Just another day at HHS!

Since I’ve shared that we’re in the process of searching for the perfect adult program for Jack, people keep asking, “What’s the perfect adult program look like?”

I start by describing a safe, warm, friendly environment. I mention the need for art and music and dance. I describe that we prefer it to be filled with Jack’s peers – ideally peers that he’s known for years. I add that it needs to be lively and fun, while also being therapeutic.

I try to find all the right words, but today Jack came home with video of him working with his therapists at school. Who needs words??? Just another day at CPNJ Horizon High School. As I watched the video, I kept thinking that all me need to do is recreate Jack’s high school.

THIS is what the perfect adult program looks like!! People say it’s impossible, but we’re not gonna quit until we find it!

Love, Jess

 

OURMatch.com

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I’ve been hanging out with an old friend who is returning to the dating scene. It’s a whole different world since Dan and I went off the market. Now there are pictures and profiles and lots of time on the computer. You need to really think about how you present yourself and what you share. All while being super cautious when pouring through prospective daters profiles – things aren’t always exactly as they appear. I’ve had friends share hysterical stories about first dates that quickly revealed ridiculous exaggerations about everything from jobs to height to age to mental stability.  Times are certainly different in the world of dating, but the basics still remain — before you start looking for a partner, you should know what you are looking for AND there always needs to be some chemistry;)

We are knee deep in our “find the perfect adult program for Jack” project. As Jack and I were on our way to our latest tour, I was talking to him about what I’d read online about the program and how bright and clean the facility looked in the photos, “But who knows JackO. We won’t really know until we get there”. As I was chatting with my boy, it occurred to me that the process is similar to modern dating – we’re looking for the perfect match and starting the search online. 

Like dating, our first step has been to figure out what we’re looking for. What do you look for in a partner?

Jack and I have always been drawn to a similar type of person. Cute, smart and funny. Pluses include a love for music and adventure. Negatives include people who don’t appreciate good food, strong hugs, and a good lick once in a while AND liberal political beliefs (okay – that last one might just be me). When we sat down to think about what we’re looking for in a perfect adult program, I kept thinking about this list.

Cute translates to a clean and comfortable facility. Smart means that the program balances time in the facility with programs out in the community, Smart also includes incorporating creative activities with life skills and providing 1 to 1 support as needed. And, funny – the most important – is that the program has the energy that Jack has become accustomed to. We love Horizon High School so much, but it has set us up for a tough comparison.

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We really enjoyed the adult program we saw last week, but we didn’t have much in common and no sparks flew. So, we’re going to keep on looking for our next one and only. We’ve even been tossing out ideas for a new program to be established. It’s not going to be easy, but I keep reminding myself that, although we may need to kiss a lot of frogs along the way, we WILL fine our perfect match.

Love, Jess

the last FIRST day

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Not a traditional FIRST DAY photo, but it’s pure Jack

Today was Jack’s last FIRST DAY of school. In June he’ll be graduating CPNJ Horizon High School and starting life as an adult. An adult who is funny and sweet and handsome AND and adult with special needs. Twelve years in, and we’re finally comfortable with having a child with special needs, but still — we’re bracing ourselves as we approach this new chapter.

I know we will figure this out – that’s what we do – but as Jack got on the bus this morning, I couldn’t help but get struck with that feeling that we’re just ten months away from a new unknown. Trying to distract myself from the panic, I sat on the black iron bench that was once my grandmothers and looked at the last FIRST DAY photos of JackO. What a life this kid has led.

Not able to shake the feeling all day, I dug through our not-yet-unpacked boxes in the basement for hours until I found it. Jack’s first FIRST DAY picture — Morrow Memorial Preschool. Dan had arrived at the church’s Baker Street entrance at midnight on a cold, early spring night, wanting to be sure that Jack’s name would be at the top of the list (in fact, he was the 7th or 8th, but he made it in). It was the school that all our neighbors had promised was the best and we knew our boy deserved the best. When we walked Jack into the doors of the preschool the first day of class*, Jack was a little nervous, but he was so proud. 

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I know today as Jack walked through the doors of his beloved high school he wasn’t nervous one bit. Jack rules that school — his magical smile making up for his lack of words. I’m so proud of our boy, who’s life has changed in more ways that we could have ever imagined 18 years ago. I just want all of his first days to be wonderful.

We have ten months to figure out the best plan for our boy. We will make it happen — even if it means we need to camp out for a week to make sure his is top of the list.

Love, Jack’s mom

* Jack’s first day of school was September 11th and we will always be grateful that Dan took the later train into work that day. ALD aside, we are a very lucky family.

THIS is ALD #26 – Hutch

Chelette reached out to me to share her son’s story and I was so impressed with how determined she is as a mother. Many of us ALD moms have been forced to fight with doctors to find the correct diagnosis for our sons. In this family’s story, this mom wasn’t just fighting for her son, she was fighting for answers to other questions in her family’s history. Thank you Chelette for sharing Hutch’s ALD story.

 

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THIS is ALD #26 – Hutch

Our son Hutch was a perfect 9lb. baby. As a child he was kind, bright and athletic! Hutch was the kind of kid who never had to be told twice and never needed to be put in a time out or punished. So when he was nine-years-old and we started seeing changes in behavior and struggles in school, I got concerned. I started telling doctors that something was up, but everyone blamed adolescence.

Hutch had febrile seizures as a child that no one seemed concerned with.  He had a seizure when he was six (almost out of normal range for febrile seizures) so I spoke with a neurologist, but he was not concerned. Then Hutch had another seizure when he was nine, so I saw another neurologist. She actually told me he would never have another seizure and not to worry about anything. This was not believable to me. At every neurologist visit I would always share that my dad had a neurological disorder, but still no one listened to me. They all blamed adolescence. 

My father had some neurological issues that started around age 28. His gait changed and he started to drag his legs while walking. No one was ever able to give him a true diagnosis. They said he had spastic familiar paraparesis, which never felt right to me.  His skin was very dark and he was bald.  By the end of his life, he was wheelchair bound (he could walk, but it was too taxing on him). He died during an angiogram at age 51.

I became so concerned by the time Hutch was nine-years-old, that I took him to see a neuropsychologist, an audiologist, a few neurologists. No one seemed concerned. He had what seemed to be auditory processing disorder and he had attention issues but no hyperactivity so again doctors were not convinced there was anything significantly wrong. Every direction I turned, we could not find an answer. 

In November of 2015, 3 days before his 13th birthday, Hutch had a 90 minute seizure. Yep, that wasn’t a typo, he had a 90 minute seizure … I didn’t think we would see him again. Miraculously he survived and that seizure was an important piece to the puzzle. The hospital we were in didn’t have a pediatric neurologist so they consulted with a pediatric neurologist at Tulane. When we were being discharged, they told us the neurologist had ordered a metabolic evaluation. I knew at that moment we were finally going to get the answers we needed.

Two weeks later we sat in that neurologist office and he spoke those words that we were not prepared to hear. He said our son had Adrenoleukodystrophy, that he would more than likely die within 2 to 4 years, most of which would be in a minimally conscious state, unable to walk, talk, eat, etc.. (he actually used the word vegetative state but I hate that word because people are not vegetables). He said Hutch would most likely die during a seizure and there was nothing that we could do to help or stop the disease as he was too far progressed (spoiler alert, he was wrong about the last part!).

My husband was completely devastated. Oddly, I was still so grateful that Hutch had survived the seizure that finding out we had 2 to 4 more years with him still seemed like a gift. Within a week we were in a geneticist office, he asked what our plans were and we told him that we have been vetting hospitals just to find out more about the disease and what our lives would look like. He pointed us in the direction of the University of Minnesota. He told us they had treated more boys with ALD than anybody in the world. At this point we did not think Hutch was a candidate for transplant based on what the neurologist we met with had told us — thank God he was wrong. 

One thing led to another, and the first week of January 2016 we were consulting with an amazing team of doctors at University of Minnesota to see if our son would be a candidate for a bone marrow transplant. At the end of our time there, they told us that they felt like Hutch would be a candidate. They didn’t know if he’d be able to live an independent life as an adult but they felt like BMT would preserve his physical abilities. We were thrilled AND scared to death!  

Two months later, on March 16, 2016, we moved to Minneapolis for a BMT that took place on March 22.  We lived in the hospital for 40 days and then stayed in Minneapolis for the next 2 months. Hutch did exceptionally well through his transplant and we moved home at the very end on June. Then life got really difficult. 

Hutch‘s case is different than most boys with ALD — his disease started in the front of his brain and there is no damage to the back of his brain. This means he has all of his physical ability still intact, but the front of his brain is profoundly damaged, so he can often look like a traumatic brain injury patient — he is impulsive, often inappropriate, and has no filter.

Anger and rage took over his body once we got home from Minneapolis.  Our girls, who were 15 & 10, had to move out of the house for a while because he was so out of control. Thankfully, better management of his dosing schedule of hydrocortisone, some amazing vitamins and blood pressure medicine worked and little by little we got our life back. 

It took about two years following transplant for us to see a little light at the end of the tunnel, but now Hutch is in school and and loving life. He swam on his high school’s swim team and played golf for his school team also! He needs many accommodations, but he is smarter than he appears on paper. 

We are very grateful for Hutch’s diagnosis, because as hard as it is, it saved his life and it explained all of the issues he was having. With Hutch’s diagnosis we determined that my dad had AMN (adult onset version of ALD) and more than likely died during an angiogram due to undiagnosed adrenal insufficiency.

Our lives are very different than we ever imagined, but also better than we expected following transplant. Because of Hutch is a poor decision maker and struggles to self-regulate, he needs constant supervision. But, he is here and has taught us a lot about life and the dignity of life. ALD took a lot away from us but it also gave us more than we could have ever imagined. 

— Chelette

 

 

Trying to Make Sense

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Last month, I went to a wake where the room was filled with laughter and stories. It was a celebration for a great man who enjoyed 101 years of living (or a solid 97 – life got a little uncomfortable after that point). Our family was honored to have known this man well. He lived with his granddaughter and her family who are dear friends of ours. His death left us all feeling sad, but it made sense. It was time. The cycle of life.

Yesterday I attended another wake. One of Jack’s classmates passed away last week. A young man who’s life was filled with challenges, but every time I saw him he wore a bright smile. I hadn’t known this young man well, but he and Jack shared a classroom for the last couple of years and his passing left me lost — not knowing what to do other than to go to the wake and pay my respects to his family. I decided not to bring Jack. Jack knows what happened, but I couldn’t bare having him focus on the loss (there needs to be some advantages to having a challenging life). I made the drive to the wake trying not to think too much about where I was going and was at the wake for less then ten minutes — just enough time to pay my respects and run out of the building before my tears started flowing.

I sat in the car trying to catch my breath and make sense of it all. How can nature can be so cruel and why is life – especially for some – so fragile?

My heart aches for this child and for his family. My heart aches for everyone who knew and loved this child. My heart aches for our entire CPNJ family. My heart aches knowing it could be us.

I’ve been thinking about it all day and the one thing that’s making me feel a little better is thinking about all the people who filled that room yesterday. It was not the celebration that happens following a long life, but this young man clearly touched many lives in his short life. There were a lot of tears in that room, but there was also a lot of love. 

I still can’t really make sense of this untimely loss, but I’m trying. The reminder of just how fragile life can be could have me in a puddle, but instead I’m trying to think of it as a gift. A reminder not to waste time and to enjoy every second with people that I love.

Love, Jess

THIS is not Bravo

Why were a dozen people following us around with cameras and piles of questions for the last couple of days? We can tell just yet, but I can promise you that it will be more real than anything you’ve seen on Bravo.*

 

Love, Jess

* I love Bravo – every last bit of their version of reality – it’s just that THIS is not Bravo.

good news, wrapped in a horrible package

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We received Jack’s Tier Assignment from Division of Developmental Disabilities (DDD) and it’s good news. Really shitty, horrible, depressing good news. Jack qualifies for the maximum amount of support as he enters his adult life.

I was initially relieved when I read the letter. Knowing that Jack qualified for enough support to adequately pay for an adult program AND therapy was a relief, but within a minute the reality of what the letter meant set in and I dropped the letter as if it were on fire — it was more concrete evidence that Jack is very disabled and that the State of NJ doesn’t see much opportunity for improvement.

I’ve been living for a few days with the letter sitting on the pile of “important” papers on my kitchen counter. Sometimes I glance at it and am grateful that we are headed in the right direction towards our next chapter, and sometimes just seeing it brings me to my knees. How the hell did we end up here?

I have to remind myself that it’s good news. It is good news, wrapped in a horrible package. 

Jack is the most incredible human I know. He’s not just happy, but for a silent kid, he’s more connected than most people. He’s able to see and hear and walk and enjoy his life. BUT, he is fully dependent with even the easiest of tasks and has significant medical and behavioral issues. Jack’s life is very complicated — he does need as much support as possible and we are lucky that we did not need to fight the State to make them understand. 

It’s good news.

Now we are faced with figuring out what Jack’s adult life is going to look like. We have put in our request for a support coordinator to help us navigate this transition (fingers crossed we get our top choice). We don’t know too much about our options but want to make sure Jack remains living at home while getting adequate physical, occupational and speech therapy and attending a program that’s as energetic and fun as CPNJ Horizon High School. Where is that program? Not sure, but we will find it. And, if it doesn’t exist, we will build it.

It’s good news.

Love, Jess

PS If you missed the lead up to getting our Tier Assignment – CLICK HERE.

July 2019

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Yesterday afternoon Dan, Jack and I were cooling off in the pool when I realized it was the first quiet moment we’ve had all month. We were too tired for much conversation, but we all had smiles on our faces. Massachusetts, Block Island, Colorado, New Mexico, a party for Jack’s school friends to celebrate his 21st birthday, and more houseguests that I can count. We are all exhausted, but grateful for everyone in our lives who helped make all this fun happen.

For a family with more than our share of “complications”, we always seem to have a lot to celebrate. I’ll write more details about our summer adventures (and some exciting things coming up in August), but for now I will share some photos. Enjoy!!!

 

Love, Jess

PS Anna didn’t enjoy our quiet swim yesterday, because she had left for Block Island for a couple of weeks. When I grow up, I want to be Anna;)

 

NJ CAT

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If you’re not part of the Special Needs World you might think that the NJ CAT is some sort of cat-loving, youtube channel for New Jersey. It’s not. It’s something every special needs parent dreads. I completed it last week. The good news is —  I survived.

The NJ CAT is the assessment used by the Division of Developmental Disabilities (DDD) to determine an individual’s eligibility for services. With Jack’s 21st birthday looming and an adult program needed starting next June, we were required to get it done. CPNJ Horizon High School, always there to lend support, allowed me to complete it while sitting with their social worker and Jack’s speech therapist so that I could get through it without losing my mind.

It was still hard.

The test unravels as you take it. If you answer that your child has trouble with speaking, questions get more specific. Can they speak clear enough for a stranger to understand?, Can the speak clearly enough for you to understand?, Can they speak simple three-word sentences?, Can they say a word? When it came to eating: Can they cook and feed themselves without assistance?, Can they use simple kitchen appliances?, Can they use utensils safely?, Can they feed themselves independently? The questions go on and on. 50 pages worth of questions proving just how challenging Jack’s life is.

I was told to be honest. The DDD needs to know exactly what Jack’s needs are so that he receives the adequate funding for an adult program/therapy/etc. The questions didn’t allow for anything but honesty. If Jack was left alone, what could he do? Not much. I wanted to write that Jack’s smile says enough to know what he wants for lunch and that, although he can’t make himself a sandwich or use the toaster, he sits on his island stool and cheers me on with his eyes. I wanted to say that, although he can’t dress himself or brush his teeth or wash his hands or take himself to the bathroom or drink from a cup that he’s the most amazing human I know. 

While I took the test, I kept thinking that they were missing part of who Jack is. There were no questions about his ability to make people laugh or know when I need a hug.

For 12 years I have been Jack’s biggest cheerleader and being forced to answer the NJ CAT questions honestly was depressing. It only took an hour, but even four days on Block Island didn’t erase the dread about the new chapter that is beginning with the NJ CAT. Twelve years into this new life and we have always been so lucky with Jack’s day to day life. Thanks to the help of family and friends and Maria and Lilly and Monica (Jack’s other mothers) we’ve created a wonderful life at home and then the schools we’ve found have been extraordinary. First The PG Chambers School, where we arrived lost and scared and they taught us all how to accept this new life. And, CPNJ Horizon High School where Jack has thrived and they’ve taught our whole family how to embrace and celebrate every ounce of this life (or, MOST ounces – maybe not EVERY ounce).

Now we’re approaching the next chapter — having an adult child with special needs. No more schools with plays and proms and petting zoos. I’m sure we will find a good fit, but I wonder if any adult program can begin to replicate the warm environments that his schools provided.

Because of Jack’s late summer birthday, we get some extra time to prepare, but this time next year he’ll be heading off each day to something else. I’ve got to start hustling to find the perfect plan. I’m never great with change and I know this is going to be a tough one. We are lucky JackO always seems to make these adjustments with ease – and his magical smile.

I’ll keep you posted on what we see.

Love, Jess

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hApPy BiRtDaY bAnAnZ!

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Special siblings are a remarkable lot. Many people assume that these children grow up with something missing. Lack of attention and fear course through their veins, leaving them lost or even resentful and angry. I understand why people might make that assumption, but I’ve found that it couldn’t be further from the truth. The special siblings I’ve come to know are incredible people. Thoughtful, independent, hardworking, understanding, patient, and compassionate – just like Anna.

I did worry about Anna when Jack got sick. She was only six-years-old when our family’s attention was suddenly completely focused on Jack and his survival. We only had a few weeks to prepare for transplant following the diagnosis, and then Dan and I weren’t just not emotionally present for Anna, we were rarely physically there either.

Even after Jack got home from the hospital, the entire dynamic of our family had changed. We had been a family who was very focused on evenly dividing our attention, love and patience to our two kids — we never wanted to be accused of having favorites. After ALD screamed into our lives, the disease crumbled our “even-steven” approach to parenting.

We have always done our best to be there for Anna. We cheered loudly at lacrosse games (Dan was lovingly called “Loud Dan” for years), we tried never to miss parent conferences and would sit with her for hours over the dinner table discussing the trials and tribulations of childhood. She’s always known we adore her BUT she’s also always known we were just one diaper change or stomach flu away from dropping everything.

Jack’s illness/challenges trump everything (too bad that expression is so complicated now). If Jack needs to be medicated or changed, we need to take care of it and if he starts throwing up or looks like something is brewing, we don’t have the luxury of waiting. No matter if Anna needed help with her homework or we are knee deep in a project – ALD could interrupt our plans without any warning. We’ve all become accustomed to the interruptions  — especially Anna. It’s part of being a special sibling.

Anna learned early that if she needed to get something done, she needed to know how to do it herself – just in case. Don’t tell the MAPSO schools, but I didn’t sign any school paperwork once Anna hit middle school. Permission slips, notes from teachers – even those nightmare “Information Packets”. Anna took care of them herself. It was safer than putting it on my pile. It might have gotten lost in the medical bills/social security/gaurdianship paperwork. 

This early independence translated to a teenager who handled her college applications with minimal help and now that she’s in college, she doesn’t ask us for much help, other than making sure the bills are paid on time. Not that she doesn’t turn to us for guidance, but she knows how to handle things on her own. It’s how she has survived the ALD part of our family. It’s part of being a special sibling.

Independence has not been the only gift from being a special sibling.

I was getting my boobs squished yesterday (by a professional boob squisher — a mammogram) and I was trying to distract myself by making conversation. I asked if they had any fun plans for the weekend as they tightened the panel, “just one more little bit”. When she asked what my weekend plans were I mentioned that my daughter was coming back from college and we were celebrating her birthday. This, of corse led to where she was in school and what she was studying.

“Pre-Med at Hopkins? Are either you or your husband in medicine?”

I simply answered that her older brother is.

Anna was born strong and determined and Dan and I can take a little credit for who she has become, but Jack has been the biggest influence in her life. It was Jack who inspired Anna to study medicine. It was learning at only six-years-old that nature can be cruel. It was knowing that science saved her brother’s life. It was knowing that there is still so much unknown and she wants to be part of unraveling the mysteries of the human body.

Dan and I try to remind Anna that she’s only 19, and that there’s no need to know what she wants to do with her life, “I’m almost 50 and still trying to figure it out.” Anna’s a talented artist and I encourage her to continue making art. Dan and I both want her to study languages and travel and get the broadest education she possibly can. As much as we put in our two cents, but we know our sweet daughter and when she gets an idea, she can’t turn back. She sets a goal and she exceeds it. It’s who she is. BUT BANANZ IF YOU ARE READING THIS, PLEASE KNOW THAT YOU CAN MAKE CHANGES TO THE PLAN. ANY TIME.

Anna is driving up the NJ Turnpike from Baltimore as I am writing this. I can’t wait to get my hands on her and wish her a happy birthday in person. I can’t wait to watch as Jack jumps out of his chair to throw his arms around her until she screams for mercy. I also can’t wait to see where her life takes her. I wish Special Sibling didn’t need to be one of Anna’s titles, but it is and I appreciate some of the things that it’s taught her. With the combination of Jack’s inspiration to go into medicine and what Anna has learned as a result of being a special sibling, I have no doubt that she will do amazing things.

Happy Birthday Anna Banana – our very favorite special sibling.

Love, MoMo