Category Archives: Seizures

Hope for Haley

There aren’t generally moments where you can look back and pinpoint the exact moment that your life changed. More often there is a gradual evolution. On the evening of 9/11/09 our lives changed in a single, horrifying instant when my healthy, vibrant 2.5 year old daughter collapsed on our stairs and stopped breathing in the first of what would become thousands of seizures. Every memory I hold in my heart is now attached to a label of before or after...

Within 2 weeks, after some hiccups, my lovely daughter Haley was diagnosed with a “seizure disorder”-words that are supposed to be more comforting to a family whose life has just shifted on its axis. Thus began the battery of tests and treatments. 33% of people with epilepsy are unable to control their seizures with currently available treatments. These treatments include medications, diet therapy and surgery…and a new evolving treatment, cannabis.

Haley began medication in ┬áthe hospital after seizing in the ER getting us the fastest service we’ve ever had at a medical facility. It made her drunk like, stumbling around and slurring all while experiences bouts of rage that summon the image of an angry trapped animal. When that medication failed to quell the seizures another was added, this one caused permanent liver damage. And the cycle continued, for every medication that didn’t work they simply added another one. All of them with horrific side effects that stole pieces of my baby girl a little at a time. In the 5 years since her diagnosis Haley has failed 17 anti-convulsant medications as well as steroids, some of them more than once and tried in varying combinations, all with the same cycle of slowly weaning on and slowly weaning off, and the accompanying despair upon realizing yet again that we had not found our answer.

In 2010 one of those medications actually triggered a worsening of seizures. Haley began experiencing 50-100 seizures daily some of which would last 90 minutes or more. After 2 back to back seizures of this length Haley, at age 3 was placed in a barbiturate coma for 14 days. Upon lessening her sedation I realized that my three year old had suddenly become an infant again. She had to re learn basic functions like how to hold her head up, eating, trunk control and how to walk.

After failing a handful of medications we also began a restrictive diet therapy in 2010 called Low Glycemic Index Therapy or LGIT. In the past several years Haley has gone back and forth between LGIT and various ratios of ketogenic diet in an effort to exert some control over her seizures. While it is beneficial enough that we continue to utilize it it has not been the miracle that we had hoped. And in the mean time Haley is denied the smallest joys like sharing a cupcake with a friend, or partaking in the pizza at a birthday party. Or even enjoying the snacks that seem to be the focus of every classroom celebration and holiday.

We live in a medical hub. We have access to technologies that are not readily available. Haley underwent additional testing to evaluate her surgical options. The consensus was that she is not a viable surgical candidate. Both the location of her seizure focal points and the number of them suggest that she would experience gross language and motor function loss and her seizure activity would not be reduced enough to alter her quality of life.

Her diagnosis has evolved as well, from idiopathic epilepsy or epilepsy with no known cause, to cortical dysplasia, to Landau Kleffner Syndrome variant, to a sodium channel genetic mutation. And yet with none of these has come the one answer we really seek-how to help her.

So we are left…more than 5 years into this journey, in a place I never expected to be. Without medical options and still averaging 15-30 seizures daily. There are days that the weight of this crushes me. I put my finger under her nose and count her breaths and remember to be grateful for each and every one. I watch her scream out in fear at the onset of each seizure and my heart breaks a little more. I watch my daughter, my lovely, precocious, fierce warrior, stiffen and convulse and grunt and turn blue and I face the reality that we live on the brink of life and death every.single.day.

Right now there is a new potentially promising treatment evolving for many conditions, including epilepsy. Medical marijuana or cannabis. Some of the anecdotal stories are nothing short of miraculous. But treatment is limited to those living in select legal states with limited access to the type of cannabis so many are looking for. It is the only thing that gives me hope-hope for her future, hope to meet her beneath the haze created by the pharmaceuticals, hope that she too will thrive.

And yet at the same time I fear that I am only setting us all up for another disappointment. I fear that I wont be able to access this treatment in time. And there are days when fear and devastation take over. When I am debilitated by my own thoughts and worries and memories. And yet I always come back to hope. Hope for the thousands of epilepsy patients living with uncontrolled seizures. Hope for the families of the 50,000 seizure related deaths that occur in the US every year. Hope for the patients who have control but only at the expense of dangerous and debilitating side effects. Hope that our family will emerge, no matter the outcome,stronger instead of broken.

Hope for Haley…

Dirty Little Secret

Every parent, every person really, struggles with finding their right balance between work, life and caring for themselves and caring for others.

I am a nurturer. I am a caretaker of many people. One of them happens to live on the brink of life and death daily. It takes a toll on me. Emotionally, physically, spiritually. Caregiver burnout is very very real. But that’s the dirty little secret that parents, special needs or not, aren’t supposed to admit.

Yesterday was a really difficult day. I turned outward to my support network. I unveiled my anguish, and kept it real. I put in black and white (actually a colorful bar graph but black and white sounds better) the evidence of Haley’s continually escalating seizure activity. And while the support was, as always, comforting, it wasn’t enough. I needed to schedule in a break down. (Break down to break through according to one wise friend)

The problem is that there is no time. There are still children to care for and feed and drive places and laundry and dishes and work and dog hair to vacuum and leaves to clean up and a garage to prepare for winter and and and…I couldn’t do it another moment.Those have to’s would just have to wait. So I dropped Haley off at school and headed for my sanctuary-for me that is the ocean. If you don’t have a place that instantly allows you to exhale, I highly suggest you start seeking one.

I allotted myself one hour of me time. I managed to disconnect for half of it (pretty good for me!). I wrapped a blanket around me like a shield and allowed myself the luxury of breathing freely, void of the ever present tension that lives in my throat. It was a windy day-my favorite kind at the beach. The breeze, the waves, they speak to my soul. They whisper contentment and calm my anxiety like nothing else, Sitting there just watching and listening, then walking the dunes, choosing the one shell I collect on each of these trips, all of it in complete solitude, yet connected simultaneously.

So, you…yes you. Stop looking over your shoulder, I really do mean YOU. It doesn’t take a massive amount of time, it doesn’t take money, it just takes commitment to admit when it is all too much and you need to decompress or explode. It can be a walk in the woods, a bubble bath, an hour of mindless TV…whatever your sanctuary is this is a reminder to utilize it. You are worth it.

The Story of Haley and Sofie-service dog extraordinaire

Getting a service dog. I get messages often asking about our process, our experience and the reality of life with a service dog.

First and foremost Haley’s seizure response dog (not to be confused with seizure alert dog-get there in a minute) is named Sofie. She is a border collie/Australian shepherd-ish mix that was rescued from a shelter at 12 weeks old. Our journey to a service dog was unique because we did not go the traditional route of fundraising the astronomical (but justifiedly so) cost of a service dog. Our journey started when Haley was referred to Make a Wish.

Initially I was ecstatic that Haley qualified for a wish, and then I grieved that she qualified for a wish. Make a wish grants wishes to children living with life threatening conditions. It was just one more reminder of how much we have to fear. But moving past that was the anticipation of what Haley would wish for. Initially she wanted to wish for a hamster. I gently explained that Santa might spring for a hamster if she wanted to aim a little higher. We had recently been to a Halloween party for kids with epilepsy in which a service dog was present. Haley was inquisitive and intrigued that the dog could keep it’s girl safe. So her official wish was “I wish for a doggie that will keep me safe when I have a seizure”.

And thus began our journey. We began extensively researching organizations as Make a Wish gave us carte blanche in choosing the right one. The first organization we considered yessed us to death. But once it came time to hammer out the details we quickly realized that they reneged on all of their commitments. We wanted a seizure response dog. This is a dog trained to respond (in Sofie’s case by ringing a doorbell and alerting us to the fact that Haley is seizing and then lying on her legs to keep her from injuring herself when she’s postictal). This agency, though initially saying they could provide that now informed us that they only rely on scent training and it would be a seizure alert dog. While this seems like a dream- a dog that alerts prior to a seizure?!- in some cases the dogs are unable to alert in real life settings even after extensive training. With this once in a lifetime opportunity we felt that we had to go with an option that was more of a sure thing. Just our preference and choice. Many people have wonderful, life changing experiences with both alert dogs and that agency.

We set about researching again- it wasn’t easy, many organizations had age restrictions that Haley didn’t qualify for-and began the process of applying for a dog with Domesti-Pups in Lincoln, Nebraska. Quite a journey from our home in Massachusetts! From our initial communication I found them heartfelt, honest and realistic. In addition to training for seizure response they also train their dogs in mobility assistance. This is imperative for Haley as she experiences weakness in one side and is often unsteady as a result of medications. Haley was accepted into their program. For the next 14 months we learned nothing-NOTHING- about the dog that was being trained in anticipation of being Haley’s service dog. Sofie spent that time training 12 hours/day, 5 days/week with an inmate in a correctional facility in Nebraska. On weekends she spent time with trainers and volunteers getting real life and public access experience that cannot be had in a prison. As hard as it was not to know, Domesti-Pups believes it is best not to divulge information such as breed or name in case the dog doesn’t work out. They are exacting in their standards for dogs that are placed. The year that Haley received Sofie they had temperament tested over 100 dogs to enter 10 into the program. There were 5 graduates.

Finally we set off to our 14 day training camp! Again Make a wish made all of the arrangements and were fantastically accommodating. Training camp was exhilarating-this was really happening, oh my God the instant bonding! And exhausting-constant, rigorous schedules of activities and training exercises to learn your dogs language. And depressing-upon witnessing Haley’s first seizure Sofie ran away from her. Through it all we were fully supported by Domesti-Pups staff and volunteers. They helped us work through our initial speed bumps and facilitated the bond that I still marvel at today.

Then we came home and life changed. My already gigantic purse became bigger as I had to accommodate dog gear like a portable bowl, water bottle, baggies. Errands became a constant stream of Oh! What’s your doggies name? And inquiries about Haley’s medical condition that varied from respectful, to curious to downright rude. Not to mention navigating the inaccurate and perceived legal rights of service dog access.

There are so many people that want service dogs and don’t feel they have the means to get one. Because of this, those of us who have them are considered the lucky ones. The chosen few. That assimilation makes it difficult to admit to, and sometimes complain about, the realities of having a service dog. Every inquiry I get I answer with this-It’s not all rainbows and unicorns. It’s hard work, and it’s hard work every day. But if you’re committed to it, it’s so so worth it.

My best advice for those beginning to navigate the murky waters of obtaining a service dog are be sure you are one hundred percent ready to commit. From the daily training, to the adjusting your expectations, to the instant red flag that you have a disability every where you go-be sure you have considered the reality of the commitment. Do your research. And then do it again. Where there are desperate people there WILL be predators. It’s not enough of a reason to miss out on how incredible this experience is, but check references, ask in forums, befriend other successful service dog teams and trainers. And know what you are looking for. Response dog, alert dog, other tasks that you desire the dog to do. And ask these questions up front, and ask again if the answer was unclear. Lastly-do not be intimidated by cost. Most organizations will give you the tools to fund raise. It takes a lot of effort, it seems daunting, but trust me it’s good preparation for the hours you’ll put into working with your dog. Do not make your decision based on cost.

Haley and Sofie have now been placed together for over a year. It has been a tumultuous year and their bond is stronger than ever. Is Sofie a perfect dog? Nope. She has her quirks and moments too. Are they perfect together? Absolutely.

In the presence of greatness

Social Media has become a powerful tool. Particularly for parents of special needs children. There is a sense of community and connection that is unprecedented.

Throughout the past few years I have had the pleasure of meeting in person many of the families and activists fighting to change an inherently unjust system and save our children along the way.

These meetings have filled my heart and fueled me and served to strengthen at my core my resolve to be part of this change. I have sat, stood and lunched with greatness. I have shared both tears and laughter as we shared in our grief and our successes. Some of which would never be celebrated by someone who didn’t “get” it. Like the significance of your child allowing you to hold her hand. Or walk with only that assistance.

Some of these people have become the people I now count among my closest friends. They are my village. More importantly they are Haley’s village. We inspire one another to do better, to be better, to fight harder, to expose more of our journey and our pain.

Grateful doesn’t begin to account for how I feel for these people who were once strangers just traveling a parallel path. As one of them wisely told me “Fate is seldom wrong”. Fate has brought us all together and together we will do better than we could have without one another.

To my friends, to my village, to the ones I’ve been blessed to meet and the ones I haven’t yet, thank you. Thank you for being on this journey with us. With all of it’s ups and downs, hills and valleys (that often happen in a single day, sometimes a single hour). Thank you for not just bearing witness to our pain but sharing in it. Sharing yours when you think it’s needed. And celebrating the successes together.

Thank you for the poignant moments and the humorous ones. For supporting me when I couldn’t support myself. For caring so intensely about a little girl and her struggle to survive in a world that seems intent on making that more difficult.

Thank you to the families that have bared their journeys. That have shared their most vulnerable moments in an effort to show others they are not alone.

Thank you to the parents and friends of Haley’s who help her feel like just another kid by including her when it would be easier not to. For teaching your children that different isn’t scary. That compassion and empathy matter.

And thank you to the activists who work too hard for too little reward. But use an image of a little 7 year old girl advocating for herself as fuel to drive a little further today than we did yesterday.

One love to you all. Our village. Greatness lives in each and every one of you and I am humbled and honored that you share it with my family.

Down the rabbit hole

On the evening of Haley’s first seizure a giant gaping hole opened up around me. At first I thought I was standing on the precipice looking down, but at the moment of her diagnosis, sheltered in what are supposed to be comforting words “seizure disorder”, I fell headfirst into the abyss. I didn’t fall far though, because I immersed myself in online support groups, and epilepsy community and their support pulled me up.

When Haley failed to respond to one pharmaceutical, and then another and quickly a third and fourth that diagnosis was altered to medically refractory epilepsy. I fell a little further down the hole. Not so far that I couldn’t start the climb out, but just far enough that I couldn’t see over the top. And so I began to seek out others with similar experiences. Ones who could hold my hand and we could take turns pulling one another up.

When Haley’s language delays began and EEG confirmed near constant seizure activity during sleep her diagnosis was amended again, Landau Kleffner syndrome variant. I fell a little further. But I gained a whole new set of supportive people who were living parallel realities. And it helped to block the fall.

When genetic testing revealed a never before documented mutation in a sodium channel gene I fell hard. Confirmation that my baby was never going to outgrow this knocked the wind out of me on the way down. And while Haley’s diagnosis was amended to Dravet like, it couldn’t be called Dravet so I wasn’t sure if I could find the support I needed to pull me up enough to catch my breath. Luckily the community is a generous one and we have found a home there and it helped me find a foothold and crawl a little way back up.

When we realized that Haley at age 5 had never been to the bathroom alone or played Barbies in her bedroom by herself, we decided to pursue a service dog. The community we have found amongst other service dog owners, trainers and supporters boosted me to where I thought I could see the path out.

And then we were told that Haley was out of pharmaceutical options, there was nothing left to try except a risky invasive surgery with best case scenario being a 50% reduction in seizures. With Haley averaging 3-10 seizures daily, that still left her with daily seizures and no quality of life improvement, plus a serious risk of loss of speech and motor function. I fell hard and fast. And I stopped even trying to claw my way back out. I just accepted life at the bottom of the rabbit hole.

And then I discovered medical marijuana and its potential anticonvulsant effects. When my state overwhelmingly voted to legalize it I found a foothold and crawled as fast as I could toward the top. Only to be knocked down over and over again as the state lagged behind in its implementation, as the lack of available strains became clear, and Haley’s seizures increased and cognition declined. But I found enough support to at least motivate me to keep climbing. For 2 years trying to access this treatment for my daughter I have climbed and fallen, brushed myself off, and started the climb again.

I have found a community of activists, advocates (is there really a difference?), other families, other patients and supporters. And I have never felt so supported. I have gained my footing, and I am climbing out with help from all of these communities of supporters. And sure, I have days, minutes, where I fall down, sometimes it feels like I’ve hit bottom again, but I’m climbing faster back up. And I am learning to extend my hand and reach for those behind me so I can return the favor.

So wherever you are in your journey know that however far down the rabbit hole you are there is always a hand waiting to grasp yours if you just reach out…With the help of cannabis and some amazing people, the top is in reach. (even in Massachusetts)

P.S.-See you Tuesday 10/14 at the protest! DPH building in Boston!! If you need a boost I promise you’ll find one among the community there.

Be the change…See you on 10/14

I had another whole post worked out in my mind, indeed even started typing it up. But this nagging thought wont let me post it because I have something more urgent to say.

I try to live by the saying- “Be the change you wish to see in the world”. I love that motto. Love the premise that if something is wrong with our world, our country, our state, our healthcare system, our consumerism, that we have the power to change it. But we cant, I cant, do it alone.

Recently here in MA the workers and customers of Market Basket took a stand. Together they boycotted a favored grocery store and went out of their way to picket, drive longer, spend more, in the interest of the greater good. One worker, one customer could not have made that impact, but when we all took a stand together it was our togetherness that mattered.

On Tues 10/14 at 11 am there is a direct action protest planned in front of the Department of Public Health building (250 Washington St, Boston MA). This protest is a chance to stand together and say that the patients that have been left without access for 2 YEARS will not stand for it anymore. Their rights are being violated, their suffering is being prolonged and officials have yet to respond to previous calls of action with any urgency or empathy for the patients they are denying.

There is no doubt about it, Haley is suffering without access to medical marijuana. She has endured more than 90,000 seizures just since the day medical marijuana was voted legal here in MA. She has no pharmaceutical options left, she has exhausted every single one. The state has accepted more than 7 million dollars in fees from dispensary applicants and yet there is not a dispensary open. There isn’t even a way to register my daughter as a legally recognized patient with the DPH.

But it’s not just Haley who is suffering. It’s the 8500 other children in MA that the DPH estimates have uncontrollable seizures. It’s the patients with chronic pain, TBI’s, PTSD, fibromyalgia, arthritis, MS, ALS, migraines, lyme, alzheimers and so many other conditions that can be treated with medical cannabis. It’s the 2,000 people that are estimated to be legal medical cannabis patients here in MA that have nowhere to access consistent, lab tested medicine.

I NEED YOU. I need your help. I need you to respond to this call to action in record numbers.Take the morning off, get a sitter. I can’t save my daughter alone. It will take more than my voice, it will take yours. To sit back and feel empathy isn’t enough anymore. For 2 years we have waited for this process to unfold. We can’t wait any longer. Lives are being lost.

Please, please come and help us help each other. I don’t want to grieve my daughter, I just want to save her.

Be the change you wish to see in the world.

The Elephant in the Room

I watch Haley. Alert and anticipating. Ready to spring into action at any moment. That intensity isn’t lessened by the fact that she went 10 hours seizure free. That tension wouldn’t be lessened if she went 10 months seizure free. That expectation, that worry, that awareness that a seizure could strike any second, is prevalent in my mind. Always. At any given moment.

When I make a grocery list. When I weigh whether it’s safe enough to drive 10 minutes to the larger grocery store or whether I should stay in town. When I work. When I visit a friend. Even in the rare moments that I take time for me. It’s always there. Niggling, nagging, present.

It is the elephant in the room. Those seizures that might occur at any given second. The seizures that are unpredictable and relentless. Those seizures that steal pieces of my baby girl one minute at a time. Even when she’s not seizing epilepsy is stealing her life from us. The caution, the worry, the fear. The seizures that don’t happen but could.

The side effects of the 17 medications that she has tried in various combinations have taken their toll. The side effects we were never fully informed of or that were brushed off as rare or necessary risk. The question of whether the pharmaceuticals have done more damage than the seizures is the elephant in the room. Unanswerable. But the question hangs there, persistent in my mind.

The words cannabis, marijuana, pot, weed. Whatever you call it. I call it medicine. I call it hope. I call it our last chance. But every conversation where we skirt around it, where we call it cbd, where we don’t speak openly about the government patent on its neuro-protective properties, where we don’t admit that we are victims of decades of manipulation and lies, where we don’t acknowledge that it’s just a plant makes it another elephant in the room.

SUDEP…and the 50,000 seizure related deaths that occur in the US every year. The fear the grips my heart any morning I awake before my daughter. The anger and fear that coils in my stomach and throat, that wraps around my lungs and makes me unable to breathe through those moments. The acknowledgement that my child is at high risk of becoming a statistic is an elephant in the room.

The moments we lost, the memories we didn’t get to make, the hovering question of who would Haley be if she had access to cannabis from the beginning. Who will she become if she could get access to it now? I hope we get the chance to find out. I hope we leave behind the elephant in every room and learn to live. Cannabis gives us hope that someday we might…