There are things you could do without ever experiencing. Clearly #COVID19 is one of them.
I live in NYC. I have lived here every one of my 46 years.
I was born and raised here. I graduated from public school, SUNY and then CUNY. I work in the elementary school I graduated from. I have lived in the same zip code pretty much my whole life.
I watched my local community rise up many years ago when my young cousin battled Leukemia. I remember that, even over 30 years later, whenever a neighbor I don’t know is in need.
I watched my local community, many aspects of which were decimated by the horrors of 9/11, rise up in indescribable ways.
I watched my community draw together again after Hurricane Sandy wiped out neighborhoods.
We worked together. We prayed together. We loved on each other. We gathered together. We shared what we had.
I live amongst compassion, bravery, dedication, resilience, tragedy, and grief.
I also live amongst some selfishness, stupidity and inflated senses of self importance.
The greatest city in the world gives you all that and then some.
Despite having a small social circle, I am a mother, a wife, a daughter, a granddaughter, a sister, a niece, a cousin and a friend.
I am a patient with a PTEN mutation called Cowden’s Syndrome.
I am a cancer survivor.
I have a teenager with 2 rare diseases, and a brain that runs 24/7.
We are immune compromised.
I am a NYC Public School Teacher.
My husband is an essential worker.
Daily the news reports are often silenced in my house. I know what’s going on around me. A few numbers across a screen give me what I already know. Hope of blossoming spring has been muted by tales that nightmares are made of.
I spend the days trying to remotely engage young minds in math games. It is, if nothing else, a welcome distraction.
Suddenly, this community that does so much better when we can gather together is isolated.
Our friends are sick and dying quickly. To much of the country and the world they are numbers. To us they are humans with names and families. We can not visit. We can not comfort. We can not gather. We are leaving our loved ones at the emergency room door, praying we will see them again.
We, alongside the whole world, are fighting a virus that seems to have a strangle hold on my home town.
People like to make themselves feel better, but the truth is this virus does not discriminate. We can barely even find it, let alone attack it.
We are chasing it. It clearly has the upper hand.
We have been told to #flattenthecurve but, I fear the sheer numbers of us make this so much harder.
My husband comes from work removes all layers, scrubs, showers, washes all outer garments. He gave up public transportation to reduce his “touch points.”
We are grateful for the home we have. We are grateful for each other, for the internet, for Zoom and FaceTime, and virtual church. We are grateful for washing machines and space, and luxuries never to be taken for granted again.
We are grateful for computers that allow for everything from Advanced Biology to voice lessons and test prep.
We leave for 2 walks a day at off peak hours.
The stores I used to walk in and out of because I could, are saved for when lists accumulate and there is need.
We order food a few times a week, a calculated risk carefully played out because the restaurants that have openly supported our fundraisers through the years, deserve our support now as well.
The schedule has slowed from its chaotic pace. Swim season just isn’t. There is no college search right now. Doctors are cancelling, and rescheduling. Routine check ups are on hold. And honestly I don’t mind. Even this chronically painful foot is waiting its turn while really important things happen at the local hospitals.
We take this call to social isolation really seriously here.
Selfishly, I might even enjoy a little of this forced family time. A year from now my girl will likely have her college chosen and be starting her transition out of our nest.
Having Cowden’s Syndrome has done a lot of work on my perspective through the years. I’ve learned that you can’t keep waiting for it to be over. That’s true of everything in life.
A dear friend has told me often, “You can have it all, just not all at the same time.”
You have to live each day, from beautiful to unspeakable. It is the only way to preserve feelings of compassion, empathy and focus on the greater good. You must laugh and cry, and scream and yell, and feel all the feelings.
I have scanned 3 and a half years of letters Pop wrote to Grandma in the years he was deployed during WWII. Those years preceded a marriage that lasted over 70 years. I think of them all the time, but even extra these days. I think about how hard it would have been to socially distance from them, but also about the lessons they could have taught all of us in patience, resilience and sacrifice for the greater good.
I’ll use some of the next days to read every one of those letters before uploading them to create a hard copy to be shared in my family for generations.
There is a lot to be learned from the “Greatest Generation.”
Sometimes I get angry at flippant or arrogant folks I see, in person or on the news. The people who think they are too good, or exempt from this global pandemic. The people who don’t think they have to do their part.
Then, I decide to focus on the overwhelming number of people who are doing whatever they can to make this better. All those essential workers we learned about in the first grade unit on “Community Helpers” are the ones I focus on with gratitude.
I am not better than this virus. I am just as susceptible as the good people across the globe who are struggling with these infections.
I isolate not out of fear, but out of respect.
I isolate out of respect for those who can’t.
I isolate out of respect for our first responders and essential workers.
I isolate out of respect for those who are living with this virus.
I isolate because maybe one less person will get infected because I did.
I miss the way our city has come together in all other times of tragedy.
I miss hugs, and offering comfort and being comforted.
I will message the people I miss so much, and check in on them.
And, instead of complaining the time away I will spend more of it in prayer for those who need very much not to feel alone, reaching out through the technology I’m blessed to have, with gratitude that if I am forced to isolate I have a comfortable home and a few of my best friends to be with.
My Grandfather told me many years ago that I was “difficult to work with.” He said it with love. I don’t remember the exact context. I do remember it was said with a smile.
And he was undoubtedly right about that, like so many other things.
I had a boss a few years back that told me, “If you continue to hold everyone to the same standards you hold yourself to, you will always be disappointed.” Strong words, but also not inaccurate.
I am a lot to take.
I am intense almost all the time. I have a mouth full of words that last long past the attention span of anyone I strike up a conversation with.
I am passionate about things I believe in.
I make lots and lots of mistakes. But, I truly do my best all the time.
So I just sometimes struggle to understand why it seems everything I touch or encounter is a battle.
I spend hours upon hours sorting through medical claims. I look up who paid what, and when. I call on bills that need to be refiled. I take names on post-it notes with dates and times, in case things don’t get rectified.
I file out of network claims, and then I watch them processed in error. I make three phone calls to try to sort out the change in policy, which was simply just a mistake no one will own. I take names again. I am told to wait 6 more weeks for hundreds of dollars owed to me to be reprocessed. It’s only a little about the money. It’s mostly about the notebook, and the folder with the copies of the claims, and the alarm in my phone to remind me when I need to follow up on the call again.
I send medication to the mail order pharmacy because we have no choice. And then I wait for them to screw it up. That sounds negative, but it’s simply accurate. They have an entire notebook in my world to help manage the 9 mail away prescriptions between us. There is a perpetual box on my ‘to do’ list which tells me to check on the progress of any refill.
I make appointments. The list has 20 specialists between us. They vary from twice a week to once a year. A psychologist once told me not to let the appointments interfere with “preferred activities.” So there is a matrix with the impossible task as the ultimate goal. Except none of the 20 doctors know about the other 19. Or the full time job. Or the high school honor student’s schedule. Or swim practice. Or theater. Or voice lessons. Nor do they care. And I get it. They can not hear everyone’s story. So when I call to try to carefully place that appointment in a very tiny window of time, they are always unhappy with me. They think I’m being unreasonable. And maybe I am. But, I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t TRY to get everything to keep her physically healthy and still let her be a teen.
I deal with unexpected schedule changes. Like when I carefully stack 2 appointments in one day, and then one has to move to right smack in the middle of a week long summer internship that was planned forever ago, because now instead of two doctors with Friday hours at the same facility, one has Monday and one has Friday. No overlap. So I erase, and juggle. Except I’m not great at juggling in a literal sense, so one got cancelled and hasn’t been rescheduled. Actually two… because summer can not be ALL about doctors. Nor can every day off. But, neither can every day at work or school…
“What do you mean you’re not going to reschedule today?”
So much of our condition relies on screening. Early detection is a blessing. It is the key. It is also tedious and time consuming. It is possible to be grateful and overwhelmed simultaneously.
So much of this is case management. And, when last I checked my master’s degree is in education, not medicine. But, with no one to coordinate care I have to guess a whole lot. I have to decide if 9 months will be ok instead of 6. I have to decide when to push the doctor for more lab tests when the fatigue won’t quit and the thyroid is ok but the spleen…eh, no one is quite sure about the spleen…
And there are doctor’s whose pride won’t let them return a call because I haven’t seen them recently enough.
There is the genetics appointment lingering again. Because maybe Cowden’s wasn’t the WHOLE answer…
And the “normal people stuff” like the seemingly never-ending root canals because my stress is played out in the jaw clenching that overtakes the episodes of sleep. That is on the occasions everything is calm enough for me to make it to my bed.
Or the foot injury. The “rare” lisfranc ligament partial tear. Close to 6 months later. Not a soul wants to hear me tell the story again. No one wants to believe that it still hurts badly enough that I haven’t take a real walk since last fall. I’m not lazy. I’m horrified by the state of my body in the absence of real physical activity. I am trying to be patient. My patience is running out alongside my sanity.
And the IEP. Oh, the Individualized Education Plan… and the meetings. Over and over and over again… Meghan is on the waiting list for a service dog. She has PTSD and generalized anxiety disorder. The dog is coming. The process is wearing me out.
I am a lot to take.
I am often “difficult to work with.”
I hold myself and others to a high standard.
I am intense most of the time.
I am tired.
I am so very tired of fighting all the time.
There is no choice though. No choice at all.
So, in the mean time I will be here. Strengthening my resolve. I may bend, but I will not break. I will continue to strive to show my girl that she can have a rare and currently incurable disease, while excelling at school, at sports, being active in the community, and being a generally decent human.
Last month we walked out of a screening appointment. It was not critical. It was an hour behind. We rescheduled. Also a valuable lesson.
I am tired of fighting, but I am far from done.
As my Grandfather said, I am “difficult to work with.”
I am also loved. I am flawed. I am also forgiven.
When I have no more, I put my hands together and ask… and I am never disappointed.
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 –
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
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…”
Sitting, sopping wet, in the middle of the ocean, in your small row boat. Your feet are wet. Your fingers are wrinkled. You are cold, exhausted, and often frightened. There is no access to the weather channel. Your connections to the real world have all but vanished. You focus every ounce of your strength on keeping the boat afloat.
You try to maintain a sense of calm, but your insides are turning worse than after a serving of spoiled mayonnaise at a summer barbecue.
There are moments when you think. Hope. Pray. That it will settle down. There are moments when you dream of enough sunshine to shed your wet clothes and warm and dry yourself. There are moments when you can almost see what appears to be a friendly ship in the distance. And in those fleeting moments you even remember what it felt like to socialize, to chat, and to laugh – about every day life.
Your faith reminds you that Jesus is in the back of that boat. You know better than to let your insecurities wake Him. You know in your core that you are loved, and protected.
And then another wave crashes over the side. You can not put your hand on the oar. You lock eyes with your husband in front of you – always with you. You put a hand on your girl, sopping wet beside you. You strengthen your resolve.
I have been fading out of touch these last few months.
I love writing. It is my therapy and my release. It clears my mind and cleanses my soul. Except there is a balancing act to be had -tenuously protecting privacy while fulfilling what we believe is our calling to share a raw, honest view of our lives “Beating Cowdens.”It is hard to realize breaks in time. Things blend together so readily it is hard to discern where one event starts and another stops. There is only rarely a pause between medical appointments, some for the same issues, some for new ones, and others for maintenance. Some appointments are mine, and some belong to Meghan. All but a few require hours and hours of travel. It safe to say they cost us on average 5 hours a day. But, those 5 hours are not of my choosing. I can’t say, decide to get up at 5 – deal with the appointment and be ready to start the day at 10. That’s just not how it works. Most are scheduled somewhere between 10 and 3. That means by the time we get home, there isn’t much time to do anything. Or, we spend the day waiting to go – so there isn’t much to get done. There are no summer day trips planned. Making plans to catch up with friends is something we avoid – because we so often have to cancel. The cycle continues. There is just getting by. And some dreams that maybe we can get to the beach one day this summer…
Somewhere early this year Meghan started to be done with it all. This is not an easy place to be in by any means. She is a month shy of 14, and this is her journey for the REST of her life. Teenage years are nothing most of us would want to revisit. The extra complications of finding your way amidst a chronic sense of isolation (the knee precludes too much walking, it prevents basic sports games most of the time, it leaves the competitor side-lined too much, the allergies mean the food has to be different, the pain is unusual and constant and managed in some “unorthodox” ways, the number of times she has to say “no” because she has an appointment, an ER visit, or something else medical is astounding and limits the invitations, ETC., ETC…) coupled with an understandably defensive posture, and a desire to just BE, can make for some lonely times.
Her sleep patterns went off the charts some time in February. My sleeper just couldn’t fall asleep. She’d lay still for hours. Her pattern was restless and fitful. I watched my girl pull away from her swimming. I fought to push her. Even after her best meet ever in March – I could no longer get her up to a morning practice.
Meanwhile, I never made connections that are so clear now. In January we were released from the Interventional Radiologist who had completed the 5 embolizations over 6 years on the AVM in her right knee. He released us to the care of the orthopedist who had already performed an arthroscopic lateral release in 2015 to help shift her patella into place. It had begun to slide as a result of residual damage from small amounts of lingering blood in the knee. By early this year the warning signs had begun to develop that the knee was off.
A visit to the orthopedist in February confirmed what Meghan undoubtedly knew. He offered her the chance to try to intervene conservatively and put a brace on to hold the patella in place. Maybe it could “convince it” to move on its own…
She took it in stride, like always. We bought leggings to accommodate the giant addition to her thin frame. She dug in and pressed on.
While all this was going on the chronic congestion that had begun in November worsened. The ENT noted swelling, but called it allergies, the obvious choice this season. There was a nasal spray added, and a week of a decongestant.
Attendance in school started to be a struggle. There was fatigue. Low grade infections. There was pain. So much pain.
The chiropractor visits became more frequent. The leg length discrepancy made more noticeable by the limping to accommodate the brace on the shifted knee cap.
My surgery in March helped nothing. There was so much vocal rest required it tossed us all on edge more than normal.
Swim practice was lessening. Focusing on school was a chore. Sleep was becoming near impossible.
The breathing worsened. We justified the “worst allergy season ever.” Her voice started to feel the effects of this chronic congestion.
In April the inevitable was spoken. The knee would need a repeat of the 2015 arthroscopic lateral release. We wanted to schedule it immediately. The first available day was her the opening night of her school play, a play she had earned the lead in. The next opening was almost a month later on May 20th. We would have to wait.
The pain increased. The frustration increased. The sleep, and subsequently the desire to swim decreased.
The “Coaches Award” at the swim dinner made her feel honored. She respects her coach so much. But, she couldn’t reignite the fire.
The surgery in May went well, even though I had worried with the increased congestion that they could not put her under anesthesia. But, it was fine. She went through the 2 hours like a seasoned veteran. That made number 18.
Rehab was tough. The pain was significant. But, it faded gradually. Our favorite PT began to work her magic.
She got around on crutches, figured it out and made it work. Again. Always.
She got off the crutches exactly in time for 8th grade prom.
She was healing. Physically.
She made it back into the water. She swam the 18th of June, and the 19th too. She started to talk about it in a more positive way. The 20th was awards night for 8th grade.
My 8th grader was named Salutatorian for a graduating class of almost 400. She received several academic awards that night. I sat in the auditorium with the last few months, and years running through my mind. People knew some, but no one, not even I knew ALL of what it took to be her, every day. And here she was, not only doing it, but excelling at it. It was a good night.
Until she came home, and put up her feet. And there, on the side of her surgical leg was a 4cm x 6cm mass, with rapidly increasing swelling. Breathing, we strategized.
We took the crutches back out. I stayed up most of the night making sure there was no bleed on the knee. I sent her to school the next day to get her cap and gown and yearbook “like everyone else.”
Then we headed to the surgeon. His nurse practitioner sent us to the ER. They could not get their acts together and after 7 hours discharged her on crutches with a script for an MRI.
She was to be “minimal weight bearing as tolerated.” They wanted her back at the doctor that Friday. I finally spoke up and said no. She was going to her graduation Friday – NOT tainted by a medical appointment. We settled on Tuesday.
However, with no answer, she was to graduate on crutches. So, a friend suggested if she had to use them, she should “own” them. My husband spray painted them white.
Sunday we drove to Long Island for that MRI. The one I knew they would not do locally. 30 miles. 2 hours and 15 minutes home. We caught up with some friends that day. Good thing. We needed them so badly.
As she was in the MRI machine for her knee she told me something was “blocking” her nose inside her head. If you’re a Cowden’s Mom – you just went to tumor as fast as I did. My head spun.
Monday the ENT was able to ease that worry. He told us it was a mass of infection. That likely she had had a severe sinus infection for 8-10 weeks. He anticipated 14-28 days on biaxin to get after it. That was alongside a short course of oral prednisone. He nose was so inflamed there was almost no air passing.
A sinus infection usually has me out of commission in about 3 days. I just shake my head in awe sometimes.
Tuesday the 27th we trekked out to the surgeon again. The MRI showed the mass to be a huge fluid filled pocket. There is also fluid all through the knee joint. He looked, and looked. He has done many surgeries. He is skilled. He shook his head and finally told us he did not understand. He had “never” seen this before. And now we had to wait for her knee to tell us what to do next.
Cancel camp. No Drama Camp she had loved so much.
Postpone PT indefinitely.
No swim practice yet.
And there we were – facing another summer…
But somehow, all of this seemed to weave together. The perfect storm. The knee, the sinuses, the sleeplessness, the fatigue, the low-grade illnesses, the sinus infection…
Somewhere through all this we spent a few visits with a brilliant doctor who diagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD. Like with the soldiers, or other trauma victims. “Secondary to significant medical trauma” she said.
It all made sense, except the “post.” There is nothing really “post” about this ongoing scenario.
That, and the Salutatorian thing. As impressed as I am – I am still in awe.
The journey continues, and we will above all things remain…
An inspiration provokes a desire in you to be a better human. An inspiration can be any age, race, gender or creed. An inspiration speaks to your soul through their actions, and their behaviors. Words are always secondary to actions.
A role model may be an inspiration, someone you want to emulate, whether they are family, friend, or famous. Often we put the word “inspirational” to a sports figure, singer, or movie star, but all too often we are disappointed by those high up in positions of fame and fortune.
Inspirational people, the ones who change lives, tend to be regular people who we interface with often. Coaches come quickly to mind as inspirational. Teammates who are there to lift us up and share our shining moments and disappointments come to mind as well. In some cases teachers can inspire us, by lighting a fire, or a love of learning, or a passion about a topic or a zest for knowledge.
I am fortunate to know many inspirational people. Most of them would be confused if I named them. They are typically the people out in the world doing their jobs, living their lives, and passionately giving their all to whatever task is theirs.
So many of you who read these words on a regular basis, inspire us to remain #beatingcowdens.
Last week I was notified that Meghan was nominated as “Inspirational Staten Islander of 2016.” This nomination was connected to her selection as “Staten Islander of the Month” in February 2016. There was quite a list of remarkable, inspirational, every-day people on that list. I read the article top to bottom and was truly, inspired.
But, Meghan is MY inspiration. She is MY reason, my WHY. I would not lie and ever say she or I are PERFECT, because no one is. But we do pretty well together, supporting each other. And, when I’m about done pushing, one look at her face inspires me to keep on keeping on.
There was a week of voting, by people who clearly felt a particular nominee was the most inspirational. It was a week of watching the polls as family and friends voted alongside. By Monday she had a significant lead. We were humbled. By Tuesday afternoon as we sat in an MRI for her knee in Manhattan, she was behind. Roller Coaster. It was hard to react with the knowledge that each nominee indeed was inspirational. And, winning or losing, would not increase or decrease the value of the other nominees inspirational acts.
Voting was to close at noon Wednesday. I sat up Tuesday night to vote for MY inspiration, as often as I was allowed. But, at some point I became very anxious, and I stopped and I prayed. I asked for guidance as to when it was time to just walk away. I asked for a clear sign.
At about 2:15 AM on Wednesday the 11th, I received a Facebook Message from Destinee Moe. This young lady was running the poll right behind Meghan and I just wasn’t sure how it was going to end. This is a text of the message.
Hello Mrs.Ortega I’m Destinee Moe one of the nominees for Inspirational Islander Of 2016. I just want you and your daughter to know how truly inspiring she is! I could never be as strong as Meghan she going through a lot and still manages to smile! It’s truly an honor to be able to run against someone so strong I wouldn’t want anyone else to win this race she truly inspires me to be a strong young adult ! Best of luck to both of you and hope everything is well with Meghan keeping her in my prayers.
And I cried. Right there in front of my computer screen. There was the sign I had prayed for. There was a soul so inspiring she was looking for the good in others she was racing against. There was a meaningful inspiration.
I responded to her as best I could.
It’s funny I would catch your message at this hour, as years of parenting a sick little one, have left me able to function on not too much rest. I really appreciate your message, as everything I have read about you indicates you are of the same strength of character as my daughter. It is inspiring to me when young women like the two of you show leadership qualities at such a young age. This whole experience, win or lose, has been an incredible journey for her. Today she learned to balance her morning swim, with an honors schedule, and then a 2 hour MRI for the knee that caused her 6 surgeries and still gives her grief, followed by 2 more hours in traffic, significant homework, and keeping a close eye on the voting in between. This young lady I have is truly my inspiration, as her early diagnosis indeed saved my life. However, each story I read was inspirational and it renews my faith in people, and Staten Island. All the best to you as well. It will be behind us all in just a few hours. I have no doubt yours will be a name of influence to look for in the coming years. Stay true. All the best, Lori
She replied once more and I went to bed soon after. When I woke the next day, Meghan held onto a lead into the noon cut-off.
By 12:45 there was a congratulatory message from Destinee:
Congratulations I really hope this pushes her even more to be the strong Inspiring young lady she is. Have a bless day , Destinee
Meghan won the popular vote as “Inspirational Staten Islander of 2016,” and we all got a clearer sense that inspiration is all around us, sometimes coming out from the most unlikely places.
After all she endures on a regular basis, my Meghan’s one goal was to further awareness of Rare and Genetic Diseases, while getting the word out for her upcoming fundraiser. Multi-tasking is necessary to follow her schedule.
Meghan remains humbled by the gravity of the congratulatory messages coming her way. Just as she was touched deeply by the message from the nominee closest to her in the polls.
There are so many life lessons, so many inspirational people, so many teachable moments – if only we look.
Meghan attained the title of “Inspirational Staten Islander 2016” and she will use it as best she can to raise awareness of Cowden’s Syndrome, PTEN Mutations and other Rare Diseases. She will also walk away with a few valuable life lessons.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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