Medical Hero Story: Rev. Donna J. Matlach & Eosinophilic Asthma

“My sister Roseanne and and I love the movie, ‘The Wizard of Oz’. I told Roseanne I felt like I was going to see the Wizard. There was so much that happened before I got to see her, just like a lot happened to Dorothy in the movie, recounts Reverend Donna J. Matlach, about meeting Dr. Sally Wenzel of the University of Pittsburg Medical Center to consult about Donna’s severe eosinophilic asthma. My granddaughter, Phoebe, even said ‘Nana is going to see the wizard!’” Donna’s medical journey has been arduous and at times, terrifying, (Donna has had severe eosinophilic asthma for more than a decade) but her upbeat nature shines through during our conversation about her experience with clinical research participation.

“It can’t be controlled with the typical medications that are used with other types of asthma. It’s another level of asthma – it goes up in levels. Mine is severe, which is the highest level. It took many years to figure out why it couldn’t be controlled,” explains Donna. “I was in and out of the hospital, 3 to 4 times a year, and in the doctor’s office 3 to 4 times per month. I was on mass quantities of corticosteroids taken orally and by inhalation.” The steroids impacted her overall health, including weight gain and brittle bones leading to several fractures.

The severity of her symptoms sapped Donna of her physical strength, but not her inner fortitude. Taking matters decidedly into her own hands, Donna went on a cross-country journey in order to find medical advice and effective treatment. Conducting a lot of research on her own, Donna visited 28 doctors, the majority being pulmonary specialists, in 12 hospitals, nationwide. In a frustrating turn of events, they all provided different diagnoses and advice. To make matters worse, the nebulizer and cortiscosteroid medications Donna was taking were not adequately controlling her illness.

“My asthma was so misdiagnosed that at one point, doctors from a major medical facility told me I should see a psychiatrist. I was on a nebulizer every hour to stop the coughing and wheezing,” says Donna. “I’ve had over 600 allergy tests. I’m not allergic to anything.” Donna continued on her quest for relief from her symptoms. Donna consulted with a physician in Colorado who recommended she meet with Dr. Wenzel.

“Dr. Wenzel is the guru. She founded the University of Pittsburgh Asthma Institute,” says Donna.

During one of her many visits to Pittsburghwith Dr Wenzel, Donna had video assisted thoracic surgery to take biopsies and view her lungs with a camera. “I woke up with a tube in my chest to prevent my lungs from collapsing. The pain was so bad I ended up having a full-blown asthma attack, even with the pain medication pump. I’ve had a lot of surgeries in my life, including two C-Sections, and this was the worst!” says Donna.

Donna has had two 6-hour surgeries on her sinuses in the past several years. Both times, her sinuses were evaluated to be 98% blocked. “I had no taste or smell for 3 years because the sinuses and asthma were impacting each other. Everything is connected,” says Donna. When Donna arrived for the first surgery, she was told her lungs were too weak to undergo the procedure. Dr. Wenzel was concerned she would not survive the anesthesia. When Donna was able to have the first sinus surgery, several months later, Dr. Wenzel advised Donna that the positive results she was experiencing would last about three years.

“Wouldn’t you know it, it was just about 3 years to the month and I needed to have another surgery. Dr. Wenzel was right – that’s why I call her The Wizard,” says Donna. The second sinus surgery removed a bone from the left and right side of Donna’s frontal sinuses.

Dr. Wenzel advised Donna to investigate participating in clinical research to find other ways to manage her asthma. Dr. Wenzel assisted her with this process, but Donna was told she was not sick enough to participate in the first clinical trial to which she applied. This was perplexing to Donna because, she recounts that “I have been catching pneumonia twice year!”.

Dr. Wenzel located another clinical trial and Donna qualified as a participant. The clinical trial site was in California.

“I flew from my home in Arizona to California, once a month, at my own cost, for three years. I ended up being a poster child for the sponsoring company. I now speak at lectures for them about my experience, in New York City and other places,” says Donna.

The medication she received in the clinical trial in California was not immediately effective. “It took about 6 months to get into your system. At first it was an IV medication, and then it became an injectable,” says Donna. “My asthma is like a firecracker. It will either fizzle out or it will explode.” A couple of years later, that treatment stopped working.

During this time, Donna’s health was also being monitored in her then-home-state of Arizona. “I was at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, waiting for a lung function test, and while I was there, I had a severe asthma attack. It came out of the clear blue sky. I ended up in the ER. God put me in a place where I could be helped and I wasn’t alone. I’ve had three near fatal episodes because of the asthma,” Donna recalls.

After the clinical trial that Donna participated in, Dr. Wenzel prescribed a biologic that had recently come to market. “It took 4 months for it to start working and I took it for a year. But I was still back and forth with ER visits that always turned into a hospital stay, unfortunately,” says Donna.

During her hospital stays, Donna continued to work on her studies towards her Masters of Divinity. Even though she was very ill, Donna says that “God told me… You’re not done.” She subsequently studied several more years and received her Doctorate in Ministry and Master’s in life coaching.

Dr. Wenzel then prescribed a third biologic medication, which was not part of a clinical trial.

“I go to Pittsburgh twice a year to see Dr. Wenzel and we’ve become close friends. I love her. My heart told me, when I met her, that this was going to be the best doctor I could possibly see,” says Donna, smiling.

Donna’s family was supportive of her decision to join a clinical trial. She looked for patient advocacy organizations for severe asthma, and there were none established at that time. In response, Donna co-founded the Severe Asthma Foundation with Dr. Wenzel and Brenda, another severe asthma patient of Dr Wenzel’s.  Donna served as president until they were subsequently invited to merge with the Allergy and Asthma Network where Donna serves on the Board of Directors as an asthma advocate.

Donna has experienced, first-hand, the serious impacts of severe asthma. “It’s not just physical. It effects your emotional well-being. It effects your family, your day-to-day life, your finances. No one ever asked me about those things, in doctor’s appointments – not until I met Dr. Wenzel,” says Donna.

When asked if she would recommend clinical research participation to others, Donna enthusiastically responds “Absolutely. It can be life saving. Why would you not? You could have side effects, but for me, how could it be any worse, since I was having near fatal episodes? You have to keep searching. Clinical trials can be the answer. Why would you not want to try it? This is why I am a patient advocate. I love sharing information about clinical trials with people. That’s why I went into the ministry. I know God has a purpose for my life to reach out to people with similar physical issues as a friend, minister, and counselor. ”

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Medical Hero Story: Desiree De Luca-Johnson & Breast Cancer

“I am a lawyer, my husband is a pathologist, and I had no idea that there were hospitals that just treated cancer,” says Desiree De Luca-Johnson, an attorney, breast cancer survivor and patient advocate.

 

At the age of 40, just when she was ready to go back to work after staying home with her young children, Desiree was diagnosed with breast cancer.

 

Desiree’s road to being a clinical trial participant is reflective of her legal training. “I made a plan. I had a white board. I decided that if ‘A’ happens, then we would move on to ‘B’. I’m passionate about clinical trials.”

Desiree was diagnosed while living in a military community in Virginia, and her husband was deployed. “I was exhausted, and literally crawling upstairs to put my kids to bed,” Desiree recalls. Her oncologist at the time was a military physician and the treatment plan recommended for Desiree was conservative in nature. She was not told about clinical research as a healthcare option.

“I got 200 pages of where I could get free makeup and wigs, and not one page on clinical trials,” says Desiree. “I discovered that oncologists have different attitudes about treating cancer and I wish someone had told me about this. My oncologist was not aggressive about different treatment options.” Desiree recalls she was willing to deal with a higher level of side effects when her doctor told her she had an 80%/20% chance of survival.

“I was suicidal because of the anxiety. I found out (in addition to the breast cancer), I had a benign brain tumor,” says Desiree.

When she posed a question about clinical trials, Desiree’s doctor told her she was not sick enough to be in a clinical trial.

Desiree’s background as an attorney had honed her research and investigative skills. She decided to take definitive action.

“I made lists of cancer hospitals. I investigated their websites. I learned about ClinicalTrials.gov, which is a hard website to navigate. My husband was opposed to me doing a clinical trial, so I was doing this research all alone. But it was keeping me alive,” says Desiree. (Desiree’s husband ultimately embraced her decision to participate in clinical trials).

 

“After 40 or 50 hours of work, I found BreastCancerTrials.org, where I found 6 clinical trials I might be eligible for. We have a saying in the law. When you’re repeating your results, you have done your research. I was ready to apply to clinical trials,” says Desiree.

 

Her oncologist in Virginia was not supportive of Desiree’s decision, and voiced a level of concern about clinical trial participation. Undeterred, Desiree pursued clinical research options and other avenues for her health and wellness.

“The most important thing about choosing to enroll in a clinical trial, for me, were childcare and the affiliated travel costs,” says Desiree. “I became my own doctor, in a sense. I read that doing yoga was good when you have cancer, so I did yoga. I read that exercise was good, so I hired a health coach,” says Desiree.

And, she participated in clinical trials. “I did an early-stage trial,” says Desiree. “The big barrier, again, was childcare. The navy has a program so my husband didn’t have to deploy during my treatment, so he could take care of our children.”

Desiree’s sister, who lives in Boston, recommended looking at Massachusetts General Hospital for relevant clinical trials to join. Desiree enrolled in a one-year treatment clinical trial. At the end of this clinical study, it was deemed a negative trial, meaning that the results demonstrated that the new treatment was inferior to standard treatment. (1) Overall, the experience was still a positive one for Desiree.

 

“I felt safer in a clinical trial because I had a better relationship with my research oncologist and oncology nurse in Boston. We were all up to date on the same research,” says Desiree.

 

“I was grateful to be at a top research hospital. I was able to feel safe for a year – it gave me some time to breathe and research my options.”

“Through my clinical trial participation, I got access to other treatments for other conditions, such as bone density, and I was able to access other clinical trials,” says Desiree. Her research oncologist became her primary oncologist.

“Now I am in a trial to monitor for re-occurrence and I can make an action plan for quality of life,” says Desiree.

“Before participating in clinical research, every single day my first thought was, how will I know if my cancer has returned? Now I wake up and feel free,” says Desiree.

Desiree and her children have relocated to her home state of Vermont, in order to be closer to Massachusetts General Hospital, the clinical trial and family. “The relationships really matter,” says Desiree.

Desirae’s clinical research journey has brought her full circle, professionally. She currently works full-time at BreastCancerTrials.org as Outreach and Operations Manager.

Desiree advises people considering clinical research that, “When it comes to your oncologist, it’s a fiduciary relationship. It was my job to know the consequences of the decisions I was making to help them reach their goals.

You have to be your own best advocate. No one is going to care as much about your life as you do.”

To search for medical conditions in a specific location visit our Search Clinical Trials page.

To stay informed about clinical trials, visit our Resources page.

Sources:

  1. https://www.rxlist.com/negative_clinical_trial/definition.htm)

Medical Hero Story: Phyllis Kaplan & Type 1 Diabetes

Phyllis has a vague recollection of waking up in a hospital with tubes attached to her body, and a distinct memory of saying “Take the tubes out!”. At the age of two, she was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease, typically diagnosed in childhood, but can manifest at any age. Diabetes has led Phyllis on a path from patient to advocate, to clinical research participant.

“I have been an advocate since I was 12 years old. It started in junior high school, in a gym class when the teacher made me take off my medical alert bracelet, due to a ‘no jewelry in gym class’ rule,” says Phyllis. When she went to retrieve the medical bracelet from the gym locker after class, she discovered it had been stolen. This incident spurred Phyllis to write a letter to the town Superintendent of Schools, demanding its replacement and a change in the rule to allow medical-related items to be worn. By the time the letter had been delivered, the bracelet had been anonymously returned to the school’s Lost & Found box. Phyllis was allowed to wear the bracelet moving forward.

The most important thing to understand about type 1 diabetes, says Phyllis, is “The patient or caregiver has to make so many decisions about the disease, every day with no break. With diabetes, every day is different.”

Type 1 diabetes develops quickly. The body’s immune system attacks and destroys beta cells in the pancreas that create insulin. The body cannot produce insulin without these beta cells. A peptide hormone, insulin helps your body metabolize fats, proteins and carbohydrates through glucose (a type of sugar) that is released into the bloodstream when you eat food. The glucose is then absorbed from the blood in the liver, fat and skeletal muscle cells. Type 2 diabetes develops more slowly, over time. The body produces insulin, but cannot use it effectively. (1)

Decisions about how much medication to take is based on many variables including food, exercise, change in weather, change in personal schedule and stress.

“That’s why education is so important,” says Phyllis. “If I am going to exercise, I have to plan ahead, at least a couple of hours before, as exercise impacts blood sugar. There are so many hidden things to know about diabetes that impact your decisions.”

Phyllis has participated in three clinical trials, two for rescue medications for severe hypoglycemia and one for a medical device. “As a longtime advocate, I felt that participating in a clinical trial was the ultimate form of advocacy,” Phyllis explains.

“The trials were very different from each other,” says Phyllis. “Two of the three were very easy. One involved two full days in clinic, and that was really hard, with 9 hours of ongoing blood tests. Those were physically difficult days, but worth it. The other two clinical trials were less invasive.”

When considering the 2-day in-clinic trial, Phyllis and her husband reviewed the protocol together. “I wouldn’t participate without consulting him,” says Phyllis. He accompanied her to the two in-clinic days, to be with her during the 9 hours of ongoing tests and to lend additional support.

When asked if she faced any concerns from family or friends about her clinical research participation, Phyllis says “No, quite the opposite. People were really interested in the ‘why’ of what I was doing and what the outcomes were.” Phyllis didn’t seek any advice from patient advocacy organizations, because of her own experience as an advocate. She is a brand ambassador with Medtronic Diabetes to share her experience with their medical device and  also volunteers with JDRF (Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation), and ADA (American Diabetes Association)

Phyllis advises individuals considering clinical research participation to “Ask all the questions you have when meeting with the nurse/study lead. No question is too silly. Read the protocol and informed consent, which can be confusing. Use a highlighter to mark items in the protocol or use Post-Its to make notes. Keep asking questions throughout the course of the study. At times the research staff may not always be patient-centric, and if you’re not getting the answers to your questions, ask to speak with someone else on the study team. Be your own best advocate and keep pushing. Researchers are not always prepared to answer patients’ questions. If something doesn’t sit well with you, voice it.”

Phyllis’ advocacy work has also led her to CISCRP, where she is Senior Manager, Events & Community Engagement. CISCRP’s mission to informing and engaging patients and the public about the importance of clinical research resonated with her. Phyllis leads CISCRP’s Aware for All free clinical research educational programs, which have pivoted from in-person, city-specific events to regional, virtual programs with the advent of the pandemic. You can learn more about AWARE for All here.

Her experience as a clinical trial participant has strengthened Phyllis’ commitment in sharing information about the importance of clinical trials to everyone. Phyllis is adamant and passionate about participating in clinical research again if the opportunity presents itself, reiterating, “Absolutely. Without clinical trials new treatments can’t happen and without clinical trial participants, clinical trials can’t happen.”

To search for medical conditions in a specific location visit our Search Clinical Trials page.

To stay informed about clinical trials, visit our Resources page.

Sources

Medical Hero Story: Melvin Mann & Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML)

Melvin Mann with his wife, Cecelia, and their daughter, Dr. Patrice Mann

“CML (chronic myelogenous leukemia) is supposed to be a disease that strikes people in their sixties, and I was in my thirties,” recalls Melvin Mann. A family man and Army major, Melvin was stunned to learn he had CML at the age of 37.

His symptoms had started out as back pain and fatigue, which he had been treating with medication and physical therapy, to no avail. In a visit with his physician at a local military clinic, an MRI was ordered requiring Melvin to drive several hours to another military base that had the MRI equipment. It would be a month before Melvin learned the results of the full-body scan.

It was January of 1995. Melvin received the diagnosis of CML, which was confirmed by a second opinion he sought. Melvin was advised by his doctor that without a successful bone marrow transplant, his life expectancy was about three years. The best bone marrow matches are with a patient’s relatives, but if they are not a match, a donor must be of the same ethnicity. No relatives matched, nor did any registered donors. At that time, there were a limited number of African Americans on the bone marrow donor registry. Melvin began the treatment prescribed by his physician which were daily injections of interferon.

Melvin thought about his wife, Cecelia, and his daughter, Patrice, who was just five years old, and decided to take action in the search for a donor. Working with marrow donor organizations, and the Department of Defense (DOD) Marrow Foundation, marrow drives were launched within the military. Melvin participated in these outreach efforts, which scaled to include college campuses, malls and churches, radio and television interviews, as well as military bases. His experience as an Army recruiter and public relations officer and degree in public relations propelled him to forge ahead, even when he didn’t find a match. Melvin medically retired from the Army in 1995 and continued his outreach efforts with bone marrow drives, as his health would allow.

At a marrow drive organized by his aunt in April of 1996, Melvin had a life-changing meeting with a local businessman who had seen Melvin’s TV promotions for the event. This individual had been gravely ill with hairy cell leukemia and had been treated at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, with excellent results. He urged Melvin to contact them.

Thus began Melvin’s experience with clinical trial participation. It had been 16 months since his diagnosis of CML, and none of the medical professionals involved in his care had broached the topic of clinical trials. The bone marrow drives he was involved with were finding donors for many patients, but not for him. Melvin decided that participating in a clinical trial was his next step towards fighting the illness.

Over the next two years, Melvin traveled between his home in Atlanta and Houston, trying different combinations of vetted and clinical trial medications through MD Anderson. (At the outset of the Imatinib clinical trial, he had to stay in Houston for three months). Over time, the interferon and other clinical trial medications stopped working. A lifelong competitive runner, his body weakened and he suffered intense fatigue. He was, however, eight months past his original prognosis of surviving three years, when he had the opportunity to participate in an Imatinib clinical trial. The Phase I trial tested for the drug’s safety in humans, dosage level and evidence of efficacy.

The Imatinib clinical trial had three locations: MD Anderson, Oregon Healthy & Science University in Portland and UCLA Medical Center in California. Melvin’s medical care continued to be seated in Houston.

“It was for quality of life – not a cure. I was hoping for a better outcome,” Melvin explained. He also thought about how his participation would help other cancer patients.

The process was rigorous. In the first week, Melvin had blood drawn up to 10 times per day. He was required to keep a detailed record of side effects, the time he took the medication, his energy level, diet and other daily details. He experienced severe nausea and was prescribed medication to alleviate it. Melvin’s effort, perseverance and grit paid off. The drug was a game-changer for him. In June of 1999, nine months after starting the clinical trial, Melvin participated in fundraising events for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society by running a marathon in Alaska and a few months after that, cycling 111 miles in Tucson, Arizona.

Melvin has been taking Imatinib ever since. The medication was approved for use in CML in May 2001 by the United States FDA (Food and Drug Administration). Melvin participated in another clinical trial to see if he could come off the medication, but he could not. Over the past 26 years, Melvin has participated in three clinical trials for different combinations of medications.

“Trials have changed over the years,” said Melvin. “The last (Imatinib) trial I was in was in 2017. I had to travel every three months to the trial site, although some testing was done at home. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased that whatever you can do at home or with a local doctor, in terms of aspirations and blood draws.”

For some patients, particularly members of the Black and African American communities, the specter of the unethical Tuskegee Syphilis Study still influences opinions about the safety of clinical research, despite vast advances in oversight and regulation made in subsequent years by the United States government to ensure the safe and ethical treatment of all patients. It is important that patients are asked if they would like to participate in a clinical trial.

Melvin advises patients and the public that “It’s vital to know that clinical trials are an option. There can be benefits from a clinical trial. You are getting more attention because the studies often require you to be watched more and seen by staff more frequently. In oncology clinical trials, you’re not getting a placebo, you’re at least getting the standard of care treatment. It’s important to weigh your options. Can you get the support you need from family or a caregiver? Ask questions of the study staff. There are risks involved, so ask about them. You have the choice to stop being in a clinical trial, whenever you decide.”

Mel is now the world’s longest living Imatinib and tyrosine kinase inhibitor CML survivor. Mel had a MBA, but in 2000 he decided to change his career focus. He returned to higher education and earned an BA in English Literature, M. Ed. In Secondary English and a teaching license, all within the span of three and a half years. He and Cecelia continue to volunteer for various cancer and bone marrow donation organizations. Mel continues to participate in marathon and half-marathon events, and sometimes 10Ks with his wife and daughter, Dr. Patrice Mann, a psychiatry specialist, graduate of Harvard College and Emory Medical School.

“I recommend clinical trials, at least to ask about them. It’s also important for doctors to ask patients if they want to participate in clinical research,” said Mel.

To search for medical conditions in a specific location visit our Search Clinical Trials page.

To stay informed about clinical trials, visit our Resources page.

Medical Hero Story: Tina Aswani Omprakash and Crohn’s Disease

Her tone serious and earnest, Tina says “I had an epiphany. I can do a lot of good by participating in clinical research, and good could come out of this terrible experience.”

As a recent college graduate in 2005, Tina felt like the world was just opening up. She was excited about starting her career on Wall Street as a compliance professional in investment banking. This beginning was an entirely different universe from the one she inhabits now, as a globally recognized health and disability advocate for Crohn’s disease, a form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Tina’s own diagnosis with Crohn’s was far from straightforward, testing her physical and emotional stamina. “I realized my case was very severe, and a bit of an anomaly and I should be in clinical research,” Tina says.

Initially, Tina was mis-diagnosed in her early twenties with ulcerative colitis, another form of IBD. Her father’s life had been claimed at the age of 39, from Crohn’s that had morphed into colorectal cancer, so Tina was particularly aware about being proactive when it came to health issues. Tina describes her initial symptoms as “…kind of an on again, off again. Some flare-ups were bad, and some were not so bad.”

Tina worked to make accommodations for her symptoms and kept living life as usual. After a vacation in Mexico, she became very ill with food poisoning. Physician-prescribed antibiotics made Tina develop c. difficile, an infection caused by the overuse of antibiotics. Tina’s weight plunged from 135 pounds to 85 pounds over a six-month period in 2008.

Her experience with the disease was compounded by socio-cultural influences. Being of South Asian descent, Tina says “I felt like a failure,” because many community members view gastrointestinal disorders as a disease fueled by poor personal diet choices. “My culture and many families are oftentimes against medications to treat IBD,” Tina explains. “By the time I tried biologics (whatever was available at that time to treat the Crohn’s), it was too late.”

In 2008, Tina underwent life-saving surgery to remove her colon, but her health issues were far from over. But that was a challenge in and of itself. Her family and elders within the community were against ostomy surgery. Tina  felt looked at as an outcast but went ahead with the ostomy surgery.

Six months post-surgery, Tina was navigating life with a stoma (a surgically created opening in the abdomen that connects to the digestive system to allow urine of feces to be diverted out of the body) and was slowly recovering. Due to the stigma around ostomies in her culture, at 25, Tina underwent a procedure to create a j-shaped pouch from her small intestine, that would enable her to defecate similar to how she did pre-surgery, and the stoma was reversed. She quickly developed pouchitis, inflammation of the j-pouch, which escalated into symptoms of bloody diarrhea. Tina combatted the symptoms for a few years with antibiotics, but the pouch began to burrow holes into other organs (abscesses developed and fistulae broke through). At this time, her diagnosis was changed from ulcerative colitis to Crohn’s disease.

It turned out that Tina had developed multiple fistulae that further impacted her quality of life.  After living with the j-pouch for 6 years, it had to be removed. Tina, this time, received a permanent ostomy. The wound from the j-pouch was not healing correctly, and a second medical opinion and MRI confirmed that pieces of the j-pouch and rectum were still inside Tina’s body, causing a pelvic fistula that could potentially impact her spine, causing paralysis.

“It was a really hellish period,” Tina recalls. “I had seven surgeries over eight months to correct the botched surgery that resulted in a chronic rectal wound and caused the large abscess and fistula. At the end of this whole process, another fistula had developed and I had had it. I decided to go into a clinical trial for (another) biologic.”

The results were encouraging.

“It took a good six months, but the fistula closed, and I was declared to be in remission,” said Tina.

Tina has had multiple complications from the many surgeries she has endured. “It’s complicated – it’s not cut and dry,” says Tina. “I have multiple diagnoses of other diseases that I continue to manage, but Crohn’s has really been the beast in my journey.”

There were several factors that motivated Tina to investigate clinical research as a health care option.

“I was like ‘Just get me on something!’ I am sick and tired of this disease and the surgeries and I needed to do something to make it stop,” says Tina. The physicians and staff of the clinical trial explained the details thoroughly. “I did a lot of thinking and research, and I decided I couldn’t keep living my life in and out of the hospital. Initially, my family was hesitant but they too were sick of seeing me suffer. My husband was on board with my decision.”

Tina’s experience underscored the importance of an accurate initial diagnosis and proactive disease monitoring and treatment. Between that and her experiences with cultural stigma and shame, Tina decided to shift her focus to patient advocacy.

“I learned a lot on my own through the research I did. I had become pretty savvy at reading technical science journal articles. I learned a lot from the doctors I met when we were discussing how to treat my disease,” said Tina.

Tina’s journey as a patient with Crohn’s disease has impacted her personal and professional life in profound ways.

“This has become a coming-of-age story – I realized I didn’t have to be ashamed of having this disease. I wasn’t disrespecting my elders because I was treating this disease. This is my body and this is my life and I have to pay that respect to myself as well. I don’t want anyone else to suffer, and that’s why I talk about clinical research and educate others on its importance.”

Tina started her advocacy work by launching a website, OwnYourCrohn’s.com, in 2018. Tina is now a well-known and respected voice in the Crohn’s community, regularly speaking at medical conferences and acclaimed academic research hospitals, as well as being widely quoted in the media. Tina is currently pursuing her Masters in Public Health at Mount Sinai. Tina also recently co-founded a community called IBDesis in conjunction with 5 fellow South Asians  who don’t want stigma and fear of medications to overshadow diagnosis and treatment of IBD.

When asked if she recommends clinical research participation to others, Tina says “Hands down, no question about it. I particularly want people of color, who may be skeptical of clinical trials, to know that every iteration is robustly managed in a clinical trial. You know you’re going to get the best care possible. It was honestly a no-brainer for me and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

To search for medical conditions in a specific location visit our Search Clinical Trials page.

To stay informed about clinical trials, visit our Resources page.

Sources

  1. https://www.bladderandbowel.org/bowel/stoma/what-is-a-stoma/

      2. https://ownyourcrohns.com/honoredhero/

Medical Hero Story: T.J. Sharpe, Melanoma Advocate

Why One Cancer Survivor Wants All Patients to Consider Clinical Trials

When melanoma unex­pectedly returned after a successful surgery twelve years prior, T.J. Sharpe was both a husband and a father. Second, third and fourth opinions later, Sharpe was finally offered a life-chang­ing option.

“I wanted a chance to see my children grow up and be the husband and father I could be,” says Sharpe. With the first few doctors, Sharpe’s predicted life expectancy was under two years, which he was determined to extend. “I wanted the best chance at a long-term response.”

Seizing an opportunity
Sharpe was on his fourth oncol­ogist when he was offered his first clinical trial. It was for a new treatment in the form of a pill, and Sharpe was the first patient in the trial. Because it was so new, he ran into bureau­cratic barriers. “I was the first patient to try it, so there were a few stakeholder companies and pharmaceutical companies that I had to wait for over a month to get the contract approved.”

After contacting the stakehold­ers himself to push the paperwork through, Sharpe started the trial. “When you have a family and you are facing mortality, I wasn’t going to miss the chance to see these kids grow up because I was missing part of a signature.”

An incredible recovery
After months on the pill treat­ment, Sharpe’s tumors weren’t responding. But with determi­nation came plan B, and Sharpe started on his second trial. After twelve weeks, he saw a 46 percent reduction in his tumors. Four years later, Sharpe’s only signs of cancer are small spots that have stabi­lized for over two years. Today, he remains in the trial to continue monitoring his response and over­all system.

The results of the clinical trial have so far doubled his life expec­tancy, an accomplishment Sharpe does not take lightly. “Clinical trials should be considered as an option for care in every single case,” he says. For Sharpe, the norm should be to hear your stan­dard care options, but in conjunc­tion with the clinical trial options.

At that point, let the patient and their doctor make the most informed decision. “When it comes down to it, we are all patients at some point, so we should know what all of our options are before making decisions.” 

 

Article from 2017 Clinical Trials Supplement, USA Today. Read full Supplement here >

Medical Hero Story: Jackie Zimmerman, MS Advocate

Jackie Zimmerman is an accomplished entrepreneur, marketing professional, former roller derby league president, and non-profit founder with a “can-do” energy that is clear when you speak with her. She is also a patient advocate for people with multiple sclerosis, also called MS. She herself received the diagnosis during college at the age of 21. In the face of this news, Jackie decided to share her story with others. She later became a participant in clinical research. 

“It was a total surprise  no one in my family has it,” Jackie said. “My first question was…am I going to die? I didn’t know anything about MS. And all the patient-facing documentation was targeted at older individuals.” 

Jackie found this surprising, particularly when she learned that most patients are diagnosed in their twenties. To help process this news, she turned to blogging. 

“Initially, I started a newsletter and then it became a blog. This was before social media, so blogs were how you connected. Blogging got me on the scene of patient advocacy. There are lots of advocates now, but then, there weren’t as many,” Jackie explained. 

Jackie was diagnosed with relapsing remitting MSWith this form of MS, symptoms may “flare up” and then seem to be gone for a period of time. Jackie’s first symptoms were during a flare. At that time, the standard of care was given through an injection. 

“Which was really scary at 21  who likes needles?” Jackie said. “My doctor didn’t provide any guidance. He told me to pick whatever medication I wanted. Today, there are many different options and methods of delivery.” 

Another complication in the treatment of MS is that in terms of symptoms, reactions to medications, and outcomes, no two cases are alike. 

Jackie first participated in an MS clinical trial in 2008. However, she was unable to complete it due to unrelated treatment she was receiving forinflammatory bowel disease, also called IBD. Over a decade would pass before Jackie would join another clinical trial. 

During that time, Jackie founded Girls with Guts, a non-profit to support women living with IBDShe became a more active patient advocate. This led to public speaking engagements and work with healthcare and pharmaceutical companies looking to connect with patients. 

There were 2 factors that steered her back to clinical research as a healthcare option for MS. 

“I asked my neurologist questions, because I wanted to keep abreast of things, particularly because I write about them as an advocate,” Jackie said. “Being part of a patient advisory board for a bio-pharma company was also a huge driver. I understand about clinical research participation and what it means. The only factor this second time was a consideration about the time commitment  it’s about a 25-minute drive away. The trial does offer transportation if you need, which I think is awesome, but I don’t need it.” 

When asked about other influences in her decision-making, Jackie commented, “I’m married, so my husband was involved. He said it’s my choice, but I considered him in the process, and all the things you think about when you’re involved in a partnership. I know how to talk with my friends and family about clinical trials to allay their fears. I know how to position it so as not to scare anybody.” 

Jackie did not consult any patient advocacy organizations for guidance before participating. 

“I’m in the minority here because I know a lot more about clinical trials than the average patient. I knew what questions to ask because I had been on a patient panel and participated in an FDA patient advocacy training. I’ve spent a lot of time learning about trials.” 

Jackie shared some wisdom based on her experience with clinical trial participation. 

“Oh man, there’s so much advice,” Jackie replied, laughing. “I have so many angles. Mostly, don’t be afraid of them. It’s not a last resort for MS in terms of treatment. It’s a way to assist your community and get access to medications, years in advance. You’re so heavily monitored that the potential for anything going wrong is quite low.” 

Jackie would consider participating in future clinical trials. 

“Yes  as long as it fits into my life and it’s not an inconvenience or as long as the potential benefits outweigh the potential inconvenience. I know I have a lot of privilege  I can work from home and make my own schedule. If you’re looking at trials that may not fit into your life, know that there are pharma companies working around participant schedules with office and home visits. If it’s not feasible right now, it doesn’t mean that it will never be feasible.” 

Note: COVID-19 has led many sponsors to offer virtual clinical trials and the use of digital devices to monitor patient progress. CISCRP recently conducted a survey on the impact of COVID-19 on clinical research. Access the reporthere.

To search for medical conditions in a specific location visit our Search Clinical Trials page.

To stay informed about clinical trials, visit our Resources page.

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Medical Hero Story: Jillian McNulty, Cystic Fibrosis Advocate

Born with cystic fibrosis, Jillian McNulty has spent her entire life fighting to stay healthy.

It was only during a clinical trial, when she tried a new medicine called Orkambi, that she met with success. Since then, she’s been fighting for other cystic fibrosis (CF) patients to have access to the drug too.

One of four children, McNulty’s oldest brother had cystic fibrosis and died when he was five-and-a-half. Her prognosis wasn’t good either. When she was born, doctors told her parents she wouldn’t live past her fifth birthday. She’s now 43 and jokes that she has geriatric CF, and is grateful to be alive.

Last hope
Over the years, McNulty has suffered from recurring pneumonia, and sometimes spent 8-9 months out of the year in the hospital.

“I didn’t have a great quality of life,” she recalls, noting her condition was at its worst in 2012 after her other brother, who had special needs, died. She was able to run a marathon before her lung function dropped from the high 50s (percent) to the 30s. She became dependent on IVs and antibiotics.

Fortunately, McNulty qualified for the Orkambi clinical trial, which required her to have lung functioning in the 40s and to not be hospitalized for four or more weeks.

She got emotional when she got the news that she qualified. “I can remember I cried my eyes out because to me this was my last chance, my last hope. Things started to turn after that.”

Though she struggled for the first four months of the trial, at six months her hospitalizations started to decrease. But things took a turn in 2016, when she contracted swine flu and influenza A at the same time. Her lung function was down to 11 percent. Things were grim, but McNulty pushed on.

Changing lives
“Orkambi brought me back from the brink,” McNulty says, explaining it took three months to recover.

She says the drug, which is manufactured by Vertex, works on the underlying cause of CF, a life-threatening disease that affects approximately 75,000 people in North America, Europe, and Australia.

“It’s not a cure but it tweaks the channels so our bodies respond better,” says McNulty, whose lung function is now at 42 percent.

These days, she spends only six weeks a year hospitalized. But now she’s struggling with end-stage kidney disease, another chronic condition she’s had for years, and needs a kidney transplant. But before that, she needs a lung transplant.

Still she’s optimistic about her future and the future of other CF patients.

“It’s all changing. People with CF are going to live so much longer,” says McNulty. “That’s incredible.”

The CF advocate
For the past 11 years, McNulty has campaigned for CF patients in her native Ireland, including lobbying the Irish government to make sure Orkambi and other medications were made available for CF patients. Her campaign was successful and she obtained “pipeline” approval for 10 years of promised accessibility to the drug.

“My friends were dying and I couldn’t stand by and say nothing,” says McNulty, who’s won three awards for her advocacy. “I needed people to see what Orkambi had done for me.”

She’s also been instrumental in campaigns related to the hospitalization of CF patients, helping ensure they get single-unit hospital rooms to prevent them from being exposed to other sick patients while their immune systems were so compromised.

Her advocacy continues on, and she urges patients with CF and other conditions to participate in clinical trials: “It’s worth the chance, it’s worth the risk. It has the potential to transform your life in ways you can’t imagine.” 

To search for medical conditions in a specific location visit our Search Clinical Trials page.

To stay informed about clinical trials, visit our Resources page.

 

Medical Hero Story: Shauna Whisenton

Shauna Whisenton was once an individual living with sickle cell disease (SCD). Now she’s an advocate for better therapies, a cure, and better under-standing of SCD.

Whisenton, now 41, was born with SCD, a painful, inherited disorder where red blood cells are misshaped, restricting blood flow and oxygen to parts of the body.

“It was all going pretty well until I had my third son,” she says. “Then my health started to take a turn for the worse.”

While nursing, she was admitted to the hospital every few weeks and, despite best efforts, was not replenishing enough fluids for her body to function properly and had major organ complications.

Her doctor asked her to consider a bone marrow transplant clinical trial to cure SCD.

Whisenton didn’t believe she could be cured and some members of her family were unsure if she should undergo the treatment. For many in the minority com-munity, there is a fear that medical testing may exploit patients instead of helping them. However, clinical trial oversights ensure safety during participation.

After consulting an SCD patient advocate, she realized, “Although a cure is not guaran-teed, this could be an amazing opportunity. If that is not possible for me, researchers could learn something from my participation to save others.”

Finding a donor

The best chance for a donor match would be a family member. Whisenton lost her parents when she was a child and her sister wasn’t a match; but her 9-year-old son, Dorian, was a 50-percent match.

A successful transplant meant a better life for Whisenton and her family.

“I felt like my children had suffered enough watching my pain,” she says.

Whisenton’s son had marrow extracted from his pelvis bone. It was a one-day procedure for him but the start of a two-year ordeal for his mother.

 
Journey

Whisenton’s journey was tough. She was hospitalized, received anti-rejection medications, and had to undergo was an important part of procedure preparation and recovery. This included coordinated care to provide relief from the symptoms of her disease and the transplant, including pain and detoxing from opiates, but also the physical and mental stress from the procedure.

“It’s important to equip someone who’s received a curative therapy with tools to rebuild their lives during and after recovery,” she says.

Within nine months of receiving the bone marrow transplant, Whisenton was SCD-free and now only carries the trait.

Whisenton calls the date of her transplant her birthday.

 
Patient advocate
 

Whisenton has made it her life’s work to help those living with SCD. She’s the manager of sickle cell disease community engagement for the ASH Research Collaborative (ASH RC) Sickle Cell Disease Clinical Trials Net-work (CTN), established by the American Society of Hematology, the world’s largest professional society concerned with the causes and treatments of blood disorders.

Whisenton is carrying out the mission of the ASH RC CTN to improve the lives of individuals with SCD by expediting the development of new therapies through innovative clinical trial research. Whisenton ensures that the voice of the patient is heard at all stages of these clinical trials.

“SCD warriors, don’t lose hope. There are many treatments in the pipeline to help those living with this disease have a better quality of life. Our hope is that advances in research will bring more effective treatments to individuals living with SCD.” 

To search for medical conditions in a specific location visit our Search Clinical Trials page.

To stay informed about clinical trials, visit our Resources page.

Medical Hero Story: Rachel Patties, Congenital Generalized Lipodystrophy Advocate

Oklahoma Mom on a Mission Reflects on Daughter’s Rare Diagnosis

Rachel Petties, a mother of five, refuses to let her daughter’s rare genetic disorder define the lives of their family.

From the moment she first laid eyes on her daughter, Rachel Pet­ties knew something was wrong.

“Alani was all muscle,” she recalls. “She had no body fat whatsoever. Her head size seemed abnormal, and her belly was very large. She was stiff and cried all the time.”

It was the beginning of a diffi­cult journey.

“I ended up dragging my infant baby girl in and out of hospitals, doctor to doctor, specialist to spe­cialist,” Petties says. “You have no idea what loneliness is until you have to pack your child up, hop on a plane and trust someone to help you when you know no one else believes you.”

Receiving the diagnosis
In 2015, Alani was clinically diag­nosed with congenital general­ized lipodystrophy.

“My world crashed, and I’m still recovering from the loss,” recalls Petties, a single mother of five. “Receiving her diagnosis was a bit­tersweet moment – my suspicions were confirmed, but I was very sad because what was wrong with her was worse than I expected.”

Alani, now 4 years old, was enrolled in a long-term clinical trial program at the National Institutes of Health to evaluate her treatment and find improved ways of treating the disease through pre-screening and other medical advances. The hope is to prevent future complications by identifying and addressing problems early on.

“She’s a patient for life,” says Pet­ties. “I’m extremely encouraged. Alani has elite specialists study­ing her case. She’s monitored closely and watched by top profes­sionals in the field.

“We have to travel once a year to Bethesda, Maryland for a host of tests that usually last 2-3 days. It’s a very stressful time for us, but we know it’s necessary.” 

Finding the strength
Petties’ days are long and exh­austing. She must prepare special foods for Alani and is the only fam­ily member trained to administer crucial injections.

“It’s very isolating, and I’m afraid of what will happen if I’m ever physically unable to give her this medicine,” she says.

Restricted mostly to the ind­oors, Alani can be awake for 24 hours and sleep for 15 hours str­aight. Her home must be bleached daily to fight germs, and she must be monitored for exces­sive eating.

“Before gaining some control over this disorder through the clinical trial she’s cur­rently on, Alani would eat the paint off the walls, erasers, socks and soap;’

Petties says Although she’s cut back dramatically to focus on her kids, Petties is committed to getting the word out about lipodystrophy.

“I woke up every morning with the mentality to outrun this disease,” she says. “I ran state to state, city to city, advocating with every ounce of life in me. We marched in Washington and visited senators’ offices, petitioning for their help.

“Sometimes you’ll want to fight, other times you won’t care one bit. I had to teach myself that it’s important to be okay with all those emotions and just get through the day, because every day Alani wakes up is another day this disease didn’t win.”

Alani, who enjoys dancing and performing karaoke, knows she’s different and doesn’t care, accord­ing to her devoted mom. And although weary, Petties herself finds beauty in the darkness.

“I am rare,” she says. “I am a mother of a child who holds a title of 1 in 10 million. That by far is nothing to be sad about. She is incredible and unique, and she’s all mine.” 

To search for medical conditions in a specific location visit our Search Clinical Trials page.

To stay informed about clinical trials, visit our Resources page.