Traveling with Special Needs

We’ve all heard the stories of parents traveling with children on airplanes and the issues that can arise while doing so. The crying, the yelling, the bathroom breaks, the snacks, the kicking of chairs, you name it.

I would take all of that any day over what we have had to deal with when flying with Livvy each week.

It’s not just her special needs but also the COVID rules which can cause issues with the airline.

Because she is 2 years old, she is required to have her own seat. However, she cannot support her upper body so we have to hold her upright in that seat (which she doesn’t like). So, instead, we hold her on our laps during take off, in-flight and landing. Some airlines are understanding but others not so much.

Also because of her age, she is required to wear a mask on some flights. This she not only doesn’t like but also can’t understand. So we usually let her eat/drink on the plane to avoid this issue.

Another problem is that while she is 2 years old and 3 feet tall, she cannot use the bathroom like a normal child her age. She can’t walk and has to wear diapers. We have actually been told by a flight attendant to take her to the airplane’s baby changing table in the lavatory (which she does not at all fit on). So we have to lay her down on the seat between us and speed-change her diaper.

Traveling with her (or taking care of her in general) also requires two adults. One that can carry her on/off the plane and another to carry our back packs, and open/close the stroller.

It’s not an easy trip. Especially if she is screaming in pain or crying out of frustration.

I have my elevator statement to flight attendants down to a science due to the amount of times they have chastised us for her in-flight care, or needs.

“She has a terminal illness that affects her brain and she can no longer talk, walk or support her upper body.”

I genuinely feel for every parent of a special needs child that has to fly with them and explain over and over again the issues they/we face. It sucks having to repeat that out loud so many times in front of your child who can still hear and understand most of what you are saying.

The travel agency who books our weekly flights for her clinical trial does notify the airline of our situation but we still have issues.

And to top it off, seeing all the children her age walking, talking and running around the airport is like a punch to the gut. That should be her.

One Year Ago

Thanks to Facebook, I was reminded that this was a snapshot of our “new normal” as a family of 5 exactly one year ago today. Three healthy girls, one of which may need some PT for walking. And no pandemic. Easy.

Then life happened.

1 move to Italy. 5 surgeries. 4 days of chemotherapy. 1 gene therapy treatment. 40 days in isolation. 30+ weekly flights. And countless hours of learning everything about MLD from fellow parents since the disease is so rare the internet grossly lacks anything remotely helpful to anyone affected by it.

Days in our life are often still unreal and I wonder if this all really just happened/is happening. And what could possibly be next?? Do I want to know?

For now, here’s what we do know regarding the girls’ progress:

Keira:

What a sassy, funny, wiggly girl she has turned into. She copies every word she hears, tries to run even though she hasn’t even mastered walking and says hi to literally every person.

Unfortunately, we just found out her body is still fighting the ARSA enzyme it is now creating because it never had it before (like it should have). This is not normal but it does happen and we have been reassured that the antibodies do go away and her body will adjust. But because of this result we will most likely be going back to Italy in April for her 6 month post-gene therapy check up and any accompanying procedure that may help her body adjust. We will share more as we know more there.

Olivia:

In each recent week of Olivia’s clinical trial it has been harder to pull spinal fluid from her internal port, yet still possible to insert the drug. Because this is not normal and it got to the point of not getting any spinal fluid out, she had to go under anesthesia (something that is known to progress the disease) to get x-rays and find out if there is a problem. There was. The catheter had a leak and must now be replaced.

Unfortunately, that meant she probably hadn’t received her full dose in the weeks prior and will now have to undergo another surgery to replace it. We can only hope that the weeks and infusions to follow help stall the disease as it should.

She continues to have hard days and we can only hope for a miracle. In the meantime, we are working on getting her a machine that will help her communicate using only her eyes! We are so excited about this and the opportunity to know exactly what she wants or needs rather than playing the guessing game.

Eva:

Since returning to school in-person her reading and writing have greatly improved and she is so happy to be around her friends in real life! We do miss having that extra time with her but so happy to see her developing in more ways than one. She brings so much light (and loudness) to this house of ours and her sisters absolutely adore her. As do we!

While it’s insane to think how the last year has changed all of our lives, it’s even harder to imagine how it could change in the year to come. But, we are remaining positive and hopeful and are doing everything we can for our girls. Keep the positive thoughts, prayers and virtual hugs coming! We appreciate them so much! ❤

Utah Bound

During the last part of our stay in Milan, we found out that the Utah site of Livvy’s clinical trial may be opening soon. Thankfully, it was in time for our return to the States and this week we made our first of many weekly trips to Salt Lake City, Utah for her infusion.

The team was very nice and understanding and the treatment went really well (no tears from Livvy!).

But one of the best parts was the travel was much easier on her (and the rest of the family). At one point during our weekly trips from Italy to Amsterdam Eva said to me “I don’t want you to go! It doesn’t feel like home when you, Dad and Livvy are away.” 😥

Because it is such a short flight (1 hour) from Phoenix we are working on making it a day trip in future weeks so that we have minimal time away from Eva and Keira. And both the PHX and SLC airports are much closer than they were in Milan so the drive time is even quicker (another plus for Livvy who does not like being in her carseat).

While the clinical trial is not a cure for MLD and is only meant to help stall the progression of the disease, we are very hopeful and grateful for the extra time it is allowing us to have with our Livvy.

Snuggles with Livvy as she naps before her treatment.

Heading Home Soon

It’s taken me a while to write this post – some VERY exciting news – not just because of lack of time while juggling the girls, work, the holidays, etc. But also because, for me, it’s bittersweet.

On January 8th we are heading home to Arizona!

It’s earlier than we expected based upon Keira’s rebirthday/gene therapy date (Oct 2nd, 2020) and how quickly her body has recovered from the chemotherapy. We could not be happier with how well she has done throughout this whole process!

At the end of December she will have her final hospital stay, which will be her 3-month post-gene therapy check up. During this stay, they will do a lumbar puncture, bone marrow aspirate, MRI and remove her central line. Results won’t come in for 4-6 weeks following but we remain so hopeful and positive given how she is continuing to develop. Fingers crossed!!!

The bittersweet part? For me, it’s a few things. Italy now has a special place in all of our hearts for the potentially life-saving treatment Keira just received, the team in Amsterdam that has been treating Olivia is absolutely amazing (she loves them and we will all miss them), but I also dread going back home and facing the reality of Livvy’s very limited future. I know that’s inevitable and we would face it no matter where in the world we are but going back home makes it feel one step closer. It will be time to enroll her in long term care, figure out how we may need to handicap the house for her future needs, schedule in-home PT, OT, etc. It’s a lot.

But as Dave continues to remind me, there are so many positives that will also come along with being home…back in our own house and our own beds, not having to worry about a time difference to talk to family or schedule work calls, Eva getting back to school and life as “normal” despite COVID, etc. It WILL be a good thing for all of us.

And from this point forward Italy and the Netherlands will both hold a special place in our hearts. ❤❤❤❤❤❤❤

The Box & Livvy’s Future

This afternoon, without notice, two nurses came in and said we had to move rooms…right now. 😳 “Is this normal procedure?” I asked the nurse who was already in our room at the time. She informed me that we were apparently in an adult room and because a baby room became available we can move there.

Now let me back up for a second. When we first heard of gene therapy here in Italy in June we heard tales from other families of the isolation rooms being called “the box” due to their tiny size and the fact that you are stuck there for 40-60 days. So, of course, I was pleasantly surprised when we arrived to our isolation room on September 26th to find a quite spacious room with two large windows and distant views of the Alps. I wasn’t sure what all the previous fuss was about.

Until today…

Once I walked into the new room I knew it immediately. It was THE BOX. It is half the size of our old room, has a smaller bathroom and there is only one window with views of a hospital building roof and apartments across the street. Ugh…

It also has an adult size mattress (in length) in the crib so the electronic bed has to push the mattress vertically at one end. The mattress is also a little thicker than the baby mattress we had in our original room (which we were told we could not get back because it had to return to the pediatric ward), which means Keira (who is now standing up constantly) is a little higher in the crib and there is no way I’m stepping away from her while she is standing in it. After asking a resident about switching the mattress I was then told these are the mattresses they use even for babies. Hm.

So after a disappointing move, we ate dinner via video chat with Dave, the girls and my Mom and Dad, then had a call with the Arizona Early Intervention Program back home regarding Olivia.

What we thought was a regular check up meeting was apparently a meeting about transitioning her out of the program at age 3 (next summer) and moving on to preschool. 😳 Uhh what?

They jumped right into what preschool looks like for special needs children in our school district…4 days a week for 2-3 hours each day whether it be PT or OT needs and having socialization with other children. And possibly being strapped into a school bus in a wheelchair for transport there. No. No. And no were my first thoughts. I immediately started sobbing, sitting in the box, holding Keira, with my microphone on mute.

I wondered if they fully grasped what shape she is in and at what stage of this disease. Olivia can’t walk, she can’t talk, and she is often in pain and is very particular about who holds her. She currently doesnt even have a chair or other place she can sit by herself because she can’t support her own body (we are in the process of getting one customized for her). So, exactly, how could she go to school? Would she even let a stranger try to comfort her? Would this teacher even know how to calm her down when she is in extreme pain? And being around other children is in and of itself a problem. Coronavirus aside, any cold or illness she could get can progress her disease overnight. It could hospitalize her and put her in far worse shape than she is already in. And shipping her off on a bus, helpless and alone? No way. Just imagining all of that was too much.

It was not a call we were at all prepared for nor thoughts we were prepared to face. While we still have time to decide what life will look like for Livvy once we are back home, it is daunting, scary, sad and overwhelming to think about her future and it being cut so short by this terrible disease.

While we pray for a miracle, we hold on to hope that the treatments from her clinical trial begin to make at least some difference. Because MLD can progress so quickly we truly have to take things day by day. And while her future may not include traditional schooling, we know it will always include as much joy and love as we can possibly give her.

Livvy’s 1st Treatment in Amsterdam

After our two-week quarantine, Livvy was finally able to restart the treatments for her clinical trial. Because there is not a site available for this study in Italy, it requires weekly trips to Amsterdam.

I needed to stay in Italy with Keira for her doctor’s visits, so Dave and my Mom took Livvy for her first treatment.

She did wonderful on the flight, had a great first day and took an immediate liking to the doctors there! They even made a welcome sign for her. 😊❤

Because the universe has a funny way of working, Dave soon found out the hotel’s guest services representative graduated from NAU in Flagstaff, AZ and was actually from the same town Dave was born in (Fullerton, California)! It’s truly a small world we live in!

Livvy happened to be wearing her Beatles “All You Need is Love” shirt that day (she loves all Beatles music) and the staff member informed them that this hotel is actually where John Lennon and Yoko Ono spent their honeymoon. He arranged a private tour for them that evening (and I am so bummed I couldn’t have been there for this)! See below for pictures:

The following day was her treatment. We were nervous since it’s a new place for her but they let Dave hold her instead of laying on the hospital bed and she did really well!

In a few hours they will be en route back to Milan and will all have to take COVID tests in the morning to ensure Keira’s (and everyone’s) safety before she is admitted to the hospital on Friday.

Dave did note that because the COVID-19 levels are so low in Amsterdam that the schools have all reopened and masks are not required. 😳 Amazing to hear of that kind of progress when things are still so scary in other parts of the world.

A Little Bit About Livvy

Here we sit in Iowa City for our last weekly trip before heading to Italy. We have been coming here each week since the beginning of June as part of a clinical trial for our middle daughter Olivia (Livvy).

It is currently the only treatment option available in the world for symptomatic MLD children and requires weekly injections for two years. While it is not a cure, the weekly infusions offer the chance to stall the disease.

Results generally aren’t expected for 3-4 months (we are in week 9) but other parents enrolled in the study are seeing positive changes in their children, and some aren’t seeing a progression of the disease at all. We are remaining so hopeful.

Unfortunately Livvy has regressed quite quickly since getting sick in January (we didn’t get her diagnosis until the end of March) and we later found out that if MLD children get even a cold it can progress the disease rapidly. Now, as I’m sure you can imagine, living in a world of Coronavirus and having to take her on a plane weekly to get treatment is very much a double-edged sword. But the benefits outweigh the risk and we are extremely careful when we travel with her.

With our move to Italy imminent for Keira’s gene therapy treatment, we also had to think about what that meant for Olivia. Thankfully, the clinical trial has European sites. Unfortunately, there is not one in Italy. But a short plane ride away to Amsterdam is where we will get to take her (after we quarantine for 2 weeks) to ensure she continues receiving this treatment that will hopefully allow us more time to make more precious memories with her.

We are beyond grateful to have my parents coming along with us to Italy so that they can help us get Livvy’s treatments, and take care of our oldest daughter Eva, while Dave and/or I may be in the hospital with Keira for her treatment. It’s a juggling act to say the least.

We never truly knew the meaning of “it takes a village” until we had a child with special needs. From family, friends and our MLD groups to doctors, physical therapists and counselors. We are SO thankful for our village. ❤🙏

Our beautiful little Livvy! ❤