About MedusasMuse

publisher, editor and all around book nerd

A hospital connoisseur.

My father needed a quadruple bypass this summer, so I flew to Oregon to be with him through the procedure and during his stay at the hospital. He was understandably terrified, and I admit so was I. But the procedure went well, his heart is strong, and he went home after only a few days in hospital. Now it will simply take time for his sternum and the incisions to heal. So far so good.

While I was with him at the Oregon Health and Sciences University Hospital (OHSU) I spent a lot of time exploring the sprawling campus. Seriously, that place is huge! And confusing. Floor 9 is the main floor while my father’s room was on floor 17 of an entirely different tower from the main hospital. It’s built on the side of a hill with incredible views of the city of Portland and the Willamette river. From my dad’s room we sat and watched the sunlight change the colors of snowy Mt. Hood. From a terrace below his room, I could see Mt. St. Helen.  I took a hanging trolly down to the water’s edge and then walked to the City center, about two miles. If you have to have major surgery, have it done at OHSU.

I’ve spent way too much time in hospitals in the last ten years, which makes me somewhat of a hospital connoisseur. My daughter has twice been a guest of Lucille Packard/Stanford Medical Hospital. My husband was hospitalized twice at University of California San Francisco (UCSF) for cancer treatment. And recently my daughter was a guest at our local, rural hospital due to pneumonia. I have tasted the food, walked the halls, interacted with staff and doctors, watched the nurses closely, taken in the views, strolled the neighborhood, and fought with insurance companies at some of the best hospitals on the West Coast. And OHSU is the absolute best.

It comes down to staff and communication. OHSU beats all the other hospitals we’ve dealt with in staffing levels and nursing care. Every single nurse was positive, helpful and considerate. Everyone worked hard to maintain a patient’s dignity and to communicate with them to alleviate fears. And if a nurse needed information from the doctor, she got it quickly. No paging the doctor for hours like at UCSF. Plus, the rooms were large and comfy, super clean, and had great views.

The downside to being a hospital connoisseur is the PTSD that hit me every few hours. While sitting beside my father I would suddenly feel the same panic I did when my daughter was hospitalized for metabolic failure. The past and the present would blur until my body didn’t know the difference. My father was resting comfortably, but my heart would pound the same way it had when my husband was groaning in agony. The only cure was walking. I’d pace up and down the halls, outside on the terraces, up and down stairs, walking to town and back… just walking until the panic would subside I could feel the present pushing away the past.

This is old fear. Don’t let it blend in with the new fear. Will my father survive his surgery? Will he heal? Will my husband’s cancer come back? Will my daughter crash again? 

shhhhhh… let it go. Keep walking. Keep breathing.

Now that my father’s surgery is over and he is well, I have one more request from the universe: no more trips to the hospital this year!  I don’t need to explore new hospitals, or even old ones for that matter. Please keep my loved ones healthy and safe. Keep me healthy and safe. I may be a hospital “pro” now, but it doesn’t mean I want this to become a habit.

Lobbying for Healthcare in a bizarre world called Congress.

My plane landed in Washington DC at 5:30 AM. I’d never taken a “red eye” before and I was surprised I’d managed to get a little sleep on the flight from San Francisco. Grabbing my suitcase I found my shuttle and rode the 20 minutes to my hotel. In the lobby, the clerk said cheerfully, “Good morning. Checking in?”

I held up a finger. “Just a minute. Where’s the bathroom?” She pointed down the hall to my left.

Quickly I changed out of my yoga pants and tshirt and put on my professional looking dress, one I had chosen because it didn’t wrinkle. I brushed my teeth, put on earrings, slippped into heels, and added lipstick. After leaving my overstuffed suitcase with the front desk I joined the group of people heading to Congress to fight for health care for people with Mitochondrial Disease. It was 7 AM and I needed coffee bad. But I was ready.

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This was day one of the UMDF conference. I joined my assigned group, a doctor and a mom from California and a man who had LHON. We were to meet with 5 of our political representatives or their staff,  in the Senate and the House. At first we weren’t sure what to do, but once we got to Senator Feinstein’s office our group found its voice. The doctor in our group explained about Mitochondrial disease and the research efforts of the National Institute of Health. The mom talked about supplements and the need for insurance companies to provide them. The man with LHON talked about being affected with a disease. And I talked about the day-to-day-caring for my child and how important MediCare was for her life. The staffer took notes and asked numerous questions. We four felt like we’d made an impact.

The next staffer was either new or simply overwhelmed. He took a few notes, but mostly looked like he had no idea what was happening. We were all crammed into the reception room of Kamala Harris’s offices and people came and went and chatted over our heads as we tried to give our presentation. I couldn’t blame the poor guy; it was Thursday and all week people had been yelling about the GOP Healthcare Bill. Everyone was desperate to go home for the 4th of July break and I suspect at 10 am he’d already worked 5 hours.

From the Senate building we walked across the Capital grounds toward The House of Representatives Building We had to take the long way because the Capital building was blocked off by armed military police. Our local escort shrugged it off;  road closures and the military on alert was just an ordinary day in Washington DC.

At the Offices of the House of Representatives we gave the same presentation, this time directly to Judy Chu. She was extremely kind and appeared interested in what we had to say. Here was a real pro, someone who could listen to people talking health care during a week the words “health care” made people scream. At the end of our meeting, I thanked her.

“I really appreciate how hard you and other Democrats are fighting for people with disabilities like my daughter.”

She shook my hand and smiled. I wonder if politicians get many thank you’s?

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Then we met with a Republican staffer from New York who was obviously fed up with the words “health care” and gave us 4 minutes of his time. By then our group had split up. I met my Representative, Jared Huffman, on my own. Our meeting time had been changed but I didn’t know, so I sat with a staffer and talked about my daughter. By then it was 3:00 and my brain was so fried I couldn’t remember my part of the presentation, let alone how to explain Mitochondrial disease and the National Institute of Health. I’d walked up and down and around the halls so many times I lost track of which building I was in. But this staffer sat at the table with me, smiled warmly and asked questions. And then Jared Huffman himself stepped out of a meeting for 2 minutes to shake my hand. I wanted to hug him, but instead, I thanked him.

Walking around those buildings, I passed office after office of congresspeople from every state. Climbing the stairs, I detected that the marble steps closest to the hand rail were slightly grooved; thousands of footsteps over hundreds of years had slowly worn down the lip of each step. Every conversation crashed into the next, echoing down the stone halls. There wasn’t a moment of quiet, not even inside the offices where we met people who at least appeared to want to help. Once, I used the wrong elevator, accidentally hopping on the one reserved for elected officials. An older gentlemen in a nice suit smiled but didn’t reprimand me. I wonder which state he represents?

By the end of the day, I was worn out, confused, and ready to finally check into my hotel room for a shower. But I was also exhilarated. Here I was, actually talking to people in Congress about healthcare the same week Congress was debating healthcare. I shook the hands of people fighting for my daughter. I don’t know how they do it, day in and day out.

And I have a better understanding of our democracy, at least the ideal of democracy. A thriving democracy is more than just voting every few years; it requires participation. It needs us to talk and listen and debate and argue. We need to interact with our Senators and Representatives and make sure they hear us. Otherwise the only people they’ll hear are the people with the checkbook.

I love Washington DC. This makes the second time I’ve been there since January and I have a feeling I’ll be back.

When you’re teaching at a medical conference, listen to your audience!

After the UMDF conference last year, I thought about all the people I saw with a vision impairment. How could I help? I submitted a proposal for a workshop addressing the needs of people coping with vision loss and their loved ones. UMDF liked the idea and put me in touch with the head of the L.H.O.N. group.

L.H.O.N, which stands for Leibers Hereditary Optic Neuropathy, is a vision impairment caused by mitochondrial disease. Even though I’m an Orientation and Mobility Specialist with a Master’s Degree in Vision Impairments, I had never heard of this disorder (more about L.H.O.N. in a later post). Maria (Girl Gone Blind) and I talked on the phone and she helped me develop my presentation. I would give the talk twice, once for those affected by L.H.O.N, and again in the general assembly for anyone dealing with other forms of vision loss. I put together a Power Point presentation, wrote my bio, packed my suitcase, and flew to Washington DC (Alexandria, VA to be exact. Just across the Potomac river).

People asked me if I was nervous. Funny thing, I wasn’t. The idea of talking to a room full of interested strangers didn’t worry me at all. I have information, I love to teach, they want to learn… perfect. However, as I stepped in front of a crowd of people with a vision impairment and their loved ones, I suddenly felt afraid. What did I have to offer these experts? They were living with vision loss while I’m just a teacher who can show them how to travel with a white cane.

That’s how I began. I focused my talk on communication between the person with vision loss and their family and friends. The only way to be an effective partner is through respect and communication. I did an abbreviated demonstration of Human Guide technique and moved on to how to support a person with vision loss in crowded and unfamiliar areas. Basically, “don’t ditch your loved one at a party.” After my talk I heard mixed reviews. Some people gave me a big thumbs up and said it was “great.” Others felt I didn’t present anything new and was “preaching to the choir.” I realized that mostly the people who thought it was great were people without vision loss. The people with vision loss were mostly bored. Oh well… like I said, they’re the expert.

The next day I gave my talk to the general assembly. However, as I began talking about supporting your loved one with vision loss, a woman raised her hand and asked, “Is this just about blind people?” I was afraid that would happen. The conference program left out vision loss in the description. Standing in a room filled with people looking for information about wheelchairs, walkers, and coping with changing mobility, I realized I had no idea what to say. So I took a deep breath, threw my notes aside, and started talking about my own experience working with my daughter and her changing needs. I also talked about working with older adults and how they struggled as their needs increased. Thankfully my audience started talking and sharing stories. I stepped back and facilitated the conversation. Dropping my teacher role, I became the advocate, a role I’ve played for 20 years. Once again, I was not the expert in the room; the people sharing their stories about declining mobility and strength were the experts. My talk went in a completely unexpected and unplanned direction and I loved it!

It’s funny that I was more nervous with my planned talk in front of an audience of mostly visually impaired people than I was winging it without notes. All those years I spent doing improv paid off. I used my theater background, advocacy and mediation training, and what I’ve learned being the parent of a child with a disability, and just followed my gut. But if the people in the room hadn’t starting talking, I would have been screwed. Once again, thank you experts!

I hope to give more talks in the future. I love teaching and interacting with people. My next topic will be on advocacy and independence. Need a speaker?

My next blog post will be about the day I spent lobbying for health care on Capitol Hill. This just happened to be the week the vote on repealing The Affordable Care Act was being debated by the GOP.  Interesting adventure.

 

Looking for Hope at the UMDF Conference

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(image from UMDF.org)

The United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation conference was in Alexandria VA., next door to Washington DC. Last year it was in Seattle and I brought Rhia to meet other people with “Mito”. This year, I went on my own. I was scheduled to give two talks about vision loss and spend a day advocating for health care in Washington DC. There was no way I could be Rhia’s caregiver and interpreter and teach and advocate. And last time I missed most of the talks about mitochondrial disease because I was busy helping Rhia meet other people. This time I was going for me.

I wanted to learn and meet other family members. Rhia has been declining both physically and mentally this year and I wanted to see if there was any new information to help her.

There wasn’t.

Without a specific diagnosis of a specific mitochondrial disease, there is very little anyone can do.

A lot of people with Mitochondrial disease know exactly what type they have, down to the specific genes affected. Leigh’s disease, PDCD/PDH, MELAS, Luft Disease, and 40 other types of Mitochondrial disease have been identified. There isn’t a cure, but there are treatments to help with symptoms and a frame work for what to expect. People at the conference tend to get together into “mito” groups, bonding over their diagnosis and outcomes, comparing doctors and treatments, and sharing ideas about coping.

But without a diagnosis, who do you bond with? You spend time with other people who are just as lost as you and who also have no idea what to expect or who to turn to. We are a mystery. We gather with other mysteries and quickly run out of things to discuss. We hear the latest study on possible treatments for a identified mitochondrial diseases and wonder how many years it will take for the experts to figure out what we have. Which gene, or multiple genes, are affected? How long do we have to live? I met parents just as scared and hopeful as I, but when they asked how my daughter was doing I was honest.

“She’s in a decline.”

They looked at me with sympathy, but quickly moved away. They didn’t come there to hear sad stories, they came to the conference looking for hope. So did I, but unfortunately I didn’t find it.

Instead I focused on the two talks I was giving at the conference, one to people with vision loss and the other to the larger assembly of attendees. If I couldn’t find hope for myself or my daughter, maybe I could help others find it for their own loved ones.

I’ll post about my experience as a speaker next time.

 

All grown up

The day I feared and hoped for came: Rhia graduated from school. When she turned 22 in May, she officially “aged-out” of her school based programs. She is now an adult.

Her school had a small ceremony for the three students who were also moving on to adult based services. But first, every student in the program got an award. One was for “Best Dancer.” Another was “Kindest.” A tall, shy boy was given an award for being the “Most Helpful.” And then it was Rhia’s turn. She stood up on her wobbly, colt legs and walked to the front of the room where she was given her Graduation Certificate and her award. Her’s said, “Most Likely to Speak Her Mind.” Everyone cheered.

They know my daughter well.

When Rhia was 5, she got in trouble for something (I don’t remember why). Instead of backing down, my tiny, elfin child put her hands on her hips and glared up at me with fierce eyes. “You can’t talk to me like that!” she declared. Fighting laughter, I sent her to her room. I was so proud of her and prayed that nothing would break that powerful spirit.

17 years later, nothing has… not multiple doctor’s appointments, losing her hearing, worsening eyesight, three hospital stays, deteriorating strength, ataxia, and anxiety. She will tell you exactly what she thinks and will fight hard if she thinks you’re wrong. Brutally honest, she is also extremely kind. She’ll tell you the truth, but be the first with a hug if she realizes she’s hurt you. She’s never intentionally cruel and fights for others as hard as she fights for herself. I wish I had been that strong when I was her age; instead I allowed others to walk all over me. I didn’t believe I mattered, but Rhia knows that she does.

I’m afraid. She’s not. But she doesn’t understand how complicated services for adults with disabilities can be. I see road blocks, paperwork, questions, and meetings. I’m afraid her world will get smaller now that she doesn’t have an ASL interpreter. Will we find one? Can anyone or anything replace the incredible support she’s gotten in school? How will I manage to piece together anything close to that?

Rhia is happy. Her greatest joy is she can now wear all the Disney t-shirts she wasn’t allowed to wear in school.

“I can wear anything I want!” she said, tossing school shirts on the floor. “I’m all grown up!”

“Yep,” I said, “You can wear Disney everyday.”

“Hooray!” More shirts flew into the air. I quietly scooped up the best ones to keep for the times she needs to wear something nicer than a Princess t-shirt. That will be another battle on a different day.

I need to have faith in my daughter. A deaf-blind young woman who wins an award because she always speaks her mind is no one to underestimate. And I’ve always got her back. We’ll find a way.

 

 

 

 

 

Trying to change the world is not a solo endeavor.

I believe that one person can make positive changes in the world. My heroes are Martin Luther King Jr, Dr. Hawa Abdi, Cesar Chavez, and Margaret Sanger. All four fought for the rights of others despite impossible odds and succeeded. And so, with their example in my mind, I tried to raise money to pay the bus fare for people with disabilities. Dial-A-Ride is expensive, especially if you live out of town, and in a rural area like Mendocino County, the bus is limited. How does a person with a disability get to town for shopping or a doctor’s appointment or to visit friends, if they can’t drive?

How hard could it be? It’s not like I’m trying to provide medical care in Somalia.

With the support of Burners Without Borders, a volunteer organization that helps people create change in their communities, I made a fundraising plan and called the Mendocino County Transit Authority (MTA). No one called back. I called again. I emailed. I waited. No response. Fine! I guess they don’t want money. Too bad, I’ll try a different tact. After making a list of local non-profits who help people with disabilities, I contacted each one. No one called back. Hmmm…. weird. What am I doing wrong? I called Burners Without Borders for help and they advised me to go ahead and fundraise and not worry about getting MTA support. Just show up with a check and they’ll take the money.

So I started planning a fundraising event and quickly had a panic attack.

If I don’t find a way to help people with disabilities get to the grocery store, who will? Would Margaret Sanger give up because no one returned her phone call? No! She was beaten and thrown in jail, but never gave up. She also had a group of people helping her.

Oh… right… even heroes need help. And I am not a hero. I’m just a woman in a rural town who sees a problem and wants to solve it.

Last year I tried to get the City of Ukiah to fix the Accessible Pedestrian Signals (APS) at intersections so people with vision impairments could cross the street safely. I met with a City Councilwoman and contacted the Department of Transportation. I also spoke with the City team working on the new traffic plan. They said they would add me to their contact list so I could attend their meetings. It never happened.

Again, I banged my head against a brick wall trying to solve a problem no one else seemed worried about.

If I had more time, I could attack all these problems effecting people with disabilities in my town: no transportation, broken pedestrian signals, crumbling sidewalks, lack of curb cuts, unsafe street crossings (near the hospital for goodness sake!). But I can’t do it alone; not even Martin Luther King Jr was alone. I have to accept the fact that just because I see a problem doesn’t mean it’s mine to solve. I really tried to make progress, but the brick walls I hit are stronger than one person can tear down. So I’m passing the baton to the next person.

You?

I hope someone carries it.

 

5 years and counting

Rhia almost died five years ago on Easter. After a week in the hospital she recovered from what the doctors called metabolic distress. She left weak, but alive. And she had an actual diagnosis for the first time: mitochondrial disease. The doctor didn’t know which type of mito she had, but all the symptoms pointed to some kind of illness that starved her cells of fuel. Slowly, over many years, her cells would starve to death and she herself would die.

They gave her five more years.

That was five years ago.

I spent five years preparing myself for her inevitable death.  Five more Christmas. Five more trips to Disneyland. Five more visits to New Orleans to see family. And then one day she would stop breathing, and my lovely girl would be gone.

But she’s still here, happy and thriving and very much alive. Her ataxia is worse and so is her vision. She can barely walk, even with her walker. Managing her fatigue is top priority. And she’s lost ground cognitively. But despite all predictions, she is still here. She is a friendly, stubborn, kind-hearted, and curious young woman who deals every day with her disability. It frustrates her sometimes but she never gives up. Every time she walks into the doctor’s office on her wobbly legs, it is another victory.

I was ready to say goodbye. I wasn’t ready to take care of an adult with severe disabilities. Soon she will transition into an adult day program when she ages out of the school system at age 22. That is next month!

22. No one believed she would see age 22. Not even me.

On Tuesday we go back to Stanford for her annual check-up with the geneticist and neurologist, They measure her body and track her decline; there is always a decline. And they always smile when they see her. I see the unspoken “how are you still here?” Rhia is impressive, a mystery that has puzzled her geneticist for 10 years. First he couldn’t figure out what was causing her symptoms, now he can’t figure out how she’s still alive. But he seems thrilled to see she still is.

I know I will outlive my child, but no one can tell me by how long. She could collapse tomorrow, or next month. Every time she gets sick I feel the tight panic in my chest. Is this the illness that finally saps her strength? She recovers and my fear subsides. Until she falls. Will this injury be the one that stops her from walking? She gets back up. She keeps walking. She keeps smiling. There is nothing I can do but watch and enjoy every moment I have with her.

Not to say she’s always a joy to be with. She can be impossible! Stubborn and quick to frustrate, she can yell, hit, kick, and throw things. But she is just as quick to apologize and make amends. She’ll pick you a flower or draw you a picture. When you’re sad, she’s the first with a hug. She tells the most ridiculous, surreal jokes and laughs at her own wit. She sings in the car and the bathtub. And she always makes you feel like you are in the presence of a miracle.

I know we’ll say goodbye one day. But right now, I’m going to watch Snow White for the hundredth time with my fabulous daughter.