I titled one of my previous blogs “Clinic Day and Advocacy” and then only wrote a short paragraph on the clinic. That was not very nice of me, don’t you think? Some of you may never have the need to visit an ALS Clinic, and that would be a good thing, in my opinion.
You probably have read some of my blogs where I have talked about what goes on there. This time I would like to take you through my visit as best as I can. As you may know I had been diagnosed with ALS on April 29, 2016, by a neurologist at Duke’s neurology clinic. It just so happened that the doctor had previously been a resident working with my current doctor whose area of expertise is ALS. It may sound funny, but I believe I thanked him for the diagnosis. You see, there is no test for ALS. I had been running around to all sorts of doctors, physical therapists, and I had even gone back to my acupuncturist for relief.
So to finally have a diagnosis meant the running around was over. I was then referred to the multidisciplinary ALS Clinic at Duke. I did not yet understand the full impact of such a diagnosis. I googled it on the ride home. When I suddenly stopped reading out loud, my husband pulled over and made me tell him what it was that made me stop. It was that one tiny detail – – life expectancy.
I have been a patient at the Duke ALS Clinic since July 5, 2016. At that April visit the doctor forewarned me that it could take up to seven months to get an appointment in the ALS Clinic. I only got in to the clinic so early by calling every other day and getting on the waiting list. My original appointment was September 20! Since then, I have participated in many different types of research, not all involved drugs. The longest drug study that I participated in was a year-long. It was a year full of clinic visits to see the research nurse.
I thought that the drug worked. I even went to open label on the drug which meant I would get it free for life at the end of the study. Then about two months into open label, the drug was pulled. We were told that the study failed. Later I found out that the study failed because too many patients had dropped out of the study which would skew the data and make it meaningless. In order to find a cure or even a treatment, we need more patients to take part in research.
So getting back to the subject, July 31st was my most recent clinic visit. First up was the usual intake where a nurse checks on any changes since my last visit. They always want to know if I have fallen in the last three months and check on all the medications I am currently taking. Used to be they would also weigh me at this time, but since I cannot stand and the roll-on scale does not work for me, it has to be done differently.
Prior to the actual visit, I met with a research assistant regarding the latest research I am taking part in. It is a genetic study. In this new research, I donate blood and answer questions about my family‘s medical history and jobs I have held, where I have lived, and things like that. They also test my cognitive abilities by asking questions to test my memory. I am given groups of numbers up to five digits long and I must repeat them backwards. I had been tested previously to see which form of the disease I had, familial or sporadic. Familial would have meant that I have an inherited form of ALS from which 10 to 20 percent of patients suffer. I have sporadic ALS so it appears that I am taking one for the team.
Since I am now on hospice at home, there are not as many specialists that I need to see at the clinic anymore, but they stop by any way just to be sure. Being on hospice means that the doctor feels that I am in the end stage of the disease and have only six months left to live.
The first person I saw was the respiratory therapist. This time I took the breathing test with a mask. I don’t know if that made a difference in the results, but my forced vital capacity (FVC) fell another 8 points. This is not a good thing. It is difficult for me to expel carbon dioxide. This is an important fact for first responders. It is necessary for them to know that giving an ALS patient full oxygen could kill them.
The physical therapist dropped in but I did not have issues that needed to be addressed. I just try to do my range of motion exercises at home with my aide. I do have neuropathy that kicks in every now and then. Mostly I feel it in my hands. I get a feeling like pins and needles or numbness. I can usually get rid of the feeling by asking someone to massage or rub my hands. I also take medication for the neuropathy pain.
A new development at this visit was that I was seen by a medical student. He checked all my symptoms just like my doctor does. ALS patients are rated on a scale, the ALSFRS. FRS is short for functional rating scale. I rated pretty low at 7. This test measures my muscle strength. Some of the questions ask about my ability to climb stairs, grip a pen and sign my name, ability to dress myself, etc. You get the point. I fail in almost all categories. Then, of course, my doctor comes in to conduct his examination and to answer any questions I or my family might have.
There was a visit from the occupational therapist. In the past she has been very helpful coming up with solutions to problems I have had making things work for me at home. She was also the first person to demonstrate the Hoyer lift to my husband and me. There is not much she can help me with any more because of my limited abilities. But I was very happy to show her the adaptable jumper my friend made for me. She was interested enough to ask for the pattern number and construction information. I was happy to be able to pass along the information if it might help someone else.
The speech therapist, however, has become a VIP in my clinic visits. Even though I have a speech device, the Tobii Dynavox, which I have nicknamed Toby, there is a lot to learn about it. The speech therapist works closely with the IT technician when a PALS has a device. An evaluation by the therapist is necessary if medicare is paying for the speech device. This time around the IT specialist was not available, but I did have questions about other ways to communicate when I don’t have access to Toby. I have made some phrase boards with help from the speech therapist and asked her to demonstrate how to use them. She also came in with an oversized alphabet chart that is a huge help. There are many things you can learn about and get help with if you are lucky enough to go to a multidisciplinary clinic. This is just one example. The huge advantage of the clinic is that you get to see all the specialists in one day at one location and you don’t have to change rooms, they come to you.
I also had blood drawn, blood pressure and oxygen levels checked, and my weight was taken by Hoyer lift. As I mentioned previously, the roll on scale does not work for me. According to the measurements taken that day, I lost 17 pounds. I thought I lost weight because my legs looked thinner, but I never thought it would be that much. I still say that I have enough fat to survive on a deserted island for a long time, but that was before ALS entered my life.
Other people I have seen at clinic in the past are the wheelchair technician and a representative from the ALS Association. This time out I missed the wheelchair tech, but I already had a visit scheduled at his shop for some needed adjustments. The nutritionist was not in the clinic and my weight was taken after the doctor examined me so I don’t know what the verdict will be on my weight loss until I have my telemedicine visit later in the month. The ALS Association sends representatives to clinics to see if they can offer any services to patients or caregivers. The Association supports the ALS Clinic and has knowledge of other resources to help families affected by the disease.
Even though I did not see all the specialists, we managed to be the last ones in the clinic, as usual. The social worker is the last person you see in the clinic. Stacey is the social worker in the clinic and she can work miracles. Nothing slips past her watchful eye. She is known as the quarterback of the clinic. She is the first person to talk to if you are having any problems connected to your condition, insurance forms, or any other needs. She can run interference for you.
This was the first clinic visit my son attended. I have told him before how much time we spend at a regular clinic visit, but I know that he was very happy to be out of there after five hours. This is how you spend your time when you have a progressive, untreatable, and fatal disease.
Some photos courtesy of and copyright by Matthew R. Reis 2018