THIS is ALD #4 – Jon

“When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses not zebras”

It’s a quote by a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in the 1940s. A reminder to his students that, when searching for a diagnosis, not to think of the obscure until you can rule out the likeliest possibilities. I will never forget hearing it for the first time when a pile of medical students came into Jack’s room at Columbia Presbyterian Morgan Stanleys Children’s Hospital ten years ago. One of the students tapped the young man next to him and whispered, “Dude – THIS is a zebra!”

If Jack is a zebra, then Jon is a unicorn, with purple and cyan stripes. I met him this fall at an ALD event and I kept finding myself staring at him across the table. He’s in his mid-twenties, has his degree from the Milwaukee School of Engineering, is a comedian, and has ALD.

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THIS is ALD #4 – Jon

        This posting on Smiles and Duct Tape might have a different tone than most personal ALD stories. First off, I was diagnosed with ALD at the age of 1 due to the late diagnosis of my brother at age 6. It’s a common story. One that many of us have heard before, but did you catch what was odd? Maybe you did? I did, mainly because I’m the one writing this. There it is again.

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        The story keeps going with a bone marrow transplant at the age of 6, still a pretty common age range for those who are familiar with ALD. The transplant was at Minnesota which is synonymous with ALD. I came home after the transplant, and lived a normal life. Give up yet? I, me, the one writing the article had the bone marrow transplant. After hearing everything that happens to some boys with this terrible disease, I sometimes forget just how amazing this, THIS, is.
        It may even come more to a surprise that the journey started in 1992, when I was born. ALD would hit the silver screen a few months later with the movie Lorenzo’s Oil. Six years later, and an incredibly experimental treatment lead and here we are. So this article will take a different turn than any other ALD article and I’ll share with you everything I’ve done since the transplant. Everything, that is now achievable, by any other boy who is prescreened.
        As far back as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be an engineer. Love designing ideas in my Inventor’s Notebook and building with Legos. Even during my transplant I was building Lego kits that were 12 years old and up. I was 6 at the time. It kept me busy. Models surrounded my hospital and Ronald McDonald House rooms. The passion for engineering continued after the transplant, as I excelled in math and science classes. Getting straight A’s in grammar school while being active in Boy Scouts. Scouting let me explore many different subjects, experiences, and knowledge which I still used today. In High School, I enrolled in Honors Math and Science classes. Doing my best to continue my streak of mostly A’s with the occasional B. I had the opportunity to take a few AP classes and a college level chemistry course which helped ready me for college. Furthermore, after class, I joined the Theatre Club and found joy in performing and speaking on stage. Fell in love with it and did as many plays as I could. Boy Scouts became a large part of my High School career. I served on Summer Camp staff for 3 summers and came to earn my Eagle Scout. I was selected to be a part of the Order of the Arrow ( Boy Scouts National Honor Society). Eventually becoming the youth leader as Lodge Chief, giving service to all members in Waukesha County, WI.
        Before I even started High School, I knew I wanted to attend the Milwaukee School of Engineering. Everything in High School worked towards that goal, and my senior year, I received my acceptance letter, though I had a feeling I would. College was the best years of my life. I continued all my passions of math and science, except now it was set to 11. I kept up with theatre joining the MSOE Theatre Troupe. There I acted in 6 plays, and directed 2. But the best decision I made in college was joining Triangle Fraternity. It’ an engineering fraternity and I became best friends with all of them. I may have lost a brother, but gained 100s I know I can lean on. Still staying in touch with them and even helping me secure my after college job at Affiliated Engineering in Phoenix Arizona. Today, I design the HVAC systems for colleges campuses and health care facilities. It may not be the same as a doctor treated young boys with ALD, but the buildings I’m designing may someday find a cure for this disease. And I’m okay with that.

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I’ve read this piece a dozen times and each time I’m in awe of how little Jon references ALD. He’s just a kid who loved legos and the Boy Scouts and learning and building and theater, and friendships. ALD is part of Jon, but it’s way down on the list of things that define him.

Jon was a pioneer. Like the boys going though gene therapy now, in 1998 stem cell transplants for ALD were experimental. Jon’s family had already lost a son and chose to try something new to save Jon’s life. Not only did it work, but it worked before ALD took over. Honestly, meeting Jon you would not see any hints of our disease. It’s amazing. Inspiring. A little heartbreaking  — I can’t help but wonder about Jack and who he would have been had ALD not touched every single part of his life. It’s crazy how random this disease can be, BUT I’m thrilled that Jon has enjoyed such an incredible life and it’s just the beginning of his story!

Thank you Jon for sharing your ALD story. My dream is that, as the years and research move forward, your story will become the standard — boy gets diagnosed, boy gets treated, boy lives life.

Until then Jon — you are the ALD unicorn!

 

Love, Jess

 

THIS is ALD #3 – Dalton

The response to THIS is ALD has been remarkable (If you missed post, check it out). I’ve spent much of the last week corresponding with people in the ALD community — hearing stories and sharing our own. It’s been emotional, but it does have me thinking that I’m onto something good.

I was working on a post about Goucher College and The Grateful Dead (including some marriage advice), but that’s going to have to wait. I have another ALD story about an amazing boy named Dalton.

THIS is ALD #3 — Dalton

I met Dalton’s mom, Jennifer Lindsey, in person this fall at an ALD symposium. I’d followed their ALD story since the beginning, and I was glad that I got to turn her from a stranger-friend to a friend. She is smart and loving and dedicated to the ALD community. As soon as I reached out to the ALD world asking for volunteers for THIS is ALD, she sent me a note. She agrees that the more people share, the brighter the ALD landscape will be.

Thank you Jennifer for your words.

        Dalton was a very laid back, easy going kid.  On a normal day, he wanted to wear jeans and a t-shirt.  In fact, if I ever had a polo or button-up shirt set out for him he automatically assumed it was picture day.  He kept his hair short, but did have a Mohawk a couple times, which he thought was awesome.  Dalton was a hot mess, but he was my mess.  One moment he could be the sweetest, most loving kid you ever met and then turn right around and be the most devilish, ornery kid ever. 
        I always thought Dalton was destined to be a comedian.  He could always make you laugh, even if you didn’t want to.  Sometimes it was genuinely funny and other times it was just so downright stupid it was funny.  Even when he wasn’t trying to be funny at all, it just came naturally to him.  At times he didn’t know when to stop.  He just liked making people laugh so much that if it worked he would keep it up, which at times was just fine and other times could be so frustrating.  Like most kids, he didn’t have a filter, so there was no telling what was going to come out of his mouth.  Dalton was a very sweet, loving boy who was robbed of everything possible by this monster we call Adrenoleukodystrophy. 
        Dalton was diagnosed on July 13, 2016 with Adrenoleukodystrophy, a genetic metabolic disorder that attacks the myelin sheath of the neurons in the brain. It literally robs these boys of their vision, hearing, motor skills, mobility, speech, ability to swallow, and eventually leads to death. A bone marrow transplant can stop the progression of the disease if successful, but does not reverse the damage already done.
        He was a perfectly normal 10 year old boy before. We had no clue. The only reason we had an MRI was because he was having hearing issues in May, 2016. I was thinking it might either be a brain tumor or a processing disorder so we did the MRI to be on the safe side. Second worst day of our lives. At that point they sent us to Riley in Indy, who more or less gave us a death sentence. We were then several days later pointed in the direction of the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital, where we spent almost 5 months.
     Dalton had his stem cell transplant on August 29, 2016 which went beautifully, but he contracted the Epstein Barr virus in October, had to undergo more chemotherapy, and then was diagnosed with acute grade 4 gut graft vs host disease around mid-November. They tried several treatments, which were unsuccessful, and he was sent home on his birthday, December 1. We were under home hospice care until December 13 when he passed. I believe with all of my heart that newborn screening and gene therapy would have saved Dalton’s life. 

 

Watching Jennifer’s Facebook feed over the last few weeks has been difficult. She has been reliving/reflecting/sharing (not sure of the right word, but it’s been both heartbreaking and beautiful). “See your memories” is a feature on Facebook that should be about fun memories of silly times over the years, but when you’ve lost someone, it can be upsetting. Jennifer’s Facebook page has been sharing the last few weeks of her son’s life as well as who he was before ALD crept into their lives. Dalton’s radiant smile before ALD is beautiful, and that is the boy that I chose to picture here. I love how Jennifer describes him, “One moment he could be the sweetest, most loving kid you ever met and then turn right around and be the most devilish, ornery kid ever.” Sounds like an awesome boy!

Unfortunately, Dalton’s story is not uncommon for ALD. Stem cell transplants have profound risks and if the disease has escalated passed a certain point, many boys lose skills quickly during the process. And, like in Dalton’s case, a transplant can leave a person vulnerable to infection, rejection of the new cells and Graft vs Host Disease (where the new cells – the graft, attack the body – the host).

As Jennifer says, Dalton’s story might have been different if they had had the luxury of newborn screening for ALD and had had access to gene therapy. Newborn screening allows families to prepare and monitor their child’s health so that treatment is provided in a timely fashion. Gene therapy does have risks, but Graft vs Host disease and rejection is avoided. It’s a game changer for ALD.

For more about Dalton and his journey, check out: In the Blink of an Eye: Dalton’s ALD Journey

Thank you Jennifer for sharing Dalton’s ALD journey.

Love, Jess

Please contact me at jctorrey@mac.com if you are interested in sharing your ALD story for THIS is ALD.

hApPy bIrThDaY smiles and duct tape!

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HaPpY BiRtHdAy Smiles and Duct Tape!!

When the book was released last year, I had my fingers and toes crossed that it would find its way into the world, but in my wildest dreams, I never imagined that it would find its way into so many of the right hands.

Smiles and Duct Tape is not winning awards or getting nominated for prizes, but this is better – it’s helping people. ALD parents, special needs families, and people looking to better understand special needs and/or our little, not-as-rare-as-you-might-think disease, Adrenoleukodystrophy.

A highlight of this first year was our family being invited to meet the folks at bluebird bio earlier this week. Last month, the New England Journal of Medicine released a study that indicates that gene therapy is a promising option for boys with ALD. bluebird bio is behind that research.

Thanks to Smiles and Duct Tape, and my need to share every detail of our lives, bluebird bio found us and asked us to come up to Cambridge and talk to their team.

I liked bluebird bio from the start because they have the same relationship with capital letters as I do (my oh-so-cool not capitalizing my post titles), but when I did a little research, I really fell in love: “we are committed to our vision of transforming lives and making hope a reality for patients . . . ” AND one of the diseases that they’re determined to beat is ALD.

They are not just leading studies on new treatments, they are working to truly understand what the current treatments look like – that’s where we came in. We are the face of what ALD looks like with the current standard of care—a stem cell transplant— and without the luxury of an early diagnose. They wanted to hear more about our story and had dozens of questions for all of us (Anna answered questions with such confidence and grace AND Jack won a lot of hearts with his smile). They asked all about the transplant and details about what life looks like post-transplant. The goal of bluebird bio is to provide a treatment with fewer risks and a better after-treatment quality of life.

With all the crap going on these days, it’s hard not to lose a little faith in our world, but spending the day at bluebird bio felt like stepping into the future – a better future. Brilliant minds who are determined to make a difference. AND they invited us into their nest with open arms. We spoke, we ate, and we got an incredible tour of their facilities. These folks are warm and friendly and wicked smaaaht.

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With increased pressure to add newborn screening for ALD across the US and this promising research on gene therapy, the future looks bright for the next generation of ALD boys. If us Torreys can help even a tiny bit, sign us up!

Tomorrow I am off to the Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books. Yet another exciting opportunity to share our story. I’ll share stories and pictures next week.

Love, Jess

https://www.thedailybeast.com/can-two-brothers-struck-with-lorenzos-oil-disease-be-saved?source=TDB&via=FB_Page

 

 

 

Ten Years and Counting . . . Special Thanks to the Little Lady from Detroit

I’ve been trying to find the right words, but I’m at a loss. There are no words to really describe how we feel today. I’ll keep this post short and sweet.

Ten years ago we put our son’s life in the hands of doctors and donors and maybe even a higher power (I know, I know – I have a terrible relationship with God, but I’m working on it). Ten years ago we didn’t know of any boys who were ten years post transplant for ALD. We didn’t know if there was a chance that Jack would reach this milestone.

Jack has reached this day – HIS TENTH TRANSPLANT BIRTHDAY – and I fully expect he will exceed every dream we’ve ever had for him. He’s just that kind of kid. He’s a silent boy who speaks.

We had a party this weekend to celebrate our boy. We filled our yard with greasy food and many of Jacko’s favorite people. Jack spent the day hugging, and dancing and enjoying every second.

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Please take a moment today and think about our boy. Think about how amazing life can be.

Happy Birthday JackO!!!

Love, Jess

In honor of Jack’s TRANSPLANT BIRTHDAY we asked people to make donations to Boxes of Fun and Horizon High School. Over $2800 was raised for his school and have a HUGE pile of toys for the Boxes of Fun. Our duct tape is amazing!

 

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FYI – “The Little Lady from Detroit” was Jack’s donor;)

Ten years ago . . .

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2007

What were you doing ten years ago?

Ten years ago our family was in limbo. We had just been transferred from our local hospital to Columbia Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s hospital in New York City. Our lives were standing still as we waited for doctors to figure out what was going on in Jack’s brain.

Seven days earlier, we had gone for an MRI so that we could rule out any significant neurological issues. We were told immediately following the “routine MRI” that it did not rule out anything. Instead, the MRI had confirmed that Jack had significant damage to his brain.

That was April 20th, 2007.

It would be ten days before we were ushered into a small conference room and introduced to the word Adrenoleukodystrophy. Those ten days were surreal.

Waiting is brutal. Although we tried to be optimistic, the doctors were not able to mask their concern. We knew that a diagnosis was coming and that it likely would be bad news. Jack was only eight-years-old and Dan and I both needed to play the role of calm parents, but in the stillness of night our fears would crawl out. There was very little sleeping for us during that time. The “unknown” causes the imagination to spin, often landing on the horrifying or the absurd.

We all know what happened. That we did get a terrible diagnosis and then lived through a nightmare before finding our way to a new life full of challenges. As we approach the tenth anniversary of Jack’s diagnosis and stem cell transplant (his other birthday), I can’t help but relive those days. I can’t help but remember where we were ten years ago. Who we were ten years ago. Bear with me as I spend the next month remembering and sharing.

Sharing has helped me survive the last ten years and reliving these memories is actually helping me to appreciate that we didn’t just survive that period, but we have moved incredibly far since that time. Of corse, I have my moments wondering what life would have looked like without Adrenoleukodystrophy crashing in, but mostly TODAY I am feeling grateful.

Jack survived. His life is complicated, but his quality of life is wonderful. He is happy and stable and manages to bring joy wherever he goes. Anna survived. She runs through life like she runs down a lacrosse field – determined and strong. I’m not exactly sure where she is headed, but her life is going to be extraordinary. Dan and I survived. We are not living the lives we imagined, but I can honestly say that we are closer now than we’ve ever been. I know it sounds cheesy, but he’s my best friend.

Our family has also managed to surround ourselves with friends who hold us up when we need it and encourage us to celebrate the good times (wine and dessert flow often). And, our extended family is incredible. We’ve just gotten to share time with both the Torreys and the Cappellos and we are all feeling incredibly blessed.

For a VERY unlucky family, we are really f*cking lucky;)

Ten years ago our family was living in limbo. Waiting for news that would forever change our lives. Today we are in control. Perhaps not able to control what tomorrow will bring, but in control over how we will face today — AND today is a great day!!

Love, Jess

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Today (not really today, but this year)

Michael and Hans (I mean, Pierre) Part 3

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Eight years ago our family hosted a party to celebrate Jack’s second transplant birthday. There was a cake and balloons and (like any good party) a table so that people could sign up for the Bone Marrow Registry. 79 people signed up that day. One was a friend of a friend, Michael Steiner. I’ve shared his story before, but it continues — here’s the update:

So I did the marrow (“Drill baby! Drill!”) donation back in September 2015. Then a few months after that I did the white blood cell donation (“Spin baby! Spin!”) for my cousin, … because we’re all cousins. #ScienceIsReal

I knew he was in Europe, but I guessed he was in Germany (biggest country, my dad is ethnically German… so odds were on Deutschland over all others.). But it turns out Hans, is not Hans; he’s Pierre. Yes, he’s in France. I was thinking I would call him Francois, but I can never be sure to spell that with i-o or o-i. Oy!

Anyway, I found out the France part because Be The Match called me again in December 2016 to do another white blood cell donation, but this time a nurse would jack me up with some filgrastim over 5 days before the “harvest”. The filgrastim would make my body over-produce the white blood cells so the machine can spin out a better dose for Pierre.

The procedure was set for February 1st (aka “February Fools’ Day”).

I didn’t have many side-effects from the filgrastim. Only some sleeplessness and a low fever because the body gets confused with all those white blood cells around. “What’s the matter? What’s with all the white blood cells? Are we sick? What the heck?” HA! I got to stay in a hotel in the city the night before the harvest because my appointment with the needles was at 7:30am.

Since white blood cells only last a few days, Pierre got the “booster pack” within 24 hours of the harvest. I thought that was pretty cool.

Unfortunately, I’m very unlikely to be able to help Pierre again, at least with regards to his Leukemia. My handler at Be The Match told me I’m “getting to old for this s**t.” (Roger Murtaugh – Lethal Weapon). But seriously, I can be in great shape, but I’m already 45, and my cells aren’t going to be helpful to Pierre after a certain age. (I imagine the bag of white blood cells arriving in France and them saying “Ça sent un vieil homme.” Don’t you love how “old” in French looks like “vile”?)

I probably won’t get an update on how Pierre is doing, and I don’t need one. I hope he hangs in there for a long time, but I know how it all ends!

A big merci beaucoup to Jesse Cappello Torrey who had that “swab party” those years ago.

Merci to you Michael!!!!

Love, Jess

Birthday love

 

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Today our family celebrates John Redmond Torrey’s 9th birthday. Yes. I know that Jack was born nearly 18 years ago,  on August 5th, 1998. But on May 30th each year, we celebrate the day that Jack was given life – again. Today is his “other birthday. “

Nine years ago, Jack was living at Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital in NYC. He had been diagnosed with Adrenoleukodystrophy just one month earlier. Thanks to our team of amazing team of doctors and nurses, he received a stem cell transplant from an anonymous donor. The entire procedure took less than 15 minutes. In keeping with Jack’s relentless attitude and irrepressible spirit, we played Aretha Franklin and danced and laughed in his hospital room as the stem cells slowly dripped into his arm…. and eventually gave him a new life.

That was nine years ago. Now my son is a happy and healthy teenage boy. The same old Jack – just taller, and with more and more with facial hair. I am so so proud to be his father. And so thankful for every day that we have him in our lives.

Jack — I love you very much!

Love, Dad

Wandering through middle age

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Back from our trip, trying hard to hold tight to my mexican mood. It’s so much easier to define yourself as content and happy when your biggest worry for the day is where to go for lunch and whether you want a swedish or a deep tissue massage. I’m just hoping that my new outlook doesn’t fade as quickly as my tan.

My mood has improved dramatically since Dan and I went on our anniversary trip. Time alone with my husband in beautiful Tulum is just what I needed to bounce out of the hole I’d found myself in the last couple of months. Allowing others to take the reins also reminded me that we are not alone – we have people in our lives more than capable of helping out. Thanks Nonno, Mymom, Maria and Jeremy for holding down the fort.

During the quiet moments on the white sand beach, I had a lot of time to count my blessings and to contemplate what has been bothering me. The list is rather long, but the simple answer is CHANGE. We’re starting a new chapter. Anna is becoming increasingly independent and Jack too is growing up and requiring us to adjust – again. I need to prepare myself for this next stage so that I don’t get caught in another landslide. But how do I prepare? Making a plan is a good start, but that has me a little lost.

What/where/who/how do I want to be when I grow up?

I’d always thought that by 46 I would know who I was and would have all my ducks safely in a row. My life has taken some major detours, but I’m starting to realize that most people our age seem to be wrestling with similar feelings as they wander through middle age. I’ve been focusing so much on “poor me” that I hadn’t appreciated that most of my peers are going through similar issues. Knowing we are all going through this together makes me feel better.

The lives that we all envisioned rarely come to fruition. And, even if they do, they often look very different through older eyes. Besides, even if life took us just where we expected, we all have periods of change. Change can be exciting, but it can also be daunting.

Middle age comes with so many life changes. Preparing children to leave the nest or not (in the case of many special needs families and friends who didn’t have children). Career changes or the realization that projected careers never materialized. Grappling with how long to keep our homes full of memories but with taxes high enough to pay for a few European vacations a year. Whether or not to cover the gray or let nature take over.

All this crap is hard, but for me the realization that I’m not doing this alone is rather liberating. There’s safety in numbers. I’ll keep you all posted on any great ideas of how to soften the blow of middle age, but for now only one thing is for sure — Dan and I need to plan for more trips. There is something magic about having your feet in the sand.

 

the talking dream

I remember the first time I heard my voice on my father’s mini-tape recorder. I was about four, singing Itsy Bitsy Spider. It sounded so strange. He’d taped me just minutes before, but I still questioned if it was really me. Although we live in these modern times full of videos, I’ve managed to avoid them. Not even our wedding made it to VHS or DVD or HD or whatever they’re calling it today. So, imagine how I felt when I sat down and watched myself sharing my story,  The Talking Dream, at Listen to Your Mother.

A few comments:

1.) Bangs don’t translate well with overhead lights.
2.) My hands move in a way that makes me uncomfortable.
3.) I play with my wedding band obsessively.
4.) I’m not a pretty crier.
5.) All this, and I’m still proud.

Check out the rest of the cast — I shared the stage with a talented crew!
Love, Jess

happy birthday jackO!

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Day + 2922 (417 weeks/8 years/half of Jack’s life) . . .

Most of us have one birthday, but Jack likes to be different. He has two.

His first birthday marks the day he came into the world. Eight years later, Jack was born again (not in the Christian sense of the word – THAT he hasn’t done yet).

Eight years ago, we sat in room 505 at Columbia Presbyterian while doctors added a small bag of cells to Jack’s huge tower full of medication. It took less then 30 minutes for those cells to enter his veins. We watched and waited, while listening to music (Dan has a playlist for every occasion). It was remarkably uneventful, but it was the beginning of Jack’s life post-ALD.

Like so many life-altering moments, I remember every second of that day. I can’t tell you what I made for dinner last night, but I can tell you what I was wearing eight years ago and I still gag when I recall the smell of stem cells (who knew?). I also have that confusing feeling that it was just yesterday that we sat in that room, but I can’t really remember much before that day — as if our family started on May 30, 2007.

Eight years ago, if someone had sat me down and tried to describe what our lives would look like now, I would have strangled them. I was so sure that we would somehow return to lives that mirrored our lives before ALD took hold. It didn’t matter what I read or who I spoke to, all I could imagine was a family that looked like a family should. Now I know that families come in all sorts of different shapes and sizes, and that happiness is attainable under the most complicated of circumstances.

So, I’m glad I didn’t know. I would have been heartbroken and would have wasted time worrying that we couldn’t manage. Instead, we grew into our new lives and little by little have found a way to make it work. We are strong and happy and thriving. We celebrate Jack’s 8th Transplant Birthday today with plenty of smiles and grateful for all the duct tape that holds us together.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY JACKOOO!

Love, Jess