Woman with Rare Autoimmune Disease Undergoes High-Risk Treatment

Shelley Clark-Collins and her partner Mark Doyle have travelled to Ottawa, Ontario so that she can receive an innovative treatment for her rare autoimmune disease (Photo: CBC News)

Shelley Clark-Collins, a 56-year-old woman from Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, is looking to undergo a high-risk procedure to treat her rare autoimmune disease.

Clark-Collins lives with dermatomyositis, an autoimmune condition in which her body’s own immune system mistakenly attacks her healthy cells, causing inflammatory, painful and degenerative changes to her skin and muscles. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, symptoms of the disease include rashes and spotting on the skin, swelling, stiff joints, muscle weakness and aches, difficulty swallowing, voice changes, fatigue, fever, and weight loss. Dermatomyositis can also cause other autoimmune and connective disease conditions, like lupus, and increase the risk of developing cancer.

Dermatomyositis is extremely rare, affecting fewer than 10 in 1 million people, according to an estimate from the National Organization for Rare Disorders (NORD). The disease most often occurs in adults ages 40-60, and juvenile dermatomyositis occurs most commonly in children and youth between the ages of 5 and 15.

Because of its rarity, Clark-Collins had a difficult time getting diagnosed. As a hairdresser, she suddenly found that she was so weak, she could no longer hold up a blow dryer or stand for long periods of time. She was falling down frequently, couldn’t get out of the bathtub, or lift her bed sheets. She was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) after a neurologist found a lesion in her brain.

“But what he was treating me with [for MS] wasn’t working,” explained Clark-Collins. After seeing numerous specialists, she was diagnosed with “everything but the kitchen sink,” she recalls, including cancer, arthritis, and Grave’s disease. A dermatologist even told her that she should see a psychiatrist for Empty Nest Syndrome as a result of her kids moving out.

Despite these setbacks, Clark-Collins was eventually correctly diagnosed with dermatomyositis through blood work and muscle biopsies. Since then, the disease has affected her health and wellbeing substantially. Prior to developing the disease, she was an avid marathon runner and outdoor enthusiast, enjoying kayaking, rock climbing, and skiing. Now, she says that walking to her car is a feat. She sleeps in a chair because getting in and out of bed is too difficult with her muscle weakness. She has difficulty swallowing and talking, and has suffered irreparable damage to her heart and lungs. She’s had a stroke, blood clots, and a life-threatening sepsis infection.

Dr. Harold Atkins is pioneering a new treatment designed to help patients with dermatomyositis, a rare autoimmune disease.

However, Clark-Collins has found hope in a new procedure being pioneered by Ottawa, Ontario-based Dr. Harold Atkins. The innovative procedure is a combination of intense chemotherapy and a blood stem cell transplant. The chemotherapy will destroy her diseased immune system, and the stem cells from her bone marrow will be removed, purified and re-injected into her body. It’s a risky and aggressive procedure that aims to reset her immune system – but there are no guarantees that it will work. With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, re-setting her immune system also leaves her extremely vulnerable to contagious diseases, meaning she could easily die should she catch the virus.

Despite the risks, Clark-Collins says she’s “very excited,” and is looking forward to the possibility of reclaiming her life. As a mother of two adult children, she says “it’s been hard on [my kids] to watch me decline like that.”

Plus, she’s running out of options. She has developed a resistance to several of her medications already, she can’t take large doses of steroids for much longer, and her opioid painkiller can cause an addiction. She also goes to the hospital once a week for plasmapheresis, a procedure in which her plasma (the liquid part of the blood) is separated from her blood cells, and is replaced with new plasma. But this treatment isn’t guaranteed to work forever.

With this new treatment, the hope is that her dermatomyositis will go into remission. Clark-Collins says she dreams of being able to regain her independence, start running again, and just to be able to hug her children without excruciating pain.

“Just maybe [I’ll] get a little big of my life back,” she said hopefully.

To learn more about Clark-Collins’ battle with dermatomyositis, read the full story on CBC News.

Study Reveals Increased ADHD Risk in Children Born to Mothers with Autoimmune Disease

Australian researchers have found a potential link between ADHD in children and maternal autoimmune disease. Image courtesy of Kids’ Health.

An Australian study has found a potential link between autoimmune disease and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The study took place over a decade, from 2000 to 2010, following more than 63,000 children born at full-term in New South Wales, Australia. Study author Timothy Nielsen, a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, said that they were able to identify 12,610 mothers who had one or more of 35 common autoimmune diseases, such as type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, Crohn’s, psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, lupus, Sjogren’s or rheumatoid arthritis, to name a few. The children were identified as having a diagnosis of ADHD, or a prescription for stimulants.

The study also included a meta-analysis of existing research on this topic. The combined results of the longitudinal study and the meta-analysis found that when the mother had a diagnosis of any autoimmune disease, [this was] associated with a higher risk of ADHD in their child at later ages.

While researchers don’t know the exact reason why women with autoimmune disorders are more likely to have children with ADHD, researchers do have a hypothesis. It’s believed that maternal autoantibodies, which attack the mother’s own tissues, cross the placenta into the unborn fetus during pregnancy. Inflammatory molecules, therefore, could potentially do the same. These molecules could, in turn, alter fetal brain development, either by altering epigenetic markers, which turn certain genes on or off, or by impacting the function and formation of synapses, which allow nerve cells to communicate.

Nielsen explained, “These changes may lead directly to ADHD symptoms, or they may make the child more vulnerable to environmental risk factors.” He continued, “Our team is currently working on research into the causal mechanisms that underlie the association between autoimmune disease and ADHD, which may shed light on whether the severity of disease, symptoms, use of medications or other inflammatory factors modifies the risk of ADHD.”

This is the first study that explores the correlation between maternal autoimmune disease and the risk of ADHD in children. Other research has shown a link between autoimmune disease in mothers and other neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), tics and Tourette’s syndrome.

Read the original study published in JAMA Pediatrics here: Association of Maternal Autoimmune Disease with ADHD in Children.

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How Chronic Illness Can Kill Your Self-Esteem

Chronic Illness and Self-Esteem

I recently read a post on Reddit on the r/autoimmunity subreddit titled ‘Losing Everything‘. In the post, the author describes being diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome, an autoimmune condition affecting one’s moisture-producing glands. The author has also been living with other autoimmune diseases, including Graves’ disease, Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and Granulomatosis with Polyangiitis (GPA), for quite some time.

She goes on to say that since being diagnosed with these conditions, she feels like she is losing everything that makes her ‘herself’. For example, she is an artist, but she has lost the use of her dominant hand as a result of her conditions, leading her to quit her art. She also had a unique style, with beautiful thick hair and piercings. However, most of her hair has now fallen out and she had to remove her piercings due to constant infections.

The author’s post made me think of my own struggle with chronic illness and how having Sjogren’s Syndrome, Hidradenitis Suppurativa (HS) and Benign Fasciculation Syndrome (BFS) has impacted my sense of self.

Although I have both good days and bad days, I often resent my body and these diseases for what they have ‘taken away’ from my life. I often think to myself, what would I have accomplished by now had it not been for this disease? Would I be further along in my career? My education? Would I have more social connections and deeper friendships? It’s hard to quantify, but I feel like my life would have been very different had I not developed autoimmune issues. In other words, I don’t feel like I can be my true ambitious self because of my chronic illnesses.

I could also relate to the author’s mention of her outward appearance, like her hair and piercings. I notice that I often think ‘why bother?’ when it comes to things like fashion and beauty, which were important to me before my diagnosis. I think this is because I’ve adopted the mindset that I am ‘diseased’, so why bother to look nice? This is definitely a negative mindset that I’m continuing to work on, but, I think it’s important to acknowledge how chronic illness can impact your sense of self- whether it’s your own self-image, or even your outward appearance.

I also recently read a powerful testimony on The Mighty by Megan Klenke titled, ‘How Chronic Illness Can Drastically Affect Your Self-Esteem’. In her post, she describes the shame that many individuals with chronic conditions and disabilities face, such as having to ask for help to do tasks that they once did independently, using a wheelchair, or dealing with embarrassing side effects of medications. Furthermore, Megan also points out that simple things like missing family functions or get-togethers with friends as a result of illness can make one feel left out and like an ‘awful’ family member or friend.

A YouTuber I follow named Samantha Wayne also created a video detailing her struggle with the impact of lupus on her self-image. She ended up being hospitalized and had to take time off to rest. During this time, she says she felt useless and like she wasn’t doing enough. Also, she had to step back from her job because being on her feet all day was taking a toll on her health. The medications she was taking, such as prednisone, also impacted her outward appearance.

Samantha did say that leaning on her support system has helped her to get through negative feelings about her self-worth. She also says that realizing that everyone is worthy, regardless of their health status, has also helped. Furthermore, she says that while her disease caused her to lose certain hobbies, like competitive basketball, she was able to adopt new hobbies and learn new skills such as video blogging on her YouTube channel, which she started in order to raise awareness about lupus. Finally, she says that practicing gratitude for the things she can do and what she has is another way that has helped to overcome her low self-esteem.

Has having a chronic illness impacted your self-confidence, and if so, how have you handled it? Let us know in the comments below!

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