Some Mondays can exist on their own cosmic plane. An alternate reality where weird stuff happens more frequently than other days of the week. It’s a day for hangovers, short tempers, and trying to get all the things done that you should have done over the weekend — if you hadn’t been rewatching the latest season of The Crown while still wearing your pajamas. By the way, Princess Margaret would have definitely approved of pajama-wearing after 2pm. Her sister, the Queen, however? Not so much.
Earlier this week, I had one of those Mondays. It was the day of my 6th injection of Spinraza and I went into it primed, pumped, and ready. But, the signs presented fairly early on that day that things were gonna be just a little bit weird— like a Kanye West interview.
The drive to Stanford is always arduous— and traffic-ridden. With the number of cars and trucks that are trying to push through the freeways from the Central Valley to the Bay Area, it’s like trying to pass a rump roast through a shower drain.
It always amazes me that so many folks make this long commute on a daily basis. It boggles my mind. I’d have a serious mental breakdown if I had to do that. The kind that would make me unable to enjoy the mythical 4,000 square-foot suburban house that I could maybe afford, but never have time to live in.
On this particular Monday, the traffic, surprisingly, wasn’t too bad— meaning that it was only moderately heinous. You know, like rice cakes or gender reveal parties for unborn babies. It was tolerable, but not something you’d voluntarily go out and do.
Anyway, despite the flowing traffic, the mood of the drivers was decidedly grim. And, frequently, downright hostile. Dozens of horns were honked. Many cars were aggressively passed. And a slew of motorcycles were cutting off cars at each opportunity. There was more tension on that freeway than in the last episode of The Bachelor.
A case of the Mondays was in full-form.
We arrived to the Neuroscience building earlier than expected (shockingly!!), and the nurses took me back to the room to prepare for my lumbar puncture. It wasn’t long before one of the doctors came to go over the last details of the procedure. Given that Stanford is a teaching facility, they work in pairs— an attending (teacher) with a fellow (student). There’s also no way of knowing which doctors will be on duty on a particular day, either.
Having a lumbar puncture is always a tricky business, but when you have complex anatomy, like me, it’s even more precise. I lay on my side and they use a fluoroscopy machine (like an x-ray) to monitor their progress as they move the five-inch needle around my spinal rods and into the small space in my vertebrae to access my spinal fluid— where the Spinraza must be injected. It’s like a playing a game of darts in a really sterile bar— only the target is me, and I’m awake and not a cork board.
Given this complexity, there are lots of factors that can determine how quickly and easily the procedure will go. The experience of the doctor. My position on the table. And, frankly, a good amount of luck.
The fellow (student) worked the needle into position in my spine and all seemed okay… but, the spinal fluid wouldn’t drip out the needle (how you verify that you are actually in the right spot).
Remember when we talked about the Mondays? Yeah, well, it wasn’t finished with me, yet.
The fellow readjusted the needle, back and forth. In and out. Making small centimeter-sized adjustments to try to yield the spinal fluid. But, it WOULDN’T FUCKING COME OUT.
Meanwhile, with each move of the needle, tiny nerve pains were boomeranging around my back and hip. They even tried tilting the table so that gravity might help the fluid to dribble out.
But, no, it didn’t work. Isaac Newton’s Law of Gravity was a piece of shit. I don’t care what they teach us in physics class— it doesn’t always work. Especially in the alternate reality that is a Monday.
After this went on for a while, the attending doctor (the teacher), pushed aside the fellow (the student) and proceeded to give it a go himself. Frankly, if Isaac Newton had been in the procedure room in that moment, the attending doctor might have kicked him in his 17th century balls. A few minutes later, though, he was finally able to get it done. Gravity be damned.
I was so relieved. And so were the sore muscles in my shoulder, and the nerves in my hip and back. I daresay even both doctors were relieved.
About an hour later, I was back in my wheelchair and ready to load up in the car for the ride home. Just as we were opening the doors to my van, another vehicle with a disabled placard began aggressively revving their engine behind us, trying to hurry us into leaving the parking spot so they could take it themselves. It reminded me of all those angry folks on the road from earlier in the morning.
Then, a few seconds later, the driver rudely waved at us— as if hand gestures were like spells from Harry Potter that could magically make me load up into my van, strap me (and my wheelchair) securely inside, all in five seconds.
My friend, Edith, that had accompanied me on the trip, raised an eyebrow as I drove my wheelchair up my van’s ramp, “I think we need to make this car-loading-up thing take much longer than usual. What do you think?”
I grinned, “Oh, yes.”
With the passing of Barbara Bush earlier this week, the news has been awash with memorials of her life and the presidency of her husband, George H.W. Bush— or, as I not-so-secretly call him, “Old Man Bush.” I realize that calling the 41st president by that moniker sounds ageist and mean, but given we had another president with LIKE EXACTLY THE SAME NAME, how else am I to differentiate the two?? I suppose, in some ways, though, it’s better to be “Old Man Bush” than it is “Little Bush” — which is what I called his son.
Anyway, in all honestly, my recollection of the years when George & Barbara Bush lived in the White House are decidedly hazy. I was only around 8 at the time, so anything that wasn’t in the shape of a Lego really didn’t interest me. But, nonetheless, I do have vague flashbacks of Barbara with her shock of white hair and her bright suits the color of a Troll doll’s hair. Seriously, those suits were bright.
I bet she even glowed in the dark.
You know… it’s easy to imagine George and Barbara playing hide-and-seek in the White House. ‘Cause, if anyone were to do it, it would probably be those two lovebirds.
“Bar, ready or not, here I come!” A few minutes of scrambling later, and then you’d hear George exclaim, “Come here, you saucy minx, I can see you glowing all the way from the Lincoln Bedroom!”
Anyway, I do remember Barbara’s literacy programs in my elementary school, but as I was a certifiable bookworm already, Barbara was truly preachin’ to the choir with me. I don’t think it was possible for me to read any more books— after all, I had already made my parents broke by forcing them to buy me the entire series of The Babysitters Club. (I wish I was kidding.)
But, despite my early ambivalence to politics, I do remember one landmark moment during the presidency of Old Man Bush (sorry, I still can’t seem to help myself). It was that moment in 1990 when George signed The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) into law.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that legislation had been a long time in coming. Many disabled activists had endured many trials and hardships to make that moment possible. Even though I was young, I could still feel the importance of that revolutionary document. On the news that day, I saw folks in wheelchairs at the White House sitting next to the president. I had never seen that before. They were people like me. (Although, in all honesty, they were mostly male and super white. At the time, of course, diversity was an unnecessary concept, not an actual reality. You know, like women CEOs and food allergies.)
The ADA would nonetheless go on to shape the civil rights movement for disabled people all over the world. It was a giant leap forward for accessibility, inclusion and equal-access. But, as amazing as the legislation was, it’s still an imperfect document. It has loopholes, exclusions, and falls short in various areas that could further improve the lives of people like me. So, I can say without hesitation that we still have a long way to go. There are still many barriers that must fall.
Despite this, there has been a movement recently to try to erode away some of the protections of the ADA. Earlier this year, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 620, a bill misleadingly named “ADA Education and Reform Act of 2017.” By removing the reasons for businesses to proactively comply with the ADA, H.R. 620 attempts to chip away at the rights of a disabled person to fight for the removal of barriers to access. It makes it more difficult, and nearly impossible in some cases, for an aggrieved disabled person to seek accommodation. Nonetheless, the shitty bill has moved on to the Senate, where it sits right now.
With the passing of Barbara Bush, it’s made me reflect on that moment when her husband first signed the ADA. Often more vocally progressive than her husband, I’m sure that moment in 1990 brought Barbara much pride.
Now, all these years later, we shouldn’t be looking to scale back the ADA, we should be working to expand it. Time marches forward, after all.
Unless you can’t walk. Because then you might not even be able to get in the building.
(Old Man Bush signing the ADA in 1990. Photo via Associated Press)
When you’re disabled like me, technology is interwoven into the very tapestry of our everyday lives. While most folks can’t set aside their addictive iPhones long enough to take a shit, at least those devices aren’t hinges of mobility. Tools of survival.
In order to fully function, our gadgets must be in complete synchronicity… like an orchestra playing well in tune. If one instrument goes awry, the whole concert could be a total flop. Like Lady-Friendly Doritos or Kevin Spacey’s career.
I’m not a novice when it comes to technology fails. Just weeks ago, I grappled with a wheelchair shutdown that, while eventually resolved, led me to have anxiety for nearly a fortnight. I’m glad to have that behind me, but the delicate balance of our disabled, gadget-rich lives always teeters on the edge of the precarious.
This morning I had one of those moments. When the balance shifted decidedly out of my favor. It was an ordinary day and I was doing ordinary things. Drinking my late-morning coffee. Attending to various tasks. When suddenly, the perfect storm happened.
My dominant arm, which I use to support myself, fell out of place on the armrest. This, in turn, caused my chest to topple forward and my neck to get thrust down. Often, I’m able to extract myself from the situation with various wheelchair maneuvers. Like gunning the throttle to thrust my body backwards. Or, shoving my chest up against a table. But, this time it all went spectacularly wrong.
When I attempted to push my chest backward against a high table, my arm slipped further and activated my wheelchair’s tilt seating system so that it lowered and pinned me against the table. Unfortunately, my arm was stuck on the tilt button, keeping it activated and running, even though it was fully lowered. When the tilt is activated, the wheelchair is immovable, meaning the control box was useless. Meaning I couldn’t reverse myself to reach the iPhone that was resting on my lap. Meaning that I couldn’t text or call for help.
I was well and truly fucked.
I began to panic as the seconds ticked by… and the seating tilt motor ground forward in an endless mechanized rhythm. I couldn’t get it to stop. I knew that if it continued for an extended period of time, I could burn out the electronics.
While you might think that I was most concerned about my own current discomfort, no… alas… I was thinking about my wheelchair. And how disastrous it would be if the tilt system went kaput.
The panic grew overwhelming, and my breathing grew labored in the awkward, cramped position I was in.
Although I was currently alone, I knew someone would be popping in within the next hour. But, I didn’t think my panic or my seating system tilt mechanism would last that long.
All sorts of crazy thoughts were accelerating through my head like a runaway locomotive… or those commuter trains that always seem to be derailing in movies starring Denzel Washington.
How long will I have to wait here?
How much would a new tilt cost?
Will the insurance pay for it?
Will it take weeks to be fixed?
What if I panic and die?
What if I panic and die while Donald Trump is still President?!?
I was a righteous mess. I tried to calm myself. Stop the pounding heartbeat I could hear inside of my head.
And then, I remembered it.
My Amazon Echo Dot (similar to the Google Home Mini) was perched 8 feet away. It had been given to me by NMD United, a peer-run non-profit organization that serves adults with neuromuscular disabilities. It’s voice-activated tools are extra helpful to those of us with mobility issues.
It’s always just waiting to do helpful things… like tell me the weather forecast, play me songs by Katy Perry… or… call people for me!
I called out, “Alexa, call someone!”
She replied, “Who do you want to call?”
I began to grow irritated, “I don’t care!”
“Donna Karan is not in your address book.”
I pulled myself together, “Alexa, call 2, 0, 9, 6…..”
After a pause, she asked, “Would you like me to call Daddy Cell?”
“Yes!!!” I exploded.
When the Echo Dot began to ring and I heard my dad’s voice answer, I collapsed against the countertop in relief. I think I even drooled a little.
I’m thankful to say that my dad arrived before any noticeable damage was made to my wheelchair. Although, perhaps time will tell on that front. Luckily, even though it felt like an eternity on my end, I think the entire episode only lasted about 10 minutes. And I’m doing A-OK now.
Technology is a fickle, fickle business. And our hold on it is incredibly tenuous. But, sometimes, when one aspect fails, another may save the day.
Thanks to Alexa.
No one likes tests. Whether they’re in school, at the doctor, or at the DMV— they are generally un-fun. You rarely hear someone yell, “Yay, a test! I’m SO happy.” If a person did say that, you’d probably question their mental stability.
For a lot of folks, tests bring out an anxiety— a stress to perform well, which, ironically, is made harder by the stress itself. It’s a terrible Catch-22.
I have to do well on this test or I’ll never go to college!
I have to pass this exam or I can’t get my license!
Will that marijuana I smoked a month ago show up on this urine test!?
As a worrywart, high-achieving student, I generally would experience some anxiety before tests, especially the big exams— like the AP test, the LSAT, and all those personality tests on the internet. I’d fret for days beforehand, wondering how it would all turn out. Would I score well enough on the LSAT to get into law school?… Would the online test sort me into Hufflepuff or, worse yet, Slytherin House?!
These thoughts would consume me.
It shouldn’t be surprising that when it was time for me to have another evaluation to check my progress on Spinraza, I worried about it. A lot.
While I had felt positive changes, and experienced measurable improvements previously, would it still translate to results this time?
It was a question that loomed over me… like the Hindenburg right before it exploded.
I’m sure reading this, you’re probably thinking, “Girl, calm down. Don’t stress. Just do the best you can.”
I wish it were that simple. Given the high price tag associated with nusinersen treatments, there are many insurances and government agencies that are looking to limit who has access to the drug. They want to put parameters on who can get it and who can’t. And a major factor they are looking at is age.
As an adult in my thirties with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, I am considered old. Not old in the way that Betty White is old, but at least old in a moderate way… like Jane Fonda or Donald Trump.
While there aren’t THAT many of us that have lived this long with SMA, there are still plenty of us adults out there that need access to this drug. So, we have to continue to prove that this treatment works for adults. That it produces results.
That’s a lot of pressure. Especially for something that a person can only do SO much about. I can do stretching, breathing exercises, and increase my protein to help things along, but that’s about it. I mainly have to see if the magical Spinraza droplets do their work.
Leading up to my evaluation at Stanford earlier this week, I was very anxious about it. On the drive over, I listened to the Spinraza mixed CD I had made and tried to gear myself up. It worked pretty well… after all, track #2, Eye of the Tiger, is always a solid choice.
Upon arrival to the Neuroscience Center, I only had time to inhale half of a tuna sandwich before they called me back to begin my evaluation. The next three SOLID hours passed in a blur of respiratory and physical therapists, nurses, research assistants, and stress sweat (good thing I put on extra deodorant!).
I wasn’t finished with one test before another person was hovering nearby to begin the next. I didn’t even have time to eat my homemade graham cracker and peanut butter sandwiches. (And you know how much I love peanut butter!)
The grueling afternoon reached its peak when the physical therapist asked me to open up one of those clear round Ziploc containers with the blue lid. Previously, I hadn’t even been able to attempt this task. Not even close. But, this time, I felt that I might be able to do it. I pulled, groaned, heaved, and nearly cried. But, after five minutes of desperately trying (and nearly doing it), I ran out of steam. I felt defeated. And pissed off. I told the PT, “I’m gonna buy one of these fucking containers and practice this at home. Next time, I will do this.”
Yeah, I’m that kind of person.
While that moment was very disheartening, I’m happy to say that my results showed some improvements. I was able to lift a cup with a weight inside all the way up to my mouth. The strength in my arms and hands increased. And, lastly, but most awesomely, there’s a respiratory test that measures the diaphragm muscle. Before Spinraza, I got a 50. At this evaluation, I got a 72.
By the time all of this was done, I was exhausted. I wanted to curl up in bed with hot chocolate and watch TV forever. All the shows. Even the stupid ones on Bravo… Like The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
Thankfully, I get a little break now. I don’t have to head back to Stanford until next month for dose #6. I’m looking forward to the respite… and the break from all these tests.
Although, if I get bored, I’m sure there is a personality test online I can find. Like… If you were a dog, what breed would you be?…
A border collie. Definitely.
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It’s been a little over a month since my 5th injection (first maintenance dose) of Spinraza. As I was getting over a respiratory virus at the time of the injection, it took a little longer to feel the effects of this latest dose. But, about 10 days ago, I felt a little zing… the burst of feeling when my three SMN2 genes decide to be mini versions of The Hulk— turning from nerdy Mark Ruffalo into a green, CGI shirtless monster.
The muscles in my arms and torso were more responsive and almost… tingly. I often feel the same way if I drink too much red wine— only this time I didn’t have a purple-stained mouth as a memento.
I noticed new abilities. In the winter months, my feet and legs are always cold. So, when I get into bed at night, I have to use a heating pad to warm them up. To stop a person from scalding themselves or setting their bed on fire, my particular heating pad as an “auto-off” feature that activates after about 45 minutes. This is exceedingly annoying. While I’m appreciative of the consideration for my safety, it takes me longer than 45 minutes to warm up. So, I have to press the button on the cord to turn the heating pad back on again.
The past few years, I’ve had a hard time reaching the cord and pressing the button. But, last week, I noticed that I was able to grab the cord more easily, and to press the button more firmly. My icy toes were super stoked by this development.
I also grew hungry again — similar to what I felt at the beginning of my Spinraza journey. I wanted to eat. And I specifically wanted protein. Meat, beans, yogurt, eggs— and oh-so-much peanut butter. I would have slathered peanut butter on a steak if my inner foodie hadn’t cried out in horror, “You aren’t a kookie pregnant sidekick in a romantic comedy! No one wants to see you put Skippy on a filet mignon!”
This burst of energy coincided with the arrival of the Winter Olympics. If you know me at all, you’d know that I’m a die-hard fan of the Olympics. It doesn’t matter if it’s the summer or the winter games, I love it all. I watch it ALL DAY. And this isn’t hyperbole. From dawn until dusk, that’s what I do. My life practically stops. I’m like Donald Trump with his Twitter account. Nothing else of any importance happens in my life.
So, this week, I’ve been glued to the TV. I’m not sure if it’s because of the endless hours staring at the LCD screen while listening to the Olympic music, or all the extra protein grams floating around in my body, but I’ve started having delusional thoughts.
“What is wrong with that figure skater? Landing a quad jump can’t be that hard.”
“Every Norwegian baby comes out of their mother’s uterus wearing tiny skis.”
“I bet with just two or three more years of Spinraza, I could totally do Olympic Curling.”
Now, this doesn’t make any sense. And it has no basis in reality. But, this doesn’t mean that I didn’t think it.
Perhaps it’s a good thing that the Olympics only come around every couple of years. These delusions aren’t good for me. Frankly, if they continue much longer, I might become convinced of something truly crazy. You know, like that North Korea is a magical place where a man named Kim Jong Un gives hot fudge sundaes to everyone that comes to visit.
Unfortunately (but, secretly, amazingly!), my friend Joahn sent me this Olympic scarf two days ago in the mail— which has only fueled my obsession. I wear it around the house while I watch the Olympics and eat hummus. If you look close enough, you might see crumbs on it.
I think I’m a lost cause.
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I really wish this was an article about the government shutdown. It would be a lot more satisfying to spend the next 1200-odd words comparing members of Congress to the small, misshapen toadstools you find in the pond next to a toxic waste dump. I mean, they can’t expect us to praise them for failing to do their actual job, right? Last time I checked, if a person couldn’t demonstrate any real skill or talent, they’d get fired. (*This rule doesn’t apply to Kardashians, or other reality television stars— including Donald Trump.)
No, this isn’t about a government shutdown. Rather, this is about another shutdown of a far more frightening sort. The kind that makes your hair turn white and causes you to question your own mortality.
Yes, it’s a wheelchair shutdown.
I have one of those custom motorized wheelchairs— the kind with oodles of special features designed to maximize my comfort, independence and mobility. This thing has a personalized seating system, a reclining feature, and six tires that allow me to turn in a small enough space to fit at least 4 or 5 Olsen twins.
This is handy so that I can get into smaller areas like a bathroom or a pantry— where I can grab a box of Cheez-Its without waiting for someone to do it for me. Anything that makes it easier for me to grab food to stuff into my face is a huge, valued part of my life.
Anyway, these wheelchairs are designed specifically for each patient. From the dimensions of the seating system to the height off the ground— it’s all perfectly designed to me. In fact, even the NASA-inspired honeycomb seat cushion is created to fit my buttocks. It’s like a designer Gucci purse for my ass.
While this may sound extravagant to some, if you had to spend 12 hours a day sitting in one chair, it had better be amazing. Not some piece of shit you bought at a garage sale.
These specialized chairs are not interchangeable. If something goes wrong with my wheelchair, I’m majorly… well… fucked. I can’t borrow a wheelchair to use until mine gets fixed. There’s no Hertz Rent-A-Car for custom wheelchairs.
I think you can sense where I am going with this, right?
A couple of weeks ago, a fault message appeared on the screen of my joystick— “Right Motor Fault.” I had just gotten into my chair and the morning had been bright with promise. I had a caramel vanilla coffee waiting for me and a whole list of things planned for my day. It was going to be GREAT. The kind of day where I accomplished a lot of paperwork— yet still had time to make a pot of chicken noodle soup and watch two or three episodes of The Crown on Netflix. Yeah, it was supposed to be that kind of day.
But, upon seeing that error message on the screen, my mood immediately plummeted. It went from GREAT DAY to… JESUS, MY LIFE IS OVER.
You see, my chair would not move.
Heart pounding, my mind began to race. I turned off the power, let the wheelchair sit for a moment, and took 3 deep breaths so I wouldn’t hyperventilate. Then, I tried the chair again. This time, the motors activated and moved.
While you may think I was ecstatic, relieved, joyous— I decidedly was not. My relief was measured, cautious— for I knew that a motor fault error was a sign of impending doom. Like a meteor heading to Earth or a Black Friday sale at Best Buy. Someone—somewhere— was going to get screwed over by a 60’ LCD television for $180. And that person was me. It was inevitable.
This was the third set of motors I had installed on my wheelchair— even though the chair is less than seven years old. So, I knew all the signs. The cheap toys in a McDonald’s Happy Meal have a longer shelf life than my shitty motors. You’d think that a manufacturer of a beautifully designed wheelchair could manage to put well-engineered motors on it, too. But, no.
I guess we cripples can’t be choosers.
For the next couple of days, the specter of malfunction hung in the air— I knew the motor error would happen again, it was only a matter of time. So, I did what any organized, thoughtful person would do. I called my local wheelchair company to give them a heads-up that sometime in the next week, or so, my life was going to go down the toilet.
Then, I called my doctor to have him fax a prescription for “motorized wheelchair repair” to the aforementioned wheelchair company. Yes, the prescription really does say that. Who knew that prescriptions weren’t only for antibiotics and Lipitor… or, if you’re Bill Cosby, then Quaaludes?
These repair parts take time to come in, so I knew I needed to get the order in pronto. Stat. ¡Muy rápido!
I also knew that there was no way in hell that my current motors were going to last until their replacements arrived.
And, I was right. A few days later, after sporadic functionality, my chair stopped for good. ‘Right Motor Fault’ had won.
I had to be pushed around in my chair like a giant cart of bottled water at Costco. Or one of those pathetic drivers that runs out of gas and gets stranded on a freeway.
I couldn’t do anything.
My life stopped.
You know the old saying that sailors have a potty mouth? Well, even the shadiest pirate in 1790 had nothing on me at this point. I was a bundle of anxiety and curse words. I couldn’t say one sentence without at least two to three versions of the word ‘fuck’ in it. As a verb, adjective, adverb— I’m not sure there was a part of speech I didn’t use.
Then, once I had exhausted myself, I called the local wheelchair company in tears a couple of times. It wasn’t pretty.
Some old smart British dude once said, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” I think anger and rage also are, too. After a hunt in my garage, we found an old set of motors that had been leaky (but functional). So, we swapped the leaky right motor for my dead one and said a prayer to the Broken Wheelchair Gods.
It worked. And the chair continued to work for another week until the new motors arrived from the shitty motor factory in The-City-Shall-Not-Be-Named, Ohio.
But, that week was still pure torture. I’d get up in the morning, get into the chair, and I’d feel my heart rate go up by about 20 points before turning on the joystick. Each time the motor fault error didn’t appear felt like Christmas morning all over again. Not the Christmas morning of recent years (you know, as a boring adult), but the Christmas morning of childhood— when Santa brings you a big box of Legos or a My Little Pony with glittery, purple hair.
Yes, it really was that good.
Now that this current crisis is behind me, though, it means that I must start thinking about the process of getting a new wheelchair sometime soon. Given how precise and perfect the seat and chair must be, you can understand how I might approach this with dread.
I’m sure I’ll be writing about the process in the coming months… so, stay tuned.
Keep your fingers crossed that these motors don’t die first, though.
At the rate I’m going, it’s not looking promising…