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.

One-on-One Time for Eva

I would be remiss not to mention how much of a priority it has been for us over these past two years to ensure Eva (our oldest, who is 6), has one-on-one time with Dave and I or time together with just us and not her sisters. Livvy and Keira’s medical journeys have been the epicenter of our world and we didn’t want her to feel pushed aside or overlooked in anyway while we tended to their care.

Thankfully, we have a great support system surrounding us with grandparents that spoil her every chance they get. But they also help with the other girls so we have time with just Eva.

Usually only one of us will take her to her after school activities so we can give her our full attention. Dave and I have regularly taken her to a nearby bowling alley and arcade so the three of us can just have fun together and get lunch. And our latest Eva-only mission included a surprise trip to Disneyland just for her!

We honestly did not think we would be able to pull off something like that. With Livvy in Hospice we really had to ensure our family was prepared both mentally and emotionally should anything happen or her health decline while we were away. Dave and I were both really nervous to leave her (What if she passed away and we weren’t with her? That was a real concern.) But all the grandparents reassured us – she has been doing well lately and her health has plateued a bit thankfully – so off we went.

And we are so glad we did! Eva was so excited it was time only for her and us, AND her first trip to Disneyland to boot! We booked it through John Pagoto of Inteletravel – who was an amazing Disney resource for everything we needed to know, do and see.

We surprised Eva with a Disney shirt hidden in a giant egg on Easter Sunday. Landed in LA that afternoon and off we went to the park for the next 2.5 days.

Her first rides were Haunted Mansion, Splash Mountain and Thunder Mountain. She really jumped right in, but sometimes begrudgingly (and understandably). Her favorite rides? All of the Star Wars ones! Dave was so happy. 😆

And, to be honest, we were all happy. It was a great, much needed getaway, since we always need to stay close to home for Livvy.

That alone time with Eva is priceless and hopefully we are creating some amazing memories for her amidst all of this tragedy. Ways in which she will look back and only remember these great moments being seen, heard and loved just as much as her medically fragile sisters.

Here are a few fun pics from our trip:

Breaking Records at Wish Ball

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.

Take a moment to watch it below and if you feel so inclined help Livvy give more kids their wishes by donating to Make a Wish Foundation of Arizona here.

Thank you Make-A-Wish Arizona for not only giving Livvy her wish, but also giving her sisters (and us) memories with that will last our lifetime.

More photos from the evening below:

Livvy, the Sparrow

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!

Livvy with us amd the teams from Sparrow Clubs, Hamilton High School and Black Rock Coffee.

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.

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.

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.

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!

Livvy’s 1st Seizure

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.

Love from the Rileys. ❤

Livvy resting after her seizure.