Swings amongst the Roundabouts

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The Hidden Burden of M.E.

A couple of days ago, on Severe M.E. Day, I came across this post by ‘Terry’ (pseudonym) on an M.E.-related Facebook group:

💙💜💚💙💜💚💙💜💚💙💜💚💙💜💚

I’m starting to write this at 4 o’clock in the morning. I have sleep reversal, and today, August 8th, is Severe M.E Understanding and Remembrance Day.

2 nights ago, seeking support, I posted under the title “Injured” that I had damaged my ribs, asking if anyone would be awake late, very late.
People were lovely and kind, some offering a number of solutions.

What the responses made me realise, however, is that I hadn’t done a very good job of explaining the severity of my condition generally. In fact, in crisis due to the injury, I hadn’t been able to explain anything at all.

When I joined the group, I never introduced myself and didn’t explain that I have a profoundly severe case of M.E. So, it feels a little bit like it might if one was gay and not ‘out’. Everybody’s assuming how I identify and offering solutions based on that mindset.
So, in honour of inclusivity and Severe M.E Understanding and Remembrance Day, I’m coming out, but just a little to save on your patience:

I haven’t left my home, bedroom or bed, since 1993, apart from an imposed house move, by ambulance and stretcher in 2003.
For 25 years I’ve been 100% bedbound and “bodybound” – barely able to move in the bed and only occupying two positions, either lying on my left side or propped by pillows for just long enough to eat.
At a very early point it was threatened that I would be removed from the practice list if I requested a home visit. The GPs refused to visit for 23 years “unless there was a medical need” . That is, they would come out to assess e.g a chest infection but there would be no management of my condition of severe and profound M.E.
I’ve recently actually been visited by a new GP, after the old ones retired (but only because of another acute injury) who has offered to visit me once a year. You might say ‘big deal!’ yet this one visit per year is an amazing, unprecedented and vast improvement.

I only gained access to the Internet in the spring of 2016 and find that most of the M.E groups on Facebook are solutions-orientated.
After the cumulative effects of 39 years I’m physically fragile, and exhausted beyond belief, and cannot even tolerate someone else helping. No interventions are possible.
I’m intolerant to all medication and frequently experience an inverse or idiosyncratic reaction. I’m barely able to move and can’t soak in the tub, visit a chiropractor or even apply creams designed to relieve the pain and inflammation.

Due to the severity and chronicity of my M.E I wasn’t/am not able to take any action whatsoever to alleviate or treat the extreme and acute pain caused by the injury.

The reason that I’m writing this is that, I’m sincerely glad for those who are able to follow protocols and improve their quality of life, but we need to be aware that this is not the case for everyone in the group.
There are those of us still out here for whom nothing has changed, because nothing is able to be changed.
We are invisible, ignored and sidelined and for the sake of the inclusivity of our group I’m hoping to make people living with very Severe M.E a little less invisible, once again, today.

(End of Terry’s post.)

This drastically abridged version of Terry’s situation seems to me to be eloquent evidence of:

1) how very extreme severe M.E. can be

2) the extent to which severely affected patients are – quite openly – neglected by health professionals

3) the way such patients feel they have to hide the full extent of their situation not only from people in general but even from people with M.E. who are less severely affected.

Most of us with M.E, have some experience of this feeling that we need to ‘hide away’ or ‘stay in the closet’ about our condition, usually because we can’t quite face the sheer extent of people’s ignorance about what we’re going through. In particular, we can’t face the likelihood that they’ll say something entirely inappropriate in an effort to try to be helpful and thereby trigger emotions we can ill afford the energy to experience.

How much worse must this be for those who are as severely affected as Terry, for whom the gulf of understanding is so much greater, who are even more likely to be met with jaw-dropping disbelief instead of appropriate empathy.

By and large this ignorance isn’t other people’s fault. It should be up to the health profession to inform them. But health professionals are of course the least likely to understand. They are the most likely to listen to the lies of those of their number who have built their careers on unfounded untruths about the condition. And this in turn gives them leave to neglect such patients, to ‘refuse to visit for 23 years’ as has been the case with Terry.

Also on Severe M.E. Day, the M.E. Association asked a question on its Facebook page:

If you have been severely affected by ME, or are currently severely affected, or are a carer or family member of someone severely or very severely affected, what changes would you like to see to the care that you (or the person you care for) receive from the NHS?

At the time of writing, many people have left comments or suggestions, including one from my wife Chris who has severe M.E. herself and is largely housebound but not (touch wood) bedbound for the time being. Chris wrote:

I would like to see the following charities really focus on improving things for severe ME people & lobbying NHS England for this.
The NICE guidelines do nothing for the severely affected….
I am thinking of a working collaborative of the MEA, Invest in ME, Tymes Trust, The ME Trust..working with each other & the 25% Group. (I have not included Action for ME because they are not trusted by many patients, ESPECIALLY THE SEVERELY AFFECTED owing to their close collaboration with the biopsychosocial NHS clinics & Esther Crawley).

1. to establish a dedicated flying squad of well informed, trained & compassionate health care professionals in each region of the country
2. to establish the exact numbers & a directory /database of people severely affected,
3.to visit severe ME patients WHO CANNOT TRAVEL even to any centres which are set up…
4. to provide help/ palliative care to them in their own beds at home
5. to liaise with their GPs/Social Services/carers etc

Such an initiative would not be ‘solutions-oriented’. The health professionals would not be trained to expect the patients to be up and about after a few months of encouragement. But they would be willing to assess and acknowledge the terrible situation in which so many severely affected find themselves, to allow them to be as they are without fear of blame, and to shine a light on the heavy burden such patients have had to carry, while the money which should have been spent on research to address the physical roots of their illness has been squandered instead on desperate attempts to justify exercise programmes.

If you agree with Chris’s suggestion or have some ideas of your own about what can be done to improve things for the severely affected, you can still respond on the MEA Facebook page. The post was on 8 August at 8-25 am.

Thanks to Terry for permission to repost their thoughts.

My Perspective on the MEGA PAG

At long last, I’ve submitted my list of reasons for resigning from the MEGA patient advisory group to the MEGA team, the other PAG members and a few other interested parties. I would like to be able to share it in full here but unfortunately the confidentiality agreement makes that impossible. So I shall stay with it as long as I can and then add in a few extra comments exclusive to this blog. Well, OK, quite a lot of extra comments…
Here we go…
I joined the PAG in the expectation that we would be able to make a substantial contribution to the design of the MEGA project, in particular the patient cohort selection, about which there had been considerable concern in both the ME/CFS research and patient communities. Recognition and  understanding of ME/CFS has been greatly hindered for many years by the muddled and inconsistent use of a host of diagnostic criteria. This problem was acknowledged by the recent US National Institutes of Health ‘Pathways to Prevention’ Report  and highlighted in a recent paper from the Cure ME UK Biobank team. It is recognised that broad criteria are needed for GWAS, but nonetheless it is of course extremely important  to select the right patients for the MEGA biobank, particularly as they might be used for research worldwide for many years to come. There has been particular concern because the MEGA team Principal Investigator, though regarded as an ME/CFS expert by her close colleagues, did not – to judge from her previous work – appear to have taken on board the importance of such distinctions.
Prior to the formation of the PAG, patient concern was to some extent allayed by assurances about the extensive role of the patient advisory group, both on the MEGA website and in person by Prof Holgate when he addressed the Forward ME Group at the House of Lords.
The MEGA website announced that provisions would be made for the PAG as follows:
We will:
  • use technology to make it as easy as possible to participate, given the limitations of the illness
  • ensure you are clear about your role and responsibilities
  • always treat you with respect and compassion
  • provide you with support that fits with your role and your needs as well as ours
  • always value the role you play in our team and the contribution you make to our work
  • listen to, and act on, feedback that you give to us outlining what we did/didn’t do and why
  • ensure you have the information you need to participate in the wider MEGA team effectively.
At his meeting with Forward ME at the House of Lords in December, Prof Holgate further explained:
  • the selection of patients would not be looked into until the PAG had been convened
  • the PAG would need to get together with the MEGA team to resolve the many queries that surrounded the condition of ME/CFS patients.
  • the PAG’ s method of working would be a matter for the PAG to decide. Each patient representative would be an equal of every other member of the MEGA team
When asked about the inclusion of the full spectrum of patients in samples for the study, Prof Holgate said:
  • this was a discussion the patient representatives would need to have with the scientists
The MEGA website summarised the role of the PAG as follows: “to provide people with ME/CFS, their carers, and people with an interest in ME/CFS, with a full voice in advising and collaborating with the MEGA team to inform all stages of the MEGA study to better understand the biology of ME/CFS. Advisory Group members are asked to contribute to the MEGA study by:
  • actively engaging in the design of the MEGA study and to be participants in its conduct
  • identifying any potential practical issues for participants, questions, gaps or concerns about the study and to comment on study documents and procedures
  • contributing to, and informing, the planning process for securing funding, recruiting participants and disseminating results.”
Sadly, my experience was that the vast majority of these numerous assurances were ill-founded. The reality of the PAG differed greatly from what had been promised.
In the report I submitted, I went on to give examples of numerous ways in which the reality of the PAG fell short of what had been promised, but unfortunately I’m not able to share them here due to the confidentiality agreement. What I can do instead, I think, is to bring in my experience of patient involvement in research into another neurological condition I have. This has involved answering questions about how far people would be prepared to travel to undergo tests, and whether they would be prepared to go without their medication for part of the day while doing so, that sort of thing. In other words answering important but relatively mundane questions about patient participation in the practice of research.
In our discussions amongst ourselves in the PAG, we referred to this as working in a ‘consultative’ capacity, whereby the group would be approached to answer such questions as and when they were needed, an important role yet a very different one from that of collaboration, which was what we had been given the impression would be required from us for MEGA. At the time I left the PAG, some two and a half months in, it was still not clear which of these roles we were supposed to fulfil. We had certainly been told we would be collaborating, more specifically we were to be provided with “a full voice in advising and collaborating with the MEGA team to inform all stages of the MEGA study”. The trouble was that to judge from our experience so far we were really only wanted in a consultative capacity. “To decide on the best colour for the envelopes,” was how I liked to describe it. Which was a joke – but admittedly not all that funny.
Though things were much more complicated than I have been able to describe, it was this uncertainty about the role of the PAG and the failure to get agreement on terms of reference which might have defined it, together with frustration about having such little scope for input into the project, which led to my resignation. Our attempts to get more clarity led to a souring of the atmosphere and it was hard to see how progress could be made. Far from being welcome partners in the development of MEGA, we seemed to be barely tolerated. Three of us felt that the time had come to resign.
My best guess about what happened is that we were always intended to be consultative but when patients protested so loudly about the plans for MEGA as originally announced, the PAG was seized upon as a way to quieten us down: “Don’t worry – the PAG will be there to make sure it’s all done properly!” Prof Holgate even went so far as to tell Forward ME that “PAG members would be the equal of every other member of the MEGA team” which I have to say struck me at the time as neither likely nor even desirable. Personally speaking, as someone who knows next to nothing about –omics, I wouldn’t expect to have the same authority as an –omics scientist on an –omics research project. But I suppose when your mindset is simply to say whatever it takes to get the troublesome patients off your back, you don’t stop to think too much about accuracy.
You’d have thought, though, that they would have had a plan to deal with the situation when the PAG turned up and – surprise, surprise – expected to have, if not the impressive powers they had been promised, at least some say in the matter. Wasn’t it reasonable for us to believe what we (and Forward ME) had been told?
Except perhaps, now I think about it, there was a plan to deal with the situation: to ignore the PAG until the more troublesome members resigned in frustration then turn on the charm with the rest.
So maybe it’s me that hasn’t thought this through…
But I can’t help wondering how the Forward ME representatives must feel about being given such a misleading impression of how things would be for the PAG? When they asked all those questions of Prof Holgate at the House of Lords, would they not have expected a higher degree of accuracy in the replies? Or are we in a situation where anyone in power can say  whatever they like, regardless of the facts? While patients are cast as troublemakers however much truth they have on their side…
Anyway, what happens next?
People have been asking if more resignations from the PAG are likely. My impression at the time was that others were considering it, but now I’m on the outside with everyone else, I don’t really know. According to the latest update on the MEGA website, “enthusiasm among PAG members is high” and since our departure “things have really picked up and are starting to fly”. If, as the website also reports, the PAG really had “substantial input” into the bid then things have changed a great deal for the better. If I’d known I was holding things back so much, I’d have gone before…
After the mistaken impression previously given about the role of the PAG, however, I hope I will be forgiven if I don’t entirely trust the MEGA website. The recent update reported that three of us had left the PAG and that our “ reasons for leaving have been taken on board”. This was particularly surprising as, at the time that update appeared, two of us hadn’t yet submitted our reasons for leaving. The update also stressed the intention that MEGA will apply for additional funding to include samples from the severely affected and that PEM will be a prerequisite for inclusion in the study. All of this, the update announced, had been agreed with the PAG. Well, OK, but both these strategies had already evolved before the PAG was even formed. They could hardly be described as a breakthrough now. If they had found a way to include the severely affected in the initial bid, then that would be news.
On the other hand, the update does at least acknowledge that those affected long term (who may not necessarily be severe) must also be included and it appears there has been some discussion of categorisation of samples. It is not much to go on but perhaps things are taking a turn for the better. It is not before time.
I certainly felt that the PAG had a great deal of expertise that was being wasted till now. There are some good people still in the group and I hope they are finally getting a chance to be heard. I’m sorry if my departure has increased the load upon them. I wish them all the best in their efforts to make their mark on the study. It is always hard to be sure of the root of things and perhaps the previous shortcomings of the MEGA/PAG relationship were due to oversight and circumstance rather than intent. Perhaps it is not too late for things to change.
And yet….
I’ve been torn in writing this post because I want to support my friends that remain in the PAG in their efforts to make MEGA better. I’m sure they will give it all they have but the honest truth is I don’t share their optimism. If I did, I suppose, I wouldn’t have resigned from the PAG. If things have changed for the PAG, I suspect it has more to do with spin than substance. I have to judge the study from my own experience, not from a single upbeat blog post. I have to look at the Principal Investigator, her previous work, the gulf between the promises and my experience of the PAG, the feeling of being played along just enough to keep us in tow. I think patients and informed professionals are right to express continued concern about the study. I have feared all along that it is likely to hinder rather than help our understanding of ME because of the way the patients are chosen and I’m afraid I have seen nothing to change my mind.

More Voices

Many patients and carers left additional comments for Professor Holgate of MEGA when they signed our recent letter. I wasn’t able to carry these over when I transferred the post to its permanent home, so I’m reprinting some of them here.  Sorry I haven’t included them all but I am grateful for all your comments and signatures nevertheless. I shall link to this post when I send the follow-up letter to Prof Holgate (which I hope till be tomorrow). I will post the follow-up letter here on the blog as well.

Here are the comments: Continue reading “More Voices”

Big Data Danger

This post comes mainly courtesy (again) of the astute Steve Hawkins, who responded to my concerns in the Getting Airborne post about the possible dangers of a MEGA Biobank. Over to Steve:

On the ‘big data’ front, I think that all genuine physical measurements will be useful if used in the right way. The danger comes from any extraction/filtering that uses diagnosis as the reference field. If they do that – and I’m sure Crawley and Co would, because they think they can diagnose without biomarkers – the results would be garbage, as there would be many conditions given the wrong name but appearing together.

On the other hand, filtering on key concrete signs like PEM, POTS, bedbound, etc. would pull up useful groupings whatever the ostensible diagnosis.

In the wider scheme of things, there are now a number of entrepreneuring projects aiming to collect ALL big medical data, and link all medical databases together. I read a good piece on this recently by one bioinformatician who is setting up a giant server, but I don’t seem to have bookmarked it. Here is a conference on getting all genomic information into ‘the cloud’ for free searching and filtering: And one from The Lancet, on the astronomical amount of data that is about to flow from mobile phones whose apps have turned into our version of Star Trek’s ‘tricorder’. All this info will go into ‘the cloud’:

So we’re getting to the stage where all data is useful: so long as it is faithfully produced. Sadly, we know from PACE that data will have to be graded by association with researcher, and those who cannot be trusted will have their data discarded. There is nothing they can do about this: if their name is on their shoddy work, it will go nowhere, and all the data they collected will be wasted.

There lies the danger of MEGA: not that it will pollute the big data, but that any good data it contains will be at risk of being discarded by everyone but Crawley and her associates. That is why patients should NOT let their data be associated with MEGA while Crawley is involved.

I think Steve has nailed it there, and as it seems unlikely that Prof Crawley will be willing to part company with MEGA, I still believe that we should sign the OMEGA (Opposing MEGA) petition to demonstrate our strength of feeling against the proposal as it stands. The original pro-MEGA petition has now been closed – perhaps because they realised that more people were taking their signatures off than were putting them on – but the OMEGA team are still promoting their counter petition. Here is their latest blog. Scroll to the end for the link to their petition or just click here.

Why We All Need To Sign The OMEGA Petition

((Please note that I am not involved in organising the OMEGA petition.))

It’s taken me a while to sign up to the OMEGA petition because I’ve really wanted to find a way for the MEGA ‘biomedical research’ study to work.

Steps could be taken to improve the original proposal. As suggested in the previous post, the patient sample could be obtained not from the NHS clinics but from the existing UK Biobank. There are nowhere near enough samples in the Biobank at present but there is already funding for more, and more samples still could be added as further funding is obtained. Using the already established methodology, with patients coming through GPs, this could produce a reliable sample with the focus on PEM. There would be plenty of severe and moderate patients and – if my rudimentary understanding of ‘big data’ is correct – the sample need not be as large as the one from the clinics as patients with other fatigue conditions would not be included.

If Dr Charles Shepherd – or someone appointed by him – could be in charge of this then I am sure that the majority of the patient community would get behind the project. But would such a switch be achievable? That is the problem. The word is that Prof Esther Crawley is in charge of patient selection – and is unlikely to want to change the way it is done.

The involvement of Prof Crawley, of course, has been one of the main reasons why patients have been uneasy about MEGA right from its first announcement. Yesterday’s publicity about FITNET, Crawley’s upcoming online CBT study, has come as a timely reminder of why that is.

Yesterday’s reports were brimming over with misinformation. Continue reading “Why We All Need To Sign The OMEGA Petition”

Getting Airborne

Steve Hawkins, who often comments here at the blog and quietly does a lot of useful activist stuff behind the scenes, left the following comment/proposal on the OMEGA petition site (and added it here in response to the previous post). I thought it was worthy of a wider audience so I’m reposting it here to kick off today’s blog:

‘It seems unfortunate that there has to be a petition of this kind against what, in the right hands, and with careful preparation of protocols in advance, would undoubtedly be a gathering of very useful data; and I feel uncomfortable that this will discourage some of the very able researchers and research teams who have been brought into the MEGA group but had no part in earlier ill advised research proposals; but it seems that something of this sort will have to be done, to ensure a complete new start, and clean break with the discredited ‘science’ of biopsychosocial egotists.

‘I apologise to the, well-meaning, I’m sure, Prof. Holgate, and those others who I fear have had to be reticent in criticising poor research, because of the binding conditions that were attached to membership of the Research Collaborative, under the direction of the partisan ‘Science Media Centre’, but the time really has come to return to both freedom of speech and information in this research field, after the gambit of crying ‘harassment’ after any honest questioning, has been so clearly shown up for what it was, in the courts.

‘I would advise that a new steering group be set up for a large and inclusive, data gathering and biomic sequencing and typing study with the major emphasis on the severely affected, who are the most likely to yield clear differences worthy of more intensive study. By all means collect data from a quota of less severely disabled/sick patients as well, but only to the number necessary to provide a control match for each of the seriously ill study subjects. A similar number of healthy controls will also be needed.

‘Thus the size and expense of the study should stem from the maximum number of seriously ill participants for statistical certainty… (plus controls). If that turns out to be a very big cost Continue reading “Getting Airborne”

More on MEGA

Following on from their original email and Professor Holgate’s response, Leeds ME Network have sent a further email to Prof Holgate of CMRC about concerns regarding the proposed MEGA project:

Many thanks for your swift response to my previous email regarding the MEGA study and for passing our concerns on to those who are preparing the bid for funding…

It is heartening to hear from your email that the inclusion of very severe patients is under discussion by the MEGA team. I notice, however, that you mention ‘financial limitations’ in this context. The reaction of other patients with whom I have shared this issue echoes my own: that severely affected patients should be the priority. People with ME/CFS in general are offered little in the way of treatment but most of the severely affected are abandoned entirely by doctors. They are left to lie in darkened rooms, often unable even to sit up in bed or converse with their loved ones, and without any prospect of medical intervention. I’m sure you know all this. Though I cannot claim to have taken a scientific sample of opinion, the overwhelming impression I get from patients is that if there are financial constraints regarding MEGA then these should apply to the overall number of samples taken rather than be focussed on the severely affected, who are the ones most in need of help. I am reminded of Prof Ron Davis’ observation that data from severely affected patients is the most important ‘because their biology would show the greatest differences compared with healthy controls’. It seems incongruous to be envisaging such an enormous study yet even at this stage, while the grant submission is still being prepared, to be talking about insufficient money for full inclusion in the study of those most in need of help.

A further issue regarding patient selection occurred to me while reading through the ‘questions and answers’ update on the MEGA petition website:

The update says: “The only way to do this is to recruit patients through NHS clinics throughout England.”

As I described in my previous email, taking patients from the clinics alone would produce a sample of patients biased towards the less severely affected. Continue reading “More on MEGA”

Some Response from MEGA

Following yesterday’s emails to Prof Holgate, Chair of the CMRC, and Sonya Chowdhury of Action for ME, Leeds ME Network has received short responses from both of them including a bit of encouraging news.

Prof Holgate said: “The preparation of the initial outline for this grant is very much ongoing. I am sure the applicants will be as inclusive as possible, and I am already aware of a discussion of how to include very severe house-bound patients. Finance will be a limiting factor.” He says he will pass the email on to those involved in preparing the grant outline.

Sonya Chowdhury said she would leave it to Prof Holgate to respond on behalf of MEGA but was able to confirm the following:“There has never been any suggestion that individuals for the patient advisory group will be Action for ME recruited; indeed I believe I have tweeted to this effect. We completely expect the group to be representative and recruited transparently.”

So, two pieces of encouraging news: about the housebound patients and the recruitment of the patient advisory group. I’m a bit concerned, though, about yet another mention of the limitations of finance when the severely affected are mentioned. This is a massive study with 12,000 patients seeking finance in excess of £5m. Surely with so much invested, we can make sure that the severely affected are adequately represented…

Making the Most of MEGA

In an earlier post, I published an email from Leeds ME Network to Sonya Chowdhury, CEO of Action for ME, expressing reservations about the presence of Profs White and Crawley on the team of the proposed MEGA biomedical research project. Here is the latest update from Leeds ME Network:

In response to our letter to Sonya Chowdhury, we have just received what appears to be a standard letter referring to the latest updates on the MEGA petition page at Change.org. Leeds ME Network have now responded in turn with the following email, slight variations of which will be sent to Ms Chowdhury; Stephen Holgate the CMRC Chair; Dr Charles Shepherd at ME Association; and ME Research UK. Our email follows:

We are grateful to the MEGA team for letting us know about the proposed CFS/ME biomedical research project. We believe it is very important that this study goes ahead but in view of some of the less than helpful research which has taken place in the past (in particular, of course, we are thinking of the PACE trial) we hope you will understand why we patients are keen to voice our concerns about the proposal.

1) The impression has been given that patients for the study group will all be drawn from the NHS Clinics. It seems clear that such a sample would be heavily biased towards less severely affected patients and that the sample would therefore be unrepresentative of the total patient population.

The reasons for this are as follows: Continue reading “Making the Most of MEGA”