Examined Lives: On World Lupus Day, one patient’s story about life with a mysterious disease

By Tiffany Marie Peterson

This February 20th was my third-year anniversary of being diagnosed with lupus.

I have had joint problems since I was little. But in January of 2010 I lost my grandmother to throat cancer and shortly afterwards my symptoms because so severe I couldn’t move out of the bed. It took me about a month to be properly diagnosed. I was first diagnosed with rheumatic arthritis, but my general practitioner (GP) is so hands-on; he referred me to a rheumatologist right away so I wasn’t misdiagnosed for long.

Lupus is such a mysterious disease. One moment its not active at all, and the next moment completely active. I could be having symptoms like swollen achy joints or chronic fatigue without any warning. There are so many “ifs.” You never know how your day is going to go until it ends and you never know what what’s coming down the pike.

Putting a Team Together

When you have lupus, you have to manage multiple care providers, including nephrologists, GPS, and a rheumatologist.  I’m on my third rheumatologist now, because the first two wouldn’t let me an empowered patient. That means that you’re enabled and educated, and you know how to take part in your own care. I just started seeing my new rheumatologist that I have only seen a couple of times. I finally found a rheumatologist who was willing to sit down and work with me and not at me. It took me about two years to get this team together.

I’m on a drug that may cause eyesight issues, so I also have an opthamologist. I have to see a psychotherapist and a psychiatrist – lupus itself causes depression – so each month I have about six doctors’ appointments minimum.

Technology Helps Communications

I first go diagnosed my rheumatologist wasn’t open to sharing my medical files, so when it came to making decisions she didn’t care about what I had to say. Now, I have a patient portal that allows me to send my GP e-mail, so I can email him whenever something’s up, and he can get in contact with the other doctors.

I don’t know if many patients have patient portals, but it helps me a lot.  The fact that I can just email my doctor is wonderful, because when you call the office you almost never get the doctor.  But when I email my GP, he responds within a day or two.

Of course, you also have to have a copy of your own health records to share when necessary. It’s so important. I tell my lupus brothers and sisters, make sure you always have your own health records with you.

Still, it’s not like I can look at my charts online.  All of my records are paper records.  I have no idea why I can’t get them electronically. Or diagnosing or medications. Even my GP will still use a book to find out whether or not medicines will clash, and I’m like, ‘Can’t you go online and find out whether that’s happening?’

I usually use a health app, CareCoach. It helps me prepare for my visits so I can write down all the questions I have to my doctors. It also helps me record all my doctors’ visits, so I can just play back my experience and get the information I need.

It does make me feel more in control, and definitely more hopeful. It’s a good feeling when everyone is on the same page and all of your doctors are working towards the same goal.  It definitely feels more empowering, and it gives me hope that I’ll have a better outcome.

On Insurance Hassles

There was a huge hurdle in getting health insurance. I couldn’t afford it.  I’m listed as permanently disabled, so managing my healthcare is a lot more straightforward, but there are still some hurdles. I have so many doctors appointments and it all adds up, especially when it comes to medical billing. Every single time the mail comes I get a new bill, so I’m always busy getting through all that.

In the Hospital

There is so much that happened to me in the past six months. I had a hospital stay recently. I had a urinary tract infection that went straight to my bloodstream and caused all of my organs to shut down, so because of that I had to have a blood transfusion.

I went to many different hospitals during my recent visit.  I have a family hospital, which is in the Bronx, but prior to that I was in two other different facilities that did not work with me. They weren’t practicing participatory medicine, where the patient is at the head of the table in their own care. They worked hard at my family hospital to follow my wishes and to work closely with my care team.

Finding a Patient Network

One thing I would tell other Lupus patients: Don’t be shy to ask your doctor questions.  A lot of us can get intimidated when we go into the doctor’s office, because maybe the doctor’s bedside manner is not that great.

Maybe the single biggest step a patient with chronic illness can take is talking to other patients. Lupus patients are always talking to each other online to help us manage our care teams. It’s like, ‘We’ve discussed the issues with each other, now let’s go talk to the doctor.’

I feel like social media in itself has been really helpful in managing my own care, because there are so many patients out here who are veterans and have been managing this disease for 20 years and more. That’s how I found my first mentor, my first year with lupus, and now she’s one of my great friends. She’s been one of my close mentors ever since.

Tiffany Peterson
Tiffany Peterson


Tiffany Marie Peterson blogs at www.tiffanyandlupus.com. Follow her on Twitter @tiffanyandlupus.