Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Harlequin ichthyosis’

Living the life you are meant to live…

We are delighted to share a guest post from FIRST member, blogger, portrait photographer and author, Courtney Westlake.

 

Courtney, as many of you know, is the mother of four-year-old Connor, and two-year-old, Brenna Westlake, who is affected with Harlequin ichthyosis. Her blog, Blessed by Brenna, invites readers into the Westlake’s lives and home, taking them along on a weekly journey of medical challenges, extraordinary courage, and the most unexpected life lessons of all. Her posts are a unique blend of topics including personal insight, clinical explanations of ichthyosis, and heartwarming updates on Brenna’s amazing progress.  It is not only a cultural commentary on living with a rare genetic skin disorder but an authentic, inspirational and truly unforgettable journey of love, hope and family.  Her blog this week expresses a moment of  transformation and the deep realization of “accepting the life you were meant to live.” 

 

My survival mode and the loss of the life I had planned

by Courtney Westlake

We are now entering the third year of Brenna’s life, and it seems very surreal to me. Every memory of the years since she arrived are some of my most vivid but yet almost part of a blur too – a blur of emotions, adjustments and just trying to find my way. And relying heavily on God and others.

Even though I’ve been a huge fan of Crystal from Money Saving Mom for a long time, I think I was most looking forward to reading her newly released book because I could relate so much. When I first saw the title, Say Goodbye to Survival Mode, I knew I would be able to both relate to the book and take away so much from it.

Because I was in the trenches of survival mode for a long time. The kind of survival living where life continues around you at lightning speed, but all that you are focused on is whether your child will live. The first year of Brenna’s life, I often felt like I was being smothered. Smothered in grief, frustration, stress. I did my absolute best to focus on the positive.

Courtney Holding Brenna

I said no and stepped away from just about everything I had been involved with. I cut my photography studio work way, way back – after having just completed a beautiful renovation to my studio space the year before. I stepped away from volunteer roles with community organizations. I quit most of my freelance writing jobs.

And instead, I lived one day at a time that year, maybe one week at a time during the better times.

In 2012, there was a NICU stay, eye surgery, 4 additional hospitalizations, surgery for g-tube placement, and multiple skin infections. That was what consumed me that year, and I don’t remember much else. I was surviving, and that was the only option at the time.

I forced myself to get dressed in the morning, to try to find a schedule, to become educated on Brenna’s skin care, to continue to do activities and read with Connor as usual. I forced myself to concentrate on the good instead of the bad. Many times, I forced myself to smile.

(And I accepted help. Because I knew that I needed it. I relied so heavily on everyone in my life for help. Lots of help. We have had so much help I can’t even name it all. And I know without that help, I would likely still be in survival mode. And I just want to take this time to say thank you to all of you for all you did for us during that time. I remember every single act of kindness, every card, every message, every gift card and meal. And I still think about your incredible generosity and thoughtfulness all the time.)

And I would say with complete certainty that every morning I got dressed, every time I focused on what we could do instead of what we couldn’t do, every time I made myself smile instead of cry, it was worth it.cIMG_0145

Because eventually time wore on…and we began to adjust. To life with two children, to life caring for a rare disease. And I realized that I had the chance to take this opportunity to rise up from living in the day-to-day to living both in the present and for the future. I realized that even though you may not be living the life you had planned, that shouldn’t stop you from living the life you were meant to.

Don’t let the loss of the life you had planned stand in the way of the life you were meant to live.

I felt like I was no longer giving things up, like I did that first year, but instead that I was being pulled in new directions, better directions. And I could follow those new paths by choosing the best attitude every day, by choosing to life with intention, by goal-setting again, by using my time wisely.

And I felt like I was almost getting a chance to start over. I could pursue my “best things,” as Crystal calls them in her book – the things I was most passionate about and most set me toward my goals and most fulfilled me.

As Brenna’s health care became less stressful, I did sit down and evaluate exactly what was most important to me and what I wanted to be involved in and what I actually felt like I had time to pursue again. Over the last two years, I’ve stepped back into some of my former roles, and I’ve chosen new ones, like becoming involved in FIRST.

I also have done a lot of praying. I have tried to really open my heart and listen to where God seems to be telling me to invest my time and my energy. To where I should be using my gifts and talents. And how to best care for and provide for my family right now.

CourtneyWestlake-2036In the first year, this blog (referring to blessedbybrenna.com) was very concentrated on one thing, the thing that was the focus of our lives at the time – Brenna. I was even encouraged by a lot of people to share more about other things in our lives, including about myself, but I just couldn’t. There wasn’t much to write about, because my life seemed to revolve around Brenna’s health.

But, gratefully, even though Brenna’s health is obviously a top priority for our family, our lives are now becoming much fuller with other passions and priorities that we have. I am no longer simply surviving, but I am living with intention and purpose again…and much more so than before Brenna’s birth. Though certain times still call for survival mode, I now know how to rise up again from surviving to thriving so that I am not continuing to live in the day-to-day.

And because of this, my writing and my blog have also evolved. I am pursuing more of “my best” and, as you probably have noticed, I am writing more about those things as they all relate to motherhood and the kind of person that I am striving to be…things like my personal goals, freezer cooking (a growing passion of mine and something that saves my sanity!), the books that I’m reading, the books the kids and I are reading, my emotions and feelings as a mother, some of my various writing projects, and my family.

All of these things – not just Brenna alone – influence my life and my role as a mother and wife…and these things are part of the new world of beauty and appreciation for difference that I have discovered because of Brenna’s arrival into our family.
My survival mode was a dark time….a time with a lot of tears and stress and mustering up all the energy that I possibly could just to parent Connor and Brenna every day.

I am proud to say that I now feel like I am living with purpose and intention just about every day. There are many areas I need vast improvement in, and purposeful living is always an exercise in discipline – it is something I work at every day.

But I’ve found that once you get into the habit of smiling, of choosing to see the good over the bad, it comes more easily in all areas of life. And it greatly impacts all other areas of life.

My life today looks much differently than when I envisioned marriage, children and my career as I was growing up. My planned life was much, much different than my real life is. But today, I’m realizing that this is the life that God had planned for me. When I was clinging to the things I felt like I was having to give up, God was leading me toward a different path, a path where I would be able to use the gifts and talents he gave me in a different way, as part of his plan. In each new season, I am striving to open my heart to where I believe God wants me to be and to go.

Now that I have stopped mourning the loss of the life I had planned,

I am discovering every day that the life I am meant to live is so much better.

bookcoverCourtney has recently released her beautiful and inspirational book, That’s How You Know, available at www.blessedbybrenna.com.  Like a warm hug from a very best friend, its uplifting messages and soft illustrations offer hope and inspiration on every page.

 


A Passion for Patients


As many of you know, FIRST is closely affiliated with a team of unique medical professionals, from universities and hospitals around the world, who are dedicated to the research of ichthyosis.  Not only does their dedication and commitment offer our community a ray of hope for a better tomorrow, but in turn we have the opportunity to provide them with patient insights, research grants and the emotional support necessary to continue their quest for better treatments, and an eventual cure for ichthyosis. We reap the rewards, every single day, of embracing a “one team” culture with this remarkable group of physicians.

In fact, on November 20 of this year, FIRST had the good fortune and rare opportunity to meet with the entire Yale University ichthyosis research team, face-to-face, as they shared their special “patient first” philosophy, their passion for combining multi-disciplinary scientific discovery with real-world patient treatments, (a field known as translational medicine), and what these doctors envision is possible for the future of ichthyosis research.

Rita Tanis, Evan Fasciano

Rita Tanis, Evan Fasciano

One of the goals of the visit to Yale was to video tape individual interviews that FIRST could use in various presentations, either to solicit a new donor, enlighten our current members, or engage others who are not familiar with the ichthyoses. The video “campaign” would introduce the disorder of ichthyosis, the doctors spearheading the field of ichthyosis research, and the idea that their support will bring these doctors that much closer to better treatments – and perhaps even these advances in research would have an effect on other diseases as well.

As the day unfolded, it was quickly evident that these doctors, Dr. Leonard Milstone, Dr. Keith Choate, Dr. Brittany Craiglow, and Dr. Christopher Bunick, who are all approaching the same disease from differing angles, were inspired by the exact same component of the field of medical research: the patients.

When asked about his decision to go into the field of ichthyosis research, Dr. Keith Choate shared not only a profound story of clinician and patient interaction, but his exact moment of certainty-his very first time meeting an ichthyosis patient in Dr. Mary Williams’ clinic, one of founding physicians of FIRST. Although his initial reaction was that ichthyosis presented itself rather mildly, the next moment of his life would carve the pathway for his entire career. “As she took the layers of make-up off, she began to cry. It was clear that this woman was severely affected. And that ichthyosis was affecting this patient’s life in a fundamental way. She felt ashamed and I could see that,” he said.  “People talk about scientific epiphanies and the moment of knowing. I knew right then that this was important work, and that this was exactly what I wanted to do – research in ichthyosis.”

Dr. Brittany Craiglow, initially entering medical school with the intent of becoming a child psychiatrist, discovered during a volunteer mission at Camp Discovery, a specialized sleep-away camp for kids with skin disorders, that a physician-scientist track in dermatology might better suit her desire to connect and care for families and children. “When you’re a kid and you’re sick and everyone else can see it, it’s right there on your skin, it adds a whole other element. So it’s important to treat not just the condition, but the whole person. I love my job because I can do just that. I love building relationships with patients and, at the end of the day I just want to be a good doctor for them.”

The physician-scientist possesses the capacity to envision the entire process – a mastery of biotechnology as well as a passion for face-to-face interaction and treatment of patients and families.  As we stood in Keith Choate’s laboratory, surrounded by cameras, lights, and an audio boom, we were overwhelmed by the feeling of privilege; after all, we were among this unique breed of four passionate physician-scientists as they discussed the latest computer programs for genetic sequencing, the electron-micrograph, the Yale Center for Genome Analysis, and with equal enthusiasm, interacted with their patients and families right down the hall.

Dr. Leonard Milstone, a veteran doctor in the field, was as energized and excited as any new doctor entering the field of ichthyosis research today.  Not only does he bear an obvious warmth and affection for his patients, two of whom had joined us for the day, but he possesses a truly remarkable willingness to support and mentor the progress of the next generation of ichthyosis scientists in any possible way.  “It’s like the perfect storm. It is so very rare to have three young people at the same place with interest in the same rare diseases, each contributing  complementary expertise to help these patients,” he said with regard to Drs. Choate, Craiglow, and Bunick. “Plus, we have an unusually large and devoted group of ichthyosis patients, and the environment at Yale provides unique opportunities for these collaborations to flourish:  a Genome Center that has a special interest in rare diseases; an outstanding group of structural biologists; a high throughput screening facility, and a group of additional young skin scientists who utilize the latest technologies to understand skin disease.   And the final critical component is FIRST, a remarkably effective organization that grabs your attention and makes you want to do more while supporting each of us emotionally in terms of encouragement for the science and the clinical work that we do.”

Dr. Keith Choate Dr. Britt Craiglow

Dr. Keith Choate
Dr. Britt Craiglow

The doctors all agreed that medical research itself is advancing at lightning speed. “Questions that would have taken decades to answer, or thought impossible to answer, now may take only a few years, or even months,” added Milstone.   An equally enthusiastic Dr. Choate, with regard to the speed of medical advancement, offered his own vision of what may be not too far down the road. “What I see and hope for the future is a post-genomics era. Genomics is the key that unlocked the door for us and opened the possibility of identifying all the genetic mutations of ichthyosis of all types. We now have the information and are using it with next level biology such as high-throughput chemical screening, identifying natural compounds, synthesizing compounds, and creating new medicines to treat these disorders. We are leveraging genetic insights to make a difference in patient’s lives.”

Dr. Chris Bunick

Included in our physician-scientist interviews was Dr. Chris Bunick, a unique physician-scientist among dermatologists because of his application of x-ray crystallography to the field of dermatology research.  Dr. Bunick brought an even more expansive view to the notion of what can scientifically be achieved to help patients.  “X-ray crystallography technology enables determination of a 3-D image of what a protein looks like in living cells, therefore I am able to see the structures of the proteins that make up the skin barrier.  This technology is going to greatly improve our understanding of the science behind skin function,” he explained.  When asked about his futuristic vision, Bunick stated, “What I imagine is creating a niche of dermatology research, “molecular dermatology” so to speak, and one by one, determining 3-D structures of proteins highly relevant to normal and diseased skin.  I am in a position to identify and to tackle many disorders in the field of dermatology from this structural perspective, and my hope would be translation of this work into new classes of topical therapeutics to help patients with skin disorders.”

The importance of research funding was another topic that continuously surfaced throughout the day, and it is clearly encircling the thoughts of these physicians, day to day, as well. “But it’s only my two hands and we need more funding and more scientists working together to achieve this,” Bunick added.

But it was the words (or lack thereof), offered by the patients themselves, with regards to their experience with this team of Yale physician-scientists, that illustrated the results from long hours in the lab and the tireless years of dedication, in the most meaningful way.  “There really are no words for what they have done for me; they saved my child’s life. They knew exactly what Evan needed and exactly what to do, and if they weren’t there by our side, there’s a good chance Evan would not be here today,” remarked an emotional Dianne Fasciano, as she spoke about the days following the birth of her now 3-year old son Evan Fasciano, affected with Harlequin ichthyosis. “I have the best doctors in the world, and they are on it, always ready to help at a moment’s notice. I am so lucky.”

Rita Tanis, a middle-aged woman affected with lamellar ichthyosis, also spoke of her unique kinship with the doctors at Yale. “I have seen many doctors over my lifetime. But these doctors here, they really get it.  And they have real empathy. There is no need to keep explaining it to them, as they really understand the condition in a way no one else ever did. Now there is so much hope for better treatments, and even for that big, big word that we’re not supposed to talk about, a cure. It feels like it is right there in front of us. It’s palpable.”

Our day at Yale inspired many new stories for FIRST to share with members, supporters, the media, and the world. In upcoming months, we look forward to bringing you more articles and videos discussing our powerful advocate-doctor relationships, our collective vision for the future and more details about the cutting-edge research being conducted in both lab and clinical settings for ichthyosis research.


Raising Awareness for Rare Disease… One Cape at a Time

 

If you search the Internet for the origin of the “superhero cape,” as I just did, you might find yourself lost in a cyber-sea of Superman quotes, Twilight-tween tweets, and an oddly expansive selection of Zorro fan pages and Batman vs. Green Lantern public debates. I suppose now I am well equipped with unique and witty cocktail party conversation – particularly on Halloween – but more importantly, I am also certain that the superhero cape, regardless of its origin – has grown into a universally iconic symbol, summed up in single word: adventure.

For Robyn Rosenberger, founder of “Tiny Superheroes”, life, lately, has been nothing less. I had the great pleasure of speaking with this unlikely seamstress, who is quickly becoming an icon in her own right.

“I am not a seamstress by any stretch,” Robyn said when describing her epiphanic moment. “During the summer of 2012, I made three capes. One for my son, my nephew and my dog – just out of the blue, just for fun, and they loved it.”  That same summer she had also been following the blog, Blessed by Brenna – a weekly chronicle, authored by a young mother who happened to be an old schoolmate of Robyn’s husband – and who had also just given birth to a baby affected with Harlequin ichthyosis.

Then, one day while perusing the Blessed by Brenna blog, it happened — the “Aha” moment that would change Robyn’s life….

“Brenna needs a superhero cape because she is truly extraordinary!” Robyn thought as she rolled up her sleeves and began to assemble the fourth little cape she had ever sewn in her life.

However, when the story of Brenna’s cape broke in the blogosphere on both Robyn and Brenna’s blogs, it was as if the whole world was watching.  Unbeknownst to Robyn, when she had sewn that last little stitch on Brenna’s little cape, she had also begun the thread of something truly extraordinary herself – an organization that would empower children affected by rare disease all over the world.

“We decided to set up a page on our blog where we could take nominations for the next Tiny Superhero to receive a cape.” Her blog, Tiny Superheroes, now receives nearly 20 nominees a day, from a vast range of rare genetic disease communities, the world over.

“We seem to have a lot of interest from the ichthyosis community. It has been so wonderful getting to know these kids. And what’s been really amazing is that the children are all so different, so special in their own way.”

Tiny Superheroes has  been featured on Today.com, Fox News, Evening Magazine and the Huffington Post. But the most surprising fact?  The entire organization officially opened its doors just four months ago, in January of 2013.  “Now we’re even getting messages from people all over the world who’d like to volunteer and help us sew capes.  I’m trying to figure it all out as it comes – it’s really incredible how quickly it’s grown – but it seems to be all working so far.”

The second most surprising fact? In those mere four months, Robyn, and a small army of volunteers, have sewn nearly 500 capes – (although Robyn alone sewed 300 of them!)

Admittedly, this was not a lifelong dream of Robyn’s, as she had no experience, nor grandiose vision of one day helping to raise awareness for rare diseases. “It’s like the kids chose me, and it’s taken on a life of its own. I feel so privileged and I couldn’t be happier about where everything is going.”

By all accounts, the kids chose well.

However, Robyn now knows that she may not have been chosen to simply sew hundreds and hundreds of tiny capes.  “What I realized is that this work can help kids raise awareness for their own disease – which is really powerful. It’s much more than giving them a cape. It’s letting these kids know they can change the world. And I believe they can.”

And there you have it – no searching, nor super power, necessary.  Sometimes a hero really does just…come along.

For more on volunteering, donating, or nominating a Tiny Superhero go to www.Tinysuperheroes.com.

Learn more about how Robyn is empowering Tiny Superheroes on the video below.

Tiny Superheroes Video Screenshot-2013

 

Woman with Harlequin Ichthyosis Delivers a Healthy Baby Boy

Turner,Stephanie-Will 5-26-2013-web

 

First known case of a woman affected with
Harlequin Ichthyosis Giving Birth

 

COLMAR, PA (May 28, 2013) In Little Rock, Arkansas, 20-year-old Stephanie Turner, of Wynne, Arkansas, gave birth to William Curtis Drake Turner at Little Rock Hospital on May 25, 2013.  Little Will, as his parents will call him, weighed 7 pounds, 10 ounces and mother and son are said to be resting comfortably.

Stephanie, who is affected with the very rare skin disorder Harlequin ichthyosis, was not sure if she would be able to carry a child.  She and her husband Curt were thrilled last October when they realized they were expecting.  Stephanie was treated at a high-risk OB/GYN and her pregnancy was relatively normal.

Stephanie is a member of the Foundation for Ichthyosis & Related Skin Types, Inc.® (FIRST).  Founded in 1981, FIRST is the only foundation in the United States dedicated to helping those affected with all forms of ichthyosis.

There is no known cure for ichthyosis, only treatments,” said Jean Pickford, Executive Director of FIRST.  “This is a very exciting time in the ichthyosis community.  It offers hope that those affected with Harlequin ichthyosis can certainly lead happy and fulfilling lives.”

According to FIRST, each year, more than 16,000 babies are born with some form of ichthyosis, of those, approximately 300 are born with a moderate to severe form.  This disease affects people of all ages, races, and gender. The disease usually presents at birth, or within the first year, and continues to affect the patient throughout their lifetime.

Turner,William Curtis Drake - 5-27-2013About the Foundation for Ichthyosis & Related Skin Types, Inc.®
The Foundation for Ichthyosis & Related Skin Types, Inc.® (FIRST) is the only nonprofit foundation in the United States dedicated to families affected by the rare skin disorder ichthyosis.  Approximately 300 babies each year are born with a moderate to severe form of ichthyosis.  FIRST educates, inspires, and connects those touched by ichthyosis and related disorders through emotional support, information, advocacy, and has supported more than $1.4 million in research funding for better treatments and eventual cures.  For more information, call toll-free at 1.800.545.3286 or visit www.firstskinfoundation.org.

 

###