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.

Seventeen- The Days Are Long But The Years Are Short

August 9, 2020

Dear Meghan,

HAPPY 17th BIRTHDAY my girl!

This is not the birthday we planned, but it will be amazing in its own way.

These last few months have been a lesson for the world, that plans are sometimes abruptly interrupted and that life is often unfair.  This is not news to us.  We’ve been replaying that lesson together for many years; cheering each other on, and holding each other up through surgeries, recoveries, setbacks and all the things that come with our diagnoses.

The difference this year was that everyone else was at it alongside us.

I know you well Meg, but I have learned even more about you these last few months and I could not be prouder of you.

You tend to see the parts where you struggle.  Sometimes it weighs you down.  I see the parts where you succeed.  I see the parts where the struggle is productive and you grow.  That’s why we’ll always be good together.

There is no denying that there were times this year where frustration, sadness, isolation and loneliness tried to win.  But, as I’ve said to you so many times before, you have a 100% success rate when it comes to overcoming obstacles, and this year proved no different.

You took the “remote learning” for what it had to offer.  You missed the classes that had been engaging you and challenging your brain, but you never gave up.  You spent the end of your Junior year as you did the beginning, finishing with the same perfect report card while doing a whole lot of “self-teaching.”

Swimming was wiped out in March just days before a meet that was to be your comeback.  You were trained.  You were ready.  It was cancelled.

You mourned a few days.  You worried about how to keep in shape.  Your body had never allowed you to do much land training.  You tried video after video.  You addressed your own frustrations.  You found a way.  Now, when I see you hitting a heavy bag probably in the best overall strength of your life, I can’t help but smile.  When I see photos of an 8 mile hike, when a year ago walking .5 was too much, my heart sings.  You push your body to always be better.  You don’t give up.  You inspire me.

You had gotten us to agree to that tattoo months earlier – but you couldn’t be out of the water the required time after it was done.  Then suddenly swim practice was no longer.  So, you did it.  With our blessing you took back a little of your body that day.  You took back some control.  You started to heal your soul a little more from so much trauma.

Without access to standardized exams, without the ability to tour campuses, without your college office, you knew you had to take matters into your own hands.  Focused on your desire to be a Physician’s Assistant you carefully researched Universities.  You created a list.  You reached out to swim coaches.  You set up your own calls.  You narrowed things down.  You called again.  You got connected to admissions offices.  You are well on your way to completing applications.  You could have sat back and whined.  You could have waited.  You refuse to let anything stand in the way of your goals and dreams.  When college is ready for you in the fall of 2021 you will be well-prepared.

You had a birthday vacation to Disney with your very best friend planned to the day.  You were so grateful and so excited to experience your happy place with a great deal of independence, and super fun company too.  We watched the numbers.  We stalled.  We watched some more.  Then finally I had to pull the plug.  Your birthday is one of my favorite days.  It was hard to hand you disappointment like that.  You took your time to process and picked your head up again.  There will always be 2021…. The magic will still await.

Faced with the unusual situation of being local on your birthday you talked through all the feelings.  You wanted to do something to make joy out of disappointment.  You decided you were going to use your day to make others happy.  You chose Ronald McDonald House, as you remember vividly the treatment you received when we spent a night in 2014 before your thyroid surgery.  With a little help from Aunt Lisa, you were connected to the CEO of the RMDH New Hyde Park.  I listened as you spoke to him and was just full of pride at your maturity and ability to handle yourself.  By the time you finished he was as excited as you were.

You spent hours generating a digital flyer.  You texted and posted and shared.  You set up a contactless donation option for items on our front porch.  Signs were made.  People started to reach out.

When people asked what you wanted for your birthday, you sent the flyer.

That level of selflessness causes parents hearts to actually burst with pride.

There are many things this year is not.  Many things you wished it was.  You are starting your Senior Year of High School in very uncertain times.  Your resilience is amazing.

It is not all smooth.  It is not all easy.  There are COUNTLESS bumps, and pot holes and craters in the road.  “The other shoe” drops constantly.  Sometimes as a sneaker, and other times as a steel toed boot.  Regardless, you dust yourself off and press on.

“Get up.  Dress up.  Show up.  And NEVER give up,” was written for you.

I can not promise you a smooth year.  No one can.  What I can promise is that if you continue to remain driven, focused, compassionate and loyal, you will succeed in all you do.

My wish for you is that you can spend some time this year learning to love your own strengths.  I hope that you can spend less time worried about the struggle, and more appreciating the outcome.

Explore.  The world is waiting for you.  And the world will be better for it.

I love you more. Always,

Mom

 

 

 

 

 

What will your verse be?

“…That the powerful play goes on and you might contribute a verse.”

-Walt Whitman (O Me! O Life!)

“What will your verse be?”- Robin Williams (Dead Poet’s Society)

I couldn’t sleep last night. This echoed in my ear over and over again. Dead Poet’s Society has long and forever been my favorite movie, and Robin Williams my all time favorite actor.  But, I must admit neither often keeps me awake unless things are on my mind.

My father-in-law passed away last week.  His funeral was Saturday.  Parkinson’s was ruthless and took its time ravaging his body.  Yet, through the end his spirit never wavered.  During more than one conversation we had over the past few months, he would often say, “God in the front.”  He would tell it to me in English, and in Spanish, but I won’t pretend to be able to even type the Spanish version.   The conversation often led back to the same sentiment.  “Everything went wrong when we stopped putting God in the front.”  He meant in life.  In the world.  In the chaos.  In the anger and the hatred so often around us.  To him it was simple.  It was powerful to hear him explain it.

I realize not everyone shares my faith, and I am ok with that.  What I do wish for everyone is a belief in something that can help you maintain your poise and grace through indescribable agony or just generally difficult times.  Because none of us know what our future holds.  But, as Walt Whitman said, even after we have left this earth, “…the powerful play goes on, and you might contribute a verse.”

What is my father-in-law’s verse?  To me it is everything.  My husband.  My daughter.  Their light.  Their souls.  Their spirits.  Their hearts.  He contributed to this world two of the most spectacular humans.  The powerful play goes on.  He rests now.  But his verse, it has ripple effects.

A very young grandchild of a family friend had a very near miss on a life and death experience this week.  He is recovering.  I spent many hours talking to God about what his verse could be, and how much he could still do here on this earth.  Heaven had enough angels.  It was not the first miracle I have witnessed.

A photo taken by my Dad of a much loved statue. He is forever now one of our guardian angels.

What will your verse be?

I’ve reached a point in my life, where I will not give people the power to affect me negatively.  My older sister has given me this advice countless times, but it is finally starting to register.

Meghan and I have talked a lot about the Nature vs. Nurture debate these last few weeks.  We’ve played what if games with a ton of scenarios.  The thing about this debate is the only truth is, it’s both. Nature and nurture impact who we become.  Sometimes one is more powerful than the other, by no fault or credit of anyone.  But, it’s undeniable that they cross over.  All the time.

Bad things happen.  We can’t always choose those things.

Relationships with both family and friends sometimes sour.  We can’t always fix it.

Health sometimes fails by no fault of our own.

Sometimes there’s a global pandemic, and everything gets turned on its ear.

We often can’t choose what happens to us.

What we can choose is our response to those things.

And often, it is the response you choose that can lead you to peace in the darkest hours.

Life is not easy.  I am not telling you I’m never mad, or sad, or flat out angry.  I’m human.

But, lately I’ve been choosing to spend less and less time in the dark places.  And while I recognize getting to the point where you can make that choice is in and of itself a battle for some, I know that everyone moves at their own pace.  For me I’m at a place where I’m choosing the light.  I’m choosing not to give people power over my happiness.  I’m choosing to put “God in the front.”

I am 4 weeks post op from a major foot surgery, and still non weight bearing.  The other day I went out on my crutches determined to drop a package at the post office and put gas in my car.  Three separate people stopped to offer me help at the post office, and a kind old gentleman insisted on pumping my gas.  I saw so much good.

I choose to think its always there, but it stuck out so much more because I am prepared to seek it.

What will MY verse be?

I’ve been thinking about that a lot.  The truth is, I don’t know.  But, I do know I want to start forming it now.

Having a rare disease, and also just having open eyes and ears has grounded me in the reality that there is no promise of tomorrow on this earth.

What will MY verse be?

I’m not sure yet. But, I’m working on it.  One day at a time.

#beatingcowdens

Blessings and Sorrows….

Blessings and sorrows are not mutually exclusive.

Disappointment can exist alongside gratitude.

You can have hope while being grounded in reality.

Faith doesn’t mean you’re never sad.

Laura Story wrote the song, “Blessings” many years ago.  It is a song that has played on repeat during a few of Meghan’s hospital stays.

The chorus,

“Cause what if your blessings come through raindrops?
What if Your healing comes through tears?
What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near?
What if trials of this life are Your mercies in disguise?”

 Is full of seemingly opposite concepts.  Yet so often through our rare disease journey, and our Cowden’s Syndrome mountains, and Ehlers- Danlos obstacles, this song has just made sense.

And now, during this time of pandemic and isolation, and anxiety it resonates even more.

We are freakishly accustomed to isolation.  Passing through surgeries and rehabilitation, and hospitalizations and illnesses as if they are as normal as a traffic light on the corner of a city block, means that you look at things a little differently.  Any time not spent recovering is seemingly spent traveling to and from appointments that yield little besides new appointments.  And yet, their very existence can consume every spare moment.

Cowden’s Syndrome is a constant “flashing yellow,” a caution sign, so to speak.  It is a blessing that we are equipped with the knowledge that as a people so susceptible to a variety of cancers that we must pause to aggressively screen,often twice a year, for our most sinister well known risks, (breast, thyroid, uterus, kidney, colon, skin…) and that we must investigate each new bump or lump, because you just never know.

And yet that blessing comes sometimes through raindrops, of plans foiled, and journeys rerouted.   All worth it if we have remained as we say, #beatingcowdens.

COVID-19 has rerouted most of the world this spring.

And we have learned.

We feel.  We laugh.  We cry.  We sit still.  We take walks.  We eat together. We pray.  We read.  We pet the dogs.  We sing.  We celebrate.  We mourn.  We watch TV.  We act with caution not terror.  We care about others. We read. We learn.  We talk to each other.

We “attend” church weekly for the first time in YEARS, as we have a church too many miles from us with a message we deeply need, suddenly available in our living room.

We did not pass a single graduation sign without a moment of empathy for what the graduates missed.  We celebrated every birthday drive by with loud honking horns.  We sent virtual cards when the store wasn’t an option.  We thought about sports events and recitals and parades and everything someone, somewhere had their heart set on.

We talked about everyone missing something. Every house, on every street had plans interrupted, and life rescheduled without warning. “Everyone has something.”

And in the most unusual way, for the first time in a long time, we felt a camaraderie with so many.  Everyone’s life was upended.  Everyone’s.

Don’t misunderstand, I’m not happy about any of this.  I just feel like it is easier to talk to people.  That may sound odd.  But currently people “get” isolation a bit better than before.

As swim season cut short days before a college showcase she was prepped and ready for, it wasn’t just HER.

As the SAT, and ACT play miserable games with enrollment and dates, she is united with the class of 2021.

Remote learning was… well I’ll just leave that there and say, necessary based on the state of NY in April.

We saw a 20th anniversary celebration derailed.  And yet, we had the most incredible evening.

I cancelled tickets to my first solo journey, a PTEN conference that was to be in Boston.  But, I celebrated the fact that this time I actually WAS going.  I will get to the next one.

I took the refund for the missed Billy Joel concert.  It took 2 decades for me to get the nerve to want to attend any concert again.  It may take another 2 before I want to be in a crowd that large.

Disney – our August safe zone for 12 summers is cancelled.  There is no way I could do it under these conditions.  Just none.

There were tears cried for all of the above.  But, there was also the awareness of gratitude, for health of family and friends, for two secure paychecks, and extra time with two adorable dogs.

The maintenance appointments are beginning to get caught up.  Some have been live, and some virtual.  I am undoubtedly excited about keeping some virtual medicine where the visits will allow. So far we are all faring well.

We are staying close to home.  We are choosing our interactions wisely.  We are choosing not to be crippled with fear, but rather empowered with logic, faith and compassion.

And when we head out into the world we mask.

We look daily at COVID numbers around us, and quite frankly they are disturbing. Locally we are in good shape now.  But things change quickly.

We spend these days enjoying sunshine.  We are in gratitude for a beautiful yard, and thankful that swim practice has begun again.

I promised to not complain about the 5:45 AM wake ups. And I’m trying to be true to that.

We have real conversations here about a fall schedule, without letting it overwhelm our days.  We talk about scenarios.  Her sport is a fall sport and it grows increasingly likely that her Senior season is in jeopardy.

We have conversations about school.  We know that we want to return.  But we do not know if it will come to be, at least not right away.

We have summer goals.  They are different this year.  And maybe that’s not always a bad thing.

We allow ourselves to feel every emotion here.  And for us, it helps.

Whether you’re fighting a rare disease (or two) or wrangling a teenager, now more than ever we are one.

Forgive yourself.

Blessings and sorrows are not mutually exclusive.

Disappointment can exist alongside gratitude.

You can have hope while being grounded in reality.

Faith doesn’t mean you’re never sad.

#beatingcowdens

 

  • completing my first post from my iPad on the couch as the FOOT recovers from some pretty extensive, non Cowden’s related surgery.

Adapt.  Onward.

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

What about the crayons?

The questions were simple enough.  “What about basic supplies?  What about the laptops?  What about the crayons?  What about the things multiple hands touch over a short period of time every day?”

The man at the end of the call asked the questions of the teacher’s union president.  It was following a discussion of what we will need to do to safely re-open schools in what many hope will soon be a post COVID-19 world.

The call was 5 days ago.

I have asked myself “What about the crayons?” innumerable times since I heard this teacher ask.  The union president was stumped, but to his credit, collected this teacher’s contact information to add him to future focus groups.

There is so much we just don’t know.

I have tried to stay present, not to stray too far from the moment.  I have tried to remain in an attitude of gratitude for my ability to work from home, the health of my family, and our financial stability.

But, my mind strays from tragedies, milestones missed, and seasons not played, to an uncertain future.  We receive conflicting messages daily, through multiple elected representatives, doctors, and ordinary citizens.  Everyone feels adamantly one way or another about a variety of issues.

But, what about the crayons?

It’s a basic enough question, that may seem like no big deal if you haven’t spent the last 23 years in an elementary school.  It’s the kind of question that will easily be brushed aside regardless of how many times it’s asked.

But, maybe it’s one of the most important questions.

Through the years of teaching I have seen a lot of changes, and I have not always embraced them willingly.  Some, I would argue still, are pure nonsense.  Others have made me a better educator.  In reality, like so many other things in life, what I agree with is not wholly relevant.

When I started teaching we had desks.  Students had desks.  Teachers had desks.  Everyone had their own supplies.  Students largely worked alone.  Slowly, there were times it was appropriate to do “group work” where we would move desks together for collaboration, only to later return them to their original separate space.

Through the years, desks became tables and teacher’s desks were eliminated.  There were bins on tables for shared items.  Books were kept on shelves, and folders kept in bins.  Everything required a monitor to hand it out.  The tables were 6 sided, making separating children a challenge, you know, for those activities that shouldn’t be done in groups.  So we added “dividers” also stored, and distributed as needed.

Slowly, desks have made a comeback, as everything old is new again, and supplies are often kept in the desks for the older children, but many of the youngest still work from tables.

We are supposed to teach them to collaborate.  We are supposed to teach them to work in groups.  We are supposed to teach them to get along, in addition to, well, TEACHING them.

About 10 years ago I shifted from teaching in a classroom of my own students to teaching as a “cluster” teacher, in a position to provide preparation periods for the classroom teachers as per our contract.  I serve as a math cluster, a position many see as odd, but one I love.  My role in this position is to help all children love math.

I have evolved over the years from a hesitant, controlling teacher, to one who embraces productive student noise and activity. Although I see students from kindergarten through 4th grade, my room still has those six-sided tables.  Most lessons are hands on, using everything from play-doh, to stamp pads, to puzzles, to counters, to fraction bars and many more.  My children share pencils, 12 at a table.  They also share scissors, and glue, and rulers, and hundreds charts, and teaching coins, and that is only some of what is in every table bin.  As 5 classes a day, 25 classes a week, and roughly 600 students a week sit at my tables and handle my math tools, monitors count and keep order.  Desks are washed often and hand sanitizer flows freely.

But, there is no part of me that thinks it’s enough.

The giggling joy of children battling number facts, playing dice games, building numbers with play-doh, and solving number puzzles together has become a sound that I truly enjoy.  My room is noisy, active, and largely fun.

It’s a stark contrast to some other aspects of life.

I take seriously the task to encourage a passionate love of math.  I am thrilled to be a safe space, where tests are minimal, informal assessment rules, groups are fluid and the majority of children get to feel successful.

Maybe I learned how important that excitement for education was after our Cowden’s Syndrome diagnosis in 2012.  Something about surviving a sneaky cancer, and watching your own child lose a good deal of innocence on exam tables, and in operating rooms, makes you more in touch with the value of “productive, happy noise.”

My girl was in 3rd Grade when we were formally diagnosed, but in truth she has ALWAYS been dealing with health issues.  I watched her elementary school experience.  I know as an only child with two working parents, largely unavailable to meet others to play, social isolation came early.  I know she had tons of alone time, and subsequently too much adult time.

I know the teachers that changed her life for the better, to whom I will be eternally grateful, and I know the ones who just changed her.

She never liked math.  I could always get her to understand, but it made her nervous.  It still does.  She never “played” math.  Like so much else, it was a task to master, not an experience to have.

Maybe because it was easier to read during the hours of waiting, in traffic, in offices, in hospitals, and during recovery.  Or maybe because it wasn’t fun.  I’ll never know.

She never really handled crayons much either.  Or math tools.  And she was allergic to the wheat in the play-doh….

So, I set out to make my math room a place that could maybe change the perception of one kid.  Maybe I could help one kid believe they could be good at math, or that math was fun.

I have a system set up.  There are 5 bins of every math tool you can imagine.  When they need crayons there are three fresh boxes poured out into bins that match the color of their table baskets.  The older kids usually have a focused lesson in different levels.  The little guys often rotate through a few activities to keep them moving and keep things developmentally appropriate.

Which brings me back to the crayons.

As my colleague on that call pointed out, it was laptops, crayons, and everything in between.

It is my entire program.  It is all things hands on and developmentally appropriate for our youngest learners.

No one knows.

I have had many sleepless nights since we began

#beatingcowdens

Very few things leave a mom as unsettled as her child’s health.

But, a close second might be asking a primary teacher, “What about the crayons?

 

 

 

 

Pandemic Got Your Tongue?

NYC #COVID19

NYC #Covid19

There are things you could do without ever experiencing.  Clearly #COVID19 is one of them.

I live in NYC.  I have lived here every one of my 46 years.

I was born and raised here.  I graduated from public school, SUNY and then CUNY.  I work in the elementary school I graduated from.  I have lived in the same zip code pretty much my whole life.

I watched my local community rise up many years ago when my young cousin battled Leukemia.  I remember that, even over 30 years later, whenever a neighbor I don’t know is in need.

I watched my local community, many aspects of which were decimated by the horrors of 9/11, rise up in indescribable ways.

I watched my community draw together again after Hurricane Sandy wiped out neighborhoods.

We worked together.  We prayed together.  We loved on each other.  We gathered together.  We shared what we had.

I live amongst compassion, bravery, dedication, resilience, tragedy, and grief.

I also live amongst some selfishness, stupidity and inflated senses of self importance.

The greatest city in the world gives you all that and then some.

Despite having a small social circle, I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, a granddaughter, a sister, a niece, a cousin and a friend.

I am a patient with a PTEN mutation called Cowden’s Syndrome.

I am a cancer survivor.

I have a teenager with 2 rare diseases, and a brain that runs 24/7.

We are immune compromised.

I am a NYC Public School Teacher.

My husband is an essential worker.

Daily the news reports are often silenced in my house.  I know what’s going on around me.  A few numbers across a screen give me what I already know.  Hope of blossoming spring has been muted by tales that nightmares are made of.

I spend the days trying to remotely engage young minds in math games.  It is, if nothing else, a welcome distraction.

Suddenly, this community that does so much better when we can gather together is isolated.

Our friends are sick and dying quickly.  To much of the country and the world they are numbers.  To us they are humans with names and families.  We can not visit.  We can not comfort.  We can not gather.  We are leaving our loved ones at the emergency room door, praying we will see them again.

We, alongside the whole world, are fighting a virus that seems to have a strangle hold on my home town.

People like to make themselves feel better, but the truth is this virus does not discriminate.  We can barely even find it, let alone attack it.

We are chasing it.  It clearly has the upper hand.

We have been told to #flattenthecurve but, I fear the sheer numbers of us make this so much harder.

My husband comes from work removes all layers, scrubs, showers, washes all outer garments.  He gave up public transportation to reduce his “touch points.”

We are grateful for the home we have.  We are grateful for each other, for the internet, for Zoom and FaceTime, and virtual church.  We are grateful for washing machines and space, and luxuries never to be taken for granted again.

We are grateful for computers that allow for everything from Advanced Biology to voice lessons and test prep.

We leave for 2 walks a day at off peak hours.

The stores I used to walk in and out of because I could, are saved for when lists accumulate and there is need.

We order food a few times a week, a calculated risk carefully played out because the restaurants that have openly supported our fundraisers through the years, deserve our support now as well.

The schedule has slowed from its chaotic pace.  Swim season just isn’t.  There is no college search right now.  Doctors are cancelling, and rescheduling.  Routine check ups are on hold.  And honestly I don’t mind.  Even this chronically painful foot is waiting its turn while really important things happen at the local hospitals.

We take this call to social isolation really seriously here.

Selfishly, I might even enjoy a little of this forced family time.  A year from now my girl will likely have her college chosen and be starting her transition out of our nest.

Having Cowden’s Syndrome has done a lot of work on my perspective through the years.  I’ve learned that you can’t keep waiting for it to be over.  That’s true of everything in life.

A dear friend has told me often, “You can have it all, just not all at the same time.”

You have to live each day, from beautiful to unspeakable.  It is the only way to preserve feelings of compassion, empathy and focus on the greater good.  You must laugh and cry, and scream and yell, and feel all the feelings.

I have scanned 3 and a half years of letters Pop wrote to Grandma in the years he was deployed during WWII.  Those years preceded a marriage that lasted over 70 years.  I think of them all the time, but even extra these days.  I think about how hard it would have been to socially distance from them, but also about the lessons they could have taught all of us in patience, resilience and sacrifice for the greater good.

I’ll use some of the next days to read every one of those letters before uploading them to create a hard copy to be shared in my family for generations.

There is a lot to be learned from the “Greatest Generation.”

Sometimes I get angry at flippant or arrogant folks I see, in person or on the news.  The people who think they are too good, or exempt from this global pandemic.  The people who don’t think they have to do their part.

Then, I decide to focus on the overwhelming number of people who are doing whatever they can to make this better.  All those essential workers we learned about in the first grade unit on “Community Helpers” are the ones I focus on with gratitude.

I am not better than this virus.  I am just as susceptible as the good people across the globe who are struggling with these infections.

I isolate not out of fear, but out of respect.

I isolate out of respect for those who can’t.

I isolate out of respect for our first responders and essential workers.

I isolate out of respect for those who are living with this virus.

I isolate because maybe one less person will get infected because I did.

I miss the way our city has come together in all other times of tragedy.

I miss hugs, and offering comfort and being comforted.

I will message the people I miss so much, and check in on them.

And, instead of complaining the time away I will spend more of it in prayer for those who need very much not to feel alone, reaching out through the technology I’m blessed to have, with gratitude that if I am forced to isolate I have a comfortable home and a few of my best friends to be with.

Jax is a welcome distraction.

Sweet April

#Family

#Flattenthecurve

#COVID19

Still #Beatingcowdens

 

 

 

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)

 

 

 

 

Don’t give up on a (limping) Zebra

You know that person in your life.  The one who always has a dramatic tale of woe?  The one who you tire of hearing from because all they do is talk about their health?  Because honestly all that doctor talk is quite depressing.  And I mean, you hate going to the doctor.  You just went last week and they made you wait 30 minutes past your appointment.  But, you gave them a piece of your mind, and you’re just not going back.  You are way too busy anyway.  You have other things to do, and a LIFE.  So you’ll get to it when you get to it.

So, it might be a little hard for you to process that your friend doesn’t have the ability to make the same choices.  And that one doctor visit, with the 30 minute delay, they do that several times a month. A 30 minute wait is a rarity.  Typical time round trip, including traffic and wait – often 5 hours. 

And over time you might have less and less to talk about with them.  Because, they missed the party, or cancelled on dinner.  They are so dramatic.  You’ve had that wrong with you.  Sometimes you have to get up and keep moving.  They spend too much time being sad.  What “trauma” could they possibly know?

While the Zebra is the Symbol for Ehler’s Danlos Syndrome- a group of inherited connective tissue disorders- it also speaks symbolically and metaphorically to the Rare Disease Patients we encounter daily.  In our house it is PTEN Hamartoma Tumor Syndrome, or Cowden’s Syndrome, and Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, for now. With over 7,000 Rare Diseases, it is not “rare” to have one.  It is rare for them to be properly diagnosed, managed, and understood.

From National Geographic  (BLUE PRINT IS CUT FROM THE ARTICLE)

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/p/plains-zebra/

ABOUT THE PLAINS ZEBRA

No animal has a more distinctive coat than the zebra. Each animal’s stripes are as unique as fingerprints—no two are exactly alike—although each of the three species has its own general pattern.

No two are exactly alike…

Zebra Stripes

Why do zebras have stripes at all? Scientists aren’t sure, but many theories center on their utility as some form of camouflage. The patterns may make it difficult for predators to identify a single animal from a running herd and distort distance at dawn and dusk. Or they may dissuade insects that recognize only large areas of single-colored fur or act as a kind of natural sunscreen. Because of their uniqueness, stripes may also help zebras recognize one another.

Stripes may help them recognize each other….

Population and Herd Behavior

Zebras are social animals that spend time in herds. They graze together, primarily on grass, and even groom one another.

Plains zebras are the most common species. They live in small family groups consisting of a male (stallion), several females, and their young. These units may combine with others to form awe-inspiring herds thousands of head strong, but family members will remain close within the herd.

They can combine to form a herd, or a small group called a “dazzle.”  Seems fitting though…

I used to be social.  I mean not overly social.  I never traveled in large groups, but I used to dine out.  I used to see friends.  At least sometimes.

I learned of the old concept taught in medical school many years ago when we were starting to live this overwhelming life full time.  It goes “When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.”  The professionals we look to have been trained to explain us away.

Our medical system is so deeply broken, that our best and brightest are in debt they can barely see past, and in shackles to the facilities they must work for, who are often managed on bottom lines and drug companies pockets as they overbook them and take away the time to look at the whole patient.  These doctors are often cognitively capable of doping their job.  They are just not allowed.

Some theories on the progression of that quote can be found clicking this link.

When You Hear Hoofbeats Look for Horses Not Zebras

But the reality is this.  We are Zebras.  In this rare disease community at large, we are a herd of them, as many as 10% of the world’s population.

( And other Rare Facts here… https://globalgenes.org/rare-facts/)

RARE Facts

And we are trying to get treated by many doctors who have been trained, for whatever the reason, to categorically deny the existence of zebras!

It’s easier to diagnose and treat a horse I suppose.  It is easier to open the text book, or the app and find the segment on their current malady, remedy it, and send them on their way.

I rarely meet a zebra who doesn’t WISH they could be a horse.  We don’t want to be hard to diagnose and treat.  But, we are.

I am currently in my 11th month treating a foot injury.

I fell at work and it was handled to the letter of the law there.

My insurance company denied the MRI I needed for my pain.  I waited and walked on it for 2 months.  When I could stand the pain no longer I received a diagnosis of a partial lisfranc tear, a zebra type of foot injury if you will.  I was put in a boot, taken out of work and rested.  Then I was taken out of the boot, not because there was proof of healing, but because I’d been in it too long.

A second opinion told me to be patient.

My local podiatrist running point on the case has been wonderful.

I have seen him every other week since March.

It hurts. Still.

I tried Physical Therapy and was sent away after 5 visits because he felt something else was wrong.

I tried ignoring the pain and walking through it.  It got so much worse.

Another visit back to the second orthopedist left me feeling like a fool as he told me it was all good.

An MRI 2 days later showed stress changes in the cuboid bone, another “zebra” foot injury.

Unfortunately, those results came my way after 6 days in Orlando.

The boot was on again.  This time with a scooter.

Another opinion and another MRI in September progressed the fracture to “non-discplaced” cuboid fracture and sentences me to another 10 weeks in the boot.

My original podiatrist, a stand up guy, suggested Hospital for Special Surgery.  He could not get another MRI approved.  My insurance had tired of me trying to get better.  He thought HSS had a better shot.

In the mean time I had to come out of the boot.  Not because the pain was better, but because there is only so long you can stay in before you have other risks.

Countless hours trying to schedule, I ended up with an appointment 10/31.  His diagnosis was made without ever having me take a step.  “You have too much pain in too many places.”  Go see pain management.  My husband strong armed him into ordering another MRI, which he did.  Except for reasons I’ll never know he ordered only the forefoot…

The results of that MRI showed swelling, chronic fracture of the sesamoid, and a neuroma(that one is fairly common) among other things.  He backpedaled a great deal when he called with those results.

My foot is in no shape to return to teaching – yet.

I went to neurology locally.  Prior to me getting my sneakers off he diagnosed me with a pain syndrome, because “it has to be.”  I did a nerve function test, was told to take a “tri-phase bone scan” and seek pain management. Again, no exam.

So, I scheduled the bone scan and started looking at pain management.  Except no one at Hospital for Special Surgery will treat me, even though their doctor was also sending me.  And the one specialist I was referred to locally does not take my insurance.  I am awaiting an answer for another suggestion.  My second call to the local office was at 9 this morning.

 

I have a ‘hail Mary’ pass going to a PT tonight who I PRAY will think he can help.

It sounds luxurious to be a zebra, right?  Spa treatments all day.  HA! Because what else would you do when you’re not at work?

It is easier to think someone is being lazy.  It is easier to think they don’t care, or they aren’t trying.  It is easier to find the green grass in someone else’s yard.

It is easy to judge.  To say someone is “taking advantage.”  It is so much easier than hearing the truth.  Often the truth is hard.  And just not as interesting.

I can assure you I have been schooled once again in the value of the lesson “Everyone has something.”

When you are rare, you are left on your own.  A lot.  Doctors will not, or can not, or are unable to troubleshoot an abnormal/multidisciplinary diagnosis.

I will wait.  I will continue to seek answers.  I will pray that all the bones in my foot stay in one piece.  Because this, this was supposed to be the “normal” injury in the house.  It was “just a fall.”

But, apparently as I’m learning, when you’re a zebra, you are a zebra through and through.

Thankful for my “dazzle…”  You know who you are.

And some days I feel like its even a little more unique…

#beatingcowdens

#hEDS