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Partnering with Patients to Solve the Mystery of Myositis

When Lisa Christopher-Stine, MD, MPH and her colleagues formed the Myositis Center at Johns Hopkins University 13 years ago, they wanted to create a place where those affected by this collection of rare autoimmune muscle diseases could receive the very best care possible. The Center is a patient-centered, multidisciplinary clinic in which specialists in rheumatology, neurology, pulmonology, and rehabilitation come together to collaborate in the care of these very complex patients.

The Center also aims to better understanding myositis diseases and help develop new, more effective treatments. One way they are doing this is by partnering with patients. From the very beginning, the Center’s clinicians and researchers invited all of their patients to be part of a large, long-term registry, a research database that included blood samples, DNA, and clinical information acquired during clinic visits. This database now includes information from about 2,500 patients.

“That clinical care–research interface is an important way to think about rare diseases,” Dr. Christopher-Stine says. “You need lots of data points in order to see patterns that you just can’t see in caring for one, two, or three people. Especially when you follow people over time, you can look back and compare that data with their blood samples and DNA and find things that you weren’t even sure were true when you saw the patient in real time.”

Recently, this database facilitated one of the most significant discoveries in myositis. For many years, Dr. Christopher-Stine and her colleagues heard from patients that their muscle weakness and fatigue came on after they started taking statin medications, a widely used drug to lower cholesterol and prevent heart disease. The weakness didn’t go away after they stopped taking the drug, and the cardiologists who prescribed it said that meant their symptoms were unrelated to the statin. Scientists at the Center proved that wasn’t true.

“It’s a great example of how patients drive what we do,” Dr. Christopher-Stine says. “After a while, you hear that story enough times and you say that’s really curious.”

She remembers vividly the evening a young research assistant came up to her after clinic and said, “This is an unusual antibody here. What do you think this is?”

The research assistant, Grace Hong, had been working with Dr. Christopher-Stine in concert with the Myositis Center team, including Dr. Livia Casciola-Rosen PhD, an expert on autoantibodies, to understand how autoimmune diseases work in the body.

What Grace had first noticed turned out to be a new myositis-specific autoantibody that had not been described before. After comparing a number of the patient samples from the Center’s database, it became clear that many of the patients who said their weakness started after taking statins were the same people who had those antibodies. Now we know that that antibody—Anti-HMG-CoA reductase (HMGCR)—is associated with a form of myositis called necrotizing autoimmune myopathy (NAM), which causes muscle cells to die.

This was a valuable discovery, but there is still much more to learn about myositis diseases and how we can help improve patients’ lives. Among the first tasks that must be achieved, says Dr. Christopher-Stine, is to get more drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for treatment of myositis diseases.

While a number of medications are very effective in treating myositis, most of these are used “off-label,” meaning outside the official approved indications. Insurance companies often challenge these uses, causing delays in treatment as patients and providers fight for access.

Along with this goal is finding an effective way to treat inclusion body myositis (IBM). Currently, the only treatment available for this chronically debilitating form of muscle disease is exercise, which only serves to slow the progress of disability. Those who live with IBM are understandably desperate for any therapy that can improve their condition.

Besides new therapies, a consistent treatment protocol is needed that has been scientifically verified, rather than based on “what we’ve always done.” Currently, there is no such standardized formula for deciding which drugs to try first when a patient is diagnosed with dermatomyositis (DM), for example. Providers differ widely on how they use corticosteroids and other treatments, how they evaluate effectiveness, and when they add to or change the regimen. Patients often suffer prolonged or worsening symptoms because of ineffective protocols.

Dr. Christopher-Stine also suggests that even the way providers refer to these diseases is confusing and not based on the science. Specifically, she challenges the term polymyositis (PM), calling it a diagnosis of exclusion. When myositis diseases were first classified more than 40 years ago, someone with the typical pattern of myositis muscle weakness but without the rash associated with DM was identified as PM. Modern science has refined the picture of all forms of myositis, yet old terminology remains, causing confusion and possibly hindering further progress in understanding these diseases.

“We need to put people into the right category so that they’re studied properly,” Dr. Christopher-Stine says. “The way the disease works is very different between NAM, DM and PM. If you put too many people in one box who have entirely different disease states, you’re going to bias the results.”

If a drug company has a new drug, for example, they need to test it on a fairly similar group of patients so they can tell if it is effective. If the group they study includes both DM and PM patients, the results may be mixed rather than showing a strong positive effect. This may mean that a treatment that worked well for, say, DM patients shows statistically that it isn’t effective because it didn’t work well for PM patients. 

None of these challenges are insurmountable, however. The myositis research community is one of the most collegial communities in academic medicine. Myositis experts from the Johns Hopkins Myositis Center are working together with colleagues from around the world to solve these and other questions with the goal of improving the lives of those who live with myositis diseases.

“I dream that one day we can take care of people with targeted therapies that are personalized just for them,” says Dr. Christopher-Stine. “When I retire, I want to leave the field knowing that I and others made a significant contribution to this personalized approach for all myositis patients.”

With the collaboration of the myositis research community along with data from patient registries like the one established at the Center, Dr. Christopher-Stine is optimistic they will achieve this goal.

The Johns Hopkins Myositis Center is one of the most highly respected centers in the country. It brings together a wide range of clinical expertise in rheumatology, neurology, pulmonology, and physical medicine rehabilitation along with basic science research. Patients with a suspected or confirmed diagnosis of myositis from across the country can be evaluated at the Center, with follow-up consultations with local practitioners.

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Patient communities

Connecting with Patients is the Reward

As a research scientist, immunologist Huub Kreuwel, PhD never really worked with patients. He spent most of his time in an academic lab, trying to understand the basic biology of certain diseases and identifying molecules that could serve as targets for new therapies. He never got to see what happened in the later stages of drug development—that part where patients got better because of the discoveries he’d made.

When he left academia to serve as medical science liaison at Johnson and Johnson, however, he discovered a whole new experience. Now, years later, as Vice President for Scientific and Medical Affairs in the United States for Octapharma, talking to patients and providers about the plasma-based products his company produces is the best part of his job.

“When I came out of academia, I found it was very satisfying to actually talk to a patient who had tried our drug and had good results,” he says. “As an immunologist, it made sense to work on a lot of these rare diseases like primary immune deficiency and dermatomyositis. And it’s gotten more and more interesting over the years.”

Working in the medical affairs department also offers the opportunity to get involved with a wide variety of projects. Huub and his team work with regulatory agencies when the company is seeking approval for new products. They help set up clinical trials to test new therapies and answer physicians’ questions about how those therapies work. Best of all, he meets the people who benefit from Octapharma’s treatments, such as immune globulin (IG) therapies, and helps them enroll as research subjects in the company’s clinical trials.

Recently, the company completed a trial testing intravenous immune globulin (IVIG) therapy in patients with dermatomyositis (DM). While the results have not yet been made public, Huub says the trial did meet its primary endpoints, so it looks very promising that Octagam 10% will eventually become one of the few FDA-approved treatments for this disabling disease that affects the skin and muscles.

Part of what made this trial so successful was the feedback Huub and his team received from patients. In the process of developing the clinical trial, they worked with patient organizations, including The Myositis Association and Myositis Support and Understanding, to understand how patients experienced the disease so they could improve the study protocol and to help recruit participants for the trial.

“We work on a lot of orphan drugs,” Huub says. “And there aren’t that many patients sometimes, so we need everybody to help us to finish these trials. It worked quite well in the DM trial. Those were very productive relationships.”

The success Octapharma had with this phase III clinical trial with DM will also pave the way for future clinical trials for this indication. When rare diseases have few previous clinical trials, researchers often fumble to find tests that will tell them whether a particular drug is working or not. Octapharma’s trial in DM not only proved that the treatment was effective, it also showed that their measures of effectiveness worked in this patient population.

Huub is now developing protocols to test Octapharma products with other diseases. Among these are pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infections (PANDAS for short—a disease in which psychiatric symptoms such as obsessive-compulsive disorder appear suddenly after a strep infection) and secondary immune deficiency (SID—a problem that occurs when immune system deficiencies occur because of something other than genetics, such as HIV or chemotherapy).

As they did with the DM study, he and his team are talking to patients to get input that will improve these studies. One way they do this is by recruiting an advisory board of about a dozen patients who spend the day with company representatives sharing their experiences and suggestions. These open-ended discussions provide insights into all manner of ideas: how to better explain data, ideas for new trials, how patients need to be supported during a trial, and more.

“Those discussions are really good for the company, and usually they’re very productive,” Huub says. “Often patients have ideas for new products or practical solutions that might make our products better. And a lot of times it actually has led to either different products or different marketing material or revamping our website or providing patient education sessions.”

These days the thing that has captured Huub’s interest is COVID-19. Healthcare providers on the front lines of the pandemic are finding success in treating the virus with IG. In fact, recent events have made Octapharma a leader in exploring new therapies for COVID-19.

The company is currently supporting two investigator-initiated projects—one testing IVIG as a treatment for COVID-related respiratory failure, the other using IVIG and steroids to treat COVID-19 patients who are developing heart problems. Octapharma is also conducting their own phase III clinical trial to see if high-dose IVIG can be used to improve severe COVID-19 symptoms. Initial results from the investigator-initiated study with COVID-related respiratory failure are very promising.

“Of course COVID is horrible,” Huub says. “But it also became an opportunity for us to delve deeper into IVIG and how it can potentially work in that disease. It’s very satisfying for me personally and for my team to try and come up with other drugs that could help COVID. So overall, it’s been a very interesting ride.”

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Choices: IVIG versus SCIG

Many patients with autoimmune disorders and primary immune deficiency diseases depend on regular infusions of immune globulin (IG) to keep them healthy. For most of the nearly four decades since immune globulin therapies have been available, patients have had only one viable option for how this treatment was given. It was only available as an intravenous (IV) infusion.

Since 2006, however, when the first IG product was approved for subcutaneous (SC) administration, patients have had a choice about how they received their treatments. Both products are considered equivalent in terms of efficacy, but there are lots of other factors that may make one preferable over the other. Providers usually have their own sense about how IG should be administered, but we asked IG users for their thoughts on the pros and cons of each option.

Convenience is the biggest factor in which route patients prefer. Ironically, both IV and SC users think their choice is most convenient.

Rebecca, for example, has been getting IVIG for 12 years after being diagnosed with common variable immunodeficiency (CVID). She speaks for many when she says, “I like that I only sacrifice one day every three weeks for treatment.”

The convenience of once-a-month infusions with IVIG comes at the expense of independence, though. IVIG poses higher risks, because it goes directly into the vein rather than under the skin. So it must be given under a nurse’s supervision, whether that is in the hospital, an infusion center, or at home. This means it also has to take place on a schedule that may not always be convenient.

Those who use SCIG usually take their infusions once a week rather than once every three to four weeks or so. Still they prefer the control they have over when they infuse, because they do it themselves. As Brandina, who has myasthenia gravis, says, “I love that I can administer it myself. The treatment days are flexible, and I can take the medication with me, so I don’t have to plan my vacation around treatments.”

Infusing once a week is also inconvenient for some SCIG users, but for most this is a minor drawback. As Jen, who has specific antibody deficiency, says, “I absolutely love SCIG. There are so many more pros that I could list and only this one con.”

Getting infusions at home, whether it is IV or SC, is also a convenience. This has become especially important since the COVID-19 pandemic has made it less desirable to go to a healthcare clinic. Brynne, whose six-year-old daughter uses IVIG for juvenile dermatomyositis (JDM), was grateful when her overnight hospital infusions were changed to in-home infusions because of coronavirus restrictions.

Making the most of infusion time is something IVIG users have worked into their lives. Sitting in an infusion center or even hanging out at home with a nurse for six to eight hours or more can be a huge inconvenience, but it doesn’t have to be wasted time. Dana, who has dermatomyositis, likes IVIG, because it forces her to take time for herself and relax. And Robin, who has CVID, uses the time to crochet.

Mary, whose husband has myasthenia gravis (MG), prefers to get his IVIG at the hospital infusion center for other self-care reasons. “He loves the heated, vibrating recliner,” she says. “And they provide snacks and lunch.”

Adverse effects can be more of a problem with IVIG. In fact, this is often the reason patients switch to SCIG, which has far fewer reactions. Symptoms can range from fatigue, fever, flushing, chills, and ‘‘flu-like’’ symptoms to more life-threatening reactions like anaphylaxis (severe allergic reaction) and blood clots.

The most frequent side effect is headache, which can last several days and be more severe than a migraine. Some, like Lola, who has Sjögren’s syndrome, even get aseptic meningitis (inflammation of the membrane covering the brain) after infusions. This causes debilitating headaches, dizziness, and other symptoms.

Scar tissue and knots of fluid under the skin from subcutaneous infusions was a drawback for those using SCIG. These knots usually disappear within a few hours, though, and any redness or swelling at the injection site usually decreases over time.

Pain from being stuck with needles is not an insignificant side effect, regardless of whether it’s IV or SC. Whether it’s having to stick oneself multiple times or whether it’s having difficult-to-access veins, nobody likes to feel like a pincushion.

This can be especially challenging for children. Nancy’s nine-year-old daughter has JDM and receives IVIG at a pediatric infusion center. She says having ultrasound to find and insert the IV needle makes a world of difference for her daughter. Being spoiled by the nurses also takes some of the sting out of the whole ordeal.

Fluctuations in therapeutic effect is another reason many people switch to SCIG. An IG dose is mostly metabolized by the body over about 22 days, whether it’s given IV or SC. With IV infusion the dose reaches its peak immediately and dissipates over the next three to four weeks. This means that some patients will feel their symptoms returning as IG levels in the blood go down.

“As I got closer to my next treatment date, I would start to feel the effects of needing my next treatment,” says Karon, who has MG. “After I received it, I could tell I had just received a boost and had more energy.”

Giving IG under the skin makes the blood levels rise more slowly. And because SCIG is given more frequently—usually weekly—IG levels in the bloodstream fluctuate far less, so patients don’t feel that fatigue and other symptoms returning.

Whatever you decide about IG therapy, Lea, who has used IVIG for 22 years to treat CVID, offers this important advice: “You have to listen to your body and watch how it reacts to everything and try things until they work for you.”

For those who would like to learn more about IVIG or SCIG, please contact the CSI Pharmacy advocacy team at advocacy@csipharmacy.com.

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Patient communities Patient stories

Meeting Patients Where They Are

Like most neurologists, Dr. Charlene Hafer-Macko treats patients with a variety of neuromuscular conditions. Her focus, though, is myasthenia gravis (MG). It’s MG patients who provide her with the intellectual challenge she loves.

“I really like this population,” she says. “There are so many things you can do to help them stay in control of their disease. And this is a group that really uses the information they have to help themselves. Helping people through the journey is the part I find the most fun.”

As an associate professor of neurology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Dr. Hafer-Macko serves as director of the university’s multidisciplinary Myasthenia Gravis Center. This clinic pulls together all the services an MG patient needs in one coordinated package—including an infusion suite that provides intravenous immune globulin (IVIG), plasmapheresis service, and thoracic surgeons that focus care for thymectomy for myasthenia gravis.

“Our team is very well versed in myasthenia,” Hafer-Macko says. “So not only are they providing care, but they’re also monitoring for side effects and providing education and support at the same time.”

For Dr. Hafer-Macko, it’s the education and support part of working with MG patients that she finds most satisfying. Several years into her career, she realized that she wasn’t feeling fully fulfilled by her interactions with patients. She would assess their weakness and check their blood work and tweak their medications, but these exchanges with mostly stable patients felt flat. She needed something more.

She discovered that something more in the stories her patients told about their daily experiences. They reported, for example, that even when their double vision was controlled or they were back to walking normally, they still had trouble reading or watching TV, and they felt exhausted after a trip to the grocery store or just walking across the room.

“Even when many patients are well controlled, fatigue is an element that just stays with them,” Hafer-Macko says. “Fatigue is such a tricky thing. It’s something that is not often addressed effectively. So really understanding what’s driving that fatigue was something that I got very interested in.”

She teamed up with occupational, physical, and respiratory therapists to develop a better understanding of fatigue and the needs of MG patients. Together with this team, Hafer-Macko developed a toolbox of techniques for helping patients avoid or overcome fatigue and other challenges.

Listening to her patients’ stories has also helped Hafer-Macko become a better doctor.

“I learned how to ask questions differently, questions that gave me better data,” she says. “And then once I’d ask them differently, I could coach individuals on how to give me better information.”

When she would ask a question like, “Are you better,” for example, she found the patient’s response—“Yes, I’m better now”—didn’t provide much in terms of measurable outcomes. If, however, she asks about how long the patient can read before their eye symptoms make them put the book down, she has a benchmark that she can compare to a previous exam. It’s data that shows a meaningful response to treatment.

Stories of her patients’ fatigue also inspired Hafer-Macko’s research. She is part of a group at the Baltimore Veterans Association Medical Center that is exploring exercise, nutrition, and fitness in older adults. One of the things they have learned is that, because of their weakness, those with MG must work extra hard to accomplish even minor tasks like walking to the bathroom. This leaves far less energy for all other activities.

“It’s like every time they walk to the bathroom, they’re running a marathon,” Hafer-Macko says. “They have very little reserve. They’re just working very hard because of that weakness.”

Dr. Hafer-Macko has been recognized by the Myasthenia Gravis Foundation of America (MGFA) for her outstanding work with the MG community. She has served on the board of directors for the organization and currently serves on two of their committees.

Ironically, Hafer-Macko’s greatest inspiration is not a patient at all. It’s her mother. At 82, Charlotte Hafer still teaches dance—these days remotely by zoom. In 41 years of teaching elementary school during the day and dance at night, she never took a sick day. She continues to work as a math and reading specialist by day and teaches dance at night. As a devoted theater fan, her mother saved up her sick leave compensation so she could go to shows in New York City and in the Pennsylvania/Maryland/DC area to see shows. This year, Charlotte engaged the brave new world of Facebook to win a contest in which she was named Broadway’s Biggest Fan.

“She’s actually my inspiration,” Hafer-Macko says. “To deal with my mom and her medical hang ups, I’ve learned so much about taking care of people. You’ve got to meet folks where they’re coming from. They’ve got nuances, and that makes such a difference in working with a patient to find a care plan that will work well for them.” 


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Advocacy Patient communities Patient stories

Being There for Those in Need

Rebekah Dorr never set out to become a myasthenia gravis patient advocate. It started with her Facebook page, Myasthenia Gravis Unmasked, and just sort of evolved. That’s where, in 2014, Rebekah first shared the story of her own harrowing journey with myasthenia gravis (MG) and some of what she learned along the way. She wanted to bring hope to those who live with the disease by raising awareness about how it affects individuals and correct some of the misconceptions even the medical community still endorses.

When someone messaged her on the page asking for help, she wasn’t sure what she could do. “But I’d advocated for myself,” she says. “So I thought, let me see if I can help this person. I think she was indebted to me, because she turned around and started sharing about me in other groups.”

Since that time, Rebekah has lived on her phone. She posts educational content about living with MG and provides a platform for the personal stories that give voice to the challenges myasthenics face every day. She also responds to every comment and private message—sometimes dozens a day—from those with questions or who need her help to get the care they need.

“I was frustrated with what was available at the time,” Rebekah says of the MG support system. “There was research, there were support groups, and that was it. There was this huge no man’s land for what was happening for the patients. And I was like, who’s taking care of patients the way I needed to be taken care of? So that ended up becoming my passion.”

At least part of this passion for walking with patients in their time of need comes from her own experience. She knows what it’s like to be alone and afraid, not understanding what was happening to her, and not trusting the medical community to make the right decisions for her care.

Rebekah’s symptoms began one summer when, out of the blue, she started feeling really tired, like she had the flu. Very quickly, however, those symptoms escalated to significant shortness of breath. She had trouble chewing and swallowing, and her legs became so weak she couldn’t walk. It seemed like one minute she was playing on the beach with her cousins and the next she was unable to get out of bed.

The next two years was a terrifying odyssey that included countless ER visits, hospitalizations—including several stays in ICU and more than one time when she had to be resuscitated—lab tests, scans, surgeries, spinal taps, and specialist consultations. It was a time when, looking back, she wished she’d had someone she could have called upon to help her know what to do.

Doctors refused to believe that a woman of 22 could develop MG, despite the fact that her grandmother also has MG and other evidence to support the diagnosis. Instead, they said she was faking the fact that she couldn’t walk and couldn’t breathe, and diagnosed her with somatic conversion disorder (meaning she was mentally ill, making it up). This label, together with the disrespect with which she was treated, did more damage to her health and spirit than MG ever could. It made her question her own truth and made her terrified to seek the care she desperately needed.

“I didn’t know anything,” Rebekah says. “I didn’t know blood tests for antibodies had to be sent to a special reference lab. I didn’t know my shortness of breath wouldn’t necessarily make my oxygen saturation go down. They didn’t explain the drugs to me. I had no idea I was being overdosed. I had no idea what any of it was.”

But she learned. Having people who depended on her for answers forced Rebekah to dig into the research and understand all she could about MG. She quizzed her own neurologist, listened closely to conversations she heard in hospital hallways, and read everything she could get her hands on. She also listened to the stories of patients. And she became the expert others needed.

“Word of mouth was spreading about me,” she says. “I don’t think the word advocacy was ever used, but it was just, hey, contact this woman, she’ll help you. And so I started getting flooded with messages. It became a job for me. It became my life.”

Rebekah now has clients all over the world, some of whom she works with for months or years at a time, sharing knowledge and awareness. More often, however, she’s there with patients—in-person for local clients, but by phone for most—when they need to go to the ER or are admitted to the hospital to help them navigate a system that often doesn’t understand this rare disease.

By 2016, however, Rebekah realized she was not receiving the kind of respect she needed from the healthcare community. She didn’t have credentials or the backing of some authority that would make medical professionals take her seriously. So she started her own nonprofit organization: The Myasthenia Gravis Hope Foundation.

“Our whole focus is advocacy,” she says of the Foundation. “I define that as clinical advocacy. We’re not just doing awareness or education. We’re actually coming in for the patient when they are most vulnerable to challenge the stigmas and misconceptions about MG that severely affect how they are perceived and treated.”

Beyond Rebekah’s lifesaving advocacy, MG Hope also provides funds for patients to travel for care and to cover the cost of critical medication until they can get enrolled with manufacturers’ assistance programs. The organization also helps patients access medical and specialty care and emergency medications.

For Rebekah this work—none of which she is paid for—is all about helping others avoid the hell she went through. She remembers sitting in a tiny closet of a hospital room which she had occupied for thirty-five days. She’d gone in for a thymectomy, but never got it. Instead, she experienced anaphylactic shock as a reaction to blood products, endured two resuscitation codes, went through cholinergic crisis because of titration mistakes, and so much more.

She remembers thinking if only somebody had educated her about these possibilities, she could have prevented nearly all of them. As a person of faith, that’s when she vowed to be the one to help others overcome or avoid these challenges. Now as the founder and CEO—and the only active member of the staff—of the MG Hope Foundation, she’s doing that work.

“I’m passionate about focusing on the patient experience,” Rebekah says. “I think that honesty and vulnerability is where we have the power to transform things, to actually step into somebody’s life and to maybe change it for the better. Whether they need emotional support or education, I want to show up for them in whatever way I can. That’s just where my heart is.”

Rebekah’s grandmother, Doris (95) was diagnosed with MG more than 60 years ago. This photo of Doris and Rebekah was part of MG Hope Foundation’s project called The Humanity Behind MG, designed to capture the essence of the human experience of those who live with the disease.

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Advocacy Patient communities Patient stories

Paying It Forward

Ten years ago, Karon Faught started slurring her words and having trouble lifting her arms to blow dry her hair. She was only in her thirties, but some months later while at work, she couldn’t find the right words she wanted to say. She thought she was having a stroke. An MRI disproved this possibility, but it did nothing to alleviate the overwhelming fear she and her husband Jerry felt about what was causing these symptoms.

When she went to her neurologist, he had a list of conditions he wanted to test her for. Among them was not myasthenia gravis (MG).

“He said he was going to test me for MS and ALS and a couple other things,” Karon recalls. But nobody gets myasthenia gravis, the neurologist said, so I’m not even going to test for that.

Ironically, MG was the thing Karon’s primary care provider specifically suggested she be tested for. Also ironically, while she was in the office, the neurologist agreed to give Karon a magnesium infusion, a treatment she’d had before to treat her chronic migraine headaches.

What Karon and Jerry didn’t know at the time was that magnesium is one of a laundry list of drugs that makes myasthenia symptoms worse. That infusion persuaded the neurologist to do the blood test, because there in his office, Karon lost her ability to speak and move as a result of it. Three weeks later, the tests came back positive for anti-acetylcholine receptor antibody-positive MG (AChR MG).

This was just the beginning of a harrowing ride for Karon and Jerry, one they are grateful to the MG community in their home state of Texas for helping them survive.

“Ten years ago, there was really no good information about MG,” Jerry says. “Even at the top hospital in the region, one of the only hospitals in the country that was doing an MG clinical trial, people didn’t understand it. Their nurses were still giving IV Benadryl to MG patients, and their medical school was still teaching that kids couldn’t get MG. When we came into this, the best knowledge base was those that came before us.”

So when Karon was facing surgery to remove her thymus (a procedure that is often part of treating MG), she wanted to talk with others who had the disease and could help her understand what to expect from this major chest surgery. She and Jerry attended their first Myasthenia Gravis Foundation of America (MGFA) national conference that year and connected with the only MG support group in Texas, which was in Lubbock, about 300 miles from their home north of Dallas.

The group was led by Coleen Shinn. She and others from the group took the couple under their wing. And when Karon was in the hospital after surgery, they were a lifeline for Jerry who guarded his wife’s treatment from healthcare professionals who repeatedly tried to treat Karon with medications on that laundry list of drugs that make MG worse.

“After my surgery, Jerry was on the phone with Coleen almost 24/7, asking her questions and gathering information,” Karon says. “When the doctors wanted to give me a medicine, he would call Coleen and say, is this okay? And she would say yes or no. A lot of times it was no, don’t give her that medication, because she’ll go into crisis.”

Jerry chokes up when he remembers this time. “I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Coleen and Marvin and Lowell and Margaret and all the people in Lubbock who took us in. There’s no way I can explain how they helped us. There are just no words that can describe it.”

After Karon’s surgery, she and Jerry continued to attend support group meetings in Lubbock. They needed that companionship and the knowledge of others who lived with MG. But it was a five-hour trek, and they knew there had to be other MG patients closer to home. So armed with contacts they met at their second MGFA conference, they pulled together a support group in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Since then, the couple has created a nonprofit support network, MG Texas, whose only mission is to empower people by sharing knowledge about this rare neuromuscular disease. The organization now supports honorary Texans all over the world, and through the work of many others, there are now support groups in Dallas, Lubbock, Austin, San Antonio, Corpus Christi, San Angelo, and Beaumont. And because they live only 20 miles from the Oklahoma border, it was easy enough to restart the groups in Oklahoma City and Tulsa after the MGFA reorganization. They’ve also started, MGKids.com, the only nationwide MG support organization for children with MG.

“There are so many fears when a person comes into this,” Jerry says. “If we can alleviate any one of those fears to help them get to the next stage of the healing cycle, then that’s really what drives us.”

This support group network has also been part of the healing cycle for Karon and Jerry.

“The support group has helped us get through this,” Karon says. “Helping other people has helped us heal from what we’ve lost. Having a diagnosis like MG, you have to look at life a little bit differently and make some adjustments. But when you help other people, you don’t think so much about what you’re going through.”

“I’ll be honest with you, at the beginning, I was angry, Jerry says. “And the only way to battle this disease that we can’t fight is to educate so that it doesn’t hurt others. That was the why we started the support group in Dallas. The bonus was, if we get more people in the group, it will help us.”

But healing the fear and anger is only a part of Jerry’s motivation.

“There’s a debt we have to pay forward,” Jerry says. “We’re going to have it for a long time. And that’s really what drives me.”

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Get Connected

When a person has a rare disease, they often feel isolated, confused, afraid, and hopeless. Living with a chronic medical condition that no one around you has ever heard of let alone understands is a challenge on many levels. With rare diseases especially, even health care professionals often don’t understand the disease well, which can add to your confusion and fear. Combine that with the challenges and isolation of COVID-19 confinement, and you may find you’re wading knee deep in serious hot water with mental health issues.

Those who care for someone who is diagnosed with a chronic, debilitating, and mysterious disease can also be devastated. Often you must sacrifice your own goals and dreams in order to attend to the needs of your loved one. Depression is common in caregivers who often suffer in silence, unwilling to reveal their own negative feelings.

Connecting with a support group can be a tremendous help, however. Such groups can be an important source of both emotional encouragement and practical advice. Benefits can include:

  1. Meeting and making friends with other people who live with the same rare disease and similar experiences
  2. Learning about the disease and how it is treated
  3. Being able to talk honestly about your disease and your feelings about it with others who “get it”
  4. Learning how others cope with the challenges of the disease
  5. Developing hope and a sense of empowerment that you can make it through the challenges

Formal patient support organizations often expand their reach to include advocating to improve healthcare for other rare disease patients, supporting scientific research, and providing financial assistance to members.

CSI Pharmacy wants our patients to thrive, despite their health challenges. That’s why we connect with a number of groups that support the patient communities we serve. These are all nonprofit organizations, and CSI Pharmacy supports them financially so they can support our patients and caregivers. We encourage our patients to reach out to one or more of the following groups, especially at this time of uncertainty during the COVID lockdown:

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Patient communities

Honoring Our Rare

As the shortest month of the year, February is always the rarest month. Because of this, the last day of February has been chosen as Rare Disease Day. This year, however, is rarer still, because it’s leap year, the time when an extra day is added to the calendar: February 29. Which makes it an even better time to honor our rare disease patients!

Rare Disease Day is a time when advocates take to the soapbox to raise awareness for the more than 6,000 rare diseases that have been identified worldwide. More than 300 million people are affected by these diseases at some point in their lives, which adds up to about the population of the United States!

CSI Pharmacy works with a number of rare disease organizations to bring awareness and education. Among these is Myositis Support and Understanding. Founder Jerry Williams was diagnosed with polymyositis in 2003. He is a tireless (despite the fatigue of his illness) advocate for those living with myositis diseases.

Like many who live with a rare disease, Jerry’s myositis journey has been long and challenging. It started with muscle pain, severe weakness, muscle wasting, and fatigue. Initially, when they couldn’t figure out what was going on, doctors told him these symptoms were all in his head. Even after being identified as myositis, his disease has resisted treatment and been riddled with complications. He’s spent long stretches of time in the hospital over the last 17 years with flares, infections, and other complications. Myositis has even forced him to end his career in the banking industry and go on long-term disability.

“Leaving the workforce was a blow,” Jerry says. “I thought, what am I going to do? I knew I needed a purpose.”

Jerry set to work learning about this autoimmune disease of the muscles. In addition to reading everything he could, he looked around for others who had myositis. He knew their first-hand experiences would be at least as helpful as the information from medical sources.

Through this process, Jerry recognized there was a need for more patient-focused services and programs for those who live with myositis diseases. In 2010, he started a Facebook support group called “Polymyowhat: Understanding Myositis.” As the group attracted members with the several other forms of myositis in addition to polymyositis, he changed the name and eventually formed the nonprofit Myositis Support and Understanding (MSU). The all-volunteer organization is run completely by those who are directly affected by myositis, including patients and care partners. Jerry serves as President and Executive Director.

On this the rarest day of the year, Jerry’s message to others who live with rare diseases is never give up.

“Don’t accept the status quo,” he says. “When you’re diagnosed with a disease like myositis that limits your life, you have to find new ways to live your passion.”

Jerry has found his passion in helping to empower others who live with myositis to advocate for their best life. MSU now has two websites, several Facebook support groups, and live online video support sessions. MSU operates the official Myositis Support Community on the Inspire health support platform. They also provide educational programs, a smartphone app for tracking symptoms and treatments, clinical trials opportunities, and a financial assistance program.

“Living with chronic illness has also offered me some wonderful opportunities,” Jerry says. “It’s amazing the relationships I have built. And I never would have imagined working with a nonprofit as part of what I do and who I am. Now I can’t imagine not doing it.”

CSI Pharmacy is pleased to support the efforts of MSU and other patient organizations that are helping rare disease patients stay engaged with the world. We provide therapies uniquely suited to rare diseases, offering these therapies to more than a dozen patient communities. This month we are thrilled to honor those who daily cope with the challenges of the following rare diseases:

  • Chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP)
  • Guillain–Barré syndrome (GBS)
  • Huntington’s disease
  • Immune thrombocytopenia (ITP)
  • Multifocal motor neuropathy (MMN)
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Myasthenia gravis (MG)
  • Myositis
  • Pemphigus and pemphigoid
  • Primary immune deficiency diseases (PIDD)
  • Stiff-person syndrome (SPS)