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 recieve 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. ❤

When Tragedy Results in Research

One part of our story that some people don’t know is that Dave and I both got genetic testing done prior to having kids. Not because we knew of any issues in either of our family; simply because my doctor was offering it and we figured why not? Better safe than sorry. 100+ rare diseases were on that test, including MLD. So you can imagine our surprise upon the girls’ diagnosis because MLD had come back as NEGATIVE for both of us!

How could this happen, you ask? You bet we inquired after looking back at those tests.

After sharing this information with our daughters’ neurologist – Dr. Vinodh Narayanan, founder of Arizona Pediatric Neurology & Neurogenetics Association – he helped us look into the reasoning:

Apparently, the company who ran the tests, called Counsyl, only tested for the 5 most prevalent gene mutations that resulted in MLD. Of course, the mutations we both have are more rare.

The chances of us meeting and having kids with MLD? Literally 1 in a million.

While there was nothing we could have done differently to change this outcome, Dr. Narayanan was inspired by our family’s story and wanted to do something to help others avoid this occurrence.

Within the year, he had written a proposal based on our family which is aimed at determining the use of Whole Genome Sequencing as a tool for pre-conception genetic testing in couples. With the idea being that preventing recessive diseases (like SMA, or MLD) would be better for families and society, rather than diagnosing after birth (either by newborn screening or after symptoms appear) and even gene therapy (which can have a price tag in the millions).

Not long thereafter, his projected was given the green light by the Flinn Foundation.

It’s goals:

  1. Develop an “analytical tool kit” with which to analyze WGS data from couples – to identify risk alleles (variants) that could potentially cause autosomal recessive or X-linked recessive disease.
  2. Figure out what are ethical and moral issues that have to be tackled
  3. Develop a program for counseling couples based on such WGS data.

I was tearing up when Dr. Narayanan told me during a recent visit that “I am confident that within the next couple of years, WGS (whole genome sequencing) and appropriate analytical tools will be available to couples who are planning their own families.”

To know that soon any couple within the US will be able to get a comprehensive genetic test that fully explores all potential gene mutations that cause diseases like MLD is absolutely amazing.

No child should have to suffer from a disease like this and no parent should ever have to lose a child from it. While I know there is some research happening for a cure for those who are symptomatic, it is such a relief to know that we will soon be able to prevent a disease like this entirely.

We are forever grateful to Dr. Narayanan and his dedication to families like ours. Truly one of our guardian angels on earth! ❤

Keira visiting with Dr. Narayanan this week.

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)

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!! ❤🙏🏼

Results from Keira’s 6-Month Post GT Check Up

On May 11th, Dave, his Mom, Eva and Keira returned from a two week trip to Milan, Italy for Keira’s six month check up after the gene therapy she received in October 2020. I stayed home with Livvy since the travel, time changes, etc. would have been too hard on her. And let me tell you those two weeks felt like two months.

While Livvy did seem to regress a bit while they were away, I’m very happy to report that all of Keira’s tests went so well! It’s a bittersweet balance with these two. As one regresses the other progresses. It is truly a miracle that Livvy was able to be Keira’s guardian angel and we got her diagnosis in time to get Keira treated.

Tuckered out after a day of testing on our recent trip to Milan for her 6-month check up.

And what a treatment it was! We will forever be grateful to the team at Ospedale San Raffaele in Milan for their hard work, dedication, compassion and kindness.

Keira went through quite a few tests in the two weeks they were there (see my previous post for a list) and everything is, so far, coming back within normal range!

The doctors said that based on her current development they would put her in the same realm as the children who have had the best results thus far! These children are now 5, 6, 8, and 10 (at the oldest) and are living completely normal lives – walking, talking, playing sports, going to school! Things Livvy will never get a chance to do but because of gene therapy Keira will! I can’t even put into words the relief we felt.

While we are still waiting on one major test – which will show whether her body is still creating antibodies to the ARSA enzyme it now creates (and never used to) – we are so pleased, to say the least, and so hopeful for her continued development.

She is saying two and three-word phrases now, copying everything we say, picking up on things so quickly, walking so much better, and at 16 months old is already showing interest in potty training (which our speech language pathologist was blown away by). It truly warms my heart to know we have years and years ahead of her where she will be doing more and more each day. Yet at the same time breaks my heart to know it was all taken away from Livvy. As always, bittersweet. But every day and every smile with our girls means the world.

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!

Books to Read: Harnessing Grief

I have never met author Maria Kefalas in person. Yet she helped to save our daughter Keira’s life. Within 24 hours of receiving Keira’s diagnosis on June 19, 2020, Maria informed us we had a chance to save her life with gene therapy, connected me with the team of doctors in Italy and sent us a $2,000 check to kick off our fundraising to get there. I will forever be grateful to her and the work she does through CureMLD.com and the Calliope Joy Foundation (named in her daughter’s honor).

That’s why for the first time in well over a year, I took what little spare time I had to (slowly but surely) read a book. Her book, Harnessing Grief: A Mother’s Quest for Meaning and Miracles.

Of course, I could identify with much of what her story entails as one of her daughters also has MLD. But I had no idea how instrumental she and her family truly were in developing so much research, attention and care for those within the MLD community. I cried, I laughed and was even surprised at some of the likenesses between our lives.

It’s nearly impossible to make sense of your life once your child is diagnosed with a terminal illness for which there is no cure. What is the meaning of this? Of life? And why would such a darling, innocent soul be faced with such a death sentence?

“Sometimes I wondered if I was supposed to have Cal in my life to learn a different way of looking at the world, to see the perfection of her divine love, gifts that do not require words and which must be condensed into such a short life…The fact that she [Cal] is so joyful despite this terrible disease was in so small part because Pat and I were her parents, he believed, and we shouldn’t underestimate how much our love saved her.”

I agree completely with Maria and Pat’s assessment to make sense of all this, and feel the same way about our Livvy. She is smiling more in the past week alone than she ever has before. How could so much joy be radiating from a child with her fate? Because despite the pain and suffering she is truly happy; she has us. 

Another hard thing for parents to do when it comes to this disease is consider what terrible fate the future holds for their child and looking back at all they could accomplish just a year, a month, or even a week ago. This disease strips them of their abilities that quickly.

“In the week’s after Cal’s diagnosis I realized how dangerous these visits to the past can be. You can lose yourself in the grief over what’s been lost…The same thing can be said about contemplating the future; you can become immobilized with fear if you dwell too much on the ending of your child’s story. Living with Cal called us to live with no sense of the past and no thought to the future. Even as the disease stole more and more from her, we had to train ourselves to be grateful for what was possible each day.”

For us, it’s Livvy’s smile and her laugh. If we see those even just once a day it’s a win. Looking back at the memories thrown at us via Facebook feels like a punch in the gut. It’s devastatingly sad to think about the future that was stolen from her by this horrible disease.

So how do you take this fear of your child’s future, your future, and turn it into something positive? Cal (short for Calliope) taught Maria just that:

“Cal has taught me that when the worst possible thing happens, you have nothing left to fear…She has taught me that when you have tamed your fear, you harness its power to do extraordinary things. “

And the work Maria and her family have done to help others inflicted with their same pain, and grief, is nothing short of extraordinary.

You can buy Harnessing Grief on Amazon for $19.99. 100% of the proceeds go to the Calliope Joy Foundation in order to help other families like ours.

Maria – we thank you from the bottom of our hearts. You are an angel to the MLD community and we are forever grateful.

Home Sweet Home

On Friday, January 8th, we arrived home after 5 months in Italy. While we were essentially quarantining most of that time due to the pandemic in various stages and out of safety for the girls, each day was non-stop and it went by in a blur. As a client and friend of mine, Chris Rose, told me about being a work-from-home parent, “the days are long but the weeks are short.” 5 months seemed like an eternity at the beginning and now seems so minor.

Once we hit the halfway mark, I was actually dreading coming home. And I think I was the only one to feel that way. I felt like coming home meant while Keira would be saved it would be time to face Olivia’s very limited future and the decline to get there. Granted, this would happen no matter where we were in the world but, to me, our time in Italy felt like we were in a bubble, away from reality. And coming home meant popping that bubble.

The week before our flight my stomach was in knots. But I knew it would be good for every one of us to be home. Livvy was actually clearly excited, which can be a rare occurence. While she can’t talk to us she still understands everything so we told her we would be going home the following day and that she got a new big girl bed in her room. Her eyes lit up, she got a big smile and gave her little laugh. That night, she couldn’t even get to sleep like normal because she was so excited. And on the plane rides home she didn’t sleep a wink; eyes wide open and ready to be back.

Now, having been home a few days and readjusting after jet lag, I am beyond glad we are here. Eva has her room and her “poochie poos” (our dogs, Watson and Sherlock), Livvy has her new bed and her normal surroundings with better temperatures to be outside (she loves being outdoors), and Keira has her actual home, her own room and so many toys to re-explore since she may not remember much after spending half of her life in Italy.

What an unreal journey to say the least. But we are beyond grateful for this entire opportunity and the many people who have touched our lives to make it possible. We will definitely be leaving behind a piece of our hearts in Milan but are looking forward to figuring out whatever our new “normal” may be here at home.

3 Months Post Gene Therapy

Today Keira began her 3-day 3-month post gene therapy check up. She had an EEG, bloodwork and saw the orthopedic surgeon. Tomorrow, December 29th, she gets an MRI, lumbar puncture and bone marrow aspirate. Then on December 31st, she has a neurological evaluation and physiotherapy evaluation.

We get some results as they arrive this week (we already know her hemoglobin levels are rising, which is great) but the most notable results won’t come until the beginning of February. That is when we will be able to get our first big picture of how her body is accepting the renewed genes.

In the meantime, the team at San Raffaele has asked us to send videos of her development (walking, talking, etc) so they can monitor her progress from afar prior to our return in April for her 6-month check up.

She already took her first step on Christmas Day and is beginning to talk more (saying hi, bye bye, waving ciao, etc), so we are not concerned. However, Olivia was the same way at this stage in life as well. It wasn’t until around 18 months that she began to have issues. So we will of course be nervous once that day rolls around but the results in February could put all those worries aside.

We have already said many goodbyes to the team at San Raffaele (who are true angels and miracle workers – I will share more about them soon) because days after Keira’s check up we leave for Amsterdam for Olivia’s final treatment there before heading home to Arizona on January 8th.

What a whirlwind this experience has been. This year has been. We will miss our new friends, and the many doctors and nurses, who have been by our side during our time here. But we are excited to be home and beyond hopeful for Keira’s future.