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.

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.