PFDD for MLD on Oct 21st

These letters may not mean much to you but they mean SO much to the MLD community of patients and their loved ones. Because on October 21st, a select group of individuals in that community (including yours truly), get to share their stories in a PFDD, meaning Patient Focused Drug-Development meeting, with the FDA, researchers, clinicians, and other stakeholders. Yes…I said the FDA!

I am blown away that we get to shine a light on this horrible disease and share that there is actually a treatment option out there that can save non-symptomatic patients with this disease, like Keira.

And YOU can be a part of it! Both the speakers, as well as their family and friends, can log on to this Zoom discussion to share what you see first-hand regarding this disease and how a treatment like the gene therapy Keira received could be beneficial (which, by beneficial, I mean the absolute best option on Earth).

Myself and other panelists meeting on Zoom to practice our presentations for the Oct 21st PFDD.

Here is the link to register and join us on Zoom on October 21st: www.mldpfdd.org.

This PFDD means quite a few – very important – things:

1. Our community has raised enough awareness about this terrible disease to get in front of the FDA, researchers and other key stakeholders and share its affect on patients and caregivers and the only treatment options that exist.

2. This could raise awareness for the need for the Newborn Screening panel to include MLD. Because the gene therapy Keira received has come to the US (and is already approved in the EU), we have a way to treat newborns diagnosed with MLD. And unless it’s treated fast, they will end up with a fate like Livvy’s.

3. Once they see the odds this community is up against and the options available, they may be more open to approving treatments for life-ending disease. No child should die by age 6 when they have the chance to live a full life if they were diagnosed at birth.

As part of the panels presenting, I will am getting to share our family’s story in relation to current and future treatments for MLD. Including, the two treatment options we used for the girls (Livvy’s clinical trial and Keira’s gene therapy), any complications that resulted (like Livvy’s internal port in the clinical trial), how we manage Livvy’s symptoms, how Keira is symptom-free nd how willing we are to do anything to give our children the chance at a better life.

Here is the link again to stay up to date and join us online October 21st: www.mldpfdd.org. By registering you will also have access to the September 12th community webinar.

If you or a family member have been affected by this disease I highly urge you to join me – attendees can share their insights too!

2022 Cupcake Gala

It’s been so busy this past month that I haven’t had a chance to update the blog regularly but I can’t not mention our trip to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania last month to attend The Calliope Joy Foundation’s annual Cupcake Gala. One of the special guests in attendance? Our very own Keira.

The Calliope Joy Foundation was founded by Maria Kefalas and Pat Carr, parents of Calliope Joy Carr who just passed away earlier this year – defeating the odds of MLD by making it to age 12 rather than the expected average age of 6. Her journey inspired Maria and Pat to not only do all they could to help their own daughter but to also help make a difference for other families facing this devastating disease.

This all started by selling cupcakes to fundraise, hence the name of their biggest annual fundriaser, the Cupcake Gala at Loews Philadelphia Hotel.

We were honored to be in attendance, not only for Keira to be a special guest but more so to finally meet Maria. It was Maria who informed me on June 20, 2020 (the day after we got Keira’s diagnosis) that there was actually a treatment option to give her a potentially normal life but that we would need to move to Italy to get it. Within 24 hours she introduced us to the team of doctors at Ospedale San Raffaele and our lives were changed forever.

To say we are grateful for her (and her family) is an understatement. She is one of our many angels on earth helping us through this unreal journey.

While there, we also had the chance to meet one of the other special guests, Celia Grace, a little girl from Alabama who we helped get this very same treatment right here in the US. Due to our connection with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona, they were able to work with the Alabama team to get this treatment approved after the Hamlett family had already received two denials. To see Keira amd Celia Grace running around playing with each other like “normal” kids their age was amazing.

Here are a few photos from the Gala:

And here are a few photos from our time sight seeing in Philadelphia:

It was a wonderful trip and we look forward to returning next year!

For more details on The Calliope Joy Foundation amd their annual Cupcake Gala, visit www.thecalliopejoyfoundation.org.

P.s. Maria is also the author of Harnessing Grief, where she shares her own story of how she turned her grief over Cal’s diagnosis into her superpower. That super power? Cal’s legacy and everything the Kefalas-Carr family does for families like ours through the Calliope Joy Foundation and CureMLD.com.

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.

A Very COVID New Year

Well, wouldn’t you know it that we started the New Year by welcoming COVID into our home?! On January 1st, Keira – one of the most sheltered of all of us – tested positive after an overnighter with grandparents, one of which also (unknowingly) had it.

Thankfully, only the first day was the worst with 100+ degree on-and-off fevers. And it’s been easy sailing from there. No cough or any other symptoms aside from fever. It’s now been almost 3 days with no fever and we are just awaiting that negative test for her to be in the clear.

To say it’s been quite the first week of 2022 is an understatement. With one of her grandparents also positive, they couldn’t help us juggle work and the girls. Our nanny couldn’t come here. Nor could other grandparents who have auto immune sensitivities. So Dave and I divided and conquered. I have been quarantining with Keira in her room while Dave stays with Livvy and Eva on the other side of the house.

As she gets better and better the harder it is to keep her quarantined. And let me tell you, racing behind her with wipes cleaning every surface or toy she touches is no easy feat. She’s fast!

On top of all this, we just found out another grandparent also has COVID! How this is hitting our family now, after all of our travels abroad for Keira’s gene therapy and Livvy’s clinical trial is beyond me. But here we are!

The first night, I’ll admit I was terrified. While I’ve kept COVID related news on the peripheral (because we have our own life-threatening problems) I couldn’t help but think about the horror stories. And I just had an older friend even pass from COVID. Would Keira’s immune system be up for this after all it has been through? My mind raced.

I couldnt help but think of all the people lost or suffering from this virus. Not to mention the many other diseases, natural disasters and million other dangers we face as human beings.

The amount of suffering placed upon any one person can be insurmountable. Unbelievable. Unfair. Downright cruel. But here we all stand, fighting. Fighting for the light. For the good. For health. For hope. For love. For family.

And fighting is not easy! After the past two years of what our family has been through, do I sometimes get tired of fighting? Absolutely. I want Livvy to be free from pain. I want Keira to live the life Livvy deserved. I want Eva to have her childhood back. I want no child to suffer from MLD ever again!

So to lose Keira from COVID after all we have done to save her, it’s just unacceptable in mind.

Thankfully, the universe and her immune system agree. She’s back to her normal self and soaking up all the alone time with Mom.

While we had to cancel her family-only birthday party on Sunday, we are so relieved to know that we won’t be in a hospital and we will still be able to shower her with the gifts and attention she so deserves. Our baby girl is turning 2!! And she has lost ZERO abilities to MLD thanks to the gene therapy she received in Milan. That is what I plan to focus on remembering from this time in our lives. NOT COVID!

Keira’s 1-Year Post GT Results

While we are still waiting for one last result (regarding any ARSA antibodies), I couldn’t think of better news to share to end the year: all of Keira’s other testing from her 1-year post gene therapy appointment have come back great!!

We are beyond overjoyed and so releived to know her MRI looks perfect, EEG was normal, her audio/visual nerve testing was “glorious” said the doctor, and all other bloodwork is in normal range.

The last test she had was for her neuro psych evaluation, which we were not worried about at all given her speech language pathologist’s recent assessment. But there is always that what if…

Dave had taken her to that appointment that morning (because only one parent is allowed still due to covid) and we were both so busy with work and the girls’ schedules that day that I didn’t see him until near dinnertime. Finally, he gave me the results: “She was above average in all categories…except communication.” I looked at him shocked because she is speaking so well and then he finished…”in which she was extraordinarily above average!” 😁👏🏻🎉

PHEW!! So much relief just washed over me.

We are so incredibly grateful that her body has accepted this treatment and she is doing so well.

At this stage Livvy was already losing her abilities to walk and talk so it truly is a miracle and a joy to see Keira developing and doing new things every day.

We are in awe of Keira every day and so grateful Livvy has been her guardian angel on earth.

Words cannot express our gratitude to each and every one of you who has been a part of our family’s journey to help Keira have the chance at the normal life that was taken from Livvy due to this terrible disease.

We wish each and every one of you a Happy New Year!

Saving Jana

Every time I hear about another family with a newly diagnosed child with MLD I feel nauseous. The same feeling I felt for literally months after receiving Livvy and Keira’s diagnoses. And this week I learned about Jana Tourjee, a 6-year old vivacious little girl from New Jersey who was diagnosed with the juvenile form of MLD, who was promptly approved to receive treatment with gene therapy in Minnesota and then just as promptly denied coverage by their insurance – Aetna.

6-year old Jana Tourjee

If only it was Blue Cross Blue Shield who has now covered two cases for gene therapy, our Keira and sweet Celia Grace

While we have a team of supporters in the MLD community fighting for Jana behind the scenes, she needs everyone’s help. In one week, they need to raise $300,000.

The Tourjee family is now in a literal race against time, just as we were last year to save Keira.

Were Jana not to receive treatment, this very rare genetic brain disease would begin to destroy the protective fatty layer (myelin sheath) surrounding the nerves in the central nervous system and then aggressively take away motor function and other abilities. She would then potentially pass at 12-14 years of age, the average life span for children with the early juvenile form of MLD.

To help the Tourjee family save Jana, please donate at their GoFundMe page here: https://gofund.me/f2a831d3.

And, should you have a contact within the executive team at Aetna. Please contact them. Share this story. Share our story. Gene therapy should be covered by all insurance companies. The up front $300,000 would literally save them millions should they leave this disease untreated.

For more information on MLD, visit CureMLD.com or MLDFoundation.org.

The Tourjee family.

11/24/2021 UPDATE: I just heard from Jana’s Mom, Jen Tourjee, and Aetna just APPROVED the treatment!! We have goosebumps over here and hope this ripple effect from Blue Cross Blue Shield will lead to a quick FDA approval and the opportunity of a long life for so many more children!

Happy 1st Re-Birthday Keira!

Yesterday, October 2, 2021 was Keira’s 1st “re-birthday”, one year from the date that she received her renewed stem cells that would allow her to live a normal life.

It is beyond surreal to say that our almost-2-year-old is a 1-year survivor of MLD, of all things! And it is even more surreal that she is doing SO many things that Livvy never could because this very disease had already begun stripping away her abilities at this age (21 months old).

Just some of the things she can do now that she wouldn’t have been able to without treatment:

  • Walking
  • Talking in sentences
  • Running
  • Climbing
  • Walking up steps
  • Counting to ten
  • Learning her alphabet
  • Spinning around

These simple things, that we as “normal” parents can take for granted, are things that amaze us on a daily basis.

We are beyond grateful for so many people who helped us get her this life-saving treatment – not just the doctors and scientists who made it possible but the nurses, the hospital staff, the volunteer families in Italy who helped us during our stay, our own family, friends and even strangers who became so invested in our girls and their journey.

The connections we have made are priceless and Italy will forever have a special place in our hearts. We are looking forward to returning next year for her next check up. ❤🤍💚

Here is a flashback to one year ago today at Ospedale San Raffaele:

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.

A Sigh of Relief

After about 6 weeks from returning from Keira’s check up in Italy, we finally got the results of the very last test we were waiting on – the main test we went there for because it cannot be done in US labs – to see if her body was still creating antibodies to the ARSA enzyme it now creates.

While we were hoping for a result of zero antibodies, she did still have some remaining BUT it was less than before and because of her development going so well the doctors in Italy are not concerned. We are SO relieved.

They’ll want to do this test again at her next check up in October (which will be one year post-gene therapy) but depending on covid travel restrictions liting up we may be able to do this from home if we can get her blood samples sent to Italy from Arizona within 24 hours.

In the meantime, we will have our fingers crossed that Keira continues to do well and that the antibodies disappear entirely.

Her first trip to an American grocery store. She loved naming all of her favorites (bananas, apples, peaches, oranges, berries)