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.

 

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.

The Mito Walk in the Rain

  
100 people gathered in a parking lot at Bishop Ranch 8, San Ramon, California, to walk in support of people with Mitochondrial Disease. For the first time in the five years the walk had occurred, it rained. We stood together under shelters and awnings and waited. Every team had raised money, so we had to honor those pledges and walk. But it was cold and all the teams were missing members.

My daughter Rhia, the person on our team with Mitochondrial disease, sat in her wheelchair under her polka dot umbrella and cried. She wanted to walk, but hated the rain. Her hands were cold even in the pockets of her puffy, blue coat. Her dad finally loaded her in the car and drove her away to find hot chocolate and a movie. So there I stood, the sole member of Team Rhia after the rest of my team had cancelled the day before. 

The announcer called Team Rhia to start walking. I stood beside her. She kept calling. I said, “Team Rhia right here,” and laughed. Then I stuck up my umbrella and walked the one mile route.

Other teams in matching t-shirts gathered and cheered each other. Maybe I should have been sad no one cheered for me, but walking alone was oddly peaceful. 2 wild geese watched me and honked as I passed the half way mark. “Welcome back,” I said and one goose flapped his enormous wings as if showing how far he’d travelled. Because it was just me I made good time and finished the 1 mile route in 15 minutes. Nice not to have to manage a team of wayward walkers. 

Standing in the parking lot again under the shelter at the registration table, I watched as the teams slowly returned. That’s when I felt sad. Why were we doing this? Why were parents who had lost children showing up every year to walk around a business complex? Was this going to make any difference? I saw the parents who’s daughter had died last year at age 14. No cure soon enough for her. Would there be a cure for my daughter? For anyone’s loved one? Would the meager $400 dollars my tiny team had raised do any good? 

What else can we do? We’re not doctors, or God. We are powerless to change what our children endure. Maybe walking alone in the rain looks pointless, but it gives us something to do and we support each other. We are all gathered together in a parking lot in San Ramon because for a few hours each year we are not alone. We have hope.

I opened my umbrella and made another lap. 

Rare Disease Day 2016 


What is it like to live with a rare disease? This is what my daughter says:

“Doctors try to help but no one does.”

“I don’t know why I have ataxia and I don’t know why I can’t hear no more. No body does.”

“I have to go to the doctor a lot. That’s boring.”

“Everybody wants to poke me and give me a blood shot (blood draw)!”

“I used to be able to walk and not have to use a walker all the time but now I can’t and nobody know’s why.”

“Why is there no medicine to make me feel better?”

As her mom, I struggle to answer her questions. But what can I say? She is now 20 and has lived with an undiagnosed mystery disease her entire life. The closest label her illness has is Mitochondrial Disease. But which one? What type? How degenerative is it? How long does she have?

We don’t know.

My daughter turned 20, which wasn’t supposed to happen.

This week was my daughter’s 20th birthday, which when you’re battling Mitochondrial Disease, is a birthday hard won. My daughter, who I call Queen Teen (but can I still call her that if she’s not a teen anymore?), is a beautiful, friendly, stubborn young woman who has fought every single day to keep walking and keep learning. Despite being doubly impacted with blindness and deafness she has learned to read words and understand sign language. Doctors told us she wouldn’t make it to her teens. When she did she was diagnosed with “Mito” and given five more years to live. That was three years ago.

Right now, my daughter is singing “Let’s go fly a kite” and “Take me out to the Ball Game” at the top of her lungs. It’s horribly off key, but I love every note. I don’t know how long we will have together. Two years? Ten? You stop worrying about it after a while and learn to live in the present. “Be here now” is more than just a philosophy when your child has a life threatening illness, it is the golden rule to live by.

20. Who will she become now that she is grown? What will she want to do? I love watching and learning more about her.