For all we have lost, there are great treasures that remain.
Tuberous Sclerosis Complex (TSC) hijacked our daughter’s genome. Like the lowliest of thieves, it stole from an innocent baby. It’s haul? A base pair on her TSC2 gene on her 16th chromosome, to be exact. Two tiny amino acids that shifted her genetic code and forever hindered her ability to suppress tumor growth in her body. Funny thief–one that gives more than it takes. What TSC took has caused tumors to grow in her heart, brain, skin, and kidneys; it has caused epilepsy, heart failure, autism, developmental delay, and more. It’d be easy to hate such a thief and sometimes I do give in to the loathing. What I have learned, what Kaleigh has taught me in her 5 and a half years, is that for all we have lost, for all that TSC has taken, for every hurdle, for every burden, we have also gained.
Before I go any farther, I need to pause here and clarify my dangerously close to sounding Pollyanna statement that I have gained things from TSC. TSC is a devastating, incurable (currently) disease. I am not thankful for what it has done to our daughter. It has nearly taken her life on more than one occasion. AND, I have gained things as an individual, we have gained things as a family, that I and we would not have otherwise. I could write about the seizures, the MRIs, the hospital stays, the therapies, the behaviors, the terror of it all, the need for more research, the scientific advances, or why this disease should matter to you. In some ways those issues are easier to articulate–there is a concreteness. But, when I think of what the presence of TSC in our lives has really meant and truly taught me, I think about the “and” of life. It is the idea that there is no darkness without light, no joy without pain, there are and must be both. Kaleigh and TSC are inexplicably entwined–it is literally weaved through the double helix of her DNA. AND, she is not TSC.
I was 29 weeks pregnant when the ultrasound technician said she needed to call down a specialist because there was something wrong with our baby’s heart. It was the first time we were introduced to TSC. It was as though a vortex opened and sucked away all our hopes and dreams and left us empty and terrified. Perspective, and time, have changed these memories for me. I see now the seedlings of “and.” We were devastated and hopeful. Terrified and determined.
At the time, it felt like a lie to even smile. I was stymied by the darkness, the anger, the overwhelming devastation. I told no one at my baby shower, only immediate family knew. I spent the day opening presents for a child I was told may not survive. I smiled for the camera as I checked my watch because I had to run back to the hospital to receive the second of two shots intended to develop her lungs and give her more of a fighting chance. All I was able to focus on was the insincerity of my joy. Now I see this was my first introduction to the “and” of TSC. Both were true. I was terrified and excited. I was alone and simultaneously surrounded by love. This would be our life with Kaleigh and TSC–the presence of two seemingly opposite experiences coexisting.
Kaleigh was born pink and screaming, and it has been one wild ride since. The overwhelming joy of taking her home matched with the horror of a PICU stay for heart failure. Over the past five years, we’ve experienced innumerable times when we were faced with two seemingly opposite and incompatible experiences vying for our attention. It was a struggle for me to find the joy amid so much pain. What I found is that life is in the balance. It is in the “and.” If I let my anger at TSC overcome me, then I am blinded to the appreciation, pride, and joy of seeing Kaleigh achieve and progress. If I succumb to the stress and fall apart after she seizes for two hours straight, I miss her tiny waking first word of “uh-oh.” If we accept that there is no cure, then we lose hope and the drive to keep raising funds and lobbying for research.
With TSC we have lost much of the simplicity of life, yet have gained a rich complexity. We have gained the camaraderie of others who walk this journey with us. My view of life has widened. When I look at others, I think of the “and.” I wonder what is behind the anger of that not-so-nice lady in the checkout at the grocery store and I try (some days are easier than others) to offer grace. The “and” has reverberated through our family. Our son is quick to help other children and befriend those who are often excluded. At the same time, he has spent many a night crying after nightmares of his sister seizing. My husband and I have worked to raise awareness and fundraise for TSC research. And we have worried and lamented over the never-ending medical bills. No where is the “and” more apparent than in Kaleigh. Her love for life is as palpable as the heartbreaking panic she experiences at the mention of the word doctor. She is loss and hope personified.
Joy and pain. Love and hate. Jubilation and sadness. Dependence and freedom. Trust and betrayal. Jealousy and contentment. Life and death. Fight and acquiescence. These are the lesson I have been gifted. Our life with TSC is heartbreaking and beautiful. Most of all it is a balance–what we have lost AND what we have gained.
Second Annual “Blogging for TSC Awareness Month” Day 22
by guest blogger Vicky Garrett
(Ferryhill, County Durham, North East England)
So my journey started later in life for me. It all began in 2005; I was 18 years old and I had just given birth to my wonderful son Leo. During my pregnancy I had suffered with a large amount of kidney infections but I was just given antibiotics and told to go home and rest and that kidney infections were common with pregnancy. However, after I gave birth I found I was still getting very bad pains from my kidneys (the left even more) and so I was sent for an ultrasound scan where the sonographer announced she had found loads of unusual lumps on both of my kidneys and that she sent the results to my GP. She told me he’d be in touch.
A few weeks later my GP sent me for a more detailed Cat scan where they injected a dye into my blood system so they could take a closer look at these ‘lumps.’ The results were again sent to my GP.
My GP didn’t have any idea what they were, so he had the idea to send me to a urologist to see if they had any ideas.
The urologist explained I had around 30-40 lesions on both kidneys, one of them being 11cm x 9cm on my left kidney and he told me it would need operating on ASAP. He said, “If you accidentally knock your kidney and the lesion bleeds you’ll have an hour to get to hospital before you die.” Those were his words. I was totally shocked and didn’t know what to do. He offered me an operation called an embolisation in which they cut off the blood supply to the lesion to see if it will die. He said I’d have the op in the next few months, and in the mean time he sent me to a geneticist.
The first appointment with my geneticist will stay in my mind forever. I was still 18 and had a young baby. My fiancé and mother attended the appointment with me for support.
The geneticist was a lovely man named Dr. Brennan from James Cook Hopsital, Middlesbrough, England. He greeted me with a big smile and sat me down.
First he went through a list of all my family members to see if there was any possible link which we didn’t find. Then he went on and explained what he thought these ‘lumps’ were. Being 18, most of it went over my head but I took in what I needed to. He explained that these lumps were called angiomyolypomas which is a common find in the genetic mutation Tuberous Sclerosis Complex. He didn’t explain much about TSC and told me the best thing I could do was to research it myself at home as it is a very complex condition.
Dr Brennan then went on to explain the other symptoms of TSC and told me I’d be going for quite a few scans to check all my other major organs; he also checked my skin for the different TSC skin mutations and I had every single one!
Dr Brennan took blood from me and told me he was sending it off for an extensive search of the TSC gene. He advised these results could take up to two years to come back.
Finally, Dr Brennan advised that he would test my son as there is a 50/50 chance that I could pass down the TSC gene and he advised me at 18 years of age to have no more children as the risk was too great.
I left this appointment with a blank mind and an empty heart. Over the next few weeks I didn’t want to face what had been said to me and I tried to ignore it all, focusing on my little boy.
Sadly, due to a mistake from my urologist I didn’t get my embolisation until a year later. Unfortunately a scan later revealed that the embolisation had failed and I was facing a much bigger operation called a partial nephrectomy in which my new urologist took the large AML and half of my left kidney. It took me six months to recover from this op but the pain in my left kidney was no where near as bad as before.
Not long after my operation I received an appointment to see my geneticist…. The blood results were back after 3.5 years and they couldn’t find my mutated TSC gene. Dr. Brennan advised that I still had the diagnosis of Tuberous Sclerosis Complex and that the gene must be hidden where the technology couldn’t reach but hopefully advances in technology in years to come may eventually find the mutation.
I have since been approached by Cardiff University in Wales because they do a lot of research for TSC and they have found new technology to search further into the DNA. They are taking a closer look at my blood to try and find the mutation gene. My blood has been with them around a year and I have not had any news yet.
Since then I have had a little girl and both children have been tested. Thankfully they are both clear, but myself and my fiancé have decided to have no more children.
I am also currently awaiting another operation as I have a large AML on my right kidney. My urologist is trying to decide whether to try an embolisation or whether to go straight for another partial nephrectomy.
I have a lot of friends on Facebook who have either their own TSC journey or have children with TSC and they are like a family to me. If I ever need support they are there and they know exactly what I am going through and feeling. I have a wonderful fiancé and two gorgeous children. Sadly a lot of my family do not understand what I am going through and some don’t want to admit that I have a condition which will affect the rest of my life.
It has been a very tough nine years and I am still trying to understand TSC. I think I will always be trying through the rest of my life.
By Guest blogger Catrina Jones (Monroe, Louisiana)
Note from Mixed Up Mommy: This was originally a Facebook post in the TS Alliance forum. I asked if I could share it here because I think it’s such a great story.
My daughter Hannah Grace, now 11 years old, started having infantile spasms at 8 months old. After an EEG was performed, it was determined that she had idiopathic benign occipital epilepsy. We were then referred to a local neurologist a month or so later, who ordered MRI/Brain prior to our appointment. I will never forget the day I received the call with the MRI results from the neurologist’s office where the nurse told me over the phone (while I was at work) that it was suspected our daughter had tuberous sclerosis. She said I needed to pick up the film and report to bring with us to Hannah’s appointment, and the doctor would discuss this further. When I asked her what tuberous sclerosis was, she could not tell me and informed me that the doctor would have to give me that information. I was in such shock and dismay that I dropped the phone at work crying, and a co-worker had to finish the call with the nurse. This co-worker immediately went to the internet and pulled up a fact sheet about TS and began reading it to me. After I composed myself, I called my husband and the rest of our family with this news of our daughter having something we had never EVER heard of. I remember having this huge fear of the unknown. When we took Hannah Grace (who was 11 months old at this time) in to the appointment, the neurologist said that he wasn’t sure 100% she had TSC because of lack of other symptoms, but when he started naming off things associated with TSC, the white patches were present on Hannah Grace. He took the woods lamp and inspected Hannah Grace, and to our surprise, she had a LOT of them on her body. He then said he had to concur that she did have tuberous sclerosis. As for her infantile spasms, he ordered her phenobarbital. Later on, her IS started developing into partial seizures so Tegretol & Topamax was added to control those.
So, with the new diagnosis of TSC, began a life of yearly testing and doctors visits. Since Hannah Grace was so young when she was diagnosed, we were unsure of the severity of her TSC. Did she have a mild case or was hers more severe? She was meeting milestones at her regular pediatric checkups, so we were hoping that by controlling the IS, just maybe she would live normal life. She does have some mild developemental/learning/cognitive delays, but at 11 years old, she is pretty much living a normal life that TSC says she should not be living. She has been seizure free for eight years now, and we could not be happier with her progress and accomplishments . She has overcome so much in her life. But our story doesn’t stop there.
Where most of you hate/despise TSC, our family is THANKFUL for it. You see, it was because of Hannah Grace having TSC that we went to her yearly checkup with the neurologist this past July. Actually, it was a six-month checkup, because we had been weaning her off of Topamax, since she has been seizure free for so long. The neurologist always runs labs to check her medicine levels. Those labs that day came back to show Hannah Grace had extremely low white blood counts, and it was thought she was developing a virus. We were told to take her to her pediatrician for a followup to let them check her for mono or other viruses. We went into the office the next day, and they re-ran her labs to find that her counts had dropped even more. They tested for numerous viruses and all came back negative. We were sent home in hopes that she had some type of virus that she would rid itself over the next week, and were told to come back later for repeat labs. The following week, her counts were even lower than the week before. The pediatrician was baffled because Hannah Grace showed no signs of being sick, yet her counts continued to decline. We were sent home under strict isolation and told if she developed a fever to get her to the ER. That night brought the fever and an ER visit. She was admitted to the hospital where our new journey was just beginning.
For two weeks in the hospital, Hannah Grace fought extremely high fevers, developed a rash, and her chemistry levels began to fall. She eventually ended up in PICU, where the
MD told me she was critical and needed to go under a pediatric hematologist because her counts had bottomed out. It was determined that we would be transferred to a Baton Rouge Children’s Hospital under the care of a hematologist. When we got there, they believed she had an infectious disease, so tests were run for every infectious disease/fungus there was, and everything came back negative. After a week of this, a bone marrow aspirate was done August 7, 2012, and we were told on August 8, 2012 that Hannah Grace had acute lymphoblastic leukemia. OMG, for a second time in our lives, we were hit with devastating news. Our little girl has cancer. The last ten months of our lives have been spent at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital & Affiliate fighting leukemia. I would give anything in the world if I could go back in time to the days of her having to deal with just TSC. TSC we were managing and doing well. Hannah Grace is in remission, but she will have to be in treatment for the next 2 1/2 yrs to make sure she is completely cured of leukemia. This road has had many difficulties, but we are most THANKFUL that St. Jude has decided to help treat her TSC along with the leukemia. This week, we came back St. Jude because they started Hannah Grace on Rapamune (Sirolimus) to try to shrink the SEGA and other tumors she has throughout her body (mostly on her brain & kidneys). We are so THANKFUL to have this opportunity, where we probably wouldn’t have had it back home in our small town. God works in mysterious ways!
By guest blogger Jessica Sharon (Virginia Beach, Virginia)
I will never forget that day in November three years ago when my son Joey was diagnosed with tuberous sclerosis at the age of 7. At times it seems like it was only yesterday, and at other times it seems like it was forever go.
I went to wake him up for school like any ordinary day only to find he wasn’t responding to my voice, which was often typical being that he was NOT a morning person; only to roll him over and discover his eyes were rolled back in his head and he began convulsing. My initial thought at first was that he was playing a joke on me as children often do and being silly, but I very quickly realized that was not the case. It was the longest 30 seconds of my life and it seemed to go on forever. When he tried to get out of bed and walk, he immediately fell to the floor and had no feeling in his arms or legs. He began to cry in fear that he couldn’t walk and had to crawl to get around. I called 911 because I had no idea what to do or what was wrong with him. After all, he was a normal healthy child and had never had any health concerns before.
After admission to CHKD (Children’s Hospital of the Kings Daughters) in Norfolk, Virginia and numerous neurological tests, it was determined that he had TSC with lesions on his brain and heart. Thankfully, over time, the spots on his heart just went away, but spots had formed on his kidneys. I had never heard of this disorder before and had so many questions and concerns.
Fast forward three years to May of 2013. He is still averaging 3-4 absence seizures a week while on five epilepsy medications. We have tried just about every epilepsy medication out there to no avail. I always thought the seizures would be the worst of it all, but honestly, it’s the learning disabilities, mood changes, and just the overall change in his personality that has affected him and our family the most. He doesn’t want to be involved in any sports or activities that put him in a position to be surrounded by people with the possibility of a seizure occurring. It was such a struggle and an upward battle to get him an IEP within his school. As parents you truly must fight for them and be their biggest advocate because no one else will. He needed one desperately because his confidence was very low. He never felt smart, and he just struggled every day within the classroom; he is so bright and intelligent, but all the medications just seem to suppress much of that. He will be undergoing resection surgery in June at VCU medical center in Richmond to remove the cyst they confidently believe is causing the seizure activity. There is no guarantee that this will be the end of seizures for him, but as his mother, all I can do is give him the best chance at normalcy and a life free of seizures. After all, isn’t that what all of us want for our children, for them to be happy and healthy?
By guest blogger Heather Lens (Stillwell, Oklahoma)
I’m not sure where to begin except right here…
Our world forever changed on April 13, 2013. It actually kind of started the Wednesday before, right before church. I was feeding Maddie and she kind of had a twitch, but it honestly didn’t look like anything more than that. By Friday I started noticing a small trend. She was twitching when she was getting tired so I went straight to the pediatrician. They were going to refer us to a pediatric neurologist in Tulsa for an EEG to rule out seizures. It was going to take a week to get into them. At the time it seemed like a good thing…If they aren’t getting us in that day it must not be anything too bad. Once again, they weren’t crazy seizure like activities.
By Friday night, Chris and I had noticed these movements were looking worse and her face was making different movements that we did not like. Saturday morning we headed straight to St. Francis Pediatric Trauma Center. It’s the nearest children’s hospital to us. We figured that they would be the best place to go if something was wrong, since it was a children’s center. They quickly got us admitted after seeing a video of one of her episodes, and that’s where everything went a little blurry. The first round of testing began… They drew blood to check her blood levels. They were thinking her potassium, electrolytes or sodium may have been off which could cause seizures. They then did a 20-minute EEG. Maddie did great with the test. She laid there like a champ as they hooked her up to 30 or so electrodes. I think Chris and I were hurting worse at that point. Seeing your beautiful perfect daughter hooked up is an awful feeling. Later on that day the doctor came in and broke the first part of our not so great news. Her EEG was abnormal and they confirmed that she had a diagnosis of infantile spasms which are caused by hypsarrhythmia. It’s where the brain sends of chaotic brain signals. Even though we thought something may be wrong, the news hit us like a ton of bricks. They were going to need to put on a EEG for 24 hours and monitor her by video as well.
The placement of the 24-hour EEG was the worst thing I have ever been through. Maddie was screaming, and Chris and I could only sit there and look at her while she was in such distress. It was the most helpless feeling ever. She ended up being on the EEG for over 30 hours. On the third day of our hospital stay they were going to do an ultrasound on her kidneys and abdomen to look for tumors that could be caused by a disease called tuberous sclerosis. They said that some babies who have IS can also have tuberous sclerosis. They also wanted to do an MRI to take a look at her brain. After finally getting the 24-hour EEG off, they took her back for her MRI, which was under sedation. It was another experience that no one should have to go through. She screamed as they sedated her and was fighting sleep so bad. She finally gave in and they took her limp body back to the room. My husband and I both broke down. Watching our perfect little girl look so lifeless was absolutely heartbreaking. We later got the results back from the ultrasound that there were no tumors on her ultrasound and we were thrilled! We just knew her MRI would come back clean. Unfortunately, we were wrong. The MRI came back with tumors on it. This news was the most devastating news our ears could hear…We looked down at our baby girl with tear-filled eyes. We didn’t understand how this could be happening to her and our family? She has been healthy and had been hitting her milestones. How on earth could this be real? After emotions of hurt, sadness, guilt and many more, we felt the prayers and realized that these conditions just make our precious girl that much more precious. We let it all out and then turned our eyes to the only one who can comfort us, God. We knew that we had been put in a crazy spot for a reason. God had entrusted Chris and I to take care of this precious girl because He KNEW THAT WE COULD DO IT. What an honor to be her parents! We know we have a lot of work ahead of us.There will be a trial of medicines to try and stop these spasms, and unfortunately TSC will be a condition she lives with. That being said, we know some people live a normal life with this disease. We are hoping for that, but will not be discouraged if that isn’t her path. We will change our normal and make it a new normal. I dislike the word normal anyway…Who wants to be normal? Not Miss Maddie!
“Whenever God gives you a gift, he wraps it up in a problem. The bigger the gift you have coming, the bigger problem you will receive. But the wonderful thing is that if you look for the gift, you will always find it.”
By guest blogger Lana DenHarder (Grand Rapids, Michigan)
Brian and I had been married for four years. Like most first-time parents we were excited to be expecting a baby and equally excited to have an ultrasound to learn the gender. We had spent weeks talking about names and imagining how the child would look, wondering what personality traits they would have, if they would get my clumsiness gene or Brian’s athletic abilities.
My first ultrasound was around nine weeks to verify dates, and I had another ultrasound around 16 weeks to learn the gender. We were pleased to learn we were having a boy. Brian’s visions of teaching the baby to play ball and coaching little league were starting to become a reality. Shortly after we learned we were having a boy we decided on the name, Cole Ryan.
My prenatal visits went along as planned. I jokingly told my doctor (whom I absolutely love) that I was disappointed that we didn’t get any good pictures of Cole at the first ultrasound and maybe I needed to have another. We both laughed! As my pregnancy moved along, around 30 weeks my doctor said that Cole was measuring small and maybe it was time for another ultrasound just to make sure we had the correct dates and that there was nothing wrong. I was thrilled because that meant I would have more pictures for his baby book. The ultrasound was scheduled a week or two later at our local hospital and I met Brian there…with a full bladder, as instructed. The tech took us back to the room and we were geeked to see Cole on the monitor. We asked goofy questions and the tech quietly answered them and then told us to wait and she would be right back. That should have been our first indication something was wrong. Ten minutes, twenty minutes, she didn’t return. Brian went out to try and find someone because my bladder was still full! The tech said we needed to wait in the room. Ten more minutes had passed and the tech returned with a doctor who looked at the monitor some more. He then said to get dressed and wait in the waiting room. Brian and I looked at each other oddly because after my previous ultrasound we didn’t need to wait around.
Waiting was torture. The doctor walked in and said he had spoken with the radiologist and they found a tuber on Cole’s heart. My heart sank. Brian and I were not expecting this at all. Ten minutes ago we were joking around and now our world was falling apart. That was the first time we heard the words Tuberous Sclerosis Complex (TSC). He told us we needed to follow up with our doctor in the morning. Brian and I walked out to our cars, a million things spinning around in our heads, hugged and said we would talk when we got home. I watched Brian pull away as I sat sobbing while trying to call my mom on the phone.
Our doctor referred us to a high risk OB to assess the situation. They confirmed that it was likely that Cole would have TSC but an official diagnosis had to wait until birth. I had weekly appointments and ultrasounds. At 37 weeks the doctors believed that the tuber was blocking blood flow to the heart and they needed to get Cole out. They tried to mentally prepare us for heart surgery within hours of birth. I was induced on September 4, 2006 (Labor Day that year) and Cole was immediately taken to the NICU. After additional scans, we learned that Cole also had tubers in his brain, too many to count. The next 25 days felt like months. Most nights I would go home and quietly cry myself to sleep, hoping that Brian wouldn’t notice.
Cole was touch and go for a while but didn’t need heart surgery after all. He developed complications and one night we almost lost him. I will never forget the day he turned grey. September 13th. Looking back, at the time we didn’t realize just how sick Cole was. The day before we were supposed to take Cole home he had his first shutter spell (seizure). He left the hospital on a seizure medication.
The first couple of months were normal, or as normal as we thought they would be as first-time parents. Cole was eating well and very snuggly, however he was starting to miss typical milestones. We started Early On Therapy, and eventually physical therapy, to help strengthen his core. Cole started to have infantile spasms at 6 months and the day after his first birthday he had his first grand mal seizure. Within Cole’s first year we had tried various seizure meds and nothing worked. Our one last hope before trying ACTH was the Ketogenic Diet. Brian and I thought about it and it made sense to us. Cole wasn’t eating solid table foods yet, and he hadn’t developed a taste for bad foods that we would have to take away for the diet, so this seemed like a good time. Cole was admitted to the hospital and three days later he went home on the diet. Within a few months we noticed a reduction in his spasms and no more grand mals. He was on the diet for three years. In the end, we decided to stop the diet because he started to fall off the growth chart.
During a routine urology appointment, after the doctor preformed an ultrasound, he had to tell us that multiple tubers had started to grow on both of Cole’s kidneys. Cole was three years old. We are fortune to live in Grand Rapids, Michigan with a fantastic Children’s Hospital, Spectrum Health and DeVos Children’s Hospital. Up until this point, all of Cole’s care could be managed by various specialists locally. After learning of the kidney tubers, we contacted the Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance and asked for recommendations for a nephrologist. That is when we found Dr. Bissler at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. We spoke with Dr. Bissler over the phone and made an appointment to get a second option on a care plan. Dr. Bissler was fantastic. He took the time to talk to us and make sure we understood all of the options. We agreed with Dr. Bissler and decided to move forward with kidney surgery to embolize the largest tubers. They were the size of golf balls. During Cole’s six month post op visit with Dr. Bissler, we discussed the benefits of Afinitor for Cole’s kidneys and SEGA. Dr. Bissler had also introduced us to Dr. Franz. Dr. Bissler discussed Cole’s history with Dr. Franz, and they both agreed that Cole could benefit from Afinitor. He started it in February 2011. We have noticed many positive changes in Cole, in addition to the kidney tubers shrinking and a slight decrease of the size of the SEGA.
In addition to the heart and kidney tubers, Cole has tubers on his eye and skin lesions.
Cole is considered globally delayed and is on the autism spectrum. He started attending a special needs preschool when he was two. Watching the bus drive away with my son was scary, but I realize that was one of the best decisions we have made. Cole’s development slowly improved. He learned to crawl when he was 2 1/2, walk when he was 3 ½ years old and his speech continues to improve. Today, he has close to 60 words and phrases. He currently attends a special needs school where he has fabulous teachers and support and continues to make positive strides. I believe the Afinitor has helped him come out of the medical haze he was in and is allowing him to move forward with his development. We have noticed the biggest change in him in the last two years since starting Afinitor. He is making intentional eye contact, attempting to repeat new words, initiating play, self feeding, and demonstrating appropriate responses when asked to do simple tasks.
We often hear people comment and ask how we do it. There are definitely challenges to raising Cole, but he was our first child and we don’t know any different. In our minds, this is normal. We also have a three-year-old daughter, Lauren. Brian and I were tested and we do not have the TS gene. Lauren does not exhibit any characteristics of TS so we decided not to have her tested. Our lives are full of doctors’ appointments, therapy sessions, sleepless nights, stress, worry and wonder. Cole has closed the gap on his physical challenges (walking) and now we struggle with behavioral (biting and scratching) and emotional issues. In spite of these challenges, Cole is a lovable, happy, determined 6 ½ year old little boy who loves to snuggle, sing (in his own way), spin balls, ride his bike, swing and run around the backyard. He is on three different seizures meds and is seizure free. It is difficult to look too far in to the future because we never know what will happen, but I can say that things are starting to calm down and feel a little normal.
Cole’s care continues to be managed locally and with the Cincinnati TS Clinic. We are very fortunate that Brian’s and my family live close and are willing to help with whatever we need. We definitely couldn’t do this alone. Cole is such a joy and we are very blessed to be his parents.
By guest blogger Laurie Mersberg (Round Rock, Texas)
When I was asked to share my story, I was first honored, then scared. Where to start? I guess the beginning…
I was born with the angiofibromas on my face in 1971. They had no idea; they just told my mom it was a heat rash. No big deal. Nothing to worry about. I was also born with a club finger and a double cleft palate, but no one connected the dots. I mention this because my club finger is my left middle finger and it matches my personality, strange and unique. It would come in handy growing up as I was picked on. I didn’t talk much due to my cleft palate. When I was 12, I had surgery and was on a liquid diet for a year. My jaw was wired shut for complete healing. When healing was done, I had plenty to say. I found my voice, not just physically, but metaphorically, too. Who knew I had such a sarcastic quick wit. I learned my voice and word was my weapon and club finger was like my sword, but not in any physical way. I found it usually stopped people in their tracks.
Jump ahead a few years to when I was 16. My mom came to me and said I had an appointment with a dermatologist. I was so happy these bumps were going be gone. I had such hope I was going be rid of this nightmare and be like all the other girls. This was not ever going to happen. They took a biopsy of the bumps on my face, then called us back a week later. I was ready for whatever they wanted to do. The doctor came in with a book sat down and said those words I will never forget. “You have tuberous sclerosis, but not to worry, you just have the side effects.” This doctor had no idea how wrong he was going to be. He showed me a book and said, “See, it could be worse.” It was pictures of children with Down syndrome, rashes all over, clubbed feet and cleft lips. He said, “You’re lucky, but I don’t recommend you have children because they can have a worse case.” I looked over to my mom. She had some tears. I thought it was because of the no babies most likely coming from me. She said, “I need air.” She called my dad while I waited in the car. When she got in, she said, “Well, at least you got your personality. You’re just never going be a pretty girl and you’re smart.”
I was shocked. She’d been vain, but I didn’t know it went that far. When I was little I used to ask, “Mama, am I pretty like Dee?” (my older sister). She would say, “Yes honey, you’re pretty…pretty ugly.” I didn’t know what she meant until I got older, but I did have my wit and sharp mind. I didn’t live at home. I was on my own shortly after I graduated. I had my apartment. What to do? I was tired of being an adult so I joined the United States Army. I thought, “Let them take care of me.” Remember, I was told I had only side effects, so that was good enough to get in.
I’ll skip over my military career and go to my next big hardship. I got married…well, got knocked up by my son’s dad-then we married. The army wasn’t happy. They get mad when their personnel gets a girl preggers. I was scared when I found out I was pregnant. I told my son’s dad about what the doctor said and the pictures he showed me. My son’s father was very Catholic. He believed the baby would be okay since I had just the side effect sand medicine had come so far since 1971. So I jumped in with both feet: wife and soon-to-be mother. A few days later we got a letter to go to Hawaii. We were not happy since we heard it was hard to live there on Army pay. The rumors were right. When I gave birth to my son, I had preeclampsia and toxemia. He was born one month early, but because of his size, they put full term. He was so beautiful and no sign of TSC. I was so relieved, and so was his dad. We spent three days at the hospital and then they sent us home. I had no idea everything would change in five days. My world would turn into a nightmare…
A week after I gave birth to my son, I got up to go to the restroom. I remember walking in and my left side went numb. Next thing I woke on the floor cover in urine. I cleaned myself up, woke up my son’s father, and told him what happened. He said, ”You’re over tired. Just get some rest.” Now here’s the part I totally don’t remember. My son’s father came home and he said he was banging on the door for 30 minutes. In Hawaii, there’s no A/C, so everyone keeps their windows open. All the windows were closed and locked. He could see in them and I was looking off, walking around in a circle holding my baby, but looking confused. He finally broke in. I had no idea who he was, or why I had a baby. He grabbed our son and me and we left for the hospital on post. He walked us in and told the doctor on duty, “Something is wrong with my wife. She doesn’t remember anything.” The doctor told him to take a seat. He said that I looked like I was on drugs. He told the doctor I wasn’t on drugs. The doctor told him to sit down, shut up, and he’d get to us when he could. Four hours later, a paramedic, an older man with white hair and a beard, walked by and asked my ex, “How long has she been like this?” My ex said, “Well, when I got home she was like this.” The old man asked, “How long was this?” My ex answered, “Four hours ago.” The old man got the doctor and asked if I been seen. He said, “No, she’s just another junkie army wife.” The old man said, “No, she is seizing and you’re helping to kill her! She’s in a static-epileptic state.” The doctor said, “She is not having seizures.” The paramedic told the doctor, “Since she is a civilian, I’m taking her to N.A.M.C.” It’s the big pink hospital on Oahu.
When I got there I had fever of 105, so of course they admitted me. They told my ex to go home. When he got home the phone rang and they told him to come back. When he got there they told him I was in a coma, medically induced, and to call family in case thing got worse. He was scared, confused, and not being told anything. So he made those calls not knowing what to say. I woke up four days later tied down to a bed. I was confused. The last thing I remember was peeing on myself. Why was I tied down? My ex walked in the room, looked at me, and ran out to get the nurse. A nurse and doctor came in to ask if I knew who I was and where I was. The regular neuro questions. They asked and I answered the best I could. I realized my speech was slurred. Finally I asked, “Why am I tied down?” The doctor said, “Well, when we took you out of the coma, you got combative and started swinging.” I said, “Woke from where?” They said it happened after a seizure. I said, “ I don’t have seizures.” He told me, “You do now.” Then I was off to the neurologist where he said, “You know you have tuberous sclerosis?” I said, “No, I have side effects not the actual disease.” He said, “No, there no such thing as just the side effects. You have it, and how dare you lie to the Army about your medical.” I was stunned, and he said, “Congrats, now you’re epileptic.” I said, “No I’m not.” We went back and forth, and he said, “I find it hard to believe you have never had a seizure before now.” I said, “I never have.” He called me a liar and walked out. They untied me, and I asked if I hurt anyone. Then a nurse came in with a black eye. I didn’t have to ask. I knew I did that. They explained I had a fever but they didn’t know why. After a month and a half they were still trying to find why my brain was being baked, when they realized I was having some brain damage. They were working hard to find what was going on and what woke my tuberous sclerosis. I wanted to know, too. All I could think of was that book from years ago.
One day while taking a shower, I noticed this bump in my stomach. I asked my ex to feel it. He was puzzled so he called in a nurse. She felt it and said that after giving birth, some women will have swollen lymph nodes. But she let the doctor know. Doctor after doctor all said the same thing. Finally one of the doctors I saw when I was pregnant came in to say hi. She felt bad because she felt her team missed something. We showed her the bump and her eyes grew big. She got on the phone and ordered all these tests. We asked what was going on and she said, ”I think you have an enlarged liver. If I’m wrong, we’re in trouble.” The next thing I knew, doctors and nurses were everywhere, sending me there, then saying to go here. I saw every part of N.A.M.C, more than any other patient they ever had. After all, it was a research and teaching hospital. After four days of being poked and prodded, they came in and told me what we all had been waiting for. Being there due to the seizures and high fever saved my life. They found a mass on my right kidney as big as a grape fruit. It had to come out it because it was being fed by blood vessels. They didn’t know if it was cancer. We were in shock and then they said, “There’s more. Both kidneys are full of tumors, and in five years you’ll die or be on dialysis.”
A week later I was in surgery getting this mammoth of a tumor out. They kept me in the hospital for six more weeks and used my body as a teaching tool until I had enough. They asked if I would go to the morning report. I thought there would be like five interns, but this was the last time my body was going to be used as a medical teaching tool. I walking in to this lecture hall full of interns. There were over 100 young, eager doctors, and they had my son in a bassinette. They talked about TSC (then it was just TS). They started disrobing me as each came up and gawked at the medical freak. I started crying, but as soon as I saw them by my son, that was enough. I screamed “I’m Laurie, not tuberous sclerosis!” as I put my robe on. I ran to my baby and ran down the hall. I was sent home. I guess the medical test dummy was no longer needed. As for the surgery, it was the most painful horrid thing I ever went through, worse than child birth, but I’ve always been a fast healer. Shortly after getting out of the hospital, my marriage broke apart. Whoever my ex married was no longer there. I was so different, I didn’t know myself. The army sent me and my son home, and they kicked my ex out honorably. He, of course, went back to his home in Louisiana. I came home to Texas.
I won’t tell you the long story of single momhood. The next few years I wish I could say were all roses, but they were not. Y’all might relate. I tried to be the best mom ever, and I loved being mom more than anything, but inside I felt numb and empty. There were days when I didn’t sleep and Tylenol PM was my buddy. I thought I was broken. I thought when I moved back my friends and family would be happy, and they were at first, but soon they saw seizures. Funny how out of the blue, plans to meet up changed, and they got really busy and family avoided me. I had what the doctors called uncontrollable seizures, and I was prescribed so many meds. One day my sister said, “If I was you, I would just kill myself. Really, like what kind of life are you ever going to have or your son?” It echoed so many times, so I did it. I took all my seizure meds and a bottle of wine, went to my room, and locked the door. Apparently, while taking pills with wine, I get chatty and like to call people. Next thing I knew police were in my room with EMT and all I said to them was, “I don’t remember it being share day.” I was sent to the ER and my stomach was pumped. Then I was sent to a psych ward. My stay there is a book in itself. I’m not proud of what I did; it was selfish. Then people asked, “What about your son?” I really thought he would be better off. The doctor filled me with so many meds, mostly lithium, not taking my TSC into consideration. I did three years of therapy. All of a sudden, I was always tired. If I did the dishes, I had to take a nap. It was like someone flipped a switch and all I could do was sleep. I saw my neuro and told him I was always sleepy. He ordered a test, and next thing, I was at an oncologist. I saw him a few weeks, then I was off to the nephrologist where I was told I needed dialysis. Do nothing and I’d be dead in a year, or do dialysis and get on a list. It wasn’t five years like the doctors in Hawaii said. It was six.
So now it’s been 12 years, and my TSC has taken every part of my body. Of my kidneys, half my right and all my left are removed completely. My liver is covered, my lungs (in women they call it LAM), my brain, and they’re in my bones. I have had over a hundred surgeries since 1995. My story sounds bad, but in 2005 I had a VNS and no more uncontrollable seizures. They also use the VNS with people with bipolar and severe depression. It works. I still have seizures, but not as hard. I have about 20 petite absences a day, and about six grand mals a month. As for the empty feeling, staying up days on end, and feeling like I was alone, well, there was a good therapist and friends who were always there. I had blinders on and I didn’t see them. I focused on the bad and was blinded to the good. It was about 2001 when I turned a big corner. I was Laurie and I wasn’t tuberous sclerosis. I was Laurie: the mom, friend, and daughter. I stopped feeling bad for being sick and decided I was no longer going to be a victim to this disease, but a survivor. I was coming back. Funny, sarcastic, quick wit, ME! With what VNS brought, and with the love of my son, people saw me, not the tubers or the deformed figure, just me. My son is now 18 and has seizures. Some doctors say he has TSC. Some say no. I tell him, “You’re not seizures. You’re Sean, who has seizures.” For years we have said, “I have an illness. It doesn’t have me.” Love and hugs to you all and many prayers…..
By guest blogger Paula Krischel (Dwight, Illinois)
My story started when I noticed my infant son, who was 11 months old, puking and seizing. We went to our local hospital, and his pediatrician knew it was more than he could help with, so he sent us to Chicago. That was the first time we met Dr. Huttenlocher and started our long journey with TSC. Never in my wildest dreams could I imagine that I had this disorder for 26 years, and was completely unaware.
My world was falling apart. I became depressed, and my son was having uncontrollable status epileptic seizures. I not only had to learn all I could about this disease, and the fact we had to live day by day to see how it would affect our boy, I had to learn to accept that I do have this disease and cope with the guilt I felt about giving him this terrible thing! Mason, who is now 17, ended up having global delays; he is severely affected by this disorder, severely autistic, and will never have the ability to live an independent life. We started with therapy at a young age, but did not see much progress for many years.
We were feeling compelled to have another child, feeling Mason needed a sibling to help him learn. We prayed a lot and had Joshua. Joshua is now 14, board scholar, and wants to one day be a geneticist and work in gene therapy. As of now, he shows no signs of having tuberous sclerosis, and he wants to one day find the cure for it. We have advised him to get genetic testing done when he decides to have a family.
When my Joshua was 10 months old, I found out I was pregnant again. Eight months later I had Adin. I was not as comfortable about this pregnancy because we were planning on stopping at two. We found out through ultrasound, at seven months along in the pregnancy, that he too would have that terrible disease called tuberous sclerosis. We did a lot of praying, and even though he is autistic and has global delays, he is a ray of sunshine who can brighten anyone’s day. He is considered mild/moderately affected by this disease. He is able to communicate with us, but his older brother is very limited in his speech. Even though he started out with infantile spasms at three months, we have been able to keep his seizures under control fairly well for 13 years. He did have a breakthrough grand mal once, when going through a growth spurt. He has been under control again since 2009.
We have spent countless minutes with doctors, tests, speech therapy, occupational therapy, music therapy, physical therapy, behavioral planning, making safety plans for at school and home, and the list goes on.
Now our latest scare is me. Recently I found out my tuberous sclerosis is wreaking havoc in both of my kidneys. I get to start the new medicine Afinitor to see if we can save my cyst-filled kidneys from getting any worse. Both of my boys are on it as well for SEGA brain tumors. This is the first time I have been seriously concerned about my own health. I am the main caregiver of my boys because my husband is a very hard-working plumber, who works diligently so we can pay for all the expenses this disorder accrues. There never seems to be a very long break of good health in our family, but because of this disorder, we are stronger, more loving, and cherish all milestones that we conquer! For that I am thankful to TSC. Even though our life is crazy, and the stress seems to pile up constantly, I would not change my life for one second…and continue to look forward to the future!!!
My first child of four was born in 1971 . She lived until 2003, 32 short years. She was a joy, a beautiful baby , and I was a young 23-year-old teacher.When she was about eight months, she started crying for no reason. Then she seemed to stop smiling and rolling over, and later she started jerking her head down in a series of movements. Frantic trips to doctors’ offices found nothing wrong. I was an “overly concerned mom,” and ” it was nothing” I was told. The few funny white spots I noticed at three weeks, were also “nothing,” and the fact that she didn’t lift her chest or head up from lying on her stomach was “weak shoulder muscles.” Every doctor I saw dismissed my concerns. I wanted to believe it was nothing, but in my gut I knew something was wrong! Moms always do!
Finally, one day, she had eight separate instances of jerking her head and body in a series. I was alone with her and decided I was not going to take no for an answer any more. I drove to the emergency room and, probably hysterically, told the doctor there that I wasn’t leaving until someone told me what was wrong with my baby! Weirdly enough, the emergency room doctor was moonlighting from local AFB and had a patient, 12 years old, with TSC. He recognized the white spots and my description of the infantile spasms she was having.
He bluntly told me she had TSC and would be handicapped… Would not walk or talk and not live if her seizures weren’t controlled. I cried all the way home.
My world stopped! Life as I knew it changed forever. He turned out to be right about one thing. It was TSC! And after finally seeing a pediatric neurologist at Loma Linda Hospital who confirmed it, (MRI was not yet developed until two years later), and hospitalizing her for invasive brain tests, we had to accept her diagnosis and the gloomy prognosis they gave us.
I was told so many things that proved to be wrong. How rare it was, life expectancy, IQ expectancy, etc. And that there was no definitive genetic or diagnostic test available. And that really there was not one damn answer to any question. Now I know to question, to not believe predictions, to do my research, to develop a tough skin, and to be assertive. Doctors aren’t God. But she taught me all that in time. I took her home, loved her and wondered how I would ever survive her predicted, imminent death, as we struggled to control her seizures, first with meds, and then with ATCH shots. Welcome to the world of medication, seizures, hospitalizations, fears, tears, more tears and special education. That was my new reality. I started to research tuberous sclerosis in many libraries, poured over medical journals, medical books, books on retardation, and epilepsy only to discover what was written about TS was minimal (no internet). The disease was considered very rare, and no real research or awareness had occurred in over 100 years since it was named Bourneville’s disease. No wonder doctors didn’t know much about it. Not much was known period!
I was starting to get angry now, and when I read in the American Association of Mental Deficiency book that the life expectancy was 25 years, I knew then that no one really knew diddly squat! My pediatric neurologist was advocating institutionalization and no one had real information. I became empowered with my anger about no answers and no knowledge. I was a teacher, a reader, and yet I couldn’t find answers. Maddening! I refused to believe there was no hope! By now, she was almost two and I was expecting my second child, Tanya, after a geneticist told us Stacia was a random mutation. My older sister told me about preschool programs for special needs kids and about a magazine called Exceptional Parent. I wrote to it, asking for other parents with TS children to contact me. I thought if there were others out there, we could unite and make our voices heard. We could demand research, a genetic test, and treatments. Support could happen! I dreamed it all!
In two weeks I got 15 letters from all over the USA. Three from California. And one from a mom of a 29 -year-old with TS ,who thought she was the only case in the world. Clearly no one had ever tried to find out how many cases there were (again, no internet yet). To make a long story shorter, I found Adrianne Cohen, Verna and Bill Morris, and Debbie Castruita in California.
We started to meet and plan, write letters, call moms, have meetings and contact doctors. We created a newsletter (run off on a school mimeo machine) and a medical research survey. Adrianne helped us get our first grant, a lawyer friend helped us incorporate as a non-profit and NTSA was born.We knew if we were determined enough we could make a difference. We talked to regional centers, hospitals, child neurologist associations, and put articles in magazines and newspapers. We also hoped for a celebrity to endorse us. We lived and worked on NTSA for years. Then slowly let go and let others take it over when it became a successful reality. Now the Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance!
It spread and now it is international. I no longer have to write letters of hope to other moms from my kitchen.
We have a staff, TSC clinics, a medical advisory board, genetics test, research, a magazine, a bonafide celebrity (Julianne Moore), fundraising, and chapters all over the world. Tuberous sclerosis is no longer an unheard of disease and there is hope for no mother to go through what I did. It is miraculous really. But we still have the disease TSC…. and we still have heartache and families looking for help and hope. Now we have Facebook, the internet, this blog, and a phone call or email to the TS Alliance for immediate help and hope. My dream has come true.
Along the way I had four children, got a divorce, remarried, became a special education teacher and struggled every day to raise my TSC child, Stacia Diaz, and battle her ever growing list of symptoms. She turned out to be severely involved, mentally about three years old, brain tumors, kidney tumors, sleep , appetite problems, autism, and aggressive behaviors. She was verbal at eight and was able to say I love you (and cuss:). She was funny, happy, and taught me and my other children so much. But she also suffered, and we suffered…
And when I look back on the day she was diagnosed and remember the stages of grief I went through to come to acceptance (to learn to love her for who she was, not who I hoped
she’d be), I remember how it was a long and difficult journey. The grief never really ends. Yet today parents have support!
The end, for her, was the hardest. We watched her die in a hospice, after her second remaining and only kidney was so full of tumors that nothing could be done. She could not tolerate dialysis and a transplant. The heartache never really goes away, and I miss her every day, but I’m glad she’s not suffering anymore. I know today the newer kidney drugs might have saved her. But knowing the TS Alliance is making strides in treating TSC kids gives her life…and her death, meaning. Maybe I was her mom for a reason? No parent should bury a child, but even her death made me a better person. She and TSC taught me many life lessons.
I now have Cll leukemia and am doing very well with my own medical battle. But I know Stacia’s courage, her smile through all of her battles with TSC, and seeing her still smiling when she died gives me courage and allows for no self pity. I just want each mom and dad and individual with TSC to know that, though it isn’t fair to have this disease, you CAN, as one person, make a difference in the fight to cure this disease!!!! We moms who started this organization believed that!
It is a battle we are winning. Things are better. There is hope. There is help. You aren’t alone! And every case of TSC is unique.
I’m so grateful for the work alliance members and staff do daily. I feel so fortunate to see a dream become reality. I hope my story helps someone today who reads it. And I hope Stacia is smiling down on all of us!
Living in Atlanta, loving travel and watching my son kick tuberous sclerosis complex's butt.