Day +4003 (not a great day)

Day +4004 . . .

4004 days since Jack’s transplant. Almost 11 years. Over half of Jack’s life.

Our family lives our lives marking everything with before or after ALD barged into our world. Don’t read that last sentence and feel sorry for us. Most days after ALD are just fine, and many days after have been wonderful.

We’ve created lives that work – thanks to smiles and our duct tape. We have our Anna’s sweet disposition and busy schedule keeping us on our toes and filling our dinner-time with stories. And, we have Jack’s mood that sets the tone for everything we do. Sometimes I feel like I float between two worlds. Attending an IEP meeting in the morning where we discuss things like “teeth brushing” and “using a fork” as long-term goals and then head off to watch Anna run down a lacrosse field effortlessly to score several goals. Most days I go back and forth seamlessly, enjoying each of my children and their lives.

Yesterday was NOT one of those days.

Yesterday started shitty. I won’t go into too much detail, but just imagine cleaning up a nineteen-year-old and his bed after what I’m assuming was a mexican lunch the day before. I was scrambling to get through that mess, when I noticed that dear Anna had managed to switch the laundry the night before WITHOUT switching anything that did not belong to her. This was followed by a lot of yelling up to her bedroom (those stairs are too steep for me), “This is not a hotel!! You need to do your part around here! You are NOT in college yet young lady!”.

I was already fuming as Jack and I then went through the rest of our morning routine as quickly as possible so that we could head off to the Social Security Administration. It seems that we had been “randomly been selected” to come in for a follow-up interview to determine if Jack still qualifies for Social Security. This was our fifth visit and third time being “randomly selected” in less than two years.

 

Flash forward five hours —— I was crying uncontrollably to the young woman across the plexi-glass, “How many times do I need to tell you guys that my son is disabled? We have countless letters from doctors and teachers. He is not going to get better! He will never have a job. Never! His disease has stolen any hope of a normal life where he can work and live independently and support himself.”

I wasn’t finished, “There might be people in that waiting-room over there that are trying to take advantage of the system. I assure you that Jack is NOT one of them! Wanna look up ALD on Google? Wanna spend a day with Jack and tell me that there’s a chance of him NOT qualifying for Social Security? Why are you wasting your time and tax dollars on cases like ours?” and “No – our address hasn’t changed. No – our phone number hasn’t changed. No – Jack does not have any new pay-stubs to share with you. Why the hell couldn’t we have answered these questions over the phone? WHAT the hell is wrong with you people?!?”

After my rant, she apologized, but all I could do was help Jack off his seat, grab the paperwork (where she’d added her direct number “just in case we get another letter”) and walked out the door without a word.

I drove home yelling at the world and then laughing with Jack who I could see in the rearview mirror making funny faces at me. The wait, the questions – none of that seemed to bother our boy, but his crazy mother he sure found hysterical.

I realized half way home that I’d forgotten that I was teaching an art class at 2:30. It was 2:00 and we hadn’t eaten since breakfast (Social Secuirty rules include: no eating, no drinking, no phone calls, and go to the bathroom at your own risk – you miss your number? too bad). I called my boss and explained that I would be late and I would be bringing a special guest to my class.

I usually love the opportunity to introduce Jack to children, but I was running so late that I was too worried about finishing our project to do much of an introduction. My kindergardeners kept looking up from their Blue Dog inspired paintings to check out Jack and ask things like, “If he can’t speak how do you know what he wants for dinner?” and “What’s with those funny leg things he’s wearing?” and “Why is he trying to eat the craypas?”

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I did my best to answer their questions with a lite, age appropriate spin, but at one point I got so distracted that I rammed my toe against a table. It was like The Powers that Be were having a lot of fun torturing me. I’ve never been happier to see parents arrive for pick-up.

Our last event of the day was Anna’s lacrosse game. Swinging back to a fun event seemed like a great idea, but after ten minutes of watching the Cougars, a storm rolled in and we needed to run (Jack hopped) to the car to drive home in the wicked weather. Jack and I walked into the house drenched.

I went through the motions of dinner, bath, bed, just wanting the day to be over. I was starting to breathe again, even laughing with Dan and Anna about the events of the day, but the crappy day was not quite over.

As I got into bed, I felt a sharp pain. My toenail had fallen off.

Love, Jess

Today is a much better day. No sad looks if you see me at the grocery store. I promise I am back to being cheery mom/wife/friend/teacher/writer. Day 4003 stunk, but most days after ALD are just fine. 4004 days and counting!!

 

 

a ski weekend, the Jack Pack, and next year

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Just getting back from a ski weekend in Vermont with friends. Over the years we’ve done a lot of these weekends. We rent a house with a few families. Most everyone skis, but there are always a couple of people who linger with me and Jack. Our days are filled with quieter activities, but we always manage to have fun.

Each morning the house scrambles to life as the kids all frantically run around searching for their gear while the parents try to get some breakfast into everyone and make the lunches for the mountain. Depending on how late the previous night’s festivities went, the skiing crew heads out the door between 9:00 am and 10:00 am — then the house falls silent. That’s when the non-skiing crew makes a plan.

This trip included an awesome hike, a three hour/10,000 calorie lunch, an adventure to visit my oldest friend and her daughter AND a whole lot of girl talk – the rest of non-skiiers were ladies (sorry Jack). Jack is accustom to hanging with the ladies, and knows more than his share about the local gossip and just how many Weight Watchers points are in a margarita, but he always knows that by the end of the day he will be reunited with his peers. They will all walk in the door and, without missing a beat, find JackO to greet him and fill him with stories from their day’s escapades. Anna is always the leader of the Jack Pack – the best sister on the planet.

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But what about next year?

THAT’S the question that seems to fill my mind constantly these days. We just had an amazing weekend in a beautiful log cabin in Vermont — enjoying friends and the landscape and late nights singing along with music from our high school years (sorry I am not allowed to post any activities that took place after 9:00 pm). A perfect weekend and my biggest take-away is — What about next year?!?

Anna will be starting her second semester of college by February next year. Will Dan, Jack and I still head up to a mountain for a long winter weekend? What will it be like to travel with Jack as the only Torrey kid? Is it worth trying to continue these annual traditions or is it better to start new ones?

I know what you’re thinking — Anna isn’t moving away permanently. She’s going to college. College kids are home as much as they are gone AND she is only going to be 180.6 miles away. There will be many more family trips.

BUT, it is going to be different once she heads off to Baltimore. Her priorities will be — should be — on her life, on her future. It will be the beginning of her life as an adult and the beginning of our nest changing – again. The house is going to be so quiet when she isn’t around. Who is going to remind us what Jack should be wearing and listening too? Who is going to protect Jack from the endless hours in front of Bravo (with me) and PBS (with Dan)?

We will figure it out. Anna will only be a phone call away with her fashion advice and Dan and I will learn to control our TV habits (we know how to find TruTV). And, as far as the ski trip goes — we can go earlier in the winter if a ski trip is a “must do” Torrey activity. We can also forgo skiing altogether and go down to Baltimore and eat some crabs with Anna.

THIS is the real issue. THIS seems to be my go-to solution to all “my nest is changing” worries. Sorry Anna.

Love, Mom

 

 

HoliDAZE

Anyone else exhausted? I keep looking at the calendar to see what day it is and almost hoping that this holiDAZE season is over. Between the cookies and the wine, I’m in much need of some New Years resolutions and looking forward to getting started.

Shame on me. Three more days and I need to enjoy every minute of it!

Our holiday got off to a rocky start. My in-laws arrived for our Torrey Christmas celebration on the 22nd, and by early morning on the 23rd both Jack and I were vomiting. After cleaning up a stinky mess (thank you PopPop and Sue) they escaped from  our house to meet the family elsewhere – no need to spread the germs around. We sent them out the door with the food we had been preparing for days. If I hadn’t felt so terrible I would have felt REALLY terrible. Luckily we managed to avoid the hospital (the stomach flu often requires an ER visit for JAckO) and by the next day we were on the mend.

We’ve been celebrating every since!

Lots of festivities with family and friends and lots of time being lazy around the fireplace. Except for the tummy issues, it’s been great AND IT’S NOT OVER. New Years Eve is tomorrow before reality finally sets in.

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2018 is a big year for our family with Anna heading off to school in the fall. Johns Hopkins University is lucky to have her and we are thrilled that she is headed to a school that feels like home to us. Dan may have received a JHU diploma, but I spent a good part of my college years in Charles Village pretending to be a Blue Jay. As hard as it will be to drop our girl off in August, at least it feels familiar. AND we all know that we will be finding any excuse to drive down for a visit;) Sorry Banana . . .

The adjustment will be difficult, but we will find a new rhythm. The house will be quieter, but we will figure it out. That’s what we do. We figure things out.

Until then, I’m going to work on keeping my New Years resolutions and enjoy our time together.

Here’s my list:
1.     Not just to pay for Weight Watchers, but to FOLLOW Weight Watchers (the stomach flu did help me drop a few pounds, but it’s not a great diet plan)
2.     Limit my vino intake – I’m too old for hangovers
3.     Encourage Jack to use his iPad. We need to get him talking before Anna leaves
4.     Up my yoga to two days a week . . . maybe three                                                             5.     Continue sharing THIS is ALD – please contact me if you are willing to share your story jctorrey@mac.com                                                                                                                                  6.     Start my next book                                                                                                                         7.     Move to Baltimore;)

Wishing everyone a Happy New Year!!!! 2018 is going to be amazing!!!

Love, Jess

 

THIS is ALD # 5 — Mason

We are busy celebrating Anna’s big news and preparing for the HoliDAZE, but wanted to take some time to introduce you to another ALD champion, Mason.

I met Mason’s mother, Tina, this fall and she agreed to share a bit of their ALD story. Tina is a remarkable mother and, I’ve not met Mason in person, but I’ve fallen in love with his smile.

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THIS is ALD #5 — Mason

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        Mason was the best baby.  He developed all milestones at or before the age he should.  He was riding a bike without training wheels at 3.    We had no concerns with his development until second grade.  He had a hard time with multiple step directions and with math (common core).  He would have a concept and then it would be gone. He would bring his math papers home and I would erase them and give it to him to practice.  He didn’t remember ever seeing these papers. 
        Mason was diagnosed with Adrenoluekodystrophy (ALD) in April of 2016.  He was 8. We were told there was really nothing that could be done.  We have an awesome support system and everyone started researching and found the team in Minnesota (University of Minnesota Pediatric Blood and Marrow Transplant Program is a leading program for treating ALD) .  We made our first trip to Minnesota in May where they decided Mason was a candidate for a bone marrow transplant.  His Loes score (the scoring system to evaluate the evolvement of X-ALD) was on the high side, but Mason’s doctors said he was compensating very well with what the disease was doing to his brain.  They were hopeful.  We were so scared but this was the first time someone gave us hope. 
        Mason had his bone marrow transplant on July 11th, 2016.  We spent 30 days in the hospital and then we had to be in the area for 3 months (some hospitals release transplant patients to rehab centers/other local facilities once they have reached a certain milestone. In Mason’s case it was to a Ronald McDonald House near the hospital).  By this time, he lost a lot of vision, hearing and processing skills.  When we left the hospital, he was in a wheelchair and couldn’t see.  Even then he had goals…goal 1 was to get rid of his NJ tube (feeding tube) and goal 2 was to be home for his birthday. 
        They discharged us to go home on October 19th (his birthday is October 24th) and he was NJ tube free! 

        Mason is an incredible fighter.  He told a therapist when asked about how he felt about his vision loss that he’s not going to let it get him down.  That’s the kind of kid he is.  He is a very friendly guy and loves to tell jokes and make people laugh.  He does get frustrated with things he use to be able to do that he struggles with now, but he usually has a smile on his face. He is currently back in his school which he loves.  He kind of regressed a little with social skills since he couldn’t be around kids his age and was very scared around them.  Once he got back in school, he gained a lot of his confidence back.  He is learning Braille and the use of the white cane for mobility.  After stopping a few of his medicines, he got some of his vision back.  He can see and read but at a slower pace. We are so blessed, grateful and amazed by his progress.  We had no clue this disease even existed.  Awareness is so important.

(I’ve added a few details to explain terms that the non-ALD reader might not understand – Jess)

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Thank you Tina for sharing this piece. Mason’s story is similar to Jack’s in that there was not an early diagnosis. It’s important for everyone to remember how hard it is to diagnose ALD – why newborn screening is so vital to changing the future of this disease. Luckily, Mason had a successful transplant and is doing quite well. Life is complicated for him, but he seems to have the same great attitude and electric smile as JackO.

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

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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