A Perfect Storm

 

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.

 And an IV that went unused…

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…

#beatingcowdens

It’s Not Over Yet…

Tonight my search for perspective was harder than it normally is.

Tonight I needed a glass (or two) of wine, some time alone in my office, and plenty of music.

And as the lyrics roll through my head in the eclectic mess that spans, Contemporary Christian, Classic Rock, and some alternative memories from back in the day, I somehow start to find myself again.

I am generally a very positive person.  I am able to find blessings in unlikely and hard to reach places.  I make a point of focusing on these things for so many reasons.  Primarily, I find it is necessary to be positive for my health.  While I don’t believe a positive attitude alone will cure illness, I do firmly believe a negative one, or a constant state of stress and worry can worsen illness.  We certainly don’t need that.

But, lately I’ve been frustrated.  I’m even a little angry.  You see – everything is NOT fine.

And I’ve been avoiding my computer because I’d rather write when my perspective is in its proper place.  One of the reasons I love to blog is because I can get right in my head by the time I’m done.  I can typically work through whatever is gnawing at me.

There are drafts in my folder.  Unpublished, unfinished work.  I’ve tried, but I’m struggling.

Logic leads me to retrace the obvious.

In our house the diagnoses came about five and a half years ago.  I was 38 and Meghan was 8.

In most of the people I’ve interfaced with who have Cowden’s Syndrome, their diagnosis is less than 10 years old.  I know there are others, but this is the majority.

There is a growing group of us who are parents.  Now, in my case, my diagnosis was made BECAUSE of Meghan’s.  But, in many cases the opposite is true.  There comes a point where the signs are either apparent, or subtle, and something prompts the formal diagnosis of PTEN Hamartoma Tumor Syndrome, in some form, in our children.

Anecdotally, we are not the only house where the syndrome seems to manifest worse a generation down.  This is a story I have heard many times.

There is a special kind of knot that forms in your stomach and lingers, forever, when you realize that you are somehow responsible, in an unintentional, yet undeniable way.  Your child has this syndrome because, even with a current estimate of a 1 in 200,000 diagnosis it is an autosomal dominant condition, which means that if you have the mutated PTEN gene, 50% of the time, it will pass to your child.

Between us, since Meghan was born in 2003 there have been 30 or more trips to an operating room.  On 18 of those visits I have watched my girl head into surgery.

And I know all the blessings bestowed upon us.  I know the beauty of benign biopsies, and the gratitude of legs that allow for walking when the alternative has certainly been possible.  I know the strength and resilience of my daughter, and the grace of God alone.  I know the grit of a child just out of her 7th knee surgery who understands the recovery process better than any PA she will meet in the surgeon’s office.  I know the feeling of bruises on my knees as I give thanks for my child who is ABLE to recover.  I get it.  I truly do.  I’m grateful.  I am.

But, you know what else?  Sometimes I get angry.  And, that’s OK too.

I’m learning that part of being able to be positive is allowing myself to FEEL and WORK THROUGH ALL the emotions that come my way.  Even the ones that hurt.  Even the ugly ones that don’t have flowers and rainbows attached.

This is reality.  This is our reality.  And I am not about comparisons.  I do not profess to understand anyone else’s reality any more than I could expect them to understand mine.  I do not use words like “worse” or “better” or “harder” or “easier” or “fair” or “unfair.”

What I can tell you about our reality is that 18 is too many surgeries for a 13-year-old girl.

I can also tell you there will be more.  For both of us.

Vigilance, a necessary reality to keep us in front of the astronomical cancer risks associated with Cowden’s Syndrome will lead to more surgery.  And we will hope and pray each is followed by a benign biopsy, or an encouraging word from an orthopedic surgeon trying to preserve a knee damaged by a mischievous AVM.

When I got my diagnosis, I was almost 40.  I was married.  I had a little girl.  I had a home.  A career.

When my girl received her diagnosis she was in 3rd grade.

Swallow that.

It doesn’t taste very good.

Cowden’s Syndrome is isolating.  In addition to numerous food issues, and immunological issues, and significant knee trouble (understatement of the year,)  there are SO MANY doctor’s appointments.  There are countless blood draws.  There are so many days I pick her up at school and we do ANOTHER 4-5 hours round trip in the car, traveling to NYC, sitting in traffic, parking, waiting, sitting in more traffic…

As connected as social media can help you be, there is a lack of connectedness that is inherent with not being there.  Being absent.  Being unable to go on certain trips.  Being unable to do the things kids your age can do…

When I was a child I always “knew” something was wrong with the ridiculous number of surgeries I had, but it was different.  It was not the same as knowing for sure that your genetic mutation was going to guide portions of your life whether you like it or not.

When you have one thing wrong, whether you break an arm, or have your wisdom teeth out, or your tonsils, people seem to know what to say.  When you constantly have something wrong, some type of surgery, or some type of recovery on the agenda, it gets harder for everyone.

People don’t know what to say.  So they don’t…

Cowden’s Syndrome can be very isolating.

What about our children?  What about our children who are being diagnosed younger and younger?  To some extent, yes, “Knowledge is Power,” but at what cost?

We are forced to make the logical choice for necessary screening appointments, and often surgery, while often having to skip social, cultural, or sporting events.

We are forced to say no to social engagements so often, that people forget to keep asking.

Our youngest children at diagnosis may not fully understand the scope of what is now their’s.  But, they will.  If they have a parent with the same syndrome they will watch.  Everything.  If they are the first in the family they will piece it together.  Really there comes a point there is no keeping it from them.  Then what?

I am blessed with a young lady who reads like a book-worm, and has a solid comprehension of people, personalities, and her environment.  I am left only with the option to tell her the truth.

Sometimes the truth gets stuck in your throat, burns a bit, or leaves some nasty reflux.  Yet, still that bitter pill is the only one we’ve got.

I sometimes wonder how different things could have been, if…

But it is my girl who stops me.  Without this diagnosis she knows I would not be here.  My breast cancer was uncovered by her diagnosis and that diagnosis undoubtedly saved my life.  Without Cowden’s Syndrome she knows she would have become someone different.  Someone else.  And that wouldn’t have been right.

While I don’t believe in a God who wants us to suffer, I believe in one who uses that suffering to allow us to become a better version of ourselves.

My girl started Junior High with a broken foot.  During her 3 years there she endured less than perfect social relationships (read, a few very mean children and my child who didn’t always have the patience to contend with teenage normalcy) and 7 surgeries.  SEVEN. Seven recoveries, and pre and post operative visits too.  She did that while holding an average of well over 95% every single marking period.  She did that while making enormous strides as a competitive swimmer.  She did that while learning that she had a the voice of a singer hiding inside.  She did that while performing in several productions, practicing after school for months each year.  She did that while spearheading 3 successful PTEN Fundraisers, essentially putting Cowden’s Syndrome in the vocabulary of our community.  She’s ending Junior High on crutches.  Unfortunate bookends, or a reminder of the strength and resilience of a young lady who refuses to be defined by her disease.

I am sometimes not even sure if she is aware of her accomplishments, as she is so busy pushing onward to stop and notice.

Who sets the example here?

I guess I need to stop hiding from my computer.  Perspective never really leaves.  Sometimes it just needs to be worked through.

This diagnosis stinks.  This syndrome is a real bear to contend with.  It is lonely and isolating and leaves little time to even see family, let alone friends. However, as the saying goes –

And that is probably the real perspective.

And almost as if perfectly timed, I found my title for this blog – as the Pandora radio plays..

“They are inside your head
You got a voice that says
You won’t get past this one
You won’t win your freedom

It’s like a constant war
And you want to settle that score
But you’re bruised and beaten
And you feel defeated

This goes out to the heaviest heart

Oh, to everyone who’s hit their limit
It’s not over yet
It’s not over yet
And even when you think you’re finished
It’s not over yet
It’s not over yet
Keep on fighting
Out of the dark
Into the light
It’s not over
Hope is rising
Never give in
Never give up
It’s not over…”

(It’s Not Over Yet – For King and Country)

#beatingcowdens

AHCA, High Risk Pools, and My Child’s Future

I am angry.  I am hurt.  I am worried.

I have stayed out of politics through the entire tumultuous 2016.  I have serious issues with many politicians.  I am not here to talk about them directly.  I am here to talk about an issue that transcends political party affiliation.  I will not engage in a debate about Democrats or Republicans, or the should have/ would have/ could have game that people like to play with each other.

This is far  more serious, and more important than any of that.  This is about my daughter.  It is about her life.  Her future.  And, it is about the lives of millions of American citizens, myself included.

I will concede that there are problems with health care in America.  I will even agree that healthcare the way it exists today needs change.  However, when I look at a situation that needs change, I think it through carefully.  I work through every detail. I weigh out repercussions and ramifications.

The Bill that passed the House today, in my opinion was put together in an attempt to score a “win” for our President.

When millions lose. No one wins.  That’s not just the math teacher in me.  That’s real.

Three years ago I was in a car accident.  It was a terrible situation, and I was T-boned at an intersection.  I will contend to my dying day that the truck that barreled through me was speeding so fast it never should have made it to me before I cleared the intersection.  I had the stop. I stopped.  He never saw me and it took almost a block, in a school zone, for his truck to finally stop moving.  Because the stop sign was mine, I was assessed with most of the fault for the accident.  It made me furious.  I was told speeding could not be “proven” despite the absence of skid marks.  The other 6 accidents that happened at that intersection in the months preceding were not helpful either.  In the end, I was grateful for my life.  I walked away and took the penalty on my insurance.  I paid that accident penalty for three years.  And, while it did not make me happy, I did it.   The accident penalty was annoying, but affordable, less than $200 a year.

The car accident happened once.  It might happen again, but it will not happen regularly.  I am 25 years driving, with one accident and no moving violations.  I have proven I am not a reckless driver.   I have control over that.  Full control, and I take my driving very seriously.

I also take health very seriously.  Unfortunately, there are aspects of my health I do not have full control over.  My daughter and I have a rare genetic disorder called Cowden’s Syndrome.  She is 30 years my junior, and at 13 and 43 we have seen the inside of an operating room close to 45 times combined.  Cowden’s syndrome causes tumor growth.  It carries with it an astronomically high risk of many cancers, most notable breast, thyroid and uterus.  It carries also significantly elevated risks of kidney, colon, skin, and other cancers.  Many of our tumors are benign.  Some are not.  The only route we have to long term SURVIVAL is constant surveillance.

Many doctors recommend surgery to remove things that are high risk.  Thankfully, that suggestion proved life-saving for me in 2012 when a “prophylactic” bilateral mastectomy revealed stage 1 breast cancer.  I was fortunate.

Two months ago I had surgery to remove a benign tumor from my vocal cords.  It was impairing my ability to breathe and speak.

In 16 days my daughter will undergo the 18th surgery in her young life – the 7th on her right knee.  Cowden’s Syndrome carries a high correlation to vascular malformations like the Arteriovenous Malformation (AVM) that grew in that knee.  After 6 embolizations to curtail the blood flow, she now deals with the repercussions of having blood lingering in the knee.  There is wearing away of tissue causing the patella to shift.  There is extreme pain, not just in the knee, but all through her body.  Her right foot stopped growing years ago, but the left one kept at it.  Now a full size apart,  different in length and width, her 5’8″ frame feels the repercussions with every step.  She is regularly at the chiropractor in attempts to minimize pain medication and keep her in alignment.  Pain medication caused such GI distress in 2014 that she spent a week in the hospital.  Cellular changes in the esophagus are not good in anyone.  At 10, with a condition that causes tumor growth, it was certainly another wake up call.  We gladly purchase 2 entirely different shoes every time she needs a new pair.  We are grateful she walks.

That is just the tip of what this child has endured in under 14 years on this earth.  She has had her thyroid removed with 19 nodules and suspicion of malignancy at the age of 10.  We still work to balance levels synthetically.  She had had TWO D&C procedures to eradicate suspicious tissue in her uterus.  She has had a lipoma removed from her back and vascular malformations from each palm.  She has lost her gall bladder.  She fights, stands up.  Moves forward, and gets smacked in the face again.

Soon after our diagnoses in 2011, another mom told me Cowden’s Syndrome requires vigilance.  I got it.  I am on it.  All the time.  And with the GRACE of God alone, we are walking the path the best way we can.

We average between 6 and 10 appointments a month between us.  The copays and travel costs are often daunting.  But, we are fortunate.  We have two good jobs my husband and I tell ourselves.  We have good insurance.

We are careful with every morsel of food that enters her body.  We eat largely organic and non-GMO to let her body use all its energy to stay healthy instead of fighting contaminants.  Even at that she is acutely sensitive to almost all gluten, dairy and soy.

We treat as naturally as we can, often incurring bills, as these treatments are rarely covered.  Yet, still we prioritize health because we realize its value.  And we remember how fortunate we are.  We have good insurance.  We have two good jobs.

My daughter is awesome.  And, not just because she is my daughter.  She is a respectful, kind-hearted young lady.  She has the voice of an angel.  She acts in the plays at school.  She reads for fun.  She swims passionately.  She is an honor student.  She talks about her future, and what she will do with her life.  I have no doubt she has the capability to make a real difference in this world, regardless of her career path.  Today however, I am left to wonder.  Will any job ever be enough?

If the AHCA passes the Senate, we will likely be placed in an unregulated “high-risk pool.”  This is not like my car accident.  This is not a minor inconvenience.  This has the potential to decide the course she will have to take with her adult life, as her health issues will not go away.  We have this genetic mutation with all its risks and ramifications for life.  Lifetime caps, potentially re-instituted will likely be met in her 20s, if not before.

There is no way at all to prove where the mutation came from.  I’d ask you to indulge in a theory with me a moment.  My father, a Vietnam Veteran was heavily exposed to Agent Orange as a Marine in 1967-1968.  My mutation was traced to my father.  He never manifested with Cowden’s Syndrome, but somehow passed that mutation on to me.  Wouldn’t it be ironic, if that toxic exposure in the jungles of Vietnam, in an attempt to fight for his country, ultimately led to this condition in his daughter and granddaughter?  Dad died in 2013, pancreatic cancer that may or may not have been Agent Orange related.  I’m glad he is not here to see the reality that our government may be on the cusp of turning it’s back on his family.

I was raised a proud American.  In addition to my Dad, I have three Grandfathers who were World War II Veterans.  I value the principles this country was founded on.  I am grateful for the freedoms I have in this country.

I have not been raised to use the phrase, “that’s not fair,” but I will ask you to consider a few things.

Last night as I watched the news my head spun as I heard elected officials allege that people with pre-existing conditions have not led good lives.  I am not here to compare, but I will tell you our “pre-existing” condition has NOTHING to do with lifestyle choices.  And if you do not like the site this link came from – scroll to the video.  Hear it from his mouth.

http://www.politicususa.com/2017/05/01/gop-congressman-people-pre-existing-conditions-bad-people-pay.html

I can name dozens of people off the top of my head, as close as within my own family, that would be grossly negatively affected by the establishment of “high risk” pools.

Should a cancer survivor, an MS patient, a diabetic, a person with a brain tumor, a rare heart condition,  a genetic mutation, or countless other conditions be forced to make decision on the path their life should take because they are too expensive?  Are they less valuable?  Do they matter less?

Should we be asked to decide whether or not to keep critical screening appointments, or have access to necessary medication blocked by cost?

We have two good jobs, and this whole thing terrifies me.  But, I will not be controlled by that terror.

This post will reach my Senators today.  Social media can be used for good.   I have a voice.  I will not be quiet about this.

Tell your story.  And if you can’t find your own words, share mine.  Let our Senators know that we are real.  We are not numbers.  We are not a cost-cutting measure.  We have faces, and names.  We matter.  We all matter.

We are determined to remain

#beatingcowdens

We will not be silent!

It’s Complicated…

I was in the stairwell close to the 5th floor of the nursing home where my grandmother resides when the phone rang.  I paused, startled by the ring, and trying to suppress my slightly out of shape panting before I acknowledged the call clearly coming from the medical office we had visited earlier that day.

It was Tuesday the 11th.  “Spring Break” had begun Saturday the 8th.  Early that Saturday morning I had left on a road trip alone to the Marine Corps Base in Quantico where I had the privilege of watching a Marine who served with my Dad receive the Bronze Star with Valor – almost 50 years after the day it was earned.  It was a whirlwind trip – 5 hours down that morning, and a busy, fun, emotional day that lasted well past midnight.  I returned to Staten Island by 12:30 PM Sunday, in time to catch Meghan’s 1 PM Swim meet.  Felix took “off” the workweek and spent Monday and Tuesday overseeing the installation of air conditioning in our house.  It was 24 hours well spent – 12 each day- but the inevitable trail of dust and dirt needed to be tended to as well.  So, I had headed to this appointment alone with Meghan earlier in the day.  Now I was trying to visit with Grandma, although she’s often unsure I was ever there… I still know.

I took a deep breath before I answered.

A lovely young woman, whose cheery voice caused me to immediately forget her name asked, “Is this Meghan’s mother?”  That is my favorite title- depending on whose asking.  I tried my best to muster and equally cheery, “Yes, it is.”

“Oh, good.  I was asked to set up Meghan’s surgical date.”

Sigh,  Even though I knew the call was coming – it doesn’t get easier.  I also knew I had very specific directions from Meghan that I was to “get it done as fast as possible.”

“How soon can we do this?”  I asked.

“My first available is May 11th.”

“REALLY?  A whole month?”  I thought of the anticipation and the anxiety that would build as the pain increased.  Then I realized something worse.  May 11th is opening night for “Bye Bye Birdie,” her school play.  Cast as Rosie she’s been preparing forever.  There was just no way.  I swallowed hard.

“What if I can’t take that date?”  I held my breath,

Cheery changed her tune.  I’m sure she thought I was being difficult.  I tried to explain.  No luck.

“The next date is May 20th, then you’re into June.”

I was playing out the June calendar in my brain.  ComicCon with Dad, school dance, graduation, West Virginia… forget about the Long Course Swim Season and the 2 meets we knew she’d have to scratch out of, and the last CYO Swim meet she’d ever be eligible for- that was out too.

There was never going to be a good time to be out of commission.

Deep breath.  “Any chance you’ll have cancellations?”

“No.”

“Ok then.  May 20th it is.”

And after telling me I’d need to give up a day the week before for formal pre-surgical testing, which is a first for us, as she grows up, I didn’t bother to explain I’d just missed 16 days of work for vocal cord surgery.  I just said, “Thank you.”

Meghan’s relationship with her right knee is complicated.  It started giving her trouble before she could talk, as her first babysitter will attest to hours rubbing that knee.  As she grew, it got worse.  It always seemed to bother her.  She pushed, and pushed.  Eventually it was hot to the touch and pulsating.  The diagnosis came in 2008, after multiple mis-diagnoses, including “her pants are too tight.”  Finally, a team at Sloan Kettering, adept at ruling out cancer, was able to diagnose a high flow arteriovenous malformation (AVM) in that knee.  We were sent off to Interventional Radiology at Lenox Hill, where the doctor confidently told us he could eliminate this AVM in “one procedure – 2 tops.”  Between December of 2009 and February of 2012 there were 4 embolizations on that knee.

The doctor seemed almost relieved when she was diagnosed with Cowden’s Syndrome in the fall of 2011.  It seemed as if he felt better about himself, like there was another explanation to justify why the darn thing just wouldn’t quit.  By that point she was being run through the surgical mill, so we welcomed the 2 and a half years of monitoring.  It seemed to stabilize.

But, as everything overlaps and one thing leads to another, there was pain.  There was pain that she was repeatedly told should not be there.  Yet, no matter what they said, the pain was there, and it was consistent, and it was real.  She pressed through.  She stopped soccer and tried dance.  The knee was cut out for neither.  She found her way into the pool in the spring of 2013.

By that fall we had signed her up for a 12 month competitive swim team, and things were looking up.  She swam a full year, getting stronger, becoming more confident, and finally feeling like an athlete.

There were other surgeries in between.  And there was that knee pain.She had been prescribed Celebrex to substitute for the Advil that was being consumed in clearly excessive quantity to allow her to function.  And the Celebrex was wonderful.  Until it wasn’t.

And in May of 2014, two months after a complete thyroidectomy (thank you Cowden’s) she lay in the hospital in severe GI distress.  It took a week to stabilize her.  I was scared.  Out went the Celebrex, fried food, and a whole host of other goodies.

But, little did I realize, that Celebrex was likely the reason the AVM had quieted down.  Apparently the drug has properties that work on blood flow.  A few months off of the Celebrex and all hell broke loose.  Literally.  It was November of 2014, the Tuesday night before Thanksgiving when she collapsed outside of swim practice, unable to walk.  Our travels that night took us directly to Lenox Hill ER because we were sure it was the AVM in action again.

Proven right when the surgeon showed up early the next morning giving me a surgical time for her, they drained 50ccs of blood from the knee that day.

Blood and bone and tissue are not friendly.  It’s like neighbors invading space.  You can tolerate it for a while, but it doesn’t take long before the damage is irreparable.  It became evident there was structural damage beginning because the blood had begun to wear things away and allow the knee cap to move to places it did not belong.

We were advised to consult with an orthopedist, and we did.  He wanted a coordinated arthroscopy where both he and the interventional radiologist would be in the OR together.  It became an orthopedic procedure.  The patella was moved back where it belonged.  Things were cleaned out.  Recovery was smooth relative to the emobolizations.  We were told it would last a few years.

In January 2017 we were pretty much released from interventional radiology.  We were told the AVM seemed quiet and we need only bring her back if she becomes symptomatic again.  In February the knee pain started again.  Slow, but steady, it kept growing in duration and consistency.  At a routine visit the orthopedist mentioned the potential need for another arthroscopy.  He reviewed the January MRI and showed us where the patella had shifted again.  He said her growth plates were “wide open” (a scary thought at over 5’7″) and that this would continue to be an issue at least until she finishes growing.  He offered her a “patella stabilizing brace” for 6 weeks, to see if it would do the job he wanted done.

Tuesday the 11th he looked at her knee for less than 2 minutes before he started making plans for the surgery.  He explained to us what he needed to cut and move, and why it was time to get it done.  We had the necessary conversations about length of time out of the pool, and other restrictions.  We left, quiet and resolved.  The only thing she asked me was to just get it done as soon as possible.

So when the phone rang in the hall last Tuesday afternoon, I felt sucker-punched, again.  Regardless of how many times I tell myself, and her, that it “could be worse” and we have to “look at the bright side,” the reality is that sometimes it sucks.  And that’s just the frank honest truth.  Scheduling your 7th knee surgery in 13.5 years is just not ok, not even a bit.  I was grateful for Grandma, and the ability to be distracted for a bit.  Without her memory, she is just real.  That was a good day.  And that day she loved having me.  I cherished the visit.

I spent Wednesday in the grocery shopping marathon, and Wednesday night at swim.

Thursday was for an extensive blood draw for Meghan and a triple dermatologist appointment.  Meghan headed to play practice, and I traveled to my vocal follow up in NYC.

My report was adequate, but not what I had hoped for.  Still swelling.  Still be very careful.  Still rest when you can.  Still exercise caution when you get back into your program on the 19th.

Friday was for vocal therapy.  And for trying to put the house back together.  And for painting upstairs, and washing the dist off the curtains, and visiting my in-laws.  It was our 17th Anniversary.  We sneaked an hour or two for dinner together…

Saturday was voice lessons, and…

Somehow it bled into Sunday, and Easter and some time with family.  But, it was immediately back to the painting.

By Monday I was waiting for the blood results, hoping to catch a call from one of the three doctors on the order.  We hit the orthodontist to have the retainer tightened, and a few things at Costco before it was time for swim…

I am focusing on the sunny days.  I am trying to find some time within the chaos to be still.

I asked Meghan why she was so uptight the other day.  It really was a stupid question.  This was the grossly abbreviated version of ONE aspect of her real life.

And tomorrow she will have to practice smiling and responding to the question “How was your break?”  in the only socially acceptable way.  “It was fine, how about you?”

Fine… it has so many meanings.  We don’t want to bring people down all the time.  It gets hard to have a conversation sometimes though.  Felix and I realized in the years since we’re married, one of us has been in an operating room somewhere in the neighborhood of 34 times.  A lot of our days are spent recovering.  Physically, mentally and emotionally recovering.  Fighting financially against incorrect billing, and generally trying to breathe.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we would not trade our lives for anyone’s.  However, just like in anyone’s life, some days are better than others.

I’m anxious for a vacation not peppered with appointments and surgeries.

Until then, maybe I should teach Meghan to answer “How was your vacation?” with “It’s complicated…”

#beatingcowdens

To Do Lists, Digital Footorints and Random Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet, we WILL make it- all of us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Meghan Ortega saved her Mother’s Life

12 Year Old With Rare Genetic Disorder Chosen as Inspirational Islander

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

12 Surgeries in 11 Years- Living with Cowdens Syndrome

Meghan Ortega- NYS Senate

I’ll take that top five any day.

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

Meghan in her elementary school with one of her idols- Borough President James Oddo
Meghan in her elementary school with one of her idols- Borough President James Oddo
An old one - when Meghan was named "Hero of the Month" by Child Life after an early surgery
An old one – when Meghan was named “Hero of the Month” by Child Life after an early surgery
SI Children's Museum Achievement Luncheon Award
SI Children’s Museum Achievement Luncheon Award
Rare Disease shirts from the PTEN Foundation
Rare Disease shirts from the PTEN Foundation
One of my most proud - NYS Woman of Distinction, nominated by Senator Lanza in May 2016
One of my most proud – NYS Woman of Distinction, nominated by Senator Lanza in May 2016

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

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

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

2017 Event Flyer
                                                                       2017 Event Flyer

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

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

#BeatingCowdens together

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

Choose Positive….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

famous-time-quote-and-saying

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

character4

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

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

#beatingcowdens

#everysingleday

#perspective

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Default to Kindness

spirit-swim

Meghan loves to swim.  I mean, athletically it wasn’t where she started, but the knees.  Six surgeries on the right knee, and there was to be no more soccer, and no more dance.  After the 6th one, there was to be even no more breaststroke.  There is no gym class in school.  There is limited walking.  There is one foot, a size bigger than the other.  The “off sides” that that creates in her body can be quite painful.  But, the pool…

Oh, how my girl loves the pool.  She is an athlete.  She is a competitor.  And the pool allows her to be both of those things to the best of her ability.

For the 3rd time in the 4th year since joining swimming, this September brought a new coach for her, and a new group of teammates.  There was anxiety about the switch on so many levels.  But, as we always say, life has a funny way of working out.

swim4

This coach is a perfect fit for her.  They practice hard, and often.  He is structured, and firm.  But he is compassionate, and constructive.  He watches.  There are sometimes 50 or more swimmers in the pool when he coaches, and I swear he does his best to make some comment to each of them every practice.  And, after they compete, his feedback always connects to practice.

And practice, for Meghan, has not been a problem.  While maintaining a “Pupil Path” account that no one could ever critique, and planning a major fundraiser, and looking for high schools, and managing doctors appointments, and a mom who doesn’t feel quite herself, this girl has, most weeks, attended practice, Monday, Thursday and Friday afternoon, as well as Tuesday, Friday, and Sunday morning.  Quite literally, swimming is good for her health.

Swimming can be a very solitary sport.  It takes a good deal of mental toughness to stare at a black line for hours.  Interactions with teammates on deck or during dryland (out of water training) are cherished.

swim6

Even then, as the “new kid” in the group, you can sometimes wonder about the relationships.  Meghan has been very careful not to share too much of her Cowden’s story with these swimmers.  She wants to be viewed as one of them, and she is doing a good job holding her own, all by herself.

And then there was today.  We were at a meet and she was scheduled to swim the 200 yard butterfly.  If you swim, no explanation is needed.  If you don’t let me give you a frame of reference.  For the group she swam with today, 72 girls swam the 100 yard freestyle.  10 signed up to swim the 200 yard butterfly.  It is not an event for the faint of heart.

Meghan feared disappointing, herself, her coach. me.  She was scared out of her mind.  So scared that it was out of character.  Out of character for a child that has had 17 surgeries, and countless tests. ER visits, and hospitalizations.  She was that scared.

And as the race approached I watched helplessly from the stands as she began to unravel.  And I watched with a grateful heart as teammates picked her up and put her back together again.

persistence3

The one who I can only say was acting as my angel, talked her right onto the block.  It only took a second of my attempt to video the race to see that something was terribly wrong.  There sat her goggles, first mid face, then in her mouth occluding her breathing.  In butterfly you can not break stroke.  At the end of the first 50 she stopped.  She was done.

My heart sank, and ached for her.  I wanted to pick her up and hug her, and take her back to the rocking chair I used to use when she was a baby.  But she’s 13 now – so I could only watch.

swim5

The official came to her and asked if she wanted to try again in the next heat.  There were 2 lanes open.  She said yes.  And as they placed her in one heat, her friend, my angel, came to the official and asked if Meghan could swim, “in the lane next to me.”  She said yes, and as Meghan barely got settled on the block, another teammate flagged the official to wait a moment.  Meghan’s goggles were still not on.

The start went fine this time.  The goggles stayed on.  And she did it.  The whole thing.

By the time she got to her last 2 laps, most of the other girls were finishing.  But, then there was more magic.  There was cheering, from her teammates and strangers alike.  There was a push for her to get finished, to press on, and to make it.  So, she did.

I think I cried the last two laps.  I was struck by this child of mine, her life, the adversity, and the stubbornness.  The ability to not give up.  The desire to be normal, and to succeed. And as she touched the wall her team mate, that same angel, swam right into her lane and gave her the biggest, most genuine hug.

She did it.

Not too shabby for the first time.  And more than one teammate whom she respects greatly told her they gave her credit for getting up and trying it again.  So did her coach.

Meghan isn’t the “cool” kid.  She sometimes struggles a little.  But, she remains true to herself at all times.

Today, she got to see the kindness in others.  It was pure.  It was genuine.  It was unsolicited.  It was the best kind.

13-18 year olds can be a tough group.  But these kids showed today that when they are left at their “default” setting, when they are alone and see soemone hurting, they will choose kindness and compassion.

She is asleep.  Tomorrow is another day of swimming.  But, those events won’t cause this angst.

Gratitude fills my heart, that once again even at the toughest moment, good shines through.

And as she said goodnight, she told me, “Next month, when I swim the 200 fly…”

swimming

Endurance.  Persistence.  Stamina.

#beatingcowdens