A Day in the Life at the NIH Triali

Nothing ever goes exactly as planned in the NIH. This is an observation, not a criticism. Sometimes, a change in plans works to my advantage. When my husband and I arrived promptly for my seven a.m. appointment, I was told my eight a.m. MRI would have to be rescheduled. There weren’t enough technicians. My husband and I are adept at such situations. My body’s fickle insurrections have given us plenty of exposure to the changing of plans.

My first appointment was to review the revised consent form with the magnetically charming nurse Naomi. Within five minutes chatting over the forms she’d told me enough about life in DC for me to recommend Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah. As it turned out, Naomi had read that book and loved it, loved it so much she’d read it non-stop through a red-eye flight to Dubai, forgoing in-flight movies, forgoing sleep.

It was Naomi’s job to inform me that I would not be getting better care at the NIH than I could get at my local neurologist. I adore and admire my local neurologist. But I ask any of you with MS: does your neurologist have time to assess your condition for four hours? The level of care just does not compare. And more importantly, my visit to my local neurologist is designed to help only me. An NIH visit is designed to help multitudes.

Naomi told me I might be eligible to be paid $200 for my spinal tap. (There is usually no payment involved in a clinical trial, just reimbursement for food and travel.) I was open to this change of plans.

After I saw Naomi, I saw Dr. W. The last time I’d seen her, she’d been displeased by how easily she could push against my leg. She’d uttered one syllable, “weak.” I’ve been working  on my leg strength ever since. This visit, I gave her sufficient resistance. But she simply gave me a new area to work on. “You have shitty balance. You can improve that. Practice!” I’d improved my strength. You can bet I’ll improve my balance

Dr. W proposed a change of plans even more extravagant than Naomi’s $200 compensation. She noticed I’d just had a spinal tap the year before. She consulted the timelines of the studies I’m in, and declared I wouldn’t have to have a spinal tap this year, after all. This piece of news was an order of magnitude more exciting than the prospect of a spinal headache, and two hundred bucks. “I am your advocate,” she declared. We fist bumped.

Next came  the auxiliary scales. I performed the same battery of tests I always do—I did worse on some, better on others—all in all, it seemed a wash. Dr. W will be calling me next week when the data is in.

Further updates on this visit will have to wait until tomorrow. I am tired, my legs are crawling with electric pain, and my husband and I are planning to get up early and take the Metro into DC tomorrow to visit a museum.

Thanks for reading!IMG_0049

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Why Do I Always Opt to Join the Trial?

You can always rely on me — to join a clinical trial. If there’s a choice, say, between starting an MS diet and starting a clinical trial of an MS diet, I’ll opt to join the clinical trial. (I still regret that diet trial.)

When Dr. W told me I’d have to stay on an MS drug to be part of the TRAP trial, I didn’t consider dropping the TRAP trial. I went right back on Tecfidera with nary a reservation. I was finished with being flummoxed. My reservations about Tecfidera were suddenly forgotten—like my initial reservations about the TRAP trial.

When I’d first seen the letter from the NIH addressed to me as a candidate for the TRAP trial, I’d thought — no, hoped — they had sent it to the wrong person. Because this was a trial for people with progressive MS. I didn’t have progressive MS. I had the sportier version of MS—relapsing/remitting—and I hadn’t relapsed in years. I was a success story. Wasn’t I?

At that point, I had just joined the Wahls Diet trial. I intended to eat my way out of MS. And of course, since I was doing this dieting through a clinical trial, and not through a cookbook, this meant the outside world, including the NIH, would benefit from the data I’d contribute as I healed myself, one cup of veggies, one sprig of seaweed, at a time.

Well, over one thousand cups of veggies later, I have come to accept that I have progressive MS. This doesn’t mean what I’d thought it meant. Apparently I can still pass as able-bodied. (I got some affirmation just an hour ago, when my husband and I were out walking our dogs and a neighbor made some comment about my power-walking with my trekking poles. She and her husband were genuinely surprised/alarmed when I told them I was using those poles because I have MS.)

The progression of my MS might still be invisible on the outside, but MRIs detect gradually worsening brain atrophy. Lumbar punctures detect the breakdown of the mitochondria in my cells. I detect, in a myriad of subtle ways, that I am moving with greater difficulty through the world.

Current MS medications address one aspect of MS — they are measured in their ability to prevent relapse. They do nothing to address the brain atrophy and cellular damage that accrues over the years. The researchers at the NIH want to address all aspects of MS. The TRAP trial looks at four medications that might work to supplement the treatments that are already out there. Pioglitazone, Montelukast, Hydroxychloroquine, and Losartan have already been FDA approved for other diseases, and may have properties that could assist against MS.

In the future, MS patients may take multiple drugs instead of just one, much as AIDS patients do today. And while I am not jumping up and down for joy at the idea of us MS patients adding more drug burden to our already overtaxed bodies, I am even less willing to add more disease burden to my already overtaxed central nervous system. If I need to take an MS drug to be a part of the TRAP trial, I’m willing to stick with Tecfidera. The drug I’d be paired with, Montelukast, aka Singulair, has been shown to rejuvenate the brains of old rats in clinical trials. This old Lab Rat wants to give it a try. I could use some rejuvenation.

The funny thing is, I don’t have to rejoin the trial to take Montelukast. I could go to my GP, who likes me well enough, complain of a runny nose, and get prescription for Singulair. With the NIH out of the loop, I could skip taking Tecfidera, not to mention all those MRI’s. I could do my own brain hack.

Why don’t I? The same reason I don’t do my own plumbing. I need the best minds I can find to keep me out of deep shit.

In this trial, the researchers are going to see if they can get the same cellular information from tears as they do from spinal fluid. No more lumbar punctures? Now that’s progress—the good kind.

I Quit Tecfidera. Until I Quit Quitting Tecfidera.

I have a long history of quitting. I quit cigarettes decades ago. At least a dozen times. When cigarettes hit the intolerable price of $1.30, I reached my tipping point. I never bought another pack. From what I hear, cigarettes are considerably more expensive in the 21st Century. My being a quitter must have saved me a fortune.

When I reached my tipping point to quit Tecfidera, it had nothing to do with money. Thankfully. My copay was $0. No one should have to quit an MS drug because they can’t afford it.

My quitting Tecfidera had nothing to do with any conviction I can beat MS through exercise and diet (see photo of my Monday morning breakfast: spinach, husband’s grilled swordfish, asparagus, onion, radish.) I’m doing everything I can, but I don’t expect any cosmic reward. As my dad often says: Life isn’t fair. Chances are, Gentle Reader, you breakfasted on something like half a bagel with cream cheese —foods I’ve  forbidden myself from eating—and your immune system merely thanked you for it. My immune system may have thrown a hissy fit over such a meal. Or not. I’ve past the point of taking such a risk.

I quit Tecfidera because I didn’t understand how it worked, or if it worked, or if it would work for me. (Thank you, A., for researching the chemical processes.)  I could tell Tecfidera made my skin furious if I didn’t take an aspirin first. I avoid food that makes the MS monster mad. Why would I take a drug that makes the MS monster mad?

I quit Tecfidera because every time I considered I might quit, I felt at peace. The rest of the time, I felt…flummoxed.

So I told Dr. Z  I quit. I told my husband I quit. I told the drug company I quit. Nobody gave me any guff. Then I called the NIH.

You’ll need some backstory. I’ll be the first to admit I am a terrible blogger. For years, I’ve ignored basic blogging etiquette, such as adding a photo to a post, or including a provision for comments. For a long while, I’d let my domain name lapse. I could never be bothered to comment on MS blogs that I find inane and boring. Or even comment on ones I find fascinating. I dropped out of Facebook, so I no longer pulled in those followers. Gentle Reader, it’s a wonder you made it here at all. You must have a genuine interest my story, and I thank you. Which is why I apologize for having violating a basic norm in storytelling, which is to tell a whole damn story—beginning, middle and end.

A few months ago, I’d had this idea I would take you through one day in the life of an MS patient visiting the NIH for a clinical trial. I created a new category on my blog: “TRAP trial.” I wrote a few posts.  This series got as far as about 9:45 am, EST, in my day of the life in the TRAP trial. And then a cataclysmic event occurred in my actual life with MS—maybe my drug was dropped?—and I posted about how everything was upended. And didn’t look back. I never wrote the post I’d planned about meeting up with the nurses who have literally held my hand through my MS trials. Or the post about meeting the brilliant woman, young enough to be my daughter, who has developed an app that allows me to perform clinical MS tests myself from the comfort of my own home. I never wrote the post that explains how Dr. Bielekova persuaded me to join the TRAP trial in the first place. And I never introduced you to the indomitable Dr. W. This is some shabby storytelling, indeed.

Let me begin to make amends by introducing you to Dr. W. She has quite the reputation. This is a woman who worked her way to the top on the not terribly level playing field of NIH, where, to this day, only 22 percent of tenured research scientists are women.

When my NIH nurse discovered Dr. W would assume my clinical care, the nurse told me I’d been assigned a neurologist who works only when she wants, and only on projects that interest her. That’s pretty badass.

Meeting Dr. W was like witnessing a 60’s era Katharine Hepburn stride into clinic. There was a hint of horse stable residue clinging to her expensive yet practical shoes. Dr. W springs from a Kentucky pedigree, and bonded with me over her knowledge of Cincinnati. Every subsequent time I’ve seen her, she refers effortlessly to minute details of conversations we’d had months before. Either she is a prodigious note taker, or she doesn’t forget a thing. I suspect the latter.

When I called Dr. W to announce I’d quit Tecfidera, the script didn’t run as it had when I’d rehearsed it on all the other players in my various MS spheres.

Once she got over her surprise that I was on Tecfidera in the first place—she’d been favor of Ocrevus—she insisted I get on “some MS drug” and stay on it.  Even Tecfidera would do. It was the only way I could rejoin the TRAP trial.

We weren’t on a FaceTime call, so she couldn’t see my facial expression drop like a hangdog Spenser Tracy after receiving a tongue-lashing from his whip-smart leading lady. While I have already demonstrated I can persuade just about anyone else of the diminishing returns of taking MS drugs after the age of fifty, I didn’t even try to argue with her.

I told Dr. W I would go back on Tecfidera.

I would rather quit quitting Tecfidera than quit the TRAP trial. Barring a new cataclysmic event interrupting my life’s narrative, I promise I will devote the next post to explaining why this Lab Rat thinks it’s worth it to resume Tecfidera and scurry back into the TRAP.

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The TRAP Trial Begins with the Lifting of a Magic Latch (Part 5 of Ms Lab Rat’s Latest NIH Adventure)

At the close of my most recent installment of my chronicle of a Day-In-The-Life of an NIH Lab Rat, I was about to enter the phlebotomist’s cubby.
You notice I then abandoned the narrative for blog posts about light subjects such as breakfast and…biopsies. Needles. I just can’t get around them.
Gentle Reader, I am not so fond of needles. You would think, after over twenty years of self-injecting medications—once a month for Zinbryta, once a week for Avonex, once a day for Copaxone—I would be jaded by now. I am not. I squirm when I see an injection on TV. (For me, the most memorable moment of the very memorable movie Traffic occurred when the daughter of the anti-drug Czar smiles drowsily as she shoots drugs through a needle into her arm. I have yet to smile drowsily while injecting. It’s a goal.)
As I took a seat in the phlebotomist’s chair, I couldn’t help but notice a thank you note strategically posted across from the hot seat. Had I been a strategic blogger, I would have taken a picture of the note so it could later serve as the featured image of this post. But that’s not the person I am, nor the person I want to be. There was a brief period of time when I used to collect experiences for my blog. Once I realized I was collecting experiences instead of experiencing experiences, I backed off. So that’s my excuse for why there is no photo of the thank you note, or even a transcript of it. I can only offer you a paraphrase. The note went something like this:

Dear Mr. So-and-So,
Our son has undergone intolerable challenges. Somehow you managed to make the whole ordeal fun for him, and we can’t thank you enough for being a light in this very dark time.
With gratitude,
Mom and Dad of a Very Sick Vulnerable Boy

This note comforted the hell out of me. And put me on notice that I’d better not be wimpier than the Very Sick Vulnerable Boy.
By this point in my fairly vast experience with a wide variety of phlebotomists, I’ve learned that most are ordinary people, whose needles puncture flesh. But there are a few phlebotomists—a select few—whose needles create the sensation, not of a puncture, but of a lifting of a magic latch. So far, the phlebotomists I’ve encountered at the NIH fall into this latter category of elite magicians.
I did not ask this fellow to tell me more about this note he had on display. I’ve found, the hard way, that it’s best not to get personal with a health care technician when they are about to get to work. One time I asked a nurse, How was your weekend—a
seemingly innocuous question—and tears sprang to her eyes. The next thing I knew, she was telling me how her little boy had been out riding his bicycle right on their block when he got hit by a car. She then connected electrodes to the wrong place on my foot, and I endured 15 minutes of non-therapeutic electric shocks. Served me right.
So no, I did not ask this phlebotomist to tell me more about the little boy in the note. I was rewarded for my reticence. He told me—they all tell me—that I have good veins. And then he magically extracted blood from those veins, without my feeling a puncture, but rather, a lifting of a magic latch.

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We Interrupt this Narrative

I’ve been meaning to construct a nice, orderly narrative of my most recent visit to the NIH, one that didn’t jump around in time too much, but I’m going to interrupt this account at the point right before I meet my phlebotomist—Who wouldn’t want to delay getting pricked?—by announcing I have just now learned I have a new diagnosis—severe osteoporosis. Which I never would have tested for had I not joined this latest NIH study, which recommended a dexa scan.

I can’t afford to get too worked up about this. I’ve got an hour until I leave for my first day of teaching Artist as Reader. I know half my students from previous classes, and they give me great hope for the future. We are going to make art in response to the screenplay of Get Out, my current favorite move, The Sympathizer, my current favorite novel, and Don’t Call Us Dead, my current favorite poetry collection.

Don’t call Ms. Lab Rat dead. Osteoporosis is just another bump in an admittedly bumpy road. If I hadn’t been ordered to take a bone scan, I certainly wouldn’t have. And I wouldn’t have learned a kind of important new feature of my ever changing body. 

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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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Addicted to Trials (Part 1 of Ms. Lab Rat’s Latest NIH Adventure)

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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