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

Triage- A Way of Life

Triage.  The word hangs with me like the memories of countless Emergency Room visits.

Triage. Take care of the most serious first.

It’s the reason we might wait hours for stitches, and barely a moment for a trauma.

I get it.  It makes sense in the ER.  It also makes sense on the battlefield, or in other places where there is widespread injury to be treated.

The thing is, you typically don’t stay in those places FOREVER.

Places we equate with triage are not places of comfort.  And that’s where this life with Cowden’s Syndrome can get tricky.

You see, lately I can’t shake the feeling that life is triage.  24/7/365 damage assessment, and handling the most critical first.  Vigilant.  Hyper-vigilant.  ALL.  THE.  TIME.

When you live with a chronic illness, a syndrome that causes cancer by its very definition, it is so easy to get wrapped up in monitoring and preventative care.  And then there are the times that you go for those monitoring appointments and they require their own follow-up.  This condition can easily morph into a beast that can swallow you whole.

And we’re at it times 2.

What I refuse to allow this syndrome to do is take away any more from my daughter’s life  than it has.  To the best of our ability, she will do “teenage” things, and she will do things she enjoys.

But, lately that has become quite the juggling act.

I am monitored twice a year by endocrinology (post thyroidectomy), my breast surgeons, and dermatology.  I am monitored annually by gyn oncology, and oncology.  This is post-bilateral mastectomy (stage 1 DCIS) and post hysterectomy.  I am monitored every 5 years for colonoscopy.  I am also monitored with abdominal ultrasounds for 4 hamartomas on my spleen, and a cyst on my kidney.  This may not seem all that impressive, but those are just the appointments if everything goes well.  That’s not additional scanning, blood work and biopsies.  None of them are close to home either.

Not to mention, I am still searching for a local primary care doctor.  In addition, there is dental work, both routine, and the emergencies the stress from grinding my teeth keep causing.  I’ve been referred to another oncologist who specializes in genetic diseases, and I need to get in to see her.  I just completed vascular surgery, with its pre and post op appointments and recovery as well.

That’s just me.  Me, and my full-time job.  And, like every mother, my needs are not the most important.

My girl sees endocrinology twice a year.  She is still, 4 years post-op, trying to get thyroid function balanced.  She sees gastroenterology, and dermatology twice a year.  She also sees an adolescent gyn twice a year, courtesy of precancerous tissue already uncovered in her teenage uterus.  She sees a chiropractor every 2-3 weeks for pain management.  Right now, amid diagnosis of the small brain tumors, she is seeing neurology every three months for new MRI scans.  She sees orthopedics every 8 weeks.  They have been monitoring her knee for years, and recently stubborn tendonitis in the shoulder.  There have been a few MRIs of late.  She has seen physical therapy weekly since the fall, and is now working on twice a week.

She is tired.  Partially because of her schedule, and partially because of her sleep patterns.  Despite a regular bed time, she struggles to get quality sleep.  It is hard to turn her brain off, and for her to get rest.

She has developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and anxiety, secondary to consistent medical trauma.  She is working through it – but, like everything else, it is a great deal of work.

She is awaiting word that her service dog is ready.  The call could come any time in the next 6 or so months, but we are hopeful this dog will help her through what can be some trying times.

She is an honor student.  She is a swimmer – at least 5 days a week, for 12-15 hours a week.  She is in weekly vocal lessons, and a theater group that meets 3.5 hours a week.  She enjoys a local church youth groups.

She has food allergies – restricted from dairy, gluten and soy.  And seasonal allergies to all things pollen.

None of this includes normal things.  Like dentist and orthodontist visits, or even haircuts.

It is easy to get isolated.

She has a strong sense of what is right and wrong, and can be rigid in her perceptions.  But, life has shown her things most adults, let alone people her age, have ever seen.   Just as that strong mindedness flusters me, I refuse to try to break it down.  It is that same will that has gotten us where we are.

And where we are, is in TRIAGE.

My iphone calendar is with me everywhere.  I prioritize swim and theater over doctors when I can.  Physical Therapy is a high on the list right now for pain management and strengthening.

Vocal lessons keep her going, as she can sing herself through a lot of stress.  Theater is just a fun group of children, and I am not willing to sacrifice that.

I have a list by my desk of “next up” appointments, and because our availability is so limited, I am often booking months out.  We travel to most – NYC or LI.  Short on miles – but up to 2 hours each way – often.

We stack them when we can.  Two appointments are a bonus, three is a banner day.

And every year about this time I dream of a summer light on appointments.  I’ve yet to see it come true.  Truth be told, almost every school holiday and every vacation is cluttered with things we need to do, but would rather not.

There is a blessing in knowing what we are fighting.  There is blessing in having a warning system in place.  But, there are still some days when I’m totally overwhelmed that I wish I didn’t know so much.

Triage.

Triage means that right now the physical and emotional health of my teenager trumps all.

So she swims 5 days.  We do PT 1-2 nights after swim. We see “other” doctors midweek on the one day there is no swim.  We do voice, and theater on Saturday.

I make my appointments on weekends when my husband can drive.  I make my appointments a year out so I can stack three in one day in the summer and on February break.  I schedule our surgeries for February of Easter vacation when I can.

I plan our fundraiser now for October, so as not to give it up, but in hopes of finding an easier time.

I research at night.  There is always a need to learn what most of our doctors do not know.

I write, when I can.  I love it and I miss it, but time just doesn’t seem to allow.

Hair, nails, eyebrows, and things I used to enjoy are forced into holes in the calendar, every once in a while.

Dust builds in places I never used to allow it.

Friends, well I have to trust they get it and they’ll be around when there is a change in the current status of things.  I miss them.

Triage.

It starts early in the morning, waking up a teen who just hasn’t slept well.

It continues through the day – my job and her school.

After school is all about making it work.  Swim, PT, or whatever therapy the night brings.

There are often phone calls, requests for lab reports, or battles about IEP needs…  Emails go through the iphone.

Usually we are out of the house about 13 hours.

At night we pack everything so that we can be ready to begin again.

Triage.

Most critical right now is allowing my teenager to find her way, in school, in sports, and in her life.  Most critical is giving her very real scenarios where her disease does not define her, and she is able to achieve in spite of her challenges, not because of them.

In order to make this happen, everything revolves around her schedule.  There are opinions about that in all directions.  There are people who would tell me I am creating an entitled, self-absorbed human.  I don’t pay them much mind, because they haven’t met her.

When I signed in to be a parent I knew I’d be all in.  I just never saw THIS coming.

Balance needs to always be in place, where the physical needs of either of us are never overlooked.  However, non-essential appointments CAN, and WILL be scheduled around our availability.  She will be a happier, and more tolerant patient when she didn’t miss something she loved with three hours in traffic and two in the waiting room.

Triage is meant to be something you experience briefly in times of crisis.

The “fight or flight” response is not always supposed to be on.

But it is.

At this time in our lives we may not always make for stellar company, although ironically, we’d love to have more of it.

At this time, we may say no constantly, to the point where you stop inviting.  Trust me.  We’d rather go.  We actually enjoy your company.

At this time, we are so busy surviving, and taking care of the most critical needs, that anything not immediately essential gets passed by.

We are constantly evaluating order of events, but TRIAGE is fluid by definition.  Unfortunately there are so many situations and scenarios, it is hard to see through them all.

Even at our toughest times.  Even at our most overwhelmed days.  We can look around and find our blessings.  They exist in big things, like being able to physically attend 5 practices a week, and little things, like being able to WALK around the school without hesitation or assistance.

We are aware of those suffering illnesses far beyond our grasp.  We are aware and we are grateful for the health we do have.

We are also tired.  And lonely.  And often overwhelmed.  We also know this is the way the plan must go for now.  And one day it may change.

Triage is fluid.

Life is fluid.

We all do the best we can with what we have where we are.

And we remain steadfast

#beatingcowdens.

 

 

Time flies…


February Break.  A time to refresh and renew.  Mostly.

Except here.  Here it’s a time to go as hard and fast as possible to get as many things done as possible.

Some of those things are Cowden’s related.  Some are real-life related.  Some are both.

Each could probably take a full entry or more.

But, for now, just in the last 10 days…

Last Thursday, was root canal 4 of 4.  Ninety minutes in the chair for a nerve I don’t think is gone.

Friday I spent the morning at pre admission surgical testing for an upcoming vascular surgery.  6AM appointment.  By the time I was leaving at 8, they had already begun to tell me I needed to find a primary care doctor to fill out “clearance papers.”  A whole lot of nonsense about “comorbidities” with Cowden Syndrome.  I felt like I had “cooties.”

Friday afternoon I went to two appointments with Meghan.  Each left more questions.

While I was in the car the head of PAST (Pre Admission Testing) called to tell me without additional clearance, my surgery was cancelled.

Monday the dogs, both of them had all day trips to the vet.  One had her teeth cleaned, and the other 22 staples in her side to remove a tumor that’s been there for almost 18 months.

Tuesday some work began in our basement- a long overdue upgrade to a leaking shower.  It would take days, and my husband needed to stick around just in case.

Tuesday we went back to NYC to Meghan’s neurologist to have another brain MRI.  Lesion is stable.  The tumor board will review it on 2/28 – Rare Disease Day – and if all concur, she will have 6 month brain MRIs for at least 3 years.  We talked a lot about headaches, and got a suggestion for a natural migraine relief I’m hopeful about.   The head congestion persists despite “clear” sinuses and the headaches are relentless.

After I dropped her to swim, right from the city on Tuesday, I called my surgeon’s office to discuss what had gone wrong to cause the cancellation of my surgery.  I was very surprised to hear things had rectified, in ways that confused me greatly, and I was no longer cancelled.

Having given up my ride, and anxious about the way things had been handled, I took an uneasy Uber trip to the hospital for my arrival time.

I should have been late.  They were.

My 11:30 OR became 3:45, and the day was pretty much poorly done all around.

It’s over now – and truly is a long enough story if I tell it, it will need its own entry.

Thursday and Friday I did what I could to rest.  Saturday was Silver Swimming Championships.  In the Bronx.  With a 6:30 AM arrival.

There was also a 2 hour line for a well-deserved sweatshirt.  In my stockings.  3 days after vascular surgery.

We made it back to Staten Island in exactly enough time for her to change her clothes, brush her hair, and grab a sandwich on the way to theater.  She’s begun working with a lovely group, SICTA, performing “Once Upon a Mattress” this spring.  She made it in 10 minutes before rehearsal began and kept at it till I picked her up at 4:30.

Sunday was Saturday – take two.  Minus the sweatshirt line, with the addition of some rain.  In the dark.  To the Bronx.

But, two days.  Two events.  Two best times.  This is what makes it worth it.

And, I was home in time to get April to the vet for her newest ear infection.  Felix was going to go, but the flex hose behind the dryer split…

And in 12 hours I’ll be on my second class of the day.

It should be easier than this.  Today I’m wiped out.

I keep vowing to write more, and I keep failing.

#beatingcowdens

is exhausting.

Invisible Illness – Sometimes We ALL Need Help

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But, there are theories.

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

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

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

 

We are working on it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are working on it.

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

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

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

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

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

Looking forward to hearing your encouraging, helpful comments –

We remain

#Beatingcowdens