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.
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.
For more updates, don’t forget to subscribe to my blog in the sidebar!
One year ago, the folks at Biogen and Ionis dropped a festive holiday morsel that created a firestorm in the neuromuscular community. They had marketed and developed the first-ever treatment for Spinal Muscular Atrophy… and the FDA had approved its use for all ages and types of the rare, genetic condition. It was like Santa Claus had dropped a major bag of loot down the chimneys of families and individuals with SMA.
If you’ve been following my blog this past year, you’d know that I am one of the lucky ones blessed with these really fucked up genes. Since I lack copies of the SMN1 gene, my body doesn’t produce enough of a specific protein that allows for muscle growth and maintenance– hence, why I have Spinal Muscular Atrophy. Instead, my body has 3 copies of an alternative gene, called SMN2, which can produce very limited amounts of this essential protein. These backup genes are called ‘backup’ for a reason— they aren’t very good at their job. They work at a slow, meager, and inconsistent rate. Like politicians in Washington D.C.
Yet, these backup genes are why I am currently still alive… and why I didn’t meet St. Peter as a toddler sometime during the Reagan administration. Yet, I am one of the fortunate ones… this shitty, progressive disease has taken many young infants, children, and adults over the years— including my own brother as a baby.
This is why the development of Spinraza (nusinersen) was so revolutionary. Science had finally offered a treatment for what had previously been untreatable. You know those sad, pathetic backup genes I mentioned earlier? Well, Spinraza targets those SMN2 genes and BAM! tricks them into producing more protein. It’s like giving them steroids— only it won’t result in a shrunken penis… or expulsion from the upcoming Winter Olympic Games (yes, I’m talking about you, Russia!).
It’s important to note that Spinraza isn’t a cure. But, when you live your life knowing that with each year that goes by, you’ll get weaker, even the prospect of stability and maintenance of strength is a victory. That could add years to our lives and make everyday just a little easier— you know, just like GPS and the Swiffer Mop.
I began my Spinraza journey soon after the announcement of its FDA approval. Yet, it still took months to navigate all the hurdles to qualify for this treatment. It was a stressful, hopeful time— like the gestation of a baby… or waiting for a poop to come out of your butt after you’ve been constipated. But, in July, the magic day finally came— my very first injection at Stanford Neuroscience.
Very quickly after that first treatment, I began to feel little changes and improvements. Neck and torso muscles tightened… My voice grew louder, more robust… cuss words were easier to shout— I could even trail them together with appropriate adverbs. It was awesome.
My grip and range of motion in my hands improved. And, when I had my follow-up evaluation after my 4 loading doses, the numbers did show that these improvements weren’t just all in my head. (Even though a great many other things are in my head!)
As I’m an adult in my thirties, my results will never be as dramatic as those currently being seen in younger kids and teens. But, as my neuromuscular specialist, the estimable Dr. John W. Day at Stanford, told me, “Our goal with adults like you is to halt progression of the disease. With SMA, that is a victory. Anything above simple stabilization is icing on the cake!”
I head back to Stanford in a few weeks for my first maintenance dose of Spinraza. I feel fortunate to be able to receive this treatment. More fortunate than many realize. After all, there are many, many others with SMA (both here in the US, and around the world) that have not been able to do so.
Given the specialized nature of this treatment, the exhaustive research that went into it, and the limited number of folks with SMA, the price for the drug is very high. The drug companies have to recuperate their expenses and make some kind of profit— otherwise research into rare diseases, like mine, won’t ever happen. And, as we all know, money makes the world go ‘round.
The price tag for the first year’s doses of Spinraza, at $750,000, more closely resembles that of a really large house… or the salary of a mediocre NFL player. (Unlike NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell, who has somehow convinced people to pay him hundreds of millions of dollars for doing nothing more than making Americans spend their time and money on a sport. A game where grown men wear stretchy pants and slam into each other until they get too many concussions and eventually have to retire to eat soup through a straw.)
Anyway, the high price of Spinraza has caused American insurance companies, and international government health organizations, to limit access to the treatment. They are using a variety of parameters to reduce the numbers of eligible recipients— including age, SMA Type, SMN2 gene copy number, and hair color. (Okay, I might have made that last one up.)
But, the more folks they deny, the more money they save.
This has been devastating to families and individuals with Spinal Muscular Atrophy that have been unable to receive Spinraza. To know that this drug exists (the only treatment available), and to be unable to get it, is a mindfuck of epic proportions. And, with each day that goes by, these individuals will get weaker. And some of them will die.
As we mark Spinraza’s anniversary, I am left with a couple final questions…
What is the value of a life? What is the value of a life… like mine?
I don’t know the answers to those questions… and I’m not sure if they should even be answered. But, plenty of bureaucrats seem to be doing that right now.
And many folks with SMA are falling short of the price.
I love everything about the holidays. The music. The food. The carbs. The festive spirit that makes even the dumbest Hallmark movie seem quaint and charming. While I eschew The Hallmark Channel for the other 11 months of the year, for these few weeks, I tolerate the weak plot lines, terrible acting, and the tons of synthetic snow they import from China. I suspend my cynicism and convince myself that this stuff is A-OK— you know, just like Matt Lauer did with his overactive penis.
Anyway, while this season heralds many wonderful things (the extended holiday selection at Starbucks being one of my particular favorites), not everything about this time of year is so great. Yes, I’m talking about all the cold & flu viral cooties that float around faster than Hallmark’s plastic snowflakes. For the average person, this is only a minor annoyance. Perhaps some sniffles here and there, and odd sick day from work. Nothing that Tylenol Cold and a shot of whiskey can’t handle.
But, for someone with spinal muscular atrophy, like me, a minor cold can turn into fucking Armageddon. Like the kind with Bruce Willis and that damn asteroid. Or the kind that wipes out all the dinosaurs on Earth—except for Barney… and Larry King.
So, to call me a germaphobe would be a vast understatement. It would be like calling Einstein merely ‘clever’ or saying that Donald Trump just ‘somewhat likes’ using hairspray.
I am a full-fledged germ freak. If I hear someone cough or sneeze, my ears suddenly morph into the radar of a Navy submarine. I quickly determine the distance between me and the sick person, and if I need to undertake any evasive maneuvers like Sean Connery in The Hunt for Red October. I will burrow into the ocean floor if need be. Don’t think I won’t.
If they’ve done something especially stupid, like cough directly into their own hand (instead of the crook of their elbow), I’ll glare at them maliciously while I catalogue every surface that they touch with their virus-ridden hand.
Yes, I really am that bad.
And, yes, it really is stupid to cough or sneeze into your own hand. You should always cover your face with your arm, instead. Less chance of spreading the virus to others.
Anyway, given the respiratory weakness of those with SMA, it is very difficult for us to keep our lungs clear. It is harder for us to cough. Harder for us to blow our nose. So, the drainage that might only be an annoyance to you, can become dangerous to a person like me. It can settle in our chest and potentially cause serious issues.
If I do get sick, I have to be very diligent. I vigorously use my respiratory devices (BiPAP, nebulizer, and CoughAssist) to prevent any complications. Under the best of circumstances, it can take me at least 10 days to 2 weeks to get over a mild cold. More serious illnesses can knock me out for even longer.
As happy and joyful as the holiday season is for me, it can be difficult, too. To the average person, an invite to a holiday cocktail party is immediately accepted. After all, who doesn’t like eggnog and a free selection of crackers and salami?
But, for me, deciding to attend the party would be a gamble. Like playing Russian Roulette or marrying a Kennedy. As much as I love eggnog (which, I do!), I must weigh that against the fact that at least one or two dipshits will probably attend the party even though they are sick and should stay home. Do I want to risk that they won’t sneeze near the salami? Do they know how to properly wash their hands?? What if they actually try to hug me???
Oh, the horror.
This kind of analysis runs through my head with every holiday invite that I receive. Before accepting anything, I quickly consult my calendar to make sure I have nothing important to do for the following two weeks after the event on the off-chance that some fuckhead gets me sick.
You can imagine why it might be easier for me to sit at home this time of year and watch badly-written Hallmark movies, instead. Fake snowstorms are far more palatable than hacking up part of a lung.
Nonetheless, it also isn’t healthy for a person to hide away in their house like the Unabomber. So, I try to venture out from time to time… armed with plenty of Purell, of course.
But, if I turn down an invite to your holiday event, please don’t take it personally. This doesn’t mean that I don’t like you, or that I hate salami… or eggnog. It just might mean that I’m worried your other guests might be carriers of the bubonic plague or some other horrible disease.
So, yeah… nothing personal.
Happy Holidays to you all!
Earlier this week, I made the journey over to Stanford for my post-Spinraza-loading-doses evaluation. The neuromuscular team wanted to check my progress after beginning treatment. They are closely monitoring every aspect of my condition for their records— and to prove to insurance companies and other doctors around the world that, yes, Spinraza works on adults, too (not just kids). That way the insurance companies can stop being discriminatory, money-grubbing, ageist fuckheads so doctors can do their jobs and TREAT THEIR PATIENTS!
Whew, sorry. I got a little worked up there. Usually, I only get this riled up when Starbucks is out of caramel sauce… or I see motorcycles cutting people off between lanes in traffic… or I have to listen to Donald Trump speaking words together in clusters (i.e. sentences).
Anyway, at the beginning of the entire Spinraza process in February, I had an entire battery of tests. I saw physical therapists, respiratory therapists, occupational therapists— basically every kind of therapist that exists, except for the psychiatric kind. Which was unfortunate, because considering how drawn-out and stressful this whole thing would end up being, perhaps seeing a psychiatrist at the outset wouldn’t have been a bad idea. Maybe then I wouldn’t have needed as much Xanax, Netflix, or chocolate fudge ice cream.
They measured everything that could possibly be measured. The strength of my muscles and lungs. The flexibility of my joints and limbs. My fine motor skills. My ability to do long division. And if I knew the difference between their/they’re/there.
Okay, I might have made those last two up.
But, I think they should have tested that.
Anyway, this week, I had to repeat all those benchmarks again. As I am a high-achiever, obsessive-type, I had begun prepping for these tests at home. If there was going to be a test, I would get a good score. If there was a gold star or a happy face sticker to be earned, I wanted two of each. Maybe three. Yes, I am that person. That person in your high school class that always wanted to earn a higher score than you did.
In the days and weeks leading up to my follow-up evaluation, I did stretches at home, lifted small weights, exercised my hands with a squeeze ball, and did deep breathing. I was determined to score better than last time.
Upon arrival, I was weighed. I discovered that I had gain several pounds since February. While I’d like to think this was muscle weight gain, I suspect it’s more likely due to the extra chocolate fudge ice cream.
One of the last tasks in my first evaluation was to lift a pound weight from my lap to a table. I couldn’t complete the task last time. I couldn’t even move the weight at all. The cuff weight just sat in my lap like a useless lump as I poked at it with my tired fingers.
This failure haunted me. I’m sure Kim Jong Un feels the same way each time one of his rockets crashes into the sea.
So, I worked on this maneuver at home. I found a 16-ounce bag of dried split peas in the pantry and practiced lifting it from my lap to my desk. After a few days, I could do it quite easily. I was ecstatic. On the day of my recent evaluation, this was the test I was ready to tackle. I wanted to OWN it. And, in celebration, I promised myself I’d have a margarita on the rocks— with lime.
Unfortunately, I had to do nearly ALL the other tests first before this one. I showed off my slightly stronger biceps, triceps, my increased grip, and the wider range of motion in my hands. I was working muscles that hadn’t worked this well in a few years.
The downside to all this (you knew this was coming, right?), was that by the time we approached the lap-to-table weight test, I had begun to tire. I was able to lift the weight into the air (which I couldn’t do months ago)… but I didn’t have enough oomph to get it on the table.
I began to panic. I tried again. And again. And forced the physical therapist to stay longer in the exam room so I could try again. I could feel the gold star slipping through my fingertips. I did NOT want my damn rocket to self-destruct over the Sea of Japan. No, no, no.
I knew the physical therapist had other patients to get to and I could tell she was annoyed with my obsession with completing this one particular task. I was like a dog with a bone. I wouldn’t LET. IT. GO. I was like Donald Trump still obsessing over Hillary Clinton. I just couldn’t move on.
But, the physical therapist had had enough. When she left the exam room, I nonetheless shouted after her as the door closed, “If I can do this task on video will you give me the points for the task?!? Will you?!? Will you?!?”
Yeah, I was that person.
It didn’t seem to matter that I went on to ace my pulmonary function test… that each measure of my respiratory ability had improved. I was still obsessing about the goddamn weight test. I wanted those points.
After a short rest, I had my friend start videoing me… I managed to lift a weight from my lap to the table in the exam room. Inside, I cheered… HELL, YEAH! I did it. I had proof. However, the physical therapist was gone by then.
But, if we’ve learned anything about me so far, it’s that I don’t give up easily. Upon leaving the neuromuscular department, the occupational therapist came over to chat. Before we parted ways, I burst out, “oh, and could you please tell Tina that I got a video of me putting the weight from my lap to the table?! Could you?!” I took a breath and added in a desperate rush, “I want those points!”
Yeah, I was that person.
Despite that emotional hiccup, everything else went well. And I was happy with how things had unfolded. The whole evaluation took nearly three hours, though, so I was exhausted by the time we loaded up in the car.
But, on the entire 2+ hour drive home, I thought about the celebratory margarita I’d have later that evening. I had moved that weight from my lap to the table. I had video proof of it, even though it may not have counted. And that’s all that matters, right? That margarita would be mine.
I think I deserved it.
It’s been an intense 9 months. Between qualifying for the nusinersen treatments, waiting to get the ‘greenlight’ to begin injections, and then enduring the hectic schedule of getting my first four loading doses, it’s been a crazy ride. While Hurricane Spinraza was slow to arrive, it gained speed at the end and has packed quite a wallop. A positive, encouraging wallop… but, a wallop just the same.
Perhaps it’s too soon after Harvey, Irma, and Maria to make hurricane metaphors— but, I’m going to do it, anyway. If President Trump can pitch paper towels into a crowd of desperate Puerto Ricans like a carnie at a state fair, I guess anything goes.
Physically, receiving these injections isn’t easy. There’s discomfort, soreness, — and yes, sometimes pain— from the actual treatments themselves. There’s the exhaustion from the long traffic-ridden drives to and from Stanford. It’s a physical challenge. Surprisingly, though, an additional improvement that I noticed after beginning my injections? My residual soreness/pain resolved itself more quickly with each and every treatment. My body felt just a little tougher each time.
Despite the physical challenges, very few people discuss the emotional challenges of this Spinraza journey… especially for those of us that have lived with spinal muscular atrophy all of our lives. So much energy, especially by medical professionals, is focused on our physical health, that our emotional health can be neglected. But, these needs are just as important. The last nine months have taught me that.
Those of us with SMA are expert jugglers. We balance many things in our lives… work/school, family obligations, friends and the management of our care needs— all while keeping track of the pregnant Kardashians. Which is seriously hard work. I keep waiting for one of the reality stars to put up a live pregnancy camera in their house. You know like the zoos do when they have a pregnant female panda? And everyone livestreams the zoo camera online in the days leading up to the birth in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the pink squirming glob that comes out of her panda uterus?
(Think of the ratings, Kris Jenner… just think about it.)
Anyway, we SMAers can handle a lot. It’s challenging to juggle our usual tasks— but, we do it. Because we have to. But, when you add in the giant, heavy ball that is Spinraza, it’s impossible for us to keep all the other stuff in the air without dropping some shit on the floor. This is unfortunate because I literally can’t pick up any of the shit I drop on the floor. I have to wait until someone comes and picks it up for me.
After my last loading dose, I physically and emotionally crashed. I went into hibernation— like one of those mama bears that Sarah Palin rattles on about. For about a week and half, I didn’t want to do ANYTHING. I wanted to drop all my juggling balls and sit in the corner and watch episode after episode of the Gilmore Girls. Because if anyone could fix my problems, it was Lorelei Gilmore.
So, I wallowed. And stewed. And fretted. And took some Xanax.
This went on for a while. But, then it started to fade away. I felt the muscles quivering in my arms— reminding me that I had $500,000 swirling in my spinal fluid. It was time to get to work. I had fucked around for long enough.
I started exercising my arms, wrists and hands— with stretches and small weights. I began lifting things more easily than I had done in a while. While in the car, I held a water bottle to my mouth and drank (without a straw!). I lifted a one-pound bag of dried split peas from my lap to my desk— something I hadn’t been able to do at my physical evaluation at Stanford in February.
Things were happening.
So, now I’m trying to make these things part of my routine. I sit at my laptop (while I’m watching Netflix), and do my weird exercises. I’ve discovered that music isn’t my motivator… but, good o’ streaming TV does the trick!
Just maybe not a live Kardashian cam…
There’s only so much a person can handle.
(Please “follow” my blog for more updates…)