Show Up

It was three MRIs in two days that week in November.  That’s too many, in case you were wondering.

One was an extension of an August MRI, which had been a knee follow up.  If you’ve been following – you know that long story.  If you’re new, the AVM (Arteriovenous Malformation) she was likely born with in her right knee, has cost her 8 trips to the OR so far.  It requires frequent attention.

By frequent I mean we see the orthopedist more often than we see most family.  And this time the whole muscle band up her thigh had been acting odd.  So we reached out to the orthopedist who asked for an MRI of the right thigh before we saw him at 1 PM that Tuesday.

By “odd” I actually mean really painful.  Pretty much all the time.  Painful enough that walking long distances or kicking swim practice got hard to maintain.  But there is so much that hurts it’s hard to sort out where something stops and other things start.  The hip had been “out” more than in, and even the chiropractor could not sort out why.  The knee pain was persistent enough to leave her wondering if something was wrong again.  The shooting pain, tingling and occasional numbness left her wondering if a nerve was somehow damaged.

Turns out, in typical form, she was right pretty much all around.  This kid has an uncanny awareness of her body.

The doctor’s student came in first not far past 1PM.  The MRI results were up, and he mentioned the AVM.  We said, “In her knee?”  When he said no, and mentioned one higher up in her leg, I pulled the plug on his practicing and sent for her actual doctor.  Turns out the thigh MRI showed a vascular malformation in the back of her right thigh.  It was somewhere in between the muscle and the bone, and adjacent to the sciatic nerve. When the images changed you could actually see the proximity to the nerve.

Hip issues – check

Knee pain- check

Shooting (nerve) pain-check

So he asked for an MRI with contrast of the pelvis.  “Sooner rather than later.”

But then he had to address the issue that had been of greatest concern walking in the door.

The right shoulder had been presenting an escalating problem all during the fall swim season.  She is a powerhouse my kid.  She pushes through because she knows nothing else. The awareness that the Hypermobile Ehlers Danlos diagnosis added on in July could at least explain the frequent partial dislocations was little comfort to the body that was living with them.  A thorough examination of a shoulder with extremely limited range of motion left us with orders for an MRI arthogram of the right shoulder.  It was time to rule out a rotator cuff tear.  We left with both MRI orders, and scripts for muscle relaxant and pain meds.  We were told to try to get it done by Thursday.  Yep 48 hours.

Thankfully Meghan’s insurance, which is the same as my husbands, (insurance coverage and coordination of benefits could take another post, so just trust me) does not require prior authorization for MRI testing.

So I got on the phone with scheduling and secured an appointment at the same facility we had been at at 11 AM for 3:30 PM.  That ended up being the pelvic MRI with contrast, something we avoid until we are confident something is there.  IV in place, back in the tube for another 45 minutes.

We were able to schedule the arthogram for 8AM the next morning in Brooklyn. But, not before learning that an arthogram was a pretty awful test.  As I had tried to barter for a time that would not take her out of school three days in a row, I was told that the doctor had to be on site.  I was asking for a quick schedule and I had to take what was available.  I was wondering why a doctor had to be on site, but my girl found the answers first.

And as we contemplated the test we sat in two hours of traffic to make the 32 mile trip home.

The next morning we were met by a well meaning tech in a Brooklyn office who thought my girl was going to have the catheter placed without me. You can say all the rational things you want about her being almost an adult. But PTSD is very real.  No matter how smart and articulate she is.  It is flat out real.  And that was about as huge a trigger as there is.  So I got a vest, signed consent for whatever I was about to be exposed to and held her hand while she screamed in pain.  The catheter was placed.  The contrast was injected, and we were back to another 45 minuted in the tube.

The appointment at 1 the next day was overwhelming to say the least.  The pain, the anxiety and the exhaustion were palpable.  The news that there was no rotator cuff tear was met with simultaneous relief and exasperation.  And if you don’t quite understand that it is probably because you have not lived with daily pain so intense you would give just about anything to hear that it was fixable.

Our orthopedist is nothing short of amazing, and he was able to explain to her that it was likely that repetitive partial subluxations caused muscle spasms that left the shoulder sitting just out of place enough that it was incredibly painful.  And because the muscles were in almost a constant spasm she couldn’t get it back “in.”  He explained the strength of her back and how some muscles are overpowering others.  He broke down the directions for PT.  He pulled her from the water for 7 days.  He started a muscle relaxant 3 times a day.

Then, he had to explain to her that we should head back to Lennox Hill Hospital to see the interventional radiologist who dealt with her prior AVM.  It had been three years since we had seen him, in hopes we were done for good.  The placement of this “small” AVM (and think relative here, does a splinter hurt?  Yep.  So a grape hanging out somewhere in between the bone, muscle and nerve probably would too.) was difficult from an ortho standpoint.  He felt that embolization, closing off the blood supply to the malformation, would give a quicker recovery than trying to dig it out.

We had an appointment on December 2nd at Lennox Hill.  Just enough time to let the muscle relaxants start to kick in, PT to begin, and the shoulder to start moving slowly and painfully.

The doctor looked at the scans, did his own ultrasound and told us to schedule the procedure.  We left with a date of Tuesday, December 17th for an outpatient procedure.

The date was carefully chosen by my girl.  The 17th meant she’d miss only 4 days of school, and for a junior with a rigorous schedule and a 4.0 that mattered.

Also, the 17th meant she could go to Lancaster, PA the weekend prior to compete in a qualifying swim meet she had worked for years to make.  She had been looking at this meet since she began swimming years prior.  When she made her first, second, and third cuts over the months leading up to it, she was ecstatic.  Now, she was facing this meet with a different set of eyes.  The training interruptions caused by her shoulder meant she was unlikely to attain any best times.  However her gentle giant of a coach reassured her she should go for the experience.

And it certainly was an experience!   We left for home Sunday the 15th with the coach’s approval of three good swims.  She knew it was the last time she’d be in the water for a bit.

We left home Tuesday the 17th for at 8 for a 10 AM arrival.  This was surgery 19.  We knew the routine.  She had had nothing to eat or drink since 9 the night before.  The wait was long.  It was after 2 when we were waiting to leave her in the OR.  And as we were leaving the team made a last minute change that they would do the procedure on her stomach.  That meant a more aggressive anesthesia and an overnight stay which we were not prepared for.

We were placed in luxury accommodations, better than most hotels I’ve stayed in, because pediatrics was overbooked.  We ended up in the executive suite.  With nothing we needed.  Felix headed home on the bus to gather supplies.  He then drove back to the city and met me at the door to the hospital before heading home for the night.

I was glad we stayed.  The pain needed hospital level management.  The pain medication allowed for some brief silly time.  She was discharged around noon the next day.

As I went to gather the car from the lot I was prepared for the hefty overnight fee, but not for the giant scrapes along my right rear panel. Clearly my car had been hit, hard.  The bumper clip was broken.  I had just enough time to file a claim with the garage before she let me know the transporter had her in the main lobby.

I settled her into the car in terror because she could not get a seatbelt on.  I prayed so hard during that white knuckle drive down the FDR and through the tunnel.  We arrived safely home 45 minutes later where a neighbor saw us struggling and helped her up the stairs into the house.

As I write, it is the afternoon of 12/22.  If you’ve read this far you know it’s been a long month.  But the longest days came after we arrived home.

This kid is busy.  All the time.  She is at school.  She is at swim.  She is at lessons.  She is at the doctor.  She is at PT.  She is NOT used to being home.

Because I think most of us can relate that when you are still there is time to think.  And thinking is hard.  When you are still there is time to feel.  And often feeling is hard.

My girl is used to being just on the outside in most social situations.   I do not know why.  I can theorize for days, but it doesn’t matter really.  It just is.  So when you are on the edge, you get your interactions with people when you are there. When you are not there you get the often difficult to process feeling that you are not missed or your absence isn’t noteworthy.

There were some cards, and some well intentioned messages from well meaning family and friends.  They lit up her whole being.

If I’ve learned anything from watching her recover and rehab time and time again, it’s this.  When you’re not sure what to do, show up.

I don’t mean in person necessarily.  Although those visits can bring brief humor and relaxation.  The irony of this technologically connected world is that we are more distant than ever, when it is so easy to show up.

When in doubt, send a text.  There is no need for gifts or grand gestures.  Offer a face time call.  Let someone know you care, especially in the first 4 days when then pain is often the worst.  It’s ok to reach out because these phones are all on mute.  And you won’t bother someone sleeping, you will only make them smile when they wake.

Whether it’s one surgery or 31, the chronically ill patient appreciates it.

There are so many super-convenient ways to show up.

So many that we are practicing showing up more for others.  Because the world is round.  And you may not ever repay the kindness sent to you, but showing up for someone else can change everything.

#beatingcowdens and#hEDS

PTSD is real…

I catch the judgments when I mention PTSD to even those closest to us.

I have the utmost respect for our military, and our servicemen and women.  They are the front lines, defending us and keeping us safe.  They experience horrors I could not imagine, and I am daily grateful for them.  The PTSD many suffer is real and no one would ever question it.

But, just as l know that their’s is real, I am that sure it is real in my house too.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder does not stipulate the trauma.

Some days I try to ignore it.  I try to hide it. I try to work around it.  I try to pretend it’s not there.  I try to lean into the pressures of well-meaning friends and acquaintances alike that we should act “normal” so as not to marginalize ourselves.  I hear the logical statements about fitting in.  I hear them.

We talk about “everyone has something.”  We are acutely aware that we are not the only ones that suffer.  We are aware of our blessings.  We share those blessings with others when we can.  We listen compassionately.  We are believers in the notion that, “If we all threw our problems in a pile and saw everyone else’s, we’d grab ours  back.”

We are aware that we can be perceived as aloof, or detached, or disinterested.  We are also aware that largely by circumstances and partly by our own design, we are alone.  We haven’t really ever spoken to you about why… We try to listen compassionately.  We try to be the people you need.  We try to be lighthearted and positive when we feel like we are being crushed.

When the diagnosis of PTSD was first given to me as part of an analysis of my beautiful daughter’s response to the constant traumas that had shaped her life, I was physically ill.  And then I was really sad.

And through the years I have tried to wish it away.  I have tried to convince and cajole and distract.  I have tried to rationalize. I have tried to blame myself.  I have tried to be angry.  I have tried to pray.  I have tried to walk it off.  I have tried to medicate it.

I have brought her to quality therapy.  I have introduced medication.  We have tried strategies.  We have tried simple grit.  We have never quit.  And there is progress.  But it is not easy.

I’ve been home a few weeks now with a foot that won’t heal.  I am trying to put into play some things that have been on the back burner for too long.  I am rediscovering my faith, and leaning back into the peace that has anchored my soul for so long.  I am learning new things, like the operating system on a new computer.  I am trying to find value in the waiting to heal.

I have also had some time to watch some old home videos, transferred from the portable video camera that was state of the art when our only child was born in 2003.

I look at some of those old videos and I laugh and smile.  And I hear the purity and innocence of a life untouched by physical and emotional pain, and the cruelty of the loneliness that often surrounds both.  And I laugh in spite of myself while the tears stream down my face.

We are strong.  We are determined.  We are compassionate.  We are intense.  We expect a lot from those around us, because we expect a lot from ourselves.  We are often isolated, marginalized, and left to live on the edge of all things social.

PTSD, the elephant in every room.

You see the diagnosis of Cowden’s Syndrome was not the start of it.  The first medical intervention was before the age of 6 months…

The years of hospitalizations, immune deficiency, chronic illness, food allergies, constant GI upset, speech, OT and PT services, led right into one surgery after another, with scans, doctors visits, and a few emergency room trips sprinkled in.  There were arrogant doctors and medical staff, ignoring that we were literally walking through fire trying to survive.  There were teams that would not communicate, and problems we had to try to solve on our own.  There were well meaning people in our lives asking if she was “better” because they could handle nothing other than a positive in the midst of this crazy, wild storm we were living in.

The diagnosis at the age of eight formalized the fact that we were definitely different.  It gave an answer while raising more questions and increasing the isolation, as parents scheduled play dates with children who became friends while we rode the FDR drive for hours after a day of work and school.  They went to the mall, or to the movies while we headed to PT to bring that knee back from surgery 4,5,6,7,8….  It was inevitable that the divide would grow.

I told her she could do anything.  And I meant it. I still mean it.

She is academically rock solid.  She is an athlete.  She is a good friend to those who let her be.  She is thirsty for knowledge.  She is insatiable in her desire to make the world better.

She’s also angry.  And its hard to see it.  It’s hard to feel it, and to watch it.  But, it’s real.  And it’s valid.  As much as we were able to do for her, the basic joys of childhood were taken from her.  From colic, to hospitals, to bullying so severe it almost broke her, to being just outside the edge of every circle or group…  A week in Disney every year helps, but even the Mouse doesn’t have a bandaid big enough.

We stay busy.  It is the best way.  But sometimes it breaks down.  This has been an extra tough week.  There isn’t one reason why.  It just is sometimes.

As I sat with her the other night and the memories of the most traumatic surgery turned my strong young lady back into a terrified 10 year old, I was reminded.  PTSD is very real.

It is real when the medical world is overwhelming you.

It is real when the pain is chronic.

It is real when the thought of getting out of bed is just too much.

It is real when you need the dog close by to even close your eyes.

It is real.

It is also real when you’re the youngest NYS Woman of Achievement in 2016 at the age of 12, or being honored with a Humanitarian Award at 15.

It is real when you’re holding a 3.9 GPA.

 

It’s real when you are achieving best times at Junior Olympics.

It’s real when you’re laughing with your high school swim team.

It is real when you’re in costume on the stage.

It’s just flat out real. And most of the time you have no idea what it looks like.  The costume is better than Broadway.  The mask is strong, crafted through years of survival instinct.

It never goes away, and yet it takes over without notice at the most inconvenient times.

PTSD is not an indicator of weakness, but rather of strength.  For living with it means you could have given up, but you are pressing on instead.

I’ve passed this advice to parents through the years who are new to our diagnosis.

“It is a lot to handle.”

Don’t underestimate.

It is hard to be kind to those who are different.  It is hard to be with people who are sometimes just “a lot.”  It is hard to care.

But the reality really is you just don’t know.  You don’t know the struggles facing anyone you pass by on the street.  You have no idea.

It’s neither a contest, nor a competition.

We are not perfect.  It is harder when the hurt is in its most raw periods.

But, we have goals.  And perhaps they go back to the “Golden Rule” of my youth.  “Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.”  

That means you keep paying it forward, without expecting it to be repaid to you.

If we all, ourselves included, can remember that everyone has real struggles, and we can all focus on kindness, I’m pretty sure we can start real change.

One smile, one inclusive invitation, one held door, one kind gesture at a time.

“Be kind always, because everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”

#beatingcowdens

 

 

 

Difficult To Work With

I am so tired of fighting.

All the time.

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.

Through God’s Grace alone we remain…

#beatingcowdens

Behind the Scenes…

We don’t post the awful pictures.  We leave out the ones where we look less than our best.  Social media allows us to live in the delusion that everyone’s life is “perfect.”

I’ll be the first to admit the ugly truth.  It’s far from perfect.  It’s not neat or clean.  There is no bow.  And yes, most of the time I do delete the awful ones.  Those images and experiences are seared into my soul.

I prefer to go with the theory that the body forgets pain…  At least your own.  It’s how we survive.  But, if you live watching a loved one in pain – you know the memory will not slip even a tiny bit.  If you hold your child as they cry out in pure agony, or when they are weak from fever, you can remember where you were each time.  If you watch your teen wince simply through a series of steps, or check to make sure they are breathing as they sleep the better part of two or three days at a clip – you don’t forget.

Recently, Meghan was in a production of “Beauty and the Beast Jr.” with the Staten Island Children’s Theater Association, Inc.  She loves the experience of working with a theater group and has been with this one a few years now.  It is such an enjoyable time in her life.  She spends months of Saturdays with genuine quality people preparing for the show.

Meghan as “Madame de la Grande Bouche”

And during those same months she is thriving academically.

And training for swimming.

And making regular appointments, routine, follow-up, and therapy.

And contending with seasonal allergies that are nothing less than relentless.

And, she is, every single day a person living with Cowden’s Syndrome and the effects it has on her, both physically and emotionally.

The show was almost 2 weeks ago.  It took me a little bit to get my thoughts together.

I think I have it now.

Living with chronic illness, chronic pain, chronic life altering physical ailments, is in some ways similar to putting on a production.

You set your sights on what you want to accomplish – large or small.  In some cases it’s going to a party, and in other’s it’s going to the backyard.  But, you plan for it.  You practice it.  You consider every detail.  You may have to select the right costume and even stage it so you don’t sit or stand for too long.  You know just what your body can do and there is a short window where you have to make it all work.

The rest of the time you are backstage.

You are in pin curls and shorts with a tank top.

You are rubbing your feet.  You don’t have make-up.  Backstage and rehearsals, these are what life is made of.  But, we don’t take the camera out while we are there.

Everyone’s preparation is different.  I can only write about ours and confidently say everyone has some level of preparation before the “show”.  Some people make it onto the stage more often than others.  Some people have fewer performances, but make them count as much as they can.  Those people take nothing for granted because they have no idea when they will step out into the “stage” again.

That’s what social media looks like to me, anyway.  Every picture is on the stage.  Some have more than others.  But, because of the world we live in it is easy to judge based on what we see without considering what we DON’T see.

The night of the show Meghan went to the diner with her friends.  She got home close to midnight.  It was Sunday, and a school night, and I had already decided she’d stay home the next day.  It wasn’t a reward.  It was a necessity.  The amount of energy her body had expended could not be recovered quickly.  She slept until 2pm the next day, and was asleep again by 9.

I sent her to school that Tuesday – ready to roll.  She swam at 5am, did a full day of school, an hour of physical therapy and another 2.5 hours of swim practice.

Probably not the best plan.

The physical therapy is in place to try to strengthen her overall.  Joint laxity, ligaments subluxing… all sorts of cracking, popping and shifting.  The search for answers is on, but in the mean time we do PT…

By Wednesday she couldn’t move.  She made it to school – barely.

Her IEP meeting was that afternoon, and we had lengthy conversations about all sorts of physical and emotional needs relating to school.  We also spoke at length about the service dog we are in a holding pattern waiting for, and how he will fit in to the big picture.  So many questions…

Thursday we got in the car to go to school.  By 7:30 I had her back in her bed.  She just could not.  She slept until early afternoon Thursday, followed it with and early bedtime and slept again until early afternoon Friday.  There was a little less sleep as the days went on but it was a slow process.

The show that was so incredibly worth it in every way – cost her a full week in recovery time.  Her body hurt so deeply.  This is not an out of shape child.  This is a person living with a chronic pain and illness that is affecting her body in ways not even the doctors fully comprehend yet.

But I didn’t post pictures of her wincing in agony, or sleeping for days.

To the outside world she doesn’t look sick.  She’s 5 foot 8, full of muscle and extremely well-rounded.

She works hard at it.

Some days are easier than others.  But every day she works.  She is fierce and relentless and she does not quit.

Next time you catch a photo of her smiling or singing in a pretty dress know that it took a lot of staging to pull that off, and there will likely be a lot of recovery on the back end.

But, she wouldn’t have it any other way.  Not for a moment.  She is my inspiration to remain…

#beatingcowdens

 

Rare Lives, Rare Disease Day, and So Much More to Come

Thursday, February 28th, 2019 is World Rare Disease Day.

There was a point close to forever ago when that meant nothing to me.  I had never even heard of it.

Our initial Cowden’s Syndrome diagnoses came in the fall of 2011.  Meghan got her’s first, and mine followed soon after.  2012 held the most insane whirlwind of medical and surgical experiences we have ever known.

By the time Rare Disease Day came around in 2013, we had begun to feel the need to raise awareness of our PTEN Mutation causing Cowden’s Syndrome.  Even though we were grateful to have each other, to be 1 in 200,000 can be isolating.

At the time my girl took to the Global Genes Project and learned all she could about rare diseases.  She was most struck by the reality that many children diagnosed with rare diseases don’t live to see their 5th birthday.  She promised she would always try to speak, not only for herself, but also for the “littles” who couldn’t tell their story.

Meghan’s Speech in 4th Grade…

The text of her speech – Meghan Speaks Out!

In 2013 she spoke at her school and at mine.  We handed out denim ribbons, and started opening eyes.

In 2014 we stood together, as she was a student at my elementary school.  She created a video, we did a fundraiser.  There was something empowering about sharing knowledge.

February 2013 Article

In 2014 she met Borough President Oddo and they are still in contact.  He has been a mentor for her through the years.

RDD Blog Through Meghan’s Eyes 2014

Rare Diseases as a whole are common.  One in ten people suffers with a rare disease.  Yet, there are over 7,000 rare diseases and each carries with it it’s own specific challenges.  More than 350 MILLION people suffer from a rare disease, yet it takes 8 years on average for a diagnosis.  https://globalgenes.org/rare-facts/ In the interim, so many people trudge through the day to day challenges alone.  Typically there is no one to relate to their experiences, and even the best intended friends and relatives often tire of the chronic nature of a disease that won’t ever leave.

Raising awareness became a mission of Meghan’s to help people become more compassionate and kinder towards each other.  We have always worked with the understanding that “everyone has something,” and the more we learn empathy and compassion, the further we will get.

Meghan’s early days of speaking in schools, and creating awareness videos evolved into “Jeans for Rare Genes” a fundraiser involving friends, family, and the community.  There have been 4 so far, each one different than the ones before, but all helping to raise funds and awareness for rare diseases.

In December 2013 the PTEN Hamartoma Tumor Syndrome Foundation was born, through the blood, sweat and tears of Kristin Anthony, and with a village, it is growing into a helpful, guiding light in our community.  And, finally Meghan has found the focal point for the fundraising!

(check out some of the links below for some of our journeys)

RDD Meghan’s Video 2015

Twelve Surgeries in Eleven Years Article 2015

RDD Meghan’s Speech and Video 2016

Understanding Cowden’s Syndrome Article

Through the years my girl has been honored as a New York State Woman of Distinction, the youngest ever, in 2016.

She was awarded the “Humanitarian Award” at the Teddy Atlas Dinner in November of 2018.  She has racked up close to 20 surgeries in her young life, and yet she has managed to remain a scholar and an athlete.

Lives now forever intertwined. Kristin Anthony celebrates Meghan’s honor with us.

Celebrating Rare Disease Day is sometimes like going to the worst party ever.  Or, maybe it’s the best.  I guess it depends on how you look at it.  We’re here… stronger.  The community is growing.  Support exists.  Hope exists.

Last summer we were contacted by Aldo Soligno on behalf of the “Rare Lives Project.”  He had worked on this project in Europe and had had much success raising awareness to the government about the lives of people with rare diseases.  We were touched to be asked to be part of his American pilot of this project.  And, while it has not received the funding he had hoped, the release of this summer’s photos on social media has been therapeutic for both of us.

Here are some of the picture released to date.  Photo credit Aldo Soligno.

Please follow “Rare Lives” on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to help them raise awareness of all rare diseases.

Please follow the PTEN Foundation

on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.  Follow their community work, their fundraising, and their efforts to unify with PATIENT FIRST.

This neat initiative is taking place right now, among others!

https://www.facebook.com/ptenrocks/?sfnsw=cl

We are perched in exciting times.  It is a time to reflect, to gather strength and resolve and press forward.

This year I know more people with Cowden’s Syndrome, and more people with other rare diseases.  We are allies and advocates.  We are parents, sisters, brothers and friends.

This year I hold close in my heart a friend’s little one, waiting on her diagnosis.  My heart feels their anguish.  My faith tells me their help will come.

There are still struggles.  Plenty.  But, before telling those stories it was time to remember from where we came.

One thing will not, and has not changed.  We remain forever

#beatingcowdens

(Living) “In Prep for the Climb” – PTEN Awareness Day 10/23/18

I’m aware of Breast Cancer.  As a survivor now of 6 years and the daughter of a 21 year survivor, I am aware as I dry from my shower facing my mastectomy scars every morning, that breast cancer is reality.  As my Facebook feed and my memory are both too full of those we have lost and those who still face this disease, we are aware.  What I wonder, is how much help is the awareness?  It is a topic that could be debated forever, but I’ll change gears first.

Something else I am very aware of is the PTEN gene located on chromosome 10q23, and the perils its associated mutations can cause.  So when the PTEN Foundation let us know that 10/23 was designated PTEN Awareness Day, we were all in.

This blog has, for years been designated to the ups and downs of this mother- daughter duo dealing with Cowden’s Syndrome, the diagnosis we both received in late 2011 after a PTEN mutation was first diagnosed in Meghan, and weeks later in me.

The few years following were an absolute whirlwind of appointments, scans, screenings and surgeries.  We worked to keep our heads above water and just exist.  We considered keeping my job, and maintaining honors status in her school quite the accomplishment.

We were told things over and over, like “don’t let it define you…”

I’ve got some news for you.  You can only walk so far into the fire without retaining the scars.

True awareness of PTEN for us comes with comprehension of the gravity that you have to remain in a vigilant stance of preparation, awaiting attack from your own body at all times.  PTEN patients have ridiculous cancer risks pretty much all throughout, and the VIGILANCE required to stay ahead is utterly grueling.

We are faced with choices to keep the most high risk organs, or remove them prophylactic ally.  We are asked to play the odds.  With our bodies. All the time.

With Meghan the AVM (Arteriovenous Malformation) in her right knee, though quiet now, has caused damage she will deal with forever.  She is 15.  God willing she will walk on those legs another 80 years, each day aware of the pain, and of the symmetry removed from her body forever.

When you have to be vigilant, you have to plan.  There are trades.  You have to decide if you’ll miss school with friends and fall behind in classes or give up the breaks designed to recharge you.

There are no breaks.  February – months away has 3/5 of its break and 2 other days devoted to appointments.  Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January.  Yep – that one too.  Don’t worry, the brain MRI is scheduled for April break….

You have to pick and choose.  And the decisions are hard.  You want to give it all to everything, but HOURS of your world are wasted in bumper to bumper traffic, waiting for the hopeful news that you have another 6 months before you come back.  And if, in fact you don’t get that news the schedule is tossed and it’s game on for scans, analysis and biopsies.

The pain.  No one can really tell us yet from why, but it seems to exist throughout.  The fatigue.  Maybe the thyroid issues, maybe some immunological stuff.  Maybe some connection yet to be determined.  But it’s real.

It’s as real as the number of times we had to decline invitations before most people stopped asking.

We’re not blowing you off.  We’re holding it together – by a shoestring.

Chronic Illness is hard to live, and we get that it’s difficult to watch.  But, it’s real.  And short of a cure, it will never “run it’s course.”  It will not BE us, but it will be PART of us – FOREVER.

“You don’t look sick…”

“You don’t look anxious…”

No, as a matter of fact she looks strong and determined.  She’s been practicing for quite some time.

Sometimes I have to bite my tongue to keep from replying, “You don’t LOOK ignorant either – but at least you can fix that if you WANT to…”

Our rare disease journey has opened our eyes to not only PTEN disorders, but “Lhermitte-Duclos disease,” “Nail-Patella Syndrome,” “Lynch Syndrome,” “Spinal Muscular Atrophy,” “Muscular Dystrophy,” “Neimann- Pic Disease,” ” Neurofibromatosis,” “Acute Myeloid Leukemia” to name just the very tip of the iceberg.  I am more aware than every that everyone struggles.

I’m also a big fan of real pure awareness, for the sake of learning something about other humans I share the planet with.

One of the humans I share my home with has grown up in a totally different direction courtesy of this disease.  And while I am grateful for her diagnosis, as it surely saved my own life, I am sad that she has had to see so much, and manage so much already in her life.

So today, on 10/23, if you’re not living with it yourself, direct yourself to http://www.PTENFoundation.org, or the PTEN Facebook Page and learn an little more about PTEN.

My own girl is working every day to make herself better, physically, mentally and emotionally.  When I have down days, or I just don’t feel well, she reminds me to forgive myself.  “You have it too Mom.”  Indeed I do, and it’s quite a ride…

“Prep for the Climb” Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Together we prepare for the climb each day – and seek out that ‘One Perfect Moment’

For as much as this disease has taken, I am grateful that she is starting to take back control, and is finding her voice as an advocate for herself and others.  (And I love listening to her sing too…)

#Beatingcowdens

Bring It On the Musical – One Perfect Moment Lyrics
2012 Broadway
Bring It On the Musical – One Perfect Moment Lyrics
I’m not freaking out, I’m really okay
I’m totally chill or I will be someday
‘Cause I’m so near the top but there’s so many mountains to climb
There are plans to be planned, drills to be drilled
‘Cause this dream that I’ve dreamed is becoming fulfilled
And I plan to enjoy it but right now, I don’t have the timeFade in on Campbell, an average teenager almost grown
Close-up on average grades from the average life she’s known
Now zoom in the lens on the rest of her friends as she stay alone
Doing the work, getting it right

‘Cause I know we’ll have to be practically perfect
So I’ll go above and beyond and pull through, this I can do
All that I’m asking is one perfect moment in time

I’m seventeen, there are so many things that I can’t control
If I start to freak, or feel weak, I focus on just one goal
Turn down the panic, attack this routine like it owns my soul
Turn up the music so loud that it swallows us whole
And then there we are, we burn like a star
We’re safe inside the world we know
Then suddenly I’m in prep for the climb and here I go
High in the air, there is a moment just before you start to fall
Live in that one moment

I know that if I can just stick the landing
Then I’ll know that somehow my life will be fine
And I’ll go through the rest of my life understanding
What it feels like to shine
The future’s full of mysteries
So please let this be mine
My one perfect moment in time

No Excuses. No Apologies.

Recently I asked that Meghan’s “Present Levels of Performance” on her IEP be updated.  She no longer receives many services, but I find great value in keeping this section current.

There is a great deal of misunderstanding involving Individualized Education Plans (or IEPs) and many people feel only children who struggle academically have an IEP.  This is just not true.

My daughter has had one in place since Kindergarten.  She has consistently maintained high honors, and as a matter of fact was Salutatorian of her 8th grade class, and is in an intensely challenging International Baccalaureate program at her high school.

IEPs by definition, are to “Individualize” the Education Program as needed.  Meghan’s needs are not academic, as much as they are residual connected to the Cowden’s Syndrome, the PTSD, and the medical trauma.  The resulting anxiety affects every area of life, and is far deeper than “teenage angst.”  We work extensively outside of school to address this in many ways, but sometimes we need the school to be on the same page.

Much like you give a medical history to a doctor when you see them for the first time, and you update as situations change, the IEP is to be fluid and updated as changes occur so all personnel will be aware of Meghan’s needs.

I make a habit on the first day of school of copying a few key pages of the document and giving it to her teachers.  Even though they have access, and technically it is their responsibility, I am also a teacher.  I get the pressures placed on us.  So, I make their lives easier by giving them what they need and an invitation to reach out to me with any questions.  Her teachers are historically receptive and appreciative.

This year I was reviewing that section on the document realizing how much was no longer accurate, and how it should be more detailed.

I sat with Meghan to write the summary below:

Meghan is a 15-year-old sophomore in the IB program at School.  Academically she is consistently above average in her classes, attaining high honors every marking period for the 2017-2018 school year.

She is a student athlete as well, participating on the School varsity swim team, as well as Trident Aquatics, a 12 month competitive swim program on the Island.

Meghan has several medical diagnoses.  The most far-reaching is “Cowden’s Syndrome” a mutation on the PTEN (tumor suppressor) Gene, causing benign and malignant tumors as well as vascular malformations.  Recently PTEN mutations have been correlated with low levels of (infection fighting) immunoglobulins, which Meghan also suffers with.

Because of the low immunoglobulin levels Meghan has frequent infections that often require antibiotics for resolution.  She suffers with gastrointestinal distress with each course, and needs to avoid gluten and soy.  She also has an allergy to dairy.

Meghan’s medical challenges are far-reaching.  She has had 18 surgeries, 8 of which have been on her right knee.  There was an arteriovenous malformation (AVM) in that knee.  While it has been controlled, the long-term effects will last forever.  Meghan has leg and foot discrepancies on her right side.  The blood was restricted from flowing to her right foot for so long, that it stopped growing 6 years ago.  The left foot is a full size larger than the right foot.  That right-sided weakness has been repeatedly treated in physical therapy, but still presents as a struggle with stairs, and long walks.  While she endures these activities, they can cause pain and excessive fatigue, and extra time may be necessary between classes located far apart.

Meghan had her thyroid removed in 2014 and the resulting need for synthetic medication has yet to be regulated.  Her current endocrinologist follows her 4 times a year, adjusting, tailoring, and trying to balance her levels.

Meghan had 2 D&C procedures during 7th grade.  Those procedures yielded precancerous tissue in her uterus and prompted the need for birth control pills to try to stop the cellular growth.  Those pills have also been difficult to regulate and balance.

Meghan has been hospitalized countless times in addition to her surgeries.  She has also undergone over 30 MRIs and close to 10CT scans, each requiring IV.  She spends countless hours being poked and prodded at doctors, monitoring her cancer risks.  She is acutely aware of her mortality at an age when most teens are barely aware of their social interests.

In the spring of 2017 Meghan was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, secondary to extensive medical trauma.  She was also diagnosed with major depressive disorder.

In the fall of 2017 Meghan began to develop panic attacks.  Subsequently, she has also been treated for panic and generalized anxiety disorder.

She sees a social worker weekly and has guidance on her IEP in school.  She sees a psychiatrist monthly who manages the medication, which currently consists of and antidepressant and another script for panic attacks.

The panic attacks were well controlled for a time, but flare up in acute anxiety.  This summer saw several severe episodes.  We are working together to help her through all of this.

Meghan is waiting for a service dog, which should arrive in the next 4-6 months, to address the PTSD.  In the mean time, we are teaching strategies to deal with necessary stress, and tools to eliminate unnecessary stress.

I presented this document to the team to update the IEP.  I was a little startled when I was met first with a challenge on the diagnoses.  No problem I told them.  I would send the doctor’s notes.

I love her school, I do.  But, I was in fact also told “She doesn’t LOOK sick”  and “She doesn’t LOOK stressed.”  While I had to breathe a few times before responding, I came up with “You’re welcome…”

We’ve worked quite hard on all of that.  My girl has goals.  Life goals.

Last week Meghan was approached to remove the section regarding the D&Cs from the document above.  She declined.  She was pushed, and told the information was “far too personal.”

Forever practical, Meghan reminded them the document was about her, and should include factual information.

Again pressed, she reminded the staff she helped write the document they were holding.  She wanted and NEEDED her teachers to understand the validity behind her anxiety and PTSD symptoms.

The final time they told her the information was too personal she reminded them that she had done nothing wrong, and had nothing to be embarrassed about.  Meghan is a factual child.  She likes actual truth being reported.  She knows better than to be embarrassed about truth.  She knows ugly truth is a real part of life with Cowden’s Syndrome.  She also knows that secrets give power to things that don’t deserve it.

These things happened to her.

She did not ask for them.

She did not cause them.

She will not hide them.

She will not apologize for them.

She will not let them define her.

But the things that happen to us do change us.  HOW they change us is the only thing we can work to control.

I will continue to work the Mom end to get this updated.

I am beyond proud of her growing confidence, and her desire to educate.

I am proud of her desire to be a scholar and an athlete in spite of all the adversity.

I am proud of her respect for the clock as she grows as a swimmer, and her desire to be the same as everyone else, by beating the same clock.

My girl is, and shall remain

#beatingcowdens

And that is why we continue to work on the journey towards treatments and a cure.

Please consider joining us or making a contribution.  You can reach us at jfrg.pten@gmail.com