Feb 252016
 
On the left, the way we were in 1996. On the right, with some of my grandchildren and great grandchildren, late last year.

On the left, the way we were in 1996. On the right, with some of my grandchildren and great grandchildren, late last year.

Normally, my “Chronicles of Disability” consists of annual reports on the changes in my health over the previous 12 months. I forgot to post a report for the year 2014, but perhaps it’s just as well because there were very few changes – – just more weakness in general. So now we come to this major milestone. It has been 20 years since I was diagnosed with inclusion body myositis (IBM). This rare muscle wasting disease is described as “slowly progressing”. That may be true one month to the next or even one year to the next. But when the person I was in 1996 is compared to who I am today, the contrast is jaw-dropping.

Twenty years ago I didn’t think there was much wrong with me. Yes I was slowing down in my running, and my golf shots seemed to be getting shorter, and I did fall once in a while, so what? I was 55 years old, just normal aging? I could still hike mountain trails, jog (slowly), show up for work every morning, work around the house, go to parties with my wife, take long driving vacations. Life was very good.

Now, I very nearly meet the criteria of a quadriplegic. I can’t move either of my legs or my left arm. I can only raise my right arm a few inches above my waist. I cannot stand, walk, or transfer without the aid of an overhead lift system and a caregiver. This will probably be the last year that I am able to continue feeding myself, unless the new drug (BYM338) gets released and actually works. My fingers don’t bend and my speech is getting quite weak. This is making my writing avocation more challenging and I may need to give it up within a year or so. Unrelated to my disease, but definitely affecting my life, my wife died of her own rare muscle illness in 2012.

My current home features the ultimate "open floor plan". My wheelchair loves it.

My current home features the ultimate “open floor plan”. My wheelchair loves it.

At the time of my initial diagnosis, we were living in a two-story four-bedroom home overlooking the mountains of southern California and a little slice of the Pacific Ocean. Today I am living in 250 square feet in an assisted living facility. The room is comfortable, the view isn’t bad (mostly of an ancient olive grove), the caregivers are friendly and helpful, and the food is very good. My days are spent doing what writing I can, either for Huntington Manor or for my Life Disabled blog, but that work is getting more difficult every day. So instead I am catching up on a lot of movies and television and doing a little reading. I also like to take my wheelchair out on long jaunts through the countryside and down to the local business district of Poway. Huntington Manor is launching a major renovation of the facility and I have been promised one of the beautiful new rooms that will overlook the garden and the hills beyond. That is enough to keep me motivated to stick around until the project is finished in 2017.

When I first started this blog, and when I wrote “Rolling Back: Through a Life Disabled” I suggested that the newly diagnosed read about my experiences to be properly prepared for what lies ahead. Now with a new treatment on the horizon, it is quite likely they may never have to experience this severe of a decline.

I have reposted many of the pictures and captions from the past 20 years. I think they tell an interesting story about the effects IBM has had on one person’s life. As you’ll see, I have remained generally happy and hopeful throughout that time, but I must admit that my general mood has been declining. Recently, I saw a neurologist who lowered my expectations for the new drug by pointing out that it would not be of any use for the muscles that were already dead and that, in my case, most of the muscles are completely destroyed. The most I can hope for is maintaining the minimal capabilities I have now.

By the way, one of the special pleasures I get these days is when someone purchases my book. It’s available on Amazon — just click on the link on this page — seven dollars for paperback and three dollars for the Kindle edition, or free if you are using Kindle Unlimited.

Mar 042014
 

bookdessert
I was just finishing a follow-up visit at the wound care center, when I mentioned my book to the nurses. One of them asked how much it was and I told her it was $2.99 for the Kindle edition. “Is that too much?” I asked her. “What if it was free?”

“That would make the difference of whether I had dessert with my meal that day,” she said.

“Well in that case, the Kindle edition will be free starting this Thursday for five days.” (One thing I have learned is that it is always important to keep on the good side of your nurses.)

Because I enrolled my book in a program called “Kindle Direct Publishing Select,” I have the option of setting the price for the Kindle edition to “free” for a five day period. They offer this as a way to widen the audience for a book. The downsides are that you lose out on the royalties during this time and you risk getting some unfavorable reviews as people who may not be especially interested in such a narrow topic may feel they didn’t get their “money’s worth.”

I am hoping this promotion will also help expand awareness of inclusion body myositis and myotonic dystrophy. So it is well worth my cost.

If you haven’t want my book yet and if the reason you were holding back was at all related to the cost, please take advantage of this promotion. It starts Thursday, March 6 and ends Monday, March 10. The free book offer is only available for the Kindle edition and not the paperback which will remain available at its regular price of $6.99. (See the link to the left of this post.)

Feb 132014
 

The paperback version of Rolling Back: Through a Life Disabled

The paperback version of Rolling Back: Through a Life Disabled

Rolling Back has been published in paperback and is available on Amazon for $6.99 ($6.64 for Amazon Prime members). There is also the Kindle version that costs $2.99. I have provided links to each of them below.

Writing and publishing Rolling Back as been a personally rewarding experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Several people have urged me to write another, and I will probably try. However I think I’m ready for a change of pace and may attempt a fiction novel next. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

Paperback:

Kindle:

Feb 042014
 

This is the cover for my new book. The art is a slightly modified version of one of my late wife's paintings.

This is the cover for my new book. The art is a slightly modified version of one of my late wife’s paintings.

My book, Rolling Back: Through a Life Disabled, has been published and is available as a Kindle version on Amazon. You don’t need a Kindle to read it, you can read it on any computer or any tablet for smart phone using the free Kindle app. Kindle owners who are Amazon Prime members can borrow it for free.

Rolling Back will be available as a paperback in a few weeks. Right now it is only in the Kindle format, but will be expanded to include other e-readers in three months. The price for the Kindle version is just $2.99. If cost is an issue I hope to be able to offer it free for five days on Amazon. When that happens, I will let everyone know.

Nov 182013
 
Read more about my drinking problem below.

Read more about my drinking problem below.

It is time for my annual update of “Chronicles of Disability.” However rather than simply cover the changes that have happened this year, I have decided to add some new content. This is partially due to my work on a new book I am writing which will tell the story of the journey (or should I say forced march) that my wife and I traveled through the jungles of disability. My own struggle with inclusion body myositis began in 1985, 11 years before I was formally diagnosed, and it continues to this day.

Part of the new content is a gallery of photographs, some new, some from earlier posts on this blog. My goal is to eventually put the entire visual record of my attempts to adapt to inclusion body myositis in one place, organized in chronological order.

This past year has been very difficult. It began with grieving for my wife who lost her battle with myotonic muscular dystrophy October 11, 2012. That grieving process will probably never end although it does change and has become less intrusive on my daily life. During that time I have also experienced the worst decline of physical function of any previous year. Most of that physical loss has been focused on my shoulders, arms and hands. I can no longer hold a Beefeater on the rocks, a Johnny Walker Black with a twist of lemon, a Cadillac Margarita, or even a glass of Petite Syrah. I also can’t hold a glass of water, but that seems to be a minor inconvenience by comparison. Dressing myself is now completely out of the question as is holding a camera or picking anything up from the table, bed or floor. Eating has been reduced to a process resembling a scene from a Monty Python movie. Getting anything from a plate to my mouth involves a slinging motion that frequently sends food flying in unexpected directions.


Now before this pity party gets out of control, I should point out that I continue to find ways to adapt. For example, there is a terrific acrylic beverage cup on Amazon that I use for coffee, whiskey, and wine. It is lightweight, has a handle that fits my hand perfectly and is relatively inexpensive. I can sling it through the air, provided it is only half-full, and generally get it pretty close to my mouth. (There is a slightly larger mug that I use for water.) As to the photography, that problem was solved when I purchased my GoPro and installed the iPhone app to control it. (See an earlier post.) Eating remains an unresolved challenge although I would rather put up with a messy aftermath then resort to being fed. I can only imagine how the pressure to eat quickly and my swallowing problem would combine, with serious consequences no doubt.


Voice recognition continues to get better with each iteration. Now my new iMac with its Mavericks operating system has built-in voice recognition that is almost as good as Dragon Dictate but has the advantage of being launched immediately by simply pushing the function key twice. I still use Dragon Dictate for the longer projects such as this post.

Sep 232013
 

As a disease like inclusion body myositis progresses, it does more than produce the physical changes you expect. It also has a way of taking over your life. It seems that every day I spend more time trying to find solutions to living with IBM than I do actually living. It is like I had just taken the most demanding job imaginable and simply have little time for a personal life.

This may be why I am able to tolerate my current living situation. Even though I am in a very comfortable room with a perfectly large bathroom and am surrounded with just about every assistive device you could think of, it still is not what a normal person would consider ideal. The other residents are nice people, at least the ones who are capable of speaking, but for the most part they are either older than I am by many years or have other issues that prevent forming a personal bond.

About two hours of every day is spent taking care of basic physical needs such as getting up, toileting, bathing, eating, etc. The rest of the time I generally spend at my computer working on the website and blog for Huntington Manor, updating my own blog and my wife’s memorial site, visiting friends on Facebook and posting to the various support groups related to my illness. Every so often I need to tilt my wheelchair back to a horizontal position to help avoid pressure sores and circulation problems and during that time, since I am basically staring at the ceiling or the sky (see video below), I generally focus on meditation. I usually spend one or two hours out of each day looking up information about living arrangements, adaptive equipment, etc., or making phone calls about the same issues. Then there are the doctor visits which usually happen one or two times a week. Even though the appointments themselves are not that long, they involve 8 to 10 miles of wheelchair riding for the round-trips, or even longer bus rides. If there is time left over, my latest Netflix treat awaits.

As I write this, I am not sad or bitter, I am simply amazed by the way I have been so completely taken over by IBM. Up until a year ago, my post-retirement time was more likely to be spent dealing with my wife’s myotonic muscular dystrophy, as it was a disease even more complex and, as we now know, more life-threatening than mine. But that seemed like a worthwhile pursuit and as long as there was hope for making her better, what else would I be doing?

Now here is where this analysis gets a little weird. When I look at the lives other people live, I do not feel envy. if I had to describe what I feel I would say it was puzzlement. Dining out, games, camping, trips to the beach, all the things I can no longer do, I don’t really miss. Somehow I feel like what I am doing is actually entertaining.

My biggest regret about the way I live is that I wish it could be more meaningful. I am sure everyone starts having such feelings as we begin to realize that one of these days will be our last. But I have a unique opportunity since I have almost no obligations other than arranging for the assistance I need to keep me healthy. I keep returning to writing in the hopes that someday I will write something that really has meaning. I am sure that makes me one of about half a billion writers who feel the same yearning.

Unfortunately, making the decsion to “write something meaningful” isn’t enough. I am reminded of the scene in Funny Farm where Chevy Chase is sitting at his typewriter, having left his job in the city to pursue a career as a novelist. He types the title, puts in another sheet of paper, types “Chapter One,” shoves the carriage return (something young writers may not know about) and sits staring at the empty page. For days.

One of the nice things about voice recognition is that an empty screen and listening microphone can’t apply the same pressure. Eventually it will hear some background noise and start typing random words, frequently expletives. For that matter I can just start talking gibberish and Dragon Dictate will not even raise an eyebrow as it spits the words onto the screen.

See what I mean?

A two minute sample of garden meditation.

Feb 192013
 

My wife had myotonic dystrophy. It was the underlying cause of her early death. Although we knew of her condition for the past 7 years, we were unaware just how life-threatening it could be. Unfortunately, her doctors were also ill informed since myotonic dystrophy is not a common illness. I am presenting some information here in the hopes that it could be useful, and even life extending, for others who may have myotonic dystrophy.

Myotonic dystrophy is caused by a defect in a specific area of chromosome 19 called DMPK (dystrophia myotonica-protein kinase).  It is normal for protein sequences to repeat a few times, however when a particular sequence in this region repeats more than 35 times, a person is said to be affected by myotonic dystrophy. This was discovered in the early 1990s and since then, suspected cases can be confirmed by a genetic test. Myotonic dystrophy is an inherited disease. It is passed from parent to child in an autosomal dominant fashion. This means that if one parent has the disease, their offspring each have a 50% chance of also being affected. Moreover, the disease tends to become worse with each successive generation. Thus, if a parent had a mild form of the disease, their child could have a classic or even a congenital form.

Myotonic dystrophy is classified based on the number of times the protein sequence is repeated. Fewer than 35 repeats–normal, no disease indicated. 35 -100 repeats–mildly affected by myotonic dystrophy. (However, their offspring have a 50% chance of developing the illness, possibly in a stronger form.) 100 – 1000 repeats–the person has the classic form of myotonic dystrophy. Beth had 212 repeats and was seriously affected..

Until 1992, myotonic dystrophy was one of many neuromuscular diseases that was difficult to diagnose with certainty. Since that time, the availability of genetic testing means that a person can be determined to either have the disease or not. Unfortunately, having this diagnostic capability for such a short time means that there have been many undiagnosed cases and therefore there are large numbers of people today who may be at risk for the illness and not know it. In my wife’s case, we will never know for certain which of her parents had the disease, although we are fairly certain it must have been her mother. For those with the mild form, they may have a normal life span with little physical symptoms. The most typical symptom would be early-onset cataracts, the possibility of diabetes, and the typical myotonia (the inability to relax one’s grip easily).

Beth wobbling along at the edge of the Grand Canyon in 2004. A year later she would be diagnosed with myotonic dystrophy.

For those with the classic form, there are many symptoms affecting various muscles and organs. These include weakening of muscles in the forearms and hands, calves and feet, shoulders back and face, and diaphragm. Those weaknesses can affect a person’s ability to walk, keep their balance, perform fine motor skills with their hands, and breathe. Men may experience infertility. Women with this form of myotonic dystrophy frequently have difficulty with childbirth. (My wife suffered through many hours of unproductive labor before eventually giving birth via cesarean section to our first child.)

Weakness in the facial muscles can cause a person’s appearance to change rapidly. There can be loss of hair on the front of the scalp, drooping eyelids and an open mouth. These weaknesses can also cause frequent jaw dislocation, and difficulty swallowing.

Cataracts are very common, and an alert ophthalmologist can be the first to raise the possibility of myotonic dystrophy with the patient because the types of cataracts have a distinctive appearance when they are caused by myotonic dystrophy.

There is an increased likelihood of diabetes and cancer among those who have the classic form of myotonic dystrophy. They will also be more likely to have digestive and intestinal issues.

There are numerous hormonal consequences, including reduced sex drive, early infertility, insulin resistance, and thyroid problems. There can be increased chance of gallbladder inflammation, problems with the pancreas, and chronic constipation.

The most common causes of death for those with myotonic dystrophy are respiratory failure and cardiac arrest.  Most articles you will read about myotonic dystrophy recommend yearly EKGs because there is the likelihood that cardiac arrhythmia may develop. What they don’t say, is that there should also be a 24 hour Holter study done from time to time, as this is more likely to catch an arrhythmia that comes and goes. Thanks to having an autopsy performed following my wife’s death, we now know that she had been having episodes of insufficient blood flow to her brain for some time that had not been detected by either the annual EKG or MRIs. The MRIs would have shown more if we could have used contrast medium with her but unfortunately her kidneys had been damaged to the point where contrast medium was not possible. She died when a combination of factors overwhelmed her.

It is especially important that an anesthesiologist know about a patient’s status with myotonic dystrophy as the patient will be at much higher risk of respiratory issues.

Here are some things to look for:

An unusual walking gait where the foot seems to slap down on the ground, preventing the normal flowing motion of a healthy walking motion.  There may also be an increased likelihood of falling.

Early-onset cataracts, especially “Christmas Tree” cataracts on the back of the lens.

Difficulty relaxing ones grasp on an object.

Excessive sleepiness.

Download large format poster.

Important disclaimer: I am not a medical professional and what is on this page should not be considered medical advice. I have read a great deal about my wife’s illness and have attempted to present the information in a more readable fashion here. I am providing you with the links to my sources. You should also know that I’m only covering the mild and classic forms of type I myotonic dystrophy. There is also the congenital form which can affect infants at birth and type II myotonic dystrophy where a different gene is affected and the disease is generally not as severe.

http://mda.org/sites/default/files/In_Focus_MMD.pdf
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myotonic_dystrophy
http://medicine.yale.edu/neurology/divisions/neuromuscular/md.aspx
http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/myotonic-dystrophy

Feb 092013
 

Mike and Beth at a winery in Washington state, 1998

Beth and I visited a winery near Seattle on a 1998 driving trip along the coast to celebrate our 24th anniversary. I had been diagnosed two years earlier and was still getting around using forearm crutches. Beth wouldn't be diagnosed for seven more years.

Over the past several months, I have spent quite a bit of time browsing forums that deal with loss. Loss of a loved one, loss of ability, loss of strength and mobility. It makes me sad to hear of so many people who feel that no longer being able to walk, or no longer having the companionship of a loved one, means that life is no longer worthwhile.

I went from being a low handicap golfer, avid hiker and runner, enthusiastic traveler, to being confined to a wheelchair and now being confined to an 11′ x 15′ room, especially when the weather is too bad to go out for a wheelchair ride. My wife of 38 years died in October, far too young, due to her own rare disabling disease (myotonic muscular dystrophy).

I definitely grieve the loss of my wife and loss of strength and loss of the life I once had. At least once a day that grief will be strong enough to make me stop whatever I’m doing and shed a tear. In fact, during the first couple of months after my wife died, the grief was so intense that it was quite painful physically. Rather than avoid it, I chose to accept that pain, experience it as deeply and fully as possible, and in that way let it help me heal. Years ago, a meditation instructor taught our class how to get rid of a headache. He said when you felt it coming on to focus on the pain as intensely as you could. Try to describe it, determine its focal point, trace it throughout your body. The remarkable thing was that once a person focused intensely on the pain it usually went away. It seems that pain is trying to send us a message and if we can pay attention, it won’t have to shout so loud. So that is Part One of how I deal with grief and loss; I embrace the pain and let it heal. In fact, I pick a fight with it by writing this blog and the new blog I have created celebrating Beth’s life.

Part Two is realizing that my life is about so much more than what I have lost. I have the comfort of feeling surrounded by family, even though many of them live far away. Beyond that, life is so exciting right now due to the advances of technology. My computer provides a window into a world that I could never have imagined when I was growing up. I can use Google Earth Street View and visit nearly any city or countryside in the world just by moving my mouse. One moment I can be “walking” beside the Eiffel Tower, the next I can be riding along the Pacific Coast Highway at Big Sur. Recently I have developed a keen interest in computer programming and have discovered the wonderful online courses offered by Stanford University. In fact I was just watching a lecture (on iTunes) by a Stanford computer professor and marveling at how much I felt like I was right in the room. That prompted me to add this article to my blog.

In a few minutes, the caregiver will deliver my dinner, attach my mobile arm support, place a bib around my neck, and I can enjoy my meal while watching the latest Batman movie on my computer. So yes, my life is populated by loss and grief, but they are joined by new sources of fulfillment. I hope that others in my situation are finding their own joy as we continue this surprising journey.

Jan 292013
 

Two and one half years later and no longer able to paint, I'm trying to learn how to use the iPad and iPhone from the inside out.

I hope those who visit my blog from time to time will pardon my recent lack of activity. Some of the earliest readers may recall my chapter that dealt with rewriting life’s script when things don’t go the way you expected or hoped. Well I am once again needing to tear up the pages, or maybe hit the delete key, and put in some fresh paper (or RAM space).

The recent death of my wife left a big hole in every day and in every concept of my future. Couple that with the recent severe decline of strength in my upper body which deprived me of the joy of painting and I have been in a bit of a bad space lately. I realized that I needed a new challenge, one that relied more on mental gymnastics than the other kind. So I gave myself the improbable task of learning to write applications for the iPhone and iPad. Of course as soon as I got into trying to learn about that, I discovered how little I really knew about programming. So for the past few weeks I have been trying to learn C, C++, and Objective-C, along with the Apple integrated development environment called Xcode.

Fear not, I have not wandered off into some digital wilderness, as I fully intend to use my new skills, once acquired, to develop an app or two related to disability and to assisted living. I also might try to develop something related to the two diseases that I know so well – myotonic muscular dystrophy, which claimed my wife, and inclusion body myositis, which is trying to claim me.

I even might have some fun with an art application. But, first things first, I still have a lot of learning to do. So these days and nights I sit in my room at the assisted-living facility and watch instructional videos and try to do the exercises. It’s sort of like being back in college except I’m not eager to graduate.

Although I can no longer physically produce tools and garments that assist with the life of a disabled person, I can still think about things that might be useful. I am also going to be doing more articles soon about life in an assisted living facility, as it is really quite an adventure.

I am enjoying getting to know more about my late wife's early years.

The new blog site I am creating in memory of my wife, Beth Shirk, is underway. You are welcome to follow its progress.

Mike

Nov 092012
 

BethTimeLine30x20sm

A visual snapshot of Beth's life.

The first time I held Beth’s hand, she looked into my eyes and my heart was stolen. The last time I held Beth’s hand, she closed her eyes and my heart was broken. But the glorious years in between have been more than worth the agony I am feeling now.

The places we went, the love we shared, the friends we made, the children we raised …

Our favorite things to do together were traveling and throwing parties. I always suspected that both were just excuses for a new wardrobe, but as beautiful as she was who could possibly say no?

We would travel by car usually. I liked to drive and she liked to sleep. Once in a while she would wake up long enough to see something along the way. When we returned, Beth would take those visual memories and turn them into incredible works of art. One was Maui jungle, where she managed to distill a week of driving around the island onto a 2″ x 3″ piece of zinc. That image won major awards and the edition of prints sold out.

When I was forced to retire due to my disability, I took up painting as well and we enjoyed our trips even more. We would come home to our studio and commit memories to paint and paper. This was a very happy time. But then I became even more disabled to the point where we could no longer be away from home at night. Beth began losing her eyesight and was diagnosed with her own physically disabling disease.

For a while, we continued to paint, drawing upon the memories of previous journeys. But for the past 2 years, painting simply stopped. Beth couldn’t see well enough and I couldn’t move my hands well enough and the focus of our lives turned to helping each other get by.

And now Beth is gone. But she is still helping me get by. Because she has left me with a lifetime of beautiful memories.

Her loss gives me great pain, but it is a small price to pay for the richness that she has left behind. Beth, I will always love you and I will forever thank you, for having been my wife.