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 … Continue reading

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.

character1

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

#beatingcowdens

#everysingleday

#perspective

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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.

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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

 

The Fine Line…

** Finding the balance has been a real struggle of late.  This has been in my drafts for 10 days…**

I’m writing from the floor in the hallway of the college gym.  Meghan’s swim team practices below.  For hours.  One day I will be able to drop her off and get a few things done.  But, not yet.  Not now.

I sit in the hall, out of view of my girl underneath.  Out of view of her coaches who undoubtedly must think me paranoid.  There isn’t another parent here.  These are the big kids- 8th through 12th grade.  And I’m not here because I don’t trust her.  Quite the opposite.  I sit here for the unpredictable.  For the moments that take us from 0 to 180 in the blink of an eye.  And even as I recognize that emergencies happen to anyone.  At any time.  I am here.  Because history, track record, can not be erased or forgotten.  I will pull away, slowly.

paranoid

In the mean time I FINALLY got all my classes together, up and running, and pretty organized.  Formative assessment is in place.  Lessons are polished up, and I can take the 50 minutes each week that I see the 575 or so chilren as seriously as I like to.

Which is timely because it fell right into High School application season.  Yes, season.  30 years ago this was not even a process.  Now it’s an ordeal.  These are tests to take for every type of school one is interested in.  There are then scholarship tests to try to pay for the non- public ones.  Open houses, “shadowing” appointments, where she goes to the school for the day to “see.”

This all seems to culminate by some time in December and then be followed by 2 months of waiting.  It’s amazing how much “hurry up and wait” there really is.

hurry-up-and-wait-feature

And I am left to sit here.  Quietly.  I will her body to do as she wants.  I that the right high school for her, is the one she attends.  And, I watch as 8th grade starts to pass by.

Your experiences shape you.  Your disease doesn’t define you.  But, in our case it provides, stamina, endurance. tenacity, grit, and a tendency to want to over-achieve.  Not a terrible list of negatives.

searching

“Normal” is a relative term, constantly changing.  When we are on the brink of better health, we sometimes find ourselves guilty of waiting for the other shoe to drop.  We are often guarded and on the defensive.  It’s hard not to be.

This past month a former student buried his mother and father 2 weeks apart.  He is Meghan’s age, and while he had step-siblings, he was the only child of his parents.  I haven’t had him out of my mind much.

These warnings, these screenings, these appointments, these surgeries, at times leave me down.  But, not for long.  We’ve been ordered to be vigilant.

keep-calm-and-be-vigilant-13

There are no promises.

Today bleeds into tomorrow.  September just about swallowed up October.  And October seems hungry for November.

Stop.  Or at least pause.  Enjoy the process, no matter how tedious or taunting it may seem.

Hug your family.  Call your friends.  Even if it’s only for 5 minutes.  Send a text.  Stay in touch.

And I, I will be working on taking my own advice!

Justifying Our Existence

There was a post that showed up in my news feed this week from http://www.themighty.com.  Read The Secrets of People with Chronic Illness here

I can’t seem to shake some of the thoughts from my head.

chronic illness

As I write, school ended for the summer 9 days ago.  In those 9 days we have seen 4 doctors between us.  There are 9 more SCHEDULED in the month of July, including a biopsy for Meghan on the 22nd.

And, while I did take some time over the weekend to reconnect with some dear friends, and I have accomplished a few mundane tasks like routine car maintenance, the vast majority of every moment of those 9 days has been spent justifying my existence.

Fortunately, I have enrolled Meghan in a theater camp where she is from 10-4, spending some time with kids her age.  Of course, the wear and tear on her body, even after only 3 days is evident.  She struggles with pain so badly.  On her feet, determined to fit in.  Determined for me not to say too much.  Sometimes I have to let her go.  I have to let her try.  I have to let her decide.  But, it hurts.  It hurts her, and it destroys me to watch her battle with her body.  I watch her put that game face on in the AM, and not take it off until after swim practice follows camp.  No one will ever tell me she is anything but driven.  But, no one would ever know to watch her…

chronic illness2

Usually by this point in the summer my work bag is unpacked, washed and tucked away.  Often my lesson plans for September are mostly framed out.  I am yet to take the list I frantically formed as I packed my room the last day of school out of the bag.

Instead, the yellow legal pad sits near my computer.  I write, and cross out, and rewrite, as I call, obtain records, set appointments, and clarify tests required by various doctors.  I rearrange schedules to allow for coverage for Meghan as I trek to my own appointments at the most inconvenient times.

On the 18th I will meet a new plastic surgeon, as the old one no longer accepts our insurance.  I never imagined needing a new plastic surgeon only 4and 1/2 years post op from the mastectomy, but it seems I do.  I’ll wait until I meet him to elaborate on that…  Sometimes, although not often, I do feel like this…

chronic illness3

I can often count on 4 hours minimum round trip for the 10 mile trek.  Never mind the cost.  We just don’t even add it up.  Instead, we thank God for our jobs and the insurance we do have.

I received a phone call yesterday from a lab that was running insurance information to obtain testing for Meghan requested by one of her doctors.  Except it’s not covered at all.  $16,000 they said.  I, who denies my child nothing politely said, “we’ll find another way”.  And we will.  Because that is just insane.

I’ve sent 3 emails to the office manager of the office doing her procedure on the 22nd.  I simply want to know what date to leave free for the follow-up.  I know there will be one, and I want to plan a few summer adventures in the time that my fish will have to be out of water.  I also asked for the pathology from her December procedure.  For about the 8th time.  Just keep adding checks and dates to the list.

When things get really bad, like with the bills I’m fighting in collections, they get a folder of their own.  The SUPER troubling places, like the mail-order pharmacy, have a notebook.

We do our best to stay upbeat.  We count our blessings regularly.  We know it could be worse.  We know the anguish others suffer far surpasses our daily struggles.  But, no matter how much we focus on a positive attitude, and believe me we do, it does not decrease the pain, both physical and emotional.  The struggle is real.  Whether we like to admit it or not.

chronic illness4

I reached out to our genetecist this week.  Darling man said he would always help, and didn’t want us to waste a trip on him.  I told him I was having trouble with my voice.  I’ve been getting very hoarse for 8 weeks or so.  No infection.  Three allergy meds on board.  But, I do have Cowden’s Syndrome, that tumor growing thing I sometimes forget belongs to me too.  And I have a history in the neck.  A 3.5 pound lipoma in 1988, and multinodular goiter on the thyroid in 1993.  Both removed.  Both benign. But…

He referred me to a head and neck surgeon.  I finally mustered up the courage to block out at least one more day of summer, and call for an appointment.  I was met with the inquisition on the phone.  I never got past the receptionist.

“This doctor is a head and neck SURGEON.”

“Yes, I know he’s a surgeon, I was referred for consulation.”

“Well, he doesn’t just SEE people, you need a diagnosis and a referring doctor.”

“I have both.  C-O-W-D-E-N Syndrome.  A mutation on the PTEN gene that causes benign and malignant tumor growth.  I was referred by my genetecist, also a doctor at your hospital.”

“Well, what tests do you have?  He will want a report, a CD, something…”

Sigh.  I just don’t have the fight in me today. “Ok, you win.   I’ll find someone else.”

“Come back to him when you have a diagnosis.”

 

Whatever.  Just whatever.  Sometimes I get a little tired.

chronic illness5

Thats when I shake it off with a quick walk.

I emailed the genetecist back.  I’ll wait.  Again.

I have this pool in my backyard.  And plenty of people I’d like to reconnect with.  And some lessons I’d like off my plate.  And a book I’d like to read.

I’ll get there.  In the mean time, I’ll be at my computer.  Emailing.  Arguing.  Advocating. Communicating.  Researching.  Justifying my existence, and

 

#Beatingcowdens with whatever it takes.

“…plans to give you HOPE and a future.”

for_i_know_the_plans-66441

When you’re in the middle of it, it’s often hard to see it.  You’re in the middle of it, trying to be careful, protective and nurturing.  You’re in the middle of it, often wide awake hours longer than your body wants to comprehend.  Sometimes you’re terrified.   Sometimes you’re confident.  Often you’re in prayer.  This thing.  It’s big.  Too big.  Like a giant web with unmanageable offshoots.

Somewhere in between trying to get back to school after a night in the ICU last Sunday, and this Saturday morning when she woke, not ready to swim, but with a raging 102.5 fever, I lived a few years.

The last few nights I’ve lived a few more.

Fortunately, I take pretty good care of my body, and when she’s well I make covering between 7 and 9 miles a day a priority.  I make eating well a priority always.  I invest in nutritional cleansing by choice.  It’s a lifestyle.  I focus on taking the stairs when I can.  Laughing with the elementary school children as I hit the 4 flights in our building over and over is good for me, and them.  Some people train for marathons.  I train for life.  It’s a bit of a marathon itself.

Buddha-Quote

It’s quiet here.  Nothing stops a conversation faster than telling in honest frank terms the newest challenges Cowden’s has thrust in our faces.  Last week there was the trouble breathing and the debacle of no answers at the ICU.

Tuesday the orthopedist recognized uncharacteristic tightness in al her muscles.   Her hips and legs were in full spasms.  He was confused.  Updating him on what was new since our last visit included the D&C amd precancerous cells in the uterus.  It included letting him know she is now on 10mg a day of progesterone.  To say he was unsettled be an understatement.  He let us in on his fears that the hormones were causing muscular issues, and that he feared her vascular malformation could indicate a tendency towards blood clots which this hormone level left the door wide open for.

Sigh.  Growl.  He left no bones about where he stood.  He withstood our questioning about risks and benefits.  He disagreed with the hormones.  End of story.  I asked if we were to return in 6 months.  I was told 2 months.  He’s concerned.

And as the week went on she continued to just feel worse.  For the second week in a row, only one swim practice.  An indicator of the severity of things.  By Thursday I reached out to the Adolescent Gyn.  She called while we were in the pediatricians office stating how poorly Meg felt.  All the suspicious virus tests came through negative.  CBC was normal.  Our Pediatrician spoke to the Gyn.  With reservation on her part, and too much “soft evidence” cited by him. the decision was made to pull the hormone.

no guarantee

This is NOT a decision to be taken lightly, for so many reasons.  The least of which, yet still significant, is the generalized body discomfort that came with the months prior to the D&C, and prior to the hormones.  It was torture for her.  Then, there was the clear declaration, (because everyone likes to speak to the very smart 12-year-old,) that this hormone treatment, this move to arrest cellular growth in the uterus was the BEST way to help ward of cancerous tissue trying to form.  In other words this hormone causing chaos in her body was her best shot at avoiding uterine cancer.

So to be in my head was not a good place.  To be in the head of my girl…  No words.

She woke up Saturday morning very unwell.  I don’t recall the last fever.  This one was 102.3 at 9AM.  Back to the pediatrician we went.  Tamiflu and 2 antibiotics.  Hit whatever it is hard, real hard, and keep her out of the hospital.  That was the plan.

So far it seems we’re on the right track.  The fever is waning.  The breathing is sometimes tricky.  The phlegm is thick.  She’s tough.  She’d hydrated.  She’s resting.  She’s doing her part.

There are decisions that have to be made while #beatingcowdens that no one should have to make.  There are guesses and speculations we have to play into, with no guide and no proven statistics.  We have to focus on today.  We have to make decisions based on today, and quality of life issues right now.  But even these are insanely complex.

We have a strong girl.  We are thankful.  We have a God who has a plan.  We are thankful for that as well.

There are times, as humans, we want to know more.  We want a guarantee.  We want insight into the plan.  It is a sign of our weakness.  We are working on it.  Our God will continue to guide us, strengthen us, and move us forward.  Be need to breathe in peace and faith.

Some days this is not an easy task.

faith peace

To our friends, please know we don’t hide.  We don’t avoid RSVPs to be difficult.  We don’t back out at the last moment because we want to.  We miss you.  We are anxious for easy, comfortable gatherings.  Life just seems to toss things in the way – often enough it gets difficult to dodge.

It’s ok if you don’t have words when we throw heavy stuff on you.  It’s ok.  Sometimes just to listen is all we could ever ask for.  Please listen.

We have not lost touch with your lives.  We understand we are not alone in challenges.  Do not feel you have to protect us by not sharing.  You trusting us, makes us feel valuable.  It makes us feel we matter to you.

See just because #beatingcowdens has overtaken our lives doesn’t mean we’ve lost touch with reality.  We want to see your baby photos, and hear about first steps, and awards, and sporting events.  Call. text, Email, write.  Know we haven’t left you for a better deal.  We, like you, are just keeping our heads above water.

We remain always, #beatingcowdens

This is Our Reality

Alone, in a crowded room.

alone in a crowded room

As I look around frantically trying to figure out exactly where, or how I fit, with anyone, my mind wanders.  I can’t seem to make conversation, or to pass the time socially as easily as others.  I watch.  I retreat as soon as I can.  I can’t quiet my head.  And, knowing the whole line of thinking that occupies my mind some days makes everyone uncomfortable, I step back into myself to cycle through reality.

occupied mind

“Those hormones?  Are they causing her headaches?  Or is it something more sinister?  How would I even know?  Do we need to use another MRI?  What if it is the hormones?  What choice do we have?  The doctor said she has to stay on them to stop the development of those “irregular cells” in the uterus they found in December.  They’ve already begun to schedule another D & C for July.  “You have to make sure…”  The uterus is a prime site for malignancy in Cowden’s Syndrome.  I got to keep mine until Meghan was 8.  Will she get to keep hers?  Will she have the chance to make the choice whether she wants to bear her own children?  And, even if we save the uterus and she wants to, will it be viable after 15, 18, 20 years of hormone treatment?  And at what cost to the rest of her body?  What about the breast cancer threat that looms large to a young woman whose Cowden’s Syndrome alone puts her at an 85% lifetime risk.  That coupled with a mother and grandmother who have had breast cancer… sigh…why is it even a topic of conversation when she’s 12?  It seems so unjust.  This issue shouldn’t have to be addressed now, well not ever really, but especially not now.  And when she has the headaches I have to give her something.  What about the headache medicine?  What about that esophagus we are trying to heal?

 

Is it those medicines that caused the horrendous reflux after Easter, or was it her MINOR indulgence into a few SAFE sweets?  Why should a slight indulgence cause such discomfort and vomiting?  Why does she have to be so careful all the time about everything?  No wonder she is so serious.  And what if it is the headache medicine?  What am I supposed to do to help her?  Tell her she has to deal with it?  I can’t imagine “toughing out” a blinding headache.  

 

The knee.  Oh the knee.  She tries not to complain about it, but I see when she struggles.  The AVM is finally stable, but the leg takes a lot of work to develop.  She works hard on it too.  But, the stamina isn’t there.  Hours in a pool yes, on land, no way.  Standing too long, walking the mall, or for a short walk, things we take for granted cause such pain.  And pain causes fatigue.  And on the occasions she relents and allows the wheelchair into use, she struggles.  Not for the need to use it temporarily, but for fear of insulting those who have to use it all the time.  She is proud.  She is frequently humbled.  She is conflicted.

 

And who wouldn’t be?  16 surgeries before the 13th birthday.  The need to be tough all the time, while you feel weak.  The desire to be stronger.  Having to fight, hard, for physical accomplishments.  Having to accept the ones that will never be.  Never giving up.  Pushing to be better.  To make the world better.  

 

She’s not perfect.  Never has been.  And oh, there are DAYS…  But she is good, in her heart.  She means well.  She has no spite or malice, and I can pray it remains that way.  I can pray that the children who don’t get it, one day come to understand her, just a little better.  That one day they can accept her,  for the good in her.

 

I scheduled 3 doctors appointments for the next three weeks.  Dermatology, orthopedics, and endocrinology.  The first is a screening.  Cowden’s Syndrome, melanoma risks.  Her father’s increased risk of melanoma on another unrelated genetic disorder.  Her grandmother’s melanoma this summer.  Every 6 months they told me.  Bring her every six months.  The others will work on long-term plans.  Spring break.  Every holiday, every vacation.  Every day off.  Doctors.  Not the mall, or a friend’s house.  Doctors.  For what?  And I’ve toned down the list quite a bit.

 

There are two bills of my desk.  One for her and one for me.  Both a battle.   Always a battle.  If it’s not the reality, or the appointments, it’s the bills.  And we are so fortunate to have insurance.  But, the hours.  Oh my goodness, the hours…”

 

I try to shake it off.  To stay focused on the good.  On the positive.  On the blessings, and they do abound.  But, so often it’s just me, and my head.  Working to get out of my own way.

I miss my Pop.  I miss my Grandma even though she’s still here.  I miss their goodness.  I miss my Dad.  I miss his listening ears.

I quiet the voices a little and try to follow the conversation around me.  I smile politely and nod.  I stay quiet.  “It’s good.”  “We’re good.”  That’s about all they can handle anyway.  Even the ones who genuinely do care.  Why drag someone to a place where there is absolutely nothing they can do or say?

cheshire cat

This is our reality.  This is Cowden’s Syndrome.  This is every day.  As long as we have breath, and strength, and stamina to shake off the pain, place the smile firmly where it goes and press on, we will.

Because the real reality is that every person in the room may have a similar string of thoughts in their head.  The reality remains that EVERYONE HAS SOMETHING…

been through something

I booked dinners for our Disney trip today.  I like to plan ahead.  Plus, Disney gives me a little extra strength, so that we can remain always,

#BEATINGCOWDENS!

 

Meghan’s Rare Disease Day Video and Speech 2016

This is the text of the speech Meghan delivered at this year’s “Jean’s for Rare Genes 2” Fundraiser.  Regardless of the monetary totals, which will come in the next days to weeks, I can assure you it was a success.

I want to start by thanking you for attending this fundraiser here today.  This is the second “Jeans for Rare Genes, a tradition I hope continues to grow each year.

I knew nothing at all about Rare Diseases until the fall of 2011.  I was in 3rd grade.  I went to a geneticist because I was having all sorts of medical trouble.  He diagnosed me with Cowden’s Syndrome.  A few weeks later he diagnosed my mom with the same thing.

Cowden’s Syndrome is a mutation (a break or a mistake) on the PTEN gene which is a gene that is supposed to keep the body from making tumors.  Basically, when you have Cowden’s Syndrome, which is pretty rare (only 1 in 200,000 people) your body makes tumors.  Sometimes they are benign, and sometimes they are cancer.  It also causes my body to make vascular malformations, like the one in my right knee, that has caused me 6 surgeries all by itself.  That is why with Cowden’s Syndrome we have to be watched all the time.  There are so many doctors, so many things that need to be checked, and scanned and looked at, it can be really overwhelming.

You can’t catch Cowden’s Syndrome, it has to be inherited, like I got it from my Mom.  You also can’t get rid of it.  Once you have it, the only thing you can do is get checked, a lot.

I have had 16 surgeries so far, and I only turned 12 in August.  That doesn’t even count for the doctor’s appointments, Emergency Room visits, scans, and never-ending blood tests.

When I first learned I had Cowden’s Syndrome, I went to a website called the Global Genes Project to learn of facts about rare diseases.  I learned all sorts of interesting, and sometimes upsetting facts.

  • There are approximately7,000 different types of rare diseases and disorders, with more being discovered each day
  • 30 million people in the United States are living with rare diseases. This equates to 1 in 10 Americans or 10% of the S. population
  • 80% of rare diseases are genetic in origin
  • Approximately 50% of the people affected by rare diseases are children
  • 30% of children with rare disease will not live to see their 5th birthday
  • 95% of rare diseases have not one single FDA approved drug treatment
  • Approximately 50% of rare diseases do not have a disease specific foundation supporting or researching their rare disease

I started out feeling like I didn’t fit in anywhere.  I couldn’t understand why all these diseases existed and no one seemed to know or care.  I found the “Global Genes Project” motto, “Hope it’s in our Genes” to be a comforting play on words.  I identified myself with the denim ribbon, a powerful symbol of Rare Genetic Disorders.  My Mom’s friend made me a denim ribbon necklace, and I felt like I had an identity piece, something that represented me.

At first I organized an assembly at my school, and in 4th grade we gave out denim ribbons to raise awareness.  In 5th grade we had a fundraiser. We sold some T-shirts, and had a small event at the school.  The money went to the Global Genes Project.

Last year, a charity was created called the PTEN Foundation.  It is the first charity that looks to help people with our specific disease.  They want to create a patient database, so people with our Syndrome can be studied and learned about.  Then, maybe there will be a way to help us. 

As happy as I was about the PTEN Foundation, by this time, I had learned about a lot of other Rare Diseases, and kids, who didn’t have a chance to live and do as much as I can.  I promised myself I would always remember those kids when I did any fundraisers.

Last February, “Jeans for Rare Genes” happened at the Hilton Garden Inn.  I wasn’t sure I could pull off anything that big, but with a vote of confidence from Borough President Oddo, and my Mom supporting my vision, it happened.  150 people showed up, and we raised over $12,000.  True to my word, half of the money went to the Global Genes Project, and the other half went to the PTEN Foundation.

This year, I invited Bob Jackson, my favorite entertainer from Walt Disney World, to come and play piano at “Jeans for Rare Genes 2.”  He is here with us today and I am so excited!  We also have “Charlie Balloons,” back to help us again, and lots of great raffles from generous donors.  This year, I think and hope we can raise a lot of money to send to the PTEN Foundation and the Global Genes Project. 

One of the hardest parts of having a Rare Disease is one I don’t like to talk about too much.  Middle school is tough enough, but when you spend more time at the doctor than at social gatherings, it gets tougher to fit in.  I am glad that with Cowden’s Syndrome I don’t “look” sick, except it makes it even harder for people to understand why my life is so different.

I’ve gained an appreciation for the reality that “everyone has something,” and I work hard at not judging others, because everyone is fighting their own battle.  I want to make more people aware that this is the case, and that is why raising awareness for Rare Diseases is so important to me.

The pressure of life, the surgeries, the hospitals, the worrying, the waiting, and the wondering, has done a lot to make me who I am.  I don’t wish for anyone else to really understand this pressure, but I sometimes wish more people would understand me.

I have met a handful of people along the way, some in the most unlikely places.  These people have provided me support through the pressure, and I am forever grateful.

I know I still have a lot of time to grow into the person I am supposed to be.  I love swimming, and drama and singing.  I do well in school, and I love being with my friends.  I love helping others.  I will continue to search out my “Corner of the Sky.”

As you watch the video I have prepared for you, you will see that despite the pressure of life, I will not ever be defined by my disease.  I am determined to focus on a brighter future, and to channel my energy into making a real difference in this world.

I look forward to seeing what the future hold, and how the next chapter in my life turns out.  I hope to see you at our event next year!

When you’re through reading take the time to appreciate her video, created by herself!