Mei Ling

I’ve been a peer health coach (PHC) with the IPPF since 2012. However, if you had told me back in early 2001 that this is what I would be doing today, I never would have believed you. I had never even heard of pemphigus vulgaris (PV) then, much less known about rare autoimmune diseases.

I’ve always believed that everything happens for a reason and that no matter how good or bad it is, there is a destiny in the event. When I finally was diagnosed in February 2002, I didn’t think, “Why me?” Instead, I thought, “Why not me?” I also couldn’t figure out why I thought that! When I reached remission 10 years later in 2012, I was asked by the IPPF to become a PHC.

My journey with PV started in early October 2001. A friend and I were out to dinner one night. While we were waiting for the valet to bring us our cars, I felt an itch and a tiny bump on my upper back. I asked my friend to look at it and whether it looked like a bite. She thought it did. When I went home, I put some aloe with vitamin E on the bump and covered it with a small bandage. The next day there were two more bumps. In the ensuing weeks, I would find about 10 more bumps. Pretty soon, the bandages weren’t large enough to cover them. They grew so big that even a gauze square wasn’t enough to cover them. I bought Telfa pads and paper tape, because it turned out I was allergic to adhesive as well. These “bites” kept growing. My upper back was completely covered, it was raw, oozing, and extremely painful. It looked like I had open wounds from being hit by shrapnel.

Clothing hurt. A strand of hair touching my back felt like a razor blade was cutting into me, so I had to cut off all my hair. I couldn’t shower because the water hitting my skin hurt. Positioning myself on my mattress was painful and took fifteen minutes. Sleeping was a challenge because of the pain and my skin sticking to the sheets. Three months of misdiagnoses and money spent on the wrong medications prompted anxiety, fear, and anger.

My dermatologist, Dr. David Rish in Beverly Hills, was out of town for the holidays, so I saw three of his colleagues who, month after month, kept diagnosing me without success. When Dr. Rish returned at the beginning of January, he said, “I think I know what you have,” and he sent me to a phlebotomist to have a blood test. The phlebotomist had to make a special phone call to her boss asking what to look for since she had never done that type of blood draw before. Dr. Rish also told me not to go on the internet. Who would listen to that? When I searched for pemphigus, I panicked. I read that there was a five-year mortality rate. Did that mean that I had five years left to live? I went into an immediate emotional dive.

I was finally diagnosed by an associate dean of dermatology at UCLA in February 2002 and was started on 100mg of prednisone. Sadly, this doctor passed away two months after seeing me, and I no longer had a doctor to treat me for this scary condition. Dr. Rish kept refilling my prescription while I went on the hunt for a doctor who could treat me. I found the IPPF online, joined the email discussion group, and went to a local support group meeting with a dermatologist as the guest speaker. I also met Janet Segall, the founder of the IPPF.

I started seeing the doctor from the support group meeting, and she kept me on prednisone. The blisters had spread from my upper back to my scalp, and then to my mouth. Three or four months passed before my gums started to peel back. I was scared I was going to lose my teeth. Then the blisters started under my tongue and inside my cheek. Eventually, blisters were in my larynx. I sounded like a frog, and I couldn’t swallow without pain. Ensure was my breakfast, lunch, and dinner for a few weeks. To this day, I still have to cut out clothing labels from new clothing as they irritate my skin, and I hardly ever go out in the sun as too much exposure can lead to a disaster.

In the beginning, my dentist said he had vaguely heard of PV. He didn’t know very much about it and didn’t seem interested to learn more. My dental hygienist had never heard of PV either, and I explained it to her. I asked her to be very careful with the instruments. She tried, but there was quite a bit of flinching. I kept educating each new dental hygienist, as they rotated and worked various clinics at once.

Because I was hurting from PV, I rarely went out and cut back on seeing friends or going to temple. I became quite isolated. However, I stayed active online with the PV discussion group, and whenever there was a support group meeting, I attended and helped out.

I attended my first IPPF Patient Education Conference in Los Angeles in 2007, followed by the conference in San Francisco in 2013, and I was very involved with the IPPF whenever I could help out. I have been in remission since September 2012 and have not had an episode since.

I love what I do as a PHC. I remember what it was like for me when I was first diagnosed with PV, so I can empathize with the patients who contact the IPPF. Along with IPPF Executive Director, Marc Yale, I also organize patient support group meetings for Southern California patients, and I regularly give a workshop at the Patient Education Conference on how to de-stress. I feel blessed to be able to help others and give back in service the same kind of support I was given. It helped me survive this rare autoimmune disease. I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life right now. I am blessed to be a part of the excellent IPPF team.