What the…! Yes, really!
It’s finally here! My 5-year post-transplant mark has arrived!! My heart feels like it was yesterday, yet the MS part of me feels like it was decades ago. The taste of creamed corn lingering in my mouth, and Dr. Fedorenko saying “Just breathe…” as my once frozen stem cells were being reintroduced to my body will likely never vacate my memory banks. Seriously, how many MS patients around the world will get to experience this treatment that has saved so many from certain functional disability?! Damn straight, I’ll be remembering it! However, the MS part of my psyche that used to wake up to dread and uncertainty each morning has been gone since I walked out the doors of the stately facility that held me in its healing arms for a month in the spring of 2013.
As fate would have it, I’ve had the privilege of following and offering advice to a drove of patients who have followed since my stay, and, to this day, even though the facility’s program has grown to accommodate the newfound demand, the protocol, the staff, and the experience itself, have remained true to its caring, individualized, safety-minded roots. Ask any Moscow veteran and they will tell you that Dr. Fedorenko always made them feel like they were his only patient. There’s no better gift a doctor can give to his patient during such a tenuous time. The man was born to heal.
Fortunately, 1000s more MSrs have received HSCT in facilities throughout the world since I roamed the halls of Pirogov. I would love to be able to say that more patients have received the treatment because it is now a mainstream option, but that would not be the case. The largest means of public exposure regarding HSCT relies largely upon word of mouth distribution of information from veterans via blogs and social media. Then, of course, there was the 60 Minutes Australia piece that set the MS/HSCT world on fire and caused a ripple effect that continues today. Here in the US, Dr. Burt’s Chicago-based program is making strides, with some patients even having their HSCT covered by medical insurance, but it is still and may never be a first line of defense option in the US.
How I’m Doing Now…
Is my EDSS the same?
My EDSS (Expanded Disability Status Scale), which judges mobility only, is slightly lower (lower is better) than it was before transplant but can and does vary greatly dependant upon how long I’ve been walking, what type of terrain I’m walking on, and whether or not I’m tired or weak from illness. There is no magic switch that is flipped after you leave the hospital. You MUST put in the time for physical therapy! It likely took years for your body to transform into its current state. It’s important to note that physical therapy/exercise could very well be part of your routine for your lifetime. Discontinuing being active and moving your body after you’ve met your initial physical therapy goals, may not be an option if you are going to continue to remain as mobile as you can for as long as you can. And, please don’t tell me you don’t have the time or money. Have you heard of The MS Gym with over 14,000 members? It’s hands down the best free source of MS-specific rehabilitative exercise rooted in neuroplasticity available on the internet. Even 15 minutes a day is better than no minutes a day. Do you want to recover or not?!
Did my symptoms continue to improve?
My symptomatic improvements started to level out at about 3 years. My MS hug, in particular, remains dormant unless I’m fighting an infection of some type, but I used to have it 24/7 for about 4 years, so I’ll take it! My balance is still not 100%, and relies mainly upon the status of my foot drop on any given day, but is much better than before transplant. The foot brace (AFO) that I shed 4 years ago (1 year AFTER transplant) has remained in a storage bin since that time. The dexterity in my right hand is still less than stellar as well as is the strength in that hand and arm. Remember, HSCT doesn’t always “fix” everything. I’m totally cool with that. Are you?
Have I had any setbacks?
Yes. I have had 3 setbacks. My first was 2 years after transplant, and with the guidance of my neurologist and hematologist, I began my revaccination process. I had a tetanus/Diptheria injection and two days later any improvement in my foot drop had waned and I never did regain all of the prior improvement. It’s still better than before transplant, but after not having to use my trekking pole at all for months, it was definitely a blow to my ego. What would people who thought I was “all fixed” think?
My second was shingles, which I’ve had 4 times over the last 5 years. One of those bouts was on my left knee which is my good leg. The nerve damage from that outbreak traveled from my knee to my foot and has caused numbness in both of those areas. Given my history with shingles, my hematologist has recommended that I continue taking acyclovir twice a day, indefinitely. No breakouts since then.
My last and more dramatic setback really had nothing to do with HSCT, but the peripheral effect has definitely hindered my mobility. For two years in a row (2016 & 2017), I suffered from trigeminal neuralgia attacks (yes, I had glimmers of this bad boy before transplant). The necessity to take Gabapentin for this ailment greatly affected my balance and this last bout left me unable to move (literally) for about 3 months. Thank God, 3 months ago, I was finally able to have surgery for what I would consider the most painful experience of my life and I have not had any pain since. BUT, my core and overall strength I lost during that time has me starting all over from scratch with my walking and balance. Pain in my ass? Yes. Will I get over it? Hell, yes!
Have I had Triumphs?
Absolutely! Let’s start with 5 solid years of MRI scans reporting ZERO progression. Yep. That says “triumphant” to me! It’s like my scans have been frozen in time, thank you very much!
The simple act of being able to plan and dream for the future with certainty and without the chains of a progressive disease weighing you down like an anchor on your soul is the greatest triumph of all. It encompasses a large part of what we all hope for when we undergo this out-of-the-box treatment.
My biggest triumph to date took place two weeks ago, when I lived out one of my pre-transplant dreams. You see, I lived in New York City for almost ten years, but had not been back in over 27 years. If you’ve never been there before, it’s what I would consider a “walking” city. A walking city, that in the eyes of somebody with mobility deficits, looks like an obstacle course that a Marine would traverse at boot camp. Transitioning from surface to surface and sometimes within just feet of each other would have been impossible for me over the last 10 years. But, when Dr. Fedorenko’s assistant, Anastasia (aka, the Angel of Pirogov), contacted me to let me know that she was coming to New York and would love to meet me in person, there was no way I was going to say no. I knew this would be a huge test of what I could or could not accomplish independently. I was hesitantly excited. I didn’t want to slow anybody down. I didn’t want to fall in front of thousands of people. I was no longer an able-bodied 27-year-old navigating at the speed of light. I was 53, had mobility issues, and I was going to have to watch my shit or the masses of tourists would trample me like a bull at Pamplona! That never happened, but what a visual. ha ha
The 4.5 hour drive into the city was without incident. Unknowingly, I found a parking garage with an elevator to the street level. Score one for the limpy chick! I had angels watching over me the entire trip and they came in all shapes and sizes. I felt like the entire city knew I was coming back, but I was going to need a little help. The hotel, The Redbury, was very attentive with my bags, had a ramp and minimal stairs. The doorman was quick to show me how to use the “handicap” door opener button. Room service was super fast and scrumptious. The location was convenient to uptown and downtown so it was perfect! The following day, thanks to the opportunity to have a day to myself, I woke early, grabbed my two trekking poles, the secret to my navigational success, and jumped (You know I can’t jump!) in a cab to Soho, my old stomping grounds. Cobblestone streets, I got you. Hopped another cab to Bryant Park, Washington Square Park, Chelsea Market and topped off the night with a trek through Grand Central Station and then to a rooftop lounge that had a steep chrome staircase that looked like they were straight out of an 80s disco. Check, check, check, check, check! I truly was “living the dream”. Not a single trip or fall the entire time! I think it’s important to mention that I couldn’t have made this trip on my own without a very handy piece of carryon luggage with backup bag from the Travelon company that allowed me to roll all of my items around with just one hand. The lower part of the bag seen in the pic below also fits under the typical airplane seat. I used the water bottle pocket to carry my umbrella. Handy, indeed!! With my newfound confidence, I’ve already decided, my next trip will be much longer. I hope you enjoy the pics of the trip below, including a highly-coveted elevator selfie with Anastasia! 😉
Words of Wisdom from an OG of HSCT…
- There are no guarantees or means to predict the amount of symptomatic improvement you may or may not experience post-transplant. If halting the disease, alone, is not enough for you, you might want to look into something else.
- PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE LIVE during your recovery! DO NOT sit around waiting for miracles to happen or for worsening of symptoms or new symptoms to arise. STOP LIVING IN FEAR! Your mindset has huge implications on the cohesiveness of your recovery. Don’t let comparison and impatience become your own worst enemy.
- RECOVERY…Because this is my personal blog, I’m going to use a verbally heavier hand than I do as an admin of the Moscow HSCT Facebook group for this topic related to recovery, so, here goes…QUIT YOUR BITCHING! When you read a million times that your symptoms may get worse for the first 3 to 6 months before they start to improve, WE MEAN IT. When we say you may feel strange sensations that you’ve never felt before like tingling or a muscle twinge, it’s normal, WE MEAN IT. When you read that you may have hot flashes for a year or more, WE MEAN IT. When we encourage you to read the list of commonly known post-transplant symptoms, WE MEAN IT. There’s no need to stress because it’s NORMAL.
What’s Next for Me?
- More traveling! Now that I know I have the tools to safely navigate even the roughest of terrain, I’m going to go grab the world by the tail. Next stop is Colorado in September.
- More living my purpose. I’m convinced I was graced, not cursed with this disease. I’m turning this obstacle into an opportunity to help others. Last year, I received a patent on a mobility device I created that has completely changed the way I live around my home and look forward to being able to use one in public, to travel, and to get back to living a fully engaged, independent life and sharing it with the rest of the world. As you all know, disability has no borders, so I plan on taking it international. All I need is the right company, with the same vision as I have to make it happen. Basically, the premise that being disabled doesn’t have to mean weary and stodgy. You can still be hip, cool active and stylish, but just so happen to be disabled.
- More writing. Yes. I’ve already started a couple of books in my head. Don’t laugh. That’s where the magic happens. Blogging was just my playground to test my ability to share.
- More mindfulness. I recently embraced meditation and it’s been a game-changer for me. I haven’t been able to sit still for 53 years. Who knew?! Thanks, Gabby Bernstein, Rebecca Campbell, and all the other spirit junkies who make this a habit I don’t want to kick…namaste!
- More stepping back. Since last fall I’ve been doing my best to step away from my admin duties on FB, and any news, unless it’s related to weather. Basically, stripping away all the static that life tempts us with that keeps us from living a richer, more peaceful life.
- More dream catching. Thanks to HSCT, I’ve been gifted with a brand new set of dreams. Will it be a book? Will it be speaking? Will I be traveling the world representing the mobility product I’ve created? Maybe all of the above.
Ta ta for now…
All good things must come to an end, and that’s my cue to exit one of my favorite posts in 5 years. I can’t thank you all enough (from over 70 countries) who have followed me on this journey. It’s meant everything to me. I’ll leave you with some silly pics that my daughter took in preparation for this blog post and some wise words to my MS with help from Kesha.
To my MS…
“Cause you brought the flames and you put me through hell
I had to learn how to fight for myself
And we both know all the truth I could tell
I’ll just say this is “I wish you farewell”