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. ”

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: 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

The Facts About COVID-19 Vaccine Clinical Trials

Are you still deciding whether to get the COVID-19 Vaccine? To help you make the decision that you believe is best for you, your family, and your community, we made an infographic about the role of clinical trials in the development of the vaccines. 

Relevant resources:

  • A list of resources used to develop the COVID-19 vaccines infographic
  • Recognizing Research Professionals Who Participated in COVID-19 Trials Video
  • CISCRP’s Education Center

If you are interested in licensing this infographic or other CISCRP content for use within your organization or in your public-facing website, please contact at info@ciscrp.org.

The Importance of Clinical Research in Underserved Communities

The importance of clinical research is widely recognized, and while many decide to participate in clinical trials, there is a lack of representation of individuals from underserved communities.

In 2019 alone, 46,391 individuals participated in clinical trials that resulted in the approval of 48 new drugs. However, a limited number of study volunteers identified as Black/African American, Asian, and/or Hispanic.

Current efforts to address this lack of representation include a guidance document released by the FDA encouraging pharmaceutical companies to broaden their eligibility criteria. While these efforts are critical in increasing diversity and inclusion in clinical trials, it is equally important to understand how clinical research is viewed from a broad audience.

Every two years, the Center for Information and Study on Clinical Research Participation (CISCRP) conducts a global online study to gather insights on the public and patients’ perceptions and experience with clinical research. Responses from over 12,450 individuals were collected, with representation from many communities, including Black (6 percent), Asian (10 percent), and Hispanic (13 percent) communities.

Importance of clinical research
Individuals across many races and ethnicities acknowledge the value of clinical research studies. Many consider clinical trials to be “somewhat” or “very important” to the discovery and development of new medicines. Additionally, the greatest benefits of participation in clinical research include helping to advance science and the treatment of patient’s disease/condition (26 percent) and the possibility of improving or saving the lives of others with the same condition (21 percent). This highlights how individuals perceive and understand the positive impact participation can have. However, few individuals had recently seen or heard about a clinical trial opportunity.

Where do we look?
Many would begin looking for a clinical trial opportunity by asking their healthcare provider or by using an online resource. For example, over half of Black individuals (52 percent) would use an online clinical trial registry, such as clinicaltrials.gov, and 42 percent of Asian individuals would use an internet search engine like Google. Recommendations from family members are also important to underserved populations in their search for clinical trials.

The relationship between healthcare providers and their patients can be leveraged to increase awareness of and participation in clinical trials. It is important to many that their healthcare provider be aware of ongoing clinical trials in their local communities. Pharmaceutical companies can take an important first step by informing healthcare providers about new clinical trial opportunities in underserved communities. 

Article from our 2020 Clinical Trials Supplement, USA Today. Read more articles here >

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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