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.

For Those Extra Special Moms

To the mom who didn’t get “just a healthy one”:

A healthy baby .
That’s what you want.

Boy or girl? Doesn’t matter.
Just a healthy one.

With ten perfect fingers and ten perfect toes.
A tiny smile and button noes.

A brain that works as mine and yours.
Tests coming back with perfect scores.

A heart that beats strong—the rhythm of drums.
And the in and out breath of healthy lungs.

But then you find out it won’t be so.
An unhealthy child— so much unknown.

A journey full of winding roads.
Ups and downs. Such highs and lows.

A little one fighting for their life—
And you, strong beside them in perfect stride.

Just pushing them forward with all that you are— a mother who hasn’t backed down thus far.

This motherhood it will indeed be hard.
The heartbreak will leave inevitable scars.

Not a motherhood you had ever planned for—
But it won’t be less. It will be more.

More love needed and more to give.
An understanding compassion that is so so big.

More strength than you had ever known.
A faith in God and Him alone.

You’ll learn to hope beyond all reason.
And lay down burdens in every season.

You’ll fight and give up and fight some more.
You won’t be stopped by seemingly closed doors.

You’ll give more than you knew you could.
And though you’ll grow weary you’ll still see the good.

Yes this child— unhealthy as they may be.
This child has allowed you so much to see.

Joy and beauty.
Pain and sorrow.
A gratitude for every single tomorrow.

This child is adored— a gift from above.
A newfound passion full of motherhood love.

So this is to the mother of an unhealthy child.
Who holds up her head, moves forward and smiles.

Your motherhood was not the way that you planned.
But today you love more— and stronger you stand.

I’m not sure who wrote this but it was shared with me by another MLD Mom. And it is so true. To all my other extra special Moms, a very Happy Mother’s Day to you!

Focusing on the Smiles

I don’t like posting about the hard days. They are hard enough as it is. Why rehash it for everyone else?

What I like to see on social media is the GOOD. There is enough bad in the world and on the news every day. And while we have been dealt plenty of bad in life, there are ALWAYS good moments and that is what I like to share. The positivity. The smiles. The laughs. It’s what keeps us all going each day.

In the nearly 48 hours since Dave and the girls have been gone I can’t even tell you the amount of times Livvy has cried. Sometimes it’s pain related or because she has food stuck on the roof of her mouth or because she needs to burp but mainly it was because I needed to get something done so she had to be held or strolled around by someone else. The moment she’s back in my arms? It’s this 👇🏼

Will it be a long two weeks if she only wants to be held by me and cry with everyone else? Yes!

But I have to always remember these moments. The smiles, and the laughs and the fact that we have no idea how much time we have left with this sweet girl. Every day counts. Every moment counts. Every smile counts.

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.

Clinical Trials & Tribulations

On June 5, 2020 Olivia had surgery to implant the intrathecal port that would be used for the weekly infusions in her clinical trial. The trial itself was aimed at stalling the progression of her disease, Metachromatic Leukodystrophy (MLD). It required weekly infusions for 2 years, with an optional 3rd year.

After her initial surgery in Iowa

We enrolled for a few reasons. Mainly because it was the only option in the world for symptomatic MLD kiddos but also because after doing our research other parents in the study seemed very pleased.

The only site in the US that was taking patients amidst the pandemic was in Iowa. So off we went every week from Arizona to Iowa. Not an easy trek for Livvy but hopefully one that would be worth it.

Once Keira was diagnosed on June 19th though, we were soon on a different path and that lead to Italy. So part of the coordination there was getting Olivia moved to a European site for her weekly infusions. And that site was Amsterdam, which will now forever have a special place in my heart (but I will share more on that in another post one day). It was a much quicker trip than AZ to IA so we were pleased with that.

Talking a walk through Amsterdam with Livvy

After moving back to the States in January 2021, the Utah site for the clinical trial had opened. It was much closer to home so we were excited about that change.

Unfortunately, Olivia’s internal port had stopped working at that point and x-rays showed the catheter had a leak so she would need surgery to replace it.

The x-ray of her catheter leaking internally

Surgery is never an option you want for your MLD child. It requires anesthesia, which we now know can progress the disease. The MLD Foundation has done plenty of research and recommends using Propofol via IV for the best possible route.

So on March 5, 2021 she had a 2-hour surgery in Utah which replaced the port and over the next two weeks it worked better than it ever had before (the initial port had issues pulling CSF in a timely manner). We were relieved that maybe now she would better benefit from the study.

But on Sunday, March 21st we noticed the incision on her back was swollen. The doctors said to keep an eye on it and let them know if it gets bigger because it looked like a CSF leak. Within the next two days it had doubled in size. So on Wednesday, March 24th we were off to the ER at Phoenix Children’s Hospital.

We were told she would need surgery again to fix this. Now we were at a crossroads.

At the last surgery, Dave and I had discussed pulling her from the study if another surgery was ever needed. But how can we not get her the only potential treatment available to her? We had to weigh the pros and cons. Was the travel too much on her? Was it too much on her sisters who had to stay home with grandparents? She has only regressed since starting the study and we have seen no improvement but how do we know if maybe it was helping? If we keep her in the study, we can’t possibly ask a grandparent to take her to Utah in this fragile state while we are in Italy for Keira’s next check up. This and more went into our decision-making process.

At our meeting with the neurosurgeon we had our answer. But before we could share it, they told us the port needed to be removed completely in order to fix the leak.

I immediately felt relief. This confirmed our decision. The port was coming out and our intensive travel schedule was coming to an end. This would give us all more time to together with Livvy for however long we have left with her.

Since the surgery, which went very well, the doctors told us they found not one but two leaks (one from this port and another presumably from her first port). They also shared that it wasn’t just a little leak but an abnormally shaped hole. They stitched it up well, topped it with many closing methods and do not expect it to reopen.

As she lay flat, as per doctors orders, on the bed next to me, I am relieved to know this chapter is closing.

My Aunt said it best: it was a tough day but another one behind us. We are looking forward to more smiles with our Livvy in the days ahead.

Recovering from surgery with some sweet sleep

Side note: I have spoken to many parents about the trial. Some who had kids enrolled, some whose kids got denied entry and some whose kids couldn’t get in because they were no longer accepting patients. To the ones who couldn’t get in I would like to remind you of our situation. There is no guarantee it will work and our family is unfortunately proof of that. Know that you are doing the very best for your child given the resources available to you. Let’s all hope a better option is on the horizon. ❤

One Less Thing to Worry About

Not long after we found out Keira also had MLD (on June 19, 2020 – a day forever burnt in my memory), we had her 6 month well check with the pediatrician. She pointed out that Keira had an extra fat roll on one of her legs which can be a sign of her hips being misaligned but that it could very well be nothing. She asked if we wanted to get x-rays done that week and my brain exploded.

I called my Mom after the check up telling her what happened. It was hard to breathe and my mind was racing. There was no way I could handle more bad news and we were going to wait a week or two to think it over.

In that time, we ended up speaking with the team in Italy and moving forward in fundraising to get her to Milan for treatment. The potential hip issue disappeared from my mind from that point forward. Until…we just had her in for another check up and the roll was still there.

Our pediatrician said we would still have a window to fix it if something was wrong so we went ahead with the x-rays. We got the results that same day but that small window of waiting had me so worried. There is no way our baby can have one more thing wrong with her after all she has been through.

Thankfully, the results were negative! Her hips are perfect and we have nothing to worry about! The relief I felt (about her extra fat roll no less 😆) was amazing. I think I actually laughed out loud reading the text. Some actual good news! Amazing. 🙌🏼❤🙏🏼

The Push & Pull (and Kick) of Co-Sleeping

Let me start this by saying we have never been co-sleepers with our children. Until…we (briefly) were.

What I’m about to share will probably sound crazy to most parents, but I actually miss having Keira (who is now 14 months old) in our bed.

It wasn’t until November 2020 that I first allowed this to happen. She had just spent half of her life in Italy undergoing countless doctors visits, surgeries, chemotherapy and gene therapy in order to hopefully live a full and normal life free of MLD, the disease that will most likely take the life of her middle sister in a matter of years (Olivia is the true hero of our family story).

She was finally out of isolation at the hospital and back in our apartment in Milan when she woke up in the middle of the night and every time I would lay her back down in her crib, she would wake up and start crying. So in our bed she went. Dave and I were both exhausted and I knew she was too. And wouldn’t you know she went right to sleep?! It worked. So why not do it again the next night?? Because that was easy and it will buy us more sleep…right?!

She would lay at a 90 degree angle to me, laying her head on my chest and sleep. Pay no attention to the fact that her feet would be in Dad’s face, kicking him periodically. I’m only paying attention to my side of the equation. The snuggles. I’m soaking in the memory of those precious snuggles.

Keira’s life has essentially been traumatizing for the majority of her time here on earth. We never know how much time any of us have here, but in our family we now know firsthand why it’s important to make the most of each moment. And whether it puts a kink in my neck or leaves me exhausted the next day, I still miss those nights with Keira because I know they are the last.

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.

Stuck in an Elevator

I cannot make this stuff up. Yesterday, I got stuck in our apartment elevator with Eva and Olivia. 😳

We were headed out to meet Eva’s friend Chiara when right around the 1st floor (we live on the 6th) the elevator made a big th-thunk noise as it shook and came to a stop. None of the elevator buttons would work. We were stuck.

And all I could do was laugh. 🤷‍♀️😆 What are the chances?? Apparently 1 in 100,000. So of course because we don’t have enough rare experiences in our life it was time for a new one.

With Dave out on a trip to the store my first call was to my Mom, who was still at the apartment with my Dad and Keira. She heard the “th-thunk” and the first thing she said was “Tell me you’re not stuck in the elevator.” After confirming we were indeed stuck in the elevator and asking her to call someone, my Dad flew down the stairs, made sure we were ok and got the front desk concierge. And Dave arrived from the store.

Meanwhile, I tried speaking via google translate to the Italian man that answered the elevator alarm call. I wasn’t sure if he understood me or not but he hung up.

Only a few minutes later Eva said she was bored. 😆 I was just thankful we made her use the restroom before we left and that Livvy wasn’t going to need meds anytime soon. In case we were stuck for a while we also had water with us and a few candy snacks we brought along for her and her friend.

Livvy didn’t understand what was going on so she was fine until she got tired of sitting in her stroller. So Eva and I started singing songs, like Itsy Bitsy Spider and Little Green Frog, to keep her smiling.

After some complaints from Eva, we heard a noise and saw light shine through a crack in the door. Someone was here to free us from the elevator!

After a few minutes they opened the door. We were indeed between floors. Because the opening on the bottom was bigger than the opening on the top we were going to have to get out that way.

I had told Eva she would get out first but she said “No! Livvy needs to go first because she is special and we need to take care of her.” 🥰 I reassured her they were both special and equally as important but because she was closest to the door it was ok for her to get out first.

At dinner last night Eva said “When will we get stuck in an elevator again? That was fun!” 😆🤦‍♀️

Yet again, another unexpected event happening in our lives. It doesn’t even surprise me at this point. Just another day of rolling with the punches with a smile on our faces!

Perspective Amidst the Pandemic: Our Story

It is July 6th, 2020 and my entire family is fighting like mad to save the life of our 5 month old baby girl, Keira. Who, unlike her sister Olivia (age 2), has a chance to receive a treatment that could potentially give her a normal life and beat the life-wrenching disease known as Metachromatic Leukodystrophy (MLD).

It was on March 30, 2020 when we first heard those two fateful words, Metachromatic Leukodystrophy. Stay at home orders were in full effect as the Coronavirus pandemic spread across the globe, and we had spent the last month fighting for doctors appointments to figure out why our middle daughter Olivia had begun to have trouble walking, was tilting her head and why the irises of her eye would vibrate involuntarily.

We managed to get a second opinion that day with Dr. Vinodh Narayanan to get to the bottom of Olivia’s diagnosis. The first neurologist we saw said there was nothing wrong with her and to come back in a year. Had we waited, she may have lost her abilities to walk and talk much sooner than expected. 

Due to COVID-19 restrictions only one parent could go with Olivia to see Dr. Narayanan so my husband Dave attended in person and I attended via video conference. After a thorough examination and reviewing her MRI, Dr. Narayanan knew MLD was the likely cause of her symptoms thus far.

The words MLD did not register in my mind – it had to be a mistake…my heart felt like someone took a crystal vase and smashed it on the floor with all their might. Our biggest nightmare as parents had come true, a fatal disease with no cure.

How could this be possible when we did genetic testing before having children that showed MLD as being negative for both of us? Our world was shattered and our hearts were broken. Life is precious and, like every parent, we wanted to give the world to our children. Unfortunately, we won’t be able to do that for Olivia.

We soon learned that genetic testing does not truly cover everything. The test came back as negative for both of us because they only test for the 5 most common gene mutations that cause MLD. The ones Dave and I have are more rare. The chances we would have a child with MLD? One in a million.

This news quickly turned the Coronavirus into an afterthought. 

Just when we thought it could not get any worse, the genetic test results for our other two daughters came back. We were in Iowa at the time for Olivia’s weekly treatments for a clinical trial that will hopefully help stall the progression of her disease (she has already she has lost the ability to walk on her own, lacks pronunciation, lost the majority of her vocabulary and is in some form of pain on a daily basis) when Dr. Narayanan informed me on the phone that while Eva, our oldest daughter who is 5 years old, was a carrier of one of the gene mutations and would live a normal life, the news was not so good for Keira. Our dear 5 month old baby girl had the same two gene mutations as Olivia and would also suffer from this horrible disease.

My legs and arms began to shake and my heart raced. Tears began to form down our faces. If the chances of having one child with MLD is one in a million what are the chances of having two?

We immediately reached out to our network of support and found that there was a silver lining to the dark clouds overhead. Because Keira is pre-symptomatic she is eligible for a cutting edge gene therapy treatment only available in Milan, Italy. She would be one of only 30 children in the world to receive this treatment. While it is not a cure, it could give her a chance at a normal life.

To get her this treatment we needed to act fast. The amazing team at CureMLD.com connected us with the team of doctors in Italy to share information on what this would entail.

Not only would it require us to move to Italy for 5 months while Keira completes the treatment, but we would also have to transfer Olivia’s clinical trial treatments to a European site. And the cost to us, for treatment, lodging and travel? Hundreds of thousands of dollars.

My sister-in-law immediately set up a GoFundMe account and our entire family rallied around us to share our story with the community. While I’m not one to normally share sad news, or ask for help, we needed to do everything we could to save Keira’s life from this terrible disease. And we only have a few weeks to raise enough money to do so.

I’ve always worked hard for everything I’ve accomplished in life and do so every day on behalf of my clients. In 2013 I started my own public relations agency and it is my job to share my clients’ stories with the world. Now, I somehow had to do that for myself amidst this very real nightmare. Thankfully, the PR community in Phoenix is a very close group and my industry colleagues immediately began to help get the word out about what we were going through.

I try to count my blessings, amidst my daily tears. Time is precious, now more than ever, and I savor each moment with our girls. Because of COVID-19 we are all home. And unlike many others I see complaining about being quarantined, this has provided precious time for our family to be together at home every day while Olivia’s symptoms rapidly progressed. At minimum we have 2-4 years left with her.

I am etching these moments into my mind. I want them to live on forever…us laughing in the pool, having pretend tea parties and watching movies with our girls are priceless for every one of us. To see them each smiling and laughing is our key to happiness amidst the very real tragedy we face on a daily basis. 

The gene therapy treatment Keira is eligible for is not yet considered a cure – it has only been around for a decade – but it is at least a chance at a normal life. A chance to run, jump and one day go to school with her friends. Things Olivia will never get to do. These thoughts – this hope – are what keep us going and keep the love alive as we navigate the new world amidst Coronavirus.