Grandma – The Long Goodbye

Real life continues around you whether you want it to or not.  And over the last few years as we have juggled Cowden’s Syndrome, my dear Grandma has battled Alzheimer’s Disease.  This disease is far too common and not for the faint of heart.  When it was named “The Long Goodbye”  it was appropriately so.  That goodbye came to its end for my Grandma last week, and her “Celebration of Life” was today.  Her influence on my life can not be understated. 

While I am acutely aware how lucky I am to have had my grandparents for so long, there is a special kind of loss when you’ve been fortunate enough to have grandparents into adulthood.  Below is a transcript of the eulogy I delivered today.  Pictures were just added for good fun.

It has been so hard to gather my thoughts.  I love to write, but it is a formidable task to speak to the end of an era, while teasing apart the pair that was “Grandma and Pop,” in order to spend a few moments remembering Grandma.

Grandma was small and strong, faithful, feisty, loyal, fierce, firm, and dedicated.

Besides being “small,” which is a ship that sailed for me decades ago, I aspire to be like my grandmother.  Sometimes she said very little, but what she said was always full of meaning.  And it was not the fluffy philosophical stuff.  It was straight to the point.  You always knew where you stood with Grandma.

I grew up on the first floor of the two family house they resided in for over 50 years.  I spent some formative years there, from 5 to 15, where I was loved unconditionally and held to a high standard all the time.  Those years shaped my character, and I will be forever grateful.

I can remember learning to keep myself busy, sorting buttons from a glass jar, while I sat on the kitchen floor.  I remember watching Grandma cook, and iron – two things I DEFINITELY did NOT pick up from her.  I remember tasting cookies, and waffles, and the best lemon meringue pie I’ll ever eat.

She was active her whole life.  She took walks all around the neighborhood for many years.  I watched her climb up and down the two flights of stairs to the basement to do laundry, and up again into the attic to get whatever was stored in their “pantry”.  That attic had a pantry that could have helped the block survive a natural disaster.  They were always prepared.

I remember fighting with my sister Lisa, back when it was just the two of us.  I remember being scolded, firmly (and we’ll leave that there..) and being told we needed to look out for each other.  Now we are more grandchildren, and great-grandchildren too.  I remember.  And we will.  We all will.

I remember the times I disappointed.  Thankfully, there weren’t too many, but there is one that I remember like it was yesterday.  Goodness, it must have been almost 40 years ago when I was touching the nativity scene that I had been told to keep my hands off.  I knocked over the donkey and his ear fell off.  Grandma was mad.  And, even after Pop glued the ear back on I saw that ear for the rest of the years that the nativity went up.  Grandma never said another word about it after that day.  No doubt she forgave me.  But, that feeling of disappointing her was not one I ever desired to relive again.

I remember playing card games with Grandma.  I can remember Parcheesi a little, but it must not have been my favorite.  What sticks out in my mind are “King’s Corners” and “500 Rummy”.  I learned so much more than the rules of the games.  I learned that Grandma was not about giving away easy wins.  I learned that if you wanted to win, you had to work for it.  I also learned that sometimes you lose.  And, being a gracious loser is probably more important than winning.  Life lessons.  Thanks Grandma.

I learned how to be frugal after learning all about the Great Depression and the stories of truly having nothing at all.  She didn’t share those stories to garner pity.  She shared them as an explanation.  She shared them as a motivation as well, although she may not have realized it.  You see, I learned that sometimes people have absolutely nothing, and it’s just not their fault.  I learned to work hard, establish a reputation, and to give with a giving heart, with no expectation of return.  I was given gifts.  Through the years I received many material gifts, but the ones forever etched in my heart are the emotional gifts, of love, support, and encouragement.

For years I learned the value of being able to kiss my grandparents goodnight.  Our family was not super-affectionate, but still, there was a lot of love.  And, so much love came from those goodnight kisses, that I still remember today to ALWAYS kiss my family goodnight.  I learned that there is no promise of tomorrow on this earth, and I watched for years as Pop stopped to kiss Grandma goodbye before he left the house for any reason.  It was in those moments I promised myself I would settle for nothing less than a man who loved me the way Pop loved Grandma.  I did not settle Grandma.  And I understand the beauty of loving and being loved.

The days are sometimes long, but the years are short, and our family grew.  And as each generation brought more love into her heart, I understood the value of what we had.  I understood it, and tried to soak it up every chance I had.  Most people are not as fortunate as we have been.

Family Christmas 2015

Grandma’s mind started to give her trouble many years ago.  No one talked about it much.  We just quietly noticed.  Although, I suspect none of us noticed as much, or as soon as Pop surely did.  Maybe it was the depth of his love that motivated him to care for her alone for so long as she slipped away.  I don’t think we’ll ever fully understand, but it was remarkable.  A love story like theirs is almost unheard of in this generation.  It spanned time and space and well over 70 years.

And when the day came that Pop was no longer to be with us, Grandma gained residence in Clove Lakes Nursing Home.

For almost two years the staff of 6A got to know her.  They don’t have an easy job.  You have to have a special heart.  But, they do it with compassion and integrity.  They took the days she lashed out in stride, and sat and talked to her on the other days.  They learned of a woman, who even with a “broken filter” loved God, her husband, and her family.

Some time around Thanksgiving, Grandma stopped eating solid foods.  And although she would, at the start of it, take some Ensure, slowly she transitioned to an all Ginger Ale diet.  And, if you ever bad mouthed Ginger Ale, I’d like to tell you to consider it’s life sustaining properties.  Grandma lived well over a month on Ginger Ale!

For only the last two weeks or so, Grandma spent most of the day in her bed.  It was more comfortable for her thin, weakening frame.  And it was during those visits, Ginger Ale in hand, that we had some of the most remarkable conversations.

Long had passed the day when Grandma knew who I was.  I asked her one day if she knew me, and she gave me a crooked smile and shook her head.  She said simply, “but I know that I love you”.  And, that was quite enough.  I asked if it was OK if I called her Grandma, and she said, “yes”.  So, that was how we rolled.  It didn’t matter if she knew my name.  It mattered that her face brightened when I walked into a room.  The love was deep in her heart.

I started jotting down some of the things she was saying, so I’d have them to look back on, and I have to tell you, I had some good laughs these last few weeks.

Grandma was in her clearest voice saying the Lord’s Prayer one day very recently.  And as she said, “Lead us not into temptation,” she paused, opened her eyes, looked at me, and said, “That’s a bad one…” and proceeded to finish the prayer.  Right to the point.  I got it Grandma… don’t worry.

She prayed a lot those last few days.

She also asked for a bat one day.  Trust me, she had no interest in playing ball.  She wanted a bat to get after one of the most gentle aides on the floor.  Marlene laughed and never even paused while she carefully and lovingly repositioned Grandma.  I was in the room a few days later when Grandma told Marlene she loved her.  That was Grandma, right telling exactly what was on her mind – to the end.

She talked about Pop too.  One day she said during her prayers, “And my darling Ed, don’t forget him.  I bless him and I pray for him.  He’s my best friend.  He’s been my best friend a lot of years…”

She told me she “had a nice time”.  She talked about a trip that she initially didn’t want to take.  But, she came around.  She said, “I have to go with my husband and my chocolate”.  She said, “I have to trust”.  And she told me Jesus died so heaven was “guaranteed”.

The day she left us we played music for her.  With the help of the internet we pulled out her favorite hymns.  She couldn’t talk much, so we played, “My Jesus I Love Thee,” “Amazing Grace,” “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” “I The Lord of Sea and Sky,” “Beautiful Savior,” “How Great Thou Art…” The list went on.  And, with each passing song she seemed to settle.  She fell into a peaceful sleep.  She was finally almost ready.

Grandma and Pop are back together again now.  I remember after Pop died, and Grandma could not really process his passing, the decision was made not to tell her.  We were told that there really was only a door between them, and the amount of time they’d be on opposite sides of the door was short, especially relative to the time they were together.

Truer words could not have been spoken.  And, as much as we will all miss them terribly, there are people who are just better together.  Grandma and Pop were two of those people.

 

Grandma’s passing marks the end of an era. In addition to being our matriarch, she was the last surviving of the 6 children in her own immediate family.

Grandma and Pop may no longer be here with us, but they leave behind children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and friends, each with personal, specific, life altering memories.

I have no doubt all the angel choirs are singing today.

I’ll leave you with the prayer Grandma said at the end of almost every Lord’s Prayer this week- “Lord, bless us and make us a blessing to others.  AMEN!”

December 30, 1945
                                     A love story that knows no end…

 

 

Sometimes GOOD Things Do Happen…

Sometimes really GOOD things happen.  And when they do it is just such a jubilant feeling of gratitude and relief.

In October I wrote at length about Meghan’s struggle with PTSD and anxiety.  I wrote in the blog linked below about our commitment to obtain a service dog.

A blog outlining Meghan’s journey towards a service dog.

When we made this commitment it came with an enormous price tag.  It came after two of her doctors strongly encouraged the decision.  It also came with a determined sense of urgency that we would do whatever was necessary to make this a reality for her.

After searching, we interviewed with, and contracted with Medical Mutts.  We were drawn here because of their commitment to rescue their service dogs.  We currently love 2 rescues, and a third spent several wonderful years as a key part of our family.  We believe strongly in their mission.  We put the deposit for the dog on our credit card, a total leap of faith that was so necessary at that moment when she needed HOPE.

Meghan had weighed out the pros and cons of a service animal.  She had overwhelmingly decided on the pros.  And, while we know there will be bumps in the road, her father and I trust her instincts.

The wait time for a dog can be a year.  We had to get her into the system.

Then we paused and wondered how on earth we were going to manage the cost of obtaining a fully trained service dog from Indiana, with costs including a week of lost wages, air fare, hotel, and food while we were there.  We knew we needed help.

We reached out to local charities and were directed first to ECHO –Emergency Children’s Help Organization  

Previously, I had an idea they existed, but I had no idea we would ever need to ask them for help.  The whole act of asking for help is humbling.  But, if anything can humble you, it is the desire to provide your child with what she needs.

When I spoke to Gina she was friendly, helpful and calm.  She spent so many different sessions on the phone with me as I drove her wild with questions.  The application was intense and comprehensive, but I understood why.

With time and patience I was able to deliver her a completed application close to the end of November.  When I submitted the application, I had complied a list of other places we would apply to once they decided if they were going to grant us money.  I had never done anything like this before.

Through the process I was able to compile a history of Meghan’s charity work around the community.  I was proud to be able to attach a document detailing her work.

The executive board at ECHO was presented with Meghan’s case awarded her a grant that exceeded my wildest hopes and dreams.  With one phone call Gina was able to tell me that the balance of the dog would be paid in full, and there would be stipends for the travel to Indiana, the lodging, the transportation and the food.  In short, we were told to focus on Meghan.  The financial burden of the dog she needs so desperately had been lifted.

I have no doubt that Meghan, once she feels well again, will return to the charitable end of things, fundraising for PTEN disorders, and for those less fortunate.  It is part of her heart.

Right now, we have HOPE to carry us through some difficult times.  We have HOPE and eager anticipation for a dog that will become her best friend.

HOPE right now is spelled ECHO.

Please, if you’re inclined to support a quality organization – visit their website and consider a donation.

Emergency Children’s Help Organization – Donation Page

We will wait for the new dog anxiously in HOPE and GRATITUDE.

Forever,

#beatingcowdens

More questions than answers…

 

I haven’t written regularly and it is wearing on me.  I keep putting things in front, waiting to be ready, to be finished so I can focus.  Except life is really busy.  And it keeps getting busier.  So, while I’m really dating myself…


While I will never ever possess even a fraction of Ferris Bueller’s 1980s spontaneity, I am constantly working on this reminder.  I’m a work in progress.

Today we stopped.  We sat together.  We watched a movie.  We enjoyed each other.  It was fun.  I need to remember to do it more often.

I find myself struggling to keep the story together, while respecting the privacy (she does preread every post before they publish) of my teenager, and maintaining the authenticity of this journey we are on together.

I always try to be positive, and to put a positive spin on everything.  It’s how I cope.  It’s how I press on.  But, it is the same reason it’s been so hard to write.

The cold hard reality is that even when we are conscious of our many blessings, sometimes having a rare disease, THIS rare disease, really just sucks.  And, as much as you work to not have it define you, it becomes so intertwined with who you are, that it can become difficult to tease the two apart.  In the 6 years since our diagnoses she’s, gone from 3rd to 9th grade.  Those are some pretty formative years.

The struggle to stand apart from the disease that takes so much of your time and energy is real.  As a teen the level of self-awareness is naturally high.  The fear of judgment is one we can all remember.  The desire to stand alone, stand apart, and fit in, while not compromising yourself is one I remember as if it were yesterday.

My girl is strong.  She is physically strong, as she recovers from countless surgeries, and fights her way back into the pool time and time again.  She endures physical therapy.  She navigates countless flights of stairs, and is constantly challenging herself to do more.

She is mentally strong.  She has a work ethic that is impressive, and grades to back it up.  She reads.  She questions.  She thinks.

She is morally strong.  She has ethics that often impress me, and she will not step away from who she is, even for a moment.

She is emotionally strong.  She refuses to stay down, no matter what life tosses at her.  She handles stress, disappointment, and struggle, with a poise many adults I know are lacking.

She is strong.  I know she is strong.  Anyone lucky enough to meet her knows she is strong.

She also suffers with PTSD, and severe anxiety.

I see no conflict between her being strong, and suffering.

I watch the age of diagnosis for PTEN mutations getting younger.  I see in this blessing and curse.  It is a wonderful thing to have the mechanism by which we can survey and protect.  It is also a difficult thing for an intelligent child to have to shoulder.

Clearly, her PTSD is PTEN related.  There are only so many surgeries, hospital stays, IVs, blood draws, MRIs and other medical dramas one can face before memories are haunting.

The anxiety- we’re working on it.

I have some theories.  And I will press until every one of them is shot down, or validated.  Her history indicates that she has always had some metabolic issues.  Some were first addressed by an alternative medicine doctor beginning when she was 2.  I watched things resolve that I thought could never get better.

When her thyroid was removed in 5th grade, just shy of 4 years ago.  I knew then it was not a good time.  I also knew it was not our choice, as the recent biopsy result with 19 nodules, 5 of them suspicious for malignancy, prompted the endocrinologist at the major cancer center to force the total removal.

Fortunately, it was a benign thyroid.  However, that thyroid, no longer in her, now needed to be replaced synthetically.

I was 20 when I lost half of my thyroid.  That was hard.  This, well, it was just unimaginable. Because, anyone who understates the importance of the thyroid for every single function in the body, in my opinion is under-informed.  The endocrinologists are trained to look for one number on a piece of paper and make every decision based off of that number.  Except, we are people.  We are individuals.  We are not numbers.

It took just shy of 2 years before even that number, the TSH (Thyroid Stimulating Hormone – which by definition should not IMO be the “go to” number in someone with NO thyroid to stimulate) stabilized.  It also required a change of endocrinologists to get one to listen to me practically scream that her body was not converting the synthetic T4 to T3.  I may not have been a good chemistry student, and I may not fully understand WHY she does not process synthetic anything very well, but I confidently know it to be true.  This new endocrinologist was willing to give a low dose of T3 a try alongside the T4.  Finally the “magic” number stabilized.

Looking back I believe I was lulled into a false sense of security.

There was so much going on those years.  Middle school is tough for every student.  Factor in 7 surgeries in 3 years and its easy to see where things got complicated.

Looking back again, maybe I should have seen or thought… but there really was no time.

Excessive menstrual bleeding – nonstop for months, led us to an adolescent gynecologist.  That led us to a pelvic ultrasound, which subsequently led to a finding of “abnormally thickened uterine lining.”  The D&C pathology showed cellular irregularities, highly unlikely in her then 12 year old body.  But, we live as the “highly unlikely.”

Even as we were nudged towards hormones, I should have seen.  But, it’s easier to see in reverse.

The need for hormones to thin the uterine lining was non-negotiable I was told.  The IUD was an unacceptable solution to both of us.  So, she was given progesterone.

The medication is pure evil, I am convinced.  She handed me the pill bottle one morning and told me to get rid of it.  She was done with it.  I shudder at what could have become of things if she did not possess the inner strength I spoke of earlier.  Her level of self-awareness is eerie at times.  I am grateful.

So, we went a while with nothing.  And the body began to act up again.  This summer we agreed to try a birth control pill.  And, still, several changes later, things are not where they should be.

Most doctors want to make all sorts of sweeping generalizations.  They want to put everyone in a neat box.  Life is messy.  Rare disease life is RARE by definition.  When you are 1 in 250,000 you just don’t fit in the box.

I first noticed the anxiety increasing in middle school.

“Middle school is hard for everyone…”

The PTSD diagnosis finally came in May of this year.  But, I knew even then it wasn’t the whole picture.

This summer we almost cancelled Disney.  The pain from her periods had become intolerable, totally crippling her.  I called the gynecologist in desperation.  She was glad to hear me finally agree to the birth control pill.  I was desperate and hesitant, the progesterone nightmare was not lost on me.  It was the classic “rock and a hard place” story.

High School started out a little tumultuous.  The school she thought she’d attend underwent major changes over the summer.  She ended up relocating a few days into the school year.  But, she loves the new school.  The kids are nice.  She has more good teachers this semester than in 3 years of middle school.  The high school swim team was strong.  So why was the anxiety quickly melting into full scale panic attacks?

She works so hard to keep it all together.  She tries to keep it hidden.  She is so aware.

The panic settled back into general anxiety, but that anxiety spread to just about everything.

In December I adjusted my work day through FMLA to be able to pick her up at the end of every school day.  We spent a lot of time working through so much.

And somewhere in the middle of working through all of this, as people were so quick to offer medication for anxiety, I had some thoughts.

Why had the gynecologist and the endocrinologist NEVER spoken about interactions between their respective medications when both were prescribing hormones?

Simply because her lab tests for thyroid function remain in the laboratory range, there was never a question.  No one noticed this actual human being in front of me is struggling.

Why are we so quick to write off the unusual as impossible?

Why won’t we try anything to keep a bright, articulate, in touch 14 year old OFF as many medications as possible?

What if her T4 to T3 conversion, which was always a problem, was masked and not solved by adding a synthetic T3?  What if this anxiety has been building for all these years, and exploded at the insult of additional, yet necessary synthetic hormones?  What if the answer is harder than adding more medication?  What if it will take research, theories, and some “out of the box” thinking?

How do I convince them she’s worth it?

While my PTEN Facebook friends are sending me article links, I am composing my thoughts before writing a more organized, clinical version of these questions to her doctors.

All of this while seemingly insignificant head congestion is cramping her style.  I am not sure exactly where it fits in.

The ENT ordered an MRI of the brain to check the sinuses.  Turns out the sinuses are clear.  Except there was an incidental finding of a brain lesion 9.5mm of undetermined significance.  The new neurologist is confident its not a problem, but we’ll have a follow up MRI on February 20th.

In the mean time – no one will touch the congestion other than to tell her it’s “anxiety.”

She deserves better.

So, we will press on.

One year ends and another begins.  We’ve grown, we’ve learned, we’ve laughed, we’ve cried.  Yet still there are more questions than answers.

I have a feeling that’s pretty much how it will be.

This is life

#beatingcowdens

 

 

 

You Might Have Cowden’s Syndrome if…

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome (or insert your chronic/rare illness here) if…

I spent some time alone last night.

That sounded a great deal nicer than it actually was.  There was no manicure, no spa, and not even any wine.

Last night, after working, taking my daughter to her orthopedist on Long Island, and sitting in traffic home, I finally had to address the feeling that something large was sitting under the rib cage on my left side.

It was a process to arrive there- a mental game I played for about 12 hours.  But, I got there.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if…  you have ridiculously large “stable” lymphangiomas on your spleen that outsize the spleen itself.  Because, hey, we grow things.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… it occurs to you as you’re teaching that you are actually acutely aware of the previously mentioned spleen.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you then proceed to launch into a logical, rational series of scenarios, while completing your math lessons.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you know that the day may end with you in surgery, yet, you still make sure your daughter has the follow-up appointment she needs for the knee that has its own Cowden’s related issues.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you can carry on a conversation with your teenager through 90 minutes of traffic while simultaneously setting up your strategy… just in case you need your spleen removed.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you can get everyone settled at home and then sneak out to the “mall” (read Urgent Care) in hopes that a doctor will tell you your spleen is just fine.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… while you are waiting for the doctor, you access the sonogram report from your last spleen scan in February.  Scanning the spleen is a regular occurrence, so you have the “mychart” app open and ready.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you listen as the doctor tells you he’d like to get you to the Emergency Room “as soon as possible” to address the abdominal swelling and rule out a rupture.  You thank him for his time, shake his hand, decline his offer for an ambulance because your gut tells you it’s not THAT bad, drive yourself home and figure out how you’re going to travel to a hospital where you could possibly handle surgery if you needed it.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you’ve been through enough atrocious hospitals to know when to stay local, and when you must travel… just in case.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you contact your job to let them know you’ll be absent the next day.  Because, even if you don’t have surgery you’re sure it’ll be a late night.  And then, as you hang up you start to wonder if you did the right thing.  Because, sick days are hard to come by, and you can get by on little sleep, and maybe you should have waited till the morning.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you reassure your husband all is well, while helping your anxiety filled daughter get to sleep.  All before you mention the need to get to the ER.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you can calmly text your husband what you’ll need for your bag, just before you’re sure your daughter is asleep.  Then, explain to him that you’re driving yourself.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you can lovingly reassure, while starting to feel a little nervous inside, because, you do what you have to do.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you call a friend or two from the car, with your full on brave voice, just to pass the time.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you drive to the ER, park the car, tell the attendant in the garage you’re not quite sure when you’ll be back, call your husband to tell him where you put the parking receipt, and walk into the ER to check in.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you don’t even have to provide an insurance card because your information is so active in the computer.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… the triage nurse says “What?” three times as she takes your blood pressure and asks about your medical history.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you can watch the attending from your “bed” in the crowded hallway “Google” Cowden’s Syndrome before she comes over to you.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you have to catch yourself from acting like a know-it-all when that same attending speaks as if she studied Cowden’s extensively, and tells you “spleenic lymphangiomas are not a common presentation of Cowden’s Syndrome.” You just nod instead of asking “Exactly how many patients have you ever met with this syndrome?”

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you take a picture of your IV once it’s in.  Because that’s a thing in our family.  No, it’s an actual thing… really.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you check your “mychart” app so regularly, you know to the minute when they are coming to take you for the CT Scan because it is in as an “appointment.”

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if…you can wait better than most people.  You can settle into your “chairbed” in the hall, while people are ill and vomiting, and you’d rather be anywhere but there, and you can keep your blood pressure and heart rate calm.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if…you view the “registration” people as vipers traveling through the corridors with iPads, getting sick and out of sorts people to sign away.  It’s about the money and the bills that will follow you for months anyway.  And you can actually see snakes while you look at them, even if it’s not who they are because you are so furious that they regularly delay people’s requests for help until they sign “this last form.”

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you knew to pack two battery chargers for your phone, a t-shirt, and a bottle of water.  The bare necessities in a hall where there was no one to attend to you and no plugs.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you can resign yourself to drinking a full container of lethal tasting contrast dye while ordering yourself new sneakers on amazon, and a few gold bars for “Candy Crush Soda Saga,” because, hey…it’s the little things.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if…the attending who ‘googled’ you hours before, is fully perplexed at your visibly swollen and tender spleen and your negative lab results.  So she says, “That’s not what I expected.  It’s good, but unusual…”  And you laugh to yourself.  Hard. In your brain of course.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… when the CT results come back as “multiple stable hypodense spleenic lesions” and that same attending says, “you should follow-up with your primary doctor tomorrow,”  you smile in your head again.  You know this means the spleen is safe for now.  You know this means no emergency surgery.  You also know you already explained you DON’T HAVE a primary doctor, because seeing a million specialists means sometimes you lose track of what “routine” means.  Plus, no one is too interested in being your (or your daughter’s) case manager because “rare disease” is high risk.  But, you take your walking papers because tonight your spleen won’t rupture.  And, hey, it’s the little things.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if…before you sign your discharge they mention an “incidental finding” of some spinal deterioration that you should “probably point out to your primary doctor,” and you can’t quite stifle the laugh that time, as you are reminded about taking the used car to the mechanic… and the fact that no one is really listening to you anyway.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you can see the vipers slithering around as you gather yourself, stretch your side that feels exactly as it did when you walked in, and navigate your way out.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if…you wake the parking garage attendant at 2:30 AM and retrieve your car.  You head home relieved, grateful, and overwhelmed.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you actually contemplate heading to work in 4 hours to save the sick day, but think better of it.  You plan the morning with your husband, text your daughter her directions, remove all traces of the hospital from your body and slide into your bed.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… it takes you a few minutes to settle as you contemplate your “night out” and you wonder if a night out will ever again include fun, friends, and wine.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if…you think about the number of times you and your daughter have been to the hospital courtesy of this syndrome, and you wonder how many more there will be.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you want to get mad.  Really mad.  But, you can’t.  Because after all, you get a warning system.  You get to check it, scan it, and test it, BEFORE it ruptures, and BEFORE it spreads.  You know how tired you are, and how sick of it you are, but you also know how fortunate you are, and how SO MANY people would actually give anything for that warning system.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you miss your friends, but you know there will be time again.  Eventually.  And in your heart you know they are all there.  You miss socializing, ever.  You wish a night out wasn’t bridge and tunnel tolls and a parking garage at a hospital.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if…you are not quite sure you have the physical or emotional strength, or hours in a day, to get through the next few weeks.  Yet, you strengthen your resolve and readjust your mind into tiny, manageable chunks.

You might have Cowden’s Syndrome if… you spend way too many hours calculating and reforming your strategy to remain grateful and

#beatingcowdens

Invisible Illness – Sometimes We ALL Need Help

The day starts with me laying in my bed, trying to wrap my mind around the fact that it is time to face another day.  I lay there a few moments.  My heart rate begins to rise.  I feel the familiar ache and throb in my legs, and I quickly calculate the number of hours until I can re-visit my bed.

On the days I can move fast enough, I take a quick shower before I undertake the 10-15 minute process of waking Meghan.  Please, save the judgment that she is 14 and should be waking herself.  You’re right.  Except by the time I get to the top of the stairs there are several alarms sounding simultaneously.  She would if she could.

Waking her is no easy task.  Her body, so deeply fatigued by her daily physical and emotional battles, resists breaking those last few moments of cherished rest.  Never enough.  All teens are tired.  I get it.  I don’t know for sure that YOU get looking into the eyes of a 14 year old, bright, compassionate, articulate, and full of promise, as she pleads for it not to be morning.

The two of us together are some pair in the early hours.  My body aches but by the time I get through the shower I can usually shake some off.  I am also 30 years her senior, so living in my mid-forties, I can expect some normal aches to start to take hold.

Like so many things, Meghan’s life is mine amped up.  I was always tired, but didn’t know “train wreck tired” till the attempts to balance my thyroid in my mid-twenties.

She was 10 when that journey began.  It is not right yet, although a competent, sensitive endocrinologist watches closely.  Synthetic anything gives her body a problem.  Always has.

Adding in the synthetic hormones to contend with the suspected start of endometriosis has added a layer we need, but didn’t want.  The pre-cancerous tissue in the uterus is likely to be helped by this step, as well as excruciatingly painful periods, but like all things it is not without cost.

She drags her body down the stairs, walking crookedly to contend with a back, or a hip, inevitably and almost constantly displaced by a full foot size discrepancy.  Bi-monthly chiropractic visits put things back in place, for as long as they last on her 5’8″ frame.

As she travels the two flights down to her bathroom, there is an internal, and audible triage of the aches of the day being sorted.  It’s agonizing to watch and listen to.  You see there is never a day where everything feels well.  There is never a day where she is just tired.  There is never a day that she wakes eager to face even the most exciting events.

 

There is a part of me, a small quiet part of me, that sometimes allows myself to believe that maybe she’s playing games, exaggerating, or trying to make me insane.  And then I think quite simply, why?

Why would she WANT to hurt, or have an upset stomach, or be in pain.  She, who is eager to please her parents, and everyone she meets, would not want to be in internal turmoil or conjure up ailments.

So my mind does it’s thing as well.  “How many days has that been bothering her?”  “Do I need to take her to a doctor?”  “Can they really help anyway?”  “Is anything lasting too long?”  And so on…

And somewhere in the middle of this, as the moments kick past 6, I have to push.  We have to be out the door in order for her to be at her 7:25 period 1, and for me to be in my classroom in time to set up for my 8AM students.  There is really no time to deal with any of it.  We simply need to press through and get out of the house.

We do a lot the night before.  Lunch is packed, swim bags are packed, clothes are picked out.  Homework is always in the backpack.  Mornings are not for things that can be avoided.

I have to admit there are mornings where it has gone very wrong.  There have been mornings where I have not felt well myself, and my patience with the multitude of issues required to just get herself dressed and ready are forgotten temporarily.  I am not proud of the mornings where the clock passes the point of panic and I evolve into a screaming shrew.  But, this is about honesty, and honestly, it happens.

Smooth or not, we find ourselves in the car on the close to 20 minute ride to her school.  And that is where it gets trickiest.

Months ago Meghan was diagnosed with PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, secondary to medical trauma she has endured in her young life.  That PTSD has been exacerbated through the years through a variety of triggers she works to manage.  But, many days it seems her “fight or flight” is broken and she is wound into a high state of awareness, of EVERYTHING.  That means every human interaction, every test, every assignment, every competition, every audition is just amped up.  Sometimes the volume is so loud it can feel almost crippling.

And, yet still, as we work daily, she has to get out of my car and walk into that building alone.  Some days are easier than others.  Some days, I’m tempted to snatch her and drive far away where I can keep her safe and calm.  But, she’s not 4 – she’s 14.  And, she has to go.  She knows it too.  So she does.

It’s not about the people anymore.  Although it was for a few years.  Now, thankfully, it’s not.  The people are kind.  They students are friendly, and while no one is friends with everyone, she is after only about 20 days, building positive relationships with peers, her swim team, and many adults.

So why?  I’m not sure.  And I’m not totally sure she is either.  That’s why we’re working on it.

But, there are theories.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is not rare.  But, Cowden’s Syndrome is.  And in my child the two are intermingled.  The relationship between chronic medical issues, 18 surgeries, tests, scans, hospitals, isolation, heightened anxiety, the need to self-advocate, a lack of trust for the many medical professionals who have handled things wrong, and the isolation and overwhelming feelings this can cause is just the tip.  Coupled with generally feeling off, having a super sensitive stomach, relentless seasonal allergies, and being an athlete who simultaneously loves her teams and fears competition can create consternation.  This is the very tip of what I know to be a Titanic sized iceberg we are working on melting.

She likes her school.  She likes the people.  She likes the environment.  And yet there are days it is a struggle, a moment by moment struggle to make it.  She hurts.  She pushes.  She is stubborn.  She is strong-willed.  And for as many times as those characteristics cause me to want to bang my head repeatedly against a brick wall, are as many times as I thank God she is that way.

She likes to swim too.  She likes to swim for her school.  She likes to swim for her 12 month team.  She enjoys feeling strong, and having a body that reflects her hours of training. I am grateful that she is an athlete.  But, the battle to get into the pool when every piece of you just hurts, and you want nothing more than to be in your bed is a battle her coaches or her teammates do not fully see.  I mean they see the performance anxiety, which is WAY deeper than what it seems to be, but the rest, the full deal is carefully and intricately hidden like so much else.  No wonder she is tired.

 

We are working on it.

Every day is a battle to get through the day.  Sometimes physically, and other times mentally and emotionally.  Yet, day after day, it gets done with a grace that often blows me away.

Every house holds secrets.  Private, messy moments that are not shared with the world.  We are not the only ones, and we are not oblivious to the moments others must hold close to themselves.

Collectively, we all need to stop judging.  We must stop imagining their life is perfect because it looks so on facebook, or instagram, or snapchat.  We need to be kind.  We need to go back to the basic rule that “If you have nothing nice to say – don’t say anything at all.”

We need to not profess that we can fix others problems, or make ourselves feel better by offering “quick” solutions.  It is hard to watch others in pain.  It is not easy to accept that sometimes there is nothing we can do besides be a friend.  We need to acknowledge pain, and struggle as real without giving in.

In this house weekends are still about survival.  They are about recovery.  They are about storing up a ‘spoon’ or two so that we can use them in the coming week.

One day I’d like us to have a social calendar.  I’d like to get out as a family and make some memories on a sunny October day.  But, today was not that day.  Today was swim practice and vocal lessons.  That is what we could do.  Today.

The evening winds down and we are faced with the reality that sleep will need to happen again.  Sleep is tough times.  Not for lack of fatigue, but for a teenagers over worked mind.  We are working out a system.  We are seeing some progress.  The struggle is real.

We are working on it.

This week we contracted with a company for a Service Dog to assist with the PTSD.  It will be one of many interventions we will use.  We have sent a deposit.  The process has begun and can take up to a year.  We are hoping it will be sooner.

If you have read this far, and you have real suggestions for grants we can apply for to assist in raising the cost of this dog, your assistance is valuable.

We are not looking for an analysis, or reasons why we Meghan might NOT need a Service Dog.  We have medical professionals encouraging this.  We will deal with logistics as the dog’s arrival looms.  In the mean time, we are working purely on fundraising.

The organization we are connected to is http://www.medicalmutts.com  They are an accredited business that we researched extensively.  When the dog is ready we will need to spend a week in Indiana picking it up.

The decision to make this move was based on many factors, but it was guided by Meghan.  She has researched.  She has thought.  She has read.  Her father and I have learned to trust her instincts.  Undoubtedly, that is one of the reasons we have come so far.

Looking forward to hearing your encouraging, helpful comments –

We remain

#Beatingcowdens

Change- The Only Constant

Wild.  These last few weeks have been just that.

I’m always amazed at exactly how much can fit into hours or days.  Sometimes I try to recap a day, and find myself shaking my head.

Meghan is in high school.

I feel like we’ve been looking at high schools since January.  We had it figured out by May.  So we thought.  September 15th is ok too.  Because the plan was clearly not ours to make, and like so many other things was guided by a higher power.

It’s not the high school she planned to attend.  It’s not even the high school she started in September.  But, on day 8 – she enrolled in a school a few miles away.  The reasons are irrelevant.  The outcome is what matters.

Currently her school mascot is the “Warrior.”  Somehow that seems remarkably appropriate.

She is catching up on notes missed the first 8 days.  She is organizing in a way that only she has, and getting herself set up.  She functions largely alone now.  Years of supporting schoolwork have paid off.

September is chaos.  Pure chaos.  21 years of Septembers, 14 of them as a mom and a teacher.  Not a single one gets easier.  No matter how many years I do it.  The new schedules, the logistics of organizing, and establishing routines, both at work and at home can generate extra gray hairs at the thought.

The only thing the same is the chaos.  And the inevitable illness.

The weakened immune system, and maybe the ragweed allergy, means there is never a September I can recall for her with perfect attendance – or without a sinus infection.

There are so many things packed into a day.  Sometimes I can’t think more than a few hours ahead because it gives me a headache.

Right now there is swim.  A whole lot of swim.  There is swim for her 12 month team, and there is high school swim.  There is practice for both.  There are meets several times a week.  I think there is an 11 day stretch in October where there will be 8 meets.

 

There are new friends.  There is a team.  There are old friends reunited.  There are kind people.  In so many ways there is some peace.  Finally.

Except 7 days of 9th grade (actually 6- the sinuses sidelined her today) don’t, or can’t make it all ok.

While my girl works to establish herself as an athlete, a student, and a generally nice human in her new school, she continues to battle every moment with her health.

And because it is that “invisible illness” kind of battle, no human would imagine what it takes for her to get through these days.

She sleeps poorly, struggling for hours each night to settle the pain in her body and the activity in her mind.  She wakes fatigued, and with great effort.

Her pill case overflows – thyroid medicines- 2 kinds, allergy medicines – a pill and 2 nasal sprays, antivirals, medicine for reflux.  Currently another (sigh) antibiotic, and a short course of a steroid for the sinuses.  Strong probiotics, a multivitamin, and a few others, all cross her lips every day.  Each one carries with it its own set of risks and side effects.  Yet, we have had to make the decision each time that the benefits outweigh the risks.  There is a lot of trading “this for that”  that you do when you have Cowden’s Syndrome.  It’s a dicey game.  There are no right answers, and every educated guess could backfire.

The medication leaves her more tired.

The thyroid being gone during these years was necessary torture.

She is gaining back strength lost during months off her normal routine this spring.  The knee is back to allowing her activity, but the body continues to prefer the development of one side.  The difference is so subtle to the eye, but to her it feels so much more.  The right side lags behind.

The foot is smaller and more narrow on that side as well.  It leaves her stride off.  Again she compensates.  Again she aches.

The chiropractor readjusts about twice a month, sometimes more.

The backpack is heavy.  Everything throws off the stride.

The sneakers are carefully chosen.  I shudder at the thought of shopping for dress shoes for my tall, thin, beautiful girl to be “party ready.”

The stomach, once improving, seems to be back on strike.  The pain is more frequent.  The heartburn, once gone, creeps into life more regularly.  But, as is the story of the chicken and the egg, trying to tease of which medicines are causing what is no easy task.

There is no “typical” 14 year old girl.

There is no “typical” Cowden’s Syndrome patient.

We are all just trying to figure it out the best we can with what we have, where we are.

There has been a lot of talk lately about disclosure, and the internet.  There is no real way of teasing apart what is syndrome related and what just is.  Meghan and I tell this somewhat censored, but typically brutally honest version of our struggles, not because we think others have it better, or worse, or even the same, but rather to validate that Cowden’s Syndrome is real.  It doesn’t take a holiday.  It affects every day and every decision we make.

I have a follow up from my voice surgery this coming week.  I’m not so sure how it’ll go.  All that back to school talking, even with the head microphone, has been tough.

I scheduled my next vascular surgery for February 21st. Exactly enough time to stay wrapped for 5 days and make it back to work on the 26th.  They thought I was nuts.  The leg hurts now.  But, the luxury of time needs to be saved for things that can’t wait.

The only thing constant is change.

The shell of it all remains the same, but the logistics and decisions forming the web get increasingly complex.

Yet, we need to remember, in the midst of the regular chaos, and the medical chaos, to stop, or at least to pause.  And sometimes, maybe a sinus infection is how the universe forces the pause…

Change is constant, but we remain

#beatingcowdens

through it all.

 

Looking for Clarity in Chaos

I am rarely at a loss for words.  Yet, today I am struggling.

This was not an easy week here, for reasons that are valid and important.  Yet, they will keep.  Sometimes it’s not about Cowden’s Syndrome.  Sometimes it’s not about our struggles.

This is one of those times.

I messaged with a dear friend all day yesterday as she evacuated her beautiful home in Florida and drove up the coast to her parent’s home in New York.  That decision came for them after a week of sleeplessness and worry.  After a week of waiting and wondering.  It came when Hurricane Irma took a west turn and it was just too dangerous to stay.

And I thought about her all day, even when we weren’t messaging.  We have plenty in common, and I thought about the drive, with her husband, and their daughter, and their dog.  There was not much I could say.

There are no words of reassurance when your home is in the path of a category 4 or 5 hurricane.  And while she gets the big picture, and understands and is grateful for her safety, I can not fault her one bit for worrying, with a sense of terror and dread, about her home.

Because the truth is, things do matter.  I am not talking about things with a price tag.  I am talking about sentimental things.  Even the simple comfort of sitting in your own home – matters.  I will not be one to pass out trite phrases, that I would not want to hear myself.  I’d rather tell the truth.  I have no words…

It was just last week that I sought out a flood relief organization in Houston to make a donation to.  So much loss.  So much devastation.

There are so many.  Those we know, and those we don’t – who are just like us.  They are us.

It reminded me of a beautiful Tuesday 16 years ago when I had the same feelings of despair.

I sat down this morning to try to find the class picture from the second grade class that was mine on September 11, 2001.  It’s one of the few I don’t have.  But, I remember.

I remember their faces, and many of their names.  I remember the phone calls that morning, and the day that slowly unfolded into weeks and months and years of gut wrenching heartache.  I remember thinking that day that those young children – many of them 6 or 7 – would have no idea how much their world had just changed forever.

I thought about them today.  Wondering how 16 years later, their lives have begun to unfold.  Wondering if they remember being picked up early from school by a frantic relative or friend.  Wondering how the events changed their lives.

I woke up suddenly at 1:30 this morning.  I instinctively checked Facebook to find my friend had just made it safely to her destination.  She has seen unspeakable tragedy in her life, yet she lives in gratitude, and with a conscious  focus on paying it forward.  I don’t get it.

I tossed and turned with my perspective for a few hours.  I thought about something I always am aware of.  We are all just 2 steps away from someone else’s worst nightmare.  Be kind always.  Not because you may need it repaid one day, but because it is the right thing to do.

I woke this morning with my heart heavy.  We’ve struggled as a family to find our way into a home church these last few years.  I walked myself down to the closest one I have.  I sat down to the Mercy Me song “Even If”

And I cried.

Quietly, in the back of that church the tears flowed.

The reality is, right this minute it is not “well with my soul.”  My soul is struggling. Even as I don’t doubt the existence of God – I wrestle to comprehend what is not mine to understand.

And even later in the service as we sang the hymns “How Great Thou Art,” and “It is Well with My Soul” and I could clearly hear the voice of my deceased grandfather belting out these beloved hymns – ones that he lived with his whole self… I still struggled.

The Pastor did an excellent job on Psalm 42 and “Hope for Our Souls.”

I was glad I went.

But, my heart hurts.

Tomorrow is 9/11/2017.  16 years from the worst tragedy we have known in my lifetime.

Tomorrow Florida will survey the damage in the sun.  Friends and family will check in.  Shortly after, they will begin the process of rebuilding wherever, and whatever is necessary.

Tomorrow I will wear red, white and blue.  Tomorrow I will be proud to be an American.  I will be united with all those that are facing trying times that I can not fathom.

Tomorrow I will seek ways that I can help, whether it’s placing pencils in a box for school supplies, or sending a financial donation to a front line charity.

We have every single day of our lives to spend

#beatingcowdens

This is not at all about us.  This is about those who could be us, and those who are just like us.

I will continue to pray for the strength to be able to say “It is well with my soul…”