Woman Describes Battle with Neuromyelitis Optica (NMO)

Cealie Lawrence (right) has been battling a rare autoimmune disease affecting her eyes, spinal cord and brain. The symptoms were so debilitating, she moved in with her son Robert (left) to cope. Image courtesy of The Columbus Dispatch.

60-year-old Cealie Lawrence was working as a server at a local restaurant in the Columbus, Ohio area when she experienced a sudden change in her vision.

“I couldn’t see anything but darkness and a little light,” Lawrence said. “I panicked.”

Essentially blind in both eyes, she was taken by her co-worker to a local hospital where healthcare workers ran numerous tests on her, including a spinal tap. Unfortunately, the cause of her sudden blindness couldn’t be found – so she spent a week in hospital.

Lawrence was eventually diagnosed with neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorder (NMOSD), a chronic autoimmune disease in which the body’s own immune system attacks the optic nerves, spinal cord, and the brain. The condition can lead to blindness and even paralysis. It is also known as neuromyelitis optica (NMO) and Devic’s disease.

Dr. Geoffrey Eubank, Medical Director of the Mid-Ohio MS Center at OhioHealth Neurological Physicians, stated, “We know how bad [neuromyelitis optica] can be. We know it can put people in wheelchairs, make them blind, really impact them…This is a disease that frightens us.”

According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, there are an estimated 4,000 people living with NMOSD in the United States, and 250,000 living with the condition worldwide. Neuromyelitis optica is similar to multiple sclerosis (MS), since it’s also an autoimmune disease that impacts the central nervous system and disrupts the flow of information between the body an the brain, leading to permanent damage and deterioration of the nerves.

Eighty percent of those diagnosed with NMO are women. It occurs most commonly between the ages of 40 and 50, however, it’s been discovered in children as young as 3 and adults as old as 90. Research has found that demyelinating diseases are more common among certain populations, such as Africans, Asians and Native Americans.

As for Lawrence, her eyesight did slowly return after her stay in hospital, but she started suffering paralysis from the neck down months later. She then started physical and occupational therapy, which eventually allowed her to walk again. Despite this win, Lawrence’s NMO continued to relapse, and over a period of seven years, she made over 100 hospital visits.

“It was really bad,” she said, noting that the symptoms of her chronic illness were so debilitating, that they caused her to move in with her son Robert for help.

Five years ago, however, Lawrence found a ray of hope; she was enrolled in a clinical trial at OhioHealth for a new drug called Enspryng, a promising treatment for NMOSD, that’s been shown to reduce attacks of the disease. Since receiving the treatment, Lawrence says she hasn’t experienced a single NMO relapse.

“It’s a miracle,” she said of the drug Enspryng, which was officially approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in August 2020 for the treatment of NMOSD. This makes the drug the third approved treatment for the disorder, in addition to Soliris, which was approved in June 2019, and Uplizna, approved in June 2020.

“Thank God for the development of this medication because I truly believe it’s going to help a lot of people in my situation,” she said. “This is my second chance at life and [to live] more abundantly.”

Lawrence has since been able to move out of her son’s place and is now living independently.

“I was just existing before. I take care of me now,” she said proudly, noting that she is now enjoying her passion for cooking, playing with her grandchildren, and is even going back to school to pursue a degree in counseling.

“That’s a passion of mine because a lot of individuals, especially my age, that are suffering in silence,” she said. “I believe I could be a big influence and a big help to them.”

Lawrence credits her recovery to having a determined attitude and her faith in God.

“If I didn’t have God in my life, I truly feel that I wouldn’t be here right now,” she explained. “I had faith all along that even when I was paralyzed, lying in that hospital bed on my back, not being able to feed myself or do anything for myself…I maintained that I was not going to be flat on my back for the rest of my life.”

To learn more about Lawrence’s remarkable journey with NMO, read her full story in The Columbus Dispatch.

Can I get the COVID-19 vaccine if I have an autoimmune disease?

Is the COVID-19 vaccine right for autoimmune disease patients?
The COVID-19 vaccine is expected to roll out to members of the public in early 2021. Image courtesy of the BBC.

As the COVID-19 vaccine rolls out across the nation, many members of the public are wondering if getting vaccinated against the coronavirus is right for them. More specifically, those with autoimmune disorders, a disease class in which one’s own immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s own tissues, wonder if they are candidates for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Dr. Shafinaz Akhter, Physician at Chester County Hospital in Philadelphia, PA, states, “Our advice has always been that there is no harm to getting it. It is very unlikely that you’re going to have an adverse reaction or worsening symptoms from your underlying disease based upon receiving the vaccination.” For this reason, she says that at her hospital, they are recommending that anyone with an autoimmune disease, such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, or Crohn’s, get vaccinated.

Furthermore, Dr. Akhter adds that many autoimmune disease patients take immunosuppressants or other immune-modulating prescription drugs, which are medications designed to decrease immune system overactivity and the damaging inflammation that comes along with it. These medications may reduce the vaccine’s ability to stimulate your body to mount an immune response against the virus. For this reason, it’s important to speak with your healthcare provider regarding the timing of when you take your medications and when you receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Examples of such medications include methotrexate or rituximab.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, weighed in on the subject, stating, “It is clear that if you are on immunosuppressant agents, history tells us that you are not going to have as robust a response as if you had an intact immune system that was not being compromised. But some degree of immunity is better than no degree of immunity. So, for me, it would be recommended that these people do get vaccinated.”

The CDC, for its part, has stated that those with autoimmune conditions may receive the COVID-19 vaccine, while also acknowledging that no data currently exists with regards to the safety of these vaccines for autoimmune disease patients. 

The CDC adds that it is expected that the risk of the COVID vaccine for autoimmune disease patients to be minimal, based on the vaccine’s mechanism of action. This is because none of the COVID vaccines use a live virus, nor do they include an adjuvant, which is a substance that enhances the body’s immune response to an antigen. Finally, none of the available vaccines become incorporated in your own genetic material (i.e. DNA), since they are mRNA vaccines.

As with any new medical treatment, it’s encouraged to speak with your healthcare provider before making a decision on whether or not to get the vaccine, so that they can advise you based on your specific situation. To learn more about the COVID-19 vaccines, visit the CDC website.

Are you planning to get the COVID-19 vaccine? Let us know in the comments below!

10 Facts About Scleroderma

Kristine Cruz-Munda is a scleroderma patient who shares her story living with this autoimmune skin condition. Video courtesy of CBS LA.

According to the Scleroderma Foundation, scleroderma is a chronic connective tissue disease, and is generally classified as a rheumatic autoimmune disease. In patients with scleroderma, the body over-produces collagen, reacting as if there were an injury needing repair. This over-production of collagen prevents various organs in the body from functioning normally.

While this condition is poorly understood, there is some information about the disease that we do know. Read on to learn 10 facts about scleroderma.

1. Scleroderma is more common than you think

It’s estimated that 300,000 Americans live with scleroderma. Of these 300,000 patients, approximately 1/3 live with the systemic form of the disease. However, it’s possible that the number of scleroderma patients is actually much higher, since diagnosing this skin condition can be difficult, as the disorder bears a lot of similarities to other autoimmune diseases, such as polymyositis.

2. Localized scleroderma is the first main type

The two main types of scleroderma are localized and systemic. With localized scleroderma, symptoms such as skin thickening and collagen overproduction are limited to a few places on the skin or muscles, and internal organs are usually not affected. In general, localized scleroderma is relatively mild and rarely develops into systemic scleroderma.

Morphea and linear scleroderma are two sub-classifications of this form of the disease, which appear as patches or streaks on the skin, respectively.

3. Systemic scleroderma is the second main type

In contrast to localized scleroderma, systemic scleroderma affects the connective tissue in many parts of the body, including the skin, esophagus, gastrointestinal tract (stomach and bowels), lungs, kidneys, heart, and other internal organs. It can even impact blood vessels, muscles, and joints. These tissues become hard and fibrous, which decreases their function.

There are two sub-classifications of systemic scleroderma – diffuse and limited. Diffuse scleroderma results in a rapid skin thickening across a larger portion of the skin. Patients with this form of the disease have more internal organ involvement as well. Conversely, limited scleroderma occurs when the skin thickening is less widespread, and is usually confined to the fingers, hands and face. It tends to develop slowly over time.

4. Limited scleroderma is also called CREST syndrome

Limited scleroderma is sometimes referred to as CREST syndrome, an acronym which stands for the different symptoms this condition causes:

  • Calcinosis – an accumulation of calcium deposits under the skin, which may cause pain
  • Raynaud’s – a phenomenon in which small arteries that supply blood to the skin constrict excessively in response to cold, limiting blood supply to one’s fingers and toes and changing their color
  • Esophageal dysfunction – a stiffening of the gastrointestinal tract muscles, resulting in reflux and indigestion
  • Sclerodactyly – the hardening of the skin on one’s fingers and/or toes
  • Telangiectasias – round, red spots on the skin’s surface as a result of widened small blood vessels

5. Scleroderma can affect one’s lungs

Pulmonary symptoms can occur in patients with systemic scleroderma. For example, patients may develop pulmonary hypertension, a condition in which the lung’s blood vessels narrow, which results in impaired blood flow in the lungs. This, in turn, causes shortness of breath.

6. Your gender, age, ethnicity and genetics may play a role

Scleroderma affects women up to three to four times more frequently than their male counterparts. According to the Mayo Clinic, the condition most commonly occurs between the ages of 30 and 50, although children can also develop the disease. One’s ethnic background may also influence the risk of developing the disease, the age of onset, and the severity of one’s symptoms. Although it’s believed that genetics play a role in the development of scleroderma, genetic factors are thought to only predispose a person to the disease, rather than cause it.

7. Other autoimmune issues may co-occur

Since scleroderma is an autoimmune disease, it may occur in conjunction with other autoimmune issues. According to the Mayo Clinic, between 15-20% of scleroderma patients have another autoimmune disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus or Sjogren’s syndrome. This is why it’s important for patients to get evaluated for other potential co-morbidities as well.

8. There is no cure, but treatments do exist

While there is no known cure for scleroderma, treatment options do exist to help patients manage their symptoms and to prevent further complications of the disease. For example, your doctor may prescribe steroids to help you cope with skin symptoms. Blood pressure medications may also be used to treat Raynaud’s phenomenon. Anti-acids and antibiotics can help reduce digestive issues and prevent infections. Immunosuppressants may be prescribed to reduce overactivity of your immune system and to decrease damaging inflammation. And finally, pain medications may also be used to decrease pain if over-the-counter pain medications aren’t effective enough.

9. Surgery may be necessary

In extreme cases, surgery may be required for certain scleroderma patients. For example, patients with severe Raynaud’s phenomenon in their fingers or toes may have tissues that die off or develop painful sores; consequently, amputation of these tissues may be required. Also, in patients with heavy lung involvement, a lung transplant may be necessary to help the patient breathe.

10. Scleroderma support groups are here to help

The Scleroderma Foundation offers numerous local chapters and support groups, designed to help patients connect with others living with the disease. These support groups provide a forum to share feelings, concerns, information with others, and act as a place to offer peer support and encouragement. To find your local support group in the US, visit the scleroderma chapter locator.

Do you or someone you love suffer from scleroderma? What has been your experience living with the disease? Let us know in the comments below!