The Council of Mothers (and a few devoted dads)

Posted on June 27, 2010. Filed under: Awareness, Ehlers-danlos syndrome, Life's Lessons | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

The Council of Mothers (and a few devoted dads) convenes as necessary in the wee hours of the morning, the midday afternoon on holidays, the Tuesdays after checkups and at all other times deemed necessary by its members. Together we share one another’s questions, worries, and our greatest common fear – the loss of our children. 

Some of its wisest members are the mothers and fathers who’ve already crossed that chasm once and who, instead of turning their backs and continuing their lives in the opposite direction, fix their eyes on those of us still walking this treacherous road and on our children; pouring their hearts, their souls, their experience and all the love they had for their own children into ours.  

Such wisdom only comes from life’s hardest lessons learned, and theirs – regrettably – are lessons they can now apply only to the children of others.  It is their hindsight, their regrets, their “If I had it to do overs” that serve as the only road map available for this journey of ours.

Many in our group serve as surrogates, knowing they’ll have no children of their own because they’ve chosen not to risk passing on the disease that brings us all together. With all their strength and determination, they walk along with us, loving our children as their own – loving us as though we are family. 

There are also several others who, like me, do not carry this disease but who loved someone who did; someone whose grave we stood beside and to whom we said “goodbye” far too soon.  And now, like living in a land where we do not speak the language, we are raising our children as best we can, hoping to choose wisely, and wishing that we bore the pain in the place of our sons and daughters.  

The collective wisdom and experience this Council brings to bear serves as our reference when any of us, as I did recently, face a new experience with our children and have nowhere else to turn.  As is the case with virtually all rare diseases, there are precious few in the field of medicine who, though they may have the best intentions and sincerity of effort, can offer any actual valid guidance. 

At even the most prestigious well-respected hospitals and institutions, very few doctors or surgeons will have seen a child or adult with a body like theirs.  While some may have a vague memory from medical school about Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, almost none will have diagnosed it themselves — not through any lack in their qualifications as a doctor, but simply as a result of the rarity of the disease.

Sounding the Alarm 

On a Tuesday night a few short weeks ago around 10:00 p.m. I was the one sounding the alarm, posting on our internet support group a message about my son.  For our children, and for the adults living with Vascular EDS, virtually all sports and activities are off-limits.  Because of the high-risk of injury, aneurysm, organ and arterial rupture that follows them their entire lives, very few athletic options are available.   But, in hopes of finding a way around that difficult reality, I’d signed him up for a community swim team that a few of his life-long buddies are on.  He’s always loved swimming and being able to do something he loved in a team environment was definitely a chance worth taking. 

After the first night’s practice he was understandably tired, but he was also excited and quick to tell me how much fun he’d had.  The coaches had already moved him up to the intermediate group where most of his friends were placed and I could hardly wait to share the good news with my friends online. 

But before I’d had a chance to share my excitement, the moment was gone. After the second night of practice, reality crept back in and like the stupor following a night of drunkenness, I felt sickened by the dizzying truth of what his body can actually handle. My son was in pain; his jaw was hurting and difficult to open.  His shoulder, which has become increasingly loose-jointed over the last year, was in more pain than he’d had so far.  He came to me quietly when no one was around and this normally very active boy, who just one night before was bursting with joy and anticipation at the possibility of a team sport he could enjoy with his friends, told me with tear-filled eyes he didn’t want to go back – he couldn’t go back – because the pain was too much. 

By the time he finished telling me about it, I learned it was more than just his jaw and shoulder; it was his knees, his ankles – all of which are dependent on the one ingredient his body cannot give him — collagen.  Aside from his vascular system, his joints will pay the highest price for this deficiency; possibly bringing on arthritis as early as adolescence – as early as now. 

Once the kids were in bed, I grabbed my laptop and retreated to my bedroom – ignoring all other responsibilities for the night.  I sat alone on my bed and went looking for what has now become my lifeline; a close-knit group of people formed over time with others just like me – desperate for guidance and understanding. 

I typed at a furious pace; ignoring the tears of anger running down my cheeks. “How dare this damn disease take something else from him!” was running across the screen of my mind like one of those annoying crawls on T.V.  How was I supposed to handle this?  Should I take him to the doctor?  Did he need to go to the dentist?  Or, was this just “normal” muscle pain from a new activity?  Would taking him to a doctor or dentist even do any good?  What were the odds they would even be able to give me good advice?  What experience could they possibly draw from to help me sort this out?  The stream of words became a flood of anger, confusion, and pure, raw emotion – and without worrying how any of it may have “sounded”, my rational mind was no match for my mother’s heart that was breaking – again – for the losses my son has endured, and will endure, throughout his life.   

Having thoroughly emptied myself into this cry for help, I sat back on my pillows and took a long, deep breath.  Still utterly confused, and now emotionally drained, I could relax just a little knowing I’d sent up my flare; knowing someone would see it, and knowing help would soon come.  

Within the hour I received my first response from a mother in Canada who’d lost her son seven years ago at the age of 13.  He had experienced chronic jaw pain off and on in the weeks before he died from a thoracic aortic aneurysm.  As has been the case in many such messages, regret was the tone of her voice; telling me now what she had intended to do but never got the chance.  She had been concerned about his jaw; she’d planned to take him to the doctor, but then one night it was over.  At home in his bedroom with her son in her arms, she held him as he closed his eyes and slipped away from her.  Her pain was as evident now as it surely must have been that night when the unthinkable settled in on her and her family in the most merciless way. 

She was quick to remind me it didn’t mean that’s what my son was dealing with, and didn’t want to frighten me; but she also felt compelled to let me know the possibility was out there and until I’d gotten her email, I’d never known that jaw pain might be a symptom of something serious.

By the next afternoon and throughout the week, I had more replies than I could keep up with.  Mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, and people who are living with VEDS offered their words of encouragement, caution, and something to lean on while I struggled to find my way through this.

In spite of the distances that separate us, it was as though this Council had convened on a moment’s notice someone’s living room or around a dining room table to figure out this problem as a team.  As the week wore on, my anxieties began to ease with each new message I received.  I read each word gratefully– keenly aware of the price at which their experience had come. Bought with the pain in their own lives and the lives of those they love, paid for with grief and regret, theirs are the words I cannot ignore.  Theirs are the words I must not ignore.

With all the frustrations and disappointments that go along with raising a child with a rare disease, having this group has meant the difference in my level of sanity more times than I can remember.  Whether or not I ever lay eyes on them or find out what their voices sound like, I know without question they are with me.  In the doctor’s office, the emergency room, or in my own home facing another night racked with insomnia–at any hour of the day or night–I can ask for help and someone will be there.   I know I am no longer alone – and next to a cure . . . that’s the most imporant thing.

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Debbie Vaughan

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