newborn screening (can’t think of a clever title)

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This image was taken two years before we heard the word Adrenoleukodystophy.

Last week I had the pleasure of attending an ALD meeting. It was one of the most incredible days of my life. I’ve never been in a room full of people who understand our disease before. They all had stories. Many were parents who had lost their boys. Some, like me, have a son who has suffered and is living a complicated life (some lived through both). And, there were two young men who had been treated early – both in their twenties now and both doing well – exceptionally well. They sat across from me and I couldn’t stop watching them and smiling – they’re the future of our disease.

I hate ALD. I hate what it’s done to Jack. I hate what it’s done to our family. I hate that I open my Facebook feed some days and read about another boy suffering from this disease or losing his battle after fighting for years (or months). It’s brutal.

The only possibility of getting good outcome with ALD is an early diagnosis. Until recently, the only way to know that you carried the ALD mutation without displaying symptoms, was if you were “lucky” enough to have a family member diagnosed with the dreaded disease. In the case of the two young men I met last week, each had an older brother with ALD. Each of these young men had watched as their older brothers tackled the disease without any treatment. Both of their brothers died – their greatest legacy was saving their sibling.

I can’t really imagine what these families went through — caring for and then mourning one son as they moved forward with treating another. And these were early days. They were pioneers in the treatment that is now standard for ALD boys – stem cell transplant (and if you’ve been keeping up with the news about gene therapy, THAT might be changing). Because of their brothers, they were each diagnosed early and monitored yearly. As soon as there was one hint of the disease becoming active, they were treated. Transplants were a new way of treating the disease and their parents moved forward, taking advantage of the only hope possible.

Ten years ago we received Jack’s diagnosis. We had never heard the word Adrenoleukodystrophy before that day. We didn’t have the luxury of knowing and watching and preparing. We wasted time with misdiagnosis after misdiagnosis. We watched Jack lose abilities quickly, without knowing what was happening. Finally, just before Jack’s ninth birthday we were given the news and he had his transplant the following month. The transplant worked and it stopped the disease, but Jack’s life is forever tainted by ALD.

I’ve found it difficult being part of our community where Jack – with such a complicated life – is a “good outcome”. Most of the people I’ve come to know with ALD have suffered more, lost more, many have died.

Meeting Mitch and Jon – they said I could use their names – was incredible. Of corse there was a little voice inside me wishing that our family had had some warning. If we had known that the mutation was lurking in Jack’s DNA, we would have watched him through blood work and MRIs and he would have had a transplant a year or two earlier. It’s more than likely that he would be living a very typical life today had we known. He’d probably be in college now. Maybe he would have joined me last week and he would have hung out with Mitch and Jon sharing stories and laughs (FYI – all ALD boys seem to share an awesome sense of humor).

Why am I sharing this? Because there’s no reason for a late diagnosis. It’s possible today to test newborns by including ALD in the newborn screening that is already in place checking for other serious conditions. Several states have passed newborn screening for ALD and many are on their way. I encourage all of you to do your part to make this happen.

I’ve known that newborn screening for ALD had potential for saving lives and avoiding suffering, but meeting Mitch and Jon confirmed the success of early diagnosis and gave me hope that the future is bright for our ugly, wicked, crappy disease.

Love, Jess

 

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lucky mom

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Every weekday morning, Anna races downstairs making sure she gets a chance to give her Boogie* a hug before his bus arrives. It makes my heart melt. No matter what’s going on in our family, our country, or the planet, I try to pause and enjoy the love that these kids have for each other. Siblings/best friends – the strongest bond I’ve ever witnessed. I’m a lucky mom.

That is all.

Love, Jess

* Jack AKA Boogie, Boogie Brown, Boogs, Boogs McGee, JackO, WackO, The Weasel

 

Thrown Back into Reality

As if leaving Block Island isn’t hard enough, we had a doozy of a ferry ride home on Sunday. Within a few minutes of leaving the dock, the boat was pitching frantically over the angry ocean and water was pouring in the open windows. Then, the vomiting started. At one point Keegan’s leash slipped out of Anna’s hand and he slid across the width of the ferry. Fifteen minutes into the hell, a young man next to us took his head out of a garbage can to announced, “We have 45 more minutes of this.”

We had known that it was likely to be a rough ride. Our friends had left the island an hour earlier and reported back that their journey to the mainland had been a nightmare. Dan sat with Anna and the dogs and I chose a seat where I could brace myself while holding onto Jack and we could sit facing the horizon. I was worried about Jack getting sea sick, but once we started moving I worried less about a little vomit and more about a seizure. He was sitting between my legs and I could feel the sweat pouring down his neck and his body melting. Jack’s body isn’t built for stress. He has Addison’s Disease (another gift from ALD) and his body doesn’t produce cortisol to help deal with added stress to his system. A seizure can be a result of his body being overwhelmed, and a boat that’s slapping in the water at strange angles is not an ideal place to manage a seizure.

My mind was racing with planning how to get Jack to a safe spot to lay him down and how on earth one of us could manage to grab his emergency medication that was in the back of our over-packed car two floors down. I was in a panic, but as always, my family calmed me. Anna kept looking over and whispering “I love you.” and “Boogie’s going to be fine.” And, Dan knowing that I can get hysterical fairly easily, kept saying things like, “This isn’t so bad.” – he admitted later that the ride was the worst he’d ever experienced and that Jack’s face (that I couldn’t see) had been a bright color of green. Jack also managed to keep me calm. I spent the hour whispering into his ear that everything was going to be okay. His trust in me and little squeezes back let me know that it was going to be okay.

We were literally thrown back into reality. I haven’t been that scared in a long time, but we survived. No injuries. No seizures. No vomit.

It took a couple of hours before we could recover and returned to our usual chatty car-talks reliving our Block Island adventures, but we are determined not to let that last hour ruin an amazing two week vacation.

Two weeks on Block Island where life is slow, days are long and sunsets are pure magic. Beach time, kayaking, tennis, biking, hiking, puzzles, cards, weaving, paddle boarding, large meals, large cocktails, even a reading of Smiles and Duct Tape at Island Bound Bookstore (thanks to all who attended). We had time with family and friends and, besides the extra few pounds around my belly, we are bringing back a load of good memories. Thank you Block Island for recharging us. And, thank you PopPop and Sue for hosting.

Jack and Anna are back at school, Dan is in Chicago, and I am working on my list of fall “to dos” (lots going on with Smiles and Duct Tape and a new project underway – I will fill you in later).

Welcome back to reality folks.

Love, Jess

 

And the Winner is . . .

Smack in the middle of remembering the hell we went through ten years ago, we got a beautiful reminder of where we are now.

THIS is where we are now — We are winning the GOLD!!!!!

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This amazing day was thanks to the Special Olympics and the greatest school on the planet – CPNJ Horizon High School. Their love, support, training and encouragement helped Jack hop his way to the finish-line!!

If this video made you smile (or cry happy tears), please consider making a donation to Jack’s school.

https://cpnj.donorpages.com/WWCHorizonHighSchool2017/JesseTorrey/?t=636288010860612211

Love, Jess (proud mama)

P.S. It’s not really about winning, it’s about being able to play the game. Thanks to the Special Olympics and Horizon High School – Jack was able to play the game!

P.P.S. It is kinda fun to win sometimes;)

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)

I want to be like Harry’s mom

Twenty years ago (years before I was even pregnant with Jack), I was a middle school art teacher in a suburb on Long Island. One day, the principle asked me to come down to his office to discuss something. He told me that there was a boy in the district who was profoundly autistic. He wasn’t mainstreamed in any classes, but he really loved art. The principle asked if I would be willing to have the boy join my seventh grade class.

I didn’t know much about Autism, but I did know about tenure, so I nodded my head and said that I would love to.

The next day I was introduced to Harry. Harry could barely speak, couldn’t look me in the eye and had a host of very unusual behaviors. Initially, I thought HOW is this going to work? I was a new, inexperienced teacher and had 26 other seventh graders in the class – seventh graders!

I was surprised and delighted that over the next couple of weeks I didn’t just get used to Harry and his quirky behavior, I kinda fell in love with him. There was something magical about the way that he was able to tune out the chaos around him and focus on his work. And, the feelings where mutual — before long, part of Harry’s daily routine was to stop by my classroom several times a day to hug me. Long awkward AND awesome hugs.

As Back to School Night approached that year I was super excited about meeting Harry’s mom. I felt like I needed to tell this overwhelmed/exhausted women that she was doing a great job – that Harry was a great kid. I was going to make her day.

The night arrived, and as my seventh grade class of parents filed in, I scanned the room for Harry’s mom. I’m not sure what I was looking for but I was certain I didn’t see her. There was not one person in the crowd wearing a “I’m a special needs mom” hat. I was disappointed, but moved on with my “Why Art is the most important subject in your child’s curriculum” speech. When it was over and the class started to empty, a woman walked up to me and introduced herself, “Hi, I’m Harry’s mom”

I was floored. She’d been there the whole time and I hadn’t recognized her. She wasn’t at all what I expected – she was showered and had make-up on. She was even smiling. I paused a little too long and then made things worse by hugging her and telling her how much I adored her son and great I thought she was. That hug made Harry’s hugs seem pretty normal.

As she removed herself from my arms she said, “Thank you so much Mrs Torrey. THAT is great to hear, but I know how amazing Harry is. I’m not just a special needs mom – I’m Harry’s mom. Harry’s life might be a little more complicated than his peers, but I have always tried to not let Autism take over our family. I have other kids, I have a job and a husband and friends. If I let Autism define us, I am letting Autism win.”

I’m not much of a believer in “all things happen for a reason” but Harry’s mother’s words have stayed with me for over twenty years.

When Jack got sick and it started to become apparent that his disabilities weren’t temporary, I remembered that day meeting Harry’s mom and thinking that if I could just keep her attitude my family just might survive.

Love, Jess

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A Room Full of Duct Tape

I’m not sure of the best word to describe Thursday’s reading at WORDS – but unreal and overwhelming keep coming to mind. The reading took place in the basement of our local bookstore (that makes it sound depressing – it’s … Continue reading

When “Thank you” isn’t enough – THANK YOU!!!!!

I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving. Four days on Block Island in a house full of family, has us all feeling super grateful (and maybe a little exhausted). All things considered, we are one lucky family!

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The support our family has received over the last ten years has been amazing and with the release of Smiles and Duct Tape, it’s all been magnified. I’ve been receiving notes for the last two weeks from friends and family and strangers who have stumbled on the book. I’m so touched by the kind words and thrilled that the book is finding an audience.

The words “thank you” aren’t really enough, but THANK YOU!!!

If you are local, please join our family at WORDS for a reading/signing/Q&A this Thursday, December 1 at 7:30. I can’t promise that I won’t be super nervous (and I will definitely end up in tears at some point), but at least I can THANK YOU in person.

Love, Jess

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the laughter continues thanks to the (impractical) JOKERS

We have the most amazing friends. Love and support always, dinners when needed – even offers to walk the dogs (well, not EVERYONE offers to take Finn, but people do fight over Keegan). We’re always astonished by all the love and generosity, but sometimes we’re really blown away.

Our dear friend, Alice, is far cooler than most of us and knows “people”. She shared Jack’s laughter with her buddies at truTV and look what happened.

           

For a boy who hasn’t spoken in almost ten years, it’s amazing how many people he’s able to reach with something as simple as a laugh.

Think about it folks – sometimes a laugh is all it really takes.

Tru TV should be on everyone’s radar. It’s CHANGING lives folks! And, they didn’t just send us these videos, they have invited us to a live show on 11/3 at the Prudential Center. The Jokers and Nitro Circus. Everyone should order tickets now!!

Thank you Alice and Michael and the greatest (impractical) Jokers on the planet!

 

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Love, Jess

PS Please don’t judge my messy desk and Jack is NOT picking his nose. That’s his “I’m really into what I am watching face”.

Summer Round Up

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Summer’s coming to a close and I think I’m ready. Sure, I will miss the long days and the family time, but I think I need to get back to a schedule and SHHHHHHHHH – I’m looking forward to the house being mine for a few hours each day. Is that so bad?

This summer was filled with activity – birthdays, Santa Fe, BBQs, fun. Block Island, as always, rated high on our list of favorite adventures. We didn’t get quite as much time there as we’ve grown used to, but the reasons were good. Dan’s job had him busy with travel (work is good), Anna had an amazing internship and started looking at schools (work is essential), and the best reason to miss Block Island time was that my brother Philip got married to a lovely woman who we are excited to welcome to the family. Welcome Kate!!

 

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This summer also included fun activities like applying for guardianship and Social Security for Jack. Although not as entertaining as time on the beach or celebrating a wedding, I need to share that Jack’s 18 Birthday Project has not been a disaster. There have been a few tears, some money, some doctor’s appointments, some paperwork and some long lines to deal with, but it hasn’t been as painful as I’d imagined.

I’m someone who prepares for the worst. I’m not sure if it’s a product of our “situation” or if I was born this way (I can’t really remember much about life before), but I seem to have a need to picture the worst case scenario. I know this sounds like I enjoy doom and gloom, but it’s the opposite. I worry that doom and gloom might someday kill me if I don’t brace for it.

So when I can, I prepare. When Jack has a fever, I pack a hospital bag. When I see we have a 1/2 tank of gas in the car, I fill it. When we are running low on wine . . . you get the picture. I prepare. So, when I know I need to complete a pile of paperwork providing information to prove that that my eighteen-year-old son is so disabled that he is never expected to be able to work or live independently – I brace myself for both the emotional pain and the dread of dealing with bureaucracy.

I hope I don’t jinx things, but so far, it’s been pretty painless. We hired an attorney that did a remarkable job at guiding us through the process of guardianship without making us focus too much on the details. And, we spent Monday at Social Security where we lucked out and were placed at a desk with the sweetest man. He calmly asked us questions and kept looking at Jack’s sweet smile and saying, “I really want to make this easy for you guys.”. I’m glad I brought Jack. I’m not sure I would have gotten that kind of treatment without him. So all of our paperwork is in and now we wait. I REALLY hope I don’t regret sharing how easy this all was . . .

Enjoy this last blast of summer before the chaos (or quiet luxury) of the school year begins!

Love, Jess

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FYI – The first round of edits of the book are complete. I still can’t believe this is happening.