Tag Archives: Mitochondrial Disease

Rare Disease Day 2019

When we started this blog, we believed that today, February 28, 2019, would not come for Katherine.

We’d lost our first child from an early miscarriage. Then, we found ourselves shocked and shattered as we looked into the tear-filled eyes of neurologists telling us to, “Go home and love our daughter.” Our precious Rainbow Baby was slowly dying before our eyes.

As we pushed for answers to the cause of her neurodegenerative disease, we were utterly lost and terrified. Terrified of what they would find, terrified of the pain she might feel, terrified of watching her take her last breath and losing her forever. Amidst our fears, we had to find the strength to face these fears – strength I didn’t believe I had inside of me.

I remember sitting inside a pediatric surgery center and looking around the room into the eyes of a couple dozen frightened parents awaiting news. The look in their eyes still haunts me. I didn’t need a mirror to show me that I had the same terrified look in my eyes. I couldn’t breathe. I felt like I had nowhere to run to make it all go away. I wanted to wake up from this nightmare and go on with my life. All at once I was angry, confused, scared, and sad. I desperately wanted to believe it wasn’t true, but it was really happening. It was real and I could not stop it. Please, I pleaded with the universe, please make this stop. Why, I questioned? Why is life so unfair? My sweet, innocent daughter did not deserve this. It was an incredibly helpless feeling.

I had fallen into utter despair with no light to see me through it. In my very worst moment, I closed my eyes, quieted my thoughts, and had the most incredible vision:

Dave and I were walking on an empty beach. It was a beautiful beach with white sand, blue water, a gentle warm breeze was blowing in our hair and on our faces. We were smiling and content. Peace surrounded us. Ahead, Katherine wore a yellow swimsuit and played in the sand with her back to us. She was looking toward the water, but in my heart I knew she was happy and having fun. We were all together on that beach and we were happy. As we walked in the sand toward Katherine, it felt as though we were walking in paradise.

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This vision and feeling has and continues to sustain me through my darkest hours. I found my strength in my lowest place.

Thank you for reading our words and loving our daughter. Just a few short years ago we had little reason to hope that Katherine would live to see February 28, 2019. Yet today, Rare Disease Day 2019, was an average, normal day for us. Katherine got up, ate breakfast, and walked into school with the assistance of her walker and her aide. She asked me if I would paint her nails glittery pink before her tutoring session tonight. As she walked away, I looked back and smiled.

An average day is the most beautiful thing in the world. May you all find the joy in every glorious, average day of your life.

P.S. – Thank you to each of you who’ve followed our blog the last five years. We are forever thankful for your prayers, support, and the many ways you’ve helped raise awareness for Katherine’s rare mitochondrial disease. This is not goodbye. We are now putting all of our efforts in our 501(c)(3) nonprofit, NUBPL Foundation, with the mission to raise awareness and fund research toward the development of life-saving, life-enhancing treatments and a cure for NUBPL, a mitochondrial complex 1 deficiency disorder. We invite you to follow along as we grow our global patient community and raise awareness. Follow us on Facebook and the NUBPL Foundation website.

David Faughn 2019 Eagle Rare Life Award Nominee

David Faughn is honored to be nominated for the 2019 Eagle Rare Life Award. As a nominee, he is in the running to win $50,000 for the NUBPL Foundation to help fund a potentially life-saving treatment breakthrough for patients battling mitochondrial complex 1 deficiency disorder, NUBPL gene. To help him win, David needs your vote – just a simple click of a button with no sign-in or information required. One click; that’s it!

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Read David’s full nomination written and submitted by Regan Blevins:

What began as a father’s desperate pursuit of a diagnosis for his daughter’s mysterious disease has evolved into David Faughn’s life-long commitment to pioneering medical research and promoting legislation to ensure medical coverage for affected patients.

David Faughn embodies character. Of the many characteristics encapsulated in the Eagle Rare Life Award, character stands out as all- encompassing. And Dave is truly a living example of each. His relentless devotion to finding a diagnosis and cure for his daughter’s rare genetic disease, NUBPL, named for the mutated gene causing her cerebellar atrophy, is testament to his immeasurable dedication. Indeed, his devotion inspired him to found the nonprofit, NUBPL Foundation, to raise awareness, network with families with similar diagnoses, and fund research. Dave exudes courage in coping with his only child’s diagnosed rare genetic disease of unknown prognosis. While many would resign to grieve this powerlessness, Dave has risen above his own circumstances, battling endless roadblocks by insurance companies and state legislation alike for the sake of his precious Katherine. His fight gave way to lobbying and co-authoring legislation mandating insurance coverage of a particular therapy, “mito cocktail”, rendering his home state of Kentucky the first in the U.S to do so, benefiting hundreds of families affected by some of the hundreds of known mitochondrial mutations effecting disease. Dave is undeniably both leader and hero to families in Kentucky and beyond who are touched by mitochondrial disease. Survival is a word all too close to Dave’s family’s heart. His tireless advocacy will no doubt one day ensure the survival of many.

Dave’s main mission is to save his daughter’s life. When top neurologists were stumped by his little girl Katherine Belle’s unusual brain MRI, Dave asked, “Is there any hope?” Facing the gravest of answers from a baffled medical community, he resolved to fight. He founded NUBPL Foundation, the namesake nonprofit of the mutated gene it supports. Dave’s personal mission has evolved from one with the singular goal of saving his child, to the global mission of his nonprofit: to raise awareness and fund research toward the development of life-saving, life-enhancing treatments and a cure for NUBPL, mitochondrial complex 1 deficiency disorder.

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Dave’s advocacy extends well beyond his own family. He helped hundreds of children in Kentucky suffering from mitochondrial diseases acquire coverage for the only medication known to mitigate their progressive and life-altering symptoms. Children from families forced each month to choose between spending hundreds for their survival or covering rent. When insurance denied coverage for treatment, Dave, a civil litigator, took his fight to the Kentucky General Assembly. In 2016, Kentucky became the first and only state in the union to legislatively require health insurers to cover mito cocktails. Understanding the need for greater awareness, research funding, and patient community support, he and wife co-founded the NUBPL Foundation. Under David’s leadership and devotion to helping families on a similar path, newly diagnosed NUBPL patients, clinicians, and geneticists are finding them and joining a growing global community. David’s efforts ignite hope in NUBPL families around the world.

For all Dave’s admirable qualities, his greatest is undeniably the wonderful father he is. His love for his child transcends to his every action. Perhaps no better illustrated than in his own words:

“Laughter and joy are Katherine’s currency. She spends them freely. I am more alive than I have ever been. I feel more deeply than I’ve ever felt. I see genuine goodness in people around me, in friends, family and complete strangers. People who reach out to lift our spirits and to help us practically and emotionally. I see my daughter in all children and love them for it.”

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In 2017, the NUBPL Foundation partnered with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) for their first precision medicine drug discovery and repurposing project with the purpose and hope of delivering a treatment breakthrough for patients. CHOP is a world-renowned leader in groundbreaking pediatric medicine. Douglas Wallace, director of the Center for Mitochondrial and Epigenomic Medicine at CHOP, discovered the first disease-causing mitochondrial gene mutation in a human. Today, an estimated 80,000 Americans are afflicted with mitochondrial disease. While many nuclear genes have been identified to effect mitochondrial disease, the NUBPL gene was recently pinpointed as a critical player in the metastasis of the world’s second-leading cancer killer, colorectal cancer. NUBPL’s role in Parkinson’s disease is yet another identified initiative to better understand the gene. While Katherine’s particular disease is rare, CHOP’s research project undoubtedly has the potential to trigger a far-reaching ripple effect in medical discovery. But medical research is costly. NUBPL Foundation is well over the halfway point in raising the $179,000 needed for this project. $50,000 would nearly get them the funding they need for this critical research.

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Today is Kentucky Gives Day 2018

TODAY is Kentucky Gives Day, an online 24-hour annual fundraising event bringing charities and Kentuckians—near and far—together for a powerful day of action.

Last year, the NUBPL Foundation won 2nd place overall for most funds raised in 24 hours. Impressive! With your donation TODAY, we aim to win 1st place and win an additional $1,500 for research. In case you missed it, here’s an in-depth article from The Pennsylvania Gazette about the critical research you are supporting.

Research dollars are difficult to come by for rare diseases, and your generous donation goes a long way toward helping us meet our goals. NUBPL is a progressive disease with zero FDA approved treatments. Once the brain cells have died, there is no bringing them back.

We are racing against time to save our children. 

As the parents of a six-year old affected by this devastating disease, we cannot thank you enough for supporting our cause and helping keep hope alive for her future. Thank you!

Click here to make your tax-deductible donation. 

The Pennsylvania Gazette #Hope4KB Cover Story

A special thank you to The Pennsylvania Gazette for the feature cover story about how our family’s journey through the realm of rare disease led us to the newest frontier of precision genetic medicine at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

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#GivingTuesday

Today, Tuesday, November 28, 2017, is #GivingTuesday, a global day of giving fueled by the power of social media and collaboration. Celebrated on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving (in the U.S.) and the widely recognized shopping events Black Friday and Cyber Monday, #GivingTuesday kicks off the charitable season, when many focus on their holiday and end-of-year giving.

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NUBPL.org

We need your support

We want to take a moment to give you an update on Katherine Belle.

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Katherine Belle, age 6

You can see from the photos that she’s happy and growing. She’s loving first grade and changing so fast (as is typical at this age). Although she did not have a third MRI, her latest round of testing this fall was mostly “normal,” which is what every parent wants to hear. The only thing that was slightly abnormal was a mild curvature of her spine (neuromuscular scoliosis) – something that is common with disorders of the brain. At this time, all organs other than her brain remain unaffected. This is indeed a blessing.

She continues on the clinical trial drug EPI-743 and her “Mito Cocktail,” both of which have been very helpful for her. She is growing stronger and walking more and more. She is mostly walking upright around our house – still holding on to surfaces the majority of the time, but taking more independent steps in between. It’s amazing to watch this process as her brain rewires itself, opens new pathways, and creates muscle memory. At this point, we can see how the repetition is building on itself and beginning to accelerate.

This experience is hard in many ways because nobody wants to watch their child struggle, but at the same time it’s mind-blowing to watch the process of how the human brain has the ability to reorganize itself when pushed by a resilient human spirit. It’s incredible. Again, this is a blessing.

We don’t want her to fight this alone. We know enough about this disease to know that even the toughest fighters cannot beat a failing human body. She needs our help.

When we first started on this rare disease journey, I recall feeling like we were stuck in the past, medically speaking. Nobody knew what was wrong with our child, let alone how to treat her. Science was on our side for getting a fairly quick diagnosis through whole exome sequencing. We continue to exhaust all possible avenues to help her as quickly as possible, from a clinical trial, to vitamins and supplements, best therapies, educational environment, and now research.

On the days when the fight seems too hard and the fundraising has slowed to a halt, the sound of a ticking clock fills our heads. This part is the hardest of all for us as her parents – wanting to do everything we can to help our daughter while being constrained by a short timeframe to stop the disease progression. It’s easy to look at a smiling, happy, healthy looking photograph of a vibrant six-year old and not think about her future. As her parents, though, it’s all we think about.

Timing is critical. Science was on our side for getting a NUBPL diagnosis; now we hope we can push science to discover a treatment she needs NOW to increase her odds of not regressing cognitively and physically. It’s been 55 years since this first patient was diagnosed with mitochondrial disease and there’s still no FDA approved treatment to help patients like Katherine. We say the time is now and we will do everything in our power to advance the needle of research.

It’s like knowing in advance that your child is going to die in a car crash and having the opportunity to stop them from getting in the car that day. Just as we watch Katherine slowly rewire her brain to overcome her physical obstacles, she inspires us to keep pushing for a treatment that will hopefully come sooner rather than later.

There’s an upcoming article coming out soon that will go more in-depth about the research we’re funding, but we want to tell you a little here today. Researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia are using cutting-edge Crispr technology to study zebrafish with Katherine’s NUBPL mutations to learn about the natural history of the disease and test currently available therapies.

Donations made today on #GivingTuesday will help us fund this critical research.

There are two places you can make a donation today to support the NUBPL Foundation:

1) Facebook

2) Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (Hope for Katherine Belle Mitochondrial Disease Research Fund)

Also, please consider voting for Katherine’s #GivingStory here. Entries with the most votes are eligible to win up to $10,000.

Thank you very much for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Dave & Glenda

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Mitochondrial Disease Awareness Week 2017

Every single day is mitochondrial disease awareness day for our family, but it just so happens that global mitochondrial disease awareness is celebrated annually during the third week of September. This year, Mitochondrial Disease Awareness Week is September 17-23.

Every year for the last four, we’ve tried to do something a little more to help spread awareness throughout our community and beyond by requesting Kentucky’s Governor to issue a Mitochondrial Disease Awareness Week proclamation, writing this article for The Mighty Publication, What is Mitochondrial Disease? An Explanation for Non-Scientists, selling t-shirts with our recognizable #Hope4KB hashtag, and sharing #Hope4KB photos people send us from around the globe.

Screen Shot 2017-09-01 at 10.22.43 AMThis year, Dave has been invited by the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation (UMDF) to lead a webinar called “Advocating In Your State,” during which he’ll provide helpful insight into how we passed the Kentucky ‘Mito Cocktail’ law as well as ways to help others try the same in their own state. This webinar is scheduled for September 20, 2017, during Mitochondrial Disease Awareness Week. Interested participants can register with the UMDF here.

Some of you may have noticed that Katherine’s therapy trike riding video is becoming a big hit on the Internet. Please send us any links or videos of it being shared. Every time it’s shared and the words ‘mitochondrial disease’ are mentioned, she is spreading more awareness.

Here are a few links we’ve seen so far:

Right This Minute (Viral video show)

Nieuwsblad (Belgian newspaper)

We will be sharing more awareness resources over on our Facebook page Hope for Katherine Belle this month, so look for our posts to read and share.

Ways To Help Us Raise Awareness

1. Share Katherine’s Facebook page, Hope for Katherine Belle.

2. Share the link to our non-profit (NUBPL Foundation) Facebook page, NUBPL.org.

3. Send us your #Hope4KB photos by posting them to Katherine’s Facebook page. We really want to see YOU and love adding these photos to our ever growing album. Green is the color for the mitochondrial disease awareness ribbon. This is a FREE and fun way to bring awareness to mitochondrial disease and #Hope4KB, so make a sign, snap a photo, and share it with us. And ask friends to consider doing the same. We spread awareness by talking about it with others – tell people about Katherine and her story so you can help put a real face to this horrible disease.

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Arabella, Making Memories for Arabella

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Alex and Blue, Alex and Blue Fighting Mito Together

4. Add a Mitochondrial Disease Awareness photo frame to your Facebook profile picture to let everyone know about it being awareness week. Here’s an example of one we used, which you can get by clicking here:

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5. Make a tax-deductible donation to support mitochondrial disease research and fund treatments/cures (there are currently ZERO FDA approved treatments for Mitochondrial Disease): Katherine Belle Mitochondrial Disease Research Fund at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

6. Katherine has made it on the EllenNation website (The Ellen Degeneres Show). Register, vote, comment, and share (NOTE: You can only vote once overall – voting more than once will result in a negative vote). Click here to vote for Katherine Belle and raise awareness for mitochondrial disease.

7. Share this blog post with your friends and family.

The Liebster Award

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We are excited to share with you that our blog, Hope for Katherine Belle, has been nominated for the Liebster Award, an award created to give recognition to new bloggers. 

We would like to thank Modified Mamas for your support and for nominating us for this fantastic award.

Here’s how the process works: Bloggers are nominated by their peers. Once they are nominated, they look for blogs that speak to them and have less than 200 readers per month, and then they nominate those bloggers – paying it forward.

Upon nomination, The Liebster Award Nominees are asked to answer 10 questions.

Here are the 10 questions Brandy and Nicole at Modified Mamas asked us:

Q: What made you decide to start a blog?
A: When we received the soul-crushing news that our then two-year old daughter, Katherine Belle, had a progressive, neurodegenerative disease in 2013, we were utterly devastated. We needed an outlet to express what we were feeling, but also on a practical level, we needed a way to give community updates to friends and family at once so we didn’t have to keep repeating very complicated, painful information. 

Q: What is the number one way you market your blog?
A: Over time, our blog has become more than just a place for community updates, although that is still very much an important component. As we’ve moved through our rare disease journey, this blog provides a way to get our story out into the world to help us find other patients like our daughter, which is especially important now that we founded a non-profit to research her mitochondrial disease and grow the patient population. The number one way we market our blog is through a companion Facebook page, Hope for Katherine Belle

Q: Where do you see your blog in 5 years?
A: We see this blog as an ever-evolving public journal of our rare disease journey. When we started blogging, we sat down together and discussed what this blog meant to us. Given the grim odds our daughter faces, coupled with our immense grief over learning that she’s slowly dying from a rare mitochondrial disease, we understood that our family had a long, rough road ahead. In the beginning, we were told there was no hope for Katherine. Together, we decided to reject this opinion – both medically and spiritually – because we believe there’s always hope. Excerpts from our first blog posts established the tone of our blog (and journey):

Dave:

But this is not a blog about hopelessness. Far from it.  It is a blog about hope. It is about faith.  Above all, it is about love. While we have faced many hard days in the wake of this news — and will face more in the days to come — we have also felt and seen the redeeming power of hope, have been buoyed by the love given us by family, friends and complete strangers and have been astounded by the ability of faith to change things for the better, whether it is faith in a benevolent God, faith in each other or faith in a miraculous child.

Glenda:

Each day I share my photographs with friends and family and tell them a story that does not always require words, and that sometimes cannot be expressed with them. It is a story of faith, hope, love, and determination.  As we continue ahead on our journey toward a diagnosis, I see a brave and thriving girl who is progressing, not regressing.  I see a happy and joyful child who meets every obstacle or challenge with the biggest smile and the most positive attitude. I see a future with many more photographs of accomplishments, milestones, and laughter. In all of my pictures, I see faith, hope and love.  Above all, I see an abundance of love.

Three years later and we still feel the same way. Where do we see this blog in five years? Ideally, in five years (even sooner) we hope we’re sharing groundbreaking research about cures/treatments for mitochondrial disease, along with photos of a happy and thriving 11-year-old Katherine Belle. We hope that people will understand that when we received devastating news in 2013 that we didn’t just sit down and hope for the best; instead, we stood up and looked mitochondrial disease squarely in the eyes and fought with everything we had – we pushed for a diagnosis, treatments, and cures, and advocated for our child every single day. Our greatest hope is that five years from now our hopes and hard work to fund treatments and cures will be a reality, not just for our own child, but for all those affected by mitochondrial disease.

Q: What do you do in your downtime/do you have a hobby other than blogging?
A: In our downtime we run a non-profit, the NUBPL Foundation, to raise awareness and fund research to cure mitochondrial disease. We try our best to carve out time for self-care (so very important!), which usually involves reading, biking, gardening, and home projects. 

Q: What one piece of advice would you give other new bloggers?
A: Keep writing and searching for your authentic voice and purpose. 

Q: What is your favorite book?
A: Angle of Repose (Glenda); I, Claudius (Dave)

Q: Do you have a phrase (or code) you live by?
A: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” (Glenda)

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” (Dave)

Q: What is your favorite drink?
A: Coffee (Glenda), Diet Coke (Dave)

Q: What gets you out of bed in the morning?
A: During the week our iPhone alarm clock. On the weekends, a chipper six-year old saying “Rise and shine!”

Q: What is the last thing you do at night before you close your eyes?
A: Kiss one another and say goodnight.

Now it’s our turn to nominate some fellow bloggers.

Our 6 nominees for the Liebster Award 2017:

Upon accepting this nomination, it becomes your turn to write your Liebster Award 2017 acceptance and nominate some fellow deserving blogs. In your post you’ll need to follow these Liebster Award rules:

  • Thank the blogger who nominated you for the Liebster Award (www.hopeforkatherinebelle.com)
  • Link back to the blogger who awarded you – that would be us – www.hopeforkatherinebelle.com 
  • Upload the award to your blog. It can be done as a blog or on the sidebar.
  • Answer the questions you have been asked. (see below)
  • Nominate 5 blogs with followers less than 200 that you believe deserve to receive the award. If you feel others deserve the award, then you are welcome to nominate more.
  • Notify the nominated bloggers so that they can accept the award. Bloggers can be nominated more than once, giving their readers more chances to learn more about them.

Our Questions for Our Nominees Are:

  1. Can you tell readers about yourself and your blog?
  2. Something surprising you’ve learned from starting your own blog?
  3. Do you have periods when you want to abandon your blog, and if so, what brings you back?
  4. Where would you go if you could travel anywhere in the world?
  5. Do you have a blogging mentor?
  6. What was your proudest achievement (life in general)?
  7. What is your favorite quote?
  8. What do you think your blog says about you?
  9. Where do you see your blog in five years?
  10. How do you relieve stress and unwind?

We are inspired by each of you and look forward to your responses!

xo,

Glenda & Dave

Katherine Belle Walking, Age 6

Here’s a short video of Katherine’s walking progress since March 2017. We will keep you updated with any future progress. As for a medical update, she started the extension phase of the EPI-743 clinical trial in February 2017. She’s scheduled for another MRI in October to find out if the atrophy of her cerebellum continues to worsen. Your prayers are appreciated.

 

 

2017 Bi-Annual Report

For the past few years we have given an annual update in December, but so much has happened in the last few months that we want to share with you today.

Many of you have been on this journey with us since the very beginning when we started this blog in January 2014 after learning that Katherine had a rare disease that affected her cerebellum. In those early days, this blog was an outlet for our immense grief after being told by two doctors that our daughter had a quickly fatal disease.

It is soul-crushing.

Slowly, we made our way to research, awareness, advocacy, and thankfully, in February 2015, an accurate diagnosis of Mitochondrial Complex 1 Deficiency (NUBPL gene).

The only word we’ve found that best describes the last four years is journey. On this journey, we have learned that adaptability to change is key to moving forward. I am proud of what we’ve learned and accomplished amidst very difficult circumstances. I am also thankful for each of you who’ve followed along and continue to cheer for our daughter while lifting us up on our darkest days. You are an integral part of our story.

From the beginning, we knew that we needed to be Katherine’s voice in order to give her hope for the future. Isn’t that what we all want for our children? Sometimes that means something more or different depending on the circumstances. In our case, the task at hand – our greatest hope of all – is to give our child a treatment and cure for a disease that threatens to take her life sooner than any parent should have to imagine.

If someone is threatening to kill your child, most parents wouldn’t ignore the threat. I believe that most would try to prevent it – to go above and beyond to protect the life and well-being of their child. Mitochondrial Disease is threatening our daughter’s life and we have to stop it. We are on a mission to find a treatment and cure.

2017 Bi-Annual Report

1. Founded the NUBPL Foundation, Inc. to raise awareness and funding for Mitochondrial Complex 1 Deficiency (NUBPL gene).
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2) In February we had our first fundraiser, Rare Bourbon for Rare Disease. The event grossed $32,000. There is a nice write-up about the event here: The Spirit of Giving, Paducah Life Magazine
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3) Traveled to California to meet another NUBPL family (The Spooner Family) at UC-Irvine – first time two NUBPL families have ever met. We met with Dr. Virginia Kimonos and other mitochondrial disease researchers at UC-Irvine and toured their lab.
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4) I continue to write advocacy articles for The Mighty Publication and we hope to participate in a legislative advocacy webinar in the coming months to help others advocate for Mitochondrial Disease legislation. My latest article for The Mighty is here.

5) We are growing our NUBPL community and are now in contact with another family in Canada and will meet another one in two weeks – the first non-sibling match to our daughter in the world. The more families we can connect with, the more we can learn from one another and fundraise for treatments together.
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6) In April we participated in 2017 Kentucky Gives Day and received the second highest donations in the state, netting $10,565 (and receiving $1,000 for second place).
KY-gives-day-logo7) Katherine entered the extension phase of the EPI-743 trial and continues on the drug today. We made several trips to the NIH and presented our journey to attending NIH physicians.
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8) In June we with researchers at the Mitochondrial-Genetic Disease Clinic at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and toured their laboratory.
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At this point on our journey, we are tackling the daunting challenge of major fundraising. Ideally, we would like to fund all NUBPL research, but at this point we feel the best approach is to research the natural history of NUBPL and to do so as quickly as possible so that a therapy can be determined to help Katherine.

In addition to our NUBPL Foundation GiveGab fundraising platform, we have established the Hope for Katherine Belle Mitochondrial Disease Research Fund at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) to immediately begin researching the natural history of the disease through various animal models.

Every donation matters and is greatly appreciated. Every donation is tax-deductible. Every donation advances critical mitochondrial disease research that will help not just Katherine but countless others. The approach being used will test many strategies that are hoped to be used for other mitochondrial diseases. The natural history studies are necessary to set a baseline against which they can measure the efficacy of the therapies, which show promise across mitochondrial diseases.

We whole-heartedly believe in this research and will keep moving forward to give Katherine and others affected by this disease the best chance at life. We hope you will continue to walk with us as we venture into this critical aspect of our journey. We’ve come so far in four short years;  I truly believe that, together, we can fund a treatment.

Please consider making a tax-deductible donation today to the Hope for Katherine Belle Mitochondrial Disease Research Fund.

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Kentucky Gives Day 2017: Support NUBPL Foundation

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
Margaret Mead

In 2015, our (now) 5-year old daughter, Katherine Belle, was diagnosed with an extremely rare Mitochondrial Complex 1 disease caused by mutations in the NUBPL gene.

The harsh reality is we have a vibrant and amazing five-year old daughter who fights daily with everything she has, but because NUBPL is a recently discovered disease without any available treatments, we do not know what the future holds in terms of her health and disease progression.

As tireless advocates for our daughter, we decided to do more. We founded the NUBPL Foundation to fund research for NUBPL, which causes progressive atrophy in our daughter’s cerebellum, as well as speech and developmental delays.

Katherine is just one of 11 patients in the WORLD identified in scientific research, although we believe the number of confirmed NUBPL patients is likely closer to between 25 to 50. All patients have been diagnosed through Whole Exome Sequencing (WES), and we have no doubt that the NUBPL patient population will continue to increase as more families use WES to diagnosis their children. We have been very public about our story so that we can help clinicians and families better diagnose NUBPL in the future.

Because orphan diseases are rare, they lack support groups and national organizations. And, 95% of rare diseases do not have any FDA approved treatments, including NUBPL. Orphan diseases don’t attract as many research dollars because few people are affected, and for pharmaceutical companies, there’s less incentive to fund the research for a treatment that will not produce a good return on their investment.

Our daughter and other affected children deserve better.

NUBPL Foundation

We have carefully listened to proposals from top researchers from around the country and have decided to fund the promising research of Dr. Marni Falk at the University of Pennsylvania. The Mitochondrial-Genetic Disease Clinic at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) is one of the top research centers in the nation for Mitochondrial related diseases. This research gives us hope that therapies will soon be developed to help treat the mitochondrial dysfunction of Katherine and other NUBPL patients.

100% of your tax-deductible donation will directly fund the research of Dr. Marni Falk and her team at CHOP to research the NUBPL gene and to develop life-enhancing treatments for the mitochondrial dysfunction of Katherine and other NUBPL patients. 

Our matching gift pool from our Double The Hope partners will match every donation – DOLLAR FOR DOLLAR – we receive from you on April 18, 2017, to ensure we reach our $25,000 goal.

Click on the picture to donate to the NUBPL Foundation:

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Rare Bourbon for Rare Disease Fundraiser

NUBPL is a form of Mitochondrial Complex 1 Disorder. Discovered just a few years ago that mutations of this gene are disease causing (our five year old daughter has two mutated copies of her NUBPL gene – one mutated copy from mom, one mutated copy from dad), our family wants to know more so our daughter can have treatments and/or a cure.

The bottom line is that we need to fund the research. Researchers need money to study diseases. We founded our very own non-profit, NUBPL Foundation, to do just that. NUBPL Foundation is an all-volunteer (we do all of the work ourselves and for FREE!) non-profit with the mission to elevate NUBPL research and awareness. Simply put, we are raising money to fund research and find other patients with this disease.

We are starting at ground zero with this research. The good news is there are scientists and physicians who want to perform this research, but they need money. For starters, we need to raise $50,000 to purchase a mouse. There has already been NUBPL research performed on plants, but now we need to see what happens when a mouse has NUBPL. There is much to learn from a NUBPL mouse. What is learned from the mouse will determine what comes next.

Rare Bourbon for Rare Disease is our first NUBPL Foundation fundraiser on Saturday, February 25, 2017, at Haymarket Whiskey Bar in Louisville, Kentucky.

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This is your opportunity to taste bourbon from a bygone era – a 1982 O.F.C. vintage-dated bourbon – and fund rare disease research at the same time. Only 50 bottles of this very rare bourbon were ever bottled, placing each bottle’s worth at $10,000. Buffalo Trace released all 50 in 2016 to charities for fundraising. One recipient was The NUBPL Foundation. (For more information, click here.)

The NUBPL Foundation, Inc., is a 501c (3) corporation, funding research for a very rare Mitochondrial disease caused by mutations in the NUBPL gene. This disease causes progressive atrophy of the cerebellum in affected children, among other dire complications, and mutations of the NUBPL gene have also been linked to Parkinson’s disease. The hope is that further research will lead to life-enhancing, life-saving treatments for both NUBPL and Parkinson’s patients.

Be a part of bourbon history while supporting an important cause. Join the NUBPL Foundation and 5 Bourbon Societies – Paducah Bourbon Society, Owensboro Bourbon Society, Lexington Bourbon Society, The Bourbon Society, and JB’s Whiskey House of Nashville – at the legendary Haymarket in Louisville. All ticket holders will enjoy light appetizers provided by our event food sponsor Masonic Homes of Kentucky, Inc.

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There will be three tiers of entry:

Tier 1 – $250 Donation: (Quantity available: 50)
-1 Flight of 4 Rare Bourbons, including OFC Vintage 1982, 20 Year Pappy Van Winkle distilled by Stitzel Weller, a 20 year Willett Family Reserve (barrel C43A), and a 1971 Old Grand Dad.
-1 Bottle of a Special Knob Creek Single Barrel Private Selection

Tier 2 – $100 Donation: (Quantity available: 50)
-1 Flight of 3 Rare Bourbons, including AH Hirsch 16 year, a 21 Year Old Willett Family Estate (barrel 3936, Liquor Barn Holiday Selection), and a 1970s Ancient Ancient Age.
-1 Bottle of a Special Knob Creek Single Barrel Private Selection

Tier 3 – $50 Entry Donation: (Quantity available: 100)
-1 Bottle of a Special Knob Creek Single Barrel Private Selection

Fred Noe, Master Distiller and 7th generation Jim Beam family member, will attend the event from 7-8:30 to sign bottles of the Knob Creek.

This event will also include a Silent Auction, featuring E.H. Taylor Sour Mash, E.H. Taylor Tornado, 2012 Angels Envy Cask Strength, and multiple years of Pappy Van Winkle.

Other items, available via an on-site raffle or live auction, will include gift baskets from Jim Beam, Sazerac, and Four Roses, special bottles of Private Selections from participating bourbon groups, and other donations from bourbon groups.

Tickets are limited.

To purchase your tickets, click here.

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You may also mail donations:

NUBPL Foundation
230 Lancaster Avenue
Richmond, KY 40475

Mitochondrial Disease Awareness Week (September 18-24)

In honor of Mitochondrial Disease Awareness week, we would like to help you better understand Mitochondrial Disease, especially as it relates to our daughter. There are families that do not like to discuss their child’s disorder, and although we can respect that decision and honor their wishes, we have a very different perspective when it comes to our own daughter.

For starters, we cannot hide the fact that Katherine cannot walk, has a mild tremor, and an irregular speech pattern.  Knowing our child is a wonderful opportunity to learn about rare diseases as you get to know her personally, and since she is unable to fully articulate the ins and outs of her disorder, we are her voice. No, we do not think her disorder defines her, but it is as much a part of her as anything else. Second, we are not embarrassed by her disorder and do not want her to feel that it should only be discussed behind closed doors. Third, knowledge is powerful. We don’t want people to guess why our child cannot walk – we want to educate you with the facts so you can help spread awareness just by being informed.

This is the way we understand or think about our daughter’s condition: Katherine has a very rare genetic disorder known as Mitochondrial Complex I (or 1) Deficiency caused by mutations in her NUBPL gene. There are dozens of types of “Mitochondrial Complex I Deficiencies” but her particular type is very rare. To date, only 6 people have been diagnosed with it in the United States and approximately 25 in the world. That said, it has only been known about since 2010, and can only be diagnosed through Whole Exome Sequencing – a complex and often expensive genetic test. We expect many more to be diagnosed with it in the future.

One of the patients (residing in the U.S.) has identical mutations to Katherine. We know a little about her through research papers.

Because there are so many types of Mitochondrial Complex I disorders and each is different, we sometimes refer to Katherine’s type as “NUBPL,” the name of the gene affected.

So what is NUBPL/Mitochondrial Complex I Deficiency?

When people think of “mitochondria,” many think of DNA from just the mother. This is true only with respect to some of the DNA making up the mitochondria. In fact, they are put together mostly from gene pairs with one gene from each parent (nuclear DNA), plus just a handful involving just one gene coming from the mom (mitochondrial DNA).

All of our cells (except red blood cells) contain mitochondria. The mitochondria produce the energy our cells need to function, to replicate, and to repair themselves. They are the “powerhouses” of the cell.

This “power” is produced through a series of chemical reactions taking place in 5 different physical structures. These are called complexes I through V (or 1 through 5). They work together like an assembly line. If a problem exists in one “complex,” it can harm production down the line in another, ultimately resulting in too little “energy” being produced.

Like an actual power plant, the process of producing usable energy also produces chemical byproducts that can be toxic. Our bodies clean these byproducts through, among other things, “anti-oxidants.” However, sometimes a person with a mitochondrial disease produces too many toxic byproducts for the anti-oxidants to work, leading to a build-up of toxins. This process is called “oxidative stress.”

Thus, a good analogy is a power plant with five buildings, each producing products that are sent down the line, ultimately producing energy from the final building, Complex V, while also producing polluted water that is filtered and cleaned by another facility before being released into a stream. A person with a mitochondrial disease has a problem in at least one building of the five. As a result, she may not produce enough product to be passed along and ultimately turned into energy to meet the needs of the cell (not enough energy is coming out of Complex V) or may be spitting out too much pollutant to be filtered and the water in the stream is getting polluted.

Either of these can result in premature cell death or impaired function.

The nature of these diseases is that they often cause damage over time — again, like pollution from a factory. Similarly, illness can increase energy needs of the body, and cells can become damaged because of their inability to meet the needs in times of higher demand. Both of these things occurs in all of us as we age (mitochondrial dysfunction is a significant contributor to the symptoms of old age, including wrinkles, loss of muscle, loss of brain function, clumsiness, and heart disease). Patients with a primary mitochondrial disease just suffer this fate differently, earlier, and in different parts of their bodies. Note, however, that this is not the “premature aging” disease. Regardless, by their very nature, these diseases often progress.

The extent to which Katherine’s particular condition, NUBPL, is progressive is not yet known. In most cases, it progresses to a degree – it has with Katherine. Fortunately, many of the patients have long periods without any advancement of the disease and many are thought to have become stable. The reasons are not clear, nor has the disease been known about long enough to determine if this is typical.

The patient with Katherine’s identical mutations is now 13. Our information is now 5 years out of date (it was in a 2010 research paper). As of 2010, she could walk with a walker and had normal intelligence. She had not had much regression after an initial period of regression experienced when she was a toddler.

Different cell types have different energy needs. Skin cells, for example, need little energy, so contain few mitochondria. Heart, kidney, liver, and brain cells, on the other hand, have high energy needs, so contain the most mitochondria. Liver cells, for example, may contain as many as 2,000 mitochondria per cell. As a result, these parts of the body are susceptible to “mitochondrial diseases,” either because the energy needs are not being met, or in meeting them too much “pollution” is being produced. Some of these diseases affect only one of these parts of the body, while others may affect multiple systems.

Katherine’s disorder is a problem in “Complex I,” thus the name “Mitochondrial Complex I Deficiency.” This is the largest of the five complexes, the one involving the most genes for its assembly and function. It is the most common place for these diseases to arise.

Knowing that Katherine has a disorder in Complex I tells you very little. Returning to the power plant analogy, it is like telling you there is some sort of problem in “building one” of a five building complex, but not knowing what that problem is; it could be something small, like a clogged toilet, or it could be something large, like the complete collapse of the building. The devil is in the details.

Some Complex I deficiencies are quickly fatal. Others are far more benign. Indeed, it is likely that many are so benign that a person can live a long healthy life without knowing they have a disorder. Still others may suffer problems only late in life, such as developing Parkinson’s or heart disease.

Thus, Mitochondrial Complex I Disorders can range from quickly fatal to unnoticed and insignificant. No known patient has died from the disease and only one has died at all (from what is not clear, nor is it entirely clear that NUBPL was the only condition he had, as he was the first NUBPL patient and died before current testing methods were developed).

In Katherine’s case, the gene affected, NUBPL, is “nuclear,” meaning she inherited one gene from each of us. In order to manifest as a disease, Katherine had to receive one mutated gene from both of us – one mutated gene and one normal one will not result in disease, but only “carrier” status (Glenda and I are both carriers, each having one mutated gene, but not two). Having a single mutation of this gene is rare. Having parents who each have one mutation of the gene, rarer still. Having both pass one mutated gene to the child is extremely rare (there is only a 25% chance that two carriers will have a child with two mutations) – lottery-level odds (more people win the Powerball each year than are known to have NUBPL, worldwide).

Because it is so rare and so newly-discovered (discovered in 2010), not a lot is known about Katherine’s form of Mitochondrial Complex I Disorder. What is known or suspected is as follows:

The NUBPL gene is known as an “assembly gene.” This means that it is not part of the physical design or structure of Complex I, but is a gene that contributes to its assembly. In particular, it is involved in the assembly of “iron-sulfur clusters” that transfer electrons during the chemical reactions in Complex I.

Think of it as Katherine having an accurate blueprint for “building one” of her power plant, but someone used defective wiring or put the wiring in it the wrong way. What this means is not fully understood. One possible result of this is that the electrons that are supposed to be carried by this “wiring” may leak out and be transferred to chemicals other than those intended, producing the toxins referred to above (known as “Reactive Oxygen Species” or “ROS”).

While it would seem like this defect would affect the mitochondria throughout the body (and NUBPL patients must monitor all systems to make sure problems do not crop up), to date, NUBPL mutations seem concentrated in the brain of patients. While some NUBPL patients have issues throughout the brain, most are concentrated in the cerebellum.

Katherine is fortunate in that her brain appears to be spared except for the cerebellum and one very small inflammation in her corpus callosum that has not changed and may well resolve or never affect her in any way.

As far as energy production, Katherine’s Complex I residual function appears to be low normal in fibroblasts grown from her skin cells. No brain cells have been tested due to dangers from brain surgery. This is where it is likely to be most affected, so low normal residual function does not tell us much about her brain issues. She does not appear to lack energy, in general (a common issue in “mito kids”) – and exercise is likely good for her.

The cerebellum is not the part of the brain primarily involved in “higher” brain functions, nor is it involved in the autonomic functions (like breathing and heartbeat). That said, there are connections between the cerebellum and cognition in many cases (the role of the cerebellum in cognition is not fully understood). Some NUBPL patients have lower than normal cognitive abilities, while others (including the person with the same mutations as Katherine) have little to no cognitive impairment at all. This may depend on whether other areas of the brain are affected and to what extent, or it may be happenstance of what part of the cerebellum is or may come to be affected. We just don’t know.

We do know that the cerebellum helps regulate and direct the signals coming into and out of your brain. For example, the cerebellum does not initiate the signal from your brain telling your legs to move. However, that signal passes through the cerebellum before it is sent to the legs, and the cerebellum helps direct it and tell it how much pressure, strength and speed to use. The leg then sends the signal back the brain to tell it what has happened. That signal also passes through the cerebellum before being sent to the part of the brain in control of the leg. With a damaged/abnormal cerebellum, those signals can get mixed up, amplified, muted, or misdirected. This results in clumsiness, difficulty controlling the force or pressure of one’s muscles, difficulty writing, poor articulation of speech, poor motor planning, and a lack of coordination when walking, clapping, playing patty-cake, etc.

Because these signals travel through the cerebellum thousands of times per second from all parts of our bodies, significant problems can occur. As an example, the simple (to most of us) act of standing, alone, requires thousands of these signals to pass through the cerebellum each second; nerves of the ankles, feet, knees, thighs, torso, arms, neck, and head signal the brain about what they are doing, the inner ear tells it up from down, the eyes tell it what is going on around us, etc. These signals pass through the cerebellum, are regulated, and passed on to the higher brain for interpretation. That higher brain then decides what to do, and signals back how the body needs to adjust given all the signals coming in from all of these body parts. Maintaining balance while standing is a coordinated and complex function—one that modern computers could not hope to replicate – that we take for granted and do not even think about. That is not the case for Katherine. Katherine’s entire “balance center” of her cerebellum is the most affected, making balance a daunting task, requiring a great deal of concentration. It is like a normal person trying to walk a tight-rope in windy conditions. Add to that trying to coordinate all of these body parts to walk, and the task is beyond her current abilities.

The brain is remarkably adaptable, however. People suffering from significant brain injuries can re-learn to walk, talk, and function. Repetition and rehabilitation allow the brain to make new pathways and connections to do what it once did elsewhere.

Sensory input is hard for Katherine to process. She can be overwhelmed by chaotic environments, as her brain is not telling her what is going on in the same way as the rest of us. She processes things more slowly. This probably is not so much of a function of her higher intelligence, as her body’s way of communicating between her senses and her higher brain.

You can expect Katherine to be off balance. She will have trouble with writing. She may become overwhelmed or confused by sensory input. She will have trouble articulating her words. She will have difficulty controlling the volume and pitch of her speech. She will be clumsy and uncoordinated. She does not yet have a good grasp of the body’s “potty” warning signals — she is better at telling you she has gone, than telling you she is about to go. All of these things can frustrate her, cause her to withdraw from others at times, or become anxious. That said, she has a very good vocabulary and understanding of things.

Children with Mitochondrial disease have some difficulty controlling their body temperature, can become fatigued, need to stay hydrated, and can suffer more when ill than other children. So far, these do not appear to be problems with NUBPL patients, other than some worries when they become ill. However, there are things to be aware of in case they occur.

Katherine is currently on an experimental medication called EPI-743 (or is on a placebo. She will receive 6 months of both over a 14 month double-blind clinical trial). It is part of a clinical trial run by the National Institutes of Health. This is essentially a very potent anti-oxidant, thousands of times more powerful at the cellular level than any anti-oxidant you can get in food or supplements.  While administration and action of the medication in the body is a far more complicated thing, in a laboratory setting fibroblasts grown from her cells demonstrated susceptibility to oxidative stress (discussed above) and an 80% or higher return to viability from administration of the medication. We hope that predicts that the EPI-743 will clean up the toxins she may be producing and will help her cells produce energy, and arrest any progression of the disease. It could do more.  While it cannot revive dead cells, it may save those that were damaged and dying, and allow them to function better, improving her condition (along with physical and occupational therapy), not just arresting its decline.

She also is on a compounded medication commonly called a “mitochondrial cocktail” that does many of the same things in different ways, as well as supplement one of the chemical products of Complex I, being a substance called Ubiquinol, a form of CoQ10.

We lived with a misdiagnosis that guaranteed us that Katherine was going to die in the next few years. The NUBPL diagnosis is serious and full of unknowns, but “serious and unknown” is better than “known and hopeless.”

We want to stress that we think it is important for other children and their families to understand Katherine. This provides insight into the rare disease community in general, mitochondrial disease patients, in particular, and Katherine, individually. It will help them get to know Katherine (and others like her) and explain why she cannot walk or do other things they take for granted.

Tips for Successful Legislative Advocacy

In April 2016, Kentucky became the first state in the country to pass legislation that mandates private insurance cover prescribed vitamins and supplements for mitochondrial disease patients.

Twice a day our five-year-old daughter takes a compounded mixture of vitamins and supplements known as a “Mito cocktail.” Prescribed by her neurologist, this cocktail has shown many positive results, including increased muscle tone, stamina, stability, and a lessened intention tremor.

To date, the Mito Cocktail is the only treatment currently available for mitochondrial diseases.

However, less than 10% of insurance carriers cover this needed medication. Although Kentucky law already mandated coverage, our private insurance carrier continued to deny coverage every month, even going so far as to insinuate that our daughter takes it for “cosmetic purposes and performance enhancement.”

Frustrated and angry over the blatant wrongdoing by insurance companies, we decided it was time to clarify what was already mandated in existing Kentucky law.

Over the past few months, many have asked for advice so they can duplicate our success in other states. Before offering a few general tips to help get you started, I would be remiss not to mention that, combined, my husband and I  have a legal and policy background. We have good friends who are Kentucky state legislators and we are familiar with the political players of our state. Further, since 2013, we have become vocal, well-known advocates for our daughter through our various social media accounts, our blog, Hope For Katherine Belle,  as a contributing writer for the The Mighty, and by appearing in The New York Times Motherlode Blog. Yes, our careers and platform were instrumental in the speed with which we passed this bill, but don’t be discouraged if you don’t have a similar background.

Finally, I believe timing played an important role in rapid passage. During the same session, Senate Bill 146, known as “Noah’s Law,” called on insurance companies to cover amino acid based formulas, just as we were calling on insurance companies to cover prescribed vitamins and supplements for mitochondrial disease patients. Early passage of Senate Bill 146 and subsequent publicity was fortuitous: Legislators became familiar with the ways insurance companies manipulate language to deny coverage for medically fragile patients. Senate Bill 146 sponsor and physician Senator Ralph Alvardo had another bill filed relating to insurance – Senate Bill 18 – to which the following floor amendment was later added:

HFA2/HM( R. Smart ) – Amend KRS 304.17A-258 to specify that mitochondrial disease is an inborn error of metabolism or genetics to be treated by products defined as “therapeutic food, formulas, and supplements” and that health benefit plans that provide prescription drug coverage shall include in that coverage therapeutic food, formulas, supplements, and low-protein modified food products for the treatment of mitochondrial disease; specify that this act shall take effect January 1, 2017.

Tips for Successful Legislative Advocacy: 

1. The best advocate is an individual personally affected by the proposed legislation. Although a legal and policy background is helpful, it is not required to be an effective advocate for your child or yourself. Advocacy work is not for the faint at heart – it’s a slow, frustrating, deeply personal process, and, arguably, the most crucial part of the  legislative process. With hundreds of bills filed per session, legislators depend on advocates to educate them about a subject matter and, as the expert, you are the most qualified person for the job.

2. Request a face-to-face meeting with your representatives or their staff during the slower months between legislative sessions.
They represent your interests and should be willing to listen to your concerns. Tell your representatives your story. You are the expert; teach them everything they need to know. Schedules are packed during session, so it’s best to establish a relationship well before the start of session – this will give you ample time to tell your story and draft any proposed bill language. Likewise, meeting with legislators is an excellent way to learn more about the internal dynamics of your state legislature. Your legislator may not be able to help you directly, but they can help you navigate your way to the person who can be most helpful. And trust me, if you worked around legislators, you would quickly realize there’s no reason to be intimated by them. Yes, they are public figures, but they’re human just like the rest of us.

3. Do your homework and be specific.
While your personal story is the most powerful component, be prepared to share any relevant medical and scientific research as it relates to your cause. Likewise, you have a much better chance of success if you can present legislators with a complete package of drafted legislation, including where it falls in your state’s statutory scheme, as well as any statistical and economic information related the bill.

4. Create a “buzz” for your cause.
Establishing a “presence” through social media is a powerful tool to communicate your cause. Don’t limit your audience to just your own district or legislator – increase your reach across the entire state. For example, create a Facebook page dedicated to your legislative efforts, contact local media, or involve support organizations to broaden your reach. Ultimately, the bigger the “buzz,” the harder you are to ignore. For example, our daughter’s Facebook page and blog has a strong following. When we made the call for action, people listened and acted. Providing simple to follow links with letters to copy and paste and telephone numbers to dial, our grassroots strategy quickly gained momentum across the state. Voters were voicing their support for SB18 and legislators were listening to what their constituents were telling them. Just as you presented a complete package to your legislator, it’s as important to present a complete package to your supporters.

5. Know your audience and be prepared for the unexpected.
Do your research on the political climate and the key players in your state legislature. Even though your cause should be a non-partisan issue, I cannot emphasize enough the role politics play in the legislative process. Although this may not always be the case, brace yourself for the ugliness that is involved in the making of laws. Understand beforehand that it is within the realm of possibility that your cause will be used as a political football. Powerful opponents may come out against you. Establishing a public presence and creating a “buzz” for your legislation is key leverage should you need it. There is only so much a legislator can do from inside the legislature to get a bill passed. Your outside advocacy strategy may play an even more important role.

6. Never give up.
You are unlikely to succeed the first time you try to pass any legislation. Keep trying. Involve more advocates, make more alliances with key legislators, and never stop advocating for your child. Nothing on this planet is more powerful than a parent’s love for their child.
 

EPI-743 Trial Update

It’s the dawn of a new year and new possibilities. So much has happened since our last update, so let’s start there.

Katherine entered the EPI-743 clinical trial at the beginning of August. As a part of the trial, Katherine is monitored very closely – monthly blood work at home and/or at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) –  to look for changes in her body while she’s on EPI-743/placebo.

What is EPI-743?
EPI-743 is a small molecule drug that is currently in clinical trials in the United States and Europe. EPI-743 was recently granted orphan drug designation by the FDA to treat patients who are seriously ill and have inherited mitochondrial respiratory chain disorders. EPI-743 works by improving the regulation of cellular energy metabolism by targeting an enzyme NADPH quinone oxidoreductase 1 (NQO1).

How is it given?
EPI-743 is administered orally or through a gastrostomy tube.

How was EPI-743 discovered?
EPI-743 was discovered and developed by Edison Pharmaceuticals by using a technique called high throughput screening. Edison evaluated thousands of chemicals that target cellular electron handling, and finally selected EPI-743 based on its ability to work, be orally absorbed, and its safety.

Why can’t my doctor just prescribe EPI-743?
EPI-743 is an experimental drug. It cannot be prescribed yet because the FDA does not approve it. Access can only be obtained through clinical trial enrollment. Results will be closely monitored at specified enrollment sites, under the direction of clinical research investigators.

Are there additional clinical sites being established? Additional trial sites are being established in Europe, Japan, and in North America.

In a nutshell, EPI-743 is the closest thing to hope available (through clinical trial) in treatment form. Mitochondrial dysfunction is linked to many neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS, and other diseases like diabetes and some cancers, so this research is important for so many.

In March 2016, Katherine will begin the “washout” phase of the trial – a two month period when she will not take anything, placebo or EPI. (It takes around two months to completely leave your system, thus the “washout” before entering phase II.)

Each person we’ve encountered at the National Institutes of Health is above and beyond wonderful. We feel so fortunate to be a part of their program and could not ask for a better experience. We are grateful for the opportunity to meet so many dedicated and caring individuals.

Many people ask us if we think Katherine is currently on the placebo or EPI? We have no idea, honestly. For example, she hasn’t DRASTICALLY improved, i.e. started walking independently; however, she has maintained her skills and improved in some areas, so it is hard to say.

She started Pre-K in August and loves it.

She is getting more therapy than EVER with three physical therapy sessions, two occupational therapy, and speech therapy per week. One physical therapy session is done on a machine called Geo, which uses treadmill therapy to make her walk. Not only is it creating muscle memory  and tone, it is creating new pathways to her brain. Very amazing technology.

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All of these changes have happened since she started the EPI trial, so it would be hard to say if she’s improving because of school and therapy or because she’s on the actual EPI drug and benefitting from it. Time will tell.

Of course we fantasize that she’s currently on the placebo and something miraculous will happen in the coming months. Realistically, though, miracles have already happened – at the moment she’s thriving, happy, loving school, and hard working at her therapies. Katherine is the most determined person I know, truly.

This time last year she was still undiagnosed (and we believed she had INAD), we were thinking about her Wish trip, and I had just prepared what I feared would be her last Christmas meal.

Placebo or EPI, we are fortunate in so many ways.

The constant for us is that we simply do not know what the future holds. That will never change. All I can do is keep you posted as it unfolds. Your perspective changes so much on this journey. In the end, EPI may or may not be the answer. Sometimes the benefit isn’t improvement, rather it prevents further regression. The good news is that if it proves beneficial, then she can continue to have access to the drug even if it is not on the market. I am hopeful because clinical trials exist and science is making great strides daily. None of this would have been possible just a few years ago, so I am thankful that our daughter can possibly benefit and contribute to research, treatment, and hopefully a cure.

We wish all of you a very Happy 2016!

Mitochondrial Disease Explained for Non-Scientists

There are families that do not like to discuss their child’s disorder, and although we can respect that decision and honor their wishes, we have a very different perspective when it comes to our own daughter.

For starters, we cannot hide the fact that Katherine cannot walk, has a mild tremor, and an irregular speech pattern.  Knowing our child is a wonderful opportunity to learn about rare diseases as you get to know her personally, and since she is unable to fully articulate the ins and outs of her disorder, we are her voice. No, we do not think her disorder defines her, but it is as much a part of her as anything else. Second, we are not embarrassed by her disorder and do not want her to feel that it should only be discussed behind closed doors. Third, knowledge is powerful. We don’t want people to guess why our child cannot walk – we want to educate you with the facts so you can help spread awareness just by being informed.

This is the way we understand or think about our daughter’s condition: Katherine has a very rare genetic disorder known as Mitochondrial Complex I (or 1) Deficiency caused by mutations in her NUBPL gene. There are dozens of types of “Mitochondrial Complex I Deficiencies” but her particular type is very rare. To date, only 6 people have been diagnosed with it in the United States and approximately 25 in the world. That said, it has only been known about since 2010, and can only be diagnosed through Whole Exome Sequencing – a complex and often expensive genetic test. We expect many more to be diagnosed with it in the future.

One of the patients (residing in the U.S.) has identical mutations to Katherine. We know a little about her through research papers.

Because there are so many types of Mitochondrial Complex I disorders and each is different, we sometimes refer to Katherine’s type as “NUBPL,” the name of the gene affected.

So what is NUBPL/Mitochondrial Complex I Deficiency?

When people think of “mitochondria,” many think of DNA from just the mother. This is true only with respect to some of the DNA making up the mitochondria. In fact, they are put together mostly from gene pairs with one gene from each parent (nuclear DNA), plus just a handful involving just one gene coming from the mom (mitochondrial DNA).

All of our cells (except red blood cells) contain mitochondria. The mitochondria produce the energy our cells need to function, to replicate, and to repair themselves. They are the “powerhouses” of the cell.

This “power” is produced through a series of chemical reactions taking place in 5 different physical structures. These are called complexes I through V (or 1 through 5). They work together like an assembly line. If a problem exists in one “complex,” it can harm production down the line in another, ultimately resulting in too little “energy” being produced.

Like an actual power plant, the process of producing usable energy also produces chemical byproducts that can be toxic. Our bodies clean these byproducts through, among other things, “anti-oxidants.” However, sometimes a person with a mitochondrial disease produces too many toxic byproducts for the anti-oxidants to work, leading to a build-up of toxins. This process is called “oxidative stress.”

Thus, a good analogy is a power plant with five buildings, each producing products that are sent down the line, ultimately producing energy from the final building, Complex V, while also producing polluted water that is filtered and cleaned by another facility before being released into a stream. A person with a mitochondrial disease has a problem in at least one building of the five. As a result, she may not produce enough product to be passed along and ultimately turned into energy to meet the needs of the cell (not enough energy is coming out of Complex V) or may be spitting out too much pollutant to be filtered and the water in the stream is getting polluted.

Either of these can result in premature cell death or impaired function.

The nature of these diseases is that they often cause damage over time — again, like pollution from a factory. Similarly, illness can increase energy needs of the body, and cells can become damaged because of their inability to meet the needs in times of higher demand. Both of these things occurs in all of us as we age (mitochondrial dysfunction is a significant contributor to the symptoms of old age, including wrinkles, loss of muscle, loss of brain function, clumsiness, and heart disease). Patients with a primary mitochondrial disease just suffer this fate differently, earlier, and in different parts of their bodies. Note, however, that this is not the “premature aging” disease. Regardless, by their very nature, these diseases often progress.

The extent to which Katherine’s particular condition, NUBPL, is progressive is not yet known. In most cases, it progresses to a degree – it has with Katherine. Fortunately, many of the patients have long periods without any advancement of the disease and many are thought to have become stable. The reasons are not clear, nor has the disease been known about long enough to determine if this is typical.

The patient with Katherine’s identical mutations is now 13. Our information is now 5 years out of date (it was in a 2010 research paper). As of 2010, she could walk with a walker and had normal intelligence. She had not had much regression after an initial period of regression experienced when she was a toddler.

Different cell types have different energy needs. Skin cells, for example, need little energy, so contain few mitochondria. Heart, kidney, liver, and brain cells, on the other hand, have high energy needs, so contain the most mitochondria. Liver cells, for example, may contain as many as 2,000 mitochondria per cell. As a result, these parts of the body are susceptible to “mitochondrial diseases,” either because the energy needs are not being met, or in meeting them too much “pollution” is being produced. Some of these diseases affect only one of these parts of the body, while others may affect multiple systems.

Katherine’s disorder is a problem in “Complex I,” thus the name “Mitochondrial Complex I Deficiency.” This is the largest of the five complexes, the one involving the most genes for its assembly and function. It is the most common place for these diseases to arise.

Knowing that Katherine has a disorder in Complex I tells you very little. Returning to the power plant analogy, it is like telling you there is some sort of problem in “building one” of a five building complex, but not knowing what that problem is; it could be something small, like a clogged toilet, or it could be something large, like the complete collapse of the building. The devil is in the details.

Some Complex I deficiencies are quickly fatal. Others are far more benign. Indeed, it is likely that many are so benign that a person can live a long healthy life without knowing they have a disorder. Still others may suffer problems only late in life, such as developing Parkinson’s or heart disease.

Thus, Mitochondrial Complex I Disorders can range from quickly fatal to unnoticed and insignificant. No known patient has died from the disease and only one has died at all (from what is not clear, nor is it entirely clear that NUBPL was the only condition he had, as he was the first NUBPL patient and died before current testing methods were developed).

In Katherine’s case, the gene affected, NUBPL, is “nuclear,” meaning she inherited one gene from each of us. In order to manifest as a disease, Katherine had to receive one mutated gene from both of us – one mutated gene and one normal one will not result in disease, but only “carrier” status (Glenda and I are both carriers, each having one mutated gene, but not two). Having a single mutation of this gene is rare. Having parents who each have one mutation of the gene, rarer still. Having both pass one mutated gene to the child is extremely rare (there is only a 25% chance that two carriers will have a child with two mutations) – lottery-level odds (more people win the Powerball each year than are known to have NUBPL, worldwide).

Because it is so rare and so newly-discovered (discovered in 2010), not a lot is known about Katherine’s form of Mitochondrial Complex I Disorder. What is known or suspected is as follows:

The NUBPL gene is known as an “assembly gene.” This means that it is not part of the physical design or structure of Complex I, but is a gene that contributes to its assembly. In particular, it is involved in the assembly of “iron-sulfur clusters” that transfer electrons during the chemical reactions in Complex I.

Think of it as Katherine having an accurate blueprint for “building one” of her power plant, but someone used defective wiring or put the wiring in it the wrong way. What this means is not fully understood. One possible result of this is that the electrons that are supposed to be carried by this “wiring” may leak out and be transferred to chemicals other than those intended, producing the toxins referred to above (known as “Reactive Oxygen Species” or “ROS”).

While it would seem like this defect would affect the mitochondria throughout the body (and NUBPL patients must monitor all systems to make sure problems do not crop up), to date, NUBPL mutations seem concentrated in the brain of patients. While some NUBPL patients have issues throughout the brain, most are concentrated in the cerebellum.

Katherine is fortunate in that her brain appears to be spared except for the cerebellum and one very small inflammation in her corpus callosum that has not changed and may well resolve or never affect her in any way.

As far as energy production, Katherine’s Complex I residual function appears to be low normal in fibroblasts grown from her skin cells. No brain cells have been tested due to dangers from brain surgery. This is where it is likely to be most affected, so low normal residual function does not tell us much about her brain issues. She does not appear to lack energy, in general (a common issue in “mito kids”) – and exercise is likely good for her.

The cerebellum is not the part of the brain primarily involved in “higher” brain functions, nor is it involved in the autonomic functions (like breathing and heartbeat). That said, there are connections between the cerebellum and cognition in many cases (the role of the cerebellum in cognition is not fully understood). Some NUBPL patients have lower than normal cognitive abilities, while others (including the person with the same mutations as Katherine) have little to no cognitive impairment at all. This may depend on whether other areas of the brain are affected and to what extent, or it may be happenstance of what part of the cerebellum is or may come to be affected. We just don’t know.

We do know that the cerebellum helps regulate and direct the signals coming into and out of your brain. For example, the cerebellum does not initiate the signal from your brain telling your legs to move. However, that signal passes through the cerebellum before it is sent to the legs, and the cerebellum helps direct it and tell it how much pressure, strength and speed to use. The leg then sends the signal back the brain to tell it what has happened. That signal also passes through the cerebellum before being sent to the part of the brain in control of the leg. With a damaged/abnormal cerebellum, those signals can get mixed up, amplified, muted, or misdirected. This results in clumsiness, difficulty controlling the force or pressure of one’s muscles, difficulty writing, poor articulation of speech, poor motor planning, and a lack of coordination when walking, clapping, playing patty-cake, etc.

Because these signals travel through the cerebellum thousands of times per second from all parts of our bodies, significant problems can occur. As an example, the simple (to most of us) act of standing, alone, requires thousands of these signals to pass through the cerebellum each second; nerves of the ankles, feet, knees, thighs, torso, arms, neck, and head signal the brain about what they are doing, the inner ear tells it up from down, the eyes tell it what is going on around us, etc. These signals pass through the cerebellum, are regulated, and passed on to the higher brain for interpretation. That higher brain then decides what to do, and signals back how the body needs to adjust given all the signals coming in from all of these body parts. Maintaining balance while standing is a coordinated and complex function—one that modern computers could not hope to replicate – that we take for granted and do not even think about. That is not the case for Katherine. Katherine’s entire “balance center” of her cerebellum is the most affected, making balance a daunting task, requiring a great deal of concentration. It is like a normal person trying to walk a tight-rope in windy conditions. Add to that trying to coordinate all of these body parts to walk, and the task is beyond her current abilities.

The brain is remarkably adaptable, however. People suffering from significant brain injuries can re-learn to walk, talk, and function. Repetition and rehabilitation allow the brain to make new pathways and connections to do what it once did elsewhere.

Sensory input is hard for Katherine to process. She can be overwhelmed by chaotic environments, as her brain is not telling her what is going on in the same way as the rest of us. She processes things more slowly. This probably is not so much of a function of her higher intelligence, as her body’s way of communicating between her senses and her higher brain.

You can expect Katherine to be off balance. She will have trouble with writing. She may become overwhelmed or confused by sensory input. She will have trouble articulating her words. She will have difficulty controlling the volume and pitch of her speech. She will be clumsy and uncoordinated. She does not yet have a good grasp of the body’s “potty” warning signals — she is better at telling you she has gone, than telling you she is about to go. All of these things can frustrate her, cause her to withdraw from others at times, or become anxious. That said, she has a very good vocabulary and understanding of things.

Children with Mitochondrial disease have some difficulty controlling their body temperature, can become fatigued, need to stay hydrated, and can suffer more when ill than other children. So far, these do not appear to be problems with NUBPL patients, other than some worries when they become ill. However, there are things to be aware of in case they occur.

Katherine is currently on an experimental medication called EPI-743 (or is on a placebo. She will receive 6 months of both over a 14 month double-blind clinical trial). It is part of a clinical trial run by the National Institutes of Health. This is essentially a very potent anti-oxidant, thousands of times more powerful at the cellular level than any anti-oxidant you can get in food or supplements.  While administration and action of the medication in the body is a far more complicated thing, in a laboratory setting fibroblasts grown from her cells demonstrated susceptibility to oxidative stress (discussed above) and an 80% or higher return to viability from administration of the medication. We hope that predicts that the EPI-743 will clean up the toxins she may be producing and will help her cells produce energy, and arrest any progression of the disease. It could do more.  While it cannot revive dead cells, it may save those that were damaged and dying, and allow them to function better, improving her condition (along with physical and occupational therapy), not just arresting its decline.

She also is on a compounded medication commonly called a “mitochondrial cocktail” that does many of the same things in different ways, as well as supplement one of the chemical products of Complex I, being a substance called Ubiquinol, a form of CoQ10.

We lived with a misdiagnosis that guaranteed us that Katherine was going to die in the next few years. The NUBPL diagnosis is serious and full of unknowns, but “serious and unknown” is better than “known and hopeless.”

We want to stress that we think it is important for other children and their families to understand Katherine. This provides insight into the rare disease community in general, mitochondrial disease patients, in particular, and Katherine, individually. It will help them get to know Katherine (and others like her) and explain why she cannot walk or do other things they take for granted.

What is EPI-743?

If you follow us on Facebook (YOU REALLY SHOULD!), then you’ve seen our recent updates and photographs from the National Institutes of Health where Katherine started the clinical trial for EPI-743. I know how confusing this information may seem if you are not living it, so I’m sharing basic Q & A below from the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation. (It took us a while to figure out that the “EPI” part of this trial drug name is the acronym for the manufacturer, Edison Pharmaceuticals Inc.)

What is EPI-743?
EPI-743 is a small molecule drug that is currently in clinical trials in the United States and Europe. EPI-743 was recently granted orphan drug designation by the FDA to treat patients who are seriously ill and have inherited mitochondrial respiratory chain disorders. EPI-743 works by improving the regulation of cellular energy metabolism by targeting an enzyme NADPH quinone oxidoreductase 1 (NQO1).

How is it given?
EPI-743 is administered orally or through a gastrostomy tube.

How was EPI-743 discovered?
EPI-743 was discovered and developed by Edison Pharmaceuticals by using a technique called high throughput screening. Edison evaluated thousands of chemicals that target cellular electron handling, and finally selected EPI-743 based on its ability to work, be orally absorbed, and its safety.

Why can’t my doctor just prescribe EPI-743?
EPI-743 is an experimental drug. It cannot be prescribed yet because the FDA does not approve it. Access can only be obtained through clinical trial enrollment. Results will be closely monitored at specified enrollment sites, under the direction of clinical research investigators.

Are there additional clinical sites being established?
Additional trial sites are being established in Europe, Japan, and in North America. (http://www.umdf.org/atf/cf/%7B858ACD34-ECC3-472A-8794-39B92E103561%7D/EPI.PDF)

In a nutshell, EPI-743 is the closest thing to hope available (through clinical trial) in treatment form. Mitochondrial dysfunction is linked to many neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, ALS, and other diseases like diabetes and some cancers, so this research is important for so many.

I first heard about this trial in September 2013 – just two days after we received Katherine’s first misdiagnosis for Infantile Neuroaxonal Dystrophy (INAD) – when Dave told me he found a trial that might be our only hope. He called the NIH directly and asked how we could get in the study. At the time we didn’t even know much about INAD or if it was even categorized as a “mitochondrial” disease, but Dave left no stone unturned. Fast forward to 2015 and a few months after Whole-Exome Sequencing (WES) results confirmed Katherine’s true diagnosis – NUBPL, Mitochondrial Complex 1 Deficiency. Dave’s early contact with the study (we were told EPI-743 wasn’t even in the building when he called that day) put us next in line when an opening became available in August 2015.

Once again we are reminded of the crucial role we play in advocating for our daughter. Nobody was going to make that call for us and ask how we could get our child on the list for the trial. YOU HAVE TO PICK UP THE PHONE AND DO IT YOURSELF. Thankfully, in our case, Dave did just that.

As always, Katherine was a trooper. Before starting the drug (placebo or EPI-743 – it’s a double-blind study so she will get six months of EPI-743 and six months of a placebo with a two month washout in between), a variety of tests had to be performed to establish a baseline.

Between needle pokes, a neuropsychological evaluation, and an EKG and Echocardiogram, Katherine enjoyed playing at The Children’s Inn at NIH. She loved the many playgrounds, art camp, therapy dog, family dinners, and being around other children.
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We have a fridge full of EPI-743 or placebo vials and hope it will reverse or stop the progression of her disease. Only time will tell. In the meantime, we are moving forward.

Katherine starts pre-K this Thursday where she will receive speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, and water (aqua) therapy. Like everything, school will be a transitional time, so we are focused on making her life as “normal” and routine as possible. We go back to the NIH in early September, with follow-up lab work done here at home in between visits.

NUBPL Gene – Mito Complex 1 (Diagnosed)

February 2015 – Katherine Belle was DIAGNOSED through Whole Exome Sequencing: Mitochondrial Complex 1 – NUBPL Gene.

We want to introduce you to the Spooner Family and their daughters Cali and Ryann, both of whom have mutated NUBPL genes like Katherine. We were undiagnosed for only two years…their oldest daughter was undiagnosed for thirteen years.

Although not identical, I can tell you that after seeing this video I immediately saw similarities between our daughters. After being misdiagnosed for so long with something that didn’t feel right in our hearts, it is so comforting to know and accept the correct diagnosis.

Please watch this video when you get some time. It’s lengthy, but very important and inspiring: The Life We Live

We are all interested in finding others with the same diagnosis.  They may contact me at gcmccoy1@aol.com.

A Father’s Love

If truth be told, my bond with Katherine came about slower than Glenda’s. In my defense, she had ten months of bonding while Katherine was in utero (whoever said it was nine months is a liar). And, if Katherine’s own childhood is any indication, Glenda also had a lifetime of practice nurturing baby dolls, changing their diapers, dressing them, feeding them and tucking them into bed with sweet kisses and “night-nights,” groundwork for this specific mother-child bond.

As for me? Well, before Katherine, I had zero experience changing diapers, dressing, feeding or holding an infant. My “doll” experience consisted of Mego Hulk smashing Mego Superman over the head with my sister’s doll house in an epic battle for the ages – or at least the most epic battle since yesterday’s.

As far as the pregnancy part of fatherhood was concerned, I spent it with a feeling of complete uselessness and “getting-in-the-way-fullness.” Then, suddenly (or so it seemed to me, though an eternity to Glenda) there Katherine was, screaming at me.

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She seemed so small and fragile – except for the screaming at me part, which seemed large and dangerous. She quickly let me know that my ten months of uselessness were not ending with her birth, just taking on a new form.

It seemed wholly irresponsible of the hospital, but after a day or so, they sent this little stranger home with my recovering wife and me. I hoped that “rear her to be President and Nobel-laureate” was the standard Glenda was setting for her care of Katherine, but my personal standard of care at this time was “just keep her alive.”

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Don’t get me wrong, I would have run into a burning building to save Katherine from the moment she was born, but, as I said, our true bond had to develop. At first, we were strangers looking at each other; me trying to figure out what to do, and she trying to figure out where mommy went and why mommy had left her with this well-meaning boob (and not the kind that then dominated Katherine’s thoughts).

I cannot tell you when the bond was formed, but I can tell you the moment I realized it had. I was changing Katherine’s diaper and making funny faces at her, hoping for a grin.  Then she laughed.  Not an “is it gas” smirk, but a full-on belly laugh. The kind of laugh Glenda has (for the record, Glenda does not have an “is it gas” smirk, only a full-throated laugh). I literally jumped in the air out of excitement (I use “literally” correctly here, as I did, in fact, jump). I had heard and made an angel laugh. I called my wife, who didn’t understand my excitement. It was just a typical day to her, but I was struck by the knowledge that at some point during those early sleepless nights, between diaper changes, while soothing tears and dodging projectile vomiting, I had fallen hopelessly in love with this little girl. At that moment, I became “daddy” — and to the most wonderful girl who has ever been or ever will be, no less.

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Since then, our bond has only grown.  I find myself rushing home from work with barely contained excitement at getting to see and play with her. The best part of my day is when she hugs and kisses me when we put her to bed. The second best part of my day is when she greets me coming in the door from work with her hands in the air like she is signaling a touchdown, screaming “Daddy’s home!” When she refers to herself as “Daddy’s baby girl” I am filled with joy and pride.  When she leans against or rests her head on me while watching Daniel Tiger, my seconds stretch to infinity; in those moments, all is right with the world and I am calm.

Katherine nurtures me. When she eats, she takes a bite, then offers one to daddy, feeding it to me by hand.  Katherine offers me blankets and her beloved stuffed bunny named Bibi to hold (she has a many stuffed bunnies, all of whom are named Bibi: Bibi; Other Bibi; New Bibi; Itty Bibi; Other New Bibi; and Other Itty Bibi).

Katherine takes comfort from me when upset, frustrated or hurt, and listens to me when I tell her she needs to do something. But Katherine also orders me around like a trained pet. “Daddy fix it!” “Daddy get wawa!” “Daddy throw ‘way lady bug!” (she has taken an aversion to the lady bugs that occupy our house and thinks I throw them away in the trash).  And, most often, “Daddy sit!” (pronounced in an exaggerated southern drawl as a two-syllable word, “see-it”) followed by her pointing to some location where I am supposed to do so. On “Daddy days” (when mommy sleeps in and daddy takes the helm for the morning), she likes to comb my hair and put bows in it, she tells me what she wants to wear (usually something Glenda has told her I would like) and tells me which items of my own outfit need to be changed.

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My days are filled with tea parties with that warren of stuffed Bibis and a baby doll named “Baby Blue Eyes.” I am a jungle gym. We play hide and seek and peek-a-boo. She hides her toys then asks me where they are with an exaggerated hand gesture, palms up and shoulders shrugged, followed by us looking frantically in places they obviously cannot be, acting mystified that they are not there. She wants me to chase her (crawling, not walking) and lift her up when I catch her (preferably upside down), over and over, cackling with laughter the whole time, until I give out (I need to do more cardio and curls — and by “more” I mean “any at all”). I am audience to her first choir performances.

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And my days are filled with dance. I hold her hands for the support she cannot give herself, and then she crouches and stands, crouches and stands, her head bobbing up and down. Sometimes it is to music we both can hear. Sometimes it is to music only she hears. These are bursts of pure joy, accompanied, music or no music, by her laughter. And always it comes with screams of “Dance! Dance!” and, of course, orders of “Daddy Dance!”

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My wife has often commented that she never remembers me laughing like I do with Katherine. I didn’t. Katherine brings out laughter that I have never had. Not chuckles, but raise-the-roof, tears-in-your-eyes belly laughs — an echo of the laugh I first heard from her that day at the changing table.

Daddy is Katherine’s comforting plaything. I am her biggest Bibi. I am nurtured and loved, just as I nurture and love her in return. My love for Katherine is different than any I have felt before or knew existed. It is unconditional and boundless, life-affirming and life-changing.

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I barely remember my life before Katherine and cannot imagine my life without her.

Then I got the call that told me I had no choice but to start imagining it; the physicians told me that Katherine was going to die. As I hung up the phone and went inside to tell all of this to my wife, my mind reeled with horrifying thoughts: Some day – it seemed soon — I would come home from work and she would be unable to raise her hands in that “touchdown” greeting; soon after, she would no longer be able to shout “Daddy’s home!;” no more crawling on me like a jungle gym; no more crawling away from me in chase; no more feeding me her food; no more eating it herself; no more peek-a-boo, or hide and seek; no more ordering me to “sit!;” no more night-night hugs or kisses; no more laughter;

And…no more dancing.

In a prior post, my wife told you that she did not express all of her fears to me in the months leading up to Katherine’s MRI. If this was to protect me from fear, it did not work.  I had plenty of fear. I knew something was wrong.  I saw a tremor in Katherine that no one else seemed to see or else dismissed. I saw the plateau in her development.  I saw the lack of balance.

My Google searches between Katherine’s first birthday and her MRI appointment a month and a half after her second were filled with things like “causes of ataxia and intention tremor in an infant;” “hypotonia;” “symptoms and causes of cerebral palsy;” “genetic causes of developmental delay;” etc.; and etc. I furtively searched the Internet, like a husband hiding something racy, but this was much worse. I was hiding my fear that Katherine had a serious medical issue. I hid it to shield Glenda from unnecessary worry, although – maybe because — I knew she already carried worries of her own.

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Don’t get either of us wrong. We spoke of our concerns and fears. We just did not voice their full extent, if we even comprehended them ourselves.

By the time we went for that MRI, I had convinced myself that Katherine had cerebral palsy. If so, the underlying brain injury would not be progressive. With PT and OT, I hoped she would one day be able to “re-wire” her brain so she could walk…and dance.

During part of the MRI process, my wife was allowed to stay with Katherine, while I was kicked out to the waiting area by the doctors (only one parent is allowed to accompany a child). I wandered aimlessly, until I saw a little chapel.  I have always found such places peaceful, so I went inside. I glanced at a prayer book and read a couple of the fear-filled prayers of other families. This was a children’s hospital, so they were all from other parents about their own “Katherines.” Many were facing far worse than the cerebral palsy I was sure Katherine had  … maybe had … feared she did not have … please, let her have. My mind went to my year of late-night “Googling” fatal conditions. I wrote in the prayer book “Please take care of Katherine. She is EVERYTHING.” I turned to walk out, but couldn’t. My hands started to shake. I had to sit down, but the pews were too far.  I sat on the floor, my back against the wall and cried unsustainable, hysterical sobs. Cries I did not know I had in me until exactly that moment. Tears I had never before cried.

Then I said something that I had never consciously thought, “please let me dance at Katherine’s wedding.”

I calmed myself, dried my tears, and walked into the waiting area, just as Glenda was walking into it, too.  I spent the rest of the day trying to comfort and reassure her, until I got the horrible call and had to cause Glenda more grief than most people can imagine. “Glenda, she is not alright, they say she is going to die.” I then spent the rest of the night and many days since trying to console an inconsolable, grieving mother, while finding a way to get through my own days, working, playing with Katherine, breathing, eating, and trying to maintain my own weakening grip on sanity.

Katherine’s continuing laughter has made these things possible.

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That first time I asked to “dance at Katherine’s wedding,” the thought seemed simple. I wanted Katherine to be on her feet, able to walk and to dance.

In the days since, I have uttered these words many more times. Usually, I do so when I am on my knees, again crying unsustainable, hysterical sobs. Other times it is just a whispered incantation, my mantra.

It now means something different than it did that day. It is not that I want Katherine to be able to walk and to do so easily enough that she can dance. I do want these things, but my perspective has evolved. I no longer need these things.

It now means that Katherine is alive. It means that she is happy. It means that she has found love. It means that she still has those things that make her so special. It means I am blessing her union with a person who sees them, too. It means that she has someone to love her after I am gone. It means that the proper order has been restored to the universe; one where my sweet, smart and beautiful child lives on after me.

And that dance?  I no longer care what form it takes.  I do not care if she is dancing on her feet, or in a wheelchair. I don’t care if it is a head bob. I just want to see her happy on her wedding day, squealing “Dance! Dance!” and ordering “Daddy dance” one last time before someone else takes her hands.

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Katherine, my dear baby girl, I will hold your hands, support and dance with you all the days of our lives together. But, please, please, baby girl, let me dance with you at your wedding.

You can follow Katherine Belle’s story on Facebook.

 

 

 

A Mother’s Death and Resurrection

In August 2012, just one month after Katherine Belle’s first birthday, I found myself sobbing hysterically in my doctor’s office following a series of scary panic attacks. “Was there much stress in my life?” she asked. “Yes,” I responded. “My grandfather recently passed away and the chief of staff at work had suddenly died just two days ago.  And…and I am worried about my daughter.”

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At daycare, Katherine Belle made her mark in the nursery as the fastest crawler of the bunch, even earning the nickname “Flash” for her speed. She was reaching developmental milestones ahead of time and I recall worrying that she would be walking as early as nine months.

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Instead, as the months passed, I watched her peers, and eventually younger children, take their first steps while my daughter continued to crawl at their feet.  I felt silly to worry.  After all, she was only 13 months old … then 14 months … then 15 months.  Many moms reassured me that their own children did not walk until later. My husband’s aunt did not walk until she was almost two. Research reassured me that walking as late as 17 months was within the normal developmental range.

“Any day now…” and “you will wish she was not walking when you are chasing her all over the place” were common phrases I heard during this time.  When she still was not walking by 15 months old, I decided to seek the assistance of physical therapy. I silently struggled greatly during this time. My motherly instincts told me that something was not quite right.  Despite weekly visits to occupational and physical therapists, she still was not walking as she approached her second birthday.

I sought solace in the outdoors, taking daily walks on my lunch break at work to observe and photograph the beauty around me.  Only then was I able to stop worrying and enjoy a moment of peace. Photography was my therapy, my outlet, my voice. I looked for hope everywhere and would take a photograph to remind myself that hope existed and was right in front of me; however, I needed my camera to show me.

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But still, there were many lonely, stormy days.

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I did not want to worry my husband too much with my fears.  Truthfully, I could not even say what I feared, except that I just had a feeling that something was wrong.  What, I did not know? I held out hope that she just had low muscle tone, which she obviously had. And sensory processing issues, which she had as well. But as she approached her second birthday, I began to ask myself the really hard questions.  Why wasn’t she walking?  Would she ever walk?  Is there something more we should be doing? Is there a more serious underlying issue?

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At her two-year appointment in July, her pediatrician nervously said, “And now for the hard stuff of today’s visit.  I am concerned that she is not walking independently.  Did you have a difficult birth, any head injuries or an accident?”  “No,” I responded with a lump in my throat.  “Well,” he continued, “I want to refer you to a neurologist just to be sure. She really should be walking at two years old.”

In August, we met with two neurologists and told them her history.  They agreed it best to perform an MRI in a couple of weeks to see if there was anything going on in her brain.  We were out of town and decided to visit the local zoo the next day to lighten the mood and have some fun.

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It was blistering hot that day, so I took Katherine Belle to stand in the shade while my husband stood in a long line for tickets. We were sitting on the curb when a young man in a wheelchair looked over at us and backed up beside us.  His name was Donny and he asked how we were doing.  We made the usual chit chat about the weather and the zoo.  He asked where we were from and why we were in town. I told him we were visiting the local hospital because our daughter could not walk and we did not know why.  He shared his personal story with me.  There were terrible complications during his birth. He died briefly before being resurrected.  His mother struggled.  There were many surgeries. His life had been very difficult, but he was alive and telling me his story. He had strong faith in God and believed there was a reason he had been brought back to life.  His body may have been paralyzed but his mind was sharp and he was very articulate.

Then he said something to me that I will never forget: “I knew you were a kind soul and that you would not be afraid to talk to me because of my condition. I believe God put us together today so I could talk to you.”  Lastly, he looked me in the eyes and said, “Everything is going to be okay.” A moment later his guide came up with their tickets and he was gone.

I sat on that curb and cried. I cried so hard that I could barely breathe.  I felt as though Donny was the first person who truly understood how much I was suffering — even more than I realized. At that moment, out in the open and in front of a very crowded zoo entrance, I let it all go. A year’s worth of worry and anxiety flowed out of my body.  My husband soon appeared and took me to the gift shop where I was able to gain some composure.

In my husband’s January 27, 2014, post, “Faith. Hope. Love.,” he describes what followed next:

On Friday, August 30, 2013, I received a phone call that would forever change my life and the lives of my beloved wife, Glenda, and daughter, Katherine Belle. Medical terminology and nuance aside for the moment (medical terminology and nuance will fill future posts), the call was to tell us this: your daughter is going to die. This was not in some philosophical sense that “we are all going to die,” or a homily that “no one is promised tomorrow.” It came with a medical explanation of how she was currently dying, and the only promise was that tomorrow — or tomorrow’s tomorrow — would never come for Katherine.

I had prepared myself for bad news, but nothing prepares a mother for the news that her child is going to die of a rare genetic disorder.  Now I fully understand why the mind erases tragically painful moments.  The pain is enough to kill a person.  As my legs gave out beneath me, I fell to the floor in utter despair and heartbreak, screaming at the top of my lungs that this was not really happening, I have no doubt that a part of me died with this news.

I do not remember much after that moment (and would not remember much of the next few months), except looking over at my daughter on the floor beside me and seeing her sweet smile.  I felt dead and was told she was going to die, but she was alive in that moment. She was hungry. She needed her diaper changed. She wanted to hear a bedtime story and hug mommy and daddy before going to sleep.  A voice told me that I had to stand up and take care of my daughter.

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I let Katherine be my guide each day.  I would ask her what she wanted to do and we simply did it.

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Each day became a little easier and my breakdowns came less frequently. Once again, I turned to my camera for comfort.  When I looked into the lens, I was living in that frame.  There is no tomorrow in that moment; just that second captured for all time.  I can blur out the background and focus on my daughter’s smile, the twinkle in her eyes, the space between her two front teeth, the dimple in her cheek or her little hands splashing in the water.  The world stops and I am at peace.

At the end of each day I download my photographs.  They show me a happy girl.  Despite my grief, I see that I am giving her the life she deserves.

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I do not know what tomorrow brings.  None of us do.  I believe in science, prayers, hard work, positive thought, and the healing power of love.  Each day I share my photographs with friends and family and tell them a story that does not always require words, and that sometimes cannot be expressed with them. It is a story of faith, hope, love, and determination.  As we continue ahead on our journey toward a diagnosis, I see a brave and thriving girl who is progressing, not regressing.  I see a happy and joyful child who meets every obstacle or challenge with the biggest smile and the most positive attitude. I see a future with many more photographs of accomplishments, milestones, and laughter. In all of my pictures, I see faith, hope and love.  Above all, I see an abundance of love.

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The past few months have been excruciatingly painful and tough, but I have learned a very valuable lesson: You never know what the next second of your life will bring.  My daughter guides me daily and reminds me that each moment is precious. Each day is a gift. She has taught me the significance of the quote, “We do not remember days, we remember moments.”  I have learned to enjoy and live in the present because it truly is the only moment that matters.

Part of me died in that Cincinnati room, but I find myself resurrected. I am a new person with a new perspective — and I have the sweetest little girl to guide me in my new life.