Breaking Records at Wish Ball

A few months ago, we were approached by Make-A-Wish Arizona to see if we would interested in sharing Livvy’s wish (her swingset) in a video that would be played at their biggest fundraiser of the year, the Wish Ball.

If I’ve learned anything from this journey so far it’s that sharing our story can only help others. We said yes, filmed it in our backyard with the girls and below is the final product which was played during live auction and Fund-A-Wish portion of the evening at Wish Ball this Saturday.

After this moment, records were broken. The Wish Ball raised more money that evening than they ever have before. And we are so honored to say that Livvy was a part of that. That her story is now helping other children get their wishes granted.

Take a moment to watch it below and if you feel so inclined help Livvy give more kids their wishes by donating to Make a Wish Foundation of Arizona here.

Thank you Make-A-Wish Arizona for not only giving Livvy her wish, but also giving her sisters (and us) memories with that will last our lifetime.

More photos from the evening below:

Livvy, the Sparrow

Last year after we returned from Italy for Keira’s treatment we were connected with a non-profit organization called Sparrow Clubs USA which is based in Oregon but getting into the Arizona market and looking for a family – in particular a child with medical needs like Livvy – to partner with as they launched their first Sparrow Club at Hamilton High School in Chandler, AZ.

After hearing the story of how Sparrow Clubs began and what it does for high school students, as well as families who have children with extreme medical needs, it was a no brainer that we wanted Livvy to be part of the impact it would make on our local community.

To put it simply: “Sparrow Clubs exist to set the stage for simple, yet heroic, acts of kindness in schools and youth culture by empowering kids to help kids in medical need.” And as Matt Sampson (the Executive Director of Sparrow Clubs) and their community partner Amy Anderson of Black Rock Coffee explained, Hamilton High would adopt Livvy as their first “sparrow”, the entire student body would do up to 300 hours of any kind of community service work and as they did so it would unlock the funds that Black Rock Coffee donated for Livvy.

Sparrow Clubs made flyers for the school, created this lovely video about Livvy (which brought us to tears), and before we knew it we were touring classrooms at Hamilton High this week with the Student President of Hamilton’s Sparrow Club Richa Churravuri.

Students watched the video, learned about Sparrow Clubs from representative Cory Burket, I briefly told our family’s story and the kids all lined up to meet Livvy and give her a fist bump. She loved it!

Livvy with us amd the teams from Sparrow Clubs, Hamilton High School and Black Rock Coffee.

The following day (today) we were invited to their school wide spring assemblies which were divided into two assemblies on the football field due to the school size (4,000+ students) where Richa got to speak about Sparrow Clubs, how students could get involved and to introduce Livvy.

It was a really cool experience for her (and us) as she got to meet the Hamilton Husky mascot, take a picture with the cheerleaders and get cheered on by all of the students. I overheard one student who met her yesterday yell out “LIVVY! That’s my girl!”

And as I shared with someone today, having her be a “sparrow” and part of this experience is not about the funds for Livvy’s new stroller but more so about the impact that meeting her and being a part of her story would make on others. How it would instill kindness, compassion and empathy in these students, and ultimately make a ripple effect of kindness in our community.

We are honored to be a part of this experience and hope to see more Sparrow Clubs throughout the state.

Testifying for Updated Right To Try in the Arizona Senate

Back when we got Keira’s diagnosis in June of 2020 and were figuring out a plan for her treatment I was connected to Arizona Senator Nancy Barto and the Goldwater Institute. With the Right To Try bill having already passed (in AZ in 2014 and federally in 2018) they thought maybe there was a chance for us to use this to our advantage but unfortunately it only encompassed groups of individuals (that could lead to clinical trials); not for individuals on a case-by-case basis.

Fast forward to last week when I was contacted by the Goldwater Institute who asked me to help them expand upon this right-to-try bill by sharing our family’s story and testifying at the Arizona Senate next week. What for?? To expand the bill to cover individuals that need life-saving treatment. My jaw dropped. This is AMAZING.

Former Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater who founded the Goldwater Institute in 1988

Had this been in place when Keira needed it (and the treatment was in place within the US and being offered by the drug company) we could have had her treatment done in the States without having to fundraise hundreds of thousands of dollars and moving our family halfway around the world for 5 months.

So, naturally, I jumped at this chance and on February 2nd will be off to the Arizona Capitol to meet with the Goldwater Institute and Senator Nancy Barto’s Health and Human Services Committee to testify in support of patients getting access to individualized treatments without having to beg the federal government for permission to save their own or their loved one’s life and without having to cross an ocean to do so.

Arizona Senator Nancy Barto

The proposed legislation adheres to the strictest patient protections and physician involvement, ensuring that these treatments work in tandem with the highest standards of care.

Should this pass in Arizona, as the original Right to Try bill did (view more on that here), other states will likely follow suit and then the federal government to follow.

A copy of the bill – the Right to Try for Individualized Treatments – sponsored by Senator Nancy Barto within the Arizona legislature be found here:

https://www.azleg.gov/legtext/55leg/2R/bills/SB1163P.pdf

I can’t even imagine how many lives will be prolonged or saved entirely by doing this and it brings to tears to my eyes thinking of all the other special needs families out there who have always held on to hope for a chance like this. A chance at healing. A chance at a normal life. Something every single one of us deserves.

I am beyond honored to have this opportunity to share our family’s story in hopes that it can truly make a difference. I will be sure to keep everyone updated as this moves forward within the Arizona legislature.

Keira’s 1-Year Post Gene Therapy Check Up

I absolutely cannot believe it has been (almost) one year since Keira received her life-saving gene therapy treatment in Italy (her official re-birthday date is October 2, 2020). Our time in Milan seems like a lifetime ago.

Yet here we sit at Phoenix Children’s Hospital for her 1-year post gene therapy check up!

And I am so happy to say I am not worried about her results one bit! She has been running, climbing and talking more and more each day. She is even advanced for her age in some ways and we are in awe of her every day.

While we normally would need to return to Milan for her follow ups, because of COVID the doctors there managed to figure out a way to do the testing here locally and send back her most important blood work on dry ice overnight to Ospedale San Raffaelle. While I love Italy and have no problem with returning, it is especially nice to stay home for this check up so we do not have to leave Livvy who continues to worsen.

As for the check up itself, we have a busy two weeks ahead which will include the following appointments:

  • Bloodwork
  • Ultrasounds (abdomen and thyroid)
  • MRI
  • Echocardiogram
  • EEG
  • Appointments with Pulmonary, Pathology and Neurology

There might be one more I’m forgetting but needless to say, there are a lot of things they will be looking at to ensure she is developing normally.

The one thing in particular which can only be checked in Italy is one of the results from her bloodwork which looks for any ARSA antibodies. The ARSA enzyme is something her body could not create prior to gene therapy. And now that is does her body began trying to fight it because it wasn’t used to it. However, the antibodies have only gone down in numbers since and hopefully at this point will be completely gone. Keep your fingers crossed for us there!

We will be sure to keep everyone updated once we receive her results. Thank you for your continued prayers, love and support! It means the world! ❤

When Kindness & Compassion Make History

Today, we helped make history. Albeit, a small part. But it will save the life of a girl diagnosed with MLD. And to me, that is everything.

Just days ago I was informed of a 4-year-old girl from Alabama who was diagnosed with the juvenile form of Metachromatic Leukodystrophy (MLD) –  the same disease, but a different form, that Livvy and Keira have – and who was currently in Minnesota ready to be the first child with MLD to receive gene therapy in the United States.

4-year-old Celia Grace Hamlett

Orchard Therapeutics had donated the therapy itself (as they did for Keira in Italy), the FDA even offered approval on this one-time basis. But Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama suddenly denied coverage. Her life-saving treatment immediately came to a stand-still.

The Hamlett family – Mom Kassie, Dad Gary and daughter Celia Grace – were devastated. There they were at the Ronald McDonald House in Minnesota with their dreams of a normal life for their daughter thwarted. Without this treatment she could potentially only live to the age of 13 (the average life span of children diagnosed with the juvenile form of MLD).

Maria Kefalas of CureMLD.com looped me into the conversation regarding helping this family and I couldn’t not do my part. I immediately wrote up a press release that we could use on a local and national basis to share the Hamlett’s story with the media and how they now needed to raise the $300k that Blue Cross wouldn’t cover (despite the coverage costs of her care without it being in the millions). We had one week to do so.

My next step? I had to contact Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona. They are the reason we were able to stop fundraising sooner than expected for Keira. They heard our story last year, and their kindness and compassion outweighed the red tape.

As one of their executives once said on a Zoom call “we are building the plane as we are flying it”; this was NEVER done before in the history of the United States insurance coverage for MLD. But they managed to cover treatment costs for Keira and the rest of the money we raised went to travel, lodging, food, expenses, and a fund for all future travel for the trips to Milan that we would have to make every 6 months for the next decade of Keira’s life.

Now, I was asking them to help one more child. But unfortunately the policies for claims and coverage varies from state to state. So they reached out to the Alabama reps to share their experience in Keira’s case in hopes it could help 4-year-old Celia Grace.

Just two days later, today, I received a call from Gary and Kassie Hamlett…they had just gotten off the phone with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama who decided they will now cover everything for Celia Grace (after their case was already denied twice). It was truly a miracle. And as we have seen/heard many times before in recounts of historic moments, it is kindness and compassion that made history.

Celia Grace Hamlett will now be the first child to receive gene therapy for MLD in the US.

I am beyond honored to have been a part of this wonderful family’s journey; to have saved another child even though we couldn’t save our dear Livvy. I hope to one day give the Hamletts a huge hug and see Celia Grace and our Keira playing together as any “normal” kids would.

Yes, the world is constantly changing. But I truly believe it is kindness and compassion leading the way.

Enrolling in Hospice

Last week, we enrolled Livvy in Hospice of the Valley. Not because she is drastically and rapidly declining, but more so to have that support system in place for when she does and in order to have physicians come to her rather than putting her in her stroller and driving anywhere (she has always hated carseats and found them very uncomfortable since her diagnosis), or having her anywhere near COVID patients at a local hospital.

Surprisingly, to me, this process was not as difficult or emotionally trying as I thought it would be. Honestly, the hardest part was talking to our palliative care team about end of life scenarios prior to enrolling in Hospice. That is how we came to the decision that it was indeed a good time to enroll Livvy.

And what might come as a surprise to many is that enrolling a child in Hospice is not the same as enrolling an adult. For an adult, Hospice means they have very little time left. For a child, like one with MLD, they could be on Hospice for years (or days…there really is no way of knowing because the disease is so rare). But the point of enrolling a child is not only to ensure end of life scenarios are completed as the patient’s family prefers (at home versus in a hospital with a million tubes connected to them), but also to ensure their comfort until that point arrives.

Livvy’s meds will now be delivered instead of us running back and forth to Walgreens, a Pediatric nurse and social worker will come to the house to check on her every two weeks (or as needed) and a pediatrician will visit every two months (or as needed), and we now have a number to call them 24 hours a day 7 days a week for any medical questions or concerns rather than guessing what’s wrong and having to rush to the ER. Any time, day or night, they will come to her.

For the parents, siblings and patient, this is a game changer. It keeps disruptions and any further trauma to a minimum. We are incredibly grateful to have their support as we contunue to navigate this heartbreaking and unbelievable situation.

For more information on Hospice of the Valley, visit www.hov.org.

One of many lovely photos of Livvy captured by our friend and photographer Kay Eskridge of Images By Kay. ❤

Livvy’s Wish Came True

Today, thanks to the wonderful souls over at Make A Wish Arizona, Livvy’s wish came true – after only requesting it a few short weeks ago – and she was so happy!

If you saw my previous post, you know it was a swing set for her to enjoy with her sisters. And while parts of it (like the sandbox) still need to be added in, the whole thing is up and was revealed to the girls today – they were ecstatic!

Every time we talked to Livvy about it prior she would get a big grin on her face so I think when she saw it today she was partially in awe; it’s actually here!

And for a girl who normally hates laying down (she will usually just start screaming) she is on Cloud 9 in her magic carpet swing!

To know that she and her sisters will have so many more memories made together with this swing set brings me to tears.

Thank you so so much, Make A Wish Arizona!! ❤🙏🏼

Olivia’s Wish

Since getting Olivia’s diagnosis, I have heard other MLD families talk about Make a Wish. I was familiar with the organization from being on the committee for their annual Wish Ball one year, which helps raise vital funds to grant wishes for all of the kiddos. Never once did I think my kiddo would be one of them.

But here we are. So, naturally, I started thinking about what Olivia’s wish would be since she can’t tell me herself. Most of the families seem to do trips somewhere but with how much we have traveled in the past year alone I didn’t think that would be at the top of her wish list. Not to mention I thought it would just make the destination this sad place where we once went for this sad purpose. And would we ever go back there?

So as I brainstormed other options over the last few months, we were also in the midst of looking for a swing set and playhouse for the girls. But how could we make it more accessible for Livvy?

Then it hit me. That could be her wish!Her two most favorite things in the world (aside from Mom and Dad of course) are “playing” with her sisters and being outside to watch the birds and planes go by. So I asked her, do you want a special swing set just for you and your sissies? She got the biggest smile and laughed. That was it!

Dave wasn’t at home when I got this epiphany so I immediately texted him and he loved the idea.

Thankfully, one of my friends and mentors was on the board for Make a Wish of Arizona so I asked if she would be so kind as to make an introduction. She did, and we got a referral from Livvy’s neurologist, and within a week we were meeting with the wish granters to discuss Livvy’s wish.

They asked all about Livvy’s favorite things (sisters and outdoors aside). To which I answered birds (the theme of her upcoming 3rd birthday), dogs, Minnie Mouse, and her fave bands, Maroon 5 and The Beatles.

Within two days Make a Wish had sent her a little bird house with stuffed animal birds that tweet (she and Keira both love it), and a Minnie Mouse with a dog on a leash. She was so excited! While she can’t make them move herself, the Minnie actually walks the dog and talks (which actually scares Keira 😆) and we help her out with the birds.

We are so grateful to have Make a Wish be a part of her life and bring even more smiles to her face. Within the next few weeks her wish of a play set will be granted and we’ll be sure to share pics!

Clinical Trials & Tribulations

On June 5, 2020 Olivia had surgery to implant the intrathecal port that would be used for the weekly infusions in her clinical trial. The trial itself was aimed at stalling the progression of her disease, Metachromatic Leukodystrophy (MLD). It required weekly infusions for 2 years, with an optional 3rd year.

After her initial surgery in Iowa

We enrolled for a few reasons. Mainly because it was the only option in the world for symptomatic MLD kiddos but also because after doing our research other parents in the study seemed very pleased.

The only site in the US that was taking patients amidst the pandemic was in Iowa. So off we went every week from Arizona to Iowa. Not an easy trek for Livvy but hopefully one that would be worth it.

Once Keira was diagnosed on June 19th though, we were soon on a different path and that lead to Italy. So part of the coordination there was getting Olivia moved to a European site for her weekly infusions. And that site was Amsterdam, which will now forever have a special place in my heart (but I will share more on that in another post one day). It was a much quicker trip than AZ to IA so we were pleased with that.

Talking a walk through Amsterdam with Livvy

After moving back to the States in January 2021, the Utah site for the clinical trial had opened. It was much closer to home so we were excited about that change.

Unfortunately, Olivia’s internal port had stopped working at that point and x-rays showed the catheter had a leak so she would need surgery to replace it.

The x-ray of her catheter leaking internally

Surgery is never an option you want for your MLD child. It requires anesthesia, which we now know can progress the disease. The MLD Foundation has done plenty of research and recommends using Propofol via IV for the best possible route.

So on March 5, 2021 she had a 2-hour surgery in Utah which replaced the port and over the next two weeks it worked better than it ever had before (the initial port had issues pulling CSF in a timely manner). We were relieved that maybe now she would better benefit from the study.

But on Sunday, March 21st we noticed the incision on her back was swollen. The doctors said to keep an eye on it and let them know if it gets bigger because it looked like a CSF leak. Within the next two days it had doubled in size. So on Wednesday, March 24th we were off to the ER at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.

We were told she would need surgery again to fix this. Now we were at a crossroads.

At the last surgery, Dave and I had discussed pulling her from the study if another surgery was ever needed. But how can we not get her the only potential treatment available to her? We had to weigh the pros and cons. Was the travel too much on her? Was it too much on her sisters who had to stay home with grandparents? She has only regressed since starting the study and we have seen no improvement but how do we know if maybe it was helping? If we keep her in the study, we can’t possibly ask a grandparent to take her to Utah in this fragile state while we are in Italy for Keira’s next check up. This and more went into our decision-making process.

At our meeting with the neurosurgeon we had our answer. But before we could share it, they told us the port needed to be removed completely in order to fix the leak.

I immediately felt relief. This confirmed our decision. The port was coming out and our intensive travel schedule was coming to an end. This would give us all more time to together with Livvy for however long we have left with her.

Since the surgery, which went very well, the doctors told us they found not one but two leaks (one from this port and another presumably from her first port). They also shared that it wasn’t just a little leak but an abnormally shaped hole. They stitched it up well, topped it with many closing methods and do not expect it to reopen.

As she lay flat, as per doctors orders, on the bed next to me, I am relieved to know this chapter is closing.

My Aunt said it best: it was a tough day but another one behind us. We are looking forward to more smiles with our Livvy in the days ahead.

Recovering from surgery with some sweet sleep

Side note: I have spoken to many parents about the trial. Some who had kids enrolled, some whose kids got denied entry and some whose kids couldn’t get in because they were no longer accepting patients. To the ones who couldn’t get in I would like to remind you of our situation. There is no guarantee it will work and our family is unfortunately proof of that. Know that you are doing the very best for your child given the resources available to you. Let’s all hope a better option is on the horizon. ❤

Worrying & What Ifs

When we left Italy I assumed I would no longer need to worry constantly about Keira because she will (hopefully) be “fixed”; that my focus would shift solely on Livvy and making her as comfortable as possible as this disease continues to take her life. That was wrong. I feel as if I am even more concerned about all the girls than ever before.

For Keira, while it’s an absolute miracle she received gene therapy treatment, in a few months she will be approaching the age when symptoms began to show in Olivia. So I find myself surveying her every move to ensure I don’t see anything “off”, even though she is developing normally thus far.

For Livvy, it is as I expected. We know what her future holds yet each day can be a different symptom causing her pain. While we manage that, we are working on getting her long term care, discussing if “schooling” is even an option for her and continuing her weekly treatments.

For Eva, we answer any questions she has about her sisters as they arise. Things like “Why can’t Olivia get the treatment Keira got?” and “Why didn’t I get MLD?” My heart is already breaking on her behalf in having to lose her sister much too soon. I can only hope and pray that Keira’s treatment does its job and she has a long life ahead of her to make memories with Eva. Otherwise, I am already thinking about the therapy and/or survivors guilt she may deal with as a result.

As any parent of a child with a rare disease, it is hard to keep the “what ifs” at bay and not consider what the future holds but we do our best to stay strong for the girls and keep those faces smiling as much as possible.