hApPy BiRtDaY bAnAnZ!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I simply answered that her older brother is.

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

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

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

Happy Birthday Anna Banana – our very favorite special sibling.

Love, MoMo

Roll the Footage!

“Good morning”, Jack said with a big smile on his face as I walked into his room at 7:00 am. If you don’t know Jack, you might not have heard the words, but Jack speaks pretty loudly if you know … Continue reading

THIS is (our) ALD

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After writing the sweet birthday story about Jack CLICK HERE IF YOU MISSED IT, I got started on our morning routine. Getting Jack up and out for school takes 2000 steps – even in the new house. There’s laundry and showering and teeth brushing and dressing and breakfast and medication. By the time we’re done with medication, we’re close to the finish line. The last steps are putting on his shoes (Jack wears AFOs so it takes some time) and few minutes on the potty – just in case.

I hadn’t realized that Jack had the last bite of cake in his mouth when I sat him down on the toilet (don’t judge – it’s his birthday). I left the room for a minute to grab some coffee and I heard a loud sneeze. When I walked back into the bathroom, there was chocolate cake EVERYWHERE. All over Jack, the floor, even the freshly painted, super cool and modern, white walls.

At first, there was a bunch of swearing on my part, but it quickly turned to laughter and joking with Jack that if someone hadn’t known what had happened, they might think it was poop. Several Clorox wipes and a new tee-shirt later, Jack and the bathroom were as good as new. I decided that – just in case – I would leave Jack on the toilet for just a few more minutes. The phone rang so I left the room and spent a couple of minutes chatting with Dan about the birthday boy. As I walked back into the bathroom I interrupted Dan by saying, “Holy crap. There’s sh%t everywhere!! Gotta go.”

This time there was poop everywhere. POOP EVERYWHERE!

When I cleaned up for the second round of mess, I can’t say that it was all laughter, but once I was finished, I called Dan back and we all found the humor when I said, “I just cleaned him up again. He still has some stuff on his pants. Not quite sure if it’s poop or cake. The bus just pulled up, so let’s assume that it’s cake.”

Is it poop or is it cake? Let’s assume it’s cake. THAT is real story of (our) ALD.

Love, Jess

side rails, alarms and a birthday

Yesterday I woke up to a tap on the arm. I was confused before I opened my eyes. Why was Dan back home – he’d left so early? Then I heard the hop hop as my human alarm walked away.

I wondered how long it would take for our boy to figure out how to climb out of his new bed. Just less than a month isn’t bad. We’ve been living this life for twelve years now and a month is remarkably quick for learning a new skill. Not that I’m assuming that Jack will manage this new trick again for a while, but I ordered some side rails for his bed, just in case. 

In our old house I worried about Jack climbing out of bed and falling down the stairs. Now I worry about Jack roaming around the house unattended and God forbid escaping and finding his way into the pool. Progress can be complicated at our house – wherever it is. I’m so proud when Jack accomplishes a new goal, but each improvement can come with a list of worries.

Dan and Anna think I am nuts, but along with the side rails, I’ve recently installed an alarm system so that I can hear every time a door opens, cameras in Jack’s room and at the front and the back of the house and an alarm for the pool. Having a child with special needs can be complicated and expensive, but piece of mind is priceless.

Twelve years ago I never imagined that our family would look like this today. I was living in the “everything is going to go right back to normal” mode. I never thought I would secure our house — not from outside threats, but from our boy and things as simple as climbing out of a bed.

THIS is ALD.

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Today is Jack’s 12th Transplant Birthday. 4383 days since those cells from the “Little Lady from Detroit” (in case you missed our story 12 years ago – Jack’s stem cells came from a cord donation. All we know about the donor was she was born in Detroit in 2005. She needed a name, so we gave her one) saved Jack’s life. So much has happened since them. Loads of good, plenty of bad – but mostly good. Although we never imagined living this life, we have a lot to celebrate today. This year we are planning on celebrating big for his 21st “typical” birthday, so we told Jack we are keeping things tame today. Don’t tell him, but we did get him a few gifts. Just trying to figure out how to wrap those side rails.

Love, Jess

PLEASE send Jack a birthday note AND consider making a small donation to CPNJ Horizon High School in his name. His Wheeln n Walkin Challenge is tomorrow and we are only half way to our goal . CLICK HERE. 

The Three P’s

Everyone knows that moving is a stressful experience. It’s the three P’s — Purging, Packing, and Paperwork. Is there anyone who really enjoys any of those activities, and all three at once is enough to send you over the edge!! … Continue reading

Happy BiRtHdAy!

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This handsome man is celebrating a birthday today. He’s not just handsome – he’s brilliant and creative and hysterical and a great father AND the sweetest Nonno on the planet. 

If you knew us during my high school/college years, you might be surprised by how close we are now. It took hard work (on both sides), but he and I are as close as can be – we share our highs and our lows AND always manage to find the humor in any situation.

I love you Nonno and am so glad we found our way!

Love, Tatess

Lesson of the day — Hard work pays off!!

A Change of Address

Shhhhhh. Don’t tell my parents, but Dan and I lived together before we got married (even before we got engaged). 

We didn’t mean to live in sin. Dan was in-between apartments and my roommate was understanding. We lived in a large rent controlled apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with two bedrooms, 2 bathrooms and a little room off the kitchen that we started calling, “Dan’s room”. It went on for months, but once Dan and I got engaged we decided it was time to make it official. We moved to Brooklyn before Brooklyn was more expensive than Manhattan. Before it was littered with kombucha bars and hipsters. Before it was too cool for us. We found a studio apartment in the parlor of an old brownstone. 132 Joralemon Street was one big room with high ceilings and a steep staircase that lead to a platform where we slept – except in the summer when it was unbearable and we had to move to the couches in the living-room.

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Our next apartment was more practical. 54 Orange Street, just north of Joralemon, was built to be an apartment building. It had a real bedroom and even had an elevator to get us to our second floor apartment. We lived there for two years until we found out that we were expecting. 

We were tempted to try being young parents in the City, but as the months went by, we became eager to find a house with a yard. That’s when we found Maplewood and the rest is history. First our beautiful 100 Jefferson Avenue and then it’s big sister, 26 Clinton Avenue.

We’ve been living together for 25 years and we’ve had our share of hard times, but each of our homes have always managed to hold us up.

Over the last couple of years, it’s become more and more apparent that this house no longer makes sense for our family. Many of our friends have come to the same conclusion about their family homes, but for different reasons. No longer in the “raising kids stage”, they’re downsizing or moving to get more land or their dream beach houses. Our nest will never be empty (in fact, we may need live-in support as our strength shrinks and Jack’s muscles grow). And, our nest needs to be accommodating for complicated living.               

It’s not that we’re in a situation where Jack is unsafe at 26 Clinton Avenue, it’s that we’re wanting to be proactive and want to find something easier — not just for Jack, but for us. Jack can walk up stairs, but needs assistance in both directions and sometimes just getting him out of the house and into the car is a challenge. 

Once we decided we needed a new house, we told our friend/hot-shot realtor our list of requirements:

*  One level for jack (the house could have more, but we wanted JackO to be able to access every bit of his home easily)

* Easy access to the home – loads of beautiful houses in the area fit the bill inside, but would be a challenge to get to from the driveway

* An attached garage

* Something we could move in without too much work – we don’t mind a project, but didn’t want to need to redo every inch of a new home

* Something cool to distract us from why we are leaving our beautiful home – either a quick walk to town or on the reservation or a stunning view or a pool 

Our realtor/friend was sweet, and shook her head politely, but I’m pretty sure that she thought she had just landed the most difficult clients of her career. Luckily, she’s determined and did her magic. She spread the word and our amazing community came together and found us our next forever home.

I swear that it was made for us. The opposite of our 109 year-old center-hall colonial, but in a good way. It’s 50 years old and open and easy. Two bedrooms downstairs and plenty of room for Anna and guests upstairs, completely remodeled, an attached garage, a driveway that goes right up to the front door  — AND it has a pool. I didn’t know I was a pool person until I looked at the back yard where I could almost see it filled with friends and family.

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Realizing we needed a different home initially made me angry. WHEN IS ALD GOING TO BE DONE STEALING THINGS FROM OUR FAMILY?!?! Now that we’ve found this house, I am feeling more excited about our next chapter. ALD isn’t in charge of this decision – WE ARE and it’s going to be great.

From Manhattan to Brooklyn to Maplewood to South Orange. May 1 is the big day – time to start packing!

Love, Jess

THIS is LEUKODYSTROPHY #24 — Ethan

For most people, Facebook is all about travel pictures, political comments and dog videos, but for me it’s largely about connecting with the ALD and other Leukodystrophy communities. Last weekend, I stumbled on a post from a mom that I wanted to share. Much of the focus on our diseases lately has about getting an early diagnosis and the newest treatment options. It’s important to remember that some of our families have been living with ALD and similar diseases for a long time. It’s not as thrilling as the new stories, but our boys are beautiful and important too.

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THIS is ALD (ish) #24 — Ethan

9 years ago, Ethan’s father and I were sitting in a neurologists office listening to a doctor tell us, “Your son was misdiagnosed with Cerebral Palsy. He actually has an unknown leukodystrophy – a very rare disease that is progressive”. 

I’ll never forget that day. The doctor had no bedside manner and told me not to Google the disease because awful things will happen to Ethan and then he will pass away. I left that appointment feeling helpless and hopeless. The doctor’s words played over and over again through my head as we drove home and I cried on the highway. I remember looking back at Ethan in his car seat all smiles and happy, not knowing he was very sick. 

For over a year, I let that doctor rule my thoughts “Ethan is dying  — the doctor basically said there is nothing we can do, “Don’t Google the disease”. I would have constant nightmares about Ethan’s funeral and wake up in a panic. I would check on him while he was sleeping to see if he was still breathing. 

A couple years later, we finally met Dr. Eichler (the director of the Leukodystrophy service at MassGeneral Hospital for Children) who has given us nothing but hope and a positive attitude. He genuinely loves Ethan and has never once said, “Awful things will happen to him.” Or, “He is going to die.”

What Dr. Eichler does tell us is, “Look how far he’s come” and, ”Yes this disease is progressive, but Ethan is a fighter”. Ever since meeting Dr. Eichler my outlook on Ethan’s disease has changed. When a doctor actually looks you in the eye, answers your questions, hugs your child, laughs with your child, checks in with you via text, email and phone calls, then you know you have the right doctor. 

Shame on the doctor who gave Ethan a death sentence and no hope! Guess what? I Googled his disease and ended up connecting with amazing families all over the world who share the same life we do. Connecting with other families has been a wonderful experience. Seeing all their pictures and how loved these boys are by their family and friends like Ethan, makes me so happy. And now Dr. Eichler introduced us to another amazing doctor, Dr. Rodan, who has helped give Ethan a better quality of life! I’m so happy these two doctors never gave up on Ethan and I’m so proud of my boy who continues to fight and has an incredible will to live. ❤️

A couple of days later, this mom wrote something else on Facebook that took my breath away . . .

Ethan ten years ago. Before wheelchairs, seizures, helmets, daily medications, and intrusive medical procedures. But some things haven’t changed: Ethan’s giggle, his funny jokes, his amazing personality, his hugs and kisses, his “I love you momma”, his ability to make any task fun, his will to defy the odds, his outlook on life, his ability to live in the moment. All the medical issues might be happening to Ethan, but he doesn’t let them define him or change him. Ethan is still Ethan, he’s my son, he’s my everything. Love you Super Mario boy!

— Jennifer

Thank you Jennifer for allowing me to share a little of Ethan’s story. Ethan is almost 13 now – such a handsome (almost) teenager!

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THIS is ALD #23 — Mason

Are there any GOOD ALD stories? I guess we need to define the word GOOD.

good
/ɡo͝od/
adjective
“a good quality of life”

 

Jack (THIS is ALD #1), as a GOOD ALD story. He’s happy and can walk and see and hear and laugh. Although his life is full of challenges, we’re grateful that he’s enjoying a wonderful quality of life. If you look through the previous 22 THIS is ALD stories we’ve shared, you will find other GOOD stories, but sadly ALD is not a disease known for GOOD stories. As Newborn Screening spreads across the country (the world), GOOD stories will take over. Until then, a determined family, curious doctors and a lot of luck needs to come together for GOOD to happen. Mason had all three.

 

THIS is ALD.jpgTHIS is ALD #23 — Mason

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Mason was born on March 19, 2011- completely healthy according to doctors. When he was 4 years old, he was admitted to the hospital for the first time. He had gotten sick out of nowhere — started vomiting and could not get out bed on his own. In the hospital, all the tests they ran were negative, so after a few nights we were sent home with no answers. They said it was just a virus.

Everything went back to normal for close to a year when the same thing happened, but this time with a fever. Mason started vomiting and became weak and dehydrated and refused to get out of bed. He was admitted to the hospital for a few days and again all the tests came back negative and we were sent home being told it was just a virus. Three to six months later, it happened again and then again in December, 2017. It was the forth time he was admitted to the hospital with similar symptoms. Luckily, that time an endocrinologist was asked to come see him. The doctor reviewed Mason’s charts and immediately ordered an adrenal test. Mason was diagnosed with adrenal insufficiency and put on hydrocortisone. Before we left the hospital, the endocrinologist mentioned the word “Adrenoluekodystrophy” (ALD), but didn’t give us many details. All he said was that Mason was not showing any signs of the disease (other than the adrenal insufficiency), but to be safe, he ordered an MRI to rule it out.

The MRI was scheduled for January 25, 2018. After Mason had his MRI, I started Googling ALD, and convinced myself he did not have it because we had no family history of the diseases and he was not showing any symptoms. His appointment with the neurologist to review his MRI was on February 19, 2018 and I was calm leading up the meeting. February 19th arrived, and we got the news I thought for sure we would never hear — Mason had ALD.

I broke down and was terrified that Mason would start showing signs of the disease quickly. Our neurologist called Dr. Lund at University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital (Dr Lund is a leader in ALD treatment). Within a couple of weeks we were heading to Minnesota for our consultation for a bone marrow transplant (BMT). We were there for a week and found out Mason’s LOES Score (a determination used to rate the severity of the progression of the disease – it ranges from 0-34) was between a 3 and 4 and he was a good candidate for a BMT.

Instead of starting the process right away, they sent us home to wait for insurance to approve the treatment. That was the longest and most stressful month of our lives. Waiting on our Michigan Medicaid to approve an out-of-state BMT that was considered a “trial or experiment” (BMT, if successful, stops the progression of the disease, but is not considered a cure). For a month, a day did not go by without me crying on the phone with the insurance company or the doctors in Minnesota.

 

At the beginning of April, we finally received approval from insurance and were told that our doctors found and 8 out of 8 cord blood match. Mason had his transplant on April 26, 2018 and it went better than doctors expected. We were discharged from the hospital only 12 days post transplant.

I know Mason’s story is a miracle and I have not heard many other ALD stories as positive as ours. We are very blessed to have had the transplant in time and that Mason continues to be symptom free (with the exception of adrenal insufficiency). Michigan does not do the ALD newborn screening yet, but will soon hopefully.

-Erica

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Reading Mason’s story gave me chills. My hope is that stories like his will be the new face of our disease. An early diagnose, treatment, followed by a healthy life.

I’m by no means saying that ALD will ever be an easy diagnosis. Even with the “luck” of having that endocrinologist being wise enough to test for adrenal insufficiency and then following up with the MRI which properly diagnosed Mason, his family faced a lot of challenges. Fighting with insurance companies, financial responsibilities connected to treatment/travel/etc, the pain/discomfort/agony of a transplant — all these things will never make ALD an easy diagnosis. Still, the future looks bright(er).

And, Mason’s smile is super bright!

Thank you Erica for sharing Mason’s ALD story.

Love, Jess

THIS is ALD #22 — Alexis, Gerald and Jacob

It’s been a while since I’ve shared a THIS is ALD story, so I reached out to our ALD community. Within a few minutes I heard from several families willing to share their stories. The first is from Kiomara.  

THIS is ALD #22 — Alexis, Gerald and Jacob.

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When I was 8-years-old, my 6-year-old brother Alexis suddenly lost his vision. After a long week at the Puerto Rico University Pediatric Hospital, the doctors told my parents that my brother had Adrenoleukodystrophy (ALD). My parents traveled with my brother to Baltimore, MD where they met with Dr. Hugo Moser and Dr. Raymond (leaders in ALD at the Kennedy Krieger Institute at the time). They were told that it was too late for a BMT (bone marrow transplant), but Alexis started taking Lorenzo’s Oil (a mixture of oils thought to slow the progression of the disease). Alexis stayed with us for 12 years, until he lost his battle when he was 18-years-old.

It was a terrible loss for our family, but my sister and I say that Alexis saved his two nephews’ lives. My 31-year-old sister has a 7-year-old son. His name is Gerald. He was diagnosed with ALD at birth because we knew that we were carriers. I am 33-years-old and I have an 18-month-old son named Jacob. When he was born I requested that he be tested for ALD and two weeks later I was told that Jacob tested positive for ALD.

Now we have a long way to go to prevent this disease from winning. Trusting in God and with our angel, Alexis, we know we will win. My sister left Puerto Rico and now lives in Massachusetts and my nephew is evaluated every 6 months by Dr. Eichler (a leader in ALD at Massachusetts General Hospital). I live in Georgia and travel annually for Jacob to be evaluated by Dr. Eichler. Thanks to my beautiful brother, my son and nephew are being monitored and will be treated early if there are any signs of active disease.

I hate this ALD, and don’t want to lose anymore boys in my family to this horrible disease. 

— Kiomara

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Learning about Kiomara’s brother Alexis and how he saved his nephew’s lives, made me think about the importance of Newborn Screening. Newborn Screening is a huge topic in the ALD community. ALD is currently on the Newborn Screening Panel in 10 states, will be testing soon in another 5 states and are mobilizing efforts in 12 others. Why is it so important? Because it gives the power back to the family. 

Without an early diagnosis, Alexis was not able to be treated and the disease continued to progress. Because the family knew to look for ALD following Alexis’ passing, Gerald and Jacob had the luxury of an early diagnosis. Their families are working with a top ALD doctor and the boys are being closely monitored. If there is any hint of the disease starting to progress, they are prepared to begin treatment quickly — before significant damage can occur. Looking at the photos of these beautiful boys, I’m grateful that their stories will be different than many with ALD. They are the future of our disease. A future that is far brighter than past generations.

Thank you Kiomara for sharing your family’s story.

Love, Jess