say: ‘Oh I’m not free’ or “I’m a victim, I’m not empowered. Or, ‘This happened to me…’ And then we start to close down. And that’s easy to do, but if we go inside and wait a minute, there’s this inner freedom that’s never compromised; there’s this inner light that’s always true. So you say to yourself, ‘Inner body bright, let me melt the outer body, melt all the crazy stuff that’s happening into the fire of my heart, into that inner light, and then I’m going to stand tall in this light and keep going, no matter what.”
As it happened, that message was exactly what I needed to hear to muster the courage to get onstage with a rash, and without the makeup. When I sit in the spotlight, I somehow doubt I’ll be whispering to myself, “inner body bright.” But I did get the message there’s more to me than meets the eye.
I have lived a long time. I have sported many appearances. I have been a cute little girl, a wince worthy adolescent. I’ve been a woman in a wheelchair. Last week, just before my opening night performance, when I was the lady with the fabulous updo, the owner of an upscale restaurant rushed up to my beautiful family, and asked, “Where do you come from?” in awestruck tones, as though he expected us to answer, “We have descended from Mount Olympus.” That night, it didn’t feel like a challenge to take the stage.
Tonight I’ll have to give the audience some credit. I’ve cancelled my up-do. I won’t apply concealer. I’ll see if I can summon up enough inner beauty to outshine the rash. (The swollen eyelids had calmed back down.) I am, after all, performing for trueTheatre. The audience expects me to be vulnerable. What better occassion to take that risk?