15 posts from March, 2015

“ALS is not for sissies.” – PatientsLikeMe member SuperScout shares about her journey with ALS

Posted March 30th, 2015 by

That’s what SuperScout likes to tell people when explaining her personal motto. She was diagnosed in 2009, and in a recent interview, she explained how she takes her life one day, and sometimes one hour, at a time. In her interview, she broke down what goes on during a typical visit to her ALS clinic, and shared how technology has been simultaneously frustrating and extremely helpful. Learn about her journey below.

When did you first experience symptoms of ALS?

In August 2008, I was attending a Girl Scout event. As we recited the Promise, I noticed my fingers weren’t making the sign correctly. Over the next few months, I began to lose the fine motor skills in my right hand. Writing was hard, & I started using my left hand for most things. I thought I had some form of carpal tunnel. I had NO pain, so I wasn’t concerned. In December 2008, I went to my family doctor for my annual check-up. I told him my problems & he sent me for an electroencephalogram (EEG). That began the series of tests that eventually led to my diagnosis in April 2009.

How did you feel after being officially diagnosed? And what was the first thing that went through your mind?

I don’t think I will ever forget that day. I suspected something unusual was going to happen because the technician at my second EEG commented that the neurologist must find my case interesting because normally, it’s difficult to get an appointment with him. He entered the exam room, sat down, and said, “I have bad news for you. You have Lou Gehrig’s Disease.” I was stunned, and asked if it would affect my longevity. He said yes, but couldn’t tell me how much. He asked if I had any questions, but I didn’t because I didn’t know much about it. Sure, I had heard of it, but didn’t know what it would do to me. I went home, and looked on the Internet for information on ALS. It was scary. The first thing through my mind was how it would change my life and that of my family. I was used to doing for others, now they would need to do for me.

You tell people “ALS is not for sissies.” Can you elaborate on that?

A sissy is defined as someone who is timid or cowardly. No one who has ALS can fit that definition. We all know it will shorten our life, and rob us of many functions we once took for granted. I really like the PSA Angela Lansbury did for ALS in 2008. She’s sitting on a stool, and a gun is fired. As the bullet races toward her, she describes what ALS does to the body, and ends by saying “There’s nothing you can do to stop it.” She asks for donations for the ALS Association (ALSA) stating that with this help those with ALS can do this: She rises and avoids the oncoming bullet. We all see the bullet, yet can’t do anything to stop it. Unlike other serious diseases, there are NO options for a treatment that will cure this disease that’s been described as horrific. However, every day we People with ALS (PALS) are fighting the daily battle to stay positive. Sometimes, it’s easy, sometimes, it’s hard. You take it one day at a time, or even just one hour at a time. That makes us BRAVE, and not sissies.

Take us through a typical visit to your ALS clinic – what’s the experience like?

Every 3 months, I visit the ALS clinic at Penn State Hershey Medical Center. Once my weight is checked, I’m taken to an exam room, then the team of specialists each stop in to see me. In addition to the neurologist, I see a respiratory therapist, nurse, ALS representative, MDA representative, speech therapist, dietician, occupational therapist, physical therapist, social worker, & a pastoral care minister. They each make recommendations to help me have the best quality of life with ALS as possible. My family members are asked if they have any needs. Each room has a sign – “Have we answered all your questions?” About 1 week after my visit, I receive in the mail a summary of my visit with their recommendations. Prior to the visit, I also complete a Quality of Life survey, similar to the one on this website. Although lengthy (around 3 1/2 hours), I enjoy my visits because each person makes me feel important and they truly care about me.

How has technology helped you with your communication?

When I began using my Eyegaze Edge, I found it frustrating, but gradually got better at not moving my head and was able to be successful. Now, it is my sole means of communication. Before my caregiver arrives in the morning, I type out for her what I want for my meals, what channels I want to watch on TV, and any special information. My son says I sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher when I talk, so using my device is a necessity if I want to communicate. We even take it to Sunday School, so I can participate in our class discussions. My most favorite thing to do is connect to the internet. Sending emails is easy, and I go on Facebook, play games, read, Skype, shop, and do whatever I’m in the mood for. Once, when the camera broke, I was without it for a few days and I really missed it. I wound up grunting “Yes” or “No” to questions which was frustrating. Using technology to connect to others makes me feel I still have a purpose in life, and I have something worthwhile to contribute.

Finally, what’s the most positive surprise you’ve learned while living with ALS?

The most positive surprise I’ve learned while living with ALS is that I have more people thinking about me, and supporting me with their prayers, than I expected. I learned this during the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. I began to see videos posted on my Facebook timeline of people participating in the Challenge in my honor. It warmed my heart to see them. They featured friends, former work colleagues, and some fellow Girl Scout volunteers. Many said how I’ve inspired them with my smile. It was never my intention to be an inspiration, but just to cope with ALS the best way I knew, with my faith in God and a sense of humor. Due to the Ice Bucket Challenge, the world now knew more about ALS, and money will be used to find a treatment and cure for ALS. I feel hopeful for the first time since my diagnosis.

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Getting to know our Team of Advisors – Deb

Posted March 27th, 2015 by

You’ve been introduced to five members of the PatientsLikeMe Team of Advisors so far: Karla, Emilie, Becky, Lisa and Dana.

This month, meet Deb, a freelance medical writer who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 2009. Learn about her journey and what being a part of the Team of Advisors means to her. 

About Deb (aka ruby1357):
Deb has spent most of her professional life as a freelance medical writer and editor. Over the years, she has worked with many health and medical organizations. Currently she works in cardiac surgery research for a major hospital system in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area. Deb’s primary professional interest has always been patient education. She believes that “knowledge is power”―that clear and accurate information can ease patients’ fear and uncertainty when faced with a serious diagnosis, that anyone is capable of understanding even the most complex research if it is presented appropriately, and that information doesn’t have to be dumbed down for patients to understand it.

Deb was diagnosed with MS in 2009. Her passion is dressage, and she credits her horse, Gwen, and riding as the most important and effective “treatments” for her MS symptoms.

Deb on patient centeredness:
“I feel fortunate that, because of my work, I have been able to see clinical research from the perspective of both the patient and the researcher. I have worked with and for many organizations, researchers, and physicians over the course of my career, and I have found that, ironically, the patients themselves are often invisible in the research process. If patients are thought of as “cases” rather than as real people, and if patients don’t understand what is being done and why, then the research effort has lost what should be its central purpose.

The story of how I came to be diagnosed with MS illustrates some important points that I feel are related to patient centeredness and the work of PatientsLikeMe’s Team of Advisors.

On opening day of show season in 2009, I found for some reason that I couldn’t ride very well. Everything was off, and my body felt very strange. Embarrassingly, that day I received the lowest scores of my riding career! Days later, I found myself in the office of a neurologist, who off-handedly ran down a laundry list of differential diagnoses, ranging from a pinched nerve or Lyme disease (the latter is common among horse people) to Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis. After weeks of anxiety and a multitude of tests, the same doctor casually informed me over the phone that “it looks like you have MS.”

At age 52, I couldn’t believe my ears, especially since my ex-husband had been diagnosed with MS many years before, very early in the course of our marriage. Back then, there wasn’t an MRI machine around every corner. It took 5 years after his first attack for him to be diagnosed. At that time, I was working for a major medical specialty organization, so I went to the library (no one had computers yet) and found everything I could about MS. Then we both started reading. At a time when the official slogan of the MS Society was “MS: The Crippler of Young Adults,” we learned that having MS didn’t mean you would necessarily end up in a wheelchair. The information we gathered reassured us. He went on to lead a totally normal life during the 10 years of our marriage.

I see these two incidents as related in very important ways. Having accurate information about MS kept my ex-husband and me from fear and despair. And the casual manner of the neurologist who gave me the MS diagnosis served as a perfect example of how NOT to interact with patients. Both incidents relate to how important it is for both researchers (who publish their results, which eventually may make it into patient information materials) and clinicians (who should take into account how it feels to be on the other end of the conversation) to keep the “end user”―the patient―at the forefront of everything they do.”

Deb on being part of the Team of Advisors:
“Being a part of the ToA has been a profoundly rewarding experience. I have made friends that I know I will keep once our terms are over. Like my colleagues on the ToA, I am deeply grateful to have the opportunity to be heard, without condescension, as a person experiencing a disease and its effects, and to have an opportunity to have a say in how research is conducted.

PatientsLikeMe has as its mission nothing less than changing how research is conducted, and I am excited and honored to be even a small part of that. There is a long-standing divide between the researchers who conduct clinical trials and the practitioners who provide health care to patients. Too often, patients are lost in the middle. The research/clinical divide has long needed a third party to bridge the gap. That third party is the patients themselves. By starting at this common ground—the patients whose lives are affected by both research and clinical practice—PatientsLikeMe is making important strides in bringing together these traditionally divided camps for a unified purpose: to better the health and quality of life of real people.”

Deb on MS research:
“Like my fellow Advisors and PatientsLikeMe itself, I believe that much can be learned from patients’ experiences, and this information should be used to design research studies. My own experience serves as an example of this.

In the weeks and months after my initial diagnosis, I found that movement was vitally important. MS is, after all, a movement disorder. My fellow horsewomen rallied to my side, lending me their quiet mounts to ride until my symptoms abated and I could safely ride my own high-spirited (to put it politely!) mare again. Those women―and the horses themselves―kept me moving.

When my current neurologist first met me, she told me that, having looked at my MRIs before our visit, she was amazed at how well I was doing. Although I don’t have scientific evidence for it, my belief is that my riding has kept the disease from progressing further than it has.

This is an example of how patients’ experiences can inform research. To date there are maybe a dozen studies on the effects of sustained physical exercise on MS disease progression. There need to be more clinical trials in this area, as well as in other chronic conditions, that are based on patients’ actual experiences. Those experiences―though anecdotal―are a treasure trove of possible study questions for clinical research.”

More about the 2014 Team of Advisors
They’re a group of 14 PatientsLikeMe members who will give feedback on research initiatives and create new standards that will help all researchers understand how to better engage with patients like them. They’ve already met one another in person, and over the next 12 months, will give feedback to our own PatientsLikeMe Research Team. They’ll also be working together to develop and publish a guide that outlines standards for how researchers can meaningfully engage with patients throughout the entire research process.

So where did we find our 2014 Team? We posted an open call for applications in the forums, and were blown away by the response! The Team includes veterans, nurses, social workers, academics and advocates; all living with different conditions.

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