May is PTEN Awareness Month.
Gratitude is a practice I try to engage in regularly. There is so much to be grateful for. My child is thriving despite countless challenges. I know of too many parents who can not say the same, by no fault of their own.
This May of 2022 my 18-year-old marked her 20th surgical procedure. We are acutely aware of PTEN, Cowden Syndrome, and its ramifications. Some could say our whole purpose here is PTEN Awareness.
The challenge though is to raise awareness outside of our diagnosed population and our inner circles and spread it to the medical community so testing diagnoses come earlier. The humanization of this condition is critical. The appreciation for its unique challenges is essential. This has to begin with empathy from front office staff, scheduling appointments for real people, trying to hold down real jobs or maintain real school schedules, and keep the “normal” aspects of life together while simultaneously navigating the screening and surgeries inevitably required of Cowden’s patients.
The realization that even within our “rare” diagnoses, no two patients seem to travel the same road needs to provoke the medical community to consider our individuality within the anomaly of a 1 in 200,000 disorder. We need more empathy and less sympathy. We need creative solutions to unique problems. We need people who believe us instead of “patient blaming” and shaming us for symptoms and pain that are poorly understood.
In short, #beatingcowdens involves a combination of “Gratitude, Grace, and Grit.”
I tend to wear T-Shirts with short sayings to keep me motivated through each day. I am fairly sure most people don’t see or read them, but in reality, I choose them more for me anyway.
Monday I had my “Gratitude, Grace and Grit” shirt, very purposefully selected as Meghan, Ella and I loaded ourselves into the car for a contrast MRI/MRA of the vascular tumor in her right thigh, and presurgical testing for that same tumor. A lifetime of surgery and less than stellar interactions have left their mark on my girl. IVs and blood draws hold some of the most intense trauma and there have not been enough consecutive positive experiences to make contending with them any easier.
The anticipation on the 35-mile/ way too long in traffic/ ride was palpable as always. Yet, we found things to chat about that made me simultaneously proud and sad. We always want to remove the hurt from our children. She is quite a stellar young woman, stretching her wings at college, and beginning to fly. We stopped a long time ago wondering what life would have been like without this mutation. In our hearts, we know it shaped us, separately and together.
We are unapologetically Christian. I was raised in the Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation where I was baptized, confirmed, married, and had Meghan baptized. My beliefs are firmly rooted among other things, in this verse from Ephesians 2, verse 8: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God…” Her faith journey had more twists and turns than mine, as changes at critical points in her childhood left her often in a faith freefall. But, my brother-in-law an ELCA minister kept the door open for her always, and before she left for college she was confirmed in the faith of her baptism, one she had struggled to find her path to, but now embraces.
We blasted “Spotify” at times on the drive, and multiple times found our way back to this song, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q8anLMKB9N8 “See Me Through It” by Brandon Heath. Chuckling as we repeated the line “When the sky falls, who am I gonna call, the one who put it up there in the first place!”
We have learned to make our own fun, and to make our memories valuable. We’ve learned to use the time we have together and appreciate each other where we are and with all we have. It’s been the most important lesson and has allowed our relationship to develop as ironclad.
The MRI was long. The IV was painful. The pre-surgical testing was annoying. The blood draw was difficult. Those are the uncomfortable sentences people don’t want to hear. We left the hospital in exactly enough time to smack into the start of rush hour.
However, the overall story here, this time, is one of extreme gratitude. The MRI was scheduled at the exact time we needed it, organized by the incredible Interventional Radiologist who is new to us, but seasoned and skilled. It leaned right into the pre-surgical appointment and I was utterly grateful for the man who promised to get it all done in one day, and then personally followed through.
That Doctor. The journey to him was one where all the stars aligned. The orthopedist who is utterly well-respected by both of us and has been a regular in our rotation for a decade knew we needed a new team for this. That orthopedist, trusted by both of us, sent us to a hematologist who has an interest in vascular malformations.
That hematologist had us at hello. Literally. It was days before Meghan was to leave for her freshman year at college. The pain was worsening. There was no time to get to see her in person. So she consulted. Via telehealth. For over 90 minutes. And she prescribed medicine that took the edge off. And she stayed in touch. And titrated doses. And called me back. And emailed. And cared.
She gave us a list of doctors to see and suggested the Interventional Radiologist. And more magical than that, she made sure that we got to see 5 doctors in 2 days during the VERY short window Meghan was home for Christmas. All of them were worth it. One of them was the Interventional Radiologist who we desperately needed.
Meghan’s options were not encouraging. The direct stick embolization in 2019 was nothing short of a disaster. This tumor was deep. Excising it was advised against by the orthopedist as he could offer no promises after cutting through that much muscle that the leg would ever be the same. But, instead of pushing Meghan into a box, this doctor listened, and he thought. And he treated her like a human. When we went into his office, her images were already up, on a huge screen. He looked at me and told me that Meghan’s tumor must hurt. And while I understood on whatever level a bystander could, the extreme pain she was in, I so desperately appreciated the doctor who was advocating for my girl. SHE must have felt a relief even I could not fully understand.
Here in front of her was a real doctor, expressing how oddly placed her tumor was. Explaining how and why the pain was often just unreal. And, offering to try something new. Something outside the box. Because he wanted to help. He connected already with the orthopedist we love. He mentioned consulting with other hospitals and was willing to talk to anyone, to literally move mountains to try to help. He suggested cryoablation-freezing the tumor out. And we were intrigued because it made sense. And, it just might work.
We talked about the week of May 16th as a target date. It was the week after final exams and made the most sense. They made it happen. This doctor consulted, studied, game planned, changed plans, kept Meghan and I informed, and answered any question she had, and then some. Gave her his email. Called her at college. He treated her like a real, actual important human being. A whole person.
And so Wednesday morning, May 18th, we walked into the hospital at 6:45 AM. By 8:45 she went one way and Ella and I another. The doctor called me mid-morning to update me on the transition. He knew I’d be worried. Then, almost 4 hours later Ella and I met him in the hallway as he showed me pictures of the tumor, then the area where the tumor had been prominent. Then the site before and after the cryoablation. He said from his seat it went as close to plan as it could have.
I wanted to hug him. I doubt he had any idea how much his efforts mean. I doubt he truly knows that being treated like a human was so strange, and so utterly amazing.
Maybe this PTEN awareness month we will reach another doctor who wants to learn. Maybe we will reach a doctor who wants to think outside the box, and will understand that it is sometimes critical that they do so. Maybe we will reach a person who schedules appointments who will understand the desperation in our voices when we need to schedule that next one after work. Maybe we will reach someone who needs to hear this message and will use the knowledge to impact a patient in a great or small way. Maybe they will leave us a message here and let us know.
Or maybe the very special Interventional Radiologist, and the hematologist who took the time and the risk without a face-to-face, and the orthopedist who never ever gives up will see this and know they have made an epic difference. Maybe that is enough. Because we will never be able to repay them, and no kind word is ever wasted.
We are still in the early stages of recovery. We have no idea what the long-term response will be. But, we have opened a tiny window and allowed HOPE to creep back into our worlds, and that, well, that is everything.
Gratitude, Grace, and Grit. #beatingcowdens takes all three and then some.
To be continued…