ALD — crappy disease/amazing people

I hate that I know how to spell Adrenoleukodystrophy and know words like phenotype and chimerism. I hate knowing the difference between stem cell transplantation and gene therapy. I hate that I know dozens of mothers who have watched their sons suffer for months, losing all their abilities before this hideous disease stole them completely. I hate knowing that the disease that has effected every inch of my son’s life may start progressing in me.

I hate ALD — every little part of it except for one. The people!

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I just spent two days surrounded by ALD parents, patients, researchers and doctors at the ALD Connect Annual Meeting and feel overwhelmed by the love and support that filled the room. I’ve walked way feeling extremely lucky to be part of this community.

I talk about our duct tape a lot on this blog. Duct tape representing the people and things that have helped hold us together for the last eleven years. We would not have survived without our friends and family and teachers and doctors and therapists and nurses and dinners and wine. We’re so grateful and now we are adding our ALD family to the mix. At this point in our ALD journey, being part of this community is helping us take back some of the power the disease stole from our family.

The ALD Connect Annual Metting is all about learning and sharing. I have notes about different treatments and potential therapies that may lead to a cure for ALD.  I listened to how other counties are battling our disease. I heard about the remarkable momentum of newborn screening. I heard countless stories of strength and courage. I learned diapering tricks that made some people at our table cringe, but I can’t wait to try out. I shared Jack’s story, spent time with people I’ve known for years and met many who are new to our community.

Thanks to newborn screening, there is a new, quickly growing group in our community. Young families that have just learned of the disease and that their children have the mutation. These families have been thrown into our world and are holding on tightly to their beautiful children as they learn how to monitor and plan for a disease that MAY effect their child sooner or later.

Sitting in a room with parents who have lost children, parents whose children have survived treatment with varies amounts of success, and patients who are struggling every day with symptoms of the disease — I kept going from feeling sorry for these newborn screening parents to being painfully jealous of them.

When Jack was young and healthy, we had the luxury of just living. I can’t imagine having known what his future would hold. All the worry – all the planning. But, the benefit of having the knowledge that an early diagnosis provides, allows these families to prepare for the onset of the disease and will likely prevent following the same path that so many of us have been forced to follow. For two days I kept reminding these young parents that their stories will be different. They have the power in their hands to have treatments ready when/if their children need it. I also kept reminding myself that we can’t change Jack’s path, but if we can help others, we’re kicking ALD where it hurts.

 

Dan, Jack, Nonno and Mymom came down to join the Smiles and Duct Tape Book Club. I got to share our family’s story and it turned into a wonderful opportunity for many to share their own stories. Jack – as always – was a huge hit. For a kid with a lot of challenges, he always seems to have everyone around him smiling. Anna met me as the meeting was winding down, but she got to hear some remarkable presentations that further encouraged her to study hard and keep reaching for her goals.

I’m a little exhausted and need to make sense of my notes, but I’m already looking forward to the next excuse to spend time with our ALD community.

Thank you ALD people — I hate our disease, but I love the people!!!

Love, Jess

PS I was telling a friend about all the amazing people at the conference and kept referring to the newborn screening parents as the Newborn Housewives. My love of Bravo is ever-present and trust me — these ladies (and gentlemen) are as real (and amazing) as they get!!!

 

United to Beat Disease

I like to surround myself with people smarter than I am. While some people might find it intimidating, I find it thrilling to witness brilliance and like the challenge of trying to blend in. And, if I know I’m really … Continue reading

THIS is ALD #16 — David

Today is Rare Disease Day – a worldwide event to raise awareness amongst the general public and decision-makers about rare diseases and their impact on patients’ lives. I am so proud of all of the ALD folks that are in DC this week raising awareness of our (not so) rare disease!!!

Today I am sharing another story of a beautiful boy from Mexico. More proof that research, education and newborn screening for ALD is a global issue. Meet David.

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THIS is ALD #16 — David

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Describing ALD in David is difficult. It’s a story that I never wanted tell, as if it were a bad dream that I have not yet awakened.

The first 5 years of David’s life were similar to any child. He was very playful and talkative with a great ability to learn new things. He was a child full of curiosity about everything.

ALD first showing it’s signs when David was 6 years-old with problems with one eye, poor school performance and unstable behavior which, according to the little knowledge of the disease in Mexico, only gave David bad diagnoses.

Knowledge of ALD in Mexico is very limited. This caused a lot of wasted time. David was only given glasses for his vision and psychological therapy for his unstable behavior. Frustrated with the initial diagnosis, we were determined to find answers. An MRI indicated that there was serious problems with the myelin in David’s brain. He wasn’t suffering from major issues until in October of 2016 (less then six months from his initial symptoms) when David had a massive seizure and that caused him to lose the ability to speak and walk.

It was another two months before David was finally diagnosed with ALD. He is the first member of our family to have been diagnosed with the disease.

We and the specialists in Mexico considered all of our options and decided to perform a bone marrow transplant (I was able to be the donor). June 16, 2017, David received his transplant in a hospital in Mexico. His current chimerism shows that the transplant has been a success.

David has lost physical abilities during the 17 months of this journey, but the child that the doctors thought would die 8 months ago is still here with us, receiving love and we all feel very hopeful that he will break the cruel statistics of children, like David, diagnosed late with ALD.

Currently David attends physical therapy rehabilitation every week. He is very brave and the desire to fulfill his dream is to participate in a children’s race.

Our family continues our fight with courage and perseverance — believing that this is the beginning of a new history.

— David Alejandro Rivera

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Thank you for sharing David’s story with us today. It remarkable to have received two stories from Mexico within such a short time. It emphasizes the fact that ALD is not a disease that is isolated to the United States. Although our fight is far from over here, we have made huge strides in ALD education/research (and we are not alone – there has been plenty of research/progress in other countries) – but it needs to happen EVERYWHERE!

If you would like to help new families who have been diagnosed with our disease check out the ALD Connect’s NBS SCOUT Initiative  — CLICK HERE!

Love, Jess

 

THISisALD.blog

I’ve now shared 13 THIS is ALD stories and I have piles more waiting to share. I will continue to post them here on Smiles and Duct Tape, but I’ve started another blog just for THIS is ALDthisisald.blog

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I‘m hoping that it will become an archive of stories for the ALD community to learn/find their people AND for doctors, teachers, therapists who want to better understand what ALD families go through AND for families who are newly diagnosed with the disease AND for us all to witness as the disease changes course. I am confident that a change coming — newborn screening, gene therapy, education — a trifecta that is sure to change the future of ALD!

I do need to brace myself a little bit when I open my email and see that there is another story waiting to be read. ALD doesn’t have many bright stories – yet. Just when I thought I knew this disease, I learn other insidious ways the disease can manifest itself and run through children, adults, families. It’s truly horrific. I do sometimes turn off the computer and wonder — Why the hell I’m doing this!?! Why not go back to just focusing on my family/our story?

Then I remember how I felt ten years ago. Our family was lost facing a disease that we didn’t know, surrounded by people – even doctors – who were as clueless as we were. I poured through the internet (a pre-Facebook world), searching for other ALD families. I found a few, but their lives where as complicated as ours and often their journeys too difficult for me to hear. Of the families I found that first year, Jack is the only survivor. That is when I walked away from ALD.

I left those letters behind and focused on getting Jack healthy and setting him up in his new world filled with special needs. I dug deep in finding the right schools and therapies and learned all the vocabulary necessary to maneuver through a world that was new to us. I also focused on Anna and Dan so that they didn’t feel like we were defined by those three letters. I also worked on myself — teaching my art classes, sharing our story (less ALD/more “special needs”), spending time with friends and family and distracting myself with some travel and more Sauvignon Blanc then is healthy (I’m not a saint folks . . . ).

Writing the book helped me regain my focus and made me realize that people didn’t just want to hear our story, they wanted to learn about ALD. That’s when I started heading back to the ALD community and found a whole different world. Sure, there are names that I’d heard ten years ago and many of the same hospitals known to work with ALD patients, but there is a new energy in the ALD community and I wanted to be part of it.

There are many people doing remarkable things for ALD. To name a few – Janice Sherwood of fightald.org, and Elisa Seeger of aidanhasaposse.org, Jean Kelley of brianshope.org and Kathleen O’Sullivan-Fortin and all the folks at aldconnect.org – these people are making incredible things happen in education, research, and newborn screening.

I thank them for everything they are doing and for encouraging me to get involved. They need as much support as they can get from our community. I’m not great at a lot of things, but I am pretty good at sharing stories.

Please check out the new blog — thisisald.blog. Share it, follow it, and share it again.

Love, Jess

 

How can you help?

If you have an ALD story, please contact me to share your story and if you want to help the cause — ALD Connect has launched an incredible program designed to help newly diagnosed families. It’s called NBS SCOUT — Supportive Community Outreach and Understanding Together. We are helping to raise money at CLICK HERE!!

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I dare you NOT to donate!!!

 

 

 

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.