It’s Complicated…

I was in the stairwell close to the 5th floor of the nursing home where my grandmother resides when the phone rang.  I paused, startled by the ring, and trying to suppress my slightly out of shape panting before I … Continue reading

Deep Cleanse

I had a list of things to accomplish while I recover from my vocal cord surgery on 3/3.  I have been unable to work, preserving my voice for exercises given by my therapist, and brief conversation.  But, aside from the inconvenience of not speaking, I have felt pretty well.

That left me with a little time to get a few things done.

I could not push it physically, but I sorted papers, shredded, sent Emails that were overdue, and generally handled things that had fallen by the wayside during the busy nature of life.

I discovered, much to my disappointment, that my attention span for reading has decreased exponentially since spending so much time at a computer screen these last few years.  I vowed to get to work on that.

I also discovered that I have an account on the family’s “Netflix”  and I learned how to sit still long enough to binge watch some “Law and Order.”

There was time over these three weeks for some honest self-reflection as well.

Sometimes it’s painful to put truth right in front of our own faces, but I had the time to do the work, so I went for it.  I already wrote about isolation,  and I had some time to think more deeply about what role my own actions play in that.  I was able to reconcile that some of it is unavoidable, and some can be mended by me.  Balance.  I’m on it.

I also took a hard look at my own emotions and how they affect my house.

It is so easy to get “stuck” in the role of caregiver.  It is so easy to live a task oriented existence, making sure things get done, and arranging the logistics of life.  We may only have one child, but you add into the equation, two of us with a genetic disorder that involves countless appointments, surgeries, therapy and follow-ups things get dicey quickly. Add in that every appointment in NYC is a MINIMUM of 4 hours, and sometimes 6 or more, and the billing that comes with these appointments is at least a part-time job on its own, well, your head can spin.  Then, you think about the issues that surround friends and family, illness, disease, financial hardship, emotional distress, and your heart can hurt.  When you join that with “regular” stuff, like 2 working parents, a scholar, athlete, theater buff kid, food sensitivities, prescription medication, and anxiety all around – well, it can easily become all-consuming.  And it did.

I sat in my office one day, looked around and realized I was unhappy.  That was a tough realization.

I am not unhappy with my husband, or my daughter, or the countless blessings in our life.  I just became so consumed with getting things done that I forgot myself.  Literally.

Sometimes its good to reflect.  It’s the only way to get things done.

Last week my sister sent me a box of essential oils.  I was skeptical.  I bought a diffuser.  I feel like peppermint in the air while I work is good for my soul.  So is trying something new.

Tuesday I went to Kohl’s. A quiet activity easily done alone.  I felt the tension start to release.  I picked up a few things for me and for the house.  I went out because I WANTED to.

Something amazing happened Tuesday.  My husband and my daughter both remarked that I looked happy.  I had a story to relay at dinner that was about me.  The mood in the house was lighter.

Wednesday I took a nap in the middle of the day.  Because I could.  Again, I found myself with a little less pressure in my shoulders.

That night I promised myself and my family, no matter how busy things got I would find a way to spend 15-30 minutes every day on SOMETHING I could say truly made ME happy.

I’m a work in progress.

I chose to do a deep cleanse on Thursday and Friday.  I was working on my mind, but I had to bring my body along.  It had been too long.  I had gotten a little lazy in my habits and in my routines.  I have this incredible nutritional system at my fingertips and in my home, and sometimes I forget to use it to its full potential.

I woke up this morning having released 5.1 pounds of junk.  I started the day with a protein shake full of strawberries.  I shopped with my girl this morning.  Then, I got to listen to her singing lesson.  Now, they watch a movie while I get to write.  Then, my little family is off to dinner together.

This week the spring plants that sprouted on 3/3 started to really grow.

The caterpillars that came in on 3/2 have all become butterflies today.

Maybe we all used the same period to try to transform a little.  Nothing like a few new butterflies to remind you about new beginnings.

I am focused on this journey now.  I may falter along the way, but I will hold true.  This feels right.  This feels good.  And when I feel right and good, it is much easier to remain

#beatingcowdens

Silence is… difficult and required

I always hated charades.  I stunk at it.  And I still do.

charades

I would have made a rotten mime.

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Forced down time.

That’s what surgery brings.

This time it brings silence as well- for at least the next 5 days.

Emoticon posing like “three monkeys”

I kept moving so fast through the last few months that maybe I chose to ignore the problem growing inside me.  I mean, ignore it in the sense of not writing about it too often.  Of course, I’m not foolish enough to ignore it…

It was last spring, right about this time that I started to feel a little hoarse.  I blamed it on spring allergies.  Except it never went away.

It always struck me as odd because it came at a time during the year I was teaching less, and testing more so there was less of a strain on my voice.

Once spring turned into summer, I had to accept “spring allergies” wouldn’t work.

I searched for an Ear, Nose and Throat doctor in Manhattan, in my network. I read bios, and surgical articles, because everything seems to end with surgery anyway.  So – I find its best to pick a good surgical record to start.  Negative, or realistic?  You can decide for yourself.

The first appointment I met the speech pathologist and the doctor.  Both took baseline screens.  I was told at initial consult in July that there was a “nodule” and a “striking zone lesion” on the opposite side.  I was told it did not seem “typical” of the nodules teachers usually get, and I was told at that initial visit I would likely need surgery in the future.

Healthy image

Healthy image

But, first I was sent to vocal therapy.  And while I scoffed at the idea, I know now how valuable the experience was.  I have always sent my daughter to therapy when needed, and marveled at the success I saw with OT, PT, and Speech.  But somehow for me, it was a tougher pill to swallow.   At first.

I think when I wrote about this last I had connected with the Vocal Therapist, a gem of a woman, and a skilled class act in Speechless – October 2016  And then there was a quick entry here Laugh Out Loud – November 2016,  Basically, the therapy helped enough to reduce the swelling, and reveal more issues.  In October I was told definitively that surgery was in the future plan.  I was told to continue to practice what I had learned in vocal therapy.   I was told to rest my voice when I wasn’t teaching, and to employ a slew of new speech strategies and exercises.  I continued Vocal Therapy through December.  It has been no easy task, and I am FAR from perfect at it, but I can say I’ve made improvements at least a third of the time.  Not too bad for a few months of modifying something I’ve been doing for 42 years!

The kids at school are used to my “tour guide” microphone, which helps me resist the urge to overextend my voice.  We got in a routine, as you do when faced with a new obstacle.  There is no other choice really, because as my friend says, we just “keep swimming.”

The plan was for me to return to the doctor in early April to set up surgery for the summer.

Except plans change.  And it was getting a little hard to breathe.  I felt like I had asthma symptoms more often than I am used to, and almost like a constant feeling of fullness in my throat.

I called the doctor to move the surgery up.  We set February 20th as the date.  Sometimes I just have to trust my instincts.  Except I got a call that the OR was closed on February 20th and I had to take either February 17th or wait till March 3rd.  And for a hot couple of moments I entertained February 17th.  Except that “Jeans for Rare Genes 3” was set for February 19th.  And, me being on total vocal rest while we entertained 120 people wasn’t a great idea.

January 31, 2017

January 31, 2017

I headed to see the doctor on January 31st and he found a new problem.  There was now a very large polyp extending over the vocal cords.  It was big and it had not been there in October.  I asked about the likelihood of it being benign and I was told he was 99% sure it was all benign.  I liked the odds, but still he agreed waiting till the summer wasn’t a great plan.  We settled on a surgical date of March 3rd.  Carefully calculating the number of days I’d need to be off of work before my return, we established it should still work.

Over the last few weeks I felt increasingly short of breath during mundane tasks.  I stayed calm.  I decreased my daily activity and moved a little slower.  I knew we could make it, and we did.

So, “Jeans for Rare Genes 3,” went off as a successful event, and yesterday morning, on the first anniversary of the death of my beloved Pop, I headed to NYU to have my surgery.  I left with the prayers of great friends and family, and the intense protection of one of my Guardian Angels.

The surgery went as surgery does.  It’s strange how it’s not nearly as anxiety provoking as it once was. The whole routine has a wild familiarity, from the intake to the recovery room.  I don’t get lost anymore and anticipate their words and requests.  It’s odd, and a bit strange this job of #beatingcowdens.  I walk dutifully to the OR and get settled under my warm blankets.  I expect the IV, and the burning of the anesthesia.  I know the mask will be the last thing I remember before the recovery room.

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And its amazingly less nerve wracking when the surgery is for you and not your child.

So the biggest polyp had increased drastically in size since January 31st.  It’s gone, and so are the other issues.  We wait on pathology and a follow-up next Thursday.  I’m on strict voice rest until Thursday at least, which requires me to really isolate.  Talking to my family is reflex.  And as I said before I stink at charades.

Before - 3/3/17

Before – 3/3/17

After 3/3/17

After 3/3/17

So we carry our phones.  I put my fitbit on rest. It’s off an in a drawer.  I’ve got my laptop in my room. I’m eating my Isagenix and diffusing protective oils.  I’m organizing my brain- a little.

I’m trying not to get ahead of myself.  I’m trying to address one day at a time.  This is not my strength.  It is in my long term planning that I strengthen my resolve and focus best on

#beatingcowdens.

For now it’s been about a day.  I slipped on about 20 words total.  Not great, but I never claimed to be perfect.  The funny thing about talking is you don’t realize how much you do it till you can’t.

The laughing is even harder.  My husband is funny.  It’s one of the things I love most about him.  How lucky and I as I heal to lament that my daughter wants to talk to me, and my husband makes me laugh?  I’ll hide from my biggest blessings a few more days.  #gratitude

 

 

 

Rare, Invisible, Real – Jeans for Rare Genes 3

We were worried.  Attendance was at an all-time low.  We had picked a bad weekend, but it was too late to change it.

We took the event off “eventbrite” this year, looking to take the fees they collect and get them to the PTEN Foundation.

It took a whole lot of record keeping, but it was worth it.

We had an “Early Bird Special” and free T-shirts.  We opted for a new venue, a deluxe buffet brunch, and beer, wine and sangria for the grown ups.

After months of planning, of soliciting donations, of advertising, Emailing, and distributing flyers, we had exhausted every avenue we knew.

We received so many generous donations that were accompanied by, “I wish I could, but..”

We received so many well-wishes and positive thoughts from genuine people.

But, in the end we were looking at attendance numbers far lower than last year.

We had excellent baskets – Some were gathered by friends and family. Others were given as donations, and many were put together by my loving husband.

Meghan and I wrote out and carefully planned what we wanted to say.

She opted this year to stray from her pattern of creating videos, and she created a Power Point of the year in review instead.

But, as late as that morning the text and phone calls kept coming from people who could not make it.

We walked into the room anxious.  Not sure of how the day would go.

We should not have worried.

What this crowd may have lacked in volume they more than made up for in LOVE, SUPPORT, GENEROSITY, and COMPASSION.

They were from all areas of our lives.  There were family.  There were lots of cousins.  There were friends.  There were colleagues.  There was Meghan’s Physical Therapist, her math teacher, and her former paraprofessional.  There were friends of friends.  There was Charlie Balloons, and a DJ whose services had been paid by some dear friends as a donation.

There were 42 raffle baskets, and a 50/50.  The money generated just from those two things was mind-blowing.

There were 2 schools, PS1 with cousin Kim, and Holy Rosary with our friend Christal, that each raised over $400 at their schools for the cause.

We laughed.  We drank.  We ate.  We talked.  Kids danced with balloon creations.  There were musical chairs and fun.  There was pure love in the room.

When Meghan and I spoke there was silence.  Attention.  Focus.

Cowden’s Syndrome is understood by this crowd, because of us.

And there stood my daughter, telling this crowd of 100+ that she was tired of “Living with Cowden’s Syndrome.”  She “put Cowden’s Syndrome on notice.”  She told it, it was time to “keep up with her.”  She’s got things to do.  Places to go.  People to see.  She’s growing up right before my eyes.

Not long ago she was a scared and confused 8 year old.  Now she is a wise, and mature beyond her years, 13-year-old young woman.  She wants the PTEN Foundation to flourish.  She wants research, a patient database, and even a cure.  She’s 13.  There is time to get it right for her, and all the young ones being diagnosed after her.  She has drive and ambition.

She chose a song to end her speech.  She chose “Let it Go” from Frozen.  She toyed around with a few songs, but this is the one that spoke to her, at this moment.  This one got to her heart.  And you could tell, as she belted it out acapella.


In the end, as people with full bellies, and big smiles, hugged us goodbye, they spoke of “next year.”  They said this one was “the best yet.” We felt loved and full of gratitude.

And as we sorted through the finances, we were struck with something amazing.  Jeans for Rare Genes 3 would be making a cumulative donation of just over $12,000 to the PTEN Foundation.  This love, this event, these people, the generosity of so many, had generated an amazing amount.

Our hearts are full of gratitude.

A donation of over $12,000 to the PTEN Foundation.  Because of you.

Thank you for valuing a cause that matters so much to my family.  Thank you for loving us.  Thank you for supporting us from near and far.  Thank you for your never-ending generosity.  Thank you for your prayers and good wishes.

Because of you we remain #beatingcowdens!

Thank you!

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A REAL Love Story

love

I’m not one for Valentine’s Day.  Never was.  It didn’t matter to me if I was dating or single, it just never made sense.  The “Hallmark Holiday” seemed determined to bleed money out of people who shouldn’t have to work so hard to prove themselves one day a year.

If you love someone, prove it every day.  It’s not about the big things.  It’s about the things that matter.

Picking up someone else’s mess, doing someone’s laundry, a random hug, an “I love you” that’s real and spontaneous, treating each other respectfully all the time… and so on…

My husband and I decided years ago to exchange only cards on Valentine’s Day.  I already know how much he loves me.  We do what we can to get a little something for our girl, well, just because.  And we, we try to get organized and celebrate our anniversary.  The day we stood before God and our families and friends and pledged our “for better or for worse,” and “in sickness and in health.”  Because those vows – they matter so much.

Tomorrow I will head to Manhattan for three of my annual appointments, carefully timed to cost me exactly one day off of work.  I will see the oncologist, the breast surgeon, and the endocrine surgeon, with some blood work thrown in for good measure, and the results of a sonogram from Saturday checking on that bumpy spleen of mine.

I will return in time to have parent conferences at my daughter’s school.

Not a “romantic” day by any means.

I will wear a red shirt that says “Strong” and I will make it work with a smile.

Because, I will be thinking of this heart.

img_6210Last year in January, my Grandfather fell.  It was after a trip to the grocery store.  We later found there was stroke activity, and that January day began a slippery slope that ended with his passing on March 3rd.  If you know me personally at all, you know my grandparents were larger than life to me.  That’s it.  They were 70 years married, and even though Alzheimer’s had largely robbed Grandma of much of her memory, my Pop loved her with his whole heart.

Last year, coincidentally, my grandparents spent Valentine’s Day in the nursing home at the same time.  And, although I’m not totally sure either was aware of the date at the time, we were.

A few days after Pop passed, my uncle sent the picture above.  He was cleaning out the linen closet and tucked in between some things was this heart.  By every rational account it must have been purchased by Pop, for his love, on that day in January when he made his last shopping trip alone.

My Pop was a man that planned ahead.  He was a man who always thought of his wife, and lived every day loving her with his whole heart. And my Grandma, well, she’s pretty special herself, and she’s always been quite fond of chocolate.

Nothing flashy, nothing fancy.  But he saw the hearts early, and thought of her.  That’s how he rolled.  Always kissing her hello and goodbye, clipping roses from their rosebush, and doing what he could, even when there was nothing more he could do.

My newsfeed, and my heart have been full lately, of people struggling and suffering.  The prayer list is long.  There is pain and sadness and worry.  But within, there is also love, and gratitude and compassion.

Life is about balance.

I’d rather spread out the love to last all year.  I’ve got plenty to share.

For it is with love alone that we hold each other up.

Love for those around us, and those who’ve gone before, motivates us.

Grandma is still “here” but many of you understand when I say I miss my grandparents.  The love though, the love and the example they set is imprinted forever in my soul.

It is with Love and Gratitude that we find the strength to remain

#beatingcowdens!

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To Do Lists, Digital Footorints and Random Thoughts

I’m not one for New Year’s Resolutions.  I don’t believe in waiting for a specific day to make changes.  If they are needed, wanted, or warranted – we make them.  Right then.  Otherwise, I’m all about just being your best you- every day.

Parenting a teenager is tough stuff.  Even when your teen is just a good soul, a hard -worker, a good student, and a compassionate human.

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There are people who would challenge me that we have it easy.  They give me the default model, that raising one child has to be easier than raising 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 or more…  And maybe they are right.  I will never know.  But, they won’t either.  That’s the point.

Raising our children, or living our lives is not meant to be a discussion of “harder” or “easier.”  There are challenges present in every single scenario that comes to mind when I think of EVERY family I know.  In this house we  talk a lot.  My girl and I, we talk about those other lives we know, and their battles.  And we send love and prayers and warm wishes, as they do for us.  It’s not a contest,  it’s real life.

2016 saw the results of two uterine biopsies of my then 12 and 13 year old, with results that left us uneasy, and in a perpetual state of “cautious waiting.”  It also saw me back in surgery, replacing less than 5 year old silicone implants because one had “fallen”  And then, it saw my clumsiness as I spent 6 weeks booted with a broken toe.

2016 saw loss in my family, as we mourn Pop, and are readjusting with Grandma in her new living space.

Yet, we made it.  We came out with a few bumps and bruises, but we made it.

2016 ended with 8th graders we know taking High School entrance and Scholarship Exams.  The next weeks will bring jubilation, laughter, and tears.

Yet, we WILL make it- all of us.

The “To Do” list on the yellow pad to my right is busy.  The fundraiser is about a month away and there is lots to be done.

There is also an MRI, a vascular surgeon, an orthopedist, an endocrinologist, and a gastroenterologist for Meghan, as well as Pre-surgical testing, a tentative surgery date, and a breast surgeon follow-up, an oncologist, and an endocrinologist for me.  All before February 22.  That’s IF no one requires additional testing for anything…

We will fit in the “regular” stuff too, like swimming, and meets, and school projects, and drama… well you know what I mean.

We are working hard to fit Cowden’s Syndrome into our lives, and not to let it RUN our lives.  It’s a subtle difference on paper, but a HUGE one in practice.

And when the thought of running a house that contains TWO people with a rare genetic disorder becomes overwhelming – we try to step back and count our blessings.  Because at the end of all days, regardless of our struggles, it is good for us, and those around us, if we can remain positive.  I’m not saying we’re perfect at it – far from it actually, but it is a goal, and an on-going work in progress.

It came up this week when we were preparing for the fundraiser and talking about social media.  Actually, it has come up a bunch of times since the iPhone became attached to her hand almost 3 years ago…

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Digital footprint – how are you presented on the internet?  What if someone “googled’ your name?  Now?  5 years from now?  8 years from now before your job interview?  The whole concept of this blog has been discussed in depth.  Meghan, whether she likes it or not, at the age of 13 has an identity that is connected to her rare disease.  Now, don’t misunderstand me for a minute – a close read would CLEARLY indicate, she is NOT her disease, but she will never have the opportunity to deny the diagnosis.  That’s forever, and its important.

What she does with it, well that’s ongoing.  She’s made some pretty dynamic choices to date.  Sometimes she feels a bit like she has something to prove- so she does.

She’s been asking me for “snapchat” lately, and eventually I’ll give in.  But, I’m one of the mean moms who makes her wait.  Instagram is plenty to manage for now.

This week Meghan was nominated as “Inspirational Staten Islander of 2016.”

It prompted me to “google” my daughter.  So when I type in her name connected to our home town, these are the first links to surface…

How Meghan Ortega saved her Mother’s Life

12 Year Old With Rare Genetic Disorder Chosen as Inspirational Islander

Staten Island 9 Year Old and Her Mom are on a Mission….

12 Surgeries in 11 Years- Living with Cowdens Syndrome

Meghan Ortega- NYS Senate

I’ll take that top five any day.

And just for good measure, I switched to an image search.  These 5 were on the first page…

Meghan in her elementary school with one of her idols- Borough President James Oddo

Meghan in her elementary school with one of her idols- Borough President James Oddo

An old one - when Meghan was named "Hero of the Month" by Child Life after an early surgery

An old one – when Meghan was named “Hero of the Month” by Child Life after an early surgery

SI Children's Museum Achievement Luncheon Award

SI Children’s Museum Achievement Luncheon Award

Rare Disease shirts from the PTEN Foundation

Rare Disease shirts from the PTEN Foundation

One of my most proud - NYS Woman of Distinction, nominated by Senator Lanza in May 2016

One of my most proud – NYS Woman of Distinction, nominated by Senator Lanza in May 2016

And, just to be sure, I even tried Youtube.com, only to find a video made in February 2016

Apparently she has listened, carefully.  I don’t know what the future holds for my bright eyed activist.  I know she’ll continue to take heat from a few along the way.  I also know she’ll find the strength to rise above and press on.  Because, that is what we do.

Would she like it is she were named “Inspirational Staten Islander of 2016”?  Sure.  Will it break her spirit one way or another, absolutely not.  Her focus is, “If I win, we could get publicity to help raise money at the fundraiser…”

2017 Event Flyer

                                                                       2017 Event Flyer

If you’ve read this far I’ll tell you what I know about the poll I’ve linked you to below.  The voting takes place like a reality TV show.  I’m not sure how valid it all is, but there is a week of lots of voting.  It ends January 11th at noon.  Apparently you can vote many times before it stops you.  And then you can vote every hour.  So pretty much, if it crosses your mind, and you find Meghan inspirational, save the link and vote whenever it crosses your mind, until your device tells you to stop.

Regardless of the outcome, life will go on.  And we will continue on the same missions we’re on right now.

#BeatingCowdens together

Inspirational Staten Islander Poll – Vote all the way at the bottom

Choose Positive….

The day after Christmas in our house is reserved for a blissful amount of peaceful rest.  A few loads of laundry, a simple meal, late sleeping, playing with some new “toys,” recovery, and reflection fill the hours.  It is a wonderful, necessary day to pause and recharge.

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I am awestruck by how fast days blend into weeks, and months, and even years.  My girl is now a young lady.  A young lady of 13 years old with the fall devoted to High School Applications, academic honors, hours of swimming, and some drama (class) thrown in for good measure.  It was a crazy season, but a remarkable, beautiful time of transformation.

I don’t get time to write as much as I used to.  But, truthfully, you don’t need to hear from me all that often to follow along.  The writing remains my way to sort out life.  I feel fortunate that so many of you come along for the ride.

So much of our journey #beatingcowdens is couched in perspective.  We talk so much about the realities of everyone’s life.  We talk about the things people endure that we can not fathom, and we talk about how hard it is to have some of the conversations necessary in the life of my 13-year-old.  We talk.  Often.  And perhaps that is the first of many blessing I have.

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My girl has become a young woman through a path that is different from most her age.  Notice, I deliberately chose the word “different” as we are careful not to measure things in “better” or “worse.”  The medical drama unfolded at a fast, furious pace, most concentrated in the years from 8 to 12.  And we held fast through each one, but then, slowly, the dramas began to slow down.

At first we didn’t want to say anything.  There is the fear of “jinxing” the situation.  When medical drama is your “normal” you don’t really know how to live any other way.  It sounds bizarre.  You want so desperately to be rid of it, but the relief of losing it would be so intense, that to relax and then have it hit you again could be crushing.  So you stay on your guard.  All the time.  But sometimes when you do that you can get a little… I don’t know, isolated, alone, rough?

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There is a security connected to living in a state of medical drama.  At least you know what to expect.

But, it’s not a place to hang out when you don’t need to.

Meghan’s last biopsy was in July.  The follow-up is this week.  My last surgery was in August.  And, in a turn of events here, I have spent the last few months in vocal therapy sorting out ways to work around the tumor that desires to strip me of my ability to communicate.  We’ve had some success, and last week even amidst a terrible head cold, my voice made it with me all the way to Friday.

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And it was on that very Friday morning, as I drove Meghan to a 5:30 AM swim practice, with my head-splitting and my nose running, that I told her how lucky I felt.  She may have checked me for fever, to see if I had totally lost it.  But I explained – a year ago facing Christmas break without her having been knocked down at least once by something major was an impossible dream.  This year, she had done more than ever before, and seems to be getting stronger.  That morning I was grateful that I was able to get my butt out of bed, to take her to the place she loves, so she could work on the sport she loves.

This fall we have successfully removed 2 stomach medications that were previously necessary for survival.  And, we are well on our way to eliminating a third.  There is nutrition, exercise, and natural alternatives in their place.  And it is working.

She came home a few weeks ago with a perfect attendance certificate for the month of October.  I save everything.  I think that may have been her first.  These are the things that keep us in perspective.

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We have a “doctor cycle” among us now.  The knee needs to be checked again, MRI, and two knee doctors.  There are clinical exams, GI follow-up and endocrinology.  The afternoons these next 6 weeks will be swallowed up with trips to NYC.  I’ll add in some appointments of my own, as I prepare for vocal cord surgery, tentatively set, but not yet confirmed.  We’ll keep swimming, literally and figuratively.  We’ll hold each other up, and we will do something a little different.  We will, instead of fitting out lives into the doctors, we will fit the doctors into us.

Raising kids, one, two, three, four, or more- regardless of gender, or age combination each holds unique rewards and challenges.  We have our moments, my girl and I, when we challenge each other to the best we can be.  Sometimes its deep conversation. Sometimes it’s a little less pretty.  But, we do it.  We learn and we grow together.

I find myself often, missing relatives who are not here with us anymore.  I miss conversations, deep and thoughtful.  I miss shared laughs, and the pride they felt and showed.  I understand, and comprehend their lives are changed, their eternal lives are more beautiful than I can imagine.  But, I still miss them.

I sometimes shuffle around a bit in circles in my mind, feeling a little lonely, a little unsteady, and a little unsure of how to break the cycle.

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And even at those loneliest points I take solace at the people in my life who are there.  Their own lives keep us from day-to-day interface, but they are there, forming that net that will catch me, or us, if we were to fall.  They weave a web through our lives that give us such confidence and gratitude, that I can only hope they feel the same way about us.

As we begin to get heavy into the preparations for Jeans for Rare Genes 3,  it is a time to get focused.  I am not a huge fan of New Year’s Resolutions.  A wise friend recently reminded me a calendar is not necessary to begin change.

Choose positive.  That is my simple focus.  I will not be perfect at it.  But, I will work tirelessly.  I will be positive, hopefully not to the point of irritating, but when given the opportunity to face a new situation, I will work to find the positive.

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Cowden’s Syndrome will toss us curve balls for the rest of our days.  I’ve never been much of a baseball player, but I plan to practice my swing.  And just in case- I’ll keep a helmet on as well.

May the culmination of 2016 lead us to gratitude for all the positives it brought, and gratitude for the negatives as well.  May it leave us with the reminders of the blessings in our lives.  Only in appreciation of al of it can we ever move forward.  And really, forward is the only direction I choose to travel.

#beatingcowdens

#everysingleday

#perspective

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Light Through the Lens…

I think I blinked, and the calendar changed from October to December.  Some weeks I can do nothing more than plan day by day, because to look too far is overwhelming.  But, I “lost” the fall in a beautiful way.  I lost it shuffling my girl to places she loves to be, and helping her apply to high schools she is excited about.  Four years ago I could not have imagined she could keep this schedule.  She battles for it every day and I admire every ounce of her determination.  I take nothing for granted, and I know a huge “doctor cycle” is soon to be upon us.  Meghan’s appointments begin late this month.  Mine will overlap, likely culminating in vocal cord surgery.  But, for now, for this moment, I am grateful for this chaos.  The hint of “normalcy” is not to be left unappreciated.

Today though, I blocked out some time.  Today I needed some time to sit in my office and look around.  There are beautiful images on the walls of my office from New York City to Washington state – and places in between.  Each is carefully watermarked “Leon G. Thompson,” a process that took my husband countless hours.  There are thousands of such images on my laptop and several backup drives.  You may have no idea who “Leon G. Thompson” was, but I can tell you these pictures are more valuable to me than any you’d find in a museum.  Leon G. Thompson was my father, and these pictures are what he left behind on 12/4/13 when cancer snatched him from us far too soon.

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“A Few Good Men,” has been far more than a movie title in my life.  I was blessed to have 3 grandfathers that shaped who I am.  I am equally blessed to say I have had two fathers mold me into the woman I have become.  My Mom’s husband Ken came into our lives when I was a teenager, but he has been, and continues to be an unshakeable source of everything from “fun facts,” to computer tech, to house repair and all things in between.  There is a special place for a man who steps into a marriage with 2 teenage daughters in tow, treats them as his own from day one, and never skips a beat.

My father, well… let’s just say the early years were rocky.

What I know now, but I didn’t know then, clarifies a bunch.  Dad, a Vietnam veteran came home lost.  The earliest years are peppered with memories that don’t leave “the warm fuzzies.”  The years after that hold memories of fun visits.  Dad would come by sometimes.  There were movies, and visits to the park and the zoo.  There were restaurants, and exciting novelties.  But, there was not consistency.  There were chunks of empty time.  There was a lot of wondering.

Contact got more steady in the teenage years, especially after my brother was born.  There were more visits, and more phone calls.  But, history sometimes repeats itself, and there were years that faded away again.

Later, after high school, and probably after college too, there was more.  Maybe I was ready.  Maybe he was.  I’m not sure.  But, slowly and carefully, over years, a relationship began to form.  By the time I got married, I was able to dance with my Dad, (and Ken, and my Pop :-)) and I will cherish the memory forever.

After my daughter was born, he started showing up more.  And I liked it.

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Hard times came for Dad, and the restaurant industry finally failed him.  And that low for him, was the point our relationship became solid.  Nothing happens overnight, but he was here.  Close.  Interested.  Available.  He helped pick up Meghan.  He came to birthday parties, and dance recitals, and swim meets.  He came by for Father’s Day and even celebrated a birthday with us.

It was during that time that he first spoke the words I’d been waiting to hear since the second week of my Abnormal Psychology class in college.

“I have PTSD.  Do you know what that is?”

“Yep.  I know.  (and I exhaled a sigh I’d been holding in for years..) And it all gets better from here Dad.”

He was stunned.  He had no idea that his entire adult life spent making poor choices, ducking relationships, and often shying away from those who loved him most, were just a few of the symptoms of PTSD. (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)  He couldn’t imagine that I had already pieced together that unspeakable horror encountered with his Marines in the jungles of Vietnam had impacted, to the point of changing, and really shaping his entire adult life.  13 months in that war, and not a day, a single day, ever went by without it influencing his thoughts and behavior.  I was able to pick up from a text-book the reasons why he had shied away from our relationship.  I was able to know in my heart that he couldn’t risk expressing his love, showing up, or being truly “present.”  But, in that moment, hat moment when he said it THAT is where I got him back.

I can’t say I remember the day.  And I may be wrong on the year too.  But, it was sometime around 2009.  Finally, he was working on his own healing.

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And he worked hard.

We spoke more regularly.  Once a week usually.  Sometimes it was his turn.  Most of the time it was mine.  As I struggled through raising a chronically ill child, he became my sounding board.  He was my confidant of all things.  He was where I went to bounce the tough decisions.  Because, life had left him a great listener.  Raising a child with a rare disease, means often having to make really tough choices alone.  When your disease affects only 1 in 200,000 people, experience with it is limited.  When Cowden’s Syndrome manifests differently in each of that small number of patients, including myself and my daughter, there is an even lower confidence interval with doctors who often just have no idea by no fault of their own.

It is hard to hear over and over again that a child is ill.  Especially, when it is your child, or your grandchild, or one you love so much.  I have had to make so many unorthodox medical decisions, that I often just needed someone to hear my thought process, and let me analyze, and over-analyze. I have gone against the doctors to trust an instinct that was strong in my mind and my heart.  Dad was the one who could hear it all out.  He heard me without speaking.  He listened attentively.  He offered advice only when I asked, and offered encouragement always.  These were not situations where I just needed my ego stroked.  These were tough conversations to have, and he never ever shied away from one.

He simply would bring me back to reality.  He’d ground me by telling me to use Meghan as my guide.  Check on her health, physically and emotionally.  Focus.  Trust my instincts.  Be able to correct wrong decisions whether they are mine or theirs.  Still now, three years later I find myself aching for those conversations.  She is stronger.  She is tougher.  She is amazing.  But, there are still so many battles to face and so many difficult decisions to make.  That’s when I retreat to my office.  I sit in his chair, and I look up at the path of snow in central park, or the Washington mountain top, or the waterfall, or the rainbow and I think.  I talk the conversation through as if he were here.  Because I know he is.  I just have to listen really carefully.

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Dad told me once that I understood PTSD because Meghan’s medical battles had left me some ways in a similar state to him.  When she was younger, and so sick, that perpetual fear of losing her, the hospitalizations, the surgeries, left me with a need to he “hyper” aware all the time.  While I could never profess to connect this to the horrors of war, he did.  And I think it allowed him to open up with some of his own stories.

Through those years I heard tales from his mouth I had never known.  I heard of battles, and losses and names of people, and places.  I listened so attentively.  Quietly.  As he had done for me.  Sometimes I even took pen and paper to write down his story.  Because I wanted to hang on every word.  Because you just never know.

I found out Dad was sick when I made that Friday night phone call in October 2013.  His voice sounded a little off and he told me he was in the ICU at the VA Hospital in Brooklyn.  When I asked him if anyone knew he said he wasn’t too sure.  But, he said, “now you do.”  And he laughed, as only he would at that moment.

I got to the hospital the next morning and we went through the details.  At that point no one knew anything.  Confused doctors was a topic we had spoken about at length.

The 10 weeks that followed were just a long blur.  There were about 4 weeks of me forcing his hand to allow me to take him back and forth to his appointments.  Sometime after that he admitted he couldn’t drive himself.  That was a tough day.  I had already called in my sister, and it was time to reach out to my brother in Texas.  Family meeting.  The “team” assembled.

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And through the some of the toughest weeks, I bonded in ways that can never be broken, with a sister I have always had, and a brother who I was getting to know better than I ever had.

Dad was admitted to the VA on Thanksgiving of 2013, and one week later, on December 4th, we were by his side when the angels came to free him.  No more suffering.  No more PTSD.  Pancreatic cancer at age 65.

I dialed his number for months after.  I still know it in my heart.

I spent the months after he died cleaning out his apartment.  Dad was not a man of many “things.”  His iPhone held no Email, and only one photo.  “Never want to put too much information in one place,” said the man who in his soul operated always with the mentality of a 19-year-old combat Marine.

As I cleaned I took every single scrap of paper he had ever written on and clipped them together.  I laminated them.  It was to be the only way we would ever “talk” again.  It is Dad’s quotes scattered through this piece.

He loved light.  And I guess for a man who had spent so much time fighting the darkness, his love for light made sense.

Dad was, to our family, and friends, a photographer.  “Tom” would have a camera around his neck at all times.  He took joy out of capturing happiness.  He took pleasure at photographing family events, and sharing his photos with everyone.  As we sorted through the pictures, in the months and year or so following his death, we saw some incredible images.  We sorted out the family shots from the scenery ones.  We put up a sharing site for all those family images in case anyone had never seen them.  And we protectively shielded his “scenery” images, and carefully watermarked them, and kept great pains to keep them off the internet.

At some point we will organize an art show in his memory.  We will print, and sell his treasures.  We will find a place to donate any profits that will honor his memory.  We will let the world see what he saw.  Dad used that camera lens to showcase the light.  To view the beauty in the world.  Consistently, when I look around I see “Light Through the Lens…” and in doing so I keep his memory alive.

Dad did not leave us rich with money, or objects.  He left us rich with visions and memories.  The former keeps you satiated for a little while.  The latter can keep you fueled forever.

The last gift Dad left for me, was one I did not see coming.  In the weeks preceding his death it had become apparent to me that there was a specific incident in Vietnam that clearly should have warranted him a Purple Heart.  I gathered data for him, presented the case, and even after denials came in, and he had passed, I kept fighting.

Holly, a treasure in Dad’s life and ours, had held onto a list of names and addresses from a Marine Corps Reunion they had attended many years prior.  I reached out to every Marine in that list, and if they were still alive, they reached back.  Over 20 of them.  45 years later.  I grew up knowing Dad had 7 brothers and a sister.  I had no idea of the Marine brothers scattered around the country.

I have had the pleasure of meeting many of them.  And this past summer I brought Meghan to meet a few too.

Alan was the first to answer my letter.  From West Virginia he called to tell me he remembered crossing time with Dad.  He researched the story I told him about the incident.  He found it totally credible, and helped me exhaust every option and every appeal to the Department of the Navy.  Ultimately that battle was lost on what I call a technicality, but by that time I had a friend and a confidant in Alan, previously a stranger.

My Dad, although not loyal to a particular church, by the time he died had a solid faith in God, forgiveness, and an afterlife.

I do not know the book this came from, but I found this among his clippings…

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My Dad in his passing, solidified my relationship with my sister, essentially “gave” me my brother who I had never really “known” but will NEVER let go of, AND, secured for me a confidant in Alan, and gave me the gift of loyalty that Marines save for their own and their families.

He left thousands of photos.  Snipits of his own words, and memories of times that we got it right.

I sometimes always wish that he would answer when I called him on the phone.  But, I know.  I know that he is flying free.  And I know, that while he needn’t be saddled with the cares of this world, that he checks in.  That he is nearby when I need him the most.

So when we are driving in the car and Meghan snaps a shot of a sunrise, or the light coming through the clouds in the sky.  When she sees the beauty of the world around her.  When she looks for the good. When she keeps her friends list short and neat, I see my Dad.  I feel him.  I know he’s right there for that moment.

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Courtesy of Meghan on a road trip to WV to meet the Marines.  Always being guided by the light…

Only when you love deeply do you feel great loss.  They all hurt.  The oldest to the newest.  I can not change the way I love.  When I love it is with my whole self.  Otherwise, why?

This one hurts differently because it took so long to get it right.  But, I rest with the gratitude that we did get it right.  And once you get it right, if it’s truly right, nothing before that matters anymore.

You may never know the strength you gave to help us remain

#Beatingcowdens

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Semper Fi Daddy, Always.

04/18/48- 12/4/13

Loved.  Missed.  Remembered forever.

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Speechless

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Resting your voice is not like resting your knee, or your shoulder.  Resting your voice is more like resting your heart, or your lungs.

Something is kicking my butt.  And I’m not sure what it is, but I am so not in the mood anymore.

This has been one chaotic stretch.

FInally recovered, mostly from my way too soon implant exchange in August, and my broken toe 2 weeks after, I am battling with trouble in a place I least expected to find it.

This summer I heard, “vocal cord nodules” for the first time, after feeling somewhat hoarse since April.  I was quickly reassured by tons of people that these are “normal” and would resolve if I was careful.  The doctor didn’t say too much, besides directing me to begin vocal therapy and return in three months.

I knew enough to listen when I was told to start therapy, and I did.  Begrudgingly, and convinced it was bogus, I made my way to the recommended therapist.  We got in a few visits before school, and then had to switch to weekly as my schedule just wouldn’t allow more.

For about four sessions I felt utterly ridiculous.  Then I started to “get it.”

I struggled when I started work, and was told to purchase a “tour guide” microphone.  I did, and the small 20 amp speaker with its wireless microphone have been an incredible help.  Despite looking like a frustrated pop singer, I am able to talk longer, and with less strain.  I am learning to speak differently, and in ways that are often unnatural to me, all with the desired end result being to reduce the stress, impact, and inflammation on my vocal cords.

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I saw the doctor for a follow-up on October 11, and I got a very “Cowden’s-like” mixed report.  I was told that the vocal therapy had decreased the inflammation.  (YAY!)  However, the reduction of inflammation makes me a better surgical candidate. (I had really hoped I could just make it go away.)  AND, there was now a new, or newly visible “striking zone lesion” on the other side.  Both of the lesions were not “typical,” and would not resolve alone.  Both lesions appeared to have vascularity to them.  And, the “striking zone lesion” was irregular in shape.

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Despite his 99% comfort that the lesions were benign, I left with instructions to continue therapy, and to plan on having surgery close to the summer to remove the lesions.  I was told for the first time ever, that I would need to practice COMPLETE VOCAL REST for 7 days post operatively, AND for the next 7 days, I would speak approximately 1 minute for every hour.  The next several weeks would entail a slow progression back to my full voice use.  The thought of it completely freaked me out.

At voice therapy, there were conversations about Cowden’s Syndrome, and our tendency towards over-scarring.  The very real possibilities of what excessive scarring would do were discussed in a casual conversation.  By this time I am comfortable, and confident in the therapist.  She is smart, witty, and honest.  She’s real without being painful.  She also cares – about me, as a human, a teacher, a mom and a wife.

So, I had really hard conversations with my husband about the future, and I strengthened my resolve.  I charged my microphone, and I found the voice that exists out of my throat.  I have started to shorten my sentences.  I’m learning.

About 3 weeks ago it started to get worse.  Slowly and steadily worse.  Every day I would do my exercises, and I just couldn’t get the sounds.  My air was becoming a battle.  The inhaler became a part of many days.  I slept as much as I could.  I stayed hydrated and took extra vitamin C.  I ran no fever, but my chest felt full.  My head was pounding.

I stopped using the phone for anything but texting.  That was NOT the turn of events I needed, as I was struggling to keep up with people anyway.

Finally, I went to the urgi-center.  I was told I had “a lot of fluid” in my head.  I changed the allergy medicine.  I took a nasal spray.  I got a short course of antibiotics because it was lingering, even though I had no fever.  I upped the saline, and the steam.

I barely, and I do mean barely, got through the day Friday.

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Saturday I sat at therapy, so frustrated.  She was so patient.  So wonderful.  She told me she had been researching Cowden’s Syndrome, and there wasn’t a lot out there on its connection to the vocal cords.  We had kind of established that even if the Cowden’s didn’t cause the lesions, we still have to proceed knowing my body has Cowden’s and it affects everything.  We can NOT scar the vocal cords.

She had looked at my exams from July and October.  Side by side.  Frame by frame.  And very clearly stating, “I’m not a doctor, but…” I hung on every word.  I processed them with respect.  Some of our best help through the years has come with the premise of “I’m not a doctor, but…”

Vocal rest.  That’s where we’re at right now.  I am supposed to rest my voice when I am not teaching.

This is NOT an easy task.  I’ve been at it for 4 hours now and I may lose my mind.

This is isolation at its worst.

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The lesions won’t heal themselves.  I can just get ready for when I need to heal.  I can prepare for a lifetime of speaking in a way that babies my voice.  I can practice being silent when it is so much the antithesis of my nature.

This time beating cowdens will require patience, strength of mind, and stamina.

It’s messing with me.  But I’ve got this.  I’ve got this.

If you don’t hear from me… try my email.  Or texting.  My typing skills will be improving greatly….

#beatingcowdens

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Set Up Surgery on Safari – check

Last Tuesday, on Meghan’s 13th birthday, we woke early and headed to the airport for what has become an annual family vacation.  Disney World is a “happy place” for all of us.  Despite crowds, and heat, we seem to be able to locate so much magic there.  Plus, it’s not here.

I like it here.  In my house, with my family.  But being “here” in a broader sense means doctors and tests, and appointments and procedures.  And traffic, and waiting.  And bills, and phone calls, and all sorts of obligations that often keep me tied to my desk chair.

In Disney someone produces allergy safe meals for us.  In Disney there is no driving.  In Disney there are fireworks and parades and shows.  While we are in Disney Mom watches the dogs and the house.

Those 8 days designed as a respite.  A safety zone.  A doctor free area.  And we look forward to it every year.

This year was even more special because Meghan brought a friend.  She got to bring a kind, compassionate, witty young lady who had been by her side through some ups and downs the past year.  There is not a long list of people who Meghan trusts enough to take into confidence, and I can’t say that I blame her.  But, this young lady has similar loyalty standards, and held her composure as Meghan threw some tough stuff at her.  Meghan is forced to think about things and process things that are not even remotely acceptable to have to deal with at her age.  Most peers are overwhelmed.  Many shy away.  This young lady did not NEED Meghan as a friend, they CHOSE to be friends.  As different as they are, they compliment each other nicely.  So we set off on our adventure this year as a party of 4.  The Ortegas plus one!

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Once we found our groove, (adding a wheelchair takes finding a balance) we were off and running.  Great food, lots of laughs, and the highs and lows you’d expect from two spunky teenagers.

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I was distracted Friday when my cell phone rang, while we were on the Safari at Animal Kingdom.  I should have seen the NY number and known what was coming.  But, I answered quickly.

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It was my plastic surgeon’s office.  The one who had told me they could fix my implant some time in the spring… well, they were offering me a spot on August 19th.

If you don’t have the back story on this I’ll give you the quick version.  After a double mastectomy in March of 2012, I opted for immediate reconstruction.  I was very pleased.  Then in November of 2012 I was in quite a car accident.  I took a good hit to my totaled Hyundai.  The implants were intact, but likely never quite the same.  By the summer of 2015 I had been experiencing some pain and discomfort on the right.  I went back to my plastic surgeon in November of 2015.  She told me the right implant had fallen a bit, and I should have (non-emergency) surgery to pull it back up.  Except, she was no longer accepting my health insurance.  The year that was had Meghan in the OR I believe 5 times.  I struggled to get the courage to call the new plastic surgeon.  I was annoyed to have to do all this again so soon.  The initial estimate on the implants was 15 years.  This was under 5.  I finally got an appointment with the new plastic surgeon a full year later, in July of 2016.  He concurred that a surgical procedure to “tighten things up” was a good idea, and that I could schedule at my convenience.  So, I tried to get it scheduled for the summer.  Then I tried for October when we have a few days off.  Then I tried for December… and before I knew it I was looking at spring break, almost another year of what had transformed from pain, to just an odd sensation, all the time.

I listened as I was told I could have the date one week away.  I looked around at the animals on the African Safari.  I tried to keep my conversation low enough to make sure the girls, and no one else on the vehicle was following along.  I promised to return the call in an hour.

I hung up and managed to share the story with my husband.  Then I called my Mom.  Then I called the plastic surgeon back.  “Let’s do it.”

So the following Monday was spent ducking away to make phone calls to set up pre-operative appointments.  Because the plane was due to land at midnight Tuesday.  I needed blood drawn, and a physical Wednesday in order to hold the spot.

Tuesday we left Disney.  The step count on my FitBit was over 142,000  I had covered over 62 foot miles.  I was tired, but happy.

We did have a great week, and while I was bothered on some level that the surgical planning creeped in, I am skilled at managing many things from my cell phone.  And, the thought of getting all that straightened out months ahead of schedule was exciting.

Tuesday it rained.  In NY and in Florida.  There was lightning.  There were delays.  Lots of them.  Our plane landed well after 1 am.  I hit my bed hard at 3 and was on the bus to NYC for the lab work by 9.  After battling NYC traffic there and back, I went for the physical.  Passed, and papers faxed to the plastic surgeon by 4:00.  Success.

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Life moves quickly.  We have to keep up.

The call came Thursday to be at the hospital at 6 AM Friday.  While I am not a morning person, only the surgically experienced would realize that is like hitting the jackpot.  It means you’ve got first case.  And that is a giant win.

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There was little time to share the plan with anyone.

Yesterday morning I had bilateral implant repair between 7:30 and 10 AM.  I slept till 1, had some ginger ale and crackers and was home by 2:45.

Last night I laid in my bed catching up on Email and I caught one from Meghan’s endocrinologist.  The thyroid numbers have gone a bit off again.  He wants to play around before repeating labs in 6 weeks.

Medication readjusted.  Again.  Illogical.  Like so many other things.

Apparently #beatingcowdens involves scheduling surgery on an African Safari and readjusting medications hours post-operatively.

We’ve got this.

Thank goodness for our time in the “Happiest Place on Earth.”