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.

 

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!

Not the only Mito Kid in the world

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My daughter Rhia and I spent the last four days in Seattle at the Mitochondrial Disease Medical Conference. Hundreds of people with mitochondrial disease, their family, parents, doctors and researchers gathered at the SeaTac Hilton Double Tree Hotel to discuss potential treatments, research breakthrough’s and symptom management. The conference travels from the East to the West coast. This year it was only a two hour flight from our home, so my daughter and I decided to go.

The main goal for us was to meet other young people and kids with the disease. Rhia was convinced she was the only person in the world with Mitochondrial disease. There is no one else like her who uses a wheelchair because her legs are “too lazy” to walk (her words). No one else is deaf-blind and no one else has hands that shake.

Rhia quickly learned she isn’t the only girl on the planet. At the conference, she met a girl who uses a wheelchair because she too gets too tired to walk far and tends to shake when fatigued. We met a young man who has the same doctor as Rhia and has dealt with all the same tests and procedures. We met a young woman with thick glasses who struggles with seizures while trying to go to college. A young man who used to play sports but now spends more time in bed than on the field. We met teenagers and young adults from all over the US who battle mitochondrial disease every day just to have some kind of self-actualized life.

No one else is deaf-blind, though. I spent most of my time interpreting sign language so Rhia could understand what people were saying. It was a challenge to help Rhia become included in the group. They could all talk about their frustrations and joys, and they shared their experiences freely, supporting each other as best they could. As a deaf-bind person, Rhia is a rarity within a rare group. But everyone worked hard to include Rhia in the group. Whether she could understand their spoken words or not, she was still one of them. In time, Rhia warmed up and made two connections which could develop into friendships. Unfortunately they  live in different states, but if they can figure out how to stay in touch, the three could really help each other not feel so isolated.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend many of the workshops on mitochondrial disease treatment and management, so I missed a lot of the information. But Rhia and I achieved our goal: connecting to other people with “mito” and understanding Rhia is not all alone. At times it was hard for me to step back from being mom and just facilitate communication. The stories people shared about their anger and grief coping with mitochondrial disease were heart wrenching. These kids should be enjoying high school and planning for college, not managing symptoms of a degenerative disease. Rhia said she hated her “lazy legs” and wished she could walk. She was tired of hurting herself all the time. The others nodded, understanding her anger. Reminding myself that I was here to support Rhia’s communication needs, I kept my tears in check.

At the end of the conference we were both exhausted and ready to be home. Two days later I’m still trying to regain my energy. The trip was challenging physically and emotionally, but worth it. We’ll definitely go again.

Thank you UMDF for providing this community and helping us cope with Mito. It’s not easy, but together, we can do it.

Why I won’t run to Canada

My daughter cannot move to Canada; she has multiple disabilities so is considered a drain on resources. No country anywhere will accept her. She is a disabled woman trapped in the United States, a country that doesn’t want her.

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(photo by Diane Davis https://www.facebook.com/dianedavisphotography/info/?tab=page_info)

So when you talk about moving to Canada if Trump wins, think about what that means. Think about the people who don’t have that option. They are the people who need you to fight for them.

The ability to leave a bad situation is often based on ones resources. Do you have the money to go somewhere else? Do you have people who will help and protect you? You might wonder why a  person living in a bad neighborhood doesn’t move to a better one. Many times, they can’t. If you can, you are blessed. Don’t assume others have the same chance.

My daughter is one of those “losers” Donald Trump talks about. She can’t work and she is dependent on other people to care for her. I am one of those losers because I need social service supports and welfare to help me take care of her. Call me a welfare mom and I’ll agree proudly. We are not “winners,”as Trump would say, and there are a lot of people in this country who are the same.

But that doesn’t make us bad people. That doesn’t make my daughter worthless.

My daughter can’t fight for herself, but I can fight for her. And I will stand by her and fight with all my strength to protect her from the rise of hate and intolerance permeating the United States. Racists and fascists will not touch her.

Will you help? Or will you hide?

One special needs family reaching out to another

There are a thousand sleepless nights to get through when your child is medically fragile. Waiting for answers. Waiting for change. I pick up a book I’m too tired to read. Turn on the TV but it’s too loud. So I grab your laptop and start surfing. See what my friends are doing. What trips are they taking this summer? What did they eat? How many selfies did they take? But after a while all those smiling faces make me feel more alone.

I turn to your tribe, the other parents who are up at 3 AM surfing the internet while battling anxiety. Because no one understands dread more than the parent of a special needs child.

We parents would be lost and more confused than we already are without the internet. With chat rooms to swap war stories and blogs to share our ideas we see that we are not the only family in the world held hostage by illness. Instead, we know MediCare and Social Security screws with every family. Paperwork really does get more complicated. Marriages collapse and rebuild. Children thrive despite what experts say. And occasionally we get to laugh.

Reach out. Write it all down. Maybe someone will read it and for a tiny moment I won’t be so alone. Maybe my struggle will help someone else. And maybe, if I take the time to read other stories, I’ll find the answer I’ve needed to hear.