Sunday, December 31, 2017

New Year’s Eve Through MS Eyes

(This essay was first posted two years ago. Guess this makes it a golden not so oldie, but it's timely and the sentiments expressed will hold true as long as MS remains my unwanted life partner…)

Back in in the days before I got jumped by MS I always loved New Year’s Eve. While many of my fellow habitual night crawlers derided the night’s festivities as “amateur’s hour”, a time when those less accustomed to nocturnal hijinks were apt to get sloppy and make fools of themselves, I embraced the ringing in of the new year con mucho gusto. Never content with just one party for the duration of the night, my friends and I would go on a kind of New Year’s Eve tour, hitting four or five shindigs and nightclubs before heading home well after dawn on January 1. The sentimentality of the holiday, with its tacit promises of sins forgiven and futures bright with hope held me in its thrall.  Though I seemed to live in a state of perpetual neurotic dissatisfaction, I also brimmed with expectations that bigger and brighter days were waiting just over the horizon. New Year’s Eve was the one night a year that this heady brew of emotions and expectations were codified into celebration, to be shared with friends and strangers alike.

For sure, my fondness for the holiday has its roots in my early childhood. My mom and dad divorced when I was three, and for several years after the split my mom and I lived with my grandmother and my unmarried aunt. On New Year’s Eve my young, single mom – who herself loved the nightlife – would head out with her friends into the NYC of the swinging 60s, and my grandmother, aunt, and I would watch Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians playing old timey big band hits for the well-heeled crowd at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, broadcast live to our ragged black and white console TV. We didn’t have much money and lived in a building in the Bronx that was closer to a tenement than a high-rise, but our lack of means did nothing to diminish the excitement and expectations of the evening.

Though I was only four or five years old, on New Year’s Eve I was allowed to stay up till midnight to take part in a family tradition that stretched back decades. We didn’t have any fancy noisemakers or horns, but at the stroke of midnight, as confetti and balloons floated down on the well to do at the Waldorf and Guy Lombardo’s boys played “Auld Lang Syne”, my grandmother, aunt, and I grabbed sturdy but well-worn metal pots and pans. Then, using big spoons as drumsticks, we burst into the hallway of our apartment building, banging with joyous intensity on those old, scarred cooking implements, creating a raucous racket and shouting at the top of our lungs “Happy New Year’s!” Most of the other residents of the building joined us in creating a jubilant and low rent but somehow defiant cacophony, delirious and intoxicating stuff for the very young me. I daresay that for those few moments we had a lot more fun than the swells at the Waldorf.

When I grew older, as a young adult I fully embraced the revelry of the holiday. I had quite a few memorable New Year’s Eves in my late teens through my mid 20s, from seeing the new wave band The Waitresses playing a show at 5 AM at the famous Peppermint Lounge to bumming cigarettes from a then barely known Howie Mandel at an MTV “after party” that rollicked on and on as if it might never end. I recall with great fondness stumbling out of a nightclub with a group of deliriously intoxicated friends and madly howling at the moon as the last seconds ticked away on one long ago year. As I transitioned into full adulthood, mixed in with raucous annual celebrations were the occasional intimate, more romantic New Year’s get-togethers with lovers and close friends. No matter the circumstances, though, the night never passed without champagne and good cheer, and always kindled within me expectations of bigger and better things to come.

Now, nearly 13 years since I was diagnosed with Primary Progressive MS, the night carries with it a much more complex and troublesome mix of emotions. For the first several years after my creeping paralysis struck, while I was still relatively able bodied, my wife and I would host New Year’s Eve parties, more sedate than my revelries of the past but good times nonetheless. Now, with my body increasingly compromised and my stamina waning, even a small gathering of friends can prove taxing. This New Year’s it was just my wife and me watching celebrations from around the world beamed into our living room in high definition on our big-screen TV, images so crisp and detailed it seemed as though I could step right into them. That is, if I could step.

Despite my best efforts to stay fixed in the moment, I soon found it impossible to watch millions of people celebrating without enviously contrasting their situation with my own. With nary a thought given to their tremendous good fortune at simply having limbs and senses intact, the televised multitudes danced and sang, drank and strutted, laughed and hugged and mingled and voiced exuberant expectations about a future brimming with possibilities. Lubricated by flowing booze and the magic of the night, all could convince themselves that the coming days held better fortunes then those which now belonged to history.

For the healthy masses, New Year’s Eve crystallizes the reality that the future is but a blank canvas, the images to be painted on it not predetermined but subject to the will of each individual. All but the most intransigent of difficulties will give way to effort, ingenuity, and discipline. Reality is but a construct of the human mind and the emotions it creates, and as such can be born anew once the self-defeating habits of the past are no longer allowed to dictate actions in the present. Not that these kinds of changes are easy, but with sound body and mind anything – anything – is possible. Sadly, it took my getting sick for me to fully understand this, but there is no greater truth.

And here I sat in a wheelchair – a wheelchair, goddamnit – trying my best to not begrudge the healthy, to vicariously share in at least some of the delirium, to laugh along with them and not let the sneaky tears that kept making their way to the corners of my eyes expose the turmoil that roiled within. There is indeed a reason they call progressive disease progressive. Physically, this last year has been a rough one, with old symptoms getting noticeably worse and new ones breaking the surface. Activities that could be accomplished with relative ease just a year ago are now at times tortuously difficult, and some of those that had been difficult have become damn near impossible. And by activities I don’t mean anything as devilishly complicated as walking or tying a shoe, but rather firmly gripping a fork, or struggling into a sweater, or on bad days, even just staying out of bed for more than four or five hours at a time. 

Unlike those healthy New Year’s Eve revelers on TV, no amount of willpower or change of habits will arrest this bitter physical decline. Though for the most part my spirit stays strong, in the face of this insidious physical onslaught and its accompanying indignities I find it impossible to not at times give way to the weight of it all, having my breath taken away daily by the shocking realization that this is no dream that I can wake from, but instead a concrete reality in which I am being forced to watch myself slowly wither away. The mantra of “staying in the moment” does help to keep me grounded, but there are also times when the moment just sucks. Though I can and do fantasize about a future free from illness, my utter conviction to stare this bastard straight in the eyes lands such fantasies well into the realm of the far-fetched, right there alongside my old dreams of becoming the next Mick Jagger or Philip Roth.

New Year’s Eve is a time to look back and project forward, and for the healthy this shedding of the old and embracing of the new can be cathartic, if even just for a few hours. This New Year’s brought me no such respite, though, as a look back illuminated the losses suffered these past 12 months, and peering too deep into the future can be perilous, a glimpse at the dark at the end of the tunnel, a glance at an unthinkable void. 

Yet I am not without hope. I keep myself immersed in the latest research and MS news, and though much of it is, quite frankly, garbage, there are approaches that do show promise. Perhaps I am delusional, but even through this morass of illness and increasing disability my resolve to not back down sometimes bends but doesn’t break, even as I acknowledge that merely stabilizing my disease state is at this point quite a longshot. But I know for a fact that sometimes longshots do come in. After all, I’m a guy who once won $15,000 in the Florida lottery, so I’m proof positive that you’ve got to be in it to win it.

So, as I sat there watching the partiers on TV, wrestling with my complicated and disconcerting mass of emotions, when the clock struck midnight I chugged some champagne and kissed my wife, while my inner five-year-old banged on pots and pans and screamed at the top of his lungs, “Happy New Year’s!”…

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

All I Want for Christmas Is a Cure for This Damned Disease!

(For those receiving this via email, the following post contains videos which can't be viewed in email clients. Please visit the Wheelchair Kamikaze blog page to view videos (click here).)

I had a slight meltdown while serving as a semi-official MS patient advocate last week. Please let me explain…

I was invited to take part in a conference call organized by a significant multiple sclerosis consortium. The group is planning an MS conference which will take place over several days, with one of the days devoted to patients and patient education. My purpose on the call, along with several other patient advocates, was to help decide which seminar topics would be most interesting and useful for patient attendees of the planned meetings. In advance of the call I was supplied with a list of potential subjects and was told to be ready to choose which I thought should be included as part of the conference program.

As I perused the list, which included items such as "2018 MS Drug Pipeline" and "Mindfulness and MS", I found myself surprised and then increasingly angered by one glaring omission: there was no mention at all about the search for a potential cure for MS. This annoyed me to no end. After all, shouldn’t one of the primary goals of every MS Association, researcher, and neurologist be figuring out how to put themselves out of business by curing this damned disease? I thought it quite telling (and nauseating) that the planners of this MS conference hadn’t thought enough of this subject to even include it as part of the equation.

Despite assurances to myself that I would remain calm during the conference call, once it came my turn to speak I just couldn’t help myself. What began with my evenly pointing out that the prospect of a cure had somehow been overlooked quickly devolved into a sputtering, barely coherent chastisement of the entire MS medical establishment. Let’s not forget, the field of MS neurology was not so long ago considered a medical backwater, but has since been transformed into one of the biggest cash cows in all of modern medicine, all on the backs of outrageously expensive pharmaceutical products that may curtail disease activity but do absolutely nothing at all to cure MS.

Is this really where the MS status quo now resides? A place where we must accept that disease management is the best we’re going to get? Where patients struck with a hideous illness should be content or even grateful that the modern medical divinities have graced some of them with the ability to keep their potentially crippling malady in check for who knows how long? Where the torrents of cash generated by insanely priced drugs have so corrupted the MS establishment from top to bottom that the prospect of a cure seems unfit for conversation in polite company – why, for fear of spooking the goose that lays perpetual golden eggs? And what about those of us with progressive disease, who now have a whopping total of one approved drug that might, just might, slow the insidious decline of a subset of us by a less than dazzling 20%-25%? I readily admit that the disease modifying drugs currently available do dramatically improve the quality of life for many of the patients taking them– they also carry with them long lists of frightening and sometimes fatal side effects – but they do nothing at all towards stomping out MS. Forgive me for not genuflecting at the feet of the MS gods. How about this? Come up with a drug that cures my creeping paralysis and I’ll genuflect my ass off.

Some of the other patients on the conference call responded to my little tirade by saying that they’d given up hope for a cure in their lifetime. Though I do understand the frustration that lies at the root of this sentiment, to that I respectfully say “bullcrap”! Each of the top-selling MS drugs generates profits measured in billions of dollars per year; you’d think that some of that money might be spent looking for the cause of and then cure for multiple sclerosis. Instead, we have pharmaceutical companies devoting more money to marketing than to research (click here), and the funds that are spent on research are almost exclusively directed towards finding newer and better ways of manipulating the human immune system. NEWSFLASH TO MS RESEARCHERS: the aberrant immune response seen in MS patients is not the cause of the disease, it’s a symptom of some much deeper ill. Though the following analogy may be a bit of a stretch, treating MS by suppressing the immune system is like treating a broken leg with painkillers. It may make the patient feel better, but it doesn’t do a damned thing towards fixing the underlying problem.

At this point, you might rightfully ask, so, Mr. Smarty-Pants, if you’re so clever and smug and full of yourself, where would you suggest we start this quest for an MS cure? Well, I’m glad you asked. Even though I’m not a physician or researcher, I think I have a few good ideas. Here are just some of them:

  • We’ve known for years that the Epstein-Barr virus is somehow implicated in the MS disease process. In fact, there seems to be such a close relationship between EBV and MS that some researchers have gone so far as to state that if a person doesn’t have EBV, they don’t have MS (click here). Certainly, EBV alone doesn’t cause MS, but in conjunction with specific genetic predispositions, it may just be the fire starter. We now have the ability to map patients’ genomes, so shouldn’t there be at least a few researchers laser-focused on understanding the interaction between EBV and patient genetic profiles in an attempt to get to the guts of the problem? At the very least, a comprehensive database of the genetics of MS patients should be started posthaste so that gene variants and epigenetic changes can be detected and identified.
  • It’s been observed that HIV patients taking powerful antiretroviral drugs seem to develop MS in far lesser numbers than the general population (click here) and that HIV patients who already have MS often see their disease go into nearly complete remission once starting these drugs (click here). Again, why isn’t this a subject for intense scrutiny? Especially since one of the most commonly used anti-HIV drugs, AZT, has been shown to have anti-EBV properties (click here)? Please note, there was one trial of an anti-HIV drug, Raltegravir, on MS patients. This trial failed, but Raltegravir does not effect EBV.
  • HSCT, the form of stem cell therapy that first eradicates an MS patient’s immune system with strong chemotherapy drugs and then reboots it via stem cell transplant has been shown to put properly selected multiple sclerosis patients into long-term remission (click here). Shouldn’t these patients be carefully tracked and tested to see just why this treatment can be so incredibly effective? Is it simply that their reconstituted immune systems are no longer autoreactive, or might there be some other reason? Does HSCT not only put MS into remission but actually cure it, with those patients who see a resumption in disease activity somehow developing MS anew after coming into contact with some environmental trigger? The fact is that Epstein-Barr virus, when dormant, resides in immune system B cells which are wiped out during the chemotherapy-induced eradication of patient’s immune systems at the start of the HSCT process. This means HSCT rids the body of EBV. Does this allow the genetic triggers of the disease to then reset, putting a halt to the autoimmune process? A shot in the dark, maybe, but one worth examining…

  • Researchers at Harvard are currently studying the use of a century-old tuberculosis vaccine, called the BCG vaccine, to treat patients with type I diabetes, an autoimmune disease. They are reporting remarkable success, completely reversing the disease in some patients (click here). Apparently, the BCG vaccine works on both the immune system and on the genetic level, and thus could theoretically be of use not only in type I diabetes but across a broad spectrum of so-called autoimmune diseases. In fact, before the introduction of the MS disease-modifying drugs, there was promising research into the use of BCG to treat MS (click here), which seems to have been abandoned once money started rolling in from the first MS drugs. Why devote research monies to a 100-year-old vaccine that costs relative pennies when gazillions of dollars can be generated developing a never-ending stream of boutique drugs that profoundly alter the workings of the human immune system, the long-term ramifications of which are entirely unknown? As Deep Throat told Woodward and Bernstein, follow the money…

Okay, in the parlance of corporate speak, I’ve just spitballed a few ideas on which MS researchers devoted to finding a cure for the disease might focus their considerable brainpower. Of course, many of these ideas don’t have near-term blockbuster profit potential, so in the upside down world of pharmaceutical company driven medical research, they likely won’t get much attention. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – capitalism is a wonderful system for creating wealth, but the marriage of capitalism and medicine is proving to be an unholy one. As long as profits take precedence over patients, as is currently the case, cures for any diseases will be rare beasts indeed.

MS organizations should never lose sight of the fact that their prime directive should be hastening their own demise by contributing to the effort to find a cure for the disease. The current status quo must not stand, and patients should not stand for it. I for one will not shut up about this topic, no matter how nuts it may make me seem to those less inclined to histrionics. If MS patients themselves don’t demand better, we will never get better, both figuratively and literally.

Oh, yeah, Happy Holidays!


Since it is the season of giving, please allow me to recommend two MS nonprofits that are very worthy of your and your families’ and friends’ donations. I’m not suggesting the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, as, quite frankly, they have a vast contribution generating machine that sucks up lots of the cash that might be better directed at smaller MS organizations. Given the topic of this essay, I’m recommending two groups that are striving to find a cure for multiple sclerosis.

The first is the Tisch Multiple Sclerosis Research Center of New York (click here), which is currently in the process of building the largest stem cell laboratory devoted strictly to stem cells for MS, and will soon be starting the only FDA approved phase 2 stem cell trial on PwMS. In addition, the Tisch Center is involved in a wide range of groundbreaking research, from identifying MS biomarkers to understanding the root cause or causes of the disease, without an understanding of which there can be no cure.

My second pick is the Accelerated Cure Project (click here). The ACP is currently focused on the iConquerMS project, a crowdsourced database of information supplied by MS patients that will give researchers worldwide the opportunity to detect patterns and trends in the MS population that very well could provide the clues needed to come up with a cure for the disease. In addition to donating to the ACP, if you’re not already a participant in the iConquerMS project, I urge you to visit their website (click here) and start participating by answering some quick surveys. This is a patient-driven research effort and gives you a chance to join in the search for a cure.


Finally, here’s a little Christmas present to my dear readers. The following clips are from the exquisite but little-known 1995 film “Smoke”, one of my faves.. Despite the fact that there are no explosions or car crashes, this one of my favorite scenes in all of filmdom, just one friend telling another a compelling Christmas story. Is the story true or made up, and does it matter? The scene features a masterful performance by the great Harvey Keitel playing opposite William Hurt, and touches on just about everything that makes Christmas and human beings such endlessly fascinating subjects.

Please watch both clips to get the full effect (I recommend viewing full-screen), as I couldn’t find a single clip that encompasses the entire sequence. As an added bonus, the sequence finale features one of my favorite Tom Waits songs, Innocent When You Dream. If you’re interested in watching Smoke in its entirety, it’s available for streaming on Amazon (click here). Enjoy!