Am I making this sucky?

I just realized today that things aren’t going to get better. Nowhere have I ever read, “Well, the first 7 years were tough, then we really cruised through this rare disease thing”.

It hit me when I pointed out a herd of elk across the street from the cabin we were staying at this weekend. Campbell had spotted them, and I pointed them out to Cooper. He couldn’t see them. They were these large, brown creatures, meandering about 200 feet away from us, and he couldn’t see them. I felt sick to my stomach. It’s starting to click. Yep, he fails the vision screening at school every year. Yes, he glasses for an astigmatism. When he wears said glasses, he says everything is blurry, so the glasses sit in a case in his bedroom. He has recently been diagnosed with the beginning of corneal clouding. This doesn’t usually happen to kids, so no one at Children’s Hospital can help us. We’ve got an appointment at University Hospital in November. I feel like we are opening a new can of worms on this one, and I’m scared.

But we aren’t all done with the last can of worms, now are we? Cooper’s (surprise) spinal decompression surgery was June 4. At that point we were told he’d be in a neck brace for 2-3 months. Let’s do the math…. carry the one…. yep, we hoped we’d be hearing we could be rid of that thing by now, four months later. Yet, the latest note from the doctor is something along the lines of “Things look good. Continue to wear the brace for car rides and high-risk activities, do more X-rays in FOUR MONTHS and we’ll review again”. I nearly puked reading that one. Cooper is an active 7 year old boy. I think most of his life is “high-risk”. Riding his bike, playing hockey, football, baseball and soccer in the backyard. Playing sports at recess. Swimming and wanting to ice skate. Participating in PE. Occasional scuffles with his sister. Maybe the doctor didn’t expect Cooper to be such an active kid and that “high-risk” activities weren’t on the agenda. I should feel blessed that he’s an active kid. I should feel blessed he isn’t really bothered by the neck brace. He remembers to put it on, he can do it by himself, and he knows when he needs it. (We’ve been living by the “high-risk activities” rule for a month now already.) At the beginning of the school year, I told Cooper he could take the neck brace off for his school photos. He forgot to, and didn’t care that he had it on. I’m not going to have him retake the picture without the brace. This is real life, and where he is right now. And he’s happy. Apparently Brian and I are the ones who so desperately want the neck brace gone.

All of this swirling though my head as we now have new dates for this summer’s surgeries for Cooper’s hips, knees and ankles. This part sounds like a broken record, I’m sure. This is the exact same place we were last year, preparing for this surgery before we found the severe cervical stenosis that forced the spinal decompression surgery instead of the hips, knees and ankles last summer.

It’s a lot to process. But at the same time, I find myself needing to adjust my filter. When Cooper gets mad at Campbell for something that seems ridiculous, I ask him, “Are you making this sucky?” I try to point out that he can be angry at things, and it can suck, or he can let it go and it won’t be sucky. So at this point I ask myself, “Am I making this sucky?” Yes, it may be less than ideal, but I need to adjust my filter, because it’s not going to get easier.

Gut Check

I feel ashamed that someone else’s pure joy causes me such sorrow.

Today at infusion, I noticed a family with balloons, flowers, and lots of visitors. My mind tried to convince me, “it’s the little girl’s birthday”. But when they gathered in the corner outside our room and I heard the warrior bell ring, my heart knew the truth.

When I’ve heard the bell in the past, it brought tears of joy. Happiness and a sense of relief for the family that gets to move on to the next chapter with their little warrior. Today Cooper heard the bell, and said “what’s that?” I explained it was the warrior bell, and that the little girl got to ring the bell because she’s finished her last chemotherapy treatment. Cooper wanted to ring the bell. Through tears I told him he’d never be able to ring that bell. I was angry, sad, frustrated. I started to remind Cooper that his MPS diagnosis is life long, but when I looked at Campbell, she said, “You can ring it when we find a cure, Coop!” I high-fived Campbell for bringing the sunshine back into our room and sucked back my tears.

So I’ve been in a funk all day. It’s like I’m reliving diagnosis all over again. Wait, this is LIFE-LONG? For the rest of my life, and more importantly, for the rest of Cooper’s life, he’ll have infusion once a week. He’ll visit many, many specialists. He’ll have pain, probably several surgeries. He’ll look different. He’ll feel different. All things that make a mama’s heart hurt.

I just want him to ring that damn bell, I want him to be free. Time to work harder for a cure.

Tonight two of Cooper and Campbell’s cousins are over for a sleepover. They were all giggling in the room, tossing and turning, until they finally gave in to sleep. Campbell and the cousins see Cooper as Cooper, a sweet, passionate, sports loving, funny 5 year old. I need to pause and etch this picture in my mind: He’s a kid, who played with friends outside until dark, snarfed down homemade cookies and is enjoying a summer time sleepover, just like other little boys his age. This is what I want, to see him as Cooper, not the kid with a life long, devastated disease.

Reflecting on Rare Disease Day on Capitol Hill

This last February, I participated in Rare Disease Day on Capitol Hill. For Rare Disease Day – February 29th (the RAREST day of the year or the last day in February), rare disease advocates visit their legislators asking for NIH funding, we asked for MPS related language in the Appropriations Bill, and voiced our support of the OPEN ACT. This was my second trip to DC to participate in Rare Disease Day on Capitol Hill. It was logistically easier than the first time, but the second time provided emotional challenges I didn’t expect.

After my appointments with my legislators, I aimlessly wandered around the park outside the Capitol. I had done everything I came to do. I knew I wanted to take the following photo, and it surprised me that I had to choke back tears when I pulled out my “I advocate for #SuperCooper” sign.

I stalked a couple of older gentlemen lingering in front of the Capitol, and judging from one of the guys’ Wyoming baseball cap, figured they’d be friendly and help in my quest for a photo. Turns out one of them lived in Littleton and went to my rival high school. Small world.

This was my first take of the “I advocate for #SuperCooper” photo. Photo credit to the Wyoming guy and the Littleton guy, who should not be in charge of tourist photos, as evident by the landscape crew who appear to be standing on my head.

After parting ways with my photographers, knowing I would take a better photo later, I put my phone away and just stood there, dumbfounded. The tears were back, in full force. What was this emotion? Was I proud? Sad it’s over? Missing my family? In an attempt to clear my head, I aimlessly walked some more.

I’m a glass half full person, always have been. Telling our story – Cooper’s story, every time – it takes me back to reality. “Cooper is suffering from a rare, progressive, life limiting disease.” This is what I told every legislator I met with. As I see the other person’s face fall when I describe my 5 year old’s pain, and what is happening to his organs and his skeletal system, I bring them back up with, “He’s the biggest sports fan I’ve ever seen”. I regale them with tales of playing football, hockey and baseball in the hospital’s hallways on infusion day. Then I move on to how we are blessed that Cooper’s disease is one of the 5% of rare diseases that have a treatment. And I have faith the treatment is helping his organs. We’ll address the skeletal issues with big, scary surgeries. But we’ve still got Cooper, and he’s loving life. So I leave the legislators on a high note, because that’s who I am.

On this trip, I had time to sit and connect with parents who aren’t so different than I, but their son or daughter can’t play sports anymore, or is fighting for their life, or has gained their angel wings. The reality is back, and it can’t be fixed by a quick change of subject to Cooper’s sports craze. It’s amazing and inspirational to see the light that these parents bring.

In sharing with the other parents, we were often surprised when we heard they had OTHER kids! Unaffected kids. And then we cried together over the guilt we felt for overlooking the unaffected sibling. I am certain those siblings are going to be fine. Dealing with a rare disease brother or sister has given them a skill set that life doesn’t usually hand out.

I tried to digest all these thoughts as I wandered through the park. I realized that in order to get what we need for Cooper, and others like him, I must strip away the smiley emoticons, and remember the terror of diagnosis. I must share the tragedy of a rare disease. I need to be real. And the simple motion of pulling the sign out of my purse and reading the words made it all very real again.

I advocate for Cooper. I advocate for MPS families. I advocate for Rare Disease.

Photo credit: young lady who was snapping selfies and complimented me on my tennis shoes (that I have cropped out of the photo)

So for life in general, the optimist can come out and we move forward in a happy place. But when the medical decisions get difficult, when we need help from our elected officials, and when we work on how to support our MPS families, I know what the truth is, and how to address it.