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Patient stories

When You Need a Little Help from Your Friends

Madison Davis had been planning her career in the military since she was seven or eight years old. Living near the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, she joined the Naval Sea Cadets and was intent on moving up through the ranks. She strategized her high school resume to help her get accepted into the Coast Guard Academy, as a soccer player, if possible.

“She was obsessed with the Naval Academy,” says her mom, Christine Davis. “She always wanted to visit there and wear the uniform and work on advancing her ranks. She was a big creator, too, a lego girl, up until she was 13 or so. She always talked about wanting to work on Lear Jets, fixing planes. She always knew what she wanted to do, and she was excited.”

In May 2017, however, gazing down at her daughter lying limply in a hospital bed as doctors gave their diagnosis, a strange, rare disease that seven weeks earlier had weakened Maddie’s muscles, given her a rash over large portions of her body, and paralyzed her into the worst pain she’d ever experienced, Chris cried. Not only was her daughter suffering, but she knew all Maddie’s dreams had just been evaporated by an autoimmune disease they couldn’t even pronounce: juvenile dermatomyositis (JDM).

“I was so numb to everything in the hospital. It really didn’t hit me,” Maddie says. “I wasn’t actually facing all these things I had just lost. I was just on to the next thing. Like, okay, so what do I do now? What schools do I apply to now? I didn’t really give myself a lot of time to deal with it in the moment. And believe it or not, I felt like I was handling everything very well.”

The next few years were difficult for Maddie. She is fortunate that she lives near one of the world’s leading Myositis Centers at Johns Hopkins University, so the medical treatment she received, including prednisone, methotrexate, and intravenous venous immune globulin (IVIG) therapy, was excellent and effective. Her mental health, however, was a different story.

Maddie missed out on much of the excitement of her senior year of high school because she was too weak to participate in many of the activities. Not only was her athletic strength gone, but the prednisone, a steroid medication, made her gain weight and gave her what she calls “’roid rage,” making her emotionally erratic. She lost friendships, because she missed a lot of school and couldn’t go out on weekends, and her friends just didn’t understand why she was behaving so strangely.

“She suffered a lot in many different ways,” Chris says. “We were just trying to survive it every day and trying to seek answers to make it better.”

Maddie and Chris did find answers, mostly from others who live with rare diseases and know what Maddie was going through. On her first outing after spending three weeks in the hospital followed by two weeks in rehab to relearn how to walk, Maddie and Chris attended a local support group meeting of The Myositis Association (TMA). The speakers at that meeting happened to be three members of the CSI Pharmacy team, talking about immune globulin (IG) therapy and home infusion.

During the presentation, Brittany Isaacs, CSI Pharmacy’s Senior Director of Nursing, talked about her own journey with myasthenia gravis—another rare autoimmune disease—and IG therapy. In her talk, she described how her disease had ended her career as a Navy nurse, and how hard that was to deal with.

Maddie remembers glancing at her mother and whispering, incredulous, “Did she just say she was in the Navy?”

After the talk, Maddie and Chris approached Brittany and shared Maddie’s similar regrets about losing her own dream career in the military. After that, Brittany not only became a good friend, she also became her home infusion nurse, allowing Maddie to receive her IVIG treatments at home rather than in the hospital infusion center. Later, when Maddie went off to York College of Pennsylvania, Brittany helped her learn how to give her own IG treatments subcutaneously (SCIG, under the skin, rather than in the vein).

The Davises also found out about Cure JM Foundation, a group more focused on children with myositis. They attended the Cure JM annual patient conference, and there Maddie befriended a group of other teens who also lived with myositis. It didn’t take long for Maddie to become a leader in this organization, one of the “older kids” who, the following year, helped lead the panels she had learned so much from the previous year.

Maddie discovered a passion for helping others through the rough spots of living with JDM. She had a Facebook page and website, Maddie Strong, where she talked about her challenges with her disease. Once she even posted a video demonstrating how she gives herself SCIG treatments.

Maddie may have powered through at the beginning of her disease, but eventually the walls started crumbling. During the summer before college, she started looking around and realizing how much had been taken away from her.

“That’s when I started dealing with depression,” she says. “I was thrown so much off course. It was really, really hard. I know everything happens for a reason and I’m really I glad to be where I am. I’m glad I’m at York. I’m actually really happy I’m not playing soccer. But it took a lot out of me.”

It’s the friends she met along the way, the other kids who share this disease and understand the journey, who have helped her get through that dark time.

“They have always been the first families that we’ve reached out to,” Chris says. “If she was feeling really low or like life isn’t worth living anymore or the medicine is just too much, she always had people to turn to who could walk her through it, because they’ve already been there.”

Now as she prepares to start her junior year of college, Maddie is strong. She’s an education major, making the dean’s list, works with K through eighth graders at the York City schools, and is an education technology entrepreneur with a fun teaching app for kids she’s hoping to market. Best of all, her disease is in remission.

Still, kids who are struggling with coming to terms with the life-altering experience of a disabling rare disease diagnosis like JDM are never far from this young advocate’s mind.

“The one thing that I wish I could tell parents is, for kids who are going through this, the mental health aspects are a really big deal,” Maddie says. “I would say focus your attention more on the fact that your kid is going through a lot of mental stuff right now. They are confused and they don’t understand and its really scary. Just talk about what’s going on.”

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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 stories

Profile of a Plasma Donor Hero

Two-and-a-half years ago when she joined a book club through the Wounded Warriors Project (WWP), a nonprofit organization that provides programs and services for wounded veterans, Torey Reese wasn’t thinking about how much she enjoyed reading or needed some motivation to finish a book. She just wanted to find friends.

Like others in this caregiver’s group, Torey had a husband at home who had been injured during active duty as a Marine. She and her family had relocated to San Antonio, Texas a year and a half earlier. Her second child was born shortly after the move with some health problems that required several surgeries. Because of her family’s healthcare needs at the time, she wasn’t working, and she was feeling pretty isolated. The book club was a way for her to get together with others who shared some of the challenges she was dealing with.

“Pretty much immediately I thought I wanted to be friends with Amanda,” Torey says. “We loved similar types of books, and that just kind of sparked the friendship.”

Amanda Martin was there at the book club because she too cares for a former military husband with serious health issues. Since meeting three years ago, the two have found lots of other things they have in common, including children that are around the same age. And except for their current social distancing because of COVID-19, they and their kids have been inseparable.

But Amanda and her 9-year-old daughter Rita live with primary immunodeficiency disorders, which make them vulnerable to recurrent infections. Amanda depends on intravenous immune globulin (IVIG) infusions twice a month to stay healthy. Rita too receives subcutaneous IG weekly.

“Immune globulin helps control our infections,” Amanda says. “Our lives are so much better because of it. It enables my daughter to go to school. It enables me to be out in the community and to advocate for my husband. I wouldn’t be able to function as well as I do without it.”

When Torey found out about Amanda’s and Rita’s disorder and the life-saving therapy they depend on, she had to help. Immune globulin is not a drug that can be mixed up in a laboratory. It is made from donated human plasma, the golden-colored liquid that remains after the red blood cells are removed. It takes 130 plasma donations to treat one immunodeficiency patient for one year. When donations decrease, so do immune globulin supplies. If there is a shortage, as we had last summer, Amanda and Rita risk having to go a longer period of time between their infusions. They may even have to go without.

So once a week or so, Torey goes to one of more than 800 certified plasma donation centers in the country to give a bit of her plasma. She wishes she could donate twice a week, which is the maximum donors are allowed. But in addition to caring for her husband and two boys, Cayden 10 and Caspian 3, Torey now works as an accountant for a small nonprofit organization. Once a week is all she can manage right now. Still, this is a long-term commitment for Torey, who has been donating for nearly a year now.

“It’s something I can directly do to help them stay alive and stay healthy,” says Torey, who has donated plasma in the past. “I never knew anybody before who directly benefited from my donations. So when you have a person you care about, who is a real face and a real name and a real story to you, it’s hard to not want to help them. I mean, it’s a minor inconvenience to me, but it’s a major inconvenience to them.”

“I can’t express my gratitude enough for her doing this,” Amanda says with a catch in her throat. “It’s something my daughter and I talk about when we get our infusions. We’re very, very grateful and just lucky that Torey is healthy and willing to do it. This may not seem like a heroic thing to do, but for the people who benefit from it, it absolutely is.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a significant reduction in plasma donations in recent months. CSI Pharmacy, in partnership with the Immune Globulin National Society (IGNS) and their #ItsMyTurn campaign, urge those who are eligible to commit to donating plasma to help avoid a shortage of immune globulin and other life-saving plasma-derived products in the months to come. Reminder: It is important to seek out a certified plasma donation center to be sure your donation is used for IG products. (Donations made at blood banks and the Red Cross are not used to create IG products.)

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Advocacy Patient stories

Giving Back One Unit at a Time

Marianne Moyer got a standing ovation recently when she announced to a roomful of rare disease patients at a medical conference that her husband donates plasma every two weeks. Her husband, John, started donating blood and plasma more than 20 years ago, even before Marianne started relying on intravenous immune globulin (IVIG) therapy—a plasma-derived product—to treat myositis. Since then he estimates he has given about 18 gallons of blood and 63 gallons of plasma.

For those like Marianne who depend on immune globulin to help control inflammation in autoimmune and immune deficiency diseases, having enough plasma available to companies that make plasma products is a constant concern. Human plasma is not a drug that can be artificially synthesized. It requires people to donate on a regular basis so therapies such as immunoglobulins, coagulation factors, alpha-1 proteinase inhibitor, and albumin can be produced.

This is an important concern right now because fewer people are donating plasma because of coronavirus restrictions. Many citizens are staying home, which means many are not donating. Donation centers are also taking steps to create social distance within the facility, so they are asking donors to schedule appointments rather than drop in, and they are seating donors farther away from each other. Fewer donations now could mean a shortage of plasma-derived therapies in six to nine months.

Most people are aware of how important donating blood can be, especially when disaster strikes. People also assume that when they give their blood, whatever other blood products are needed can be derived from that donation. The truth is a bit more complicated, though.

Plasma is the golden yellow liquid part of human blood in which red blood cells and proteins are carried throughout the body. Donors can offer their whole blood—red cells and all—on a one-time basis or, like John has done, they can donate every 56 days.

Plasma donors, however, can give more often, because those all-important oxygen-carrying red blood cells are returned to their bloodstream during the donation process. And because plasma is manufactured into lifesaving therapies for many diseases, plasma donors are encouraged to give regularly—as often as twice a week, at a certified plasma donation center.

For the Moyers, volunteering in the community is a way of life. They have been running one of the most successful myositis support groups in southwest Florida for 13 years. Marianne has served on the board of the local Red Cross, and John has been treasurer of their homeowners association and property manager at their church. And they both volunteer with programs at the local public schools. For John, donating plasma is just another way to give back.

“September 11 happened shortly after we moved here to Florida,” John says. “I would donate blood when we lived in Washington, D.C. So when they were calling for blood [after the 9/11 attacks], we both rushed down to the hospital to donate.”

Marianne was heartbroken to find out that, because of her myositis, she was ineligible to donate. But John has been giving about every two weeks ever since. When Marianne was prescribed IVIG in 2003, his donations became even more personal.

Marianne has a form of myositis called necrotizing myopathy, an autoimmune disease of the muscles that makes it difficult for her to do things like climb stairs and lift even small objects. Myositis has also brought interstitial lung disease, which causes scarring in the lungs making it difficult for Marianne to breathe at times. Her IVIG infusions—which she receives in the comfort of her home—control these symptoms well, allowing her to live a fairly normal life.

“All the years when we were working, we didn’t have much time to participate in community affairs or charities,” John says. “Life has been good to us, and now that we are retired, I can afford to spend a couple hours at the donor center. It just makes me feel good to know that I’m helping, not just one person, but many people.”

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Patient stories

Stay Home

When Katherine Holt hears about people who are eager to end pandemic precautions she is outraged. Katherine is among those who are at highest risk from COVID-19 infection, not just because of her age: 76. She has chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP), an autoimmune disease that makes it hard for her to walk because of damage to the nerves in her legs.

For those like Katherine who live with autoimmune diseases or other chronic illnesses that put them at risk, one of their greatest fears is that people will start to relax coronavirus restrictions like social distancing and gathering in groups. They’re afraid this will increase COVID-19 cases and that vulnerable people like themselves will get sick.

“I just want to jump through the TV when I see people saying we don’t need to stay home,” she says. “It’s not time to lighten up, because it’s just going to make this pandemic longer, and more people will die.”

Katherine knows what she’s talking about. Until she retired, she worked most of her life as a nurse. She also started her career in the US Air Force. Between the two, she still feels a great deal of respect for authority and duty—an authority based on science and a duty to keep people healthy.

So Katherine is sticking to stay-at-home orders. She lives in Jonesboro, Arkansas with her sister Gloria and their four-legged family: four cats and two dogs. Katherine is grateful that her sister is so strict about making sure she is not exposed to coronavirus or other infections.

“In the beginning, my sister and I—she’s 67—looked at each other and we decided between the two of us I was the one at highest risk since I have CIDP,” Katherine says.

Gloria orders ahead and uses drive-through services at the grocery store and pharmacy. Anything that comes into the house sits in the garage for several hours before being brought inside. Then Gloria pulls on gloves and wipes everything down with alcohol or bleach before placing it in the pantry or refrigerator. In a fallback from Katherine’s days as a nurse, they even have a transition area between the outside (dirty) and the inside (clean) where they do the disinfecting.

Katherine had two doctor appointments scheduled during April, one with her PCP, the other with her neurologist. Both were routine checkups, and she was feeling fine, so she canceled them. She will call if she needs medication refills and reschedule when the pandemic precautions are lifted.

One thing she has not canceled is her IVIG therapy. She’s been receiving monthly treatments since 2008 and getting her infusions at home for about four years now. It’s the main thing that keeps her able to walk.

Katherine’s first infusions were done in a hospital. “I had to be there at 7 o’clock in the morning, and I was there all day. I got back home about six or seven at night, because they were giving it to me really slowly and checking all the vital signs and everything very frequently.”

When the hospital canceled her infusions several times in a row, she was getting a little desperate. She happened to have an appointment with her neurologist shortly after a representative from CSI Pharmacy had stopped by, talking about home infusion. The doctor put in the order, and three days later—on a weekend—Katherine was getting her infusion at home. Now with social distancing, home infusion makes even more sense.

“I think home infusion is the way to go,” she says. “It’s everything you could want. They made it all really easy. And I enjoy when they come, because finally I have another nurse to talk to.”

Ever the nurse, however, Katherine wants to educate the public about what it means to people like her for the country to flatten the curve.

“I just wish I could help other people understand how important it is to stay at home,” she says. “I’m praying people will see reason. If they draw on their good conscience, hopefully they’ll be able to say, oh, maybe we shouldn’t go back to business as usual just now.”