By now I hope you are starting to understand Adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD). If you know our family or have followed Smiles and Duct Tape for a while, you know what ALD looks like for Jack. THIS is ALD has hopefully helped you to better understand what the disease looks like for other patients. I have many more of those stories to share, but today I want to share a story about a little girl named Olivia Kay and a disease called Alexander Disease Leukodystrophy.
Leukodystrophies are a group of rare, progressive, metabolic, genetic diseases that affect the brain and spinal cord by destroying the myelin sheath. There are dozens of Leukodystrophies (including ALD) and Alexander Disease is the most rare of the bunch.
Olivia Kay’s mother, Lisa, offered to write their family’s story and I was eager to share a story about another disease related to ALD. Meet Olivia Kay.
THIS is ALD (actually, Alexander Disease) # 8 — Olivia Kay
It was December 10, 2009 when I received a phone call from a doctor with the Cleveland Clinic. Did I know that morning that when I would wake that very day, it would become my daughter’s “day of diagnosis”? In the community of “parent’s raising special needs children”, it’s the day you treat like a holiday, but often not celebrated by any means. You never forget it and dread when it’s near. Like most parents, they remember that day just like any other parent never forgets the day their child first walked, or said their first word or peddled their first bicycle. It was the day that I was told my daughter would not live very long and she was going to die. Now I carry that day with me, for the rest of my life.
Olivia Kay was born with Alexander Disease Leukodsytrophy. Alexander Disease is the rarest form of more than 50 forms of Leukodystrophy. She was diagnosed with infantile onset, which means, between the ages of birth and 2 years of age. Diagnosis can only be verified through genetic testing. And sadly, there is no cure. Those who are affected by the disease appear healthy until the onset of symptoms. Olivia was very healthy and started having developmental issues and seizures at 10 months of age. This began our journey and the start of many hospitalizations and medical appointments.
There are three onsets – Infantile, Juvenile and Adult. Onset of the disease is due to the destruction of myelin in the brain caused by mutations in the GFAP (Glial Fibrillary Acidic Protein) gene. This essential protein is responsible for providing strength to important cells.
Unlike other Leukodystrophies, Alexander Disease is not always hereditary. It is caused by a sporadic gene mutation within the GFAP gene, meaning the mutation occurs without being inherited from the parents. There are some cases of Adult onset Alexander Disease where the disease has been found to be genetically inherited, however, this is rare.
With Alexander Disease, many children suffer from seizures along with many other symptoms. After learning of her diagnosis, the doctor told us to “treat the symptoms and find a support group”. I look back now and realize, that was absolutely of no help to me. Knowing that our daughter would never outlive us was heartbreaking; we lived in denial for quite awhile. Knowing how to navigate life moving forward, was scary and uncertain. And we would face this most likely alone.
As we walked this journey with our child, you quickly become not only the parent, but you become you the doctor, the nurse, the therapist and the advocate. As we struggled with some of the most emotional and heartbreaking decisions you will ever have to make for your child, we knew that what we were doing were the best decisions for Olivia’s quality of life. She endured many what I call “seasons” of the disease. From feeding difficulties, to gastronomy tube, sitting up in her wheelchair to bedridden, to respiratory challenges and ventilators and digestive and bowel regimes. Each time we entered a season, she tackled each one with bravery and strength.
Sadly, Olivia passed away on April 28, 2017 at the age of 8. I am so proud to have called Olivia, my daughter. She taught me more in my life that I will ever learn in a whole lifetime. Olivia changed lives in her community and impacted strangers who met her.
The most honoring thing that we can do as her parents now; carry her legacy on to further bring awareness to this disease, help support more children and families living with illness and share her story so that people can become more knowledgable about all Leukodystrophies.
I had a hard time sorting through the photos that Lisa sent me. Tears flowed down my cheeks knowing what Olivia Kay’s small body suffered and what her family went through. She was such a beautiful girl with shinning light in her eyes. Lisa describes how her young daughter tackled each “season” of the disease with bravery and strength. A remarkable girl. A remarkable family.
Thank you Lisa.