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)

 

 

 

 

Show Up

It was three MRIs in two days that week in November.  That’s too many, in case you were wondering.

One was an extension of an August MRI, which had been a knee follow up.  If you’ve been following – you know that long story.  If you’re new, the AVM (Arteriovenous Malformation) she was likely born with in her right knee, has cost her 8 trips to the OR so far.  It requires frequent attention.

By frequent I mean we see the orthopedist more often than we see most family.  And this time the whole muscle band up her thigh had been acting odd.  So we reached out to the orthopedist who asked for an MRI of the right thigh before we saw him at 1 PM that Tuesday.

By “odd” I actually mean really painful.  Pretty much all the time.  Painful enough that walking long distances or kicking swim practice got hard to maintain.  But there is so much that hurts it’s hard to sort out where something stops and other things start.  The hip had been “out” more than in, and even the chiropractor could not sort out why.  The knee pain was persistent enough to leave her wondering if something was wrong again.  The shooting pain, tingling and occasional numbness left her wondering if a nerve was somehow damaged.

Turns out, in typical form, she was right pretty much all around.  This kid has an uncanny awareness of her body.

The doctor’s student came in first not far past 1PM.  The MRI results were up, and he mentioned the AVM.  We said, “In her knee?”  When he said no, and mentioned one higher up in her leg, I pulled the plug on his practicing and sent for her actual doctor.  Turns out the thigh MRI showed a vascular malformation in the back of her right thigh.  It was somewhere in between the muscle and the bone, and adjacent to the sciatic nerve. When the images changed you could actually see the proximity to the nerve.

Hip issues – check

Knee pain- check

Shooting (nerve) pain-check

So he asked for an MRI with contrast of the pelvis.  “Sooner rather than later.”

But then he had to address the issue that had been of greatest concern walking in the door.

The right shoulder had been presenting an escalating problem all during the fall swim season.  She is a powerhouse my kid.  She pushes through because she knows nothing else. The awareness that the Hypermobile Ehlers Danlos diagnosis added on in July could at least explain the frequent partial dislocations was little comfort to the body that was living with them.  A thorough examination of a shoulder with extremely limited range of motion left us with orders for an MRI arthogram of the right shoulder.  It was time to rule out a rotator cuff tear.  We left with both MRI orders, and scripts for muscle relaxant and pain meds.  We were told to try to get it done by Thursday.  Yep 48 hours.

Thankfully Meghan’s insurance, which is the same as my husbands, (insurance coverage and coordination of benefits could take another post, so just trust me) does not require prior authorization for MRI testing.

So I got on the phone with scheduling and secured an appointment at the same facility we had been at at 11 AM for 3:30 PM.  That ended up being the pelvic MRI with contrast, something we avoid until we are confident something is there.  IV in place, back in the tube for another 45 minutes.

We were able to schedule the arthogram for 8AM the next morning in Brooklyn. But, not before learning that an arthogram was a pretty awful test.  As I had tried to barter for a time that would not take her out of school three days in a row, I was told that the doctor had to be on site.  I was asking for a quick schedule and I had to take what was available.  I was wondering why a doctor had to be on site, but my girl found the answers first.

And as we contemplated the test we sat in two hours of traffic to make the 32 mile trip home.

The next morning we were met by a well meaning tech in a Brooklyn office who thought my girl was going to have the catheter placed without me. You can say all the rational things you want about her being almost an adult. But PTSD is very real.  No matter how smart and articulate she is.  It is flat out real.  And that was about as huge a trigger as there is.  So I got a vest, signed consent for whatever I was about to be exposed to and held her hand while she screamed in pain.  The catheter was placed.  The contrast was injected, and we were back to another 45 minuted in the tube.

The appointment at 1 the next day was overwhelming to say the least.  The pain, the anxiety and the exhaustion were palpable.  The news that there was no rotator cuff tear was met with simultaneous relief and exasperation.  And if you don’t quite understand that it is probably because you have not lived with daily pain so intense you would give just about anything to hear that it was fixable.

Our orthopedist is nothing short of amazing, and he was able to explain to her that it was likely that repetitive partial subluxations caused muscle spasms that left the shoulder sitting just out of place enough that it was incredibly painful.  And because the muscles were in almost a constant spasm she couldn’t get it back “in.”  He explained the strength of her back and how some muscles are overpowering others.  He broke down the directions for PT.  He pulled her from the water for 7 days.  He started a muscle relaxant 3 times a day.

Then, he had to explain to her that we should head back to Lennox Hill Hospital to see the interventional radiologist who dealt with her prior AVM.  It had been three years since we had seen him, in hopes we were done for good.  The placement of this “small” AVM (and think relative here, does a splinter hurt?  Yep.  So a grape hanging out somewhere in between the bone, muscle and nerve probably would too.) was difficult from an ortho standpoint.  He felt that embolization, closing off the blood supply to the malformation, would give a quicker recovery than trying to dig it out.

We had an appointment on December 2nd at Lennox Hill.  Just enough time to let the muscle relaxants start to kick in, PT to begin, and the shoulder to start moving slowly and painfully.

The doctor looked at the scans, did his own ultrasound and told us to schedule the procedure.  We left with a date of Tuesday, December 17th for an outpatient procedure.

The date was carefully chosen by my girl.  The 17th meant she’d miss only 4 days of school, and for a junior with a rigorous schedule and a 4.0 that mattered.

Also, the 17th meant she could go to Lancaster, PA the weekend prior to compete in a qualifying swim meet she had worked for years to make.  She had been looking at this meet since she began swimming years prior.  When she made her first, second, and third cuts over the months leading up to it, she was ecstatic.  Now, she was facing this meet with a different set of eyes.  The training interruptions caused by her shoulder meant she was unlikely to attain any best times.  However her gentle giant of a coach reassured her she should go for the experience.

And it certainly was an experience!   We left for home Sunday the 15th with the coach’s approval of three good swims.  She knew it was the last time she’d be in the water for a bit.

We left home Tuesday the 17th for at 8 for a 10 AM arrival.  This was surgery 19.  We knew the routine.  She had had nothing to eat or drink since 9 the night before.  The wait was long.  It was after 2 when we were waiting to leave her in the OR.  And as we were leaving the team made a last minute change that they would do the procedure on her stomach.  That meant a more aggressive anesthesia and an overnight stay which we were not prepared for.

We were placed in luxury accommodations, better than most hotels I’ve stayed in, because pediatrics was overbooked.  We ended up in the executive suite.  With nothing we needed.  Felix headed home on the bus to gather supplies.  He then drove back to the city and met me at the door to the hospital before heading home for the night.

I was glad we stayed.  The pain needed hospital level management.  The pain medication allowed for some brief silly time.  She was discharged around noon the next day.

As I went to gather the car from the lot I was prepared for the hefty overnight fee, but not for the giant scrapes along my right rear panel. Clearly my car had been hit, hard.  The bumper clip was broken.  I had just enough time to file a claim with the garage before she let me know the transporter had her in the main lobby.

I settled her into the car in terror because she could not get a seatbelt on.  I prayed so hard during that white knuckle drive down the FDR and through the tunnel.  We arrived safely home 45 minutes later where a neighbor saw us struggling and helped her up the stairs into the house.

As I write, it is the afternoon of 12/22.  If you’ve read this far you know it’s been a long month.  But the longest days came after we arrived home.

This kid is busy.  All the time.  She is at school.  She is at swim.  She is at lessons.  She is at the doctor.  She is at PT.  She is NOT used to being home.

Because I think most of us can relate that when you are still there is time to think.  And thinking is hard.  When you are still there is time to feel.  And often feeling is hard.

My girl is used to being just on the outside in most social situations.   I do not know why.  I can theorize for days, but it doesn’t matter really.  It just is.  So when you are on the edge, you get your interactions with people when you are there. When you are not there you get the often difficult to process feeling that you are not missed or your absence isn’t noteworthy.

There were some cards, and some well intentioned messages from well meaning family and friends.  They lit up her whole being.

If I’ve learned anything from watching her recover and rehab time and time again, it’s this.  When you’re not sure what to do, show up.

I don’t mean in person necessarily.  Although those visits can bring brief humor and relaxation.  The irony of this technologically connected world is that we are more distant than ever, when it is so easy to show up.

When in doubt, send a text.  There is no need for gifts or grand gestures.  Offer a face time call.  Let someone know you care, especially in the first 4 days when then pain is often the worst.  It’s ok to reach out because these phones are all on mute.  And you won’t bother someone sleeping, you will only make them smile when they wake.

Whether it’s one surgery or 31, the chronically ill patient appreciates it.

There are so many super-convenient ways to show up.

So many that we are practicing showing up more for others.  Because the world is round.  And you may not ever repay the kindness sent to you, but showing up for someone else can change everything.

#beatingcowdens and#hEDS

PTSD is real…

I catch the judgments when I mention PTSD to even those closest to us.

I have the utmost respect for our military, and our servicemen and women.  They are the front lines, defending us and keeping us safe.  They experience horrors I could not imagine, and I am daily grateful for them.  The PTSD many suffer is real and no one would ever question it.

But, just as l know that their’s is real, I am that sure it is real in my house too.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder does not stipulate the trauma.

Some days I try to ignore it.  I try to hide it. I try to work around it.  I try to pretend it’s not there.  I try to lean into the pressures of well-meaning friends and acquaintances alike that we should act “normal” so as not to marginalize ourselves.  I hear the logical statements about fitting in.  I hear them.

We talk about “everyone has something.”  We are acutely aware that we are not the only ones that suffer.  We are aware of our blessings.  We share those blessings with others when we can.  We listen compassionately.  We are believers in the notion that, “If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we’d grab ours  back.”

We are aware that we can be perceived as aloof, or detached, or disinterested.  We are also aware that largely by circumstances and partly by our own design, we are alone.  We haven’t really ever spoken to you about why… We try to listen compassionately.  We try to be the people you need.  We try to be lighthearted and positive when we feel like we are being crushed.

When the diagnosis of PTSD was first given to me as part of an analysis of my beautiful daughter’s response to the constant traumas that had shaped her life, I was physically ill.  And then I was really sad.

And through the years I have tried to wish it away.  I have tried to convince and cajole and distract.  I have tried to rationalize. I have tried to blame myself.  I have tried to be angry.  I have tried to pray.  I have tried to walk it off.  I have tried to medicate it.

I have brought her to quality therapy.  I have introduced medication.  We have tried strategies.  We have tried simple grit.  We have never quit.  And there is progress.  But it is not easy.

I’ve been home a few weeks now with a foot that won’t heal.  I am trying to put into play some things that have been on the back burner for too long.  I am rediscovering my faith, and leaning back into the peace that has anchored my soul for so long.  I am learning new things, like the operating system on a new computer.  I am trying to find value in the waiting to heal.

I have also had some time to watch some old home videos, transferred from the portable video camera that was state of the art when our only child was born in 2003.

I look at some of those old videos and I laugh and smile.  And I hear the purity and innocence of a life untouched by physical and emotional pain, and the cruelty of the loneliness that often surrounds both.  And I laugh in spite of myself while the tears stream down my face.

We are strong.  We are determined.  We are compassionate.  We are intense.  We expect a lot from those around us, because we expect a lot from ourselves.  We are often isolated, marginalized, and left to live on the edge of all things social.

PTSD, the elephant in every room.

You see the diagnosis of Cowden’s Syndrome was not the start of it.  The first medical intervention was before the age of 6 months…

The years of hospitalizations, immune deficiency, chronic illness, food allergies, constant GI upset, speech, OT and PT services, led right into one surgery after another, with scans, doctors visits, and a few emergency room trips sprinkled in.  There were arrogant doctors and medical staff, ignoring that we were literally walking through fire trying to survive.  There were teams that would not communicate, and problems we had to try to solve on our own.  There were well meaning people in our lives asking if she was “better” because they could handle nothing other than a positive in the midst of this crazy, wild storm we were living in.

The diagnosis at the age of eight formalized the fact that we were definitely different.  It gave an answer while raising more questions and increasing the isolation, as parents scheduled play dates with children who became friends while we rode the FDR drive for hours after a day of work and school.  They went to the mall, or to the movies while we headed to PT to bring that knee back from surgery 4,5,6,7,8….  It was inevitable that the divide would grow.

I told her she could do anything.  And I meant it. I still mean it.

She is academically rock solid.  She is an athlete.  She is a good friend to those who let her be.  She is thirsty for knowledge.  She is insatiable in her desire to make the world better.

She’s also angry.  And its hard to see it.  It’s hard to feel it, and to watch it.  But, it’s real.  And it’s valid.  As much as we were able to do for her, the basic joys of childhood were taken from her.  From colic, to hospitals, to bullying so severe it almost broke her, to being just outside the edge of every circle or group…  A week in Disney every year helps, but even the Mouse doesn’t have a bandaid big enough.

We stay busy.  It is the best way.  But sometimes it breaks down.  This has been an extra tough week.  There isn’t one reason why.  It just is sometimes.

As I sat with her the other night and the memories of the most traumatic surgery turned my strong young lady back into a terrified 10 year old, I was reminded.  PTSD is very real.

It is real when the medical world is overwhelming you.

It is real when the pain is chronic.

It is real when the thought of getting out of bed is just too much.

It is real when you need the dog close by to even close your eyes.

It is real.

It is also real when you’re the youngest NYS Woman of Achievement in 2016 at the age of 12, or being honored with a Humanitarian Award at 15.

It is real when you’re holding a 3.9 GPA.

 

It’s real when you are achieving best times at Junior Olympics.

It’s real when you’re laughing with your high school swim team.

It is real when you’re in costume on the stage.

It’s just flat out real. And most of the time you have no idea what it looks like.  The costume is better than Broadway.  The mask is strong, crafted through years of survival instinct.

It never goes away, and yet it takes over without notice at the most inconvenient times.

PTSD is not an indicator of weakness, but rather of strength.  For living with it means you could have given up, but you are pressing on instead.

I’ve passed this advice to parents through the years who are new to our diagnosis.

“It is a lot to handle.”

Don’t underestimate.

It is hard to be kind to those who are different.  It is hard to be with people who are sometimes just “a lot.”  It is hard to care.

But the reality really is you just don’t know.  You don’t know the struggles facing anyone you pass by on the street.  You have no idea.

It’s neither a contest, nor a competition.

We are not perfect.  It is harder when the hurt is in its most raw periods.

But, we have goals.  And perhaps they go back to the “Golden Rule” of my youth.  “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.”  

That means you keep paying it forward, without expecting it to be repaid to you.

If we all, ourselves included, can remember that everyone has real struggles, and we can all focus on kindness, I’m pretty sure we can start real change.

One smile, one inclusive invitation, one held door, one kind gesture at a time.

“Be kind always, because everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”

#beatingcowdens

 

 

 

Sweet Sixteen

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Dear Meghan,

When we started this journey I never would have chosen this path for you.  I never would have selected a life of hospitalizations, tests, rare diseases and pain.  I would have chosen an easy life for you.  But, I didn’t get to choose.

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And, maybe that’s better.  Don’t get me wrong.  Everything that you have endured is overwhelming.  I wish I could take it away.  But, this adversity and these struggles, they have guided you as you have become a young woman I could not be more proud of.

This has been a twisty and winding road, and we are still only at the beginning.

Since you were very young you have had an unimaginable determination to accomplish whatever you set your mind to.  You never cease to amaze me.

From the days of Early Intervention and CPSE Speech/OT and PT, you just never quit.

You decided early on that you would do well in school.  And you exceed any expectation I’ve ever had.  You continue to seek classes because you genuinely want to learn new things.  You want to be your best self.

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You have always had the heart of an athlete.  You tried every sport you could and constantly had to reroute due to pain. Then, you landed in the pool.  The pain there is pain you can manage.  You are continuing to set, meet, exceed and reset goals.  Despite some seemingly insurmountable physical obstacles, you are an athlete.

You are deeply principled, a trait that has made you the young woman you are becoming.  It also makes me want to scream out loud some days.  Sometimes balancing socially was a struggle.  You look for the good.  You make your decisions based on the heart of the people you are with.  You would not compromise your beliefs. You had patience.  You have friends now who love you for being “fiercely yourself.”

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You have faith.  You believe in a God who loves us all.  You believe in GRACE and forgiveness, and even though you haven’t had a traditional church upbringing, I am proud of the questions you ask, and your desire to learn.  I am mostly proud of your heart.

Every day you are growing, stronger, wiser, and more confident.  Every day you are seeking out ways to improve.  You are constantly reflecting and growing.

No one outside of our home can fully understand this journey.  And while having TWO rare diseases I think may give us magical unicorn status or something, there is no one I’d rather have to traverse these trails with.

I could go on forever.  My heart spills over with love when I think of the young woman you have become.  I am full of anticipation and excitement about where the journey will lead you.

Know that forever and for always I will always be your biggest cheerleader and your most vocal advocate.  Know that I love you to the moon and back times infinity.  FOREVER!

Remember – sometimes we don’t get to pick our path.  Yet, if we open our hearts we can make the bumpy roads the most meaningful.

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I love you more – ALWAYS

Happy Sweet Sixteen!  Enjoy the day!

xoxo

Mom

And if you’ll take a bit of motherly advice – most of it can be found in these three songs….

I Hope You Dance…

 

Always Stay Humble and Kind

 

And, Know When To Hold ‘Em…

 

Forever #beatingcowdens (and #hEDS) with you!

Rare -ER? More Rare? Where to Begin?

A new diagnosis came our way this week.  On top of the existing one.  I have wavered between frustration and relief.  I have felt some questions answered and developed a lot of new ones.  My girl got her words together before I did…
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My name is Meghan. I am a 15 year old high school student. I just finished my second year of high school in a place I love. I am an A+ student, who loves to learn. I am in all honors classes. I strive to learn and grow as much as I am able. I live, laugh and love. I hang out with my friends. I lay outside and tan. I take my dog for walks. I swim for a competitive travel team where I work my butt off in the water 6/7 days in a week. I improve. I grow. I train. To anyone who only knew me superficially, it’d seem like I was living the dream. I’ve got a couple close friends, good parents, a nice house, a dog who loves me. It’s perfect. Right? Wrong.

Here’s the other side of my life most people don’t know; I’ve got some shitty genetic luck. Because on the inside, I am far from an ordinary high school student with the perfect house and parents.
I was diagnosed with my first- yes that’s right, my first- rare genetic disorder when I was eight years old. By then I’d already had so many surgeries it was hard to keep count, and a bunch of random medical problems that never seemed to add up. That disorder is Cowden’s Syndrome. It’s a mutation on the PTEN gene that causes benign and malignant tumors, increasing cancer risks and letting things pop up all over my body that hurt like a mother.
I’ve lived with this disorder my entire life. Hospitals, waiting rooms, specialists, MRI’s, and every other extremely uncomfortable medical situation you can think of became my life. To date, I’ve had 18 surgeries, multiple procedures, over 30 hospital visits, and 25+ MRI’s that have put wayyyy to much metal into my body. From countless medical traumas I’ve developed PTSD, anxiety, and depressive disorders. What doesn’t help that is the fact that I’m always in pain. I fight every damn day. I fight to live my life, and to get my body to the levels that others can reach with half the effort.
Now here’s the best part, so I’ve got a crazy smart mom, who wouldn’t stop poking around to figure out the other piece to this puzzle. Because, we both knew Cowden’s wasn’t it. There was something more, because this debilitating chronic pain in a relatively healthy 15 year old, plus other random symptoms that just didn’t add up, had to come from somewhere. So, we went back to my geneticist. And, guess what? We BOTH got our SECOND rare genetic diagnosis. hEDS( the hyper mobile sub type of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome). Fun, right?
I know it’s a lot to write at once. It may seem crazy to anyone else who lays eyes on this post. But guess what? One very valuable life lesson I’ve learned from living this life is to stop giving so much of a damn what other people think.
Just live. ❤

Until inspiration strikes again!
(Or I’ve got some unusual free time 😉)
Meghan
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#beatingcowdens  AND #hEDS…  I guess some updating may be in order…

Difficult To Work With

I am so tired of fighting.

All the time.

My Grandfather told me  many years ago that I was “difficult to work with.”  He said it with love.  I don’t remember the exact context.  I do remember it was said with a smile.

And he was undoubtedly right about that, like so many other things.

I had a boss a few years back that told me, “If you continue to hold everyone to the same standards you hold yourself to, you will always be disappointed.”  Strong words, but also not  inaccurate.

I am a lot to take.

I am intense almost all the time.  I have a mouth full of words that last long  past the attention span of anyone I strike up a conversation with.

I am passionate about things I believe in.

I make lots and lots of mistakes.  But, I truly do my best all the time.

So I just sometimes struggle to understand why it seems everything I touch or encounter is a battle.

I spend hours upon hours sorting through medical claims.  I look up who paid what, and when.  I call on bills that need to be refiled.  I take names on post-it notes with dates and times, in case things don’t get rectified.

I file out of network claims, and then I watch them processed in error.  I make three phone calls to try to sort out the change in policy, which was simply just a mistake no one will own.  I take names again.  I am told to wait 6 more weeks for hundreds of dollars owed to me to be reprocessed.  It’s only a little about the money.  It’s mostly about the notebook, and the folder with the copies of the claims, and the alarm in my phone to remind me when I need to follow up on the call again.

I send medication to the mail order pharmacy because we have no choice.  And then I wait for them to screw it up.  That sounds negative, but it’s simply accurate.  They have an entire notebook in my world to help manage the 9 mail away prescriptions between us.  There is a perpetual box on my ‘to do’ list which tells me to check on the progress of any refill.

I make appointments.  The list has 20 specialists between us.  They vary from twice a week to once a year.  A psychologist once told me not to let the appointments interfere with “preferred activities.”  So there is a matrix with the impossible task as the ultimate goal.  Except none of the 20 doctors know about the other 19.  Or the full time job.  Or the high school honor student’s schedule.  Or swim practice.  Or theater.  Or voice lessons.  Nor do they care.  And I get it.  They can not hear everyone’s story. So when I call to try to carefully place that appointment in a very tiny window of time, they are always unhappy with me.  They think I’m being unreasonable.  And maybe I am.  But, I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t TRY to get everything to keep her physically healthy and still let her be a teen.

I deal with unexpected schedule changes.  Like when I carefully stack 2 appointments in one day, and then one has to move to right smack in the middle of a week long summer internship that was planned forever ago, because now instead of two doctors with Friday hours at the same facility, one has Monday and one has Friday.  No overlap.  So I erase,  and juggle.  Except I’m not great at juggling in a literal sense, so one got cancelled and hasn’t been rescheduled.  Actually two… because summer can not be ALL about doctors.  Nor can every day off.  But, neither can every day at work or school…

“What do you mean you’re not going to reschedule today?”

So much of our condition relies on screening.  Early detection is a blessing.  It is the key.  It is also tedious and time consuming.  It is possible to be grateful and overwhelmed simultaneously.

So much of this is case management.  And, when last I checked my master’s degree is in education, not medicine.  But, with no one to coordinate care I have to guess a whole lot.  I have to decide if 9 months will be ok instead of 6.  I have to decide when to push the doctor for more lab tests when the fatigue won’t quit and the thyroid is ok but the spleen…eh, no one is quite sure about the spleen…

And there are doctor’s whose pride won’t let them return a call because I haven’t seen them recently enough.

There is the genetics appointment lingering again.  Because maybe Cowden’s wasn’t the WHOLE answer…

And the “normal people stuff”  like the seemingly never-ending root canals because my stress is played out in the jaw clenching that overtakes the episodes of sleep. That is on the occasions everything is calm enough for me to make it to my bed.

Or the foot injury.  The “rare” lisfranc ligament partial tear.  Close to 6 months later.  Not a soul wants to hear me tell the story again.  No one wants to believe that it still hurts badly enough that I haven’t take a real walk since last fall.  I’m not lazy.  I’m horrified by the state of my body in the absence of real physical activity.  I am trying to be patient.  My patience is running out alongside my sanity.

And the IEP.  Oh, the Individualized Education Plan… and the meetings.  Over and over and over again…  Meghan is on the waiting list for a service dog.  She has PTSD and generalized anxiety disorder.  The dog is coming.  The process is wearing me out.

I am a lot to take.

I am often “difficult to work with.”

I hold myself and others to a high standard.

I am intense most of the time.

I am tired.

I am so very tired of fighting all the time.

There is no choice though.  No choice at all.

So, in the mean time I will be here.  Strengthening my resolve.  I may bend, but I will not break.  I will continue to strive to show my girl that she can have a rare and currently incurable disease, while excelling at school, at sports, being active in the community, and being a generally decent human.

Last month we walked out of a screening appointment.  It was not critical.  It was an hour behind.  We rescheduled.  Also a valuable lesson.

I am tired of fighting, but I am far from done.

As my Grandfather said, I am “difficult to work with.”

I am also loved.  I am flawed.  I am also forgiven. 

 

When I have no more, I put my hands together and ask… and I am never disappointed.

Through God’s Grace alone we remain…

#beatingcowdens