Two-Armed Sister Clutch

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You’ve heard from me for ten years. Now, it’s Anna’s turn. When it came time for her to write her college essay I was excited to help, but like all things academic, she insisted on doing it on her own.

Two-Armed Sister Clutch

        I have to hold his torso carefully so that he can’t bite me. For years, as my brother has gotten stronger, my technique has evolved from a simple shoulder hold into the now perfect “Two-Armed Sister Clutch.” My dad takes care of his head to keep it propped up—after all, the neck is the most important part. After ten minutes of very cautiously carving away at his beard, the world’s brightest smile emerges from his newly exposed face. I’ve just shaved my nineteen-year-old brother for the third time this week; my favorite chore with my favorite person.
        A sharp automatic razor and Jack—that’s my brother—make for a very interesting endeavor. But despite the chaos of the project, it always gets me thinking clearly. I think about the disease that forced its way into Jack’s brain ten years ago and made him this dependent on me, and about the fact it has been TEN years. I think about who he was before his disease—my typical big brother, goofy and in love with life. I think about who he is now—my silent and disabled big brother, goofy and in love with life. And finally, I think about who I am, and who his disease has made ME.
        Shaving my brother is a difficult task. I start off by trimming the top layer of the every-so-gnarly hairs. The first layer of Jack’s story is one very long word (the first word with more than six letters that I ever learned): Adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD). That is the neurodegenerative disease that turned my family from one straight out of a J. Crew catalog to the very quirky, “special” family that we are today. I was six, Jack eight, when he was diagnosed with ALD and his brain function slowly unraveled. Suddenly, my brother’s voice wasn’t around to fill up my house with jokes and curiosity. Suddenly, I had to be the athlete of the family…and the social butterfly… and the nerd. And now, a decade later, I am a hop skip and a jump away from being a professional groomer, too.
        After I trim Jack’s beard, its time to crank the razor up and dig down through all the brush, rounding the jawline and inching in to each crevice. Shedding that hair makes Jack look so presentable,… so professional… so normal. I get flashes of Jack Torrey as an adult (Doctor? Lawyer? Artist?), walking the streets of a big city, wife and kids by his side, living a normal life. I see myself meeting him for a bagel and talking about our careers, our friends, or our families. Sometimes I just picture us talking. It has been ten years since Jack last spoke.
        Luckily, my feeling sorry for myself is quickly interrupted by the most amazing laugh to ever exist. The disease that stole Jack’s words and independence did not manage to steal his laughter. I look at him and see what that sweat-inducing work out really uncovered: a giant, radiating smile. I let go of him and he wanders around the kitchen, slowly making his way back to me, tongue out and eyebrows raised, to give the best hug any sister has ever gotten from their big brother. That is Jack’s way of saying thank you.
        I’ll never have a typical sibling to show me the ropes of life and gossip with when I’m older, but Ill always have Jack. I’ll have his smile to tell me to always work as hard as I can. I’ll always have his laugh to encourage me to give back to other people and other families. I’ll always have his hugs after a lacrosse game or job interview gone wrong. And, I’ll always have an escape when I want to think about these things all over again—after all, that boy could always use a shave.

Anna Cappello Torrey
Johns Hopkins University Class of 2022 (we just got the news!!)

 

Love, Proud Mom

 

 

 

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.

old 4

        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.

*************

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.

THIS is ALD #2 — Sean

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The odds of winning the Powerball lottery are one in 175 million. The odds of being born with the Adrenoleukodystrophy gene are one in 17 thousand.

And yet, everyone has heard of the Powerball, while most people give me a funny look when I share Jack’s diagnosis.

My go-to response is, “It’s that disease from the movie Lorenzio’s Oil.”

When that doesn’t work, I say something like, “It’s a genetic disease that effects the adrenal gland and destroys the myelin in the brain. It’s worse when it starts advancing as a child. That’s what happened to Jack. Yes – he was totally fine until he was eight-years-old and then . . . well, he kinda fell apart. He did have a stem cell transplant and it stopped the disease from progressing, but he lost a lot during that time. He can’t speak anymore and needs help with just about everything – eating, bathing, getting dressed, even walking down the street. He can eat. He does need to be fed and he has a tube in his belly for hydration. Oh, and he also needs a whole lot of medicine to keep him going. Steroids for his Addison’s Disease – did I mention that his adrenal glad doesn’t work? THAT is pretty common with people with ALD. Not everyone, but most. Jack also needs medicine for his seizures. That’s another thing a lot of the boys deal with. I’m not sure about the men with AMN. AMN is what older men with the ALD mutation get — if they get anything. Some men seem fine. And, most women are fine, at least until they’re older. Then they seem to have trouble walking and with their bladder and bowels. Yea, I know that’s scary. I sure don’t want to deal with any of that. Good news is that my mom’s doing well and she has the mutation. Oh, but that doesn’t really mean anything. Not with ALD. ALD doesn’t seem to have a memory when it comes down a family line. Anyway, Jack has Adrenoleukodystrophy.”

 
As my description demonstrates, ALD doesn’t always look the same. As readers of Smiles and Duct Tape, you know Jack and you know Jack’s ALD, but, there are many phenotypes – Childhood Cerebral, Adolescent Cerebral, Adrenomyeloneuropathy (AMN), Adult Cerebral, Addison Disease only, Carrier’s Syndrome and the lucky few who are completely asymptomatic. There are also several treatments (no cures): dietary therapies, transplant, gene therapy, treatment for adrenal insufficiency. I could show you charts and explain all the science surrounding the disease, but instead I’m going to introduce you to ALD through it’s people. It will be a chance to get to know ALD — our not-so-rare disease.

 
A couple of times a month I’m going to share a story about someone (or a whole family) with our disease. Don’t worry – you’re still stuck with me posting stories about JackO and our not-so-special family. THIS is ALD will be a little extra treat.

 
THIS is ALD #2
Sean Suppan
(Jack was #1)

 
One of my ALD stranger-friends (now friend) is Ellen Suppan. She and I met years ago when her son, Sean, was starting the transplant process. I remember getting off the phone with her almost breathless. Even though our family was two years ahead of them in the process, it was hard for me to imagine what they were going through. Their ALD journey seemed so much more complicated.

 
She shared their story with University of Minnesota Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplantation Center in 2009. These are her words as Sean was going through transplant:

 
“In 2003, after a lot of doctor visits, we were told that my other son David
had ALD. He was 7. I had no family history, but it has to start somewhere.
Back then, there was nothing we could do for him. Within 3 months, he was
in a bedridden state, and then went to a vegetative state, and he was like that
for 4 years. David passed away in October 2006. We miss him but were
relieved he was no longer hurting.

 
Shortly after David’s diagnosis, I found out that we were expecting and later
learned I was carrying a boy. And yes, he carried the gene, but had a 50/50
chance of not developing symptoms. With Sean, we were very proactive. We
have known since he was born that he has ALD. When Sean was only 3, he
came down with a high fever and we did an MRI, and everything was clear.
We did another MRI 4 months later and there was a spot there. We were
shocked. David was 5 when this happened.

 
My main concern was to get Sean where he needed to be. There are good
hospitals. They have done a couple of transplants, but not as many as the
University of Minnesota. The most transplants for ALD have been done here,
pioneered here and they are still working on it.

 
The downside of going through the transplant is that the chemo may bring
on more advancement. It’s a no-win situation. If I don’t do anything, I have
seen the course it takes. But, we at least know that he will not get to the stage
that my other son had to endure for four years. We are thinking positive.

 
I am thankful and grateful that Dr. Orchard came up with this treatment. It is bittersweet for me. Back in 2003, they did not do transplants for symptomatic
kids like David. The progression with David was very cruel for a parent to
watch. We are doing for Sean what we could not do for David.

 
Don’t expect anything to be normal. It’s a new normal. It’s a new way of
doing things. Be ready. I always keep my gas tank half full, because I don’t
know when I’ll need to go to the hospital. Live in the moment. All the other
things will fit into place.”

 
What isn’t mentioned in this piece is that while the Suppan family was losing their son, David, in the fall of 2006, their daughter Ashling was diagnosed with AML Leukemia (she has just celebrated 11 years in remission). They were still mourning David as they went through treatment with Ashling and were diligently monitoring Sean. Then, as Ashling was enjoying life after her treatment, it was time for Sean’s transplant. Ellen shared with me that she missed her daughter’s high school graduation because she was in Minnesota with Sean recovering from his transplant. ALD often steals a lot from a family.

 
Eight years after our first correspondence, I finally had the pleasure of meeting Ellen, her husband David and Sean in person. I tried not to, but I couldn’t help but watch Sean closely and compare him to Jack. Sean has the same engaging bright smile and is eager to be part of the conversation. He is able to speak and to the untrained eye appears very typical. I did see a few hints of ALD, but needed to ask Ellen for specifics.

 
Ellen shared that following transplant they were most concerned about Sean’s vision, but gradually it seemed to improve. He does have difficulty processing new surroundings and has issues with his depth perception. Other challenges include short term memory problems and some behaviors like making odd noises, chewing on shirt collars (THAT is so Jack) and shrugging his head almost violently. He is able to feed himself, but needs help with other activities of daily living. Sean is currently in the seventh grade and moves between a special needs classroom and a few mainstream classes.

Overall Sean is doing great. The Suppan family is grateful that Sean was able to be monitored closely and received his transplant early. Ellen shared a note she received from his teacher. I think it says it all.

 

Hi Mrs. Suppan,
I wanted to share with you that Sean is doing terrific. I am so proud of him. Today he came up in front of the class and shared with him things he is thankful for. What an accomplishment for him – we appreciate him everyday and are thankful to know him. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.

 

“ . . . we appriciate him every day and are thankful to know him.” THAT is how I feel about Ellen. I hate ALD and the chaos it’s created in our families, but I am honored and grateful to have Ellen as a friend AND to have met Sean. Stay strong little man and I look forward to meeting you again soon – next time with JackO!!

 

Love, Jess

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THIS is ALD

stranger-friends

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We all have “friends” on social media who we don’t really know — let’s call them stranger-friends. They find their way to your feed through mutual friends or colleagues or common interests or whatever. I have over 1000 friends on Facebook and there’s nothing quite like a birthday to remind you of who’s on your page – friends from elementary school, high school, college, graduate school, mommyhood, the neighborhood, ALD, CCI, CPNJ, and on and on and on – including all those stranger-friends.

Sunday was my 48th birthday and I’ve spent much of the last couple of days reading through posts. Hundreds of posts and I’ve read each one. It’s amazing to pause from the chaos of the holiDAZE and think of all the people in your life (and on your computer). Birthday wishes are always fun and this year I feel blessed that I’ve managed to meet some of my stranger-friends in person.

Over the years, there has been a growing percentage of people in the ALD community on my Facebook feed. Many are people that I feel very close to because of shared experiences, but most of them have been stranger-friends — I’ve never met them in person — until this year. Thanks to Smiles and Duct Tape, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of ALD folks – people living with it and/or fighting against it. This past weekend I had another chance to meet some of these people.

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My mother, Anna and I attended this year’s ALD Connect Annual Meeting. As soon as we arrived, I saw people I’ve only seen on my computer screen. And, these aren’t just regular people to me. Imagine meeting one of your heroes. Now, imagine meeting a room full of your heroes. THAT’S what it felt like.

People responsible for newborn screening for ALD, for raising funds for research, doctors dedicated to fighting our disease, biotech companies discovering new treatments, and piles of people living with ALD/AMN. And, there were the ALD moms – some have lost their boys, some are caring for them now, even one who has hope for her beautiful son thanks to newborn screening. All these names I’ve known, all these faces I recognized, all their stories that have helped me move forward — it was a little overwhelming, but deeply powerful.

For the first time since we were thrown into the world of Adrenoleukodystrophy, I feel like our family is connected to something bigger. I walked away from the meeting wanting to march on Washington and change legislation, start a foundation to raise money for ALD, go back and get my medical degree . . . I may do a few of those things over time, but I think for now my job is to share. Share what it’s like to live with ALD. Share what it’s like maintaining my family — trying not to be defined by the disease. Share what it’s like to be a normal, special family. So, I will continue to write and to all of my ALD friends and stranger-friends — just let me know when you need me to do some marching or raise some money. I’m guessing no one really thinks it’s a good idea for me to go to medical school;)

Thanksgiving is always a time of reflection. As I consider all the things I am grateful for, I’m adding being part of the ALD community. I hate ALD — I hate what it’s done to Jack, I hate what it’s done to so many families, BUT I do love the people I’ve met through our wicked disease. We can’t fight this monster alone and I am honored that our family is fighting with this group of strong/dedicated/brilliant people.

Happy Thanksgiving!!

Love, Jess

Please join me in taking a moment today to send a prayer/good vibes/happy thoughts to a woman who adored our kids. Jack and Anna called her MopMop, but most people knew her as Sharon O’Neill. Rest in peace.

 

proof of progress

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Jack wanders. Unless he’s eating with the family around the kitchen island or he’s stationed on the couch in the den in front of Impractical Jokers, he likes to walk around the house. We call it “doing his loop”. He walks from the kitchen, through the dinning room, to the living room and then back to the kitchen. Occasionally, he’ll stop and acknowledge one of us with a little pat on the head, but mostly he just walks slowly from room to room. If someone rings the doorbell and makes the dogs go nuts, Jack will react by hopping up on one leg and speeding up his pace. And, if he notices the commercials on the TV have ended, he might take a break from walking and find his way back onto the couch.

Sometimes when Jack is wandering, he goes off route and heads upstairs and it takes us a minute to find him (our boy can walk up stairs unassisted, but is not able to walk down stairs without a hand). Last week I was busy doing something very important – like a puzzle or watching Dateline – when I realized that Jack wasn’t in the den where I had left him. I did the loop and didn’t see him, so I raced upstairs. I found him in our master bathroom checking himself out in the mirror. He had a big smile on his face and a Visa bill in his hand.

“JackO, what do you have there? I need to pay that dude. Go put it back where you found it.”

Jack smiled and walked right past me. I followed him and watched as he made his way into the office and laid the bill down right in the center of my desk.

Why am I sharing this? Because it’s amazing!!! It’s been ten years since Jack has followed a two part command. It’s proof of progress.

There’s more.

The other night I had some ladies over. We were all in the kitchen enjoying cocktails and catching up. I gave Jack his nighttime medication and then walked him to the bathroom to sit him on the toilet. I closed the bathroom door and returned to my friends. I was planning on giving him a couple of minutes, but may have gotten a little distracted. I was knee deep in a fascinating conversation about teenage angst, when I looked over to the doorway and there was my son. He had gotten himself up off the toilet, opened the bathroom door and found us. His pants were around his ankles, but he had pulled up his diaper. Such a gentleman – knowing there were ladies in the house.

Again – this may not sound like a big deal. It is. Huge.

Need another example?

I picked up Jack from school the other day and we were doing our usual routine of listening to music and chatting (one sided) about our day. Jack seemed bored with me and started looking for something to do. First he turned on the interior light, then he opened his window.

“Jack, your driving me nuts. Turn off that light.”

He looked at me, smiled, reached over and turned off the light.

“Wow! Jack, now close the window.”

Window closed.

The whole way home I was in shock. Did he really just listen to me? Did he just follow a command — and then another?

We pulled into the driveway, I got out of the car and I went around to open Jack’s door. I reached down, gave him a kiss on the cheek and told him how proud I was of him, “Jack, now can you unbuckle your seatbelt?”

He didn’t miss a beat. He reached over and clicked the button. Proof of progress.

That’s right folks. Progress doesn’t always follow a straight line for our boy, but lately he has been shooting ahead steadily – Jack is amazing.

But we already know that.

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Love, Proud Mama

 

 

the new normal

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Smiles and Duct Tape went to Wisconsin last weekend. I’ve been speaking a bunch with the ALD and the special needs worlds, but this was the first time I was sharing our story at a book festival with regular folks. This is what I learned — Regular folks are special, just like us.

I tried not to, but I couldn’t help myself from reading through the bios of all the authors attending the Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books. MFAs, PhDs, awards, long lists of writing accomplishments. As I boarded the flight to Milwaukee, I couldn’t help but be nervous. How could I compete with all these real authors? And, why on earth would anyone want to go to The New Normal panel when they could go hear about The Poet as Historian or From Page to Stage or Teaching, Writing and Thinking about Queer History?

As soon as I landed, I was put at ease by the warm smile on the face of the man picking me up. He also had a sign with my name on it (I love that whole sign thing). As we got into the car, I asked about his connection to the Book Festival. He shared that he was not just a big fan of the event, but a dedicated volunteer and a former English teacher. My nerves ramped up again as I imagined him editing my work. Why was I here? Maybe Candy invited me on a whim, never thinking I would actually get on a plane and travel the 870 miles. I kept telling myself to breathe. Candy’s an old friend (from elementary school), but she was under no obligation to extend the invite and send me that plane ticket. She must have read the book and thought it would be a good fit for the festival, right? Breathe.

We arrived at the hotel and as soon as I checked in, another author quickly put out his hand and introduced himself. He couldn’t have been nicer and I quickly got over his PhD and other credentials. He was warm, sincere and interested in chatting. Then, I met up with an author who was part of The New Normal panel, and within a few minutes she felt like family. I thought – if everyone here is this friendly, I’m going to be okay.

They were, and I was.

The New Normal drew a larger crowd than I expected and I managed to keep up with the two other panelists. We each had very different stories, but all sorts of connections. I’ve never given a talk with other people and didn’t know what to expect, but it felt natural and I don’t think I even did my usual shaking. I also got to enjoy attending talks by an assortment of talented writers and to reconnect with my old friend Candy (and a pile of her creative/talented friends). All weekend was spent sharing and listening – lots of talking. This was a group that likes words written AND spoken.

As I think about the experience and all the people I met, I’m amazed by the fact that nearly every person I talked with understood “special”. Since I was there to share our family’s journey, people felt comfortable sharing details about their own lives. Many had gone through incredible challenges themselves or helped family through the horrors of illness or depression. They all had been witness to a new normal. Perhaps that’s true about everyone. I think we need a new word for “special”. Human?

Being around such a creative assortment of humans for two days was incredible. Everyone had a story and everyone was eager to hear mine. I walked away energized and eager to start my next writing project (I’ll fill you in on that soon).

I’ve been getting out of my comfort zone quite a bit of that lately. It’s been exhausting, but I’m honored to share Jack’s story with a broad audience. I’m learning a lot about the world and myself along the way.

It’s also good to come home.

Love, Jess

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My reading list:

 

Carolyn Walker’s Every Least Sparrow

Mary Jo Balistreri’s Best Brothers, Joy in the Morning, Along the Way, and Gathering the Harvest

Das Jenssen’s Phenomenal Gender: What Transgender Experience Discoloses

Jeaneete Hurt’s Drink Like a Woman

Nickolas Butler’s The Hearts of Men

AND if this show comes to a city near you —- GO! The Pink Hulk 

 

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

 

 

 

cringing and shaking, but okay

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When I was a junior in college, I took an Old Testament class. It was a small class and most of it consisted of open discussions around a large round table. One week in, I approached the professor and told him I was sorry, but I needed to drop the class; “I just can’t do it. My heart races just thinking about speaking in front of everyone.”

Had you known me at that age, you might find my anxiety surprising. I wasn’t someone who hid in a corner or didn’t like attention. It was the combination of academics and public speaking that made me panic. School hadn’t been easy for me thanks to some learning issues, so when I was at school, I did my best to stay safely in the back of the room. I saved my loud, social self for after class time.

To make a long story short — the professor would not let me drop the class. He bargained with me, promising that he would not make me speak until the last class of the semester. I sat silently for months in a class of maybe a dozen people – until the last day. Of course that made things rather awkward. Everyone had thought there was something wrong with me and couldn’t believe it when I actually opened my mouth that day. I did manage to get my words out, but not without a whole lot of “Ahhhhhhh”s and “Uhmmmmmm”s.

After that class, I promised myself that I would never again speak in public. Then, I decided I wanted to be an art teacher. My first few attempts to model lessons in graduate school were painful, but I got over it and managed to become comfortable . . . in front of a classroom of children.

As an adult I have done a little more public speaking. I spoke at a fundraiser for The PG Chambers School, and to some small school groups with our service dog, Keegan. I even spoke at Listen to Your Mother. Each time I walked away cringing and shaking, wondering when it would get easier.

Since Smiles and Duct Tape was published, I’ve had the opportunity to speak more — at bookstores and schools. And, it’s really ramped up this month. I spoke to a psychology class at Seton Hall University about “exceptional children” and was honored to speak at a CPNJ fundraiser sharing our story and our love for CPNJ Horizon High School. Next week I’m speaking about ALD up in Boston and then heading to Wisconsin for the Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books. I can’t say I feel completely comfortable as I start a presentation, but I do think I am getting the hang of it.

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It’s so strange how life can send you in a direction that you never expected. The girl who got Cs in English, wrote a book. The girl who couldn’t stand up in front of a small group of classmates, now speaks in front of large audiences of ADULTS. It’s not without plenty of nerves and a whole lot of shaking (honestly – it’s unreal how my whole body shakes), but I am doing it. If it helps other families going through similar situations or helps students trying to understand what “special” looks like or helps people understand ALD or if it encourages people to support wonderful organizations like CPNJ – I’ll do it.

It’s my way of taking back some control. It’s my way of proving that our family has reached the other side of hell. It’s my way of not letting ALD win.

 

Love, Jess

 

 

 

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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