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.
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.