From Warriors to Superheroes

We all know that our little girls are warriors. All three of them. But this month, they actually got to feel like superheroes, thanks to the amazingly kind-hearted folks at the Colten Cowell Foundation and Campbell’s Crew Cares.

A friend of the family who had been following our story – and whose son also happens to be a patient of the girls’ neurologist, Dr. Narayanan – nominated Livvy and Keira to have a one-of-a-kind superhero experience. To touch, feel, see and act like an actual Superhero. But not just any superhero. Like Batman.

We were told nothing aside from to be ready for a night we would never forget with our girls. Grandparents were invited. And we all showed up not knowing quite what to expect, aside from a letter we received via email from Bruce Wayne himself inviting us to tour of the world renowned Wayne Research and Development Labs.

The letter read… “It has been brought to my attention that you have shown extraordinary strength and courage in the face of great obstacles. You are an example to us all, and I wanted to personally congratulate
you for the fine precedent you have set. You should be proud of yourself, as I know many around you certainly must be.” Isn’t that the truth?!

Upon arriving at this top secret location in central Phoenix, we entered the office of Bruce Wayne himself where radio host Bruce St. James began the tour. The girls were shown “documentaries” of Batman and Robin (aka the Batman series from the 1960’s, which we had shown Eva before and she made sure to point out she had seen that episode before). This office looked almost identical…the same bookcase that was a secret door (which Eva spotted immediately), the red phone, and the bust of Shakespeare with the secret button. After getting to actually press the button, the girls superhero experience really began.

There was Batman and Robin’s firemen poles down to the Bat Cave…which we all went down – even Livvy! Gadgets galore met us at the bottom and the girls got to touch it all! They were in awe. But the best part was yet to come. Right next to laboratory was THE REAL BATMOBILE! In the room next to it…Batgirl’s Motorcycle, the Bat-copter and other classic cars that were seen in Batman’s “documentaries” of his life.

Suddenly, alarms sounded…there was an emergency and we had to get in the Batmobile immediately! The garage door opened, Livvy and I got in and off we went! As we paused in the parking lot, Dad was invited to DRIVE IT! Everyone took a turn going for a ride around the buildings nearby AND the girls all got to ride in Bat Girl’s motorcycle and sidecar. THIS was what they all loved most. Eva and Keira rode in the sidecar together while I held Livvy for her turn. And remembering that one little ride brings tears to my eyes every time I think of it, just as it did that night. She LOVED it. Livvy may not have words to tell us how she feels but man can she squeal with glee and laugh so hard! She was not quiet that entire ride. Truly unforgettable.

After our joyrides were through, we went back inside and were surprised again to see that they had made checks out in the girls names to both the TGen Foundation (a non-profit dedicated to the research of rare diseases, which is how we were introduced to Dr. Narayanan) and Campbell’s Crew Cares (a non-profit founded by a fellow Wish Kid named Campbell, his mother Carrie and their amazing family), two causes and groups of people that have become very dear to our hearts.

As if that wasn’t enough both Livvy and Keira were given the actual keys to the Batmobile. For Eva? As the oldest, when she turned 16 she would get to come back and drive it herself!

Calling it an amazing night would be an understatement. The first thing Keira said to me the next morning? “I want to ride motorcycle!”

NOW, let me tell you about who made this all possible: the Colten Cowell Foundation, co-founded by Erika Cowell and Charles Keller.

Erika’s son Colten Cowell

By watching how the replica Batmobile he purchased inspired wonder and joy in his own children, Charles knew it was more than just a great set of wheels. Charles could see that sharing the Batmobile was a great experience not just for themselves but something that others should enjoy as well. Colten, Erika’s son who passed away from Leukemia two weeks after his ride in the Batmobile, is the child who inspired it all. And now, the Batmobile is at the heart of this one-of-a-kind experience that transforms children into Superheroes, creating unforgettable memories for families.

We were the 680th family they gave this experience to, they have served 250 charities and raised over $1.5M for other non-profits.

They say it best on their website:

Most children will have a full life to dream — and the luxury of time to make those dreams come true — sadly that’s a much different story for many of the children we serve. For some, their abilities are limited, and for many others their time is running out.

We designed the Superhero Experience to benefit the entire family. For the children, they get to forget that they are sick and simply enjoy being a kid. For the parents, this is an evening to momentarily let go of their worries and share a moment of pure joy with their children. In the end, memories are all we have, and the best are the ones that we get to share with the people that we love. 

THANK YOU to the entire team at the Colten Cowell Foundation for letting us have this evening of pure joy with our girls. It is most definitely a memory we will cherish forever.

For more information on the Colten Cowell Foundation, visit www.coltencowellfoundation.org. You can read Colten’s story here. And for more information on Campbell’s Crew Cares, visit campbellscrew.com.

Finishing Keira’s Room

I am just now finishing Keira’s “nursery” after her 2-year old birthday. Which is probably a surprise to no one. I was brainstorming what exactly I wanted to get to finish it up when we got Livvy’s diagnosis in March 2020. So needless to say, that got put on hold as we had bigger things to deal with.

I’ve thought about finishing it a handful of times this past year after getting home from Italy and always put it off. My thought process was “Why decorate it when Livvy could leave us any day and then i would just move Keira into Livvy’s old room so she and Eva could be closer?”

So I waited. A year.

MLD kiddos seem to have peaks and Valleys with their disease progression and she has really been on a plateau since having her seizure last month.

So I finally said enough is enough. Keira’s room doesn’t deserve to be on hold any longer. She’s a toddler now and the needs in her room have changed anyhow so I put a stop to my waiting game (which is honestly no way to live in a situation like ours…waiting and wondering ‘will today be the day?’ But that’s a blog post for another day.)

So out went the baby glider/rocker I’ve had since Eva was born, and in went an adorable canopy that I found on Etsy that is a great space for her to relax and play. The photos of her as a baby got moved, a canvas with Elsa and Anna went up, we put her name in lights (also found on Etsy) above her crib (which will surely be a toddler bed before the year is through) and here we are:

The cool space-like light was a gift from their Aunt, Uncle and cousins in Indiana and they all love it!

I was able to do all these changes to her room while she spent the night at a grandparents’ house and she was SO excited when she walked in! I wish I would have filmed it.

Knowing how happy her room makes her makes me wish I hadn’t waited. When you don’t get out much (thanks pandemic) having a space you enjoy is really important and I’m so glad she has that.

But of course now Eva wants her room redone too because Keira got all these new things…so here we go on another project. 😊

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!

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.

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)

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.