Much has happened in the weeks since I last wrote. I had hoped to share a simple, upbeat travelogue about our wonderful August vacation to Iceland and Norway upon our return a week ago, Sunday. The trip was, indeed, magnificent. But life is not simple, especially with scleroderma. My severe ulcers that I have written about for months took a serious turn for the worse. As I write on Sunday afternoon, I am facing major hand surgery Monday morning. Here is what happened:
For more than three decades, I have been managing digital ulcers on multiple fingers. I have gone through infections requiring IV infusions, more rounds of antibiotics than I can remember, and months — sometimes years — of waiting for ulcers to heal. I have learned how to compensate and find creative solutions for handling daily tasks. I have learned to live with people’s reactions to my oddly shaped, bandaged fingers. But this spring, something went terribly wrong. My ulcers on five fingers formed large scabs, or escars. They were hard and thick and dark; when tapped, they felt like turtle shells.
As I have been documenting in this blog, for the past three months I’ve been trying to find a way to get them to heal. As the escars have receded, part of the natural healing process, I have sought out state-of-the-art wound dressings and consulted with wound specialists, with varying degrees of success. When I didn’t understand, however, was the real risk for the ulcers to work their way down to bone.
The Wednesday night before we were set to leave on our trip, I was changing my dressings as usual. But suddenly, the escar on my right pinky (the ulcer that had been infected a few months ago) lifted up to expose the knuckle bone beneath. I was terrified. We called the hospital’s Wound Center and spoke to a nurse practitioner who was covering for the night. She suggested that unless I started running a fever, it was safe to wait until morning to get medical attention. This was good advice, because the last thing I wanted to do was spend five hours in the ER.
On Thursday, Al came with me to see, first, a nurse practitioner in the Wound Center (no surgeons were on that day), and later in the afternoon, an excellent orthopedic hand surgeon/plastic surgeon. He looked at my pinky with its exposed knuckle bone and gave me the news straight up: because of my scleroderma, options such as skin grafts would not work, and the only solution was amputation.
I was in shock, as was Al. Never in my wildest dreams had I anticipated this path. He said the escars on my other fingers were “classic scleroderma,” and that they were covering dead skin. I do not know if there had ever been any hope for real healing once the damage had been done. I asked him if it was still possible to travel. He said yes, so long as I kept the wound clean, moist and protected, and was on appropriate antibiotics. It would not change the prognosis nor make things worse.
By the time we got home, I had made up my mind to take the risk and go ahead with the trip. Even though it was insured (this time, I had met the deadline for getting travel insurance that would cover us for pre-existing conditions), we had been planning this wonderful trip for months, and I just wanted to go. But then I changed my dressings that evening. Suddenly, the escar on my left index finger began to recede to expose the back of the knuckle. I was in hysterics. How could this be happening? I told Al that I couldn’t imagine traveling now. He said he would go with whatever I decided. He went to sleep, and I went downstairs to sit on the living room couch and try to think.
I emailed a couple of friends for help to sort it out. I realized after a few hours of agonizing that I was channeling my mother, who was a very anxious woman who never took risks. She came to this country from Germany in 1936 at age 14, escaping the trauma of the Holocaust, but never free of what might have been. Her fears of danger kept me from exploring the world when I was young, with the exception of a two-week tour of Europe that my mother’s mother paid for when my sister and I were in college — my grandmother’s way of exposing us to the world that she missed so much.
Facing the inevitability of losing at least one finger and maybe more, I knew that I needed the inspiration of beautiful landscape in order to face what was to come. I wrote an email to the hand surgeon and asked him if the risk of exposed bone was additive with more fingers involved, and if the prognosis would change if we went ahead with the trip. I received a thoughtful email back in the morning that explained that each finger had to be considered independently, and that the risks and prognosis remained the same. I also checked with my ID specialist about antibiotics, and he said that what I had already planned to take with me was appropriate. I told Al that I wanted to go. He gave me a big thumbs-up and a big hug.
And so, we went, first to Reykjavík for two days, and then on to Norway. We spent five days in Bergen, on the southwest coast, home to some of the country’s most famous fjords, then took a scenic 7 1/2 hour train ride to Oslo, stayed overnight, and flew to Tromsø in the Arctic Circle. There we stayed for three days, and then wrapped up our trip in Oslo for our final weekend.
The scenery was everything I’d hoped for and so much more. Iceland is in constant formation, with active volcanoes, geysers, thundering waterfalls and visible tectonic plates. The mountains are sharp, craggy and snowcapped, a visible reminder of the earth’s power to force rock skyward. We saw puffins and glaciers, smelled the sulfur of hot springs, watched Icelandic horses and sheep cropping emerald grass, marveled at moss reclaiming lava fields.
In Norway, we immersed ourselves in beauty, from towering green and rock mountains bordering calm saltwater fjords to the art of Edvard Munch (MOOnk). We drove through the world’s longest tunnel (25 km) with its sapphire blue lighting, stared slack-jawed at thousand-foot waterfalls nearly everywhere we turned, rode the scenic Flam railroad up and down a mountain. Staying in wonderful Air B&B flats, we ate many of our meals at home to save some money (restaurants are very expensive in Norway), but treated ourselves to four exquisite dinners out.
For all this, however, travel was very strenuous for me. It took about two hours in the morning and the same at night to change my dressings. Our supplies included 700 cloth bandages, 32 sheets of silver alginate dressing, a cream I had discovered online that includes hyaluronic acid and is intended for radiation burns, lidocaine gel, Q-tips and more. Along the way, three more ulcers receded to expose bone. It was as if all my ulcers had hit a tipping point within the same week. Sometimes changing the dressings was so painful, it reduced me to tears — and I am not one who cries easily. Al was my rock, so attentive and supportive. He would read to me of Norse mythology as I went through the tedious process of tending to my fingers, help me get dressed, take my arm to make sure I didn’t fall, comfort me when fears overwhelmed me.
Throughout the first week, as my ulcers deteriorated, I agonized over whether I had made the wrong decision. Al said let’s take one day at a time. Even though we often didn’t get out until afternoon, we made the most of each day. New friends in Bergen gave us a grand tour of the fjords and invited us to their home for Shabbat dinner. When I dropped my wallet without realizing it, in the pouring rain as we were getting on a bus, a young man tapped me on the shoulder and returned it to me.
My self-doubts finally dissipated when we reached Tromsø. The idea to go there had been mine, a major challenge with my Reynaud’s. The Gulf Stream keeps temperatures in the 50s Fahrenheit in the summer — not the warmest climate for me, but still an opportunity to get as close as I ever will to the North Pole. Our first full day there, the rain that punctuated our entire trip cleared as we were riding a cable car to the top of a small mountain that overlooked the city, which is on an island. As I walked out on the top of the mountain, with its spectacular view of huge, jagged, snowcapped peaks in the distance, I was suddenly overwhelmed with emotion. I had made it, here to the Arctic Circle, with my aversion to cold and my crazy hands. This was my Everest. In that moment, I regained my courage. I knew I could face what was coming next.
The following day, the sun was bright and the temperatures in the 60s. We had signed up for a five-hour tour of a neighboring island, and with luck, ended up as the only passengers on the trip. Our tour guide, Pedro, who had come from Lisbon to Tromsø in search of the Northern Lights (only visible in late fall and winter), proved to be a wonderful companion and conversationalist. We covered everything from Norwegian geography to European views and fears of the Trump presidency. The highlight of our day was eating lunch on a cream-colored coral sand beach (there is a coral reef in the Arctic — who knew?), talking politics, drinking rice milk hot cocoa and eating delicate Finnish homemade cookies.
As the end of our travels drew near, my apprehension began to mount again. Fortunately, our seven-hour flight back from Gatwick, London, was on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the newest and most advanced jet in the sky. Better humidity, improved air pressure changes and even comfortable seats in economy made it a much easier flight than I had anticipated.
This week, reality hit home hard. We saw the hand surgeon late Monday afternoon, and his assessment was that I would need what’s called a hand “revision” that would involve trimming five of my fingers. His goal was to leave as much length as possible. But, in all probability, my right pinky and left index finger would be reduced to one digit stumps. The other three — left middle finger, right middle finger and right ring finger — would involve trimming exposed bone and leaving open wounds in the hopes of preserving length as skin regenerated. As it turned out, however, his OR schedule was booked through September. He referred me to an experienced colleague with similar credentials, who had an opening on Monday.
We met the second hand surgeon on Thursday. He is meticulous, thoughtful and thorough. With a very sober face, he told me that this would be the first of “many surgeries” because of the complexity of the damage. He described my situation as “serious scleroderma.” He is concerned about healing with my poor circulation and suggested the possibility of having a sympathectomy done at a later point to increase blood flow to my hands. He agreed with the first hand surgeon that I should have hyperbaric chamber treatment in the wound center to help improve oxygenation with my blood and speed healing. On Monday, he will debride all the ulcers, trim back exposed bone, and determine the best way to deal with my two broken knuckles. He will also take pictures and share them on a list-serve for hand surgeons to get more input about next steps.
I was very frightened and distressed after this meeting, even as I feel fortunate to have such an expert taking care of my hands. He has an excellent reputation, especially for follow-through, and is in high demand. The last few days have been an emotional roller coaster ride, softened by love and support from family and good friends. I wax and wane between fear and grief over losing part of five fingers and just wanting to be rid of these painful digits that no longer work.
My surgery is scheduled for first thing Monday morning. By the time you’re reading this, it will all be over. I do not know if I will be up for writing what happened by next week, but I will certainly share the next chapter when I am able. Let the healing begin.
Post-op P.S.: Thank goodness, the procedure went better than expected. My circulation exceeded the hand surgeon’s expectations. Still have all 10 fingers, for now. He put temporary pins in my right pinky and left index finger to stabilize them and buy me some time. He is sharing pictures of my fingers on an international list serve for hand surgeons, so we will have input from the best of the best for next steps. Pain management will be the next challenge, but I am so grateful and relieved to have made it through this procedure. Thank you for sharing my odyssey, and thanks to Al for being my post-op scribe and life’s partner.
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.