Who will interpret?

I helped Rhia pack and then took she and her step-dad to the airport. One of his cousins was getting married, so the whole family was getting together. A big wedding celebration with all the cousins and extended family. Rhia would see her Gran and Gramps and aunts and uncles, first and second cousins and friends of the family. Everyone would be there… except me. I was invited, but between work and grad-school I needed to stay home and study. Plus, who would watch the dog? And really, I am now the “ex-wife.” They are kind people, but do I really need to show up at a family wedding?

This is the first time Rhia has gone on a trip without me and she is not happy! Who will help her communicate? Who knows Sign Language? Who will help her in the bathroom and wash her hair and get her dressed and eat dinner? She wanted details on how EXACTLY Rick would help. “Boys are hard to understand,” she complained. I tried to reassure her, but I too was worried. Since I’m the one who helps her communicate, who will do it if I’m not there?

I was hoping to have her iPad set up with the “Go Talk Now” app ready, but I didn’t have time. Plus, I discovered her iPad doesn’t have enough memory. I need to get her a new iPad, set up the device, learn “Go Talk Now”, program it, and then teach Rhia. I’m sure if I give up sleep I’ll have time to do that. But first I need to work and teach other kids and deal with lesson plans and IEPs for them, then do my homework for my own classes, and study for my math test… but no problem. I’ll master “Go Talk Now” at midnight!

If I don’t have time anymore to help my child, did I make the right decision moving here? If I am no longer available to help her communicate, is moving her closer to her doctors such a great thing? Here’s some great health care, but you won’t understand what’s happening because Mommy’s at work. Sorry kid.

I know it’s good for Rhia dn I to be more autonomous, but mommy-guilt is a big, ugly beast with five heads and poisonous teeth. The minute you think you’ve got it under control, two heads will wip around your shoulder and bite your jugular vein.

After I drove home from the airport, I pulled weeds in my yard and cried. I cried for my daughter who will try to figure out what’s happening surrounded by people who speak a language she doesn’t understand anymore. I cried for the end of my marriage that forced us to move. I cried because life has changed so much and I am exhausted but have to keep going. I cried because I’m rebuilding my daughter’s and my own life. I cried because I still love my ex-husband and his family, who are no longer mine.

I hope they are still Rhia’s.

The Day Rhia Declared She Can’t be a Princess Anymore.

I found Rhia crying in her room.

“Sweetie,” I said, taking her in my arms. “What’s wrong?”

“I can’t be a princess anymore,” she said.

“Of course you’re a princess. Why do you think you’re not?”

“Because I can’t walk anymore and princesses don’t have ataxia! Have you ever seen a princess with ataxia? No!” She buried her face in my chest and cried harder.

I wanted to cry, too. Damnit, why does this have to be so hard for her? Why does she have to keep losing ground a little bit every day? If she has to be blind and deaf, why does she have to notice how all her friends are grown up and living there own lives while she gets weaker and has to stay home? What the hell do I say to her?

Rhia is passionate about Disney, especially the princesses. Cinderella is a personal friend and Rapunzel was at her recent birthday party. She wrote them all a letter and they wrote back. When we go to Disneyland, all she wants to do is talk to the princesses.

“They remember me!” she declares. And a few do. Over the years, we’ve met the same actresses who surprisingly remember Rhia out of the thousands of kids they see each day. There’s just something magical about Rhia, something that draws people to her. Plus, she has a gorgeous wheelchair with flower-print wheel rims. Rhia plays with her princess dolls every day and talks to them as if they are alive; her imaginary friends are her closest friends.

But on this day, those imaginary friends failed her.

“Listen to me,” I said, urging her to look up at me; she has to look at me to see me sign. “You are a princess now and always. Cinderella herself said you are a real princess and you have the certificate to prove it!”

“But that was before…”

“No. Once a princess, always a princess.”

“But I can’t walk any more.”

“So what? Cinderella didn’t say you were a princess because you can walk. She said you’re a princess because you’re kind and smart and funny. You care about people and are a good friend. You are helpful and creative. And you love to sing.”

Rhia had stopped crying and was listening, but still didn’t look convinced. “But I’ve never seen a princess with ataxia.”

“I know baby, and I’m sorry about that. I’m so sorry everything is really hard for you now. You are a princess because you are strong and try hard. All princesses are strong. You are a princess forever!” I hugged her tighter.

She sighed, turned away from me, and picked up her Ariel doll. I kissed her head and left her to think about what I had said. I overheard her ask her doll, “Do you think I’m a princess?”

I prayed somehow that doll said yes.

How deaf is she?

A friend sent me a link to a video called “Are You Deaf Enough, by Jessica Killgren-Fozard, which was posted by Ai-Media. Here is the link to the video:

https://www.facebook.com/aimediaAUS/videos/10155585533079220/

In the video, Ms. Kellgren-Fozard talks about how it feels when people ask her how deaf she is. How much can she hear? Why doesn’t she “sound deaf”? The questions and her response reminded me of how I feel when people ask about my daughter Rhia.

How much can she hear? What does she hear? Can she hear me at all? When did she lose her hearing? She looks like she hears me, are you sure she can’t hear my voice? Why doesn’t she wear hearing aids? Have you considered cochlear implants? 

The answers are: I don’t know. I don’t live in Rhia’s skin and I don’t have her ears. There is no way I can know what she does and doesn’t hear. All I can do is guess, just as the doctors and the audiologist have guessed. We think she hears sound, but it’s garbled, like trying to understand a foreign language under water. She doesn’t hear high pitched sounds. How do I know? Because when the smoke detectors go off she doesn’t even flinch. She looks like she hears you because she used to hear so understands that you are speaking to her and she is clever enough to make excellent guesses about what you are probably saying. But that too is my guess. Maybe she can hear you sometimes, but it fades in and out. She tried hearing aids but hated them. A cochlear requires major surgery and she hates that too, so she learned sign language. Any other questions?

The questions are all about what she can and can’t do. People listen to the answers, nod, attempt to communicate with her for about a minute, then move on. Once they have proven to themselves that Rhia can’t hear, they stop trying to talk to her.

Occasionally I am asked, “How should I talk to her?” What a wonderful question! Instead of wanting to know how Rhia adapts, a person will ask how they can adapt to her. I see people try to communicate with her and include her in an activity. It’s not easy and I don’t blame people when they eventually give up. But the ones who really try to connect with Rhia are rewarded with her bright smile. If they know even a little sign language, Rhia beams and says “They know my language!” All it takes is getting close, making sure she’s looking at you and then signing, “It’s good to see you.”

I know when people ask me about Rhia’s hearing they aren’t trying to be rude or cruel; they really want to understand and learn. And most of the time I don’t mind answering. But if you’re going to ask the hard questions, be sure to follow up with a question about communication. How does Rhia like to be included? What is her favorite thing to do? Can you help me sign a question? Does Rhia understand what is happening? How can I help her understand? Would Rhia like a cookie? How do I sign “cookie”?

The more you focus on who Rhia is and learn how to communicate with her, the more you will discover she is a vibrant, funny, kind hearted young woman who loves to sing and go for walks on sunny days. She’s also deaf.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Wanted: The perfect program for a highly social, deaf-blind, medically fragile, young woman.

Last week, I attended my daughter’s very last IEP meeting. Rhia turns 22 in May, which means she will no longer qualify for school based services. Instead, she will be a full fledged, 100% adult, with all the challenges and opportunities that provides. I sat beside her at the the meeting, surrounded by people who have been a part of her life since elementary school. Her current teacher used to be her aid in the 4th grade. Now he led the meeting that would transition her into adulthood.

Fighting back tears, I stated my concerns. Who will be her Sign Language interpreter? How will she continue to learn ASL? Which program will provide the most flexibility while still providing social opportunity so she can make friends? How will we fight the isolation that comes when a person is deaf-blind and uses a wheelchair to travel?

No one knew the answers. Everyone was worried and everyone tried hard to come up with solutions. But what I really wanted was someone to take charge with their magic wand and create the perfect program for my daughter. Unfortunately, no one had a wand.

It’s not that I didn’t know this day would come; her IEP team and I have been discussing it since the 8th grade. Transition is a big deal so it takes years to plan. The problem is that my daughter is medically fragile and has serious communication challenges. We live in a tiny town with limited opportunities. We really need to move to Berkeley or Santa Rosa, but who can afford the rent? So here we are, Smallville California, hoping the perfect program for my Disney loving, shy, cheerful daughter will appear.

Rhia keeps asking me what will happen when school ends. I tell her she’ll go into a different program for grown-ups. She’ll make new friends and maybe take classes at college again. She scrunches up her brows and looks at me sideways, not sure if I’m telling the truth. But I am; I’m telling her what I hope will happen. When I ask her what she wants she says she doesn’t know, but she’d like to move to “LA” so we can go to Disneyland everyday. Darling, if I could, I would, but I can only afford to live in a tiny town in NorCal where the adult programs are geared toward work and very few people know ASL.

I really need Godmother’s wand!