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

Pot Mama

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Every few weeks someone reaches out to ask me about medical marijuana. They’ve found me through a friend of a friend or have followed the blog or stumbled on an article I wrote. They often start the conversation with a long monolog about how desperate they are, how much pain their child/parent/friend/spouse is in and how they are NOT a family of stoners.

I always start my advice, being clear that I’m not a doctor and that they need to follow up with their team of doctors. Then, I go into our story, the benefits we’ve seen with Jack, advice for talking to doctors, information about various strains of marijuana and details about how to make edibles (NJ only sells flower – not oils or tinctures or edibles). 

Early on, I used to find myself constantly adding comments to make sure that the person on the other end of the phone knew that I was a super responsible mom, who had only stumbled on the benefits of marijuana after a lot of research. And, of corse, NEVER had even seen marijuana before the day I walked into a state run dispensary with my Caregivers Medical Marijuana license.

Now I’m a little more honest.

Marijuana does has many, incredible medical benefits. For Jack, marijuana has helped with spasms in his hands and legs. It helps him sleep and overall has improved his mood, focus and attention. I’ve known people who have seen relief from seizures, comfort through cancer treatments, even improvement with anxiety, depression, and pain.

So many medical benefits, BUT marijuana can also be a relatively safe recreational drug. At this point, three generations of my family use cannabis. Most for medical purposes, but some use it the way many use a glass of wine at the end of the day or while celebrating on a Saturday night with friends. I would never condone driving or using heavy equipment while under the influence of marijuana, but I no longer want to pretend that I believe that it’s a scandalous drug unless taken under the care of a doctor.

First off — although a doctor prescribed marijuana to Jack and is required to resubmit a form to the state every three months saying that Jack still needs the medication, there has been very little direction provided by the doctor. That’s way people are finding me to answer their questions. They are finding me to figure out how to make that bag of marijuana buds into a cookie, how to determine the strength of each cookie and how often to give their loved ones a “treat”. Although medical marijuana is only legal in NJ for medical purposes, in our experience, there is very little help from the medical community.

Secondly, if taken responsibly, there are very few negative reactions to marijuana. It may not be for everyone, but I’ve seen enough in my (almost) fifty years to know first hand that there are plenty of things that people can buy legally that are not good for them OR for the people around them. Cigarettes, alcohol, semi-automatic weapons just to name a few. I wonder when people will finally recognize that not only is marijuana safer than many of the drugs in our medicine cabinet, it’s safer than many recreational products on the market.

Earlier this week, NJ called off it’s vote to legalize recreational marijuana. They did not have the votes to assure that it would pass and are waiting to further educated people. They need to prove to the public that there are many benefits to legalizing marijuana, including more taxable income for our beautiful Garden State. Proponents of legalization also need to prove the minimal downside of allowing adults to purchase the herb. I am really hoping that this moves forward quickly. 

I used to worry about what people would think of me if I was open about being pro, not just medical marijuana, but marijuana in general, but the more we hide in the shadows, the longer it’s going to take for the public to understand that legalization is a good thing. I am not a stoner myself (I’m more of a white wine person), but I do think it’s time to take away the lingering stigma against Jack’s favorite medication.

Love, Jess (Pot Mama)

 

THIS is ALD #25 — Grady

Ten days ago I got a text from a dear friend from MA, “Watching the news on NBC – it’s about newborn screening for ALD.”

I stopped what I was doing, went to the computer and Googled — NBC, MA, ALD and this popped up.

CLICK HERE

I thought, What a great ALD story! I should reach out to this mom. Within a day, we found each other — ALD is a small world (and thanks to social media, it’s getting smaller every day). We exchanged notes on facebook, emailed back and forth, and then spoke on the phone. For me, it’s like talking to an old friend when I find another ALD mom. I asked her tons of questions and let her share and vent. Of corse, I also asked her to please let me share her family’s story on THIS is ALD.

THIS is ALD #25 — Grady

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I thought he had too much wax in his ears. That’s how this started, wax. My boys always have gross waxy ears, no matter how much I clean them. Pretty gross right? I thought Grady couldn’t hear me well because of waxy ears. 

So after about two weeks, I decided to bring Grady to his pediatrician. She checked and they were clear. We proceeded to do a hearing test. He passed. Gut punch #1. 

His pediatrician suggested we follow up with ENT. I asked if it could be neurological. She didn’t think so, everything else was perfect. About an hour after we got home, she called me saying, “You are not an alarmist with the kids, let’s see an ENT today”. 

She got us in and he passed most of the exams. Gut punch #2. I knew something bad was coming. My husband and I took Grady to Boston Children’s Hospital right from the ENT. I felt like we had to push to really get them to listen. Neuro came and did a consult. Grady’s so strong. A crazy NATURAL athlete. How could it be his brain? Physically he checked out perfect. Then, the doctor asked, “What is 3×4…” Grady said, “Football”. Now we were crying. Something was really wrong. 

They came back and said they felt he was fine to go home, and out came Mama Bear. We told them we did not feel comfortable bringing him home. Twice. We told them SOMETHING is wrong with our son. I begged to scan him then. Sobbing. They felt a scan could wait and would book it in the weeks to come. 

So we went home. Sick to our stomachs. 

The next morning I woke up, called the pediatrician, and told them that I was bringing Grady back to Children’s and I wasn’t leaving until they scanned him. Long story short, a few frustrating hours later, they did. Gut punch #3…….and the death of the “old me”

They told us that they believe that Grady had ALD. What the hell is ALD?!? I Googled it, alone in the “quiet room” after an ER doctor told me not to. Google was obviously lying because there was no WAY my football and basketball obsessed boy was going to die in 1-5 years — slowly deteriorating to vegetive state, to death. No way. Someone was was wrong, and they wanted me to call my husband and tell him this?? Part of me died then. 

We lived 5 days — well not lived, we walked around somehow and tried to take care of the kids, while in the back of our minds we were thinking about losing our son. Then, we met Dr Eichler and Catie Becker. Two angles who told us that we would not lose Grady. With a Loes score of 10, they felt that perhaps Grady might lose some hearing, some vision, he might have a change in his gait. We could handle anything as long as he was with us. With newfound strength we got ready to fight. 

We met angel #3 a short time after — Dr Christine Duncan at Dana Farber. Grady ended up with an amazing 10/10 unrelated bone marrow match right away. Grady’s brother Colin tested negative for ALD and everything went just so fast from there. 

Admitted to the hospital on 9/11/18 and met what came to be some new “family” members (his loving nurses) and chemo started the next day. Grady was a rockstar. Me, not so much – I dubbed myself “the neurotic mom in room 613” . He was transplanted 9/20/18.  Celebrated his 8th birthday on 10/2/18 and also started engrafting that same day. We were home 10/11/18.

The fear really set in when we got past transplant, but there was still this ALD we had to process. Every little thing Grady did I was so scared…is this progression?  He blinked 3 times more than he did 5 min ago….is this progression? Every single day that kid was outside throwing the football. Making one handed catches. Working out to get his strength back. I still panicked over everything, even though I was told by his NP, “If he is out there making one handed catches, you have no right to worry about progression “. 

I still did.

We were also trying to come to terms with some signs of ALD that presented post transplant, like an Auditory Processing Disorder. Grady can hear us, but he stuggles to understand language. Luckily – that’s his ONLY deficit. He is a miracle boy!

Other than not really looking like Grady from all the prednisone and stupid hairy cyclosporine, he is still the same Grady, but he is angry.  So angry, and rightfully so. Some days are better than others, but he is here and doing amazing. 

Grady’s follow up MRI was also a miracle. Not only was there no progression, but his lesion has also gotten smaller. They are not sure why, and have only seen this once before, but smaller. Miracle. We also found out that I am not a carrier. Grady spontaneously mutated. More crazy to add to our story. 

We still have a long road ahead of us. We have had a couple readmissions that seem to come with the BMT world, but he is doing amazing. There is hope – so much hope.  

This disease is awful, but if he has to have it, I’m glad to have found the people I have in this ALD community. The Smiths might be one small family, but we are joining the cause and going to help do big things!!!

#NBS #ALDawareness #toughtimesdontladttoughpeopledo #yougottabelieve 

💙

— Jillian

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Jillian is amazing. Without her determination to get answers, it would have taken weeks or months to get the proper diagnosis. If you have followed any THIS is ALD stories, you know how important an early diagnosis can be. I’m not actually sure of when (or if) Jillian sleeps, but Grady is one lucky kid to have her as a mom and the ALD community is lucky to have her on board. She’s only five months into this journey and already she’s determined to dive into sharing her family’s ALD story and raising awareness for our (not so rare — about 1/15,000) rare disease. Since she sent me this story, her family was on the news again. 

With the Super Bowl just days away, all you Patriots fans will love that Julian Edelman is a fan of Gradys — just like the rest of us!!

CLICK HERE

Jillian — Thank you for sharing your family’s story and we look forward to watching Grady’s progress as he moves on with his beautiful, sports-filled life.

Love, Jess

 

 

Christmas, Facebook and (I’m guessing) a whole lot of friend requests

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Jack’s incredible one-on-one at school, Monica (also knowns as Jack’s School Mom), sent me a note this week — an informal Christmas list from Jack. I was eager to see what he’d come up with. Our silent boy can be hard to shop for. Top of the list was that he wanted his own Facebook account. I can’t believe I’d never thought of that myself. My 20-year-old son shouldn’t share a Facebook page with his middle-age mama. So we sat down today and set up his account. I encourage you to friend him and see what he comes up with. I will help him, but promise that it will be all Jack — all the time. For a quiet kid, he has a lot to share!

Merry Christmas JackO!

Love, Mom

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(another) man down

Generally, I’m a really good caregiver. I’m not patting myself on the back – I’m the first to admit that I’m not great at a whole lot of things, but if you ever need someone to hang with you while you’re waiting in doctor’s offices or recovering from surgery or binge watching mindless television with your feet up, I’m your gal. 

I don’t mind dressing changes, I’m good with organizing medication and I know my way around the kitchen. I’m also not scared of those awkward, messy situations that can come up. I’ve had piles of experience with such things.

 That said, I’m a little tired right now and likely not winning any awards for Caregiver of the Year.

Dan had shoulder surgery last week. Poor guy has tried everything from physical therapy to chiropractors to some guy who I’ve only heard called The Witch Doctor who filled Dan’s arm full of electrical stimulation. Nothing worked, so Dan finally gave in and scheduled surgery.

Nothing huge, but I was a little nervous about what to expect. It was Dan’s first surgery – ever (impressive for a person 51 years old) and I wasn’t sure how he’d be as a patient and how PATIENT I would be with a new patient to care for. Dan, always wanting to limit my stress, often down-plays things. Leading up to the surgery, he’d refer to the recovery as “a day or two”. Even as we drove to the appointment last Thursday, he was sharing that he would be starting PT within a few days was looking forward to a party we were invited to on Saturday night.

I suspected that Dan was being a little overly optimistic, and when I walked into the recovery room my suspicions were confirmed. My strong, handsome husband looked like he’d been in a fight. When I set him up on the couch when we got home I started to really appreciate that he wouldn’t be able to do much for a while.

You never really appreciate how much someone does, until they can’t.

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Caring for Jack requires a lot, but after 11+ years, days go by without much thought about the details. I’m the primary caregiver during the week, but nights and weekends Dan and I split the responsibilities. Without any planning, we take turns brushing and bathing and feeding our boy. Not that there is never confusion over whether or not Jack got his afternoon meds and you might hear us bribing each other to take a turn feeding Jack when we’re out at a restaurant – but mostly things run pretty smoothly.

I’m used to taking 100 percent of the responsibilities when Dan is traveling, but this has been the first time that Dan is here and not able to help. He’s down an arm and caring for Jack requires two. So does cooking, walking the dogs, doing the dishes and the laundry, and driving. He’s making a great recovery, but I don’t think Jack duty (or Jack doody) is in Dan’s future any time soon. Jack is strong and I’m not sure he can appreciate how careful he needs to be with his Dad. For now, I’m in charge of all meals, bedtimes, showers, medications, errands, and poop.

It’s no ones fault and it isn’t the end of the world, but last night as I was falling asleep, I wondered if there was any way that I could plan a little surgery for myself sometime soon.

Love, Jess

Dan skipped that party on Saturday night. I went with friends and did my best to be festive enough to represented us both. Boy did I miss having Dan take the morning shift yesterday;)

I say I am doing things solo, but I do have some help. Thank you Lilly and Maria for everything you do for us!!!!!!

Our Thanksgiving Chime

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The calm before the storm

We have an alarm that sounds every time the front door opens — a two-note chime. It’s usually followed by Finn (bad dog) barking loudly and racing to see who’s arrived and how long he can get away with jumping all over them. Last week, the constant chime exhausted poor Finn so that by Wednesday, all he could manage was to lift his head off the couch for a second to see who’d walked in the door before returning to his nap. 

At the beginning of the week, I too would race to see who’d arrived so that I could give them some love and offer them a snack or something to drink. After a couple of days, I figured everyone knew that I loved them and how to walk to the kitchen.

Anna was home for Thanksgiving (THANKS GOODNESS) and our dear friends – the Mackays – joined us for the holiday week. An extra five people and a dog, adding some noise to our “far too quiet since Anna left for college” house.

We invited another ten people and two dogs for Thanksgiving Day. Nineteen humans, five dogs, two turkeys (one fried), six pies, two stuffings, bourbon sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, green beans, salad, cranberry sauce, and more wine then our poor recycling cans could manage. Crazy, delicious, fun AND constant door chimes.

We said goodbye after Thanksgiving dinner to ten guests and two dogs, but added two more people on Friday (my best friend from college, Enger, and Katie Mackays roommate, Hanna). I feared we’d not have the energy to entertain them, but we managed. We even threw in a little party on Saturday night to round off the week!

The front door kept on chiming.

Yesterday we woke up and everyone did their part cleaning up the house, stripping beds and starting the laundry. Then, one by one everyone headed out – back to college, work, reality. I usually love the quiet after the storm of a holiday, but everything was so perfect last week, that I really didn’t want it to end.

I’ve been stressing lately about some things, but when it comes down to it, our lives are wonderful. Our friends, our family – they’re really all that matters. I can’t wait for the holidays to continue. We need some time with the Torrey side – and our door needs to go back to chiming!!

Love, Jess

PS Anna comes home in 17 days and the Mackays promised to come for New Years!!!!