Fully Loaded

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My Spinraza journey has been one of highs and lows. I’ve had laughter and joy— but, also some tears and anxiety. It’s been a whirlwind of emotion that has frankly surprised me. If my journey were a story, I’d say that each injection introduced a new plot twist. You know, a plot twist like a long-lost, evil twin brother in a really good telenovela? Or, a sudden beheading on Game of Thrones? Or the content of a press conference at Trump’s White House? Because, in all those examples, where you think the plot is headed is never where it ends up.

Earlier this week, I had my fourth, and final, loading dose of Spinraza. After these initial doses, I will just have to return to Stanford four times a year for a single dose to maintain the level of drug in my body. Like topping off a tank of gas. Only this gas is worth more per ounce than plutonium. Just don’t tell Kim Jong-un about this stuff. Knowing him, he’d probably try to fling a vial of it at Japan.

My dose last month went incredibly smoothly, as I documented here. I had a confident, gladiator doctor that had the needle in the target zone so quickly that I thought he was joking. After all, it ain’t easy to negotiate the long lumbar needle through my spinal rods, even with the live x-ray guidance. So, this time, I figured that world-record speed would be hard to beat.

But, I was wrong. Upon arriving to the radiology department at the Neuroscience Center, I was informed that the A-Team was going to do my injection that morning. I felt a jolt of excitement. I get the same feeling when I get a coupon for 25% off at Bath & Body Works.

When I met the doctor, it wasn’t Mr. Gladiator… Rather, it was like if Dr. Meredith Grey had suddenly developed an undetermined-European accent and appeared at my bedside. Her friendly smile and slightly wavy dark blonde hair were straight from one of my favorite TV shows.

She was calm, capable and prepared. And she had the needle inserted so quickly that I didn’t even feel one damn thing. Like nothing. Not a twinge. Not a zing. Like Robert Redford was to Horse Whisperers, she was to lumbar punctures. She was the Lumbar Whisperer. I think she should put that on her business card…

Doctor. Neuroradiologist. Lumbar Whisperer.

It has a nice ring to it.

It wasn’t long before I was ushered to the recovery area. Feeling so relieved to have the injection complete, I quickly guzzled some water and an entire caffeinated Mountain Dew to ward off any potential spinal headache. (Spinal headaches are a very common side effect of this procedure— and caffeine and hydration can help prevent it.)

It was all going swimmingly… until the nurse returned to take my blood pressure and the numbers too closely resembled the final score of a record-breaking NBA basketball game. The excitement and caffeine had hit my bloodstream like a locomotive— and my blood pressure proved it.

They told me to relax, which is the one thing that is impossible to do when you’re a hypochondriac like me. If you tell me to relax, the exact opposite thing is going to happen— I’m going to panic.

My palms began to get sweaty and I became convinced that I was going to have a stroke and die— taking my expensive plutonium-loaded spinal fluid with me to the grave.

They observed me for over 45 minutes, waiting for the blood pressure to reduce. Which, of course, it didn’t. How could it when I had 4 sets of eyes watching me and telling me to calm down?

It’s no surprise that I began to cry. All the stress from the last few months— the waiting for the Spinraza, qualifying to get it, all the insurance hurdles, going through the discomfort of getting the injections… all of it… it hit me like a wave, pulling me under. I bet Trump gets the same feeling each morning when he wakes up and realizes he’s still president.

Soon after that, the nurse took pity on me and let me go home. My relief was enormous. I don’t remember much of the drive back home to Patterson— I was in a daze of relief, exhaustion and, yes, joy, too.

For you see, I had done it. I had survived my loading doses. I wouldn’t have to do another injection again for 4 months. It seemed like bliss.

Stay tuned, though, for more updates on my progress… I will be chronicling everything here (lucky you!). Most of all, thank you for your support on this journey… it has meant so much.

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Commuters, Gladiators & Me

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After my experience with my last Spinraza injection, I came into Dose #3 like a soldier ready for battle. If there was a potential contingency, I had already thought of it— at least twice. I was like fucking General Dwight D. Eisenhower in advance of the invasion of Normandy. I was mentally and physically prepared. I had taken a mini Xanax and hydrated like an Olympic marathoner. I was ready. Fear me and my Spinraza greatness!!

On the morning of the injection, I woke up at 3:45am— a time when most reasonable folks are asleep. But, if you are President Donald Trump, it’s your favorite time to sit in the dark and send weird messages to your 36 million Twitter followers.

I got dressed, and we ventured out into the pre-dawn morning to make the trek from Patterson to Stanford. We encountered a purplish sunrise and about 765,983 damn commuters clogging the roadways.

I was distracted by my upcoming procedure by contemplating the utter horror all those drivers endure each day on the roads. How do they do it? How do they manage to survive that commute each and every day? Maybe they were the ones that needed the Xanax— not me.

We arrived well in advance of my appointment and managed to snag one of the coveted handicapped spots right in the front of the Neuroscience building. Getting one of those parking spots is like winning the lotto, only way better because you actually have a chance of winning. (Yes, I’m talking about you, feverish Powerball players. Let’s be real — the more millions in the jackpot, the less chance you will win. And spending more money to win isn’t a guarantee, either. Just ask Hillary Clinton.)

For each of my Spinraza injections thus far, I’ve had a different team of doctors performing the procedure. Stanford is a teaching institution, so there’s a rotating group of doctors eager to plunge that needle into my wonky, curvy spine. This time, my team was extra-confident. They strode into the room like Russell Crowe in Gladiator. After examining my scans, one doctor proudly announced, “I’ll get this done in 20 minutes.

My last procedure had taken over 90 minutes. In my mind, I thought, “Bullshit, Turbo. You’ve never met a spine like mine. I’m your damn Kilimanjaro. I’m fucking Mount Everest.

But, I stayed quiet. I didn’t want to squelch his enthusiasm. I also didn’t want to piss him off since he was the one with the really big needle.

I got into position on the table and they began. I listened to their low, confident chatter behind me as I let my mind wander. I thought about food— as I often do, generally. I was hungry since I had to fast for the hours prior to the procedure. I contemplated lunch….. and then I felt a zing of heat down my left leg.

Whoa– what was that?” I called out as my nerves quivered in response.

I’m in,” Dr. Confidence remarked behind me― like a member of the DAR coolly ordering a Cobb Salad at a country club.

My brain stalled for a moment. I looked up at the clock on the wall in front of me… a mere 20 minutes had passed. I had difficulty computing what he had said. I sputtered, “Wait— what?! Are you for real?

Yes. I’ve already begun to collect the spinal fluid before we inject the Spinraza.

Like a Looney Tunes cartoon character, my eyeballs began to bug out of my head, “Holy shit! You weren’t kidding at the beginning, were you?

Nope,” The Radiological Gladiator replied.

Elation flooded my veins. I felt like it had suddenly become Christmas Morning and Santa had brought me a really great present. Like a My Little Pony. Or an Easy Bake Oven. Or a $125,000 injection administered pain-free and in World Record Time. SWEET JESUS, SANTA IS REAL!

I was wheeled out of the fluoroscopy room just a few minutes later, my face wreathed in a smile, while clutching another, empty magic little vial in my fist. VICTORY WAS MINE!

Like Russell Crowe, I wanted to yell out, “My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next!!

I didn’t yell that, of course, because I didn’t want them to think that the Spinraza was making me psychotic.

So, instead, when I returned to the room, I gulped down some water, and a caffeinated Mountain Dew to ward off the spinal headache. Then, I scarfed down a sandwich and sent a flurry of texts to my loved ones— my more-nimble fingers flying across the screen like super-sonic gnats.

Yes… Spinraza works, mIMG_4323y friends!

xoxo

(For more updates and fun, subscribe to my blog…)

Spinraza, Turkey Burgers And The Voices In My Head

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I had my 2nd injection of Spinraza earlier this week, so I’m pleased to report that I’m now worth a cumulative quarter million dollars. The little cells and neurons in my spinal fluid are so high-class that I fear that soon they’ll be too cool to spend time with me anymore. What if they forget their humble origins and do something snobbish— like adopt a British accent or befriend a Kardashian?!

The second injection was a little more painful than the first. Getting a needle through the labyrinth of my spine is no easy task— I’ve got metal rods in there to help with my scoliosis, some bony fusions and twisty vertebra. So, the doctor must slowly and carefully insert the needle, making microscopic adjustments and realignments as he/she goes. It’s like playing the classic board game Operation— one wrong move and the buzzer goes off. But, instead of a buzzer, they’ll hear me yell, “Argh! What the $&@#!

So, yeah, it’s kinda fun.

But, the excellent neuroscience team hit the bulls-eye— even though it took a little longer than I would have liked. I lay on the table, on my left side, for over an hour as they worked their magic. I stared at the wall and tried to ignore the pain in my shoulder from maintaining the position they require for the injection. I tried thinking of things that would distract me— what food I’d order at the restaurant later on… why I seemed to be drooling so much on my hospital-issue pillow… and when would the pumpkin spice lattes finally return to Starbucks this autumn?

As I was approaching the end of my tether, I felt the tears slide in and I began to cry. Not the cute kind of crying, of course, but the wet, snuffly kind. The kind reserved for Hallmark commercials and cheesy movies like The Notebook and Rambo.

But, then, I heard a voice in my head… a teasing, yet urgent voice that was surprisingly insistent, “Come on now… NO PAIN, NO GAIN!” I recognized the booming voice instantly as my late uncle, John. It was comforting to hear his voice and it helped me push through that moment. I’m not a person that generally hears voices (I may have many other medical issues, but that ain’t one of them)… yet, that gravely, stubborn encouragement was just what I needed.

The end result makes all the pain and discomfort worth it, though. At the beginning of my journey, my neurologist told me that our goal was stabilization— to halt the progression of my Spinal Muscular Atrophy. That would be a victory. That would add years to my life. Any gains, even minuscule ones, would be icing on the metaphorical cake (if that cake cost $125,000 a slice).

As I mentioned in my last blog post, I began to see improvements very quickly after my first treatment. In the days since my second, I’ve felt tightening in the muscles of my back, legs and shoulders. I also managed to pick up a hefty turkey burger (something I couldn’t do easily before) and shove it in my mouth like a starving Chris Christie. I was so proud of myself. It didn’t seem to matter that I got meat juice and condiments all over myself— that wasn’t the point. The point is, I ate it without using a fork and a knife. I OWNED that turkey burger. That burger was my bitch. It was awesome. I bet Donald Trump felt the same way about Chris Christie during the election, too.

IMG_4299Anyway, soon I’ll be headed back to Stanford for Dose #3… stay tuned for more Spinraza fun!

xoxo

Two Weeks Later…

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It’s amazing how much can change in two weeks. Wars have been fought and won in a shorter span of time and, if you are a believer, than the entire world was created by the Almighty in a mere 7 days— including, Adam, Eve, snakes, assorted shrubberies, and the Fuji apples you can buy at Savemart for $1.29 a pound.

And if all that wasn’t enough excitement, I also made the front page of the estimable Patterson Irrigator newspaper― instead of my column’s usual spot on page 5, or 7. So, yeah, a lot can change very fast.

Two weeks ago, I had my first injection of Spinraza. (For those of you that haven’t been following my journey, you can read my past writings on this topic HERE.) It wasn’t long after that initial treatment that I first began to feel that magical little $125,000 serum at my work in my spinal fluid— like busy Oompa Loompas toiling at Willy Wonka’s factory over a steaming vat of marshmallow cream.

The night following the injection, I woke up at 2am absolutely starving— like I hadn’t eaten anything for days. If you know me at all, you’d know this is an impossibility. There are few things in this life I love more than food. And if I could think of what those things actually are, I would write them right here.

I spent the next 3 days basically eating everything that wasn’t nailed down— especially things with protein. I was like a mama grizzly bear that hadn’t seen food since she went into hibernation last December. A real grizzly― not the fake ones that Sarah Palin seems to find everywhere she goes.

To give you an example, after already consuming breakfast, lunch and three snacks, one afternoon around 4pm I got hungry again and began casting my eyes around my kitchen. My radar settled upon a pouch of cashew nuts on the counter. For a few minutes, I attempted to open the reusable zippered fastener on the pouch. But, I quickly grew impatient and annoyed when my not-strong-enough fingers couldn’t open the lip. Undeterred, I grabbed my purple Crayola kid scissors (the only kind that I can use without hurting myself) and proceeded to desecrate the thick pouch until I had wormed a two-inch hole into the plastic. As the soothing scent of roasted cashews wafted up to my nose, I knew that victory was at-hand. THE CASHEWS WERE MINE!

This inexplicable hunger, this rabid feeding frenzy, culminated in a fluttering feeling in the muscles of my neck, my upper arms and my right hand. I began to notice that things were just a touch easier to do. My Sonicare toothbrush felt lighter. I was typing faster on my computer. I was able to grab my water bottle just a bit more smoothly. My voice sounded stronger. My respiratory numbers were up. I could text jokes about Mr. Trump to my friends even more swiftly than I had two weeks ago.

Things were happening.

It’s difficult to fathom that the little vial of muscle juice was already working. But, while a great deal of things are “all in my head,” I guarantee than this definitely wasn’t. Just because I could convince 11-year-old me that Santa was real, despite all the evidence to the contrary, this doesn’t mean that I’m imagining that the Spinraza was already helping. While my imagination is incredibly well-honed, it’s not that good.

This week, I head back to Stanford for Dose #2. I never thought I’d be this excited to get another shot into my spine. Never. Just as I thought I’d never live to every meteorologist IN THE WORLD go apeshit over an upcoming solar eclipse.

Seriously, though, this hype is way too much— just like the Twilight movies. Once the solar eclipse is actually done, everyone is going to forget all about it… just like they forgot how they once found Robert Pattinson brooding and charming.

Anyway, please wish me luck for Dose #2.

Who knows what the next two weeks will bring?

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The Magic Little Bottle

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I never imagined that one tiny glass vial could ever consume so much of my time, my thoughts… my efforts. My quest for this magic little bottle—this miracle drug— has been months in the making. But, on a recent July day— a resplendent blue-skied morning— it finally happened.

Spinraza is now real.

For those of you that haven’t been following my journey, you can read my past writings on this topic HERE. But, if you’re one of those people that used Cliff Notes or Spark Notes in school and are actually too lazy to go and read these posts, here’s a recap…

Right before Christmas, the FDA approved the very first treatment for my rare genetic condition— Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA). This progressive neuromuscular disease is the #1 genetic killer of children under two years of age— but there’s a small segment of us that manage to survive into adulthood. There is no cure. Due to a missing gene on my 5th chromosome, I am not able to produce a vital protein for muscle growth and maintenance. Instead, I must rely on alternate genes in my DNA to produce this protein. But, these alternate genes aren’t very reliable or productive— just like dial-up internet, a really stoned teenager, or the entire US Congress.

This revolutionary new medication tweaks my alternate genes, allowing them to produce more protein than before— like when Peter Parker was bit by that weird spider that changed his DNA and turned him into superhero. Don’t worry, though, I won’t be climbing walls or spewing webs from my wrists like Spider-Man. This is a treatment, not a cure. But, gaining just a little strength would make a big difference in my life.

In all honesty, I never thought I’d live to see the day when there was a real treatment for my disability. Just like I never thought I’d live to see an orange-tinted, reality television star become President of the United States.

So, yeah, I guess anything can happen.

Since the FDA approval in December, I’ve been laboring to get this treatment, having to surmount many obstacles. For example, there were tests of all varieties— physical and pulmonary exams, blood tests, genetic screenings, a polygraph test, and a breathalyzer.

Okay, I might have made those last two up.

I also had to contend with the insurance hurdles to get this very-expensive medication covered. At $125,000 per injection, Spinraza is an orphan drug— which means that it is so incredibly specialized that only the few of us with SMA can actually use it. Drugs like these are years in the making, so if only a small number of people can use them, each dose has to be very pricey to recuperate the costs.

Last month, the excellent team at Stanford Neuroscience called that I had been given the “green light” to begin treatment. It was one of the happiest days of my life. Just like the first time I drank a pumpkin spice latte and the day I first got an iPhone.

So, this week, we headed over to Palo Alto for my first lumbar spinal injection of Spinraza. The sky was blue with promise and there was anticipation crackling in the air. It took over an hour for two doctors to carefully maneuver the tiny needle into my spinal fluid— dodging the complexities of my scoliosis (the side effect of my SMA) as they went. But, with the help of live x-ray guidance, they did it.

When the nurse brought out the magic little bottle of Spinraza, I felt tears of joy, not pain, rush into my eyes. And when she finished injecting the vial into my spinal fluid, she said, “Elizabette— it’s in.

Even though I had gone through a lot to get to this moment, I knew in an instant that my journey was really just beginning.

So, stay tuned, folks.

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xoxo

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The DNA Don’t Lie

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It’s been a whirlwind few weeks since the announcement of the FDA approval of Spinraza— the first-ever treatment for Spinal Muscular Atrophy.

Considering I had never heard of Spinraza until a few weeks ago, it’s amazing how fast a new word can enter a person’s vocabulary. It’s like when we were introduced to the expression “hanging chad” during the 2000 Presidential Election. No one had heard of a hanging chad before, and suddenly it became the most important thing in determining how to count votes in Florida— which in turn would decide who would become the President of the United States. It was all anyone could talk about— like that one time when Janet Jackson flashed her boob at the Super Bowl.

In case you are wondering what a “hanging chad” is, it’s what happens when a person voting using a punch-out ballot doesn’t push the little circle all the way out of the paper.

It’s not surprising the 2000 election kerfuffle happened in Florida. Everything weird happens in Florida. Those people are so chronically dehydrated from their ridiculous humidity that they don’t have the strength or clarity of mind to do much at all— let alone punch out a ballot correctly. I know I can’t even remember my own damn name if the temperature climbs too high.

Anyway, it’s rather remarkable that Spinraza, a word I’ve never uttered until recently, I now say at least three or four times a day. That’s nearly the number of times I utter the word f#%$. So, yeah, that’s a lot.

As I’ve documented on this blog, previously, I’ve begun the process to get Spinraza. And, “process” is definitely a way to describe it. They aren’t just giving this stuff away— like it’s a free donut at Krispy Kreme or a cabinet position in the Trump administration. No, they want me to earn it.

Today, I’m one step closer to achieving this goal. To qualify, a big component is having a DNA test on file showing my SMA gene configuration and my number of SMN2 copies. This is required because Spinraza may only work for those who meet certain parameters.

While a DNA test has been the standard way to diagnose SMA in recent years, I had never had this done before. I was diagnosed by muscle biopsy as a toddler, instead. I still have a two-inch white scar on my left thigh as a memento of the occasion. Good times.

Even if I had wanted it, DNA screening wasn’t around when I was diagnosed in the 80s. Yet, we did have lots of other things worthy of note that decade— like Cabbage Patch Kids… the Berlin Wall… and Bill Cosby before we found out he was such a pervert.

But, today, I’m one step closer to achieving my goal. I just got my DNA results and… *drumroll please* … It’s official, I do have Spinal Muscular Atrophy! And 3 copies of the SMN2 gene!

I know that may sound anticlimactic. But, I suppose it’s good to know I just haven’t been faking this for the last 35 years. I really am disabled. Yay, me!

Now that this hurdle has been cleared, I move on to the next step… getting insurance approval. Given the revolutionary nature of this treatment, and the limited folks that can use it, it comes with a hefty price tag— $750,000 for the first year… $375,000 per year, thereafter.

Yes, you read those numbers right. It’s not a typo.

My doctor at Stanford expects insurances to fall into line, but there’s no guarantee. So, keep your fingers crossed for me. I’m gonna need it.
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XOXO