Twenty-six years ago this fall, I got on an airplane and flew to Pittsburgh to see Dr. Virginia Steen, one of the pioneering rheumatologists in the field of scleroderma research. She was kind, thoughtful and clear: I had systemic sclerosis, I was on a risky path, and I needed to start taking d-penicillamine (not to be confused with penicillin), an immunosuppressive medication that was, at the time, one of the main treatment modalities.
But you will never convince me of that. Six months after I started taking it, the wrinkles in my forehead began to reappear. Within a couple of years, the darkened, tight skin on my forearms had receded and my veins once again contoured the backs of my hands.
Most notably, I felt better—as if someone had switched on the light inside my brain that had been dimmed since my symptoms first emerged five years earlier. So much better, in fact, that I travelled back to the University of Pittsburgh and got Dr. Steen’s clearance to taper off the penicillamine, and, if I did okay without it, to try to get pregnant. I did, and I did, and our younger daughter is now 21.
Everyone’s course with this complex, debilitating disease is different. Better treatments have emerged. But I consider myself very lucky. When I saw Dr. Steen the second time, she told me she had believed when we first met that I was headed for a very difficult course. Had I not responded so well to the medication, I imagine I would be living, if still living, with severe disfigurement and many more complications.
I was recently thinking of Dr. Steen (now at Georgetown University Hospital in D.C.) after skimming through an online scleroderma forum. Someone had posted a question about her. I added my two cents’ worth. Many had shared similar, glowing anecdotes. A couple told angry, critical stories of their visits.
So much of dealing with this or any other complicated, chronic illness, depends on finding medical specialists you can trust. I’m fortunate to have had the resources to see Dr. Steen years ago and to live an hour’s drive from Boston Medical Center, with access to some of the best scleroderma specialists in the world. I’ve learned volumes from them and from my local rheumatologist, a man who has been treating me since 1985 and who understands the disease very well, but who also knows and admits the limitations of his own expertise.
In the scleroderma forum discussions, there is a lot of anguish, fear, pain. There are some very knowledgeable people who share good advice about managing the disease and all the information you need to track in order to manage your care. There are also many seeking miracles, people who distrust their physicians and look to fellow travelers for tried-and-true solutions.
Unfortunately, for some, that distrust is well-founded. Scleroderma is rare enough that there are still far too many internists and rheumatologists who aren’t well versed in its many symptoms and ramifications. Some patients get really bad advice and struggle to get an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment. Who else to trust but those who are also going through the same thing?
While some homegrown advice is useful, however, some of it is misguided. When you’re scared, without a solid understanding of the disease, it’s difficult to sort it all out.
As one who has benefited profoundly from expert medical care, I believe it’s essential to get help from knowledgable medical professionals who specialize in scleroderma. This is a select group, but they are worth the time, travel and expense to see. Both the Scleroderma Foundation and the Scleroderma Research Foundation in the U.S. provide resources to find local and regional scleroderma specialists.
There is no miracle cure for scleroderma—not yet. Both foundations are working hard to support research that will eventually lead to that cure. In the meantime, the real miracles, for me, are that I found a team of physicians who have helped me stay as well as I am able, that I have the loving support of my family and friends, and, above all, that my body, for all its malfunctioning, still works as well as it does.
That, and a good night’s sleep, are a lot to be grateful for.
Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.