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Advocacy Patient communities

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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Health Information Patient communities

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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Health Information

Telemedicine How-to

As coronavirus control measures keep us at home, many in our patient communities may be worried about how they can access needed health care. In addition to symptoms that might be COVID-19, people still need ongoing care for their myositis, myasthenia gravis, CIDP, and other chronic conditions even during the pandemic. And of course there will still be concerns about injuries, tick bites, allergies, and other everyday needs.

Fortunately, telemedicine is emerging as a way for patients to get the care they need without having to visit the doctor’s office, urgent care clinic, or emergency room. During the COVID-19 crisis, regulations and payment policies are being relaxed to allow access to care remotely, so you don’t have to risk exposure to coronavirus infection. Remote visits allow you to discuss your healthcare issues in real time with your healthcare provider by phone, email, video chat, or through your provider’s patient portal.

If you contact your provider and he or she recommends a virtual visit, here are some ways you can prepare ahead of time so you can make the most of this opportunity:

  • Take care of the routine requests. If you need medication refills or paperwork for your employer or insurance plan, you can ask the office staff for this over the phone or manage it through the patient portal. You may not even need a visit with the provider for this.
  • Check with your insurance plan. Many insurance plans are providing coverage for telemedicine services. It’s best to give them a call ahead of time, however, just to be sure your visit will be covered.
  • List your medical concerns. Write down the two or three issues you want to be sure to discuss during the virtual visit, so you don’t forget the important things. (It’s a good idea to do this with in-person visits too.)
  • List your medications. Write down all the medications—including over-the-counter meds and supplements—that you are currently taking. Include the dose and how often you take them. And be sure to mention anything you take “as needed,” such as pain medications and antacids.
  • List your symptoms. Write out what symptoms are giving you trouble, when they started, how they have changed, what seems to trigger them, and what seems to make them better.
  • Send photos. Skin issues, such as rashes, bruises, moles, lumps, and insect bites can be “examined” by the provider in a picture. Be sure the image is in focus and you have good lighting when you take the picture. If a rash is spreading, you can take a series of photos over several hours or days, drawing a circle around the area with a pen. Be sure to note the date and time. Ask the staff when you make the appointment how they prefer you to send these images: email, text, or through the patient portal.
  • Organize your data. If you have been monitoring symptoms, such as blood pressure, blood sugar, weight (to identify water retention), or temperature, have these numbers organized and available. It’s also a good idea to have this equipment available during the visit so you can take these measurements then too.
  • Be ready to talk. Be prepared to answer the phone at the time of the appointment so you aren’t playing phone tag. Find a quiet place with good cell phone reception so you and the provider can both hear well.
  • Know your equipment. If you are using video applications, be sure you know how the technology works ahead of time. You may even want to test out the camera and microphone on your device ahead of time.

Not all issues lend themselves to telemedicine visits. Emergency situations, such as a heart attack or stroke, cuts or lacerations, or broken bones that require x-rays, splints, or casts need to be handled at the emergency room. Telemedicine also won’t work for procedures, such as PAP smears, mammograms, EMG studies, and cardiograms (unless you have special equipment that can collect and transmit an EKG).

Generally, virtual visits work best for simple issues and follow-up consultations that don’t require hands-on examination or in-person observation. Your provider’s office staff can help you decide if a telemedicine visit will work or if your concern might be better handled in person.

If you do need to go to the office or emergency room, you can be sure that everything possible is being done to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Most providers screen patients on the phone to be sure they don’t have symptoms of infection. If they do, those patients are usually seen outside in their car, so they don’t bring the virus into the office.

Equipment and clinic surfaces are disinfected thoroughly and frequently. Healthcare providers usually wear as much personal protective gear as they have available, including gloves, gowns, masks, eye protection, and shoe coverings. You should also wear a mask whenever you go anywhere other people may be nearby, including to a medical facility.

Categories
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)
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CSI Pharmacy stories

Caring for and about Patients

When Michelle Vogel joined CSI Pharmacy as Vice President for Advocacy and Provider Relations in 2016, one of the first things she did was take owner James Sheets to a support group for myositis patients.

From the very beginning, CSI had been committed to caring for patients, not just filling prescriptions. But until this point, the only interactions the pharmacists, nurses, and staff had with patients was when they provided their infusions.

“He didn’t really know about working with patient communities, so I took him to participate in The Myositis Association support group in Houston,” Michelle says. “That’s when James became dedicated to helping patient communities.”

“I went there to talk about IVIG ,” James says. “I went in there thinking this will be great. I can really help this community learn a lot. But when I heard some of what patients were experiencing, I realized I had so much more to learn. That’s really where my passion for building relationships with the rare disease community came from.”

James and Michelle and some other staff started making a habit of attending support group meetings, not just for myositis, but for myasthenia gravis and other rare diseases that are part of CSI’s patient community.

These support groups are a place where people who live with a rare disease can get together with others who have the same disease. At the meetings, patients and caregivers share their experiences of dealing with the challenges of things like symptoms, treatments, and living with chronic or disabling conditions. When they participate in these gatherings, the CSI staff gain valuable insight into what their patients deal with on a daily basis. It makes a difference in how the pharmacy works with patients.

Knowing more about myositis as a disease, for example, and the sorts of challenges patients face in dealing with it gives CSI much more ammunition in helping them access treatments, most of which are used “off label” and can be very expensive.

“When we’re working to get approvals from insurance companies,” Michelle says, “we’re able to ensure that the patient meets the diagnostic criteria of their individual health insurance plan. There is no reason why these lifesaving therapies should be denied when we can submit it to insurance appropriately.”

Having an advocacy program also supports the physicians who prescribe treatments like immune globulin therapy, infused and injected immune suppressants, and cutting-edge biologic treatments.

In addition to advocating for patient access with insurance providers, Michelle can also help people find copay assistance programs to help cover the expenses insurance doesn’t. There are also some financial assistance programs that can help patients with extraordinary medical expenses. And if a person’s insurance is too restrictive, she can help them choose a plan that works more to their advantage.

And then there are the times when CSI just needs to bend over backwards to get the patient their treatments. Michelle tells a story, for example, of an uninsured patient who had been diagnosed with myasthenia gravis. She had applied for social security disability and was waiting for approval, so she would be eligible for Medicare, but it would be three or four months before her hearing with a judge. Meanwhile, she needed IVIG treatment to live.

Michelle was sure the judge would approve the patient for social security disability, making her eligible for Medicare. She also knew Medicare would cover the treatment retroactively. So, CSI agreed to provide all the patient’s medications while she awaited approval. Michelle even contacted the patient’s physicians to ask if they would waive their fees during that waiting period. (They could always bill Medicare later.) Three months later, the patient was approved, and the physicians and the pharmacy all got paid.

“We had to pay for everything in advance, but in the end it all worked out,” Michelle says. “I don’t know of any other specialty pharmacy that would do that. There’s that trust, that extra step for patients. That’s really what you need, because if you do things right, it all comes back tenfold.”