Ocrevus checklist

I’ve just had part 1 of my initial Ocrevus infusion. Beforehand, I asked the MS community on Twitter for their top tips for infusion day and I thought I’d combine them with my observations so that I can share them here.

This may be useful for new Ocrevus patients, and I’ll also refer to them myself as a checklist every six months on top-up as, knowing me, I’ll only forget otherwise.

Packing a bag

What to include:

  • Your appointment letter on the off chance that the hospital staff stare blankly at you and claim they’ve never heard of you.
  • A facemask and hand sanitiser. You’re clinically vulnerable and actually need to isolate for two weeks after infusion day so don’t risk picking anything up from anyone else, and don’t pass anything on to the hospital staff either. You may not be able to attend without a mask in this age of covid, anyway.
  • Sweets and snacks to counteract the steroid taste. I didn’t get a metallic taste on infusion #1 but I think it’s a good idea for keeping up blood sugar anyway.
  • A cold drink in a bottle to keep hydrated (counteracts headaches). Water is fine but squash is probably better for the same reasons as the sweets.
  • Something simple to keep you amused because it’s a long day. I packed a fully-charged tablet (mainly to save my phone battery for sending essential messages). Hospital guest wi-fi was easy to log into and didn’t require a password. It’ll also give you something to look at, so you don’t spend the day avoiding eye contact or pretending to sleep. Don’t pack a book – I packed a Haruki Murakami and found it frustrating and impossible to concentrate on it after one page.
  • Headphones for the tablet. Maybe download a film or a playlist from Spotify or similar.
  • A sandwich / lunch. NHS sandwiches are certainly something to write home about, but not in a good way unfortunately.
  • Walking stick / mobility aid / catheters
  • Your appointment letter might tell you to bring your old medication. Don’t bother. The nurses seemed a little frustrated that no one had bothered to delete that sentence from the letter.

The day itself

  • Take a day off work for the day after the infusion. Hopefully you won’t feel ill but you will feel tired and, let’s face it, how often since your mid-twenties have you taken a day off work just for yourself. You’re likely to be up late with nerves the day before and up late again on the day itself from the steroid rush.
  • Get all your blood tests done within two weeks of the infusion. If you don’t (I didn’t) they do them all over again on the day and you’ll be waiting for the results while everyone else is merrily having their infusions.
  • Have a friend or family member give you a lift to the hospital and arrange a pick-up point for afterwards. You’ll probably feel fine afterwards but it’s not guaranteed, and you’ll be in no mood for negotiating city traffic / car parks etc.
  • Establish what time you’ll be finished and text that through to your chauffer as they may need to alter their schedule accordingly. If the nurse looks at your drip and says you’ll be finished at 3.30, you will be finished at 3.30, guaranteed. They’re the expert here.
  • Aim to arrive early, if only to bag the best seat by the window (see pictures) but also so you can provide a sample
  • Drink a load before you get to the hospital – apparently it makes the veins stand out better and gives your needle wielding nurse something to aim at.
  • Don’t go for a wee until you’re handed a pot for a sample. The sample is a necessary part of the day to eliminate infections and so forth, so if you turn up with an empty bladder you’ll just prolong things.
  • If they’re about to hook you up to the drip, go for another wee (easier if you catheterise, admittedly) as you’ll be stuck to your chair for a few hours. It’s also a good idea to stretch your legs, particularly if, like me, you’re prone to leg spasms. Remember, there’s no need to be embarrassed about your weak bladder – you’re in a room full of people with MS after all.
  • Accept all cups of tea / coffee that come your way. You need to stay hydrated. If you need a wee, they can always unhook you.
  • When the lunch trolley rolls around, you’ll probably refuse the sandwich in favour of the one you’ve made and brought with you. Do not UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES refuse the cake (unless you’re gluten intolerant / allergic). You’re having stuff pumped into your bloodstream to kill your B cells so screw the diet; no-ones watching; you deserve the cake and it’s the only tasty thing they’ll bring you. Plus, what I said earlier about sugar levels etc.

After the infusion, they’ll hook you up to another bag full of saline, just to flush the last of the Ocrevus into your system. This doesn’t take long. When it’s all in, you’ll bleed back into the tube a little bit and the nurse will come and unhook you. You can now phone or text your lift to tell them you’re leaving on time and you can be on your merry way.

So those are my tips for dealing with the day. During the day, you will have your blood pressure monitored and your temperature taken on a regular basis, and the nurse will be in to see you often to press a button on the machine that feeds you the drip to stop it bleeping. This breaks things up a little bit so the day doesn’t actually pass as slowly as you think it might.

It’s quite straightforward really and afterwards you’ll have that glow from being a super-special member of the Ocrevus club for the next six months at least. Enjoy the ride!

It’s about quality of life

As hinted at in my previous post, after a couple of nasty infections, my dad’s in his final days.

At the time of writing he’s being made comfortable. He’s not in any pain and he doesn’t really have the strength or inclination to eat or drink, other than a couple of spoons of mashed up weetabix he had yesterday and enough water to keep his mouth and throat from drying up. He barely has the strength to lift his head or even open his eyes.

This doesn’t mean he’s asleep though. I was talking to a doctor by the foot of his hospital bed earlier in the week and I’d mentioned my MS in passing. The doctor had started telling me about a disease modifying drug he’d read about in the BMJ: “Ock… Ockra…”

“Ocrelizumab?” I ventured.

He looked surprised, “Yeah – that’s it.”

Having MS sure makes you do your homework.

For some reason, my dad chose this moment to lift his head and eye us suspiciously; he lifted his right hand like an imaginary gun and shot me twice before nodding back off.

Good old Dad, he’s had a long life, he has never done any harm to anyone  and he still has a sense of humour.

Now, I’ll lay my cards on the table: I’m an atheist. Plenty of people have tried to convince me otherwise: evangelists, jehovah’s witnesses, you name it, but it’s like water off a duck’s back to me now. I’ve considered the evidence and I’d say I was solid in my (non-) belief. It’s not like I can say I wasn’t taken to church as a kid or anything. I’ve done it all. I’m even a Sunday school drop-out.

It comes from having a vicar as a dad.

I lived in vicarages for the duration of my childhood until I was within grasping distance of my teenage years, and then we moved into my gran’s old house and that’s where we settled.

Dad gained a job as the first full-time chaplain in the newly built local hospital, building the role up from scratch.

I don’t meet that many people who remember him in this role as it was a long time ago. The ones that I do, however, always take pains to tell me what a lovely man he was and how he had time for absolutely everyone.

He really found his vocation in life, and made it his mission to keep his finger on the pulse of all the staff as well as the patients.

Whether it was meeting or sharing jokes with the cleaners (or the ‘pink panthers’ as he called them, due to their pink uniforms), the consultants, or the mortician (who memorably tried to get the measure of my dad by inviting him to a post-mortem, expressing surprise that he hadn’t fainted during the experience), he listened to them all, and he let them all unburden their stresses, complaints, fears and sorrows onto his shoulders.

He respected no social hierarchy. We were all human. We were all made equal. We were all loved.

I remember him telling me that he’d been to see a patient who’d listed wicca as their religion. I’d expressed surprise that he’d been to see someone who wasn’t a christian. He put me right – it didn’t matter what your religion or lack of religion was, we all need someone to listen to us and that was why he was there.

When I was diagnosed with MS, I had, and still largely do have, a light-hearted attitude towards the disease and everything it throws at me. I guess it’s my way of dealing with it. No matter how breezily I’d mention anything to do with it to Dad, he’d always take me off-guard by stopping whatever he was doing, removing  his glasses and giving me his full attention.

He was retired medically in the early ’90s. A dodgy ticker wasn’t being helped by the stress of his job. He’d had pressure from management at the tail-end of the Thatcher years. He said they sat in offices away from the rest of the hospital and their main concern seemed to be balancing budgets above all else. He felt that his was a role that had no empirical value in their eyes, though I’m pretty sure one or two of the senior management team sought him out when they eventually needed him.

I also remember that he’d found it especially hard dealing with stillbirths and bereaved parents at a time when he’d become a grandfather for the first time.

Years of happy retirement followed in which he became a devoted grandfather to 6 and, in the last year (to his enormous glee), a great-grandfather. When my mum (who was born into a typical methodist mining family) died 12 years ago, on her encouragement, he ‘crossed the Tiber,’ and joined his friends in the Roman Catholic church. This was a move that eventually and inevitably led to him achieving ordination as a catholic priest, teaming up with an old hospital colleague at a church in a working class suburb of town. He retired for a second time only a handful of years ago.

Despite being a non-believer, my upbringing means I’ve always found it very familiar and easy to talk to clergy. Thinking about his last rites, I’d mentioned to my dad that I was going to talk to a priest, and in a feeble whisper he told me it wasn’t necessary. His short term memory had already been blown to pieces by his recent illness, so I assumed it was similar to him telling me about self administering his own communion after his second retirement, but no – the priesthood had been there already.

“He’s all signed off, the Monsignor came to see him… let me see… ten days ago,” the local Dean informed me at the end of the phone, and then in a beautiful turn-of-phrase that made me choke back the tears, “he’s had his passport stamped, and he’s ready to fly.”

It must be a phrase that my dad is familiar with because when I told him I’d heard his passport was stamped, he managed a smile. Then following the Dean’s advice to give reassurance that it was OK to go, and for him not to worry about who or what he might be leaving behind, I added “when they call your flight number, just go for it Dad, just pick up your bags and go straight to the gate, OK?”

“OK” came the whispered reply.

He’s back in his care home now. The hospital where he’d worked has done everything they can for him, and he’s now being treated by nursing staff who visit daily and the lovely living saint who is his main carer. It’s a surrounding that he’s familiar with, that doesn’t involve beeping equipment, the groans of other patients, the pink panthers with their mops and brushes, or having his blood pressure checked at regular intervals. He can be lulled to sleep again by the night trains on the nearby railway, rattling past to destinations unknown.

The future and the wellbeing of the planet has always seemed to me to be on a knife edge with global warming, the ongoing mass extinction event that is the human race, and now the era of Brexit, Trump and the rise of populism across Europe. Dad’s left such a legacy to be proud of, he has touched so many people’s lives, and we need more people like him. More people to redress the balance of an off-kilter world. More people to heal the human spirit.

It’s about quality of life after all.

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Yes – I was a porker of a baby and I remember that monkey

The Beta Interferon blues.

I’m about to go back on Rebif after a four week trial period of coming off it.

It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve done this, I tend not to take it on holiday (just a hassle) or over Christmas (to give myself a break).

So, have I noticed any changes?

On the negative side, I’ve noticed some extra dizziness and tingling arms and hands. A couple of days ago I woke up with a partially numb right forearm extending into my little finger, which isn’t usual for me.

And that’s it!

Of course I realise that a prolonged period off the meds increases the chance of a relapse etc, so I’m going to start injecting again tonight to see what happens next.

On the positive side (and this is a big one) I’m happier.

Granted, I’ve been on holiday to Florida over the last four weeks which might explain my improved Disneyfied mood, but I haven’t had the usual back to work blues this time.

I can quantify the improved mood as well.

A couple of months before I came off Rebif, my GP asked how I was feeling and handed me a mood questionnaire. The same questionnaire is available on the NHS website. I scored pretty highly: 15 out of 20, I think, which puts me bubbling under ‘severely depressed.’

If I complete the questionnaire now, I score 3 or 4, and I get those for MS related things rather than anything mood related. I might get up a lot in the night, for instance, because of my bladder.

Because my mood has improved, I’ve been eating less and been more energetic. I’m also sleeping better. My wife jokes that she doesn’t know many people who can go on holiday to the States and lose ten pounds, but I did. Ten pounds!! In two weeks!

Among the listed side effects of beta interferon 1a (Rebif and Avonex) is suicidal thoughts and depression, so it will be interesting to see what happens when I resume the meds. I’ll be monitoring my mood score and contacting my MS nurse if my situation changes.

The medication choices have changed in the six years since I was diagnosed, so if the worst comes to the worst I’ll have some research to do.

Anyway, wish me luck. Time to get those syringes ready.