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.

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!

Christopher Cross Nearly Dies from COVID-19, Temporarily Paralyzed by Autoimmune Disease

Famed singer-songwriter Christopher Cross recently detailed his excruciating battle with COVID-19 in an exclusive interview with CBS.

In the interview, the 69-year-old Grammy winner described his ordeal as ‘the worst 10 days of [his] life,’ saying that he had a number of ‘come to Jesus moments’ where he was left begging for his life from a higher power.

Cross states that in early March, when the pandemic had just struck North America, he and his girlfriend Joy were touring in Mexico City for a concert. Upon their return to the United States, they fell ill and ended up testing positive for COVID-19.

“Nobody knew about masks, or anything like that,” Cross said. “No one wore masks on the plane, no one was doing that. We weren’t made aware that it was a problem.” In total, he and his girlfriend were sick for about three weeks’ time. While Joy continued to get better, Cross got continuously sicker, landing him in the intensive care unit at the hospital for 10 days.

In April, Cross says he finally began to feel better, and ended up going to the supermarket. However, when he returned home, his legs completely gave out. That’s when he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS), a neurological autoimmune disease which causes the body to attack its own nerves. His doctors believe that he developed Guillain-Barre Syndrome as a direct result of COVID-19.

Describing his COVID-19 and Guillain-Barre diagnosis, Cross says tearfully, “I couldn’t walk, I could barely move. And so, it was certainly the darkest of times for me…It really was touch-and-go, and tough.” He became paralyzed from the waist down, and his hands were paralytic as well; being a professional musician, he was concerned he would never be able to play the guitar again.

Guillain-Barre is one of many devastating effects that have been reported by COVID-19 survivors. Early in the pandemic, disturbing reports came out about multisystem inflammatory syndrome, an autoimmune complication in children who had been affected by the virus. It is thought to be similar to Kawasaki disease, an inflammatory condition affecting the heart’s coronary arteries.

Though Cross himself was only temporarily paralyzed by Guillain-Barre, he reports that he is still feeling the impact of this neurological autoimmune disease now. Initially, he used a wheelchair, and though he no longer needs it, he now relies on a cane as his mobility aid. He also suffers from nerve pain, brain fog, memory loss and issues with his speech.

Christopher Cross undergoes physical therapy to heal from the affects of Guillain-Barre and COVID-19.

Last month, Cross shared further details on his Instagram page about his grueling recovery, and paid tribute to the medical staff that helped him during that harrowing time, saying, “I’m grateful for my care team, especially my physical therapist, who has helped me to build strength and walk again.” He continued, “I realize that I am lucky to have survived COVID-19 and be on the mend from GBS. Most of all, I am blessed to have the love and support of many people.”

Though he’s recovered from the coronavirus, and has a 90% to 100% prognosis of making a full recovery from Guillain-Barre, Cross explained that he still wants to share his story to help others. “I felt it was sort of my obligation to share with people: ‘Look, this is a big deal…you’ve got to wear your mask. You’ve got to take care of each other. Because this could happen to you.'”

As part of his healing, Cross is turning to his music, which has always been a source of solace for the singer-songwriter. And, he can’t wait to get back to touring…when it’s safe to do so, of course!