Living with Scleroderma
For years, Dee Burlile struggled with various GI symptoms, joint issues, and sensitivity to cold and heat in her hands, unsure of what the cause could be. A busy mother of three young children, Dee’s health took a dramatic decline the day before Thanksgiving in 2011 when her youngest child found her having a seizure in their home and called 911. Her children’s quick thinking saved Dee from cardiac arrest, and she was stabilized in the hospital where she remained for treatment.
“I was incredibly sick, losing about 40 pounds in two months,” Dee recalls.
After leaving the hospital, Dee needed at-home nursing care to help manage her declining health. Living in Idaho with her family, Dee struggled to find a specialist who could diagnose her condition, eventually going out of state for her healthcare. In 2016, Dee made a trip to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota where she was finally diagnosed with systemic sclerosis. Systemic sclerosis or “Scleroderma” is a chronic and often progressive autoimmune disease that affects connective tissue and can cause serious damage to internal organs including the lungs, heart, kidneys, esophagus, and gastrointestinal tract.
The symptoms of scleroderma can vary from person to person. For many, scleroderma causes noticeable tightening of the skin. Unfortunately, Dee’s scleroderma was causing significant damage internally to her organs. Since the beginning of her medical journey, Dee has undergone 21 surgeries, including bilateral rib removals, and four organs removed, including a colectomy to remove her colon. While some of her regular treatments have been in Idaho, Dee has had to travel for most of her surgeries and specialized scleroderma medical care, incurring financial costs.
“It’s been quite the journey not just for me, but for my entire family,” Dee says. “As a mother, there is a feeling of guilt that I can’t shield my kids from the reality of my illness. When someone in a family, especially a parent, is struggling with a disease, it can take a toll on the mental health of everyone, especially kids. They’ve seen me struggle with insurance company denials, delays in medication, and that ultimately affects all of us.”
Dee’s husband is a veteran living with his own disability. The couple work to fill in gaps for each other as best as they can, but Dee admits that the constant work needed to maintain their health, financials, and keep up with other responsibilities can be daunting at times.
Advocacy Work & Clinical Trial Participation
Since her diagnosis, Dee has connected with dozens of other patients living with scleroderma. In 2016, Dee attended her first patient education conference, where the experience sparked her interest in pursuing advocacy full-time.
“Sometimes I feel resentful for my disease because it keeps me from working. I graduated with full honors and worked as a victim witness advocate. Not being able to do that feels like a waste, and so if increasing awareness and being an advocate for scleroderma is what I can do, I will,” Dee says.
Over the years, Dee has participated in advocacy training, and gotten involved with groups like the National Scleroderma Foundation, Idaho Arthritis Walk, Arthritis Foundation, Trevor’s Trek Foundation, and Patients Rising. She has participated for several years in Advocacy Awareness Day on Capitol Hill to raise awareness with elected officials regarding health insurance, chronic illness, and scleroderma. Dee has also participated in clinical research which she believes is critical for finding medical advancements for scleroderma. In the past, she has been in several studies aimed at combatting fatigue, ILD (Interstitial Lung Disease), and other symptoms of scleroderma and has also submitted genetic data for testing. Currently, Dee is in a trial for a new medication that is going very well for her.
Despite her success with clinical research, Dee notes that over the years, only two of her doctors in the state of Idaho have shared information about clinical trials. Other research to find trials was done by Dee independently, which she explains can be difficult and overwhelming for a patient.
“I wish I had known how many clinical trials were available. I think there is a major gap in communication between physicians and patients when it comes to sharing clinical trials as a healthcare option, and it’s concerning,” Dee reflects.
Dee’s advice to someone interested in clinical research is to weigh the risks and benefits, fully understand what you are committing to, and participate only if it makes the most sense for you.
Waiting Room Entertainment
Through her advocacy work, Dee met Amy Gietzen and Demi Montgomery, other women living with scleroderma who are passionate advocates and want to make a difference in their patient community. Since then, they’ve gone on to work on various projects together, including the creation of The Waiting Room Entertainment. “We’d like to bring resources and knowledge to scleroderma patients and other patients living with chronic conditions who are trying to find out more about clinical trials, or just need a community to support them. We’ve created a social club where patients can meet and connect,” Dee explains.
Although living with scleroderma has been difficult, Dee feels incredibly lucky to have the support of her family and friends. Her community and her new connections made through advocacy work have helped lighten the burden of living with her disease and given her hope for a future with new medical advancements. “I try to be positive with my kids about my disease and my differences physically like my ostomy bag,” Dee says. “After my surgery, my daughter who wanted to understand what I was going through, made her own ostomy bag and wore it for a day. I was floored by her empathy and thoughtfulness.”
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Written by Lindsey Elliott, Marketing & Communications Manager, CISCRP | firstname.lastname@example.org