One year ago, today, I had my very first spinal injection of Spinraza— the first-ever FDA approved treatment for my disability, Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA). Life was a lot different one year ago. First of all, I was worth a hell of a lot less money at that point. My spinal fluid didn’t have 6 vials of super-sonic, super-expensive Spinraza floating around inside of it. You know, the way the miniaturized Dennis Quaid floated through Martin Short’s body in the 80s movie, Innerspace? One year ago, I was a body that was decidedly pre-bionic. Dennis Quaid’s tiny spaceship would not fly out of my nose if I sneezed. Now, however, I wouldn’t be surprised if my boogers had diamonds inside. Yes, I’m that pricey now.
As I have shared here previously, it was a long, hard-fought battle to gain access to this drug, and I’m lucky to have a spectacular medical team at Stanford Neuroscience that helped to make this possible. I wish I could say that all adults with SMA have such outstanding advocates for care as I do. But, we still have a long way to go to make this current treatment, and all the upcoming treatments coming down the pharmaceutical pipeline, available and accessible to all those living with my rare, genetic condition.
But, my Spinraza journey didn’t end at the point of that lumbar puncture needle one year ago today. Rather, it really had just begun. Given the complexities of getting the long needle through my crooked, and fused anatomy, each injection since that July day has been a tiny battle of wills. A mental and physical game where I prepare like a seasoned warrior. A soldier that knows that the upcoming battle could be a smooth victory just as easily as it could be a giant shit show. You know, like a Trump/Putin press conference?
However, these hardships (and there have been many!) have been worth it. In the 365 days since that magic vial’s liquid have begun to do their work, I have had measurable improvements. Given that this neuromuscular disability is progressive, even merely slowing or halting the natural deterioration is a victory. To have improvements, like I have seen, is more than I could have hoped to achieve. Especially as an adult with SMA. I had never thought I’d live to see a treatment that could help me. It’s hard to mentally process… to put your brain around. You know, just like it’s hard to process pickle-flavored ice cream, self-driving cars, and why the hell we Americans can’t figure out the metric system.
I look forward to what the future holds for my Spinraza journey, yet, I eagerly anticipate what medical science has in-store for those of us, of all ages, with SMA. I’ve heard that there are more treatments currently in the trial and research phase. Perhaps, one day, I will have additional cause to celebrate.
Until then, if I sneeze, please excuse the diamonds.
For more updates, don’t forget to subscribe to my blog in the sidebar.
Summer is now officially here. For the next three-odd months, we’ll have plenty of time for backyard barbecues, fresh locally-grown produce, and oodles of opportunities to get a sunburn. I am one of the lucky ones that gets burned by simply thinking about the sun. For example, just reading an article in National Geographic about solar radiation is enough for me to get a second-degree burn. I wish this wasn’t just hyperbole.
While my pasty, sensitive skin is a major reason why I dislike the summer, the heat we experience in Patterson is the primary source of my disdain. It gets crazy-hot here. And, for someone in a wheelchair like me, it’s just not pleasant. Frankly, it majorly blows. My black-seated electric wheelchair is like a damn beacon for heat— the summer sizzle zeroes down upon me like a missile. You know, like one of those nuclear warheads that Kim Jong Un promises to get rid of but everyone knows that he never will? Yeah, just like that.
The wheelchair also traps heat—once it enters the perimeter of my seat, it just doesn’t fucking leave. It’s like living in one of those Insta-Pot pressure cookers that everyone has been raving about for months. If I’m in my wheelchair out in 100° weather, it won’t be long before my ass turns into a perfectly-cooked pork tenderloin. I wish this was an exaggeration, too.
Despite all my negativity about this season (of which I have a lot, as you can tell!), there are some redeeming things about this time of year. First of all, I like that cold and flu bugs go into hibernation in the summer. As I’m a germaphobe, this is a big relief. I fear getting sick the same way that some people fear a giant asteroid hitting the Earth at 25,000 miles an hour. And, no, I’m not being dramatic. If you’ve been following my writing at all, you shouldn’t be surprised by this statement. So, YAY to summer! It’s definitely wonderful that at this time of year I don’t have to worry about catching the flu while shopping for laundry detergent. It makes the idea of having clean clothes way more enticing.
While this is a major reason I tolerate the heat of the summer, the biggest redeeming factor of this season? All the yummy local produce that becomes available. We are so fortunate to live in one of the most fertile agricultural regions in the world. Our markets burst with wonderful things to eat. So, take advantage of it. Buy locally-grown produce when you can. Visit farmer’s markets. Enjoy all the things that truly put Patterson, and this region, on the map.
It will make these long summer days all the more tolerable.
So, stay cool, stay healthy, and happy summer!
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.