Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Annual Report 2016

Fifteen years is a long time to have MS, especially one day at a time.

Welcome to my annual post where I take a moment to consider what I’ve gained and lost in the past year, and what changes may await me in the coming one. As you know, I try to strike a balance. I don’t sugarcoat my condition, but neither do I focus only on the negative. And I reserve the right to inject humor no matter how serious the topic.

So, how did 2016 treat me? Could’ve been better. Could’ve been worse.

2016 Negatives:
  • Again this year, the negatives column is all about increased difficulty getting food and drink into my mouth, due to arm and hand weakness. If a year ago I needed assistance with 10% of my bites and sips, now it's 50%.
  • After a sixteen-month personal trial with no benefits observed, I gave up on an experimental MS treatment—Biotin
  • Having some difficulty operating computer mouse and wheelchair controls.
2016 Positives:
  • Physical therapy continued to help me maintain the strength and flexibility in my arms and shoulders.
  • I made great progress on my book throughout the year. One of these days I'm going to have to call it finished. 
  • I voice-automated my home. 
  • Just a couple of days ago, I took delivery of a new, modern, power wheelchair. More on that in upcoming posts. 
  • DEKA, the iBot people, put my picture on the front page of their website
  • Down East Magazine printed an excerpt from my memoir.
  • Bangor Metro Magazine published a nice interview.
  • The Journal Nature mentioned me prominently in an article.
  • My daughter got married, and the wedding was beautiful.
  • Kim's home business took off.
  • Another year above ground – still preferable to the alternative.
2017 Potential Losses (if my disease progression continues, this is what could happen next): 
  • More eating and personal grooming struggles.
  • More difficulty operating computer mouse and wheelchair controls
  • Eventually my bladder is going to stop working, and that will suck. This could be the year, but I’ve been saying that for a few years now.
  • Something I can’t even imagine (the devil I don’t know).
2017 Potential Gains: 
  • More writing success at the blog and elsewhere.
  • Find a publisher for my book or decide to self-publish.
  • Caribbean cruise in February, thanks to Kim's home business.
  • New primary progressive MS drug called Ocrelizumab should be approved in 2017, and I will likely try it, although it's another longshot for me.
  • A few positives I can’t even imagine.
I conduct this thorough review only once each year for a couple of reasons. First, it takes that long for me to determine if certain changes are the result of permanent disease progression or are merely the normal ups and downs from aging, seasonal affective disorder, or my body’s sympathetic response to the menstrual cycles of the various women in my life (apologies to my dedicated readers for recycling that joke from last year, but I couldn't resist).

Second, I only do this once a year because it can be a harrowing process. As I contemplate my losses and gains, I tend to extrapolate – envision what my life will be like down the road if the disease progression continues at this rate. I am concerned for my future health and fearful for my future happiness. But, at this moment, Enjoying the Ride is more than just a clever blog name. It’s the truth.



Wednesday, December 14, 2016

An Excerpt from My Upcoming Memoir

In the picture to the right, I'm the little one, Tom is to the left, Andy is in the middle, and of course my mother…
I am still exploring options, so I don't have a publication date yet, but here's a snippet to tide you over. In this excerpt, I'm five years old and I've been told my mother slipped, fell, and will be in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. 
From Chapter 3 of Enjoying the Ride: Following in My Mother's Tracks 
We scurried through the maze of hallways at Eastern Maine Medical Center, an hour’s drive from our house. A few weeks had passed since Mom’s accident, and my brothers and I were visiting her for the first time. Dad coached us as we walked.
“Don’t cry or look scared. It will upset your mother.”
I kept falling behind the three longer-legged Sturgeons.
“She’s going to look different, but don’t stare.”
I slipped farther back until Dad took pity, stopped my brothers, and waited for me.
“Does everyone understand what I’ve just said?” he asked, looking from boy to boy.
I peeked at my brothers. Yes. The answer was yes. Three heads bobbed up and down.
Dad took us into the room, one at a time. I went last. Everything shone bright white or shiny steel. The room smelled like our kitchen after Mom had mopped the floor, but with the faint odor of pee. The collection of high-tech equipment reminded me of TV shows about space ships. A person lay in the middle of it all, hands folded on belly.
Something wasn't right. Dad had said we would be visiting Mom, but I didn’t see her anywhere.  She had long, beautiful black hair. This person’s head had been shaved, and two shiny steel rods were bolted to the top of the skull. Besides, Mom would be in a wheelchair. Andy had said so.
As if sneaking up on a frog in our backyard, I inched closer.

   The eyes… the nose… her mouth. These are familiar. It’s a woman.

   She wore bright red lipstick—a flowering rosebush in a snowstorm. When those lips broke into the smile I had enjoyed nearly every day of my life, I recognized my mother. 

   She couldn’t turn to look at me. The rods kept her head aimed straight up at the ceiling. “Come here, Mitchy. I won’t bite. How do you like kindergarten?” Mom spoke in her usual, cheerful way. Her eyes soothed; her voice comforted.

Dad must have told her not to cry, too.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Standing Up to MS

The rule of thumb is that full-time users get a new wheelchair every five years. Let me do some quick math…holy shit, it's time!

Think about your level of excitement when you buy a new car, then multiply that by a factor of 100. Now you have some idea how I feel about getting a new, top-of-the-line, power wheelchair.

Here's the chair my insurance company just approved:


It's the Permobil F5 VS, and yes, it is a standing wheelchair. Standing provides not only a functional benefit, but a therapeutic one. The Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA) lists these advantages of a standing chair:
  • Improve functional reach and access to enable participation in Activities of Daily Living (ADLs) (e.g. grooming/hygiene, cooking, toileting, reaching medication)
  • Improve mobility and lower limb function in those with preserved muscle strength in lower limbs
  • Improve range of motion and reduce the risk of contractures
  • Promote vital organ capacity including pulmonary, bowel and bladder function
  • Promote bone health
  • Improve circulation
  • Reduce abnormal muscle tone and spasticity
  • Reduce the occurrence of pressure ulcers
  • Reduce the occurrence of skeletal deformities
  • Provide numerous psychosocial and quality of life benefits
These are not insignificant benefits. In addition to the standing function, I'll get full recline to a sleeping position, and a 14 inch rise so that I can sit at high-top tables and reach the top shelves at home. In this case, size matters (I only have 8 inches rise now). There are too many other features for me to list here. In the wheelchair world, technology leaps forward over any five-year period.

This doesn't mean I've given up on the next generation of iBot wheelchair. I'm still very interested in where that product goes, but I don't have enough information to wait at this point. Speaking of the iBot, though, if you go to the front page of the new DEKA website, you might see a guy you know modeling his iBot.

I have so many people to thank for helping me secure this new wheelchair. I'll do that in a future blog post. If all goes well, I should get my Permobil by Christmas or soon afterward. What a present!

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

I'm Interviewed for the Journal Nature

Here is a link to the article on primary progressive MS, where I am mentioned in the opening and closing paragraphs. I'm pleased that the author doesn't sugarcoat the outlook for people like me.

Here is a link to the larger MS supplement, which includes six other articles —a must read for anyone affected by MS.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Neighborhood Watch

 

As a full-time wheelchair user, and someone who no longer works, I spend the better part of each day indoors, by myself. It’s not so bad, however, because I live in a glass house.

Two sides of my living room are nothing but windows—an observatory of sorts. When my eyes are not glued to my computer screen writing, reading, corresponding, researching, or watching Netflix, I’m gazing out my windows, and I love what I see.

Wildlife

A couple of days ago, a flock of small, genetically identical, dark brown birds with white spots descended upon my lawn. Probably 200 of them. I suppose half were male and the other half female, but they all looked the same to me (is that racism, sexism, speciesism?). I didn’t recognize their classification, and I couldn’t find it on the internet. They moved about independently, randomly, at a frantic pace, feeding on invisible morsels between my blades of grass. Everything in their world occurred at hyper-speeds, a blur to our human senses.

Each time one bird violated the personal space of another, a brief confrontation ensued. Wings flapped, and some unknowable set of rules determined the winner. The victor held his ground while the vanquished was excommunicated to another part of the lawn.

Every so often, however, some outside force, something they saw or something they heard, caused every member of the flock to abandon their self-interests. They stopped feeding and squabbling, oriented themselves all in the same direction, and took flight like mindless cogs in a larger machine. They so loved the morsels in my grass, however, that after a few minutes they flittering back and once again filled the space with a buzz of random, independent activity, until the next common danger united them in flight. 

There are few analogues for this behavior in the human world. Once people start acting independently, we are loath to come together for the common good without first engaging in considerable debate, arm-twisting, and deal making. Yet here we sit at the top of the food chain…for now.

But I digress.

People Watching

Sitting in my wheelchair, peering out my windows, I’m also treated to some top-notch people watching. My neighbors Sue, Susan, and Kri walk their dogs (Jake, Rocko, and Sadie) several times a day. It’s not only dog walkers, though. All sorts of people wander down our street. Sometimes I recognize them from the larger neighborhood. Most of the time I don’t. They come in all sizes and shapes: young and pretty, old and weathered, athletic, disabled, and everything in between. Why this parade by my window? There’s an attraction at the end of my street—the Atlantic Ocean.

Scenery

Animals and people are fascinating, but unreliable. The scenery outside my house—it never disappoints. The six-foot-tall window immediately to the right of my computer screen may as well be a work of art, a painting. The lower two feet of this masterpiece depicts my front yard, the street, and my neighbor’s front yard. This is where the strange flock of birds did their thing. This is where my neighbors walk their dogs and take their constitutionals. This is where the snow piles up.


If I raise my head just slightly, I take in the next foot or so of this artwork—the ocean at the end of my street. Our corner of the Atlantic is a shallow cove, so much so that at low tide it empties and becomes a mud flat, which has a certain appeal, but it’s not as visually pleasing as the cove at high tide. Something about a basin full of water, it calls to me. When I know visitors are coming to my house, I hope for a higher than average tide. I’m pleased with the result about half the time.

Still higher in the portrait, the next foot captures the opposite shore of the cove. A well-maintained walking/biking path runs along that piece of coastline. As I watch folks make their way along this Greenbelt, I am quite certain that nobody is using it because they must, but rather because they choose to. People follow this path for the journey itself, not because they need to be anywhere in particular along its route.


And finally, the upper two feet of my window painting is filled with sky. It’s almost never the same day-to-day or minute-to-minute. I face east, so I’m treated to sunrises and often moon rises. Even though the sun sets on the opposite side of my property, it blankets my view with a soothing glow on most evenings.

So yes, I am stuck in the house, especially in the winter, but I have plenty to watch in my neighborhood, and for this I am grateful. Everyone should be so lucky.



Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Have I Betrayed My Childhood Self?

I can still remember the questions I pondered as a child:

  • What will my job be when I grow up?
  • Who will I marry? (Will she be hot?)
  • Where will I live?
  • How many kids will I have?
  • Will I grow old?  How old?
I also recall some of the promises I made to myself as a child:
  • I will become rich.
  • I will become famous.
  • Nobody will ever tell me what to do.
I didn’t keep any of those promises.

Until I left the rat race a few years ago, I sometimes felt guilty about coming up short. Today I understand that I am not beholden to my childhood self. These dreams served a developmental purpose (in order to become an adult, one must first envision it), but I shouldn't have considered them a blueprint for life. Our childhood ambitions are misguided because young people cannot grasp life’s complexities, and don’t appreciate its subtleties. The degree of wisdom necessary to do so is acquired later in life, if ever.

In retrospect, these are the questions I should have pondered as a child:
  • Will I be lucky enough to find real love? (I was)
  • Will I have my health? (I did for the first 38 years)
  • Will I lead a happy and contented life? (I have)
  • Will I have a fulfilling career? (not really, but it paid the bills)
  • Will I be a good person? (with some exceptions, I think I have been)
And these are the promises I should have made to myself when I was a kid:
  • I will not presume that life owes me anything; any positive experiences beyond being born are simply frosting on the cake.
  • I will be a lifelong learner, a rational and open-minded thinker, and a candid, yet polite, communicator.
  • I will not waste precious resources on jealousy, hatred, or revenge.
  • I will try to do my small part to improve the human condition.
  • I will not blindly adhere to hollow societal norms.   
  • I will live each day as if it will be my last.
  • I will be true to my family and friends.
  • I will be reliable and humble.
  • I will have fun, lots of it.  
  • Even when life becomes difficult, I will endeavor to persevere.
If I had made these promises to myself as a child, could I have kept them? Let’s just say that at 53 years of age, I’m still a work in progress.

If young Mitch could have peered into the future, I’m quite certain he would have been disappointed with what he saw. But young Mitch wasn’t smart enough to discern what a good life looks like. How could he have? He was just a kid.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Bangor Metro Magazine Features Story on Kim and Me

At the risk of over-tooting my own horn, I wanted to share with you another awesome piece of news. Bangor Metro Magazine, which services mid-coast, eastern, and northern Maine, recently contacted Kim and me for an interview. Click here to read the piece.

At one point I recount how 17 years ago my family doctor said I "probably have a good 20 years left." That was a misunderstanding which I explain in some detail in the upcoming book, so don't do the math and think that I only have 3 years left to live!

Many thanks to journalist Joy Hollowell for a wonderful article.

Click here to read.


Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Down East Magazine Publishes an Excerpt From My Memoir

I've always been a huge fan of Down East Magazine, widely considered the best magazine about life in Maine. No matter how bookish you may be, no matter how learned in the written word, it's the stunning photography that draws you into the magazine. Only after you find a comfortable spot to delve into the articles do you come to appreciate the quality of the writing. That's what brings you back month after month.

In June of this year, I took a couple chapters from my as yet unpublished memoir, blended them into a single essay, and chopped it down to meet their word limit. I submitted the essay in late June, then I pretty much forgot about it.

Two months later I heard back. They wanted to publish the piece in their November edition. Given that I had written about deer hunting with my father, the timing was perfect. They even paid me a modest sum. They didn't know (or maybe they did) that I would have paid them to print my essay. After all, their monthly circulation is about 100,000 copies.

We went through a couple rounds of editing, and the finished product is now on newsstands—Down East Magazine, November 2016 edition, page 48. The essay is entitled "Deer Spotting: A longtime sportsman faces down illness — and heads out into the field one last time."

What a thrill this has been for me.

Now, back to work on finding a literary agent for my book…


Note: As of now there is no free, public link to the story, but I'll let you know if that changes. For anyone who is interested in purchasing the November issue of Down East for $5.99, click here. To purchase a subscription, click here. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

As Hope Fades, I Press on: Here’s How

Hope can be an effective tool to ease human suffering. In many cases, though, it’s not enough.

After my diagnosis 15 years ago, I set out to become the most informed patient on the planet. Even though there were no FDA-approved treatments for primary progressive multiple sclerosis (and there still aren’t), I knew the answer was out there. I just needed to be smart, brave, and hard-working enough to find it. Oh, and cocky too. Every fighter needs a little swagger.

I tried chemotherapy and immunosuppressants. No luck. I self-administered daily, painful shots. Didn’t help. I participated in a clinical trial where I had to drive two hours each way, two times a month, for two years. It slowed down progression for a while; then it didn’t. I convinced interventional radiologists to thread catheters from my groin into one side of my heart and out the other, so that they could balloon supposed restrictions in my internal jugular veins—twice. In retrospect, I doubt there was anything wrong with those veins. I lobbied doctors to inject powerful medicine into my spinal cord every two months for two years. Again, helped for a while; then it didn’t. I pursued all these treatments in the hope that I might slow down, stop, or even reverse the course of my disease. Instead, I progressed from a limp to a cane to a wheelchair, and my arms and hands are headed in the same direction.

Understandably, I began to lose hope that I would ever find a medical solution. I discussed this with a well-intentioned friend who warned me, “If you don’t have hope, you have nothing, right?”

No. That didn’t describe how I felt. As hope faded, something else took over, and it wasn’t despair. I remained in generally good spirits, even though I knew I might never get better. Something more impassive, almost comforting had intervened.

Acceptance.

Where hope receded, acceptance filled the void.

It’s not that I studied the alternatives and chose acceptance as the best path forward. It lived inside me the whole time, waiting to be called upon. Perhaps I inherited it from my mother or learned it by watching her live as a quadriplegic for 39 years. No matter its origin, I was fortunate to have such a tool at my disposal. I suspect, however, that acceptance can be discovered, learned, or acquired if you don’t possess it already.

Acceptance should not be confused with surrender, although the differences are subtle. Surrender carries a negative connotation. “I give up. Do with me what you will.” Acceptance carries a neutral connotation, “If this is my life, then so be it,” or sometimes a positive connotation, “If this is my life, I will make the best of it.” In its purest form, acceptance has a Zen feel to it. You are exactly where you are supposed to be in life. Don’t fight it. Embrace it.

I don’t lament what might have been, envy what healthy people can do, or ask “why me?” I’m grateful for what I have, and I accept what I’ll never again be.

I haven’t given up all hope. I continue to keep one ear to the MS research world. In a dispassionate manner, I evaluate each potential treatment on its merits. But I don’t rely on this hope to motivate me. I’m not emotionally invested in it. I keep hope around only for practical reasons, so that I don’t miss an opportunity for a treatment that may work. There is a lot of research going on. I just don’t know if it will become available to me in time.

Hope is the much sexier cousin to Acceptance. Hope can produce spectacular results. Books and songs have been written about the power of Hope. Acceptance does its work anonymously. The results, important though they may be, don’t garner much attention, save for this obscure essay. Although it may seem counterintuitive, I find that hope and acceptance work together quite well.

For my healthy and disabled readers: how do you manage hope and acceptance in your lives?

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

My Daughter’s Wedding

Three dates I'll always remember:

On October 22, 2001, I was diagnosed with MS.

On July 11, 2008, I started using a wheelchair.

On August 20, 2016, I walked my daughter down the aisle.

People from all over the country descended on Hardy Farm in Fryeburg, Maine, that weekend. Dave and Stephanie King, who got married in our backyard last summer (click here), flew in from Las Vegas. More on Dave later. Kim’s brother and his family drove from Michigan. No less than five of our friends pried themselves away from Cleveland, where the celebration of the Cavaliers' NBA championship was (and is) still going strong, to visit the woods of western Maine. Folks from every corner of New England also made the drive.

Just like last summer, my brother Tom officiated the ceremony. One of the difficult decisions Amy and I had to make was whether I would attempt to walk her down the aisle. Given the rustic setting of our venue, we would be navigating up a grassy hill, over a footbridge, around a stump, and through the dirt to get her where she needed to be. For the past couple of years, I’ve been crossing my fingers that my iBOT wheelchair would still be operational on August 20, 2016, and it was. Still, we worried that Amy’s wedding dress train would get caught up under my wheels. I really wanted to walk her down the aisle. It’s something every father dreams of. Imagine, if you will, how it might feel for someone in a wheelchair.

Amy had put me in charge of writing the ceremony. Leading up to the rehearsal on Friday afternoon, she and I were still tweaking the script, and we needed to make a decision. A crowd of people had gathered in the kitchen where I had my computer set up, so I pulled Amy aside.

“I would love to walk you down the aisle tomorrow, but …”

“Absolutely. Let’s do it. I’m only going to wear my wedding dress once. I really don’t care if it gets run over.”

I burst into tears of joy and buried my head in Amy’s shoulder. Just kidding. I was thrilled, though. I may have cracked a smile.

Everything proceeded wonderfully for the rest of the weekend. After the ceremony, Kim said Amy's train came so close to my wheels that she couldn’t understand how I didn’t run over it. Amy and I had kept our gaze on the altar, so we oblivious. Had such a calamity occurred, we would have laughed it off anyway.

Back to Dave King. On July 5, 1986, about 30 years ago, he sang a song at our wedding reception—Landslide by Fleetwood Mac. Amy appreciates history and tradition, so she asked Dave to sing the same song at her wedding. Here’s a video showing a little from both of those performances. Remember, the video of 1986 is from a 30-year-old VCR tape recently digitized, and the 2016 song was shot by Stephanie using a smart phone from about 30 feet away. However, the message of friendship spanning decades and generations couldn't be more clear.



For those of you receiving this through email, please click here to watch the video.

And here are a few more photos from Amy’s wedding. Click on individual pictures to enlarge them.









Kim and I being introduced…




 Kim's father quite ably stepped in for me
 on the father/daughter dance…



Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Parable of the Farmer and His Four Sons

Once upon a time, in a faraway land called Happy Valley, there lived a good and honest sharecropper, his wife, and his four capable sons, who were actually two sets of twins. One set of twins, sturdy and strong, could stand up to anything. These brothers were so in sync with one another that many considered them to be joined at the hip. The other twins, less strong but more agile, were best suited for complex farm chores. They worked hand-in-hand to assist the Farmer.

One year, at harvest time, one of the sturdy and strong sons grew tired and listless. At harvest time the next year, his twin began to feel the same way. They continued to get weaker until after a number of years they became lame and could not help out with the farm work at all. Luckily, the other set of twins remained healthy and used their agility to keep the farm going.

But this didn't last. Eventually, one of the agile twins began to feel weak, just like the sturdy twins had years earlier. And, sure enough, after one more season, the other agile twin followed suit. Everybody slowly got worse over time. Today, the formerly sturdy and strong twins, who could stand up to anything, can't move at all and must be carried everywhere. One of the agile twins is in the same boat. The other agile twin is hanging on, but getting more lame every day.

Today, the Farmer relies on the semi-lame, agile twin and the goodwill of the farmer’s (lovely) wife to fertilize the soil, plant the seeds, and harvest the crops…of life.

To be continued.

Cast of characters:

The sturdy twins – my left leg and my right leg
The agile twins – my left hand and my right hand
The Farmer – me

The moral of the story:

When things start to fall apart, you better make the most out of your remaining assets, and you better have a steadfast support system. “Buying the Farm” is to be avoided until all other avenues have been thoroughly exhausted.


(If you remember this story from its initial run in 2011, thanks for sticking around so long.)

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

I Lost My Ice Cream Cone Mojo

One reason I love summer is ice cream cones: soft serve, hard, even frozen yogurt. But it takes a certain amount of dexterity to eat a cone. Not only must I hold it in my hand and bring it up to my mouth, but I have to rotate it every once in a while, or the ice cream will drip off one side. I noticed a few months ago that the rotating part had become difficult. I cut way back on my consumption this summer because I lost my confidence. I lost my ice cream cone mojo.

Here in Maine, fall is settling in. On the way back from running errands with Kim last night, we drove by Dairy Queen, and I felt the urge to get my last cone of the season (man-child that I am). Kim rolled her eyes at my request, but she pulled in and ordered me a small chocolate soft serve (kindhearted woman that she is).

Mmmm. It tasted so good. After I had taken a couple of licks, it was time to spin the cone to the other side. Nope. Didn’t happen. Couldn’t happen. My fingers just can’t pull off that maneuver anymore. Kim wasn't able to help me because she was already driving and texting and had a cone of her own.

Just kidding. She didn't have a cone of her own.

No, seriously. She did have an ice cream cone but she would never text and drive under any circumstances. She can, however, text and eat, text and drink, text in a clockwise direction while rubbing her belly in a counterclockwise direction, and I'm quite sure she can text and sleep.

Anyway…

Because this was a small cone, I managed to get the ice cream down to the level of the top of the cone without ever rotating it, but it wasn’t pretty. At that point, I gently bit the cone, supported it in my mouth temporarily, then rotated my hand a few degrees. I managed to spin the cone 360° in the series of about six bites. I did this at two levels until the cone was down to the bottom section. Then, I executed the grand finale of ice cream cone consumption. I stuffed the bottom of the cone into my mouth all at once. By then, the ice cream had melted the perfect amount, and it occupied all of the honeycomb-type spaces in the base of the cone. If someone opened an ice cream stand and served nothing but the bottom inch of the ice cream cone, I would be their most dedicated customer.

In the grand scheme of things that I’ve lost—walking, typing, driving, etc.—eating an ice cream cone is relatively unimportant. Plus, there are still several other ways I’ll be able to satisfy my occasional ice cream urges. It’s that last inch of the cone, however, that I’m going to miss. There’s only one way to get there, and I can’t do it anymore.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Boston’s 2016 Abilities Expo — A Feel-Good Name if There Ever Was One

Screw it. I use the word disability. In fact, I just did a quick search of my book manuscript, and I found it 73 times. When I employ grammar checking software, called Grammarly, and it encounters the word disabled, it highlights it as “politically incorrect language,” and suggests physically challenged as a replacement. No thank you. I’m sticking with disabled.

On Saturday, Kim and I trudged down to Boston to check out the 2016 Abilities Expo, a tradeshow for those businesses and organizations, for-profit and charitable, dedicated to making our lives better. I’m in the market for my next power wheelchair, and all the wheelchair manufacturers were exhibiting (except the next-generation iBOT people). The photo on the right shows me in one standing wheelchair beside a picture of another standing wheelchair. I need to make my final purchase decision in the next few weeks, and this trip helped.

I had no other specific booths I wanted to visit, so I just wandered. Of course, I wandered in balance mode in my iBOT, and I attracted a lot of attention. More than once, I had to excuse myself or I could’ve stood there for hours and answered questions. But you know me; I am an iBOT exhibitionist, and I love the attention.

My friend and the best occupational therapist in the world, Maren, who now works for Invacare, led me to a booth with a remarkable product. As I’ve written here before, I’m losing my ability to feed myself. My arms and hands can’t get food from plate to mouth. Here, I met obi, a robotic eating assistant. I tried him (her?) out and gave the developers an honest critique of where their product came up short.

“Oh, we thought of that. See…”

I stood corrected. Of course, obi costs $4500. Maybe I can convince insurance to pay for it or come up with some other manner to acquire one for less than $4500. You can be assured I’ll let you know if that happens.

I’d never been in a place with so many wheelchairs before. There were traffic jams in the aisles. Two individuals would be parked and speaking with one another, and that’s all it took to cause a backup. But everyone was polite. I didn’t see any road rage or even eye rolls for that matter. Maybe it’s because patience is a necessary virtue, or at least a learned skill, for all disabled people. We are well practiced.

A strange thing happened at one of the booths I dropped in on. In front of a small group of wheelchair users, an impressive, disabled gentleman was endorsing a product that had changed his life dramatically for the better. When he spoke about how the device had improved his ability to interact with his children, he choked up so much that he could barely continue. A normal listener, a normal human being for that matter, would have been touched by this show of vulnerability. But I’m not a normal human being. I wondered if his emotion was genuine or contrived.

I doubted that it was genuine because he was obviously a polished speaker and must have given the same talk many times before. It seemed likely that he would have hammered out those feelings from sheer practice. On the other hand, I doubted that his choking-up was contrived, because only a manipulative person could pull that off, and I had no evidence that he was anything of the sort. I mean, he was disabled after all.

This leads to another question. What kind of asshole doubts the sincerity of a father talking about how much he loves his children?

Which leads to my final question. How would you like to live with a brain like mine? Before you answer that, I must say, of all the brains I’ve lived with, this one has been my favorite.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

My Book Update

In a previous blog post regarding my memoir, dated March 13, 2016, I declared “it’s done!”

Oops.

It wasn’t done. I sent out query letters (letters of introduction about me and my book) to a group of literary agents in March and April, and I got no bites. Maybe my query letters weren’t enticing enough. Perhaps my sample chapters weren’t compelling enough. It's quite possible I didn't query the right agents. Who knows? Since April, I’ve worked extensively on both my query letter template and the manuscript itself. That brings me to today.

Now that summer is over and Kim is back to work, I have no excuses. It’s time for me to really finish the book and get out query letters to the next round of literary agents. Then I’ll wait six to eight weeks to see if I get any responses. While I wait, I plan to be productive. On the assumption that I won’t land an agent, which is a statistical likelihood given the ratio of aspiring authors to literary agents, I will pull together a strategy for self-publishing. That way, once I have exhausted the traditional publishing route, I won’t have to wait long before getting the book out on my own.

And if, surprise of surprises, I get any interest from literary agents, then so much the better.

I’ve had many people help me on the book—friends, relatives, writing group members, beta readers, a freelance editor from New York. Everybody told me that it’s well done, but I remained skeptical. Most of these folks had a stake in making me feel good about myself. Recently I submitted an essay to a mid-sized monthly magazine (circulation approximately 100,000 per issue), and they accepted it. Not only will I be published in their November edition, but they paid me (heck, I would've paid them)

Given that the essay is an excerpt from my book, this experience has provided me with a boost in confidence.

The name of the magazine? I’ll let you know in a future blog post, closer to the date of publication, which is late October.

Now, time for me to get back to those query letters…

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Our trip on The Cat Ferry to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia

People are stubborn. People keep trying to establish a daily ferry service between Portland, Maine and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. People keep failing.

I admit, Kim and I have often said, "that looks like fun," as we watched the impressive ferries come and go out of Portland all summer. But whenever we checked the prices we were reminded why these ventures fail. People can go on Caribbean cruises for only a little more money.

Kim Has a Very Particular Set of Skills

I may have mentioned in the past that Kim wins prizes on the radio. It’s kind of embarrassing—smacks of desperation I think. On the other hand, I’m never so humiliated that I refuse to accompany her to these concerts and other events. A few weeks ago she won a round trip for two people and one car on this year’s incarnation of the Portland-Yarmouth ferry. So, off to Canada we went.

This is such a bad business idea, I thought as we boarded The Cat, a high-speed catamaran-style ferry. I bet we’ll be the only ones on the boat. But that wasn’t the case. There were plenty of others, and they didn’t appear to be the wealthy sort either. A holiday weekend bump? I hope not.

Rock the Boat (Don’t Rock the Boat Baby)

Kim is susceptible to seasickness. On our ride from Portland to Yarmouth, the ocean rolled with large, gentle swells, up up up, down down down, up up up, down down down. She didn’t like it, not one bit.

The customer service on this ship was outstanding—I think the crew were mostly Canadians. They offered Kim free crackers and ginger ale to settle her stomach. They suggested we position ourselves at the rear the boat where the ocean swells had less effect. Kim also popped some pills and threw on a patch, and by the end of the 5½ hour trip, she had recovered.

When we docked in Yarmouth, the sun had set, and the fog had rolled in. We drove directly to the hotel, checked in, unpacked, and headed downstairs to inspect the lounge. There were 15 or 20 people spread throughout. Not bad for a hotel bar. A hostessy woman invited us to, “Sit anywhere you like.”

Unfortunately, most of the seats, and all the good ones, were down a short flight of steps. “Is there a ramp somewhere so we can get to the bar area?” Kim asked.

No. There wasn’t. Rather than sit at the periphery of the establishment, or transfer me into my iBOT wheelchair so I could climb the stairs, we went back up to the room and got a good night’s sleep.

The next morning we perused some travel information for Yarmouth, and we came away unsure what exactly we would do on this Friday of Labor Day weekend (yes, it was Labor Day weekend in Canada too). The brochures offered a smattering of obscure museums, a lighthouse, and some mansions with supposedly noteworthy architecture. “We’ll find something to do,” I assured Kim.

I saddled up the iBOT for the day and rode her around town. I blew the minds of some residents as I cruised the sidewalks in balance mode. Brain matter spewed everywhere. What a mess.

We had slept so late on Friday that breakfast didn’t happen. One of the employees on the ferry had advised us on the best lunch spot in Yarmouth. We were not disappointed when we dined at The Shanty CafĂ©. Turns out that “Canadian Potato Skins” (their name, not mine) are delicious, and not meal-sized like the potato skin appetizers in the states.

“Okay, now what?” Kim asked as we rolled out of The Shanty.

“I don’t know. Downtown looks sleepy. Maybe we have to get in the car and drive around to see what the town has to offer.”

We did. We found the strip with car dealerships, fast food restaurants, and Walmart. Kim tried a couple of thrift shops—nothing.

“Maybe we need to drive along the ocean. Let’s find that lighthouse.” I offered.

To The Ocean!

We followed a winding road out to the end of a peninsula and found Cape Forchu Lightstation, a spectacular park with an unusual lighthouse. The problem was, the wind blew about 1000 miles an hour, so we walked around for five minutes and got back in the car. On the way out we had to come to a full stop to let two deer cross the road. I like that.

Our ferry guy had suggested Rudder's Seafood Restaurant and Brew Pub for dinner, a nice restaurant and the only brewery in town. With nothing better to do, we set out early for dinner.

I studied these Canadians at the restaurant. They looked like us.  They even spoke like us, except words such as “sorry.” (Surprisingly, in this corner of Canada there were no dangling “eh’s.”) But they inhabited a parallel universe where Donald Trump is not running to be president of their country and where the term medical insurance has no context.

We enjoyed dinner and lingered to take in some live music for another hour, before heading to the hotel.

Back to the USA 

Kim and I were hopeful that the return trip would be more pleasant for her. Indeed, there were no swells or waves for the entire ride back to Portland on Saturday. But there was something even more disturbing. In the seats across from us, a young couple, generally attractive and appearing otherwise normal, were making their best effort to meld into a single human being. They sat intertwined for the entire voyage. She held a novel in her hands, and I swear they were reading it together. That's right. Together.

Final Impressions

Although I encountered some accessibility challenges, the ferry and the city of Yarmouth were accessible enough, average or better than average. Email me if you would like more specifics.

Like the failed ventures before, I worry about the viability of this ferry service. Unlike the young couple who sat across from us, Portland and Yarmouth are not trying to become one. They couldn’t be more different. Portland is upscale, bustling, award-winning. Yarmouth is quaint, a little boring, but trying their best to improve. To Portland, the ferry service is a nice little addition to a thriving waterfront. To Yarmouth, the ferry service is the centerpiece of an effort to make their city a destination for Americans and a gateway for Canadians traveling to America.

I probably didn’t give Yarmouth a fair chance. I’m sure, with better preparation, we could have enjoyed our time more. I’m rooting for Yarmouth, but making the ferry service a success and building their little town into a vacation destination are tough challenges, especially with brain goo splattered all over their sidewalks.


Photo credits:

The Cat – Portland Press Herald
Cape Forchu Lightstation – http://www.capeforchulight.com/


Friday, August 26, 2016

I'm a Panelist on a Live Webinar about MS Clinical Trials

Kate Milliken, my friend and the founder of MyCounterpane.com, invited me to be a panelist for a webinar on Wednesday, August 31, at 11 am Eastern time. I'll be joined by Kate, who will moderate, and Bruce Bebo, Executive Vice President of Research, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

This will be a live conversation about clinical trials and MS – how to get into one and their risks and benefits. Bruce will discuss the clinical trial landscape for both relapsing/remitting and progressive forms of MS. I'll describe my experiences in 2005 and 2006 when I participated in a clinical trial for a drug called Rituxan. To read my blog posts about that trial, click here.

There are limited slots available, so if you would like to watch the webinar, live, register using this link. Time permitting, we'll take questions from the audience.


Tuesday, August 16, 2016

My iBOT Gets Recharged

Like a cat with nine lives, my iBOT wheelchair keeps cheating death.

For those of you not in the know, the iBOT is the most incredible wheelchair ever built. Unfortunately, due to bureaucratic red tape and insurance company cold-heartedness, this wheelchair is no longer manufactured or sold. A couple of years ago, the previous manufacturer, Independence Technology, stopped supporting it with parts and service. I’ve been holding my breath ever since.

Finally, a few weeks ago, my batteries began to fail. Other iBOT owners have toyed around with various companies that claimed to be able to recharge spent batteries. These attempts proved frustrating in terms of both product quality and customer service. I began to think that when my batteries failed my iBOT experience would be over. Not so fast.

I checked in at our users' group on Facebook called Save the iBOT to see if anyone had found a new battery vendor. A couple of folks had used a company in Washington, and one user had reported good results. I obtained the contact information and called Tom at Battery Pack Rebuilders. Indeed, Tom explained, he had rebuilt three sets of iBOT batteries and they all seemed to be working well. Even better, his fee for rebuilding batteries was lower than Independence Technology’s.

I explained to Tom that I had an important event coming up on August 20, and asked if he could expedite the turnaround. He said he could. In fact, he received my batteries on a Friday, worked on them on Saturday, and shipped them back to me on Monday. I have run them through an entire cycle and they appear to be functioning just as well as the batteries from Independence Technology.

There are still a million things that can go wrong with my iBOT, things that I won’t be able to fix. But for now, the iBOT lives to see another day, and this coming Saturday will be a very special day. Check back next week to read more about it.

To see me and my iBOT in action, check out my YouTube channel.

Read this good news about the next generation of iBOTs.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A Visit to My MS Neurologist

If you have MS, your neurologist is probably your MS doctor. Poor bastard.

Meet My Doctor


I've had the same neurologist since before my diagnosis. Let’s call him Dr. M. It was only by the luck of the draw that I ended up seeing him 17 years ago when I had a little hitch in my step—more evidence of my charmed existence. Other than this annoying little chronic disease, good fortune has rained down on me over and over again.

For the first 8 to 10 years, Dr. M and I were hyperactive: trying one treatment after another, fighting with the insurance company for reimbursement of off-label drugs, and discussing potential treatments still in the development pipeline. He supported all of my Hail Marys in any way he could.

Ours has never been a relationship where I make an appointment with him to find out how I’m doing. I go there to tell him how I’m doing. Sure, he gives me a cursory exam now and then, and we’ve done a few MRIs over the years, but not so much lately. I have advanced primary progressive multiple sclerosis, and we both know there’s only so much that can be done for me.

To date, no treatments have ever been approved by the FDA for PPMS. Around the end of this year, however, we are expecting a drug called Ocrelizumab to be the first. Dr. M and I are cautiously pessimistic. I’ll probably give it a try, but there is evidence that it works best on people who are younger and less disabled than I am.

So what do we talk about once or twice a year when I visit my neurologist, like I did on Monday of this week? It’s about a 50-50 split between medical discussions and general bullshitting. General bullshitting consists of catching up on one another’s family life, complaining about getting old, complaining about the cost of raising children, and complaining about politics (we tend to have the same political slants, so that dominated this week’s visit).

What Should We Expect From Our Doctors?


I enjoy my appointments with Dr. M. I appreciate how he listens, how supportive he is, and how he gives such solid advice. Most of all, I appreciate how he doesn’t sugarcoat anything. That’s not what I need from my doctor.

Do you have a positive relationship with the most important doctors in your life? If not, maybe it’s time to consider a change.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

“A Medical Marijuana Story” or “Mitch Does a Mitzvah”

We have friends, Robin and Sam, who live in Providence, Rhode Island. They visit us a couple of times a year. Two weeks ago we spent the day with them in our beautiful city of Portland, Maine. As we drove down Congress Street, I played tour guide and said, “On your right is Nosh Restaurant—a carnivore’s haven. Oh, on the left is Otto Pizza. Their mashed potato and bacon pie is my favorite.”

I continued, “Up here on the right is my medical marijuana dispensary.”

Robin asked, “Are you making much use of that?”

“Now and then, but it’s not helpful for my major symptoms.”

“You’ll never believe this,” Robin said, “but my 82-year-old father has raised the subject. He suffers from neurologic pain in his legs. He’s a stoic, tough old man, so I know if he complains about pain it must be awful.”

“Opioids?” I asked.

“He refuses to touch them, even if they might work. This is a man who has never done any drugs his entire life. Doesn’t drink. I think he sees cannabis as a natural treatment.”

“We could pull into the dispensary right now, and I could pick some up for him to try, except it’s illegal for me to give away medical marijuana.”

“I couldn’t ask you to do that.”

So we definitely did not pull into the dispensary. I certainly didn’t go in and buy a strain of marijuana called high CBD, which is supposedly good for pain control but doesn’t make the user “high.” I didn’t give it to Robin, and she didn’t take it back to Providence.

The next day she didn’t visit her 82-year-old father and tell him that she had acquired a sample of medical marijuana. Her father didn’t consult with his neurologist, who didn’t recommend that he give it a try.

Robin’s 82-year-old father didn’t consume the high CBD edible, and it didn’t eliminate all the pain in his legs. He didn’t decide that he would pursue obtaining medical marijuana legally through his state’s program.

And Robin didn’t enjoy blowing her brother's mind when she didn't call him to say, “I just gave our father some marijuana today.”

Did I mention Robin’s father is Jewish? I so wish I could have helped him because, who knows, maybe he would have said something like, “Thank Mitch for me, and tell him he did a mitzvah.”

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

A Triumphant Return to Jordan Pond

Before I was diagnosed, I knew something was wrong with my legs. I had been told a year earlier it might be MS, but my current doctors had pooh-poohed that idea and were looking in other directions. Then Jordan Pond happened.

Our first trip to Jordan Pond, 2001

Kim and I and the kids went camping near Acadia National Park with her extended family. We decided on a leisurely, 3-mile hike around Jordan Pond—something even the small children in our group could handle. The trouble started about halfway around. I began struggling to lift my left leg up over small obstacles like roots and stones. For the remainder of the hike, I took extra rest breaks and hobbled my way around the pond, feigning a sprained ankle so as not to concern the others. But Kim and I both understood that this represented an escalation in whatever the heck was going on in my body.

When I reported this event to my neurologist, he ordered the diagnostic test that, with the benefit of hindsight, I should have undergone a year earlier—an MRI of the cervical spine. Soon afterward, I was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis. I’ve always remembered the Jordan Pond incident as a seminal moment in my MS journey.

Our Return Trip, 2016

Recently, Kim and I found ourselves back at Acadia National Park, this time with three other couples. It was a momentous day—the 100th anniversary of the park. Just like 15 years earlier, someone in the group suggested a hike. One of the most popular features of the park is its network of well-maintained carriage trails, which are generally wheelchair accessible, especially considering I was in my iBot wheelchair. We pulled out a map of the carriage trails and considered our options.

Although the loop I struggled to complete around Jordan Pond was not wheelchair accessible, I noticed several carriage trails in that same area of the park. I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to make a new memory of Jordan Pond.

We arrived at the parking lot in two vehicles. On this 100th anniversary day, it was a madhouse. Kim found handicapped parking in the front row, but our friends in the other vehicle had to loop around and around the parking lot and play chicken with a car from Massachusetts in order to find a spot. Then, the eight of us set off on our 3-mile hike.

We walked through lovely wooded areas of the park and were presented with occasional views of Jordan Pond and the Bubble Mountains beyond. Midway through our hike, our carriage trail intersected with the same Jordan Pond loop trail we had followed 15 years earlier. Kim and I posed for pictures and reminisced about that day.

After our hike, we treated ourselves to a lovely lunch at the Jordan Pond House. This restaurant is renowned for its popovers, and I learned why. Somehow we missed this opportunity back in 2001, but we didn’t repeat that mistake.

What we’ll remember

Sure, I’ll always remember Jordan Pond for how it played a role in my MS diagnosis. But now I’ll also remember our triumphant return visit, when I completed a 3-mile hike without difficulty, and we left with full bellies and smiles on our faces.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Wheelchair Camping

Again this summer, we rented cabins at a campground and roughed it for a few days, so to speak.

Kim and I had just started dating in high school the first time I visited Hadley’s Point Campground. I was invited on her family vacation, but I had to sleep in the back of a pickup truck. No problem for a 16-year-old boy on a mission.

Kim and I, and later our kids, made many return trips to Hadley’s Point over the years until we stopped camping about the same time I began using a wheelchair.

Last year this campground added 14 cabins, two of which were advertised as handicapped accessible. These cabins had become so popular that I had to call on January 2nd, the first day they took reservations, in order to secure three nights in July.

I’m always uneasy about vacation accommodations, and this was no exception. When we arrived early on Thursday afternoon, Kim unlocked the door to our cabin, made a quick inspection, and reported to me that it looked good. I decided to see for myself. There was a slight elevation difference between the driveway and the concrete porch on the cabin. Because of the soft gravel, I got stuck on that lip. But Kim gave me a boost up onto the porch. I went inside and confirmed her assessment that the cabin looked promising.

My brother Tom used his bare hands to build a makeshift ramp out of landscaping mulch. It was a decent, interim step, but I wondered if it would hold up until Sunday.

Because we wanted four cabins in close proximity to one another, Tom and Diane ended up with the wheelchair accessible cabin, next door. We decided to hang out at their place while we waited for the other two couples in our party to arrive—my brother Andy and his wife Karen1, and our friends David and Karen2. But the elevation difference between driveway and porch deck was even higher at this cabin. We saw a campground maintenance vehicle drive by, and Kim hailed him. I explained the situation and this older gentleman took a keen interest. He said he would be back shortly.

Not long afterward, a younger man, who turned out to be the campground owner, arrived with a front end loader full of stone dust. He and the older gentleman built two nice ramps that held up for the entire stay.

I asked the obvious question. “You can’t have had any power wheelchair users rent these cabins, right?”

“Nope. You’re the first one.”

I then had a long conversation with the owner about the process he went through to have the cabins built and some of the conflicting advice he had been given about ADA compliance. I complimented him on his good-faith effort, and I helped him understand a couple of more issues, including the lack of grab bars around the toilet. He promised to fix that. He got the most important issue right by building the accessible cabins even larger than the other cabins. Most accessibility shortcomings can be fixed down the road, but “too small” is a problem that usually can’t be overcome.

If you're a wheelchair user and are interested in these cabins, I can wholeheartedly recommend them. Just remember, when you check-in have them make sure the ramps they made for me are still in place. Below, are some pictures of the interior of our cabin.

We had a great time cooking outdoors, sitting around the campfire, and catching up with old friends in nearby Southwest Harbor. But the highlight of the trip for me was our visit to Jordan Pond. Come back tomorrow to read about that adventure.