Today’s Battle – the Typical Sibling’s filter … and ensuing tailspin for mom

Even when there are days that the whole world seems to be on your side, when people come out of the woodwork to help – there are still devastating battles.

Today’s battle, fueled by lack of sleep and structure after the most wonderful family vacation comes in the form of the typical child. This typical sibling, who observes first hand the precautions and special treatment of the rare disease sibling, feels unimportant and forgotten. Unimportant and forgotten although two separate teachers have gone out of their way to pluck typical child from her environment, spend time with her and make her feel special. Unimportant and forgotten and in physical pain because she had two teeth extracted yesterday, and (according to her) no one threw her a party or had “get well soon” cards for her. (Although she did get a card and gift.) Unimportant and forgotten and now jealous, because rare disease sibling just got hearing aids – that are Bluetooth enabled, and can listen to music and You Tube without headphones. Jealous because we had a meeting with rare disease sibling’s new teachers, occupational therapist and physical therapist, to inform them of the rare disease and it’s implications that so often define his life. The meeting this morning warmed my heart and reminded me that we are so very blessed to have such incredible support from the school. We figured out all sorts of accommodations for rare disease sibling, shared resources and ideas and are off to a great start for the new school year. But, this afternoon the typical sibling cried with body shaking sobs in my lap because she was not the recipient of all the attention this morning.

My heart breaks to see either of my kids suffer – mentally and physically. And apparently I had no idea how much this journey would affect our typical child. I have so much trouble wrapping my head around it. I flat out told her, “rare disease brother gets all the attention for these particular instances because he’s got a condition where if we do the wrong thing, he could die.” Maybe I’ve used that line too much, because it didn’t seem to change her mind. She’s still upset he gets so much attention and gifts.

So I rant. And I write. Because I’m at my wits end and I feel pulled in so many different directions. For example – typical sibling’s teeth extraction. It was an urgent, last minute appointment. But the only time the doctor had available was when I was scheduled to meet with my House Representative’s office about legislation affecting us – the rare disease community. So I asked understanding and flexible husband to take typical sibling to the appointment, and I’d do my meeting and we’d all be happy and accomplished and reunite later in the afternoon. But as I parked my car in the business park’s parking lot, I had a bad feeling I had made the wrong choice. What if something went wrong with the anesthesia and I wasn’t there? Here I am again, barking about rare disease and not attending to typical sibling’s needs. And of course, it all come with a tinge of guilt that I’m not sitting at my desk midday Tuesday, attending to work emails and customer’s questions.

This is going to sound crazy, but the only place I feel confident and at ease is while I am working. My work is black and white, it’s a challenge, and I work with nice people. They don’t provide me with any more drama, and I appreciate that. Some of my coworkers know my story as a rare disease mom. Some don’t. The customers I work with certainly don’t know about our rare disease journey. I love slipping into that world. I like to stay there and feel appreciated and know the answers – very different from life outside my home office.

Another pull on my time and heartstrings is my volunteer work. It’s always sitting in the back of my mind; I need to finish the meeting minutes, I need to reach out to x, y and z, I need to schedule the next committee call. The work is very important to me, but it doesn’t scream as loud as the paid (work) emails and the children, so it sits for a bit longer, and I rarely feel adequate with my time spent there.

Let’s not talk about the list of doctor appointments and follow ups I need to schedule for rare disease management. I’m just going to put it on my to-do list, and the ones that get done first are the ones that concern me the most – I’m looking at YOU eye doctor! I’ll listen to your fine hold music tomorrow.

I certainly suffer from decision fatigue. “Can I watch YouTube?” “Will you play with me?” “My teeth hurt.” “My legs hurt.” “He was mean to me.” “She stuck her tongue out at me.” “I’m hungry.” “Text message from the hospital: press 1 to confirm your appointment” I feel like I can’t think a single thought or accomplish a single task without interruption.

Although the last statements aren’t questions, there are things I need to do about them. “Enough screen time.” “Do you need medicine?” “Time to rest.” “Leave your brother alone.” “Ignore her when she does that.” “Would you like an apple? A banana? Carrots?” “1 – Yes, we’ll be there, like every other week!”

All this leads to me saying things like “If you ask me about screen time one more time, I’m going to run the phone over with the car. Then I’m going to back up and run it over again. Hear me!!?!” And that’s irrational crazy mom talking, and I don’t want to be her.

So I need a breath. Some space. Some quiet. Some rest. That usually comes late at night, when everyone is asleep. I rob myself of some shut-eye and let my thoughts ramble and my mind decompress.

I obviously need to cater more toward typical sibling. This will materialize in a mommy/daughter time once a week, where we concentrate on what she wants to do. Go to a park? Play cards? Read? Sweetheart, I promise to help you feel included and special, because you are – even though you don’t see it through your filter right now.

p.s. – I don’t want anyone to think typical sibling is a jerk because she’s not doting on rare disease sibling. She’s a kid, with feelings, and I’m so very happy and proud she can express those feelings to me. She’s her brother’s biggest fan, protector and a wonderful playmate.

And as for me, I know I’m not the first to feel this way – to be ready for the kids to GO BACK TO SCHOOL ALREADY. I know moms can go through this heartbreak and frustration whether you have a rare disease kid or not. I’m just putting it out there with my spin on it, because keeping it inside takes up too much space.

Finding Gratitude at the end of the Dirt Road

Today I took a walk by myself. No friends. No dog. No music or podcast in my ears.

I recently read several articles about “mindfulness” and decided I needed to give it a try. I listened to my feet on the dirt road, and how I inadvertently kicked small pebbles as they interfered with my gait. My steps sounded crunchy, but softer and quieter on the wet parts of the dirt road. I listened to the wind through the aspen leaves and the humming birds buzzing around out of sight. As I tried to identify a bird in the middle of the road, I realized my vision was blurry. I had been overcome with emotion and was crying. Sobbing.

I continued on my path, trying to figure out *which* emotions took over. To my left was a driveway to a home. Two dogs flanked either side of the driveway, 20 feet from the road. They were barking – on full alert of my possible intrusion on their territory. As I walked by they mirrored my movement along the road, not approaching me, just guarding their space, as if guarding a line in the sand. Without music or friends to distract me, I quickly identified with the dogs. Where is my line in the sand? What do I guard? The outside world can do as it pleases, but when it comes to my kids, that’s my line. That’s when I start barking. I bark a lot on Cooper’s behalf: legislative advocacy, special accommodations at school, scheduling and attending what seems like a million doctors appointments, raising awareness about MPS. I feel like most people know me as “Cooper’s Mom”. Which is good, and I’ve worked for that and I own it. But what about my sweet firstborn? Campbell recently started on a new soccer team, and Cooper and I have hung out during a few practices. There I am “Campbell’s Mom”. And no one knows all the “Cooper stuff”. They only see Cooper’s neck brace, and don’t ask many questions. I feel like I’m living a second life there on the sidelines, as a “normal mom”. Are my emotions overwhelming guilt that I don’t give the same amount of effort to Campbell’s life?

I saw a glint of blue flash by in the sky, and found the bird I had noticed before. Sitting in the dirt road – although blurry – the bird was grey. But in flight, the feathers were the most spectacular blue! It perched in the shade on an Aspen branch and it’s dull grey color almost made me loose sight of it. But when it took off into the air I saw the brilliant blue again and was amazed at the juxtaposition of the two appearances of the bird. My mind wandered and this time identified with the bird. Driving in my car, going to the grocery store, and standing in line at the post office are where I wear my grey feathers. Advocating for Cooper seems to be where my blue feathers flash.

Next the dirt road started up the hill and turned the corner. I felt my heart rate quicken and sweat dripping down my face. As I wiped my face with my t-shirt, I realized how grateful I am for this exercise, my legs that work, my feet that can take me to this beautiful place. I rapidly started zooming out, feeling the big picture. I am grateful for this trip to the mountains – something that we didn’t think we could do this summer, since Cooper was supposed to be in a full body cast. I am grateful for Brian (my husband), and the team we are when it comes to family decisions. I am grateful for Campbell, her fast legs, her big heart and even bigger hugs. I am grateful for our support system of friends and family. I am beyond words grateful for their generosity. I am grateful for the generosity of strangers, who reach out to help my little boy and our family.

So those emotions that came out when everything else was quiet? Gratitude.

This evening, the visiting priest at mass talked about how you can make the world a better place by having gratitude. As I see it, there are no coincidences. It was time for me to acknowledge all the love that’s been showered on us since my last blog post about Cooper’s surgeries, and how it was Our Turn to ask for help.

If you follow Cooper’s Caring Bridge site, you already know that Cooper’s hips, knees and ankles are free to do as they please this summer. Cooper’s pre-surgery MRI showed that his spinal cord was being compressed at the base of his neck, so instead of surgeries on his hips, knees and ankles, Cooper had spinal decompression surgery and is in a neck brace for three months. (Oh, don’t worry! We’ll go back for the hips, knees and ankles next summer instead.) Brian and I handled the surgery change with calm confidence. We are thankful for our MPS family and the medical knowledge we’ve gained during the five years of our involvement with the MPS Society. We are thankful Coop and I got there in time for the MRI after cancelled flights, bad weather and NEW last minute tickets on a different airline. We are thankful the MRI showed the cord compression and Dr. Mackenzie and Dr. Campbell could operate ASAP. We are grateful that we have the opportunity for the best care for Cooper. We are grateful to have this summer with family fun time that doesn’t include a full body cast and only wheelchair accessible areas.

So walking up the dirt road to our driveway today, I know my emotions were those of gratitude – for the things I’ve stated, and for more that I haven’t stated. I pray that I’ll always feel AND express my gratitude as our journey continues.

Our Turn

It’s taken me a while to wrap my head around this, so let’s start at the beginning:

Our 6 year old son Cooper has a rare, progressive disease called MPS IVA. It affects every organ of his body (except his brain), and has SEVERE skeletal implications. We are blessed to have a weekly infusion to slow/stop the progression of the damage to his organs, but the only way to address the skeletal issues is with surgery. It’s time for the first Orthopedic intervention.

Cooper will have surgeries on both hips, knees and ankles in June. This will relieve the constant pain in my first grader’s hips and knees and keep him mobile for a while longer. The surgeries will be done by Dr. Mackenzie in Wilmington, Delaware. He’s the orthopedic expert on Cooper’s condition, so that’s where we’re going.

The surgeries will be one week apart. The right hip, knee and ankle first, followed by the left hip, knee and ankle seven days later. This procedure will leave Cooper in a spica cast, from his chest to his ankles, for seven (what I imagine will be grueling) weeks. We will fly home after the second surgery. Cooper and I are booked first class on United on the way home, so that he has room for his new “width” with the spica cast. The rest of the family gets to fly coach, or swap me seats when I need a break. After seven weeks, we fly back to Wilmington to remove the cast, a check-up, and five days of intense Physical Therapy. Then we fly home again, ready to strengthen and use those new legs, just in time to go back to school.

This surgery will be FREE! HA! Only because we meet our out of pocket max for Cooper in the first week of the year, due to Cooper’s weekly infusion cost.

Getting to the surgery will not be free. We’ll fly the whole family out there, and we’ll stay for 2 weeks. We could have stayed at the Ronald Macdonald House for free, and we chose not to. I am either going to be at the hospital with Cooper, or hiding in a 2 bedroom apartment we’ve rented. I’ll pretend to be a normal mom hanging out in Delaware for a couple weeks. I plan to work for a couple hours a day while we’re there – mainly for a sense of normalcy, and to keep my mind (and inbox!) from imploding. Brian will work too. Campbell is too much of a support to Cooper to leave her home. We’re bringing my mom. Her help with Campbell, Cooper and keeping us moving will be invaluable during this time. These are the choices we’ve made, and they’re costly. We are ready to sacrifice to afford this journey.

Friends and family ask, “How can I help during this time?”

  • Pray for us. Pray for healing, strength, grace, patience and creativity in entertaining Cooper. I am partially terrified of Cooper’s reaction to being immobile for seven weeks. He is such an active kid. He LOVES sports – hockey, soccer, basketball, baseball, riding his bike. My worst fear is that he falls into some sort of depression because he can’t do the things he loves. But at the same time I have faith that Cooper will show US the way. I think he’ll show us what he can and can’t do, and we’ll learn together what fun he CAN and WILL have this summer. I’m willing to load him up and take him and his reclining wheelchair to all sorts of sporting events, museums and the zoo.
  • I hope visits from friends can entertain him and cheer him up. But, I am nervous that Cooper’s new condition will make him embarrassed and not want visitors.
  • I’m sure we’ll have a sign up to bring meals for our family when we return home, and I’ll share that when it happens.
  • Check out our registry. If that’s how you’d like to help, we thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Feel free to share it with your friends/family/social media. I swallowed a ton of pride to put it together and share it. Today we were denied by an organization that “provides children and their families free flights to distant, specialized care and valuable second opinions” because we make too much money. It felt like a slap in the face. We work our asses off to provide for our family. I work my ass off in advocacy, fundraising and volunteering for organizations that can make a difference in the lives of families like ours. At the same time, I understand need based awards. Why am I so mad/sad/insulted? Maybe I should put my therapist bills as an item on the registry too!? (In retrospect, I’ve determined I’m so upset because of all the time I spent on the application.) In other news, we applied for medical travel assistance from the MPS Society, and their award is not contingent on income. We are very appreciative of the Society’s support financially (if it get’s approved), the valuable medical information we’ve learned over our years as members, as well as the connections we’ve made who are helping us hold it together and make decisions during this time.

Bringing it back to now – Cooper knows he’ll be in a wheelchair for a majority of this summer, but he doesn’t know the extent of the cast and his immobility. We’ll share the details with him closer to surgery time. No reason for him to get all worked up about it – like me.

Anyway – I’ve shared all this because if I’m asking for money, I want to be transparent. This is where we are. We’re ready to foot the bill because of the choices we’ve made. But if you want to help financially, I am humbled and we are very appreciative.

I’ve been fundraising for different things for the past 10 years, when is it OUR turn? Today.

Passion

Cooper lives every day with passion. Recently, sports passion. Every day is a new day to set up the bases in the back yard and play baseball. Every day is a day closer to his next T-ball game. Every day is an opportunity to veer the car from our intended destination to stop and watch a baseball game in progress as we drive by any school/park/ball field.

Last week was Cooper’s first T-ball game. Nevermind he’s been playing baseball in the yard for over a year, and his last birthday party was at a neighborhood ball field where we could play baseball on actual dirt, with a real pitcher’s mound, bases and stands. This 5 year old can throw, mimic a pitcher, catcher, and can make contact with a ball that is pitched. He loves to run the bases. He’ll keep score, and keep track of “ghost runners” when we run out of players. He loves the game, the sequence of events and all the parts that go into it. When in our backyard, he’ll sing the national anthem before the players come onto the field from their dugouts, which are labeled in chalk on our back porch – “home” and “visitors”.

Seeing Cooper light up last week as he chatted with his teammates, then proudly hit the ball and ran the bases, reminded me to enjoy, share and cherish the good parts of my time with Cooper – to enjoy the time he can fit in as a typical kid.

He loves baseball so much right now that our bedtime story tonight was simply a list of every World Series Champion, and who they beat. No real plot there, and it took much longer than the average bedtime book! Alas it was a fun read to see the history of which teams started in different cities, as well as the teams who lost the Series sometimes coming back to win the following year. We stopped to chat about those items, as well as any teams we’ve seen in person or favorite teams of family members.

Cooper’s T-ball team is coached by none other that his Daddy, Brian. When I told Cooper that Daddy was going to be his coach, Cooper cheered and jumped for joy! And then the planning started: “Daddy and I will ride in the same car to the game, because he’s my coach” and at dinner, “I’m going to sit on this side of the table, next to my coach.” And on and on.

We are blessed to have Brian. This Daddy is patient, upbeat and can handle the energy, awkwardness, and lack of attention of the team of eight five year olds.

For those of you unfamiliar with a T-Ball game of Kindergarteners, let me paint a picture:

  • First, the defensive team has several parents in the field, to remind the kids to spread out, watch for the ball, and stop playing in the dirt.
  • Next, there are repeated attempts by the at-bat team for the hitter to hit the ball off the tee.
    • After successful contact with the ball, the batter usually needs to be reminded to run to first base. This follows with much pointing, yelling and arm waving (on behalf of of every parent, coach and older sibling) to direct the now runner in the direction of first base.
    • In the meantime, every child on the defensive team (who wasn’t playing in the dirt) runs to get the ball – even the kid standing on third base who is now battling the first baseman for the ball rolling behind second base. They haven’t figured out it’s a team sport yet, and there is must jockeying and sometimes pushing to get to the ball first.
    • With the help of coaches and parents in the infield, the ball gets back to home plate and the process starts again.
  • Now that we have a runner on first base base, we are back to getting a successful hit for batter number two.
  • Another successful hit, and every child on the field – including the runner on first base – will chase the ball. You get the picture….

The good news is, there are no outs and everyone gets to hit and run.

It’s so great to watch the kids learn, together, in a supportive environment. I am beyond thankful that Cooper can participate and is loving it. It’s a little piece of “normal kid life” we will cherish forever.

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.