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.

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.

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:

Being Apart

This weekend, we have the honor of attending one our best friend’s wedding in Montana. While Dave (the Best Man), and Eva (the flower girl) have been there since Thursday for the rehearsal, I am heading out today (Saturday) so that we only leave the other girls (Livvy specifically as she is the most medically fragile) for one night.

Ever since I left the house this morning I felt sick to my stomach. I even slept terrible. But I know she has been doing well this week and my parents are taking excellent care of her at home. Yet there is still that nagging feeling, or feelings, of dread, sadness, separation anxiety and nausea, but also hope and reassurance. It’s a weird mix.

I never used to be this way prior to the girls’ diagnoses. I’d enjoy our child-less nights while the girls were with grandparents and have complete peace of mind. Would think nothing of it. But now even when Eva or Keira stays overnight with grandparents I miss them…a lot more than I used to. It’s weird without them around and I feel like it’s only because we know how fleeting life can be. We know how important every moment is with them. We know our world can change in a matter of seconds.

It is so weird to now think of life with such finality in every choice or action but I suppose when you have a child with a terminal illness it is inevitable. Life is fleeting.

So it is especially hard leaving this time because it is the first time since the girls’ diagnoses that both Dave and I have been away. And with Livvy only continuing to decline we have no idea how much time we have left with her. It could be days, weeks or even years. The disease is so rare that doctors won’t give a timeline.

So as I sit in the airport terminal forcing myself to eat something I am also trying to push away the butterflies; reminding myself that she will be ok for one night. She knows where I am and who I’m bringing back home with me tomorrow. She smiled when I told her.

But I will think only of her and Keira’s sweet faces until the moment we get back home and see them safe and sound. 💜💜

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.

Loss of Timeline

When you become a parent it’s almost automatic to write down the dates of your children’s milestones. Rolling, sitting, walking, talking, running, etc. But when they have a terminal illness like MLD, you begin to avoid those dates because it generally means loss of milestones.

Looking back at my notes, I did not put a date, or even a month, next to when Olivia stopped talking. Stopped walking. Stopped sitting up on her own. Or lost control of her legs entirely.

But I did recently write down a month for when she stopped being able to eat and drink on her own. It was this month, July 2021.

We had been working for weeks to keep her eating orally as much as possible and drinking from the one sippy cup that she could actually sip from. But there was no denying this was something she could no longer do.

Sometimes she could barely open her mouth to put food in it. Things that she could normally get down no longer worked and would cause her to choke. Even water in her sippy cup didn’t work. We thought of thickening it as some MLD families do but she simply could not use the cup to make a sipping/sucking motion at all.

She is now 100% fed through her GTube. She gets Kate Farms formula for nutrition, water and her meds all through the tube. However, we do give her small amounts of water and juice in her mouth through a syringe so she has something to enjoy and keep her mouth from getting dry.

This recent loss of development was one of the many reasons we also decided she would not be starting school this week.

On top of the eating/drinking issues she has become more lethargic and is experiencing more pain. This has required higher doses of Gabapentin and THC 3x per day. Sometimes we even have to use Valium when those don’t do the trick.

She also usually only wants me for comfort. Dad, Grandma’s and her nanny Sheena will work here and there but more often than not, it’s Mom she wants.

So as we continue to keep her comfortable amidst her decline we chose to not send her into a new environment potentially filled with germs and people she doesn’t know but to keep her home where she is most comfortable and we can spend the most time with her for as long as we have her.

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.