A new year brings a new NMO neurologist
After attending the Dallas symposium and the L.A. conference, I was convinced I needed a new neurologist. While I’d been with Dr. Brod since my NMO diagnosis in 2003, I never felt completely confident nor comfortable with him as my primary neurologist. He did manage to pull through with getting me the Rituxan therapy, but there had been numerous times when he was not readily available during one of my attacks. Instead of getting a hold of him (who knew my case best), I would be connected to one of his on-call colleagues who refused to prescribe me the necessary meds, mainly steroids over the phone because they were “not familiar with my case.” Instead, I would be told to proceed to my nearest ER to get the proper meds, and this would irritate me to no end because why should I have to wait in the ER and pay a hefty ER bill for something I already knew I needed? Also, all of the ER attendants I’ve dealt with in the past never knew exactly what NMO was, and they would take a very long time consulting other doctors or even the big medical handbook before coming back to tell me I needed steroids and I needed them quick. (Duh!) The other problem with Dr. Brod’s inaccessibility is that NMO exacerbations require a quick administering of treatment because symptoms worsen so severely in such a short amount of time. Within hours, a NMO patient could go from normal motor function or normal vision to paraplegia or complete blindness in one or both eyes. This gives more reason as to why NMO attacks need to be treated ASAP. And with all the difficult times I’ve experienced in trying to get the proper care through Dr. Brod or his associates, I finally decided to start seeking a neurologist elsewhere. I was tired of dictating my own healthcare; even though I’m an educated patient, I’m still the patient, and the fact that these doctors seemed so stingy with their medical advice, I just grew impatient and exhausted.
But enough about that. This is not at all a post about bashing particular neurologists–that is not at all my intention. It is more like an editorial review of my care in the past versus my present (and hopefully future) care.
I first met Dr. Benjamin Greenberg at the Dallas symposium where he was the hosting physician. I had expressed at the time that I was not 100% happy with my current care team, and so he suggested I try coming to his NMO clinic for a second opinion. And that is exactly what I did on January 6th.
John and I drove up to Dallas Wednesday evening for my appointment with Dr. Greenberg Thursday afternoon. I came prepared with a list of questions and concerns (which is key to having a successful doctor’s appointment–I’ll blog about how to manage your care team soon) and spent about 90 minutes with Dr. G. He thoroughly addressed all my issues, and I could tell by our discussion that he had indeed gone over my medical records and MRI films. I liked that he did his “homework” and was familiar with my medical history. My vision loss, he said, seems to be the main manifestation of the disease, and he attributed this to two reasons: (1) there is damaged myelin around the optic nerve fibers, and (2) there is damage to the actual optic nerve “wires.” The former, he said, would be easier to repair; the latter, not so much. There are, however, two studies currently happening. The first is getting the patient’s myelin to reproduce within the patient’s own body. The second is to inject stem cells into the back of the patient’s eyes and cultivate them to regrow optic nerve fibers and myelin. As for the timeline, I have no idea. Dr. G did reassure me that we are closer to figuring out NMO than MS, which is utterly ironic considering MS has so much more funding and awareness than NMO.
We also discussed my ongoing Rituximab treatment. Currently, I was only being reinfused once my B-cell count reached above 2% (normal range for a healthy human being between 2% and 10%). With this measurement, I’d been able to avoid reinfusion for an average of at least 12 months. Dr. G, however, has a protocol of reinfusing his patients every six months regardless of the B-cell count. When I expressed my desire to prolong the Rituxan as long as possible (who wants to get chemo when they don’t feel they have to?), he said it’s ultimately up to me, but then monthly B-cell and CBC monitoring becomes crucial. He also mentioned that there seems to be cases in which patients who wait for some B-cells to build back up in their system before killing them off again with Rituxan develop a resistance to the Rituxan. This is rare, he affirmed, but it has happened, so why allow the possibility of resistance? Why not keep the B-cells from ever coming back? Why not continue Rituxan infusions going every six months before any B-cells return? Hmm…interesting point he makes here. Now I’ll have to think more about this matter.
Dr. G also said there seems to be a trend in patients when the B-cell count reaches 1-2%, there is only a two-week window after that when the patient’s B-cell count will skyrocket to 7% or higher, placing the patient at high risk for an attack. This means getting the proper immunosuppressive meds within those two weeks is also crucial, so he prefers to keep the patient’s B-cells at bay with more regular infusions.
I told Dr. G I was concerned with how long I could remain on the Rituxan, explaining that I’d read how patients were sometimes taken off the Rituxan after five years. Dr. G said as far as he knew, as long as the patient was responding well to the Rituxan (i.e. the drug was keeping attacks at a minimum), he saw no need to move on to a different treatment. He admitted that he did not know the long-term effects of Rituxan on NMO since it was mostly used for cancer. He mentioned that he does know someone who has used it for NMO for nine years.
After we talked some more about drugs and treatments for the acute symptoms I experience most frequently–including neuropathic pain, sphincter dysinergia (when it’s hard to get the urinary flow started or if the flow tends to stop mid-stream), a low libido, insomnia, and fatigue–I asked if he could recommend me a local neurologist in Houston with whom he could work together with for my care. He referred me to Dr. George Hutton of Baylor, saying he was a neurologist he fully trusts. He is also going to recommend me a PCP as John and I have been in search of one ever since we moved to our new home in a different part of town.
After discussing the “serious” stuff, we shot the sh*t a little bit. Dr. G asked both John and me what we do.
“Aren’t you a chef or something?” Dr. G said.
Surprised, I had to laugh. “No, I’m in grad school for writing,” I said, tickled that somehow, the existence of this website must’ve traveled through the NMO grapevine to the doctor’s ears.
Overall, I felt my visit was pleasant and thorough. It was worth the trek to and from Dallas. Of course, if you ask John if it was worth it, you may get a different answer. But in return, I am rewarding him with one free round of golf.