#beatingcowdens Goes to College!

There are normal feelings I have right now. Like when I look at my adult packing for college and all I see is this.

I have all the normal swings of emotion of watching your baby grow up. I feel all the things you feel after you give them roots, and by God’s grace they grow the most beautiful wings. There is normal anxiety, about them making new friends, and finding their way around and starting a whole new life. Without you. During a global pandemic. After at least a year of abbreviated, altered and just not quite right classes and other human interaction. In all of this I am in good company.

Then, there is the added layer of letting your medically complex child free.

This is the child who screamed with colic for over a year while people told me it was just normal. This is the child who had her first surgery at a few months of age, only to have a baffled surgeon come out of an operating room to tell me the hernia “wasn’t there.” That was just a preview of things to come.

This is the child who was so overwhelmed with GI pain she became a sensory overloaded mess. This is the child who missed milestones, and who had early intervention services of OT, PT and Speech that eventually graduated into an IEP that only terminated in June. Yes, June of 2021.

This is the child who needed a timer to move from one side of the room to the other in PreK as her loving teachers guided her.

This is the child who wanted to run like the wind, but could not ever figure out why it hurt. This child we would later find was managing an arteriovenous malformation in her right knee. That knee. Seven surgeries on that knee. Years with the best Physical Therapist in the land. But, we did stop soccer, and dance. And maybe that was for the best. Maybe she has her mother’s coordination.

This is the child who the kindergarten teacher told me in November was “pretty far behind.” I told her to encourage but not to push. I would be just as proud of her as long as she did her best. Then, that same child got glasses. And with the nurturing love of that kindergarten teacher, combined with God’s GIFT in paraprofessionals she soared. This same child, by March had had her first knee surgery, recovered, and was sitting with the top quarter of her class. This child does not like to be kept down.

This is the child, who spent years sick with chronic viral infections. This child hung with me through mainstream and alternative treatments. She pushed me to push forward for her. This child and I went through hell together. We learned each other on the Belt Parkway and the BQE. And somehow we found beauty on the journey.

This is the child, diagnosed with Cowden’s Syndrome at the age of 8, whose diagnosis prompted mine. This is the child, my angel on earth, who saved my life with her diagnosis, as my breast cancer was caught oh, so early.

This is the child who never quite found her way with other kids. They just didn’t “get” each other. Some were so kind, but couldn’t connect. Many were terribly mean and maligned and belittled and tortured and tormented her soul. This is the child who would not break. Trauma after trauma. Surgery after surgery. Medical procedures layered on top of one another. This is the child who sometimes cried in my arms and other times locked it all behind walls. This child. This medical life. There are experiences that shape you, that make you who you are.

This is the child who chose her high school. Deliberately. She wanted to be with kids who were more in touch with real life. This child grew, through love and resilience and inner strength and therapy to learn all about herself. This is the child who found her way to God and a few special friends, finally, and not at all accidentally, right about the same time.

This child waited years for the service dog. The one to manage the needs that had developed through a medically complex life. Ella and she met in January, and the love in their eyes tells me it was worth the wait.

I abbreviate the tales of this child and her journey. I do that because it would make it too overwhelming for you. I do it because the chronicles mostly sit in the last ten years of this blog and sometimes the gut wrenching journey need not be relived in intricate detail. I abbreviate for my sake, because I can appreciate that God’s biggest gift to me is allowing some really traumatizing memories to fade just enough that I can actually breathe as I recall them.

If you ever want stories, I have them for weeks. If you ever need to tell your tales, I am here.

This journey to college has been a long time coming. My college athlete and scholar got there on “Gratitude, Grace and Grit.” That full academic scholarship- that took the resilience to overcome 17 surgeries, remain in top honors, and recover the body every single time to return to the water. Through it this child turned her experiences into compassion and a desire to care for others. As she puts it, she wants to “do better” for people like herself. And there is room. Plenty of room to do just that my girl.

This journey took learning how to manage to moment to moment pain of Arteriovenous Malformations, as a new one has developed in her thigh, and channel that pain into usable energy. To look into the eyes of your baby, the eyes of your one and only 18 year old baby, and to know they will likely never be pain free, is a special kind of torture.

This child, now an adult, will have one more virtual visit, with one more new doctor, before we load the cars. And we have all the fun stuff, favorite sweatshirts, and a pretty comforter. We also have daily pill cases, morning and night, set for 4 weeks. Along with a literal bucket of the “just in case” medications to get her through. There are gluten, dairy and soy free snacks. There are toys and treats for Ella.

There is a whole lot of new.

My heart is full of hope. While the medical problems travel with her, she has reached an age where many kids have seen life, and are generally more tolerant of humans. My heart is full of hope for new experiences, for laughs, and friendships that will form.

My child leaves with less experience in some areas, and so much more in others. And my hope, my prayer is that in this place there will be balance.

I am with all my other mother friends, leaving their children at college.

My heart is with my mother friends who will never have the privilege to experience this “going away to college.”

My heart is with my mother friends whose babies no longer walk this earth, but cover us all with their angel wings.

I have learned from all of you.

And as I cry, because I will cry, I will also absorb the magnitude of the fact that this is happening.

As we told her doctor many years ago… “every step of the journey IS the journey.”

We remain #beatingcowdens

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.