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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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!
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!
While I wouldn’t normally write a blog about something like this, I felt it was almost my duty as an MLD parent to share our story. Even the upsetting or sad parts. Because MLD is so rare some doctors have never even heard of it. And oftentimes it’s the other MLD parents who I get the best information from. Because they have been there done that and know what works (and what doesn’t). The amount of information on the internet regarding Metachromatic Leukodystrophy is alarmingly small.
So in case there is another parent in my shoes looking for answers, I wanted to share another part of our journey. Today, Livvy had her first seizure. I say first because seizures can be common in MLD children and once they happen they are more likely to reoccur.
This morning when we went to get her out of bed, we found she had thrown up and was actively having a seizure. I rushed to get the Diazepam (Valium) and as our doctors instructed gave her 10mL to stop the seizure. It took anywhere from 15-30 minutes for it to stop. We got her all cleaned up, and stayed by her side talking to her until she was able to fall asleep.
In the meantime, I had also called Hospice of the Valley who had a nurse on their way (aptly named Angel) and called both of our mothers, who rushed over.
Hospice took her vitals, which were normal. Said we did all the right things and the nurse called the doctor to get his thoughts. He initially recommended Attivan but we had tried that with Livvy before simply for anxiety and she did not like it at all. Was very uncomfortable. So we asked to just remain on Diazepam, which they thought was fine.
While they were here we also called the girls’ neurologist Dr. Vinodh Narayanan. He got back to me after Hospice had left and recommended we first get an EEG to check activity before deciding on a plan. He also recommended a nasal spray form of Diazepam (which I can’t remember the name of now but will update the post once I get it). This comes in two bottles, each 5mg. Use one bottle in one nostril and if it doesn’t stop the seizure you use the other bottle. He recommended this since it can be more quick acting than administering Diazepam through her G-Tube.
After we got off the phone I also sent him a video of Livvy mid-seizure. It’s terrible to have to take a video of your child while they’re undergoing something so traumatic but it came in handy and was important for our doctor to fully understand what was happening and decide the best course of action.
From the video, he thought it looked like she was having an epileptic seizure; a complex partial type, rather than a grand mal convulsion. Based on that he recommended we start anti-seizure medication right away but still get the EEG done (which can be done here at home) and use Diazepam when they do occur.
The Hospice doctor suspected that her immune system may have been weakened by a viral infection which lowered her threshold for seizures. Given that we were all sick last week (not from Covid) and she threw up again later in the day we think he was right. We had hoped since it had been a week we had done enough to keep her clear of it but unfortunately not. And as is the case with MLD kiddos, anytime they get sick their disease progresses (another reason we have still been semi-quarantining and taking extra measures to keep the girls safe and healthy).
Since the seizure Livvy can no longer move her left arm or control facial movements. Things that would normally make her smile so big (like talking about her baby sister Keira) don’t get a reaction. And it almost seemed as if she realized she couldn’t do it and got sad and almost started crying. I told her it was OK and that sometimes after seizures we can’t move like we used to but it can come back. As I have now learned post-seizure paralysis can be temporary. So we will see how it goes in the days ahead and keep everyone updated.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
Talking in sentences
Walking up steps
Counting to ten
Learning her alphabet
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:
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:
Ultrasounds (abdomen and thyroid)
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! ❤