Exhale…

Meghan and Ella have been settling in so well together.  Jax and Ella are fast friends.  April and Ella will be polite acquaintances.  Ella is playing, running, eating, and sleeping.  She is adjusting to life in our home and seems to be enjoying it.

The most prominent lingering fear surrounded the lump on her side.

We gathered the notes from the vet in Indiana.  We put all her paperwork together.  The entire Ortega kennel had vet appointments today.  So, we headed out for the first time as a party of 6- 18 legs, and 3 tails.

Our veterinarian is thorough.  He has treated our dogs well.  April needed some lab work for a persistent problem we’re working on.  Jax needed to be caught up with some shots.  And, Ella, well, that pretty girl needed to get started in her next phase of life.

The vet took her in and did a complete exam.  He read the sparse notes we carried with us from Indiana.  He looked at the photos of the lump on her side.

He called to tell us that we should start her vaccinations, as he could only verify rabies.  He told us he did a heartworm test that was negative for heartworms.  He drew blood.  That “should be nothing” later this week.

And, since in these Covid times, all news comes via phone from outside the vet’s office, the three of us sat quietly while we waited.

“And the lump?”

“It’s her rib.”

Collective exhaling throughout the car…

“Her RIB?”

“Yes, if you trace along the bone it’ll take you to her spine.  Most people never feel it.  Ella is very lean.”

Fist pumping and smiling took place for a few minutes.

We live in a worst-case scenario existence.  It is so rare that it goes well.  And, yet, today, was a win.

Nerves shot for no reason. I have no idea what happened in that office, or why the vet said hernia 750 miles ago.  But this is a win.  I’ll take it all day every day.

It looks like the rest of life really does start now.

Meghan and Ella… onward.

#beatingcowdens

And it’s a…Hernia!

Now that I have your attention, I promise, you’ll get to the end of this episode of “You Can’t Make it Up!”

The day started with another successful training for Meghan and Ella at Barnes and Noble.  They are ready for their Public Access Test, and I am optimistic they will do well together before we get on the road to return to New York tomorrow.

We waited over 3 years for this dog.  There were many days we thought she was not meant to be.  There were honestly more days of feeling defeated than hopeful.

Early in the process Meghan interviewed via FaceTime in my car, before a swim meet, with Jennifer, the owner of Medical Mutts.  During the process we worked with Eva, director of client services.

Early in the process Meghan read everything she could get her hands on.  As the years went on she put the books away until they gathered dust.

In between there were countless emails between myself and Eva.  There was always a quick reply, and kind reassurance.  Although as I travel back through three years of email I can see more clearly now where there were some lapses in our communication.  Meghan is a very different human than she was in 2017.  Because of that, her needs changed.  At one point her dog was to also be capable of mobility assistance.  Over time, we dropped that piece as her legs got stronger. The one thing, the biggest thing that never changed, was TOUCH.

Meghan needs to sleep holding something she can feel breathing.  For a while it was me.  Then I was able to sub in some dogs, first April, then Jax.  The biggest thing, the first thing we wanted a service dog for was the sleeping.  A dog to sleep with her, and to help her wake to an alarm, would give her the first major steps towards independence.

During this past week many things have become evident.  Some were expected, and others unexpected.  Some were awesome, and others were just not.

One thing that has been solidly evident is that Ella’s trainer, Michelle, is true to her word at all times.  Michelle did not present as warm and fuzzy.  (Actually her intelligent, focused presentation reminded me a great deal of Meghan.)  She has proven to be awesome, and utterly effective.  As the week has gone on every thing that Michelle said she taught, every single behavior has become evident.   Michelle has gone above and beyond this week to make sure that Meghan and Ella pair effectively. She has come to the hotel to practice elevator and long lead walking. She has met us on her days off.  She made it her business to meet up to being Ella closer to the touch Meghan needs.  Today she brought a blanket for Ella, talked through a plan with Meghan and once again amazed me with her genuine sincerity.

Michelle taught all she was told to teach.  And I’ll leave that right there.

Somewhere there was a breakdown in communication above her that led to confusion on Meghan’s needs.  It could have been due to the length of time, or the changes.  It could have been a mistake.  It could have been any number of things. But it happened.  Meghan will succeed building the rest of the behaviors Ella needs.  Over time.

And to some extent that time is normal.  No service dog team goes home fully functional. They need to learn each other. It is an arranged marriage where the partners need time to learn what generates happiness in the other.

So while we have mixed emotions about a bunch of things, HOPE prevails.

Even today.  Today I spoke to Jennifer, the owner, for the first time since 2017.  I spoke with her out of necessity.

By the third night we had Ella she was allowing touch.  It didn’t take Meghan long to point out the lump in her side.  We mentioned it. We were told to wait.  We mentioned it again.  Attempts were made to explain it away.  We mentioned it again and finally today we were connected to their veterinary facility.

The vet said it is likely a hernia.  He seemed unaffected. After a physical exam, and quite physical by Meghan’s description, he told Meghan to massage it, and take her to our vet if it got worse.

That was the icing on a slightly undercooked cake.

I spoke with Eva, who directed me to Jennifer. And that is how we ended up back on the phone today.  Odd bookends to this experience, really.

I received the reassurance that Ella  had been thoroughly checked by their vet.  I internally contemplated his ability to be thorough.  I was promised that the facility will pay for any medical bills related to the hernia diagnosis.

Ella meets our vet on Sunday.

This is not exactly the homecoming we were hoping for.  Maybe our vet will see something different, or be able to offer some reassurance.

My mind can’t go too much past that.

I’ve got three years to reflect on, a public access test to cheer my favorite team through, and 750 miles to drive before we introduce Ella to Jax and April.

We will continue to take this journey, as we have done so many others, one day at a time.

Ella, you’re one of us now.  Hernia or not, whatever comes your way, we’ve got you girl.

#beatingcowdens

 

Puppy Steps

It was a walk. Outside. On the long lead. And it went really well. Not perfect, but so very much better. The distractions are still a little disconcerting, but her focus and response to Meghan is improving all the time.

I am bothered that she doesn’t use the elevator, a problem compounded by our 4th floor room, Meghan’s nine knee surgeries and my very painful, swollen foot. And yet, I am super pleased that she trained today on the floor near the elevators, a floor she wouldn’t walk on days ago.

Her sporadic barking is a bit troublesome. Her trainers have told us it is the hotel, and noises we can’t even hear. I don’t love it, but they’ve been right on so many things this week. This week has been a huge learning experience. Yet another time in life where nothing is quite as you planned or expected, but there is a cautious optimism in the air.

I really expected when we got here that this Ella girl would hop right into bed with Meghan, and wake her up on cue the next morning. I did. I figured the leash would hand off and she’d be ready to do all the things Meghan needed. I expected she’d potty on command, and quietly tuck into small spaces. And I was upset when it didn’t go down that way at all. From learning to walk in sync, to finding the right spots for her to pee, it has been a labor.

I know lots of things. But sometimes it’s hard to accept that I don’t know ALL the things. Preconceived notions can be the undoing of many of us, and I am no exception. I did not realize at all that “Team Training” would mean that the dog and Meghan would be learning everything together. It actually makes sense. Ella is not a machine. Dogs don’t fit into “boxes” anymore than people do. Ella learned to work with Eva, and with Michele. Now, she needs to learn to work with Meghan.

Every time we have changed jobs, or bosses, we have taken with us the skills and work ethic, but had to tweak the way we performed. As the week has gone on it’s become evident that Ella was extremely well trained. She also works hard for really good food. As Meghan and she get to know each other, Ella has begun to transfer her learned behaviors and execute them with Meghan.

I was not totally sold on positive reinforcement training. I mean, I guess I used it to raise my kid, but certainly not with cheese and hot dogs! However, I have watched it work this week. And while I have no desire to train my otherwise happy pets like this, I see it’s value.


Tomorrow they practice, and Meghan gets to ask the rest of the questions. Well, the ones she has thought of already… I do hope they are prepared!

Tuesday she takes her public access test and we get on the road with our “plus one” for the 750 miles back to New York. This team has a lot going for them. Ella makes my girl laugh. The way the dog looks at her warms my soul. It’s like Ella understands she’s got someone really special in Meghan, and Meghan feels the same about Ella.


There are things that aren’t ready yet. We know there are no promises in life. We know it all too well. We are preparing to end the “Team Training” with tons of answers, lots of unknowns, and a giant pile of HOPE. I guess that’s about the best any of us can ask for!

Keep these two in your thoughts as they make “Puppy Steps” forward.

#beatingcowdens

Easy is for Amateurs

I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I did. I just didn’t realize it was going to be THIS hard. I mean, maybe I should have. Easy is for amateurs after all. But, I didn’t realize it. And as a direct result I am just coming back to life after a week of anticipation, frustration, exasperation, disappointment and despair, because finally we have settled into HOPE.

There are so many things that are not quite as we expected. Some, because we did not ask the right questions, and some because the questions could not have been anticipated until we arrived. Yet other things were not as we expected because so much time lapsed from contract to “Team Training” that some of the things we were seeking most seemed to have gotten lost in translation.

The trip, all 11 hours and 750 miles was nothing short of exhausting. We ended it with a stop at Whole Foods before parking in the ice covered hotel parking lot. We promptly found someone to help, and paid a generous tip to have our car emptied to our 4th floor room while we waited out of the way of the black ice and the unwelcoming bite in the Indiana air.

We had a hard time resting that night, thinking of the union over three years in the making, that was finally only hours away.

When we arrived at Medical Mutts there was a warm welcome from Eva, and there was Marvin, the friendliest cat I’ve ever met to sit with us through paperwork. Michele, Ella’s primary trainer, came with Ella, and while there was excitement, there was hesitation throughout the room. There were no “fireworks” and no “Here Comes the Sun” playing, as I had anticipated so many different times before. There were casual greetings, and obvious work from everyone, human and canine, to try to figure each other out.

That is the part you don’t think about before hand. Or maybe you do think about it. But, then there is the difference between thinking about it, knowing it, and experiencing it. Ella is not a computer to be programmed. She is a dog. And for all the reasons we love dogs, she is a dog. She is also a highly intelligent, and extremely well trained dog. The former, her intelligence and even her ability to be trained are innate. Her training though was very much a labor of love.

Medical Mutts saw promise in this girl, a stray from the streets of Tennessee. They took her in from the rescue that had taken her off those streets. They brought her to Indiana and loved her. They worked with this beautiful girl knowing that she would one day become someone’s partner for life, and give them just the independence they were so desperately seeking. It is the whole reason this facility, these people, were Meghan’s focus years prior. The beauty of taking the unloved and abandoned and giving them value and purpose, that is the real reason we ended up here, at THIS facility.

I guess I just hoped, that it would be easier. But, easy is for amateurs.

Ella’s primary trainer was Michele, a well-spoken, professional and knowledgeable woman. When she first greeted us I found her a bit aloof. In less than two hours I realized she had put a good deal of energy into Ella and was protecting her best interests. She was trying to figure out if Meghan was going to give Ella the life she deserves. In less than two hours those two understood each other and I watched aloof become focused and driven to ensure she transferred all her knowledge of Ella to Meghan.  I watched she and Meghan connect, like minded in many ways, and both were keen on making this union successful.

They worked Monday and the progress was spotty. Ella came with us to the hotel that night and all of us were in for an adjustment. We expected a dog who would hop on the bed and cuddle. But, Ella wasn’t accustomed to touch. My mind was a little blown, as we had sought this dog largely to sleep with Meghan, soothe her through nightmares, and wake her in the morning.

Tuesday they met again, and worked on some behaviors. My mind traveled from confused, to furious as I silently boiled at the thought we had waited this long for a dog that lacked what we had asked for in the first place. Further, she was distracted and needed seemingly constant redirects. When we entered the mall and both trainers seemed stunned at what they saw, I actually took a walk to choke on my tears. How after all this time could this be what was happening?

When I had originally looked at the schedule I was irritated that we had an off day Wednesday. I needed to go back to my life. What was this “off day?”

And then it was Wednesday. And I understood. It was a huge pivot in the journey. Meghan and Ella had some fun time. Ella stayed on the bed, and even let Meghan touch her. Ella played. She rested. Meghan got some confidence. They began to connect. It was so much slower than I had planned in my mind, but so few things ever go according to plan, I knew that often the best things came out of the detours.

There hasn’t been a day that we have not felt the full gamut of emotions. We’ve laughed and cried and screamed and yelled. We’ve giggled and cheered. We’ve passed out from exhaustion.

This morning Meghan and Ella had successful outings to CVS and Barnes and Noble. And I mean, really successful. They did the best team work I have seen so far. We came back to the hotel to playful “zoomies” and another training session with Michele.

And then tonight there was exasperation on a trip outside.

The pendulum is relentless. But every swing seems to leave them closer to being a functional pair. Ella is asking for contact. Meghan is reinforcing at rates that keep her interested and focused. They are growing together.

The weekend is for resting, playing and some informal sessions. Monday we brush up. Tuesday they take their public access test before we begin the journey home.

Tuesday is not the end, but another beginning. There will be so many beginnings in this journey. And maybe that’s the point.

Nothing in Meghan’s life has been as we planned. And not much has been easy or smooth. Yet every single step has brought us to places we’d never imagined possible.

Easy is for amateurs.

Meghan and Ella you’ve got this!  Let the journey continue.

#beatingcowdens

Here. We. Go.

It’s just after midnight on Sunday, January 17th. I should be sound asleep, but instead I’m propped up in my bed with my iPad in hand. There are suitcases in the living room and a cooler of food and other supplies set to go. In about 6 hours Meghan and I will embark on a 12 hour journey to Indianapolis.

The story of how we got here anxiously waiting to get there began years ago and is intricately interwoven within the journey that is #beatingcowdens.

I have written a great deal through the years about Meghan’s physical struggles. I have been more guarded about the emotional toll this disease has taken. There is too much to the journey to pretend I can create a linear summary of how we ended up here.

The contract for the service dog was signed in November of 2017. A good few months of soul searching came directly prior. Meghan, like always, seemed to know what she needed. I had begun to learn by that point that she was more often than not, correct.

She was a high school freshman, and in between panic attacks that left her calling me from stairwells and bathrooms in the middle of both of our school days, she researched service dogs. She was most impressed by Medical Mutts, a facility in Indiana that rescues dogs and trains them for service. This was a fit on so many levels. We are a dog rescuing family, believing strongly in the beautiful bonds of adoption. We hold nothing against breed to train facilities, but for Meghan, the one who always felt like she was just outside the circles of life, watching as others participated; the idea of not only working with a service dog, but working with one from a shelter, who was left there because they needed someone to love them, well that was pretty much perfection.

The interview took place in my car. we were outside of her high school during her freshman swim season. The interview went well and it was agreed that Meghan could be placed on their list for a dog. A deposit was made. And then we were left to wait.

But, even as we waited, her depression and anxiety did not. She met with a doctor at NYU who was willing to put a name on the PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, that Meghan was living with. There were specific triggers in her medical history that stayed right at the heart of her soul and her psyche, despite a years long relationship with counselors. And it was messy to try to understand how all that medical trauma, alongside some emotionally damaging classmates left her feeling as though she was free falling without a parachute.

When chaos is your norm, and “fight or flight” is not a passing stage, it can make it hard for people to be around you. It seemed there was always something new on the horizon – whether a new diagnosis or a test or a pending surgery, it was ALWAYS something. The amount of hours spent at medical appointments, testing, surgery, recovery were at times all consuming. These are simply facts.

I think the idea of the service dog solidified in the nights. Meghan is adept at pushing through the day. With Cowden’s on your mind, and Ehler’s Danlos playing cruel games with your body, there is scarcely any way for your mind to focus on more than surviving. But at night, it was a whole different world. Settling down in a dark room, falling asleep, reminiscent of countless trips to operating rooms where you wondered if you’d ever awaken, was not an easy task. I spent many nights on a couch in her room. Many nights settling one of our dogs onto her bed so their rhythmic breathing would soothe her to sleep. Many nights watching the nightmares and the hours of restlessness that circled itself into fatigue that rarely quit. And by the time she settled into a restful sleep, there was no waking her. To this day, alarms blaring do little to even cause her to stir.

The medication helped the depression some. But that energy has to go somewhere, and soon after, she began picking at her arms in such a way that they became scarred and red all the time. No area of her body was off limits, and still to this day I see the self harm that I’m grateful isn’t worse. The most severe anxiety attacks come at home now, although they are still unpredictable. She hides them too. So much so that most who meet her would see nothing other than confidence. She is a living, breathing example that things are not always what they seem.

I don’t know if people choose not to see these ramifications of living with two rare diseases because it makes them uncomfortable, or if she is just adept at hiding it so that they don’t get to see the full extent of how hard she fights to stay above water. Maybe it’s both. I come from a family, who, while they love us a great deal, tend to believe some things should just be kept private, and handled by bottling them up. Asking for help, seeking help, and getting help that would potentially indicate to the world that you struggle can sometimes times be perceived as a weakness. The thought of a service dog for a young lady who is “doing well” through the uninformed accounts of others is appalling to many. We’ve been cautioned that she “won’t fit in.” Or that others will “judge her.” Yep. She knows all about being judged, and belittled, and maligned for being herself. She decided a long time ago she was not going to bend to the will of the world. She was going to rise above. And she did. And she does.

In fact, she soars.

Her friends list is short and neat, as any adult would tell you, it should be. Her grades are exemplary. She has chosen to spend this pandemic becoming a better version of herself. She is attending classes to be confirmed at a church where my brother-in-law is the pastor in May. She is learning and embracing a God who loves her. She has reconnected with her father in ways that are heartwarming. College choices are plentiful, and there is a bright future in her chosen field of study, Physician Assistant.

There is no harm in asking for help. There is no shame in saying, this is a lot, and I need someone to talk it through. There is nothing at all wrong with someone who needs help becoming the best version of themselves. When you desire to change the world, or simply to enjoy mundane tasks, there is actually beauty in saying “I need help.”

I see people hide from themselves and others. Then I see Meghan. She lives what we all know to be the truth, the hard truth, that the only way out is through. She is doing the difficult work so that her childhood traumas are not a weight to hold her down, but rather a valuable part of the background medical professional she will become.

Tonight we will sleep in Indianapolis. Monday Meghan will meet her partner for the next leg of her life journey. Ella will join the family as Meghan’s service dog.

And I will remind my girl again, that those who say it can’t be done, should never interrupt those that are doing it. Meghan I am so proud of who you are. Stay true to that. The rest will all work out. Sleep tonight dreaming if your new companion.

We are forever

#beatingcowdens

Ella, Meghan has been waiting for you since before you were born!

Meghan Needs Your Opinion

Below is the essay my daughter Meghan wrote and is planning to submit with her college applications this week. She is planning to pursue a career in the medical field. She wants to “do better.” Please after reading, click the title you think best suits her essay. We appreciate your help and support for #beatingcowdens.

There is a blaring white light. I feel someone holding me down. A needle pierces my feeble skin. A wail escapes my mouth. I let out a plea. I sob as I writhe on the table. I cry out and beg for the extraction of the needle protruding through my neck. My response garners two more needles. The despair is overwhelming. Dread encompasses me. Then, it all goes black.

That is it. That is all I can recall from November 2, 2011, when I was finally forced to confront the challenges of my new life. 

At the ripe age of fifteen months, I underwent my first trip to the foreboding operating room, a place that would soon become as familiar to me as my mother’s smile. Being under the knife, in those bleak rooms where the sterile surgical tools sing in bitter harmony, is all I know. 

Life became a whirlwind of many operating room doors, many tearful goodbyes, many nights of my parents patrolling my hospital rooms, and no answers. 

Seven surgeries, six hospitalizations, and sixteen procedures later, I finally received a diagnosis. After seeing a geneticist, I was deemed a rare disease patient. I had Cowden’s Syndrome, a rare genetic disorder affecting 1 in 200,000 people. This disorder is specifically characterized by the commonality of both cancerous and benign tumors in patients, as well as vascular abnormalities and hamartomas.

I am seventeen years old. I have had nineteen surgeries. I have been admitted to the hospital thirty-two times. I have fifteen specialists. I have had over sixty scans, and more than one hundred blood draws. I have been poked and prodded so many times that my veins have developed scar tissue. I take over twenty types of medications just to get through the day. My weeks are filled with pain and tears. My months are filled with struggles and determination. However, I will never let the pain or my diagnosis stop me. I will continue to fight with every ounce of energy in my body to keep moving forward.

I have vowed to take everything I learned from each interaction in the medical field and carry those lessons into my activism and healthcare career. The opportunity to be a voice for my community is one of the biggest blessings of my life.

Following my diagnosis, the first organization I connected with was the Global Genes Project. Their symbol is the denim ribbon paired with the slogan “Hope, it’s in our Genes.” After playing an instrumental role in the creation of the first “denim ribbon” jewelry, my first idea for an awareness campaign was born. We started by giving out ribbons like the one I wear on my necklace every day. As the years progressed so did the complexity and efficiency of these events. To the blessing of all of us, the PTEN Foundation was created in 2013 and is a direct connection to patients like me. I have hosted seven events including virtual fundraisers, in-person fundraisers, and awareness campaigns. 

Despite all the years of surgeries, setbacks, and mental health struggles, I have accomplished everything no one, even myself at times, believed I could. I have held a 4.0 GPA throughout my entire high school career, my mental health has never been better, and I am being recruited to continue my athletic career in collegiate programs. I have overcome my unfortunate genetics and made the most out of the obstacles placed in my life.

I am not rare because of the diseases I was born with. I am not rare because I happened to lose the genetic lottery or even because of the collection of scars and crutches I have accrued throughout the years. I am rare because of what I have done with what life has handed me. The scars are badges of honor that prove I stood up and faced these battles head-on.

I’m not afraid of the dark, and other COVID-19 revelations…

For Cowden’s Syndrome patients, there are surgeries.  There are different kinds for different people.  But, inevitably there are surgeries.

When most young people talk about being afraid of the dark, many parents dismiss their concerns.  They put a night light on for a bit, and they tell them there is nothing to worry about.  Because for typical children, “dark” is that brief time in their rooms before they fall asleep.

But, if you have had about a surgery a year from the time you were too young to fully comprehend the gravity of the tumor causing condition you live with…  the “dark” also comes awaiting anesthesia on an operating table in a cold room full of strangers.  The “dark” always comes after an uncomfortable IV placement and hours of waiting your turn, thirsty and hungry.  The “dark” always comes before you wake up in inevitable pain.

The nightlight in my teen’s room came from scraps her dad collected at work.  Really cool scraps.  And since he’s an electrician, adding the LED was easy.

That light has been in place as long as I can remember.  It provided a gentle glow when the nightmares from the PTSD triggered by one too many manually induced episodes of “dark” would provoke relentless nightmares.

It lit the room for the years my presence was necessary to get past the falling asleep part.

You know, that in between place between awake and asleep…

That time when all the thoughts you try to push away find their way in…

And then the dog took my place, the dog and the light.

But bad hips made it tougher for the dog to remain a soothing, breathing presence in the night.

So in January we got our older girl into a bed downstairs and we found a shelter dog at the Brooklyn ASPCA.  He was abandoned.  Tied to a tree in a park.  He was about 6 months old and in dire need of love. (and structure, and training, but MOSTLY love)

April, our older girl welcomed him right away.

About a week into his stay in his new home, Jax curled up on my girl’s bed and fell asleep.

Turns out he is soothed by the breathing of another too.

This week after MONTHS of being home my girl told me it was time to take the nightlight down.

“I’m just not afraid of the dark anymore.”

People who haven’t lived our lives will say – ‘It’s about time’  But, she and I know it’s time, when it’s time.

So many things have happened these last few months during this COVID-19 crisis.  Maybe the most remarkable is the family time we’ve shared.  We have learned even more about each other, all three of us.

She asks tough questions, of herself and everyone she speaks with.

She holds herself to the same standard she expects of others, and truthfully those standards are so high she’s often disappointed.  It’s a balancing act.

She is driven.  Focused.  Loyal. Compassionate.

She managed a 4.0 AGAIN.

I will pass Tinkerbell off to another beautiful girl, and hope the Pixie Dust blesses her dreams.

“I’m just not afraid of the dark anymore…”

My beautiful girl, with your heart and God’s grace you will change the world.

As for me, I’m not quite ready to part with my nightlight, as we remain…

#beatingcowdens

Connected…

I was staring at the screen looking at 14 other mothers.  Women who have at least one child with the same PTEN mutation my girl and I have.

A quick scan of the “room” on this Zoom call showed me newly diagnosed, seasoned veterans, moms of teenagers, and moms of toddlers.  There were some mother/child combinations, and some with “de novo” or spontaneous mutations.  We lived mostly in the US, although one joined us from Australia.  Even as I watched my screen and jumped in to the conversation where I could, my mind was racing.

I “know” at least a few dozen more PTEN moms, and yet, Facebook algorithms being what they are, the call notification didn’t circulate as widely as it could have.

A few of these moms “know” us from this blog.  That was flattering and mind-blowing simultaneously.

It was like a “first date” with old friends-ones who I’m not likely to meet in person any time soon.

Listening to each one talk I wanted to spend hours with them.  I wanted to hear their stories in intricate detail.  I wanted to know about overlaps and differences.

Each story made me feel like I could fill out a giant Venn Diagram.

As moms I am sure some of us are alike, and some different.  In some cases if we lived nearby we might be the best of friends, and in others mere acquaintances.

Yet I felt an instant bond with every single one, and as I am notoriously terrible with names I admit even writing a note or two next to some names to help me remember their story.

We all had a common desire to be heard, and to hear.  We wanted to be heard by our children’s doctors, which with only 2 notable exceptions as locations seems to be a coast to coast failure.  And we wanted to hear other stories.  We wanted to feel less alone.  We wanted to know what happened with other people’s children.

I think on this call my girl was the oldest at 16.5 years, but there were others who had been diagnosed longer, as she was already 8 when our diagnosis came in 2011.

I had plans to attend the PTEN Foundation Symposium in Boston in May.  My plane tickets were refunded this week. I had hesitated canceling even though I knew for weeks in my heart it was not to be.  I hesitated because I was just so excited to meet some more moms like me.  Moms who have spent their child’s entire life being detective, advocate, voice, cheerleader, motivator, educator, and have earned their own type of medical degree from decoding research they once thought was impossible to understand.

I know there will be other gatherings, and I am grateful to the PTEN Foundation for that.  But, the need to connect runs deep.

I wonder why I feel so compelled now to meet others.   I have been doing this quite a few years with only a small handful of PTEN moms.  And truth be told I’ve been advocating for this kid’s medical mysteries since 2003!

I just saw this shirt pop up in my newsfeed.  I’m well aware of how deeply ads are targeted to us personally.  And it definitely is true.  I am by nature more introverted, especially in large groups, finding it easier to write than speak.

Except lately I miss people.  Not all people. Don’t worry I haven’t totally lost it yet.  But, the kind ones.  I miss the kind ones.

Something about a pandemic can help you reevaluate the importance of connection.

My family of three has spent so much more time together than we have in a decade. It has been a blessing in this difficult time to reconnect.

I have spoken to a few more old friends too.  Previously we were too busy to text, and certainly too busy to call.

I have learned how easy it is to Zoom, and FaceTime. I know now the value of face to face contact – even through a screen.

I have to ask myself if in a different time I wouldn’t have made an excuse not to get on that call.

In my heart I know the answer.

And I’m grateful for the forced lesson in the value of connection.

#beatingcowdens

#strongertogether

Rare Disease Day- Video Recap

Rare Disease Day Video Flashbacks…

This year World Rare Disease Day is Saturday February 29, 2020.

As we prepare to do what we can to raise awareness of Rare Diseases… I’m reblogging this post with some videos Meghan created as a younger person with Cowden’s.

Keep in mind, the most recent here was 2017.

ENJOY!

beatingcowdens

World Rare Disease Day is February 28th.  People all over the world will work to raise funds and awareness for over 7,000 Rare Diseases worldwide.  In our house things are buzzing, as we prepare to teach the world a bit more about Cowden’s Syndrome.rdd-logo-2

There will be so much time to write.  Soon.  Right now we are preparing for Rare Disease Day 2017 and “Jeans for Rare Genes 3.”  All the preparing brought me back to her video from last year.  And then I looked at the year before, and the one before that.  And I was struck by how much she has grown, not only in her technological ability, but also as an advocate, and a voice, and a human.

There will be no video this year.  It was time for a change of pace.  But, I thought it appropriate to post these here, now.  She keeps me grounded…

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“…What is essential is invisible to the eye.” Antoine de Saint-Exupery

“You don’t LOOK sick.”

Like all things your perception changes over time.  When I was much younger if someone asked me for the most hurtful thing someone could say to me – it would have been something you’d be much more likely to guess.

But, years have passed and so much has changed.

Now, hands down, this is close to the top of the list.

I am reminded today of my senior year in high school. Madame Eicoff taught accelerated French.  At the time it seemed like a great idea, and the irony that I took seven years of French and grew up to marry a Spanish man was never lost on me.  One of the many ironies of life.  But in Mme. Eicoff’s class we read “Le Petit Prince” by Antione de Saint-Exupery, and reading and understanding, and feeling that book in French… well, close to 30 years later the emotions are still fresh in my mind.  But, I digress…

I don’t want to LOOK sick.  I guess in some ways it could be a compliment.

Except it’s not.

Everyone who says it, or thinks it, or shouts it, or whispers it, does it with judgment.

And I guess my question is – What does SICK look like?

In this day and age where tolerance is expected, I feel like we are lagging behind in acceptance of rare disease and chronic illness.

What qualifies as sick?

Is it constant trips to the doctor? Tests? Scans? Referrals to more specialists? Surgery after surgery?  Recovery?

Is it having doctors “Google” your disease in front of you, only to have them authoritatively verbally plagiarize the first page of the search when you have analyzed every relevant article on the first ten?

Is it time after time being made to feel you are not credible, or “less than” because no one can make it better?

Is it begging and pleading for pain relief only to be accused of being an addict, when you don’t want a pill at all?

Is it constantly plotting and planning any outing so as to utilize the fewest amount of steps to minimize the often bone crushing pain and fatigue that follows tasks as simple as grocery shopping?

I will agree there is a fine line between simple reality, and self-pity.  I dance across it sometimes.

And then I play the music louder and dance right back.

This is my reality.  Self-pity has no real purpose.  People typically don’t want to hear about it.

But, just because it makes you uncomfortable doesn’t make it any less true.

I am not perfect.  I judge.  I judge for the wrong reasons sometimes.  I judge people who I know nothing about sometimes.  I am a work in progress. (As a dear friend often said, “I live in an all glass house.”  Nothing about this is intended to throw stones.)

I am learning every day that saying “everyone has something” and really BELIEVING it are different.

I am learning that mine is no more, and theirs is no less and that is perfectly ok.

I am learning that human suffering is a universal, and “sick” carries a stigma that should be eliminated.

Because, if you are “sick” and you “look” it, you are likely “seeking pity.”  If you don’t “look” it, but you have an “acceptable” (read well known) illness, you are “brave.”

Mental illness is not visible, yet depression and anxiety plague so many in astronomical numbers.  Still we are embarrassed to speak of it, and it is surrounded by shame.

Chronic pain is not visible, not even behind the gritted teeth of the (insert so many people you know here) that you see every day.  Living your life with pain that never leaves in and of itself can drive you mad.  Think about the last headache you had.  The one where you had to close the doors and shut the lights.  Now think about it forever…

Real illness is often REALLY invisible.

This is neither a contest or a competition.

This is real life.

We are all real people.

And maybe it’s that simple. Maybe we need to go back to the simplistic view of a young child.Rare Disease Day is February 29th.

I am certain if you yourself are not suffering, you know someone who is.

They may look just like everyone else in the room.

I’ve set goals for self-correcting my unintended judgment of others.

I’ve found an excellent starting point at contemplating that every one of us is deeper than what can ever be seen with the eyes.

#beatingcowdens

WHAT IS A RARE DISEASE?

There are over 300 million people living with one or more of over 6,000 identified rare diseases around the world1, each supported by family, friends and a team of carers that make up the rare disease community.

Each rare disease may only affect a handful of people, scattered around the world, but taken together the number of people directly affected is equivalent to the population of the world’s third largest country.

Rare diseases currently affect 3.5% – 5.9% of the worldwide population.

72% of rare diseases are genetic whilst others are the result of infections (bacterial or viral), allergies and environmental causes, or are degenerative and proliferative.

70% of those genetic rare diseases start in childhood.

A disease defined as rare in Europe when it affects fewer than 1 in 2,000 people. (www.rarediseaseday.org)